Month: January 2013

Goodreads for Writers

So you’re a writer and you don’t know what to do with Goodreads.

And I’m going to try to tell you all about it.  Wish us both luck…

Here is the link to Goodreads’ intro to the author program.  I suspect this is just the first post on the subject; it’s not thorough, but covers the info that I couldn’t find easily when the issues came up, as well as the basics of getting started.  Feel free to shoot me more questions.

1.  First, you need to set up an account as a reader.  If you clicked on the Goodreads link and got a page that has an account creation page, that’s what to do first.  You can also sign in using Facebook, Twitter, etc., if you have an account there, by clicking the Facebook, Twitter, etc., button on that front page.

2.  Once you’re signed up, you need to set up a writer account.  Start out by searching for one of your books or your author name.  (You may need to wait up to 2 weeks for a new book to show up; they collect feeds from several indie publishers, too, so indie writers can find their work, too.)  Just type one or the other in the search field and skim through the results until you find your author name.  Click on your author name.

You should go to your author page.  Somewhere near the bottom of the page is a link saying “Is this you? Let us know.”  Click on it.  Fill out the form on the next page (I forget exactly what it looks like) and submit it.  Wait a couple of days for your author account to be activated.  You’ll get an email when it’s ready.

Note:  You have to set up an entirely different login account for each pen name that you want to activate.  You can only set up one author name with one email/FB account.

3.  You’re signed up, but something is amiss about your books or author page.  Help!

Navigate either to your author page or to your book page.  Click the “edit profile” or “edit details” link to update the information.

Double-check that your cover image isn’t too big, if it’s not updating.  If things aren’t working, contact Goodreads or a Goodreads Librarian for help.

4.  You have more than one copy of a book listed.  Help!

This might be good or bad.  Goodreads is run along the lines of a library.  Librarians are thorough.  Did someone helpful add every single edition and/or cover of your book?  Even ones that you don’t want?  That’s what you get.  You cannot remove a “real” edition or a “real” cover, even if you’re no longer using it or you hate it.  Too bad: Goodreads will err on the side of thorough.  You might have a listing for an ebook, a Kindle ebook, a Print book, etc.  Whew!

All the editions of a book should be “combined,” which means that all the blurbs on one book will tie to the other, and any rankings/listings/etc. you have on one will feed to another.  If they are “combined,” then all editions of the book will be listed under the “Other Editions” bar on the right hand side of your book’s page.  If they are not combined correctly, then click the “combine” link on the same bar to go to the combine page.

Note: if things aren’t working at this point, you may want to check all versions to make sure there are no extra listings of your author profile.

If there are, make sure there are no extra spaces in the author’s name.  Let’s say there are two authors named Stephen King.  One will be listed as “Stephen<sp>King,” and the other will be listed as “Stephen<sp><sp>King.”  The extra space will not be apparent from the public page, and is used to keep the two authors’ books from getting shoved into the same account.

Sometimes an overly helpful person will overly helpfully add your book, overly helpfully creating a brand new account for you, just you, and, noting that you already have an account and not being sure that you are really you (overhelpfulness seems to go only so far), they’ll add an extra space in the name so they don’t have to do extra research.  You have to click the “edit profile” link to change this, and it may be that you can only get into one of the two profiles to check on things.  If this is the case, contact Goodreads or a Goodreads Librarian or sign up to be a Goodreads Librarian.  Warning, it’s kind of like having a large pickup truck when it comes time for your friends to move, only there’s no heavy lifting and nobody buys you pizza afterward (hint hint).

5.  You want to run a Goodreads giveaway.

You have to have a print edition in order to do this.

If your print edition is not automatically uploading on the site, then check the exiting edition to make sure nobody overly helpfully added your print edition’s ISBN to one of your ebook editions.  If they did, remove it from the ebook edition and manually add the print edition WITH the ISBN, then combine it with the other editions.  You may need to wait ten minutes for everything to update through the system.

Okay, these are the questions that I could think of, off the top of my head.  Drop me a note if you have anything else you’re struggling with, and I’ll add the answer 🙂


6. Are there metadata/tags on Goodreads?

Yes.  The metadata and tags are added by readers, not authors.

When you add or edit a review, there’s a link near the bottom of your review, “more options.”  Click that.  More options will appear.  At the bottom of the extra option is a link that says, “edit book metadata.”  A new window should appear, showing a series of questions.

If you want to see the metadata for your book, go to your book and click on the “edit details” link. There are two tabs near the top of your edit page, “edit book” and “show metadata.”  Click on “show metadata” to see the metadata other people have listed for you, in general.

The Bare Minimum of Character

My experiment for the day: what are the bare minimum of data points you need to know before you can start writing (or reading) most characters?  What does it take to hook the reader?

I have slushed (and rejected) an uncounted number of short stories that start out with the character waking up with amnesia.  Yes, Zelazny did it in Nine Princes in Amber, but that was Zelazny–and you knew what the character was like from the first sentence, even if the character didn’t:

It was starting to end, after what seemed most of eternity to me.

I attempted to wriggle my toes, succeeded.   I was sprawled there in a hospital bed and my legs were done up in plaster casts, but they were still mine.

We don’t know the character’s name, we don’t know whether they’re male or female, we don’t know what their background is, what they do, their hair color, basic description, etc.  We find out all that later, of course.  But we know the character, and, as events get stranger and stranger, we believe them, because we know that the character is just that determined, just that patient, and just that impatient.  Because of this opening.  We know they’ve been paralyzed, and can now move, and are proud and possessive and maybe just a little bit driven.  Just a little.  When things escalate and the character is right back in this situation, only worse, we almost feel bad for the person who did it to them, because it’s not going to be a happy day when that first sign of recovery happens.

I have no idea how much Zelazny knew about Corwyn or Amber or any of it before he started writing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he just sat down and said, “So there’s this guy who can’t remember a damned thing, but that’s not going to stop him…” and it all fell into place from there.

For most of us writers I think we need a little bit more.

But how little can most of us get away with?  Zelazny could get away with nothing more than attitude.  You probably have other books you love that start out with amnesiacs.  Take a look at them–what, in the opening paragraphs, does the reader start out with?

Another favorite opening of mine:

I shall clasp my hands together and bow to the corners of the world.

My surname is Lu and my personal name is Yu, but I am not to be confused with the eminent author of The Classic of Tea.  My family is quite undistinguished, and since I am the tenth of my father’s sons and rather strong I am usually referred to as Number Ten Ox.  My father died when I was eight.  A year later my mother followed him to the Yellow Springs Beneath the Earth, and since then I have lived with Uncle Nung and Auntie Hua in the village of Ku-fu in the valley of Cho.  We take great pride in our landmarks.  Until recently we also took great pride in two gentlemen who were such perfect specimens that people used to come from miles around just to stare at them, so perhaps I should begin with a description of my village with a couple of classics. —Bridge of Birds, Barry Hughart

We know Ox’s name(s), gender, and physical appearance; we know where he’s from; and we know his background.  We know what he does for a living (peasant).  We know his attitude (modest, long-winded, reverent, slyly humorous, and very traditional).

We know a lot more than we do from Zelazny’s first two paragraphs.  Zelazny dumps us into action; Barry Hughart, into backstory (which works because Ox is just that kind of talker, a consumate storyteller, and we are completely in his power).

In both, we get a heavy dose of the character’s attitude toward life.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s pretty important to get that down right away.

What else?

Mrs. Geiss watched her new student coming across the first-graders’ playground from her vantage point on the balcony of the old school’s belfry.–“This Year’s Class Picture,” Dan Simmons

The Egotists’ Club is one of the most genial places in London.  It is a place to which you may go when you want to tell that odd dream you had last night, or to announce what a good dentist you have discovered. –“The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers,” Dorothy Sayers

What had led me to abdicate in the first place was the realization that the time had come to drop everything and run for it. —Star of Gypsies, Robert Silverberg

On Friday, August third, 1923, the morning after President Harding’s death, reporters followed the widow, the Vice President, and Charles Carter, the Magician.  At first, Carter made the pronouncements he thought necessary:  “A fine man, to be sorely missed,” and “it throws the country into a great crisis from which we shall all pull through together, showing the strong stuff of which we Americans are made.” —Carter Beats the Devil, Glen David Gold

Ye emporers, kings, dukes, marquises, earls, and knights, and all other people desirous of knowing the diversities of the races of mankind, as well as the diversities of kingdoms, provinces, and regions of all parts of the East, read through this boo, and ye will find in it the greatest and most marvellous characteristics of the peoples especially of Armenia, Persia, India, and Tartary, as they are severally related in the present work by Marco Polo, a wise and learned citizen of Venice, who states distinctly what things he saw and what things he heard from others.  For this book will be a truthful one. —The Travels of Marco Polo

I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one.  —No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

“Men half your age and double your weight have been slain on these wastes by Extremity of Cold,” said the Earl of Lostwithiel, Lord Warden of the Stannaries, and Rider of the Forest and Chase of Dartmoor, to one of his two fellow-travelers. —The System of the World, Neal Stephenson

As Red Connors put the sorrel up the slope he felt the big horse break stride and knew that it was all in.  —The Riders of High Rock, Louis Lamour

Georgetown, Washington, DC.  The surname of the family was Cox, the father a very successful trial lawyer, but the target was the mother, Ellie Randall Cox.  The timing was right now, tonight, just minutes away.  The payday was excellent, couldn’t be better. —Cross Country, James Patterson

It started when David came in from the lawn absolutely furious.  We were down at Farthing for one of Mummy’s ghastly political squeezes.  —Farthing, Jo Walton

The morning air off the Mojave in late winter is as clean and crisp as you’ll ever breathe in Los Angeles County.  It carries the taste of promise on it.  When it starts blowing in like that I like to keep a window open in my office.  There are a few people who know this routine of mine, people like Fernando Valenzuela.  The bondsman, not the baseball pitcher.  He called me as I was coming into Lancaster for a nine o’clock calendar call.  He must have heard the wind whistling in my cell phone. —The Lincoln Lawyer, Michael Connelly

Thirteen snippets, selected off one of my shelves because I like the openings.  I typed until I felt like “Oh, I’m hooked on this character,” then stopped.

Gender: Six clear instances.

Name: Five names (of the main character).

Occupation: Nine (some of these are really subtle, like the Sayers; only three were given even remotely directly)

Past Event/Background: Nine (again, some very subtle; only two were given directly).  A lot of the backgrounds and occupations were the same or were implied by the same details.

Appearance:  You can guess the appearance of all of them from these descriptions.  In only three of them are any physical details given (casts, Zelazny; strength, Hughart; hair slightly mussed from open window, Connelly).

Attitude: All of them.

Going by this random, un-scientific sample, I’m going to say the bare minimum of character goes like this:

  • Attitude.  The most important thing about your character is their personality.
  • Appearance, usually implied.
  • Occupation/role in society, usually implied.
  • A background, but usually implied, often tied to the occupation or vice versa.

Less important are name and gender.

Genres:  Fantasy, Horror, Mystery, History, Lit, SF, Western, Thriller.

Oops, it seems I was missing romance on that shelf:

“I didn’t mean to marry both of them!” “The problem,” said the duchess, leaning forward, “is not marrying twice, but marrying a second husband while the first is still alive.” —Duchess by Night, Eliosa James

In the summer of 1810, Mr. Edward Noirot eloped to Gretna Greene with Miss Catherine DeLucy.  Mr. Noirot had been led to believe he was eloping with an English heiress whose fortune, as a result of this rash act, would become his exclusively.  An elopement cut out all the tiresome meddling, in the form of marriage settlements, by parents and lawyers.  In running off with a blue-blooded English lady of fortune, Edward Noirot was carrying on an ancient family tradition: His mother and grandmother were English.  Unfortunately, he’d been misled by his intended, who was as accomplished in lying and cheating, in the most charming manner possible, as her lover was.–Silk is for Seduction, Loretta Chase

Gender: eight.

Name: six

Occupation: Eleven, with four given directly.

Past event/background: eleven, with three direct mentions.

Appearance: All implied, still only three direct descriptions given.

Attitude: Still all of them.

I’m sure if you read further–a whole page–that you’d pick up more solid details like hair color, height, etc.  But in order for a reader to get hooked on the characters (as I was), you don’t need the niggling details.  What their personalities are like, and what the character’s context is (occupation, background, appearance) seem to be far more important, and you’re probably better off implying what those are than baldly stating them–unless there’s a reason to do so, like Hughart’s Ox loving the sound of his own voice, or Magician Carter being in the newspapers, or the Duchess of Berrow, whose title tells more about her than her name itself.

To be fair, I should probably crack open a stack of my own story openings, but I’m scared of what I’ll find.

Mice are delicious.  But even more delicious are monsters, ghosts, and things that go bump in the night. –“The Society of Secret Cats”

When Nickolas was a young boy following his father into the woods in order to carry water while his father cut trees, his father would tell all kinds of stories of dragons and knights and fighting, and Nickolas enjoyed those stories very much.  However, there was one story that his father would not tell him. –“The Boy Who Would Not Sleep”

The door of Bill Trout’s bar opened, and a couple of people pulled their guns out.  The aliens weren’t supposed to come till dawn, but hell, who trusts an alien? —Alien Blue

If he’d meant to leave his wife for her, he shouldn’t have shot her horse. –“Miracle, Texas.”

Okay, not as good as I’d hoped, but not as bad as I’d feared, either.  Whew.

What do you think?




How to Read like a Writer

Every time this subject comes up, I put my foot right in it: it’s only by strangling myself that I can keep my mouth shut.  So.  In the interest of not killing myself, and possibly even not making an ass of myself in multiple conversations, allow me to go off on a topic dear to my heart here, on my blog, which is where all asinine rants belong.  That is, I want to talk about how to read like a writer.  Audience of crickets.

It’s also “how to watch movies like a writer,” and “how to listen to music like a writer,” and even “how to look at visual art as a writer.”  “How to go to a restaurant as a writer.”  “How to evaluate a blender as a writer.”  “How to survive your inlaws as a writer.”

Want to know a mark of a n00b writer?

They go, “I don’t like X, so it’s a piece of crap.”

Go ahead.  You’ll see it everywhere.  You know who gets to say that?  Customers.

Of course customers get to say what they like about a product.  They don’t like it?  Nobody cares: every time someone says your name, a little publicity fairy gets her wings. I had no idea who One Direction or Justin Bieber were until someone made fun of them and prompted me to look them up.

I gave them mental real estate.

When pros talk about other people’s work, they control how that mental real estate is being used.  They acknowledge the qualities that made X grab that real estate, and they work out how they could do the same.  They try to work out what the creators of X were trying for, how they did it, how well they did it, and whether the same technique could be used for a current or future project.

Opinion isn’t worth much without analysis.  When a pro doesn’t like something, they can tell you why–and it isn’t “because Y is better” or “there used to be better X twenty years ago.”

You’ll see that all the time, too.

For a creator, it’s not a question of whether X is better than Y.  Nobody gives a damn.  It’s a question of whether X is the best X it could have been, how to make it better X next time, and how to rip off parts of X to build your next Y.

You might not be able to stomach X.  So stop giving it mental real estate already.  Don’t joke about it, don’t talk about it, don’t badmouth it, don’t use it for comparison to anything else.  No more space, no more power.

If you’re going to talk about X, if you can’t stop talking about X, figure out what X does right.* Go ahead, make fun of X, if you have to.  But you’re acknowledging power.  Every one-star review is a bow to the creator of that product.  Every three-star “meh” is a lie.

Look what they made you do.

There it is.  Now I don’t have to grit my teeth every time someone makes fun of modern art or Twilight or Goosebumps or Michael Bay or LMFAO or Phil Glass or whatever.  Instead, I get to smugly think, “Ah, if only they’d read my blog.  Then they’d know I think they’re being a n00b.” Which, I guess, makes me a n00b.  Because I’m giving them mental real estate.  Letting them get under my skin.

Look what they made me do.

*For me, it’s New Couuntry.  Gah…it’s 80s soft rock with slide guitars.  I still don’t get it, but I’ve been trying to work it out for years.  I’ve come to the conclusion that what we call Country Music is mostly some genre of popular music that’s 20 years old with slide guitars, no matter what era you pick from, so you hit “pop” and “nostalgia” while still being able to write and sell new songs.  I grok people like it because it tells them that they should be proud of themselves.  I don’t like it because it comes across as smug rather than proud, and tells people to be proud of stuff that you really shouldn’t proud of, like cutting your name into your ex’s leather seats.  (Rub two brain cells together and spell “evidence,” will you?)  And hoorah for alcoholism and hating on people who aren’t like you!  But there it is: mental real estate.  I welcome comments about what makes New Country so damn catchy–even trails to theories about what makes pop music in general so damn catchy.

What Adult Fiction is For

Or, why the words “entertainment” and “escape” aren’t all that helpful.

This is going to sound dumb, but I’ve struggled over the last couple of years with what adult fiction is for.  The answer is obvious: entertainment.  Or escape.  I don’t get it.  But then I’m the person who searches for the keys when they’re already in her pocket.

Let me contrast what middle-grade fiction is for.

One, it’s for entertainment.  It has to compete with TV, movies, the Internet, video games, etc.  It has to compete with Goosebumps and Erin Hunter and Harry Potter.  It has to be entertaining for people who aren’t jaded, who miss implications, who have some fundamentally different emotional reactions.

Two, it’s a variation of the same story: you will be able to make it without your parents.  Eight- to twelve-year-olds aren’t little kids anymore.  Things don’t just happen to them.  They make choices.  Part of this involves the authority figure either stepping back (which can feel like abandonment) or not stepping back (which can feel like imprisonment).  There’s a lot of crap to work out.

And so when I write middle-grade fiction, I have clear constraints.

I don’t have anything similar to work with, for adults.  “Adult” is too broad a category.  “Entertain” is too big a word.

But some ideas have made themselves obvious lately.

The adults who are likely to buy books tend to have ordinary lives.  They produce something of use to society, have more or less stable personal lives, and are sane enough to function on a daily basis.  They have a modicum of wisdom.

How many main characters are wise?  –That is, how many of them start out as wise?  How long does their personal journey feature as the center of the story, if they are wise?

Sherlock Holmes.  Not wise.  Poirot.  Not wise.  Both intelligent men.  You can be as smart as you like and not wise.  Scarlett O’Hara.  Huh.  Luke Skywalker, feckless farm boy, is the center of Star Wars, not Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Finding Nemo.  The Incredibles.  Disney has an empire based on characters who don’t start out making the best decisions.  So do a lot of romance writers.  You want to slap some sense into Bella but she sells books.

“Flawed characters are interesting.”  I’ve heard that a lot, and people usually follow that up with, “because you can relate to them.”  But there are a lot of flawed characters I can’t relate to.  Read the news, go to work, you’ll see a few.  What’s so great about flaws?


So here’s my guess: Great characters aren’t just flawed or unwise.  They’re passionate to the point of action.

Ordinary people can’t get away with it.  Our passions are carried out on a once-in-a-lifetime basis, if that.  Our jobs are dull.  Or if they are exciting, they aren’t exciting as often as we get in books.  A new adventure every night.  Even firefighters spend a lot of time standing around.  Even ER doctors have to do paperwork.  The best characters live unbalanced lives, where they do not have to dot the is and cross the ts, or if they do, it’s because they have OCD, like Monk.

I recently read a book that was otherwise lovely, but the main character was entirely too reasonable.  It was like watching an office struggle carried out on a big screen: two coworkers striving for attention, with the main character doing nothing to further her place in the battle.  I could relate, but I couldn’t really get into the character.  The character wasn’t perfect–she held back information that could have resolved things in a couple of words.  Too shy.  Too restrained.  I wanted to smack her.  “Communicate more.  Be mildly self-righteous less.  Fight back.”  But.  It was realistic.

I can’t think of a single book that I enjoyed that I read in order to get wisdom from it.  Someone recommended I read one, and I had to put it down because I felt like I was indulging the woman’s self-destructive behaviors.  It was a biography.  Great writing.  Made me feel ill, which was maybe the point.

Sure, I have gained some wisdom from books.  Mostly kids’ books, because a lot of the conclusions that kids’ books come to is, “Be nice to other people; it often turns out handy.”  Which it does.

Adult books aren’t constrained like that.  There’s no one story that we can all relate to or one lesson we all need to learn.  Thus different genres, I guess.  But there is one thing that people who tend to buy books need.  To feel something, no matter how foolish.  Maybe the more foolish the better.

I told you I wasn’t so good with the obvious.

Lost in Les Miz

So it’s the credits of Les Miz and I’m trying to dry my face off discreetly with my scarf, and two women in front of me are chatting cheerfully.  I decide that they are Martians.  Then three women are talking about escaping their kids and going to Les Miz.  They call it La Miz and chatter pleasantly together.  I decide that they, too, are Martians.  Then I remember that not every sobs all the way through Les Miz.   Then I realize that it is a book, and then a play, and now a movie both thematically, dramatically, and musically designed to evoke sobbing; thus, the name, and that if you’re neither sobbing nor rolling your eyes on the way out, then there’s something wrong with you, Martian or otherwise.  You have to react somehow.

First act: brilliant.  I would never have guessed 24601 as Hugh Jackman, and kept getting lost in it.  Yes, there were some large faces, but I agreed with the choice there: you’re supposed to cry.  There is just noplace to look that isn’t someone’s tragic facial expression. Just TRY to run from that emotion.  I was really impressed that so many of the actors gave them over to hideousness, too.  That sobbing was not pretty.
Second act: very nearly dull.  I think that’s by purpose, that if you sustained the intensity of Act I throughout the show, that people would off themselves, just walk into the bathroom and slit their wrists.  Grownup Cosette never does anything but put me to sleep, and Amanda Seyfried was no exception here, although she was less annoying than most.  Screw her; let’s keep Eponine next time instead.  Also, I kept staring at Marius, going, “That kid just looks odd,” but I liked him here.  Another non-pretty, almost infinitely stretchable face.  I love watching people with large mouths sing.

Third act: The horrible uselessness of it all crashed in on me here, to the point where it kicked me out several times.  And seeing the palace where Marius lived didn’t help at all: that’s right, not-so-pretty boy!  Run home to Gramps!  Probably also intentional.  Also wept to wretched excess here.

Thenardiers: boring?!?  How do you do “boring” and “Thenardiers”?  Whoever made the call to tone them down will be drug out to the wall when the revolution comes.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the actors making that call.  Or the costume designers.  I think that was my only real issue.

Some have called out Russel Crowe for less-than-stellar singing (especially compared to Hugh Jackman, who was not flawless but in an enjoyable way); however, whether intentional or not, I thought he was charming, the best Javert that I’ve seen – he came across as a kid in a man’s clothes, with an almost innocent voice.  I normally eyeroll my way through Javert: good Lord, man, just calm down for two seconds!  But here I just kept thinking, “He really does believe in all that crap.”  A boy’s spirit.  Law!  Honor!  Someday I will grow up to be a man of Justice!  And the scene on top of the tower where he’s walking the edge of the balcony…it was a) a nice setup, and b) reminiscent of Batman, which made some nice echoes.

Overall, nicely done, easy on the ears, enjoyable, and about as sad as I can stand to watch more than once.


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