Sunday, February 21, 2016

Review of "Take Off Your Pants!" by Libbie Hawker, and Thoughts on Outlining a Series

"Take Off Your Pants!" was recommended on some forum threads about writing faster. The paperback is just 8.99 (cheaper still as an ebook but I need this kind of thing in paper for SURE) so I gave it a whirl. I'm somewhere between a plotter and a pantser (someone who writes by the seat of their pants) and always trying to perfect the art of the outline so I'll stop waffling around.

So far this book has been pretty effective for me. She gives a lot of props to John Truby's "The Anatomy of Story", which I have not read, so I can't say how they compare...but The Anatomy of Story is over 400 pages and this is about 100. I really liked how lean, mean and focused this book is, because I already know a lot of the fundamentals of telling a story and in many cases a quick and dirty plot breakdown is EXACTLY what I need. This book does that beautifully. I found her outlining techniques much easier to work with than I've seen in some other books.

If you're a beginning writer, however...although this book certainly IS accessible to beginners, I might start by reading a few books with more depth because it will help you when it comes time to actually write the outline.

The reason I've been particularly keen on creating an outline is because I am currently plotting book #3 of The Hidden Lands series. This is certainly the most ambitious writing project I've taken on thus far. Five books, four main characters and many side characters, multiple antagonists... How I love this story, but sometimes I look at the work ahead and think... "............................"

On the other hand, I've gotten better at what I do! That's such a good feeling! Enough so that I can actually tell you some of the things that help make plotting a multiple-POV, multiple-book series work. It's pretty hard to find advice on this, so I hope it helps! Mind you...I don't know if these rules will apply to all such series. I really won't know that until I try to apply them to my next series!

Tips Ahoy:

--When developing multi-POV, multi-book character growth arcs, keep sight of your theme.

It has helped me a lot for all the characters have a push and pull between two contrary desires. In this case, three of the characters--Alfred, Olivia, and Lester--are torn between a desire for power and a desire to have a peaceful life. They all have slightly different motives for wanting power, however, so their arcs are not quite the same..but that remains a theme for all three of them, and in each book, they make different moves toward one or the other. At the end of book 1, Alfred moves toward the peaceful life. At the end of book 2, he moves back toward power. In book 3, he tries to balance both. In books 4 and 5, he has renewed his commitment toward power, but his MOTIVES for wanting power change as his character matures, so the pursuit doesn't feel repetitive.

Some variation of this is repeated for Olivia and Lester, but sometimes they are shifting in different directions from each other, and this creates conflict.

Thessia is a bit of an outlier. She is more trapped than the others, and for her, power = freedom. She doesn't feel the same pull toward a peaceful life. Her motives for gaining power are more pure than the other characters from the start, and her inner conflict is simply that she is afraid to stand up for herself. But she still ties into the theme of "What is the benefit of power? Why would we want it? Are we growing up to be good guys or bad guys?"

Throughout the series, these questions are also echoed in the side characters, such as Det, who made an infamous choice years ago to commit a serious crime for the greater good, giving each character a chance to ask themselves whether they agree with Det's choice and whether they would be willing to repeat it.

--Give the characters in a multiple POV book series every possible chance to meet one another, grow together, and impact each other's lives. 

In the beginning of book 2, Alfred, Thessia and Lester are at school together, while Olivia is not. In the first draft, Thessia's best friend at school had a lot of influence on Thessia. Meanwhile, I had the problem of Olivia seeming detached from the other characters. In the second draft, I decided to downplay Thessia's best friend and instead found ways for Thessia and Olivia to meet, and Olivia to bring about the character revelations that had previously come from Thessia's best friend. In book 3, once again, I have a character separated from the rest, so in the outline, I tried to find regular spots where the characters would communicate or their actions would have a bearing on one another. Otherwise it'll end up feeling like you have two different books and you risk losing the reader when you switch POV.

--Don't lose sight of the antagonist.

If you're writing a multiple book story and you want to keep the reader invested, make sure you identify the ultimate antagonist from the very first book, and keep them in mind. This has been especially important for me because ideally I want this series to lead into future series, so I've planted the seeds of future plots throughout. However, the first series MUST stand alone and feel complete and satisfying. In this case, I've used the Marvel movies as an inspiration. There are ongoing hints about Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet throughout the Marvel movies, but if you watch one, you don't feel cheated because you don't get the story of the Gauntlet right now. The movies establish clear boundaries between the plot at hand and the suggestions of future conflicts.

Even if you are not planning THAT far ahead, one should still take some time to consider the ultimate antagonist of the story from page 1, book 1. It is highly effective when every minor antagonist somehow feeds into or sets the stage for the ultimate antagonist. Voldemort is an obvious example...from book 1, every individual Harry Potter book's antagonist plays into the overall Voldemort vs. Harry conflict. The character arc of the antagonist should follow a similar pattern to the protagonists, as outlined above. If your characters are, in fact, going to meet the same antagonist in every book, then consider how that antagonist will have evolved into a new and escalated challenge with each encounter.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Why I Decided to Self-Publish

Last year, I was at a crossroads. I knew The Vengeful Half needed to be my next book, one way or another. I've been revising this book for years (that's a story for another day) and I had gotten it to a place where I really loved it, and more than anything, I just wanted to stop keeping it a secret project.

But the tough question was whether to pursue traditional publication or self-publish, and that was HARD. I have been hearing for a while that hybrid authors make the most money in general...but on the writer forums I follow, there is definitely still a whiff of "last resort" to self-publishing. It's a choice you might make with sad resignation after shopping a book around for a while. And if you've had books traditionally published, there are experiences you tend to expect and enjoy from the publication process, like seeing a deal announcement in Publisher's Weekly, working with a great editor who fell in love with your book, and seeing your books at BEA or ALA, that you may feel sad to give up.

Then I started poking around some self-publishing forums and got a very different picture. The first thing I noticed was that self-published writers seemed less depressed. I'm sure there are sad, unsuccessful self-published writers who end up not really participating in forums and just give up, and there is surely commiseration in more private spaces. But...I definitely noticed a change of vibe, especially with the more successful writers. Traditionally published writers are...kind of depressed a lot, even when they're hitting bestseller lists. I also noted that some people were making a lot of money, and they weren't always writing romance or erotica, as I had previously assumed.

However, the self-published authors who are doing well seem to have many of these elements in common:
--Good covers and descriptions (obviously)
--Solid writing
--A long series of books, at least three but oftentimes more
--Writing in a popular genre
--A romantic element in the story (unless the genre is very masculine)
--The ability to put out more than one book a year (sometimes WAY more)

So I can see why it's not for everyone. But if you do have these elements in place, it seems to me that success might be just as likely with self-publishing as it is with traditional publishing, given a particular boost by the fact of higher royalties and control over publication schedule. I can certainly write two books a year and maybe even more, but I haven't published two books a year, because it's been hard enough getting publishers to put out one book a year from me, and I have also sometimes been contracted for projects I was less enthused about, and therefore wrote more slowly and reluctantly, while passion projects were set aside.

If I published twice as many books, for twice the royalties, then I would only have to sell 1/4 the a theoretical world.

In the real world, many ebooks are sold at a huge discount in 99 cent sales and the like, and my advances have been much higher than the amount of copies sold, BUT, I can't expect that to continue. 

Still, I wrestled with the decision. I had a hard time letting go of traditional publishing. It didn't feel to me like a "real book" without it. And yet, what is really more important to me? Putting out the book I want, in the way I want? Or just seeing it on the shelf of Barnes & Noble? (...I don't even live near a large bookstore anymore.) Why should I think this, when some of the stories that influenced me the most were indie comic books/graphic novels? I made some lists to help clarify:

Reasons to Publish Traditionally:
--Advance money
--No upfront expenses on my part
--Working with professional editor/copyeditor
--Potential to be on bookstore shelves
--Potential for reviews in trade publications, starred reviews, state lists
--Greater library sales
--More likely to be invited to events or eligible to apply for book festivals
--Publisher handles formatting, cover, distribution, some marketing
--If book "hits", publisher marketing machine can be amazing
--Sales rely less heavily on Amazon & potentially support indie bookstores

Reasons to Self-Publish:
--Income is more evenly distributed, not a lump sum
--No potential for getting a horrible cover and having to pretend to like it
--Can get books out faster
--Can publish a longer series
--More direct line to readers; i.e., can tell fans "the sequel comes out in fall" and know this is absolutely in your hands, no need to get permission to publish extra novellas, etc.
--Marketing has more of a "long game" aspect
--Can add artwork and "omake" (that's Japanese for extras...and if you've ever read manga you know what I mean)
--No fear of sudden, absurd deadline
--No fear of editor leaving, book getting pushed back, or other common roadblocks

There are some very valid points on both lists. On both lists, a lot are also more theoretical. Traditional publishing has the potential for a lot of cool things: the starred reviews, invitations to BEA, etc. has been very rare that any of that stuff happens to me, and that's true for a large portion of authors. Even bookstore presence is by no means guaranteed these days.

A lot of the pros for self-publishing are simply avoidance of the more unpleasant potentials in traditional publishing. They're only potentials, but they do happen. I've never had a bad editor, but I have had an editor leave...luckily she was great, too, but I've known others that didn't have as much luck. I have had books pushed back. I've had crazy deadlines. It is pretty likely that if you have a few books, you'll end up having some kind of crisis moment. Most of these events are not a huge deal in the scheme of things...but with this book, which is so much a part of me, the dread of some unexpected unpleasantness increases exponentially.

These lists made one thing clear to me: the best thing about self-publishing is the control over the story and its presentation. In the case of this book, it was especially important because I wanted to do something very different with it. 

The other factor I considered...what does moderate success look like, in both cases? Let's say I was making $20,000 a year as an author. As an indie publisher, this means two books a year making $10k each over time, or about 4,000 full price copies. I'm a pretty happy girl. I'm not rich by any means, but the mortgage is paid, there's food in the fridge, and I'm doing what I love. As a traditionally published author, this means selling a book a year for an advance of $23,000, to allow for agent fees. This doesn't sound impossible either. Plenty of people manage this. But it does feel more unpredictable. Taxes certainly don't help. You're not on a salary, so if you average $23k a year, it might be more likely to come as, say, a large advance one year and nothing the next, shoving you into a higher tax bracket in that one year, sucking up a larger chunk of your money, and then leaving you with nothing the next year. This happened to me when I made $70k in one lucky year...had to pay $23k in taxes...and then made a mere $6k the next year. If I'd lived in a state with state tax at the time, as I do now, it would've been even worse! I would have kept more money if the amount had been averaged. 

At this point, it's all conjecture for me. I have no idea how well my books will do, if I'll sell 4,000 copies, or 400, or 40,000. But I can certainly see how some hybrid authors could enjoy great success...and 100% indie published authors as well.

As for which route is best, I think it is highly dependent on the type of book, your individual skills...such as writing speed or ability to conceive of a cover and/or hire a talented cover designer, and your personal dreams. I have no regrets about my five traditional published books, that's for sure. But I hope I can say the same about this series as well.

Monday, February 8, 2016

More books from me! MY FAVORITEST BOOKS!

I must confess, when I was a teenager, I thought the ideal thing for a fantasy writer to do was create one fantasy world and develop it really, really thoroughly until it seems like a real place, and then write stories set in that world for years and years. So I spent the entirety of my teen years writing entirely about a single fantasy world. And on into my twenties...basically, until I started getting serious about publication, and reality slapped me in the face.

As it turns out, go figure, it is hard to sell a "world". Most publishers want, like, a book? Maybe a trilogy?

At some point I realized, if I was ever going to do this, and do it right, I needed to do it myself, and thanks to the rise of indie publishing, I finally can.

Not only that, I illustrated the interior, because I have always been torn as to whether I wanted to be a writer or a comic book artist.

I am so terrified. This story is the story I have been waiting to tell forever. A story about magical organized crime, and doll people, and a world with elements of both high fantasy and pop culture, and my favorite romance ever. And I just put the beginning up for preorder. THE VENGEFUL HALF will be released March 10th.

TFAQ (Theoretical Frequently Asked Questions):

Why self-publish?

The deciding moment came when my partner Dade started asking me what the ideal version of this book would look like. And I thought, well...I would hire someone to do a gorgeous illustrated cover. And then I would add in little extras throughout like mini-comics and drawings of fake products mentioned within the novel. (I told one of my friends that this story is like The Mortal Instruments meets Parks and Rec, and I've also described it as 'The Godfather as a girls' anime'.) And it would be as nerdy as I wanted it to be without an editor telling me to take out the joke that references Totoro...

Where will it be available?

I put up the Amazon preorder first to light a fire under myself! No turning back now! But yes, I am working on getting the paperback version up as well as the other e-book retailers.

Who did the cover?

I did NOT do the cover; I am no cover artist. This beautiful thing is the work of Anastasya Ilicheva aka Pell aka Entrepreneurial: Deviant Art

You said it's a long series. Yikes, how long?

Don't worry! It won't be one ginormous epic that must be read in order. This series will be a complete story in five books and then, if all is going well, I would start a new plot arc that would not require prior knowledge of the world and characters.

When will book two be out?

This summer, for sure! Book two is already done! But it does need a good edit so for now it's chilling while I work on book three.

Can I get a review copy?

Quite possibly! Email me at with a link to your blog/Goodreads or Amazon review page, or basically, somewhere your reviews are posted so I can confirm that you are a real person. Note: Review copies will not contain all the artwork, but the story is not in any way dependent on the artwork.

How can I stay updated and make sure I know about new releases, sales and extra content?

You are all asking that, in exactly that clunky wording, I'm sure, and that's why you want to join my MAILING LIST!

Are you ready for this? Have you made a horrible mistake? Can you get some sleep yet?

Oops...those are just my actual frequently asked questions in my own mind. *hides under bed*

*peers out* More posts soon, about the series and the process of self-publishing!