Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Memories Come First

Writing fiction, like I do, is process of revelation. We’ve all heard it asked, either as writers ourselves, or listening to the fans approach the Famous Author, “Where do you get your ideas?”

There’s rarely a good answer to that, because ideas are everywhere, there for writers and non-writers to pluck out of the air and play with. What I want to talk about here is instead the evolution of story. At this instant, I’m taking a short break in a story that I’ve been working on for a few days. From the beginning, I knew a few ideas. I knew who the main two characters were, and what had to be resolved. That was about it. I could write it out in one sentence, if you allow a few commas.

But that isn’t a story.

There are times I write an outline, often it approaches first draft status by its own word-count. A really good outline, with the characters developed and the side plots spelled out, can make the writing very straightforward: Take sub-point 2.a.5 and flesh it out in a sensory-engaging set of paragraphs. Repeat with next sub-point.

Today’s story isn’t like that either. I don’t have an outline for this one. I began with an introductory scene, to get a taste for the main character. Not for the reader to get that taste, but for me, the writer, to turn a name into a person.

In stories like this, the real plotting happens in bed, lights out, before I go to sleep, or when I’m swimming laps, with my goggles and snorkel, staring at the featureless white of the pool bottom, oblivious to the outside world. A scene has just been written, what needs to come next?

The character and her recent actions are fresh in my mind. Vague ideas about where the story should go begin to appear like memories. Sometimes it’s the very next thing that must happen, often not. Events appear in whatever order they please, just as if I’m remembering the scenes from times past. I am simultaneously experiencing the story, and judging it. Minor characters appear, with their backstories. They’ll spill their life stories, sometimes, and I shake my authorial head and simplify the scene, saving all that detail for later, or maybe just leaving remnants in the look in a character’s eyes or the hesitation in her voice.

I’m up in the morning or dried off from the pool and sit down at the keyboard. The next chronological scene, visualized maybe a dozen times before, gets set down in words and paragraphs, and then when it’s time, I’m off to swim or go to bed the next day.

Again, memories from future events appear, changed and colored by what has been marked down in black and white. Events get re-arranged. More important memories come to the fore. I experience the next events again, and judge what to keep -- what is real -- and what is not. Like closing a zipper, all those potential visions are stabilized into one.

The cycle repeats over and over. The memories of what will happen come first, and then fingers fix them into firm reality.

As an experience, it’s wonderful -- much more fulfilling than watching a scene on the TV. In the end, I have a first draft. Editing is rewarding too, seeing sloppy prose become crisp, but that’s a different process entirely.

I’ve been told that my writing is visual, that “they ought to make it into a movie” and I suspect that comes from experiencing, visually, these memories of the future projected on my eyelids, or on the bottom of the pool, before the words ever line up on the page.

Take this for what it is, one writer’s experience in helping a story come to life. It’s not true for all, and it’s not even true for all my writing, but when it works, it’s wonderful.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why I Wrote “Emperor Dad”

My life changed. Taking a risk, I had accepted an early retirement offer from the company where I had worked for twenty-some years. The company had changed, and my children were grown. The numbers seemed reasonable. I could quit writing database code that seemed increasingly irrelevant to me, and I feared, to the company.

So one day I brought home a cardboard box of awards plaques and file folders of my training, personnel records, etc. and set it in the corner of my home office. My intent was to spend more time writing.

But what to write? I had written and had published a number of science fiction short stories. I had also written some novels, but none of them had attracted the attention of publishers or agents.

With the newfound freedom of working at my own pace, rather than fitting it in between testing SQL statements and writing Perl modules, I let my mind drift a little. How about pick a topic and write -- short fiction or longer, let the story set the length?

With no idea more than teleportation as overlapping three-dimensional spheres, I started writing, vaguely autobiographically. The setting was my house. The character was a younger, smarter version of myself. I developed the idea of the teleportation. I worked out some details about how it might be discovered.

But the narrative dragged. It was far too easy to lecture. I set the story aside for awhile.

I had been attending a number of science fiction conventions and writing conferences. A lot of the advice didn’t seem to fit me, but one panel about Young Adult fiction had a question for the authors that resonated with me. What is your internal age? How old are you inside?

A lot of my writing had been with characters a lot younger than my calendar age. Some of them had been about right for the YA label. I’d even been told that before by people who had read my work, but it hadn’t stuck.

Maybe I was a YA author, and didn’t know it.

I went back to my stalled out manuscript and took a good hard look at a secondary character, the teenage son of the inventor. What if I took his viewpoint?

I trashed most of what I’d written and tried again, only with the son James (my middle name) as the main character. Part of it had to be written from the father’s perspective, but most of it flowed well as the story of James, who hacked into his dad’s computer to run computer games and discovered the controls to his father’s teleportation system. James had to figure out how everything worked, and just why his father had taken such elaborate measures to hide everything -- not just from him, but from his mother as well, and the world.

I plucked a number of episodes from the life of my son Thomas, as he grew up in Hutto, Texas. James wasn’t Thomas, but there were a number of places where they overlapped.

Writing was easy and experimental. I chose to write very short numbered chapters, over a hundred of them, and it was only in the final stages that I divided the story into nine named sections.

By the time I was done, I had a novel that was slightly shorter than the novels I had written before. But this was what I had decided -- let the story pick the length, and this was what came out.

From 2003 through 2005, I circulated the novel to agents and publishers, but it was gradually seeping into my skull that the nature of publishing had changed. This story didn’t match the checklist demanded by New York publishers.

Rather than shelve the story, as I had several other novels, I put my toe into the self-publishing arena by making a PDF and selling it directly from my website. A few people bought it -- friends and relatives, but it never took off. Still, the idea had caught root. By 2007, I had done some homework and published a trade paperback copy through Lulu. It was a learning experience. Lulu’s costs plus the discount necessary to sell to a bookstore meant it was priced much too high. I had also gotten some painful assessments of its layout and formatting. As it was, the book would never sell.

But that was just the bad news. People liked the story. Someone had gotten a copy of the book and submitted it to the Mid-South-Con’s Darrell Award contest. While I wasn’t sure it was eligible, it won, and Emperor Dad was now an award-winning novel. It was just the right push at the right moment.

I established a publisher’s account through Lightningsource to make books at a lower price-point and promptly produced the second edition, with some typo corrections, a better layout, and a starburst on the cover proclaiming its award.

While there’s still a stash of first-edition copies in a corner of my office for people who request them, the second-edition is out on my table, selling well (for me) and continually gaining new fans.

This is still my experimental novel. It’s the only one with a 99¢ price tag on the ebook stores (for now) and the first novel I serialized for my Henry’s Stories online magazine. I don’t think I’ll ever let it go out of print.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Making Sell Sheets for My Books

I was updating my sell sheets, in preparation for some more face time with book store people, when it occurred to me that maybe I hadn't mentioned sell sheets in this blog.  A quick search came up empty, so Sell Sheets are today's topic.

What's a sell sheet?  As a book consumer, it probably doesn't make much difference to you, but for a bookstore person, it's a useful, one-stop info sheet for a book.  Here's a quick look at one of mine. Click to expand.

Now, this format is one of a thousand possible ways to do it, but the basics are there, one sheet per book.  The cover, the book blurb, something about the author, and that right hand column should have contact info, the ISBN number of the book and enough information so that the bookstore can order more.  Print out several.  I've had salesmen eager to get them so that they can have something to promote the books.  If you make it easy enough, so all they have to do is thumbtack the sheet to the shelf, you can sometimes get prime attention for your book.

I also fold them in half and insert them into any books I send out for review to magazines and bloggers.  It saves them having to make notes, and since the back is blank, they can use it as a place for their own notes and ideas.

The whole idea is to make it easy for people to sell your book, and it's easy enough to do.  I've got an accordion folder with a pocket for each book, with enough space left over for a printed bio sheet and a one-sheet catalog of all my books.  I use it frequently.  It's about time I bought another.  That one is wearing out.