Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Precise Word

They say the average mass-market novel is written at a sixth grade reading level.

Now, that terminology is nebulous, at best, because if you talk about a sixth grade education in say, 1780, versus a sixth grade education now, the words you'd find in the vocabulary of students sampled from each era would be vastly different. I'm going to assume when the statistics people say "6th grade education," they mean a relatively contemporary version of that body of knowledge.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Just a quick shout-out

Hey CotC readers!

Heather Titus has paid me the ultimate compliment of asking me for an interview to post over at her blog, so if you want a quick peek into my background and process, hop over there and give her a read. If I had a prize to offer for people who comment, I would hand them out like candy.

(Hmmm. Note to self. Do some kind of really cool fantasy drawing I can make giclee prints of as givaways...)

Blessings on your week ahead!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Hot Buttons

Let's face it. We all have those topics that force us to pronounce the familiar disclaimer--"Don't get me started"--when they come up. Me, I actually have more than my fair share of these subjects, that when I get going on one of them, people must look at each other with woeful expressions that say, "Why did I bring this up, exactly?" I've taken to calling these tirade-inducing topics Can o' Worms Concepts.

So what opens up a Can o' Worms for me? Weird passions, as you can imagine, if you know me. For one: music education. I have no formal training in the area, but boy can I get on a streak if somebody has a substandard program in their schools with teachers who are burnt out, don't care, or are incompetent. If you bring up marching band in this context, prepare for an all out, hands trembling inundation of information you never wanted. Institutional education is another one of these subjects for me, though somehow I stay more level headed about that discussion.

The Can o' Worms I want to bring up here, though, is self publishing. On a writing forum I frequent, it seems like there's a new thread every few days established where people get into verbal fisticuffs as to whether self publishing is good, bad, vain, pointless, the new model, or any other number of assessments in-between. I'm not here to make a judgment call on the value of self publishing or peer into any crystal ball to predict whether it will bring traditional publishing to its knees. What I do feel hugely passionate about, however is this: if you're going to do  it, do it right.

Self publishing is not new...it's just gotten easier to do with the way technology has shifted in the past decade or so. With print on demand technology widely available from any number of vendors, and ebooks looking as though they are now here to stay, anybody who has cobbled together a few words can offer them up for public consumption. (Case in point, here I am blathering on this blog, at no expense aside from the time it takes to draft the post. Though I, perhaps erroneously, consider blogging to be on a slightly different level than self publishing entire books.)

Anyway, back in the old days, when an author decided he was going to self publish a book, the endeavor required a large monetary investment. A print run of books isn't cheap, no matter how you try to cut corners. But now, with the financial risk being a non-issue, it seems to me more and more writers are offering up books that aren't really ready for public consumption in the name of "getting their story out there."

I've been tempted to do so myself...not with my novel, but with a novella I've got rumbling around here. But I just can't get past that niggling fear in the back of my head that says, "Sure, this has been through a couple rounds of peer critique, but does that make it good enough to call 'ready?'" The last thing I want to do is totally embarrass and discredit myself as an aspiring novelist by wheeling out an ugly baby for the world to see. And yet these ugly babies exist all over the internet, and people scratch their heads about why their books have only sold twenty-eight copies.

The point at the bottom of this Can o' Worms is this. I really don't think anybody should self publish unless they've put their manuscript through the rigors of being edited by somebody who has no personal stake in liking the work. A professional whose paid job it is to say whether the thing is a mess and doesn't have to worry about how awkward it will be when he has to shake your hand in the time of greeting in church the next Sunday morning. I know it's hard to trust the opinion of a stranger, but I feel very strongly that its absolutely necessary in this self publishing world. Your mom isn't going to tell you what you've written is painful to read. Neither will most of your friends. Even if they do, most of them will word it gently enough that you might not actually catch the full drift of how bad the writing really is. (Now, granted, not every person who endeavors to self publish has a crummy novel in their hands, I acknowledge that. But even the best writing will benefit from an objective opinion before it makes it foray out  into the cold, cruel world.)

So if you're thinking of going the self publishing route for whatever reason, don't go it alone. All great things are worth the extra headaches of doing them well. And if you do decide to self publish that story, for the love of all that's good and just, get a professional quality cover done by a credentialed artist.

But that's a whole 'nuther can of worms right there.

Monday, March 7, 2011

An Array of Perspectives

One of the most subtle tools I think the writer has to coerce to his or her side in this battle we call fiction is point of view. I keep reading everything I can get my hands on about it (henceforward referred to as POV) so I can know as much as humanly possible about the enemy. Ahem...I mean, the fabulous nuance available to me as a writer.

The current book on craft I'm studying, at David Farland's behest, is called Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman, and the author asserts that you are best able to write a book that garners a wide audience by employing a handful of POV characters...not one, not a dozen. His logic is if you give your readership an array of personalities to see the story through, and you're sure to make those POV characters different enough, different readers will glom onto different characters and hang with your book because of their favorite.

The trick I hope to figure out is how to make my POV characters fascinating in ways that cross over expectations. Of course, men are more likely to identify with a male character of a similar age as themselves...but how do you get them to identify with that female character I have interlaced in my story? How do you endear her to the male reader...going beyond perhaps just a sense of attraction, or an instinct to care for that character in a protective way? (Hold on one sec while I duck the hurled objects coming my way for making stereotypical generalizations. There's a reason those generalizations exist, you know...just sayin'.)

How do you encourage your female reader to invest in the grizzled once-war-officer turned slave? I haven't figured out yet how Brandon Sanderson has done it, but I have very much bought into the character of Kaladin in his Way of Kings. I have nothing in common with the character at all, and yet, I find in just a few hundred pages, I definitely care about what will befall him.

So it seems to me, the job is two fold. The author first has to get you to generally like the character in question. Whether that means you like the character because you identify with him, you admire her, or you simply can't help yourself  (which is my situation regarding Tony Stark. I can't help but love him, even thought I feel sort of stained for doing so!) doesn't matter. You just have to want to see more of that fictitious person.

Then you have to feel the compulsion to care about what that character wants, no matter how far-fetched or outlandish. (On an unrelated point, another thing Zuckerman says sells books is larger-than-life plots and stakes.) If you as an author can accomplish these two goals, likability and "buy in," whether the character in question is an old man or a teenage girl will be secondary. The reader will keep the pages turning to find out what befalls their new friend.

So I open up the floor to you, readers: What factors help you invest in a character so you'll stick with him through hundreds of pages, perhaps lousy (though dramatic) choices, and unbearable peril? Add your comment below.