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This Blog Has Moved and Expanded!

Jan. 22nd, 2011 | 12:28 pm


As of January, 2011, I'll now be blogging about writing, publishing, eBooks, writing motivation, the psychology of habits, my own work, and a lot more at www.lucreid.com, bringing together what were formerly three different Web sites: lucreid.com (my formerly seldom-updated site about my own writing), willpowerengine.com (blog on the psychology of habits), and this blog on writing.

Older posts will be brought over to the new site piece by piece, but before long, all of the content here will appear there.

You're invited to come see what's cooking, download free materials, and comment at www.lucreid.com .

Luc

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Speculate!: New speculative fiction audio magazine

Jan. 12th, 2011 | 12:27 pm

Following up on my post yesterday of my interview of Brad Beaulieu, here's Brad's announcement about the new Speculate! speculative fiction podcast site:

Hey everyone! Fellow Codexian Greg Wilson and I have been working on a new podcast site for a few months now, and the first episode has just gone up. Speculate will be sharing podcasts of several different types, including:

  • Fiction Reviews – discussions of novels or short fiction.

  • Author Interviews – interviews or roundtables with some of the great and new voices in speculative fiction.

  • Writing Technique – nuts and bolts discussions of writing technique that stem from the works we’ve reviewed.

  • Artist Interviews – just to shake things up, we thought we’d include some interviews with various artists in the speculative fiction arena.

In general (though we may not always stick to this formula) we’ll be discussing a particular set of short stories or a novel, then we’ll interview the author(s) in the following episode, and will finish up with a show where we get into the more nitty gritty details of writing technique. This allows us to dig deeper into the fiction we’re discussing, and it hopefully allows the listener to be both entertained and informed.

Speculate can be found at: http://www.speculatesf.com. Our first episode is on the Apex Arab/Muslim issue. Please take a look (a listen?) and if you like what you see (er, hear) please spread the news.

We’re also actively looking for suggestions for improvement, so if you have any thoughts on new topics or even authors we might interview, please feel free to discuss in our posts, or send us an email through the contact page.

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Brad Beaulieu on Selling the First Novel, Writing the Second, and Giving Up Your Baby

Jan. 11th, 2011 | 01:40 pm

Today's post is a Codex Blog Tour interview with Brad Beaulieu, whom I first met about seven years back at the Writers of the Future workshop, where both our stories had taken 2nd-place quarterly prizes in the contest. Since then, Brad's sold numerous stories to some of the top science fiction and fantasy magazines, include Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show and Realms of Fantasy. He's also just co-launched an online audio magazine about science fiction and fantasy literature called Speculate! at www.speculatesf.com.

This year, the first novel in his Lays of Anuskaya series from Night Shade Books comes out in April. I caught up with him to ask him about his book and his development as a writer.

1. Like many of us, you've written several novels that haven't sold (at least yet). What made the difference with The Winds of Khalakovo?

The Winds of KhalakovoI think there are a lot of causal factors that led to the sale of Winds. First and foremost, it was simply better than my other novels. Winds was my fourth novel written (not to mention a nearly complete first draft that I set aside to write the prequel). I also had nearly two dozen short stories written, with about sixteen of them sold, most to professional markets. I had made writing a study for years. Because I didn't have a background in writing, I knew my work was cut out for me. So I attended not just conventions, but conferences as well, which focus more tightly on the craft. I went to several workshops, including Viable Paradise, Writers of the Future, Orson Scott Card's Literary Bootcamp, and Clarion. And beyond those instructor-led workshops, I also went to Starry Heaven, a peer-to-peer novel-writing workshop. I kept in contact with close writing friends and critiqued their work, and had them critique mine. I joined several online writing groups, including Critters and the Online Writing Workshop.

I also wrote every day. Sure, there are days here and there where I might not get any words out (one, maybe two days per week), but even then, I'm brainstorming. I'm fleshing out world or character or backstory or plot. One of the things that Chip Delaney told us at Clarion was that it's not sufficient to simply write. We get better by building good writing habits and de-emphasizing bad ones. I've tried consciously to first learn what my bad habits are and then consciously work on them to root them out of my writing.

This is a pretty long-winded way of saying that I worked hard at my craft over the years, and I think it showed in Winds. But as anyone who's been around writing long enough can tell you, writing a good book isn't enough. You need to get it in front of editors as well. And so you also need to work on your credits and your pitching skills. I didn't end up getting an agent before I sold Winds, and so selling it--or more accurately, getting that initial offer--was up to me. I had submitted to several major houses before, and over the years I'd come to know some of the editors personally, and so they were more open to finding one of my manuscripts on their desk than they would have been years ago. And for those editors that I hadn't spoken to much, I would like to think that they'd heard my name through my short fiction sales. At the very least, I had those short sales to list on my query letter, which would let them know that they're not dealing with someone who'd just finished their first piece of fiction.

In the end, strangely enough, I sold Winds through a pitch I made directly to Jeremy Lassen at the World Fantasy Convention in 2009. This goes back to "honing your pitch skills." I approached Jeremy at the Night Shade booth during a slow period and pitched Winds as "Song of Ice and Fire meets Earthsea." Jeremy asked if I had an agent. I said no. Night Shade doesn't typically take unagented manuscripts, but he said he liked my pitch enough that I could send it his way. I got the offer from Jeremy four months later. Had Jeremy heard of me before then? I'm not sure. I haven't asked him. But really, selling a book is a lot about creating a strong work, but also increasing your odds through a number of other channels.

Some of it is also luck, I'm afraid to say. I had a finished manuscript at the precise time that Jeremy was looking to expand his stable of writers. Night Shade had been doing well and wanted to expand, and one of those areas was in epic fantasy. I'm grateful that I got the offer from Night Shade, but I'm also glad that the book filled a need of theirs. Had I pitched Jeremy six months earlier, he might not have been ready for it, and might have declined. Had I brought it six months later, he might already have filled his slots for the next two years, and so again might have declined.

So, there are lots of reasons, I think, behind the sale of Winds. The lesson here, I suppose, is to know what things you, as the writer, can control, and to work on them over the course of your career.

2. What are the biggest differences for you in writing your second novel in the series compared to writing Winds?

There's a maxim in the writing world (not always followed, I know) that you don't write book two until book one is sold. The thinking here is pretty straightforward: you can't sell a book two; you can only sell a book one; so the time it takes to write a book would be better spent in writing a completely new story. This made sense to me after I'd heard it during one of the early conventions I attended (ConJose in 2003, I think), and I've always stuck to it. I've written one book that was truly a standalone, but the three others I've written, plus the one I started earlier this year, were all planned series, but I always set the second book aside to work on something new after I was done. The most obvious advantage is that by the time you finish two books (or three or four) you'll have more poles in the water. But there are other advantages. For the young writer, you can become a bit complacent with a second book. You're relying on the same characters, the same world, and sometimes the same plot. But if you start a new book, it challenges you. It strengthens those writing muscles that would not otherwise have been strengthened. It's the same line of thinking that supports the "write short stories" maxim — write lots of stories and you will naturally become a better writer; write the same story and you run the risk of growing more slowly.

The short of it is: I've never written a sequel before. I'm breaking new ground in my writing by tackling book two of my series, and I thought I'd jot down a few observations.

The first thing I noticed as I was starting to brainstorm and plot was that I was very aware of how much I was pushing the plot and characters to change. I'm not saying that I'm pushing them to unreasonable lengths. I'm merely saying that I've been aware of the pitfalls of writing a sequel for years, and so I was very mindful of how much or how little the story and the characters were changing. With that in mind, I was careful to judge just how much I *did* want things to change, and then I could nudge the story in the right direction. It isn't all about change, either. I fell in love with this story for a reason, and I think people that end up liking it will probably like it for the same reasons as I do, so I don't want to change everything. I want to keep those elements that make it unique and make it come alive while perhaps looking at it in a different way. For example, there is a fringe element of a people that are ruthless in their attempts to push the Royalty from from lands they feel are theirs. I've always believed that everyone is a hero in their own story, but I didn't have much of a chance to pursue that angle for these people in The Winds of Khalakovo, so in The Straights of Galahesh, I've worked the story in such a way that one of the heroes in the book is dropped into the midst of these people, and he begins to see that they are not so one dimensional as he had come to believe. So the thing that I like so much from Winds – the cultural clash that leads to much of the conflict — is now being examined in a different way. It forces Nikandr to examine his own understanding of them, and come out of it a different person.

There was a strange transition that occurred as I started to write The Straits of Galahesh in earnest was that Winds became, not a book that I was still working on, but source material. The window in which I could make changes to the ms was closing early in the writing of Book 2, and now it's completely closed. That's strange, not being able to tinker with it any more. By and large I've lost control of the project, and in lots of ways that's good. It's time for it to be out in the world, because there are very few things I would do with it even given the chance. But I know that as things come up in Book 2, I'll wish I had the chance to go back and revise something in Book 1 so that it's set up better, or set up *at all*. I sometimes envy Tolkien the fifteen years he took two write The Lord of the Rings. I'm sure he went back through all of the books as things came up, adding, tinkering.

The other thing I'm noting is how damned rewarding it is to be working on a novel under contract. It's been a long haul up to this point. Basically ten years. So to go from wondering whether something is good enough to knowing a novel has a home is quite a change. I'm trying not to let myself rest on my laurels, though. I'm painfully aware that, whatever success Book 1 has, Book 2 might not enjoy the same level of success. And so I'm trying hard to simply stay true to what got me here. Stay true to my voice. Stay true to the story. And I try to challenge myself toward art as much as I'm able. I'm sure, if I can do those things, it'll all be fine in the end.
Bradley P. Beaulieu

3. What's the biggest surprise for you in the book publishing process so far?

Hmm. This is an interesting question. There are lots of things that have been exciting so far, but that wasn't what was asked. I haven't been surprised by a whole lot, because, over the course of learning how to write, I've also paid close attention to the publishing process. Before Winds was sold I had already understood, at least from an educated layman's perspective, how books are pitched, how they're considered in-house, how they're bought, and roughly the process they go through until they're available on shelves.

I would probably have to say the slow loss of control is one of the things that's most surprising. I knew, intellectually, that the author gives up control over the course of getting the book ready to publish. In the beginning, you work with your editor on the broad brush issues of the manuscript. Then you take out the fine-tipped brushes. You still have a fair amount of control here, because it's your book and you know it best, but then again, the editor knows their stuff, so you have to try to see things from their perspective, and it's a bit more serious now than advice from a fellow writer during the course of getting your work critiqued. I would like to think that I would weigh advice from both editor and fellow writer in the same way, but let's be serious--the editor has more pull, and frankly, more investment, in the book. So as a writer I need to give their proposed changes more weight.

And then you come to the copy-editing phase, where all the broad brush changes are done and you're now looking for the small (though very important) errors that inevitably dot the landscape of your manuscript. At this point, you've pretty much lost the ability to make any serious changes to the manuscript. You could pull the fire alarm and pull back if you really needed to, but in general you wouldn't. You'd get a black eye from it, and a label as a prima donna--certainly inside the publisher's walls but probably beyond them as well.

And so the process continues. Once the copy-edits are done, ARCs are printed. This is the final stage to make any changes. The galleys are nearly ready for the printer, after which it's really too late. So this slow process of giving up your baby, while not unexpected, is surprising in the amount of stress it produces internally. You wonder whether it's really ready for prime time. Will people like it? Will they catch this somewhat clumsy paragraph or sentence or word choice? Should I change it or just leave it? A million questions and second guesses run through your mind as you approach the finish line, and though it's terribly exciting, it's also enough to make you want to pop the cap off the Tums.

And it isn't merely the manuscript where you lose control. It's in the cover art, the cover design, the front and back matter, the interior design, the blurbs, and on and on and on. Writers often don't have a lot of control over these ancillary things. They have some, to be sure, but not a lot, and any small amount of control you do have leaks away as the publication date approaches.

So, that's my answer, though I will say this: even though it produces a lot of stress, I put it in its place. These things are a natural part of the publication process, and I have faith in my editor and publisher to make the right choices. And besides, the tension is far outstripped by the excitement that's been building within me over the months. I can't wait for the release date, when it's all up to the readers. I can't wait to share what it's taken me so long to get down.

Bradley Beaulieu
www.quillings.com

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On Writing and Failure

Jan. 9th, 2011 | 08:34 am


A memoir of what went wrong
With mixed feelings, I've been reading Tom Grimes' memoir Mentor, an account of his life as a writer, especially as concerns his time learning with Frank Conroy, who for some time directed the Iowa Writers' Workshop. I don't know if you have heard of Grimes; I don't think I had. He's had some partly-successful novels, some reviewed well, some not so well--but Mentor, as he writes it, is an account of his failure as a writer.

His first book felt unimportant to him when it came out, but it got excellent reviews in some very important venues. However, as far as I can tell it didn't make him much money or do much to combat his desperate struggle to prove his self-worth. (I'm not inferring what he thinks here; Grimes is extremely candid about his feelings in the book.)

His second book was finished with huge expectations of success, but from the beginning of its publishing journey yielded mixed signs and mixed reviews. In the end, it appears, it made back only 10% of its advance, which is certainly a financial failure, and also a sharp slap to the face for the writer.

His memoir seems to have gotten some good reviews, although judging by the Amazon ranking at the time I read this, it isn't taking the world by storm.

Failure seems to be a huge and important subject for Grimes. Reading his memoir at this particular moment, as I'm about to launch into a new project that's not like anything I've attempted before, may be a very good thing for me, because it's good to face the failure bogeyman right at the beginning.

Is that you, Failure?
I should explain about the new book: for several years I've been researching the psychology of motivation and habit intensively. For about ten years, I've been writing prolifically and working to build a career as a writer. I had planned on being a professional writer since the third grade or earlier. But of course "writer" isn't a position like "systems analyst" or "pastry chef," where you can get a job, go in to do it each day, and feel more or less successful every time you bring home a paycheck. It's more like being an entrepreneur, or a salesperson who works only on commission, or a painter: you put everything you can into each new project, and then innumerable people other than you--customers or end users or the general public--decide whether it will succeed or not. This would be easier to take, I think, if it were always clear that it was only this final audience that made the decision--that books always sell well when they're well-written, or that a quality widget sells itself--but unfortunately there are also gatekeepers, timing issues, competing or distracting products, editors or agents or supervisors or clients getting sick or getting pregnant or moving on, good or bad marketing, and all the rest.

Why does a book fail?
If you write a book and it flops, how do you account for it? Did the book just suck? Or to speak more gently, perhaps the book didn't have a large enough audience to succeed? Or maybe the publisher didn't get the book out to reviewers as they were supposed to do (as happened to a friend of mine with an excellent trilogy of his that is still attracting new readers, despite rather than because of the original publisher)? Was it marketed to the wrong audience? (It could be argued that my book Talk the Talk: The Slang of 65 American Subcultures should have been marketed as a general interest book rather than only, as it was, to writers--but that was potentially my mistake and my agent's in placing it with a publisher that specifically caters to writers.) Was it released at a bad time? Was it mislabeled or miscategorized? Did that awful cover doom it (though I was very pleased with my book cover)? And so on.

I don't know about you, but I would love to have hard numbers on that. If I were to put out a book that only earned back half of its advance (this hasn't happened to me; my first book earned modestly more than the advance--but hey, look at me being so quick to assure you that I'm not a failure.) I would want to know why, if it were possible, even if the answer was that the cover and the marketing strategy only accounted for 7% of the failure and the rest was squarely on my shoulders.

But here's what I assume: I assume that a book most often succeeds or fails on how much the text itself makes people want to read it. There are exceptions: for instance, while I'm sure The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a fine book, it seems likely to me that its continuing success is fueled in part simply by the fact that it's selling so well, as potential readers think "Well, it's got to be good: millions and millions of people are reading it." In a way, success builds success.

And obscurity builds obscurity. If no one knows about a book, the chance that they'll stumble on it and pick it off a knee-height shelf at Barnes & Noble where a single copy is wedged in between books by two other obscure authors, or that they'll dig it up and buy it from Amazon despite no one having rated it and it showing up at the bottom of the search results based on nonexistent sales, is poor. To some extent success for a book requires an inciting incident--or better, a dozen of them--meaning a review in a venue that a lot of people read, a news story, a mention in mass media, an event, piggybacking on the success of something else (especially the author's other books), an ad in the right place (if ads really do help books), etc.

But now I'm just rambling about the publishing business, of which I know something but not nearly as much as a lot of other people who blog on the subject much more skillfully (Nathan Bransford comes to mind, for example). What I really want to talk about is the role of failure in a writer's life as it affects self-motivation.

Failure: not as bad as death
No writing failure is complete if the author is not dead, in which case literary success takes a distant second in importance to being deceased as far as the author is concerned. The nature of a failed book is usually that hardly anyone has heard of it. This is merciful: as writers, it's our successes that are well-known, while our failures tend to be of great interest mainly to ourselves and our publishers. Not so with movies, for instance. Will Bennifer ever live down Gigli? I've never seen the thing, don't know what it's about, and had to double check to be sure I got the "Bennifer" thing right, and yet here even I am making fun of it. Obscurity is nice sometimes, if you ask me.

So here I am entering on this book project, and it's higher-stakes for me than previous ones. First, it carries the weight of years of investigation into the human mind, and if the book doesn't fly, there's a temptation to imagine that effort to have been a waste (though it's already repaid me several times over, truth be told).

Second, it carries the weight of a decade of very serious writing efforts and a couple of decades more of on-and-off writing before that. If I can't write a successful novel after all this practice, study, hard work, and even networking, what the hell is wrong with me?

Third, the new novel will be a mainstream novel, not a science fiction or fantasy novel. In fantasy and science fiction, it seems to me, we don't take ourselves with the deadly seriousness I often associate with mainstream (let alone "literary") writers. The F&SF community is comfortable and friendly and already understands that one failed novel does not determine a career. If I were to get a $5,000 advance and just barely earn out with a fantasy or science fiction novel, it would more or less be a success. This is not my feeling about a mainstream novel. I'm bidding for a wider audience, and it's a churning metropolis of authors rather than a friendly neighborhood.

Embracing the whatever
And yet ... this book can fail. That's OK. I can put a year into writing it and two years into seeing it sold and published, assuming it even gets that far, and end up back where I started or worse, and that's still OK. Believe me, I won't be pleased if I get that outcome, but it's possible whether I like it or not, so I intend to accept this from the outset, and that gives me strength. Not fearing what will happen, I don't have to cling to ideas about the novel that seem essential for its success (but which, as I don't really know for sure what will make for a success or not any more than anyone else does, could be its doom). I don't have to take myself too seriously. I can screw around in the book, please myself, and hope readers will come along.

Fearing failure, I might handle things differently--hold off submitting the book when it's ready, clamp down on my natural voice out of anxiety that I'll sound stupid, fail to engage with the book because I don't want to engage with the fear I would have created around it, and so on. Fear creates resistance: that's its job. Fear of a predator in a jungle could make us run like hell or fight desperately. With writing, we don't want to be running from or struggling with: we want to be diving into. It's hard to execute a good dive into something that scares you, or when you're scared of what will happen when you come back up.

So failure: yes, possible. Maybe every book you (if you're a writer) or I will ever write will flop miserably--never getting a read from an editor or agent or never selling to a publisher or never getting read even though it's been published. Maybe I'll write the best novel in the history of the universe and it will come out in the wrong form at the wrong time and be completely ignored due to an unexpected invasion of the United States by Canada. We could say the same of everything else: every romance has a chance of dying, every child has a chance of being hit by an ice cream truck, every job has a chance of disappearing, every friend has a chance of turning on you. It doesn't matter. I mean it actually doesn't matter at this stage. This is the stage where we create and throw things out. When it comes back, maybe it will matter enough to be worth learning from, and maybe not. Sooner or later, if it fails, it will be worth moving on from.

Or maybe this time around it won't be failure: it will be wild success. Maybe every major thing you try to do from this moment on will succeed beyond your wildest dreams. Who can know for sure? For now, I think I'll ponder that.

Photo by blmiers2


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Making It All About Just One Thing

Jan. 7th, 2011 | 12:22 pm

In a post this past weekend ("Something Completely Different: a New Direction for the Willpower Engine and ReidWrite"), I talked about the new focus I've pulled together for my writing and this site. What I'm finding as I pursue it is that it's creating a natural unification of efforts in my life, and this unification is making my life easier, my mind clearer, and my efforts more useful.

Just one goal
I've always been bad at following my own advice to have only one major goal at a time. This isn't because I have any doubt whether it's a good idea: it is. It's just because when I tried to narrow things down to one goal, what I would find was that I got down to multiple goals that were each so important to me that I couldn't bring myself to discard any of them; the best I could do was to put some on the back burner.

I want to be clear here that when I say "goals," I'm talking specifically about goals for doing new things that I'm not already achieving, goals that need extra time, attention, and focus. Splitting those scarce resources among multiple goals isn't effective, because it's hard enough to help ourselves change in just one way at a time; more than one way is usually overwhelming.

The joy of just one thing
But recently, I resolved to take all of the research I've done into the psychology of habits and self-motivation and build a novel out of it that will help people experience how to actually change their lives. It's a tricky job despite the very great success of some books that have tried similar kinds of challenges, like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Ishmael, Eat, Pray, Love (though of course that's a memoir rather than a novel), and even Ecotopia. It seems easy to me to stumble by either preaching--which loses the reader; or by not bringing in the really useful information--which loses the point. Still, I was never the guy who liked taking the easy jobs.

What's particularly joyful for me about this whole process is that I'm able to single-mindedly pursue one project without the distractions of a lot of other projects, even though there are innumerable little jobs that are part of that project. At the moment, while of course my efforts go into other important things on a daily basis, when I have time to think about or work toward something big and expansive, I know exactly what that thing is: it's this novel. That kind of one-project focus is a rare and miraculous thing for me.

It's a little bit like a handy solution to a fiction writing problem, when you find that two characters can be mashed together into one and that this adds a burst of new possibilities and payoffs. Hey, the thief could also be the guide! you say. Suddenly everything is easier.

Unifying goals turns into unifying sites
Interestingly, unifying my focus also is resulting in a unification of my Web sites. I had already realized that I wanted to bring together my psychology of habits blog and my writing blog: my original writing blog at reidwrite.livejournal.com is getting folded into my original willpower blog at www.willpowerengine.com . But I realized today what the name of the new compounded site should be, and what else it should include: this site will become the new LucReid.com, and the out-of-date writing site I have by that name is getting updated and folded into this site as well. It's interesting to me how it all seems to be coming together.

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Snowflaking a New Novel

Jan. 4th, 2011 | 04:18 pm

Snowflake

In thinking about developing my new novel project, I've been a little on the fence between the two major approaches, the outline approach and the spontaneous approach. I've written novels both ways and found both workable. None of those novels have yet seen the light of day on book shelves or eReaders yet, however, so it's probably more worthwhile to mention that it's clear to me from my reading and discussions with many other writers whose novels are out there in the world that either method can result in a publishable novel.

Since I'm working on a very specific kind of goal for this novel, I was inclined toward the outlining approach. Cue mental sigh: outlining  just seems like work to me, whereas the actual writing, while it damn sure is work, doesn't generally feel laborious. Fortunately, as always with big writing projects these days, I'll be using Scrivener, which takes a lot of the drudgery out of outlining and makes it much easier to make good use of the outline as the actual writing progresses. This will be especially easy for me now that a version of Scrivener for Windows is being released, freeing me from doing all my Scrivener work on my antiquated little iBook G4 laptop.

Thinking about the subject further, I realized that the most promising approach for me in this case is a special kind of outlining, one that also fits nicely with Scrivener: Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method. The basic idea is that you start with a single sentence that gets to the heart of what you want to write--a sentence that you could tell an editor on an elevator ride that would be strong enough both in dramatic content and in accurately describing what your book's about that the editor, if it's the right editor, would request the manuscript before stepping off the elevator. Coming up with such a sentence after the fact is often difficult, sometimes because it's hard to pick out what the essential story is, and sometimes because the essential story is too diffuse to allow summary in a single sentence (which often, though not absolutely always, is a sign that the story itself lacks focus). Beginning with that essential sentence not only takes away the trouble of having to come up with the sentence after the fact, but much more importantly lends a razor-sharp focus to the book. My own favorite novels have that kind of focus.

Anyway, you next build your snowflake out from a sentence to a paragraph. Then you write up key information about the central characters. Then you expand your paragraph into a single-spaced page ... and so on. Instead of creating a skeleton and hanging a book on it, you create a seed and grow a book from it.

The thing that appeals to me about using the Snowflake Method, especially for this novel, is that it focuses on structure and integrity in the book before the sentence-level experience of the book. I feel comfortable that I have practiced so long and so hard at depicting a story sentence by sentence that I can do a good job of that when I get down to that phase. I also feel comfortable that I can structure a story that works in just a few paragraphs (as I did many times for my new book Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories, available--if I may self-promotionally mention it--on Amazon for Kindle and on Smashwords for all eReaders). Using the Snowflake Method should, I believe, help me get effectively from that structural level to the sentence level while preserving all the really juicy stuff.

We'll see how well Snowflake works for me. I've never used the method before, at least not using the clear steps Ingermanson lays out, so it's possible it won't suit me or the project. But there is one good way to find out.

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Something Completely Different: a New Direction for the Willpower Engine and ReidWrite

Jan. 2nd, 2011 | 06:11 pm


"I feel scattered," I told my closest friend today when we were out walking on Church Street in Burlington, Vermont. I talked about my ongoing work on The Willpower Engine, my recently-released book of flash fiction, my wish that I had time to work on novels again, and other writing interests and aspirations.

photo by redjar

For well over two and a half years, I've blogged three to five times a week at the Willpower Engine about the psychology of motivation and habits. Since April of 2007, I've been blogging about writing sporadically at http://reidwrite.livejournal.com, although the ridiculously intrusive advertising LiveJournal has introduced over the last year or so has made me eager to move that blog somewhere else. These two blogs and the way they separate my blogging attention reflect a similar split in my writing focus: I've been doing fiction and non-fiction at the same time, and although I've prioritized my writing about the psychology of habits, my powerful interest in writing fiction has meant that it's never been possible to really focus on only my Willpower Engine writing.

Another problem I've faced in going forward with my Willpower Engine writing is that I have no professional background I can point to that makes me an authority on the psychology of motivation. Yes, I've studied and written about the topic intensively for years (well before I ever started this blog), and I've kept up with a lot of the current psychological research. However, I don't have a degree in psychology, I'm not a therapist, and I don't have professional non-fiction writing credits in the area of psychology. I also don't have experience running seminars or workshops on the subject. What all of this means is that I'm not enough of a recognized authority to have interested a publisher in the nonfiction book I've been working on, so even while the readership for the Willpower Engine site climbs week after week and as my understanding of the topic becomes deeper and wider, the aspiration I've had of placing the non-fiction book with a major publisher hasn't gone anywhere.

I've also had trouble finding a proper voice for The Willpower Engine. I'm not a therapist and don't want to sound like one, but I am trying to convey useful information in a way that is easy to understand and make use of without being too dry or abstract about it.

And with my attention tied up for years with the Willpower Engine project, I haven't been putting any serious work into novels. I've seen many of my talented peers in the Codex writers group sell novels and land multi-book deals while my own fiction career has been limited almost entirely to flash fiction written for The Daily Cabal--although admittedly, I love writing flash fiction, and all of that writing has led to a new eBook release, my flash fiction collection called Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories (available at $2.99 from Amazon for the Kindle and from Smashwords for all eReaders).

So I've been doing a lot of work that I'm proud of, and I've been immensely grateful for everything I've learned so far about my own motivation and habits-- but at the same time, I've been ignoring my own advice to take on only one major goal at a time. From my point of view, I felt as though I had no choice: I'm far too interested in the psychology of motivation to give up my Willpower Engine work, and writing fiction is far too important to me to give up either. What's more, I've had major accomplishments in both areas, like the thousands of readers who come to this site and my Writers of the Future win with my fiction. How could I possibly stop doing either one? I can't, that's how. And yet splitting my attention is preventing me from moving forward.

But what emerged in my conversation with my friend (to finally get back to that) was the possibility of merging my interests, focusing my efforts on all of the things that are most important to me and none of the ones that aren't central. Specifically, while not giving up the idea of writing nonfiction books sooner or later, I can focus on a novel--and my challenge with that novel can be to use what I've learned about the psychology of motivation so well that readers of the novel, while not being lectured or taught in any usual sense, come away knowing a lot more than they used to about the subject in ways that they can actually use in their lives. In other words, instead of explicitly offering information in the form of non-fiction, I can weave that knowledge into my fiction, in service to storytelling, and make a hell of a story that also carries some real-world knowledge. I have a real advantage here: very few fiction writers have spent years studying the scientific research on human motivation.

This idea made immediate and powerful sense to me, but I had reservations, especially about the Willpower Engine blog. I don't by any means want to abandon it, and yet the amount of time and attention that goes into posting three articles a week on the psychology of motivation is too much of a drain to allow me to really focus on a novel. Even one post a week, a bare minimum in my mind for anything I would call "posting regularly," would take too much attention away.

The solution to that problem is to allow the Willpower Engine to change. It already has hundreds of articles on a wide variety of topics relating to goals, habits, emotions, self-confidence, and willpower. But instead of adding more such articles, I'm changing the focus of the blog to write about motivation and writing, motivation in my own life pertaining to my writing, and especially weaving psychological findings into my fiction. This new version of the blog will still have a lot to say about the psychology of habits and related subjects, and some posts may well be similar to ones I've posted on the Willpower Engine in the past. There will also, however, be posts on writing fiction, as I've posted periodically on my ReidWrite blog, as well as posts about trying to integrate what I've learned into my own life and my fiction.

The blog name will need to change: for one thing, it will incorporate both of the previous blogs, ReidWrite and The Willpower Engine. For another, it will have a different focus than either. But I'm not greatly worried about a new name for the blog just yet, or other technical concerns, like how I'll arrange the content on the page. Instead, I'll begin to prioritize questions like how I can sharpen my focus in life so that my non-writing endeavors are less scattered, on whether I should focus my career at present on young adult or adult novels, and on which of the many, many, many novel ideas I've developed over the past ten years I'll choose for my new project--if indeed I don't come up with something entirely new.

I think readers of ReidWrite will find much more of interest here for the foreseeable future. For regular readers of The Willpower Engine, I hope this announcement will not be discouraging. Of course I'm hoping that much of the new content of this blog will continue to be meaningful in those readers lives and to serve some of the same purposes my posts have in the past, but with the change in focus, I can't imagine this will be the case for all Willpower Engine readers. For readers interested only in articles of the kind I've written on The Willpower Engine so far, I hope you'll find much of use by delving into the 328 posts I've already put up on this site and more in some of the similar posts I'll be doing from time to time in the future.

The new blog will not keep to a regular schedule, but for the immediate future I'll certainly have a lot to post about, including using what I've learned about the psychology of motivation, choosing a novel project, developments in the electronic publishing world, findings from my eBook flash fiction experiment, and more.

To all readers, thank you very much for your support so far. I welcome your comments and ideas and hope you'll find much to entertain, enlighten, and involve you on the new site.

Luc Reid
January 2, 2011

 


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Experimenting with eBooks, new publishing models, and how eReader users read

Dec. 23rd, 2010 | 01:56 pm

Most of my recent writing time has gone into an experiment with electronic publishing, an eBook collection of 172 of my own flash fiction pieces that I've called Bam! 172 Hellaciously Quick Stories. I'm experimenting with several things at once here: technology, marketing, possible changes in reading behaviors, self-publishing, and more. The main questions I'm asking are
  1. Has the time come when it's viable for a relatively unknown writer to make significant sales without a publisher, or is it too soon (or never going to happen)?
  2. Do eReaders make flash fiction a more desirable commodity, due to creating more situations in which a person might be likely to read? and
  3. Is it possible to successfully market the right kind of book by interesting bloggers, Amazon reviewers, and others on the Web with free review copies? (If you yourself review books and ever read them in eBook format, you'd be welcome to a free copy of the book via e-mail.)
I'm starting by releasing the book for the Kindle and will next look to release it in other formats. Ideally I'd like it available on at least Barnes & Noble, Google eBooks (see http://books.google.com/support/partner/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=167975 ) and the iBooks store in addition to Amazon, but there are barriers. For instance, for the iBooks store I need to have an Intel-based Mac to run their software (my Mac, purchased so I could use Scrivener, is an older, non-Intel Mac), and for each book I need an ISBN number (which costs about $250 from the get-go, although that gets you a total of 10 ISBNs: see http://www.askdavetaylor.com/how_do_i_get_an_isbn_number.html). Full iBooks requirements are shown at https://itunesconnect.apple.com/WebObjects/iTunesConnect.woa/wo/0.0.0.9.7.3.1.1 . Currently this is too rich for my blood, so Bam! won't be available from the iBooks store this holiday season.

Preparing the book took some time. Here were my steps, if you're interested. There may well be easier ways to do some of the technical things, and I hope to refine my approach as I do more of this kind of thing. At the same time, I imagine the tools will evolve quickly, so that skills learned now may be unnecessary in a year. I'm surprised I haven't yet come across one software product that allows easily importing from formats like Word and exporting flawless eReader and PDF files, but I imagine one will appear.

Some of these steps required intermediate to advanced technical skills (for instance, using Photoshop and coding HTML). There are other ways around these things, but at the moment, I'm not the best person to recommend what those ways are.

So, my steps:
  • I gathered and selected the stories, which was made much easier by use of Scrivener. I made each story its own section
  • I grouped the stories into categories, dictated by what I had available. These turned out to be things like "Aliens," "Love, Marriage, and Romance," "Death and Dying," "Zombies and Golems," etc. Here again, Scrivener was very useful.
  • I went through and edited/proofread/improved each of the stories. This may not have been strictly necessary, since almost all had already been published somewhere. However, I found I could make at least tiny improvements to almost every single one, and this also gave me an opportunity to decide for certain which ones to include and which to toss. The process did take a lot of time, though, as you might imagine. I felt it was well worth the time for its effect on the quality of the book (although in the end I found a few typos had leaked through regardless.)
  • To conclude some flash series I had started, I wrote several new stories just for the book.
  • I wrote an introduction to the book and brief introductions to each of several flash series that are included in it.
  • I exported the whole thing from Scrivener to Word ("compiled the draft," in Scrivener parlance).
  • In Word, I made some adjustments to formatting, etc. Some of this was pretty laborious, due to having 172 "chapters" and needing to repeat certain things, though if I were to do much of this in future, I could write some Word macros that would help.
  • I saved in "Filtered HTML" format.
  • In HTML, I manually coded in the table of contents as links to the stories. This took quite some time because (again) of the number of stories.
  • I used freeware HTML validation software to identify and remove some of the most obvious problems with the Word-generated HTML.
  • I used the freeware program HTML Tidy to clean up the Word HTML. This may not have been strictly necessary, and it required some preliminary work to get rid of illegal characters Word had put into the HTML, but it did result in much more reliable HTML than I would have had otherwise.
  • I had one illustration in the book, so I hand-coded that in HTML to show up and included the image file in the same directory.
  • I created a cover using Photoshop. Actually, I created one version of the cover, uploaded it for comment, found that it was not making a very good impression at all, and made a new one to replace it. Amazon wanted the dimensions 600x800 for the version of the cover to show up inside the file, and prefers a rather larger version to show up on the book's Amazon page .
Here's the new cover. I could have put some more work into it to refine the design, but in the interest of getting the book up before Christmas, I didn't worry greatly about that.

The image is from Flickr, found using their search feature, which has the truly excellent option of specifying what rights you're looking for. In this case, I looked for only pictures that were Creative Commons licensed to be used commercially and to be modified. In the book, I credited the photographer, of course.


  • I used WinZip to include the HTML of the book and the image together in one file.
  • I logged in to http://dtp.amazon.com , where I already had an account from posting my book The Writing Engine: A Practical Guide to Writing Motivation, and entered the title, price, description, etc. for the book. As the last step, I uploaded the book itself.
  • I used the same HTML file and image to generate a .mobi version of the book (which is what Amazon is doing in their own, separate way) using the free Auto Kindle eBook Converter software. I then put the .mobi file on my Kindle and viewed it. The result looks pretty good!
For a pricing point, I chose $2.99. I went back and forth with this, as I could reasonably have gone as high as $9.99 without pricing myself out of Amazon's royalty sweet spot range (you can earn a much higher royalty percentage if your book is priced between $2.99 and $9.99). But I'm conscious that collections are not popular except when they're by very popular authors, and I'm also conscious that as a writer of fiction I have only a small reputation, so my inclination was to make it as easy as possible for someone to buy the book within that range. The plan here is not to make a bundle of money on this particular book (though I wouldn't turn it down!), but to try to get as large a readership as I can for this and future fiction projects.

Next I'll do what I can to make the book available for other eBook platforms quickly and will be working to find people who might be interested in getting a free review copy. It seems to me worthwhile to connect with anyone out there who talks about books on the Web and might be interested in Bam!, whether they are a reviewer for a publication, blog about books, or simply do substantial reviews on Amazon. Fortunately the problem of the expense of review copies is non-existent for a situation like this.

Marketing will be an interesting project, in part because regardless of how great or lousy a job I do getting the word out about Bam!, there's still the underlying question of whether readers are interested in a collection of flash fiction, especially one by a more-or-less unknown. It's an open question whether a large number of readers would especially enjoy the kind of short, speculative, often humorous pieces the book offers. Even if they would, it might be the case that this is the kind of thing people don't know they would like and therefore wouldn't buy.

Apart from any good qualities of the stories themselves or any interest someone may have in me (due to, e.g., being a regular reader of The Willpower Engine or The Daily Cabal or having read blog posts on this site, my articles at Futurismic or elsewhere. or my short stories), really the main selling point I have is that these stories are very short and that there are a lot of them. The theory is that such a collection could be especially handy, if you like the stories in it, because you could take out your eReader and read a whole story in line at the grocery store or while waiting for the coffee to perk. Will people actually be interested in this rather different mode of reading fiction? I guess we'll see!

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"There's Always Another Way to Write It" at Futurismic

Jul. 8th, 2010 | 12:32 pm

My July Brain Hacks for Writers column, "There's Always Another Way to Write It," is up at Futurismic. In it, I talk about the hidden options and possibilities in our writing, and perspectives that we can use to open those possibilities up. Comments there or here are always welcome.

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For Better Tension: Story Arcs Within Story Arcs

Jun. 4th, 2010 | 06:12 pm

My fellow members of The Daily Cabal (where we post a brand new, free, very short story every weekday) and I were discussing tension and closure, and I ended up summarizing my sense of how story-arcs-within-story-arcs work. It went a little something like this:

When you want to give a sense of closure to an episode within a larger story, the larger story has an arc, and the episode has an arc. Each arc is defined by a question (in the broad sense of something that creates suspense), and that question starts the arc. The arc ends when the question is fully answered, or occasionally when it's determined that it's unanswerable (for instance, what we thought was the problem was really just a misdirection for a worse problem).

For whatever other limitations it had, the movie Speed is an excellent example of constructing arcs within arcs: we had the grand arc of the villain versus the cops, then within that most-of-the-movie arc of the speeding bus that can't stop or else it will blow up, then within that individual arcs of things like the cop getting on the bus while it's speeding along, trying to disarm the bomb, etc.

Here's a short and ridiculous example. Again, this is more or less textbook version; there's no reason structure can't become more creative and messy than this.




What are all those lights in the sky? Dear god, it's aliens invading! Oh no, they've dissolved Paris with corrosive goo! (this is the start of arc 1)

Now the aliens are attacking my house! I must escape! (start of arc 2)

I've escaped! But wait, my child was hiding in the house and I didn't even know! I must go back for my child! (transformation of arc 2)

Here I am at the house, but I can't get my child because an alien is here! Alas! (start of arc 3)

I am hiding! Here comes the alien!

I punched it in one of its faces. Ha ha, it has fallen down! Now I may collect my child! (end of arc 3)

My house is being dissolved by corrosive goo, but I have escaped with my child! (end of arc 2) And I'm insured! (just in case the reader was worried)

It serves that alien right that it was in the house when the corrosive goo struck! (nail in the coffin of arc 3)

Ha ha, I find that the alien I took down was their leader! Now that they have realized it's dead, they are panicking and leaving our planet, never to return again! (end of arc 1, fade out, roll credits

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