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The Tale of a Book that Failed…


…or that at least didn’t succeed as hoped.

Once upon a time, I wrote a book for a ghostwriting client.  It was one of those dream projects that paid pretty well and that I had a lot of freedom on.  The only requirement was that it have some kind of sci-fi element to it.

The client and I went back and forth on what the book would be like.  I told him I wanted to write something cyberpunk-ish about an element of technology that had gone horribly wrong.  But not so much a gadget or a gizmo that had gone wrong…how about a drug? He loved the idea, and we went forward with designing the tale of a detective investigating an empathy drug gone wrong.  The drug ends up causing permanent and debilitating brain damage to the users–it makes them so empathic that they have trouble defending themselves from bad people–which a serial killer with a strangely apt sense of empathy (but no mercy) takes advantage of.

The Giver was born.

The client loved the book.

And then, somewhere in the middle of writing book 2 in the series, his business died.

Normally, I take this kind of thing in stride.  However, I had put a lot of myself into this book.  I’m the kind of person that gets targeted by life’s little sociopaths–or at least I was.  (I decided, not coincidentally, near the end of 2016 that it was time to stop suffering fools gladly.)  So when I heard this book would never see the light of day, well, I was disappointed, to put it mildly.

And broke, because suddenly I’d just lost my job working on book 2.

The client gave me a choice:

Take back the rights on book 1, etc., and write off all the money he owed me, or…get paid.

I took back the rights and decided to make something of what I’d written.

Here was my thought:

  • The book was designed to be published under a male pen name.
  • The POV character is male.
  • There were some sexist things I left in the text because I believed that the character would see the world that way, and I didn’t want my (female) name to be a distraction because of that.
  • And I’ve always wondered:  would it be easier to make sales under a male pen name?  I’ve heard that trying to publish romances under a male pen name is excessively hard*; maybe trying to publish cyberpunk under a female name would be similarly so.

Dean Kenyon was born.

The book came together, and I still liked it, so I published it May 7th and set it up for five free days on Amazon to start with, hoping to generate a review or two.  I sent it out to this list, crossing my fingers.

The giveaway went great.  I had previously run two similar giveaways for books under my me-name (DeAnna Knippling) and a middle-grade pen name (De Kenyon).  Neither one made half of the numbers of the Dean Kenyon giveaway.

And then…crickets.

I’ve advertised this book as much as I do my bestseller, but…I can barely get any views.  There are no reviews on this book!  I can’t get anywhere with it.

So, a month later, I’m just going to conclude that I can’t get the answers I want about the male vs. female pen names without reviews to help assure readers that the book isn’t complete crap.

I have to swallow my pride.

I wrote this book I really love.  It’s quite the adventure, a lot of fun in my opinion.  But I need help getting reviews out.
I’m going to hit up everyone I know and ask them if they’d like a copy.  And I’m going to try to wrassle up some reviews.

You are, of course, under no obligation to read the book.  You are even under less obligation to like it.  And, seriously, no hard feelings if you don’t review it.  (Although I will note that if you review it and hate it, it still helps me out, as strange as that might seem.)

But if you know someone who might be interested, I’ve got a free copy for them.  Just send them my way, at

publisher [at] wonderlandpress [dot] com

And I’ll send them a review copy.  Or send them to the Instastafreebie link.

Thank you, and wish me luck 🙂

*Except for the redoubtable M.L. Buchman, who uses his initials.

The link to the free Instafreebie copy (multiple formats) is here.  You can buy a copy here, but it’s only Amazon so far.

Mindsight:  Company Justice #1

No idea is so good it can’t go bad.

Frank Mallory is a private detective working for a new type of detective agency: a well-organized one. Private Eyes, Inc., has the latest in data analysis, training techniques, cross-discipline integration, illicit back-door deals, and cynical programmers who don’t care what they have to do as long as they don’t lose their benefits.  PEI has it all covered.

The right mix of idealism and plausible deniability can work wonders.

But that doesn’t mean that Frank’s in the clear when he starts work on a case involving the new designer drug Mindsight.  Mindsight is a miracle drug.  It won’t give you telepathy, but it comes close, triggering a wave of pure empathy that helps treat everything from domestic violence to schizophrenia.

The problem is, if you take too much of it, you’ll understand someone else’s point of view…all the way to death.

Of course a serial killer starts butchering Mindsight addicts.  As if nobody could see that coming.  All he has to do is ask nicely.  And maybe offer a little something the victim can’t refuse.

The real twist is when one of his victims fights back…and takes down a cop, saying that he admitted to being the serial killer before he died.

Frank’s hired to find solid, incontestable proof that the man, someone he used to work with, is actually the murderer, so a rich man’s daughter, the purported victim, can walk free.

Seems straightforward, right?

Right.

Book 1 in the Company Justice series, starring Frank Mallory.

(Some violence, not much gore or strong language.  Some unpleasant empathy moments.)

How to Study Fiction, Part 10: Scenes, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Scenes are the building blocks of your fiction.  If you can turn out a nicely crafted scene, readers will forgive almost any mistakes you make (except when it comes to characters–like killing them off or making them act out of character).

Scene issues at this level:

  • Second-guessing whether a scene is “finished” or “good enough.”
  • A feeling that something is missing but not knowing what.
  • Information delivered at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
  • Author intrusion and rants.
  • Disorganization.
  • Dragging chapters.
  • Characters spending a lot of time talking to each other about stuff they already know.

One of the major issues with a lot of writers’ scenes is that they are poorly organized.  The writer knows that a certain amount of information has to be delivered to the reader, but sticks it in willy-nilly.  Or the writer might not put in all the information the reader needs at all, thinking that hiding information will increase the drama and tension of the scene.

(We won’t get to tension in writing until later, by the way.)

Here’s something that most beginning writer books won’t tell you:

Structuring a scene properly will take care of a lot of problems that sound like minor problems…but that you can never seem to fix.

If you’re getting feedback on your scenes being:

  • Boring
  • Talky
  • Full of too much description
  • Ranty
  • Confusing

Then it may be that you’re just not telling the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it.

And the way to fix that is through the structure of your scenes.

Basic scene structure, coming right up…

Look.  You just want one perfect pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

Think Like a Librarian: The Stanley Parable, by Davey Wreden and William Pugh

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link

The Stanley Parable is a video game, not a book.  I had planned to stick to reviewing books and graphic novels for this series, but The Stanley Parable was such a storyteller’s story that I couldn’t resist.

Dear gamers:  I know you know about this game already.  This review isn’t for you 🙂

Some stories don’t tell “a story” in and of itself so much as they are about stories, in general.  The Stanley Parable is a game about stories and how we use them to view our lives, and how stories are used to control our lives.  It questions the nature of storytelling itself, as a kind of funhouse mirror that both distorts and reveals.

The setup is this:  A man named Stanley is working in his office when he realizes that something mysterious has happened.  He’s perfectly happy at his job, and yet…now that this mysterious thing has happened, he has a few questions.  It is your job, as the player, to help him ask them, even though he literally doesn’t have a voice.  Meanwhile, a narrator narrates Stanley’s every move, more or less (often less) accurately, in a “Stephen Fry as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” voice.

The Stanley Parable, to me, hits the same buttons as a Douglas Adams book.  By turns funny and darkly satirical, this is the kind of story that one might expect the Guide to have under an expanded entry for “Earth.”

I recommend it for mature middle-school students and up, and for adults who enjoyed Douglas Adams.  Gamers have probably already played this simple, not-terribly-difficult game, but if you find one who hasn’t, it’s almost a sure winner.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

Reminder re: Failure

I don’t have much time this week to blog (a deadline is a week earlier than I thought it was!!!), but I’ll get back to the study series as soon as I can.

 

Failure is life’s way of telling you that you need to change.  Not necessarily that you need to completely dump all of your life’s plans and start all over again.  Maybe something small.

Maybe it’s just “stop being so damned impatient, keep getting better at what you’re doing, and just wait.”

We all have to scrape ourselves out of despair sometimes.  This week was mine 🙂

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How to Study Fiction, Part 9: Reading, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle reading issues (post-reading!):

You’ve read the book.  Now what?

I’ll go into more depth about specific techniques as we go through the other elements of what you’re studying.  For example, when we talk about pacing, I’ll explain how to drill down into how to study pacing in what you read.

But for now, the long and the short of it is:

Type it in.

If you want to know why something works or doesn’t work, the first step to analyzing it is to pop yourself out of the dreamland that is reading, and move behind the scenes.  This is incredibly hard to do.  Good writers are brainwashers, creating an almost inescapable spell over your attention span.  If you try to read something in order to study it, you may pick up some things subconsciously, but you’ll probably fight against it.  “No!  I’m breaking the rules!”

Typing something in lets you stay conscious and awake, but doesn’t break the connection to your subconscious.  Your subconscious learns whatever it’s going to learn (and learns it better, too, because of the extra time you spend with the text), and your conscious brain gets to make observations.  It’s the difference between taking a bullet train over the landscape and walking on foot.

You cover a lot less ground, but it’s ground that you know in the soles of your feet.

Do you have to type in the entire book?

No!

I recommend that you type in:

  • Whatever element you’re currently studying, from several books that you enjoy.
  • Openings.

As you’re moving into intermediate writing, the biggest priority most writers have is that their openings are terrible, start in the wrong place, are boring, or have a lot of action and no reason to give a crap.

Type in the first section, or maybe the first 1000 words, of anything you enjoyed reading after you finish it.

Even if you do nothing else from this series, this is the thing that’ll put you ahead of most of your compatriots after a few books.  If you’re looking for “the big secret of writing success,” this is it.  Type in openings for a while.

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Think Like A Librarian: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m just going to say it.  Sometimes works of pure genius don’t get noticed by white people, because they’re written by and about people of color, and white people are trained to go, “Fiction by people of color isn’t meant for me.”

It’s a subconscious thing.  Which means you can go, “I don’t take a writer’s race into consideration,” and still end up reading no or very little fiction written by people of color.

Which is a shame.

 

Invisible Man is a book set in the 1940s, about a young black man who learns to embrace the Catch-22 setup of his existence.  It’s a funny book, with the main character being thrown from one ridiculous Kafkaesque situation to another, until finally he comes to realize that his trials have given him a unique superpower:  to be unseen by the people around him in an almost literal fashion.

The book isn’t just darkly funny, but is written with the ear of a jazz musician:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

I recommend it for people who are fans of Beat writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, or Ferlinghetti.  Poetry fans looking for fiction may enjoy the layers of subtle language.  And for those who love the dark humor of Kafka, Catch-22, or The Manchurian Candidate may find this book just as biting and cynical.  Older, more mature teens may enjoy this as well.

But to let the book speak for itself:

Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.

A wonderful book.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

The Art of Surprise

How do you surprise your readers?

I use two methods:  Wilhelm’s Law and the Agatha Christie Technique.

Wilhelm’s Law:  throw away your first three ideas.  

What this means:

  • Your first idea is generally the most obvious one.  It’s been done.
  • Your second idea is generally a response to the first.  Because most stories have been done before, this is the first plot “twist” that comes up…for almost everyone.
  • The third idea is a stretch, but it’s still pretty logical.  The audience will go, “Yeah, I see that.”
  • The fourth idea (sometimes this state takes more than four ideas) is the place where you surprise yourself as a writer.  Yes!  Aha!  Oh, that’s terrible and I must do it!

The fourth idea is the perfect place to be.  Let’s say you want to write a story about zombies.

  • Zombies take over the world and try to kill everyone.  Ehhhh.
  • Zombies take over the world and it’s a metaphor for social ills of some sort.  Okay, if it’s done well, or if it’s done first, or if it has really engaging characters in it.
  • Zombies take over the world but stop if you love them truly.  Warm Bodies.
  • Zombies take over the world but there’s a cure, only it makes you the slave of a half-zombie fascist.  Z Nation.

Guess which one of these concepts involves a giant wheel of cheese rolling down the street.  The fourth idea is where the audience goes, “Where do you get your ideas?!?”

The Agatha Christie Technique: identify a reader assumption and undermine it.

Kris Rusch jokes that Agatha Christie just picks the least likely person to have done it.  But I had to wonder–how do you pick the least likely person?

Some assumptions about a mystery that Christie undermined (spoiler alert):

  • One or two characters are the murderer(s)–>The Murder on the Orient Express, in which all the suspects helped murder the dude.
  • The narrator is a good guy, a kind of sidekick for the detective–>The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which the narrator did indeed do it, cleverly concealing this as he goes.
  • The people who get framed didn’t do it–>The Murder at the Vicarage, in which the murderers frame themselves, then “reveal” that they were framed.
  • A pattern of clues is meaningful–>The ABC Murders, in which a murderer kills several other people in order to make it look like a deranged alphabetical serial killer is on the loose.

Readers tend to focus on the method of solving a crime (“the little grey cells”) rather than the method of choosing what crime that what characters commit–as a writer must do.

Mystery isn’t the only genre you can do this with.

So let’s say we have a romance, which is sometimes seen as the most locked-in, predictable of genres.  You can’t mess with the falling in love bit, OR the Happily Ever After/Happy For Now ending.  Those aren’t just assumptions but expectations; if you don’t deliver those things, readers are going to be pissed.  My examples are going to be a bit dated here, because I really, really love old romantic adventure stories and I’ve been trying to figure out how they work.

  • The hero is tall, dark, and handsome–>The hero is a phenomenally ugly man with a big nose but a talent for poetry.  Cryano de Bergerac.
  • The hero is an honorable man–>The hero is an airhead.  The Scarlet Pimpernel.
  • The hero falls in love at first sight–>The hero sneers at the heroine and ignores her for the first quarter of the book, then insults the holy crap out of her.  Pride and Prejudice.
  • There are some books that even sneak an end-run around violating the HEA/HFN rule:  The hero falls in love and they live happily ever after–>Both lovers, who never even had sex, die, but their kid falls in love and lives on.  Les Miserables.

You can’t just overturn the assumption and do the exact opposite of what it proposes.  That’s when you end up with “the butler did it wait what that was random” kinds of stories, which overturn assumptions but don’t meet expectations.  The story still has to feel meaningful.  If you set up a dilemma between two lovers, for example, making your heroine instead choose a third can seem completely random–readers have invested in the two lovers, not the third.  And having one of them die so the heroine can conveniently choose the other, well, whatever.

But if you combine both methods and have two men who look identical in a love triangle, then have one of them sacrifice himself to save the other, because he’ll be able to give the heroine a better life, well, that’s A Tale of Two Cities, and if Dickens were still alive, he’d still be making bank off of that.

Click here for an example of a killer plot twist in action.

How to Study Fiction, Part 8: Reading, Part 2

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle reading issues:

First, what to read.  You have a number of options.

  • Read deeply, that is, inside the genre/subgenre you’re most likely to write in.  This will give you the deepest views of the tropes involved in your genre, but will not help you write work that appeals to readers outside your genre or across genres (per se).  You will be at far less risk of reinventing the wheel in your genre, but you will miss out on mining other genres for stories that your genre hasn’t used to death.
  • Read broadly, that is, across genres.  This will give you a better idea of the concept of “story” in general over time.  It puts you at higher risk of reinventing the wheel in your genre, and at first will confuse a lot of issues when it comes time to write in your own genre, but will pay off more later, as you’re able to identify different reader types and what they want.
  • Read for mastery, that is, studying the masters of fiction in order to steal their techniques.  The general idea is to read books from a writer who is a current bestseller, publishing for at least 15 years a book a year, but only the books that have been published in the last ten years.  You, too, would like a long-term, bestselling career with a book a year coming out.  You, too, would like to use the latest techniques for getting this done–not techniques that went out of style in the 1950s.
  • Read with focus, that is, with some other emphasis than merely genre concerns.  This is something you can use to stay within a genre as a reader but not get stuck in a rut of reading what you always read.  For example, you might read only books written by authors of color, or from the 1930s, or from Japan, or simply a “best of X genre” list.  This often can uncover a prejudice or shortcoming in your own writing.  However, this is also a great way to make yourself hate reading.  People usually read for comfort, and this kind of project is almost deliberately uncomfortable.
  • Read for research, that is, digging into books that will help provide background inspiration for what you’re writing.  The benefits are obvious, but the drawbacks are many.  Not only can reading too much research material hamper your efforts to make the material you’ve researched flow naturally into a book and prevent you from writing at all (the research rabbit hole!), but reading solely for research can prevent you from achieving any other goals.  No depth of genre, no sense of story, and no questioning your assumptions.  Be careful with this.

Personally, I tend to mix up all of these, because I read quickly and can afford to spread my reading time around.  I also read for pure pleasure, but again, this is because I can afford to.

It may be highly beneficial to take some time and learn how to read faster.  This can help you read more books, but can come at the expense of fully enjoying the books you do read.  On the other hand, learning how to fly through books that you hate but need to understand can be a real benefit.

Personally, I do most of the techniques listed in this article, at Lifehacker.  It isn’t just about reading faster, but about preventing reading fatigue.  I often switch between a difficult and a pure-pleasure book to keep myself refreshed, or take a break on the really hard ones and cruise through a bunch of mindless websites.

And yes, I find that holding my thumb along the side of the paragraph I’m reading totally helps.

As a side note, in order to find the books you need for any of these projects (anything other than “pure pleasure”!), just google “Top 100 Books of X.”  For example, you might google “Top 100 books of science fiction” or “Top 100 books of alien invasion science fiction” or “Top 100 books of all time” or “Top 100 books of authors of color,” or “Top 100 books of the French Revolution,” or whatever.

Google will give you a number of top-whatever lists, whatever the number happens to be.

Next time:  You’ve read a book and you have all the feels.  Now what?

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

Think Like a Librarian – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short novel set in the period between WWI and WWII, in Edinburgh.  Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at a girls’ middle school who has particular notions about how to teach girls how to become women.  One of her students reminisces upon her past under Miss Brodie.

At first, Miss Brodie’s ideas seem quite sensible:  girls should be taught how to be independent, how to think for themselves.  Maybe there’s something more important than memorizing facts and learning how to shut up and sit down.  She picks out the six most interesting, special girls to take under her wing.  They become “the Brodie set.”

Then the little things start to stack up.  Miss Brodie does not want the girls to think for themselves; she wants them to agree with her.  She monopolizes their time so they can’t become friends with anyone else.  She tests them constantly, trying to find out which ones she can trust.

And, in the end, she is betrayed.

This book was written in 1961.  After WWII, that is.  And a strong current running underneath the events of the book is fascism:  how it happens, how people get sucked in, how they come to lose their identities, and how it all collapses.

I recommend this book for anyone who wants to know how Hitler operated; just ask Miss Brodie.  It’s a great book for mature early teens (13+) and older students especially, I would think.  Anyone reading The Hunger Games and wondering how something like that gets started might be up for a good conversation about this book.  I would also recommend it for teens interested in horror – is this horror or not?  What does a horror story look like, when it comes from the bad guys’ point of view?

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

 

 

How to Study Fiction, Part 7: Reading, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

What to read, how to read, and how to start studying it.  Every professional writer seems to have the same kind of advice:  Read more.

But you could read the back of the cereal box all day and not get better as a writer.

So…what?

Reading issues at this level:

  • Being unsure of what one’s reading goals should be versus what you’re trying to achieve as a writer overall.
  • Being unsure of how to understand why you felt about a book the way you did (either to love it or hate it).
  • Feeling like reading someone else’s book choices is a waste of time.
  • Feeling like you’re missing something and you don’t know what.

When you’re reading as a reader, you basically only have one goal:  to please yourself.  One’s pleasure as a reader isn’t something you should ditch as a writer, either.  Sometimes I wonder if learning what you love and don’t love about a book isn’t 80% of the work of improving as a writer anyway.

However, when you’re a writer, you have some additional tasks as a reader that need to be met:

  • Understanding the genre(s) you’re writing in.
  • Understanding how stories work on a primal level.
  • Identifying what elements of storytelling you enjoy in a practical (“So that’s what is missing from my stories!”) kind of way.
  • Getting at the roots of what makes stories valuable for readers.

Being a professional reader (which is kind of an aspect of being a professional writer!) means both understanding what best fits your own tastes and why other readers read what they do.

When you hit that point, you no longer roll your eyes at bestsellers you don’t like.  Instead, you start going, “So people like book X because it gives them Y.  I like Y, just not how it’s done here…why not write Y in my own way?”

Getting better as a reader is about half the raw data that you need in order to decrypt what makes a book good or not.

Where does the other half come from?  More on that in a bit.

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

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