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Tim Recommends a Book 001: Outriders by Jay Posey

outriders-cover

Let me start by saying that this is a military sf novel. If that’s not your thing, if you don’t enjoy books about competent people doing difficult things in the face of overwhelming odds with honor and heroism, then I must withdraw my recommendation. However, I think it’s still a good book to discuss from a craft perspective because there are some strange bits to it that shouldn’t work and yet totally, totally work. It’s an interesting study.

Posey, btw, is a game writer. He works for Red Storm, which is Tom Clancy’s outfit. I’ve never played any of their games, but he does namecheck Richard Dansky in the credits. Dansky’s the man who gave me my first writing job back in college while he was at White Wolf. I picked up this book because I was interested in seeing how a game writer approached novels, especially a novel that was theoretically in line with the games he helps create.

What caught my attention about the book was its structure. In a lot of ways, it took a very long time for anything to actually happen. We’re given two perspectives; our protagonist, a man by the name of Lincoln Suh, as he is recruited for a special super secret ninjacorps intelligence division in the UAF (United American Federation) military. (As a double aside, the UAF’s closest allies are Iran and India, which I thought was some nice outside the box thinking). A good deal of the early part of the book is Suh meeting his teammates, learning what these ninjas do and how they do it, and getting introduced to the very special technology that they use. This is maybe a third of the book.

In our other perspective, we’re given snippets of the problem our ninjacorps is going to have to solve. It’s only a few chapters of action and the shadowy implication of who might be behind it. It’s a lot of disparate threads, and while I knew they were going to connect at some point, it felt a little frustrating. Finally, at one point I put the book down, turned to my wife and said “This is a very slow book.”

Then I looked down and saw that I had just torn through ~150 pages without noticing. That’s the key. Posey wrote these characters so well, with such insight into their motivations and interactions, that I was ripping through it. Nothing was actually happening, but a lot of stuff was happening, and it all kept my attention and made me more and more invested in the story. So when we finally get to things actually happening I was on full burn and coming in hot.

The lesson: Good writing can overcome bad structure, but good structure can never save bad writing.

I will say that the book maybe could have ended a few chapters early. There’s the build up, the confrontation, the moment of darkness, the solution and the victory. They spend 420 pages planning and executing a single operation, and then 16 planning and executing a second so they can have a brief encounter with the behind the scenes bad guy. And the reveal there is good, but I thought it could have been built up a little better. Who and what this person is is kind of critical to the world, but I don’t remember there being a single mention of them or their organization or the things that led to their formation in the rest of the book. We have fewer than 20 pages to go “Oh no! It’s not… it couldn’t be… IT IS!” which isn’t enough.

That said, a very good book. Buy it, read it, enjoy it.

 

p.s. Instead of going the obvious route and linking to an Amazon associate’s page up, I’m going to be using Indiebound. Maybe you can show your appreciation for my forward thinking policy by, you know, recommending my book to your friends. Thanks!

Tim Recommends a Book: The Introduction

I’m going to be starting a new series of posts on here, updated semi-regularly, in which I recommend a book. I’ll be posting the first one later this week, but I wanted to say a few things about the article series before I gotstarted.

First off, I’m not going to be recommending many of my friends’ books. There are a lot of politics in publishing, a lot of networking that goes on, and I’ve always disliked it. I try to stay away from appearing partisan toward something just because it came from one of my friends. I just want you to rest assured that if I recommend a book to you, it’s because I authentically read it and loved it, and think you would love it, too.

Secondly, books are an art form, and art is subjective. I have really broad reading tastes, and sometimes they overlap with someone else’s tastes and sometimes they don’t. I’m simply going to be presenting you with the things that appeal to me. Your mileage may vary.

Finally, I am not going to be presenting these to you as a reader. I am very specifically going to recommend books that appeal to me as a writer, and picking apart what makes them well written. Books that I don’t like usually fail because of some aspect of their craft, which may have nothing to do with how most readers will approach them. But if you want to be a better writer, the first thing that you learn how to do is analyze the books you read and determine why they work. You’ll be giving up the pure joy of reading. It’s a sacrifice. But it’s a sacrifice that you make in the pursuit of a higher goal.

I’m hoping to give you more than good books. I’m hoping to introduce you to good writers, and maybe peel back a little of what makes those writers good. Enjoy!

Worldcon Schedule

We’re a week out from Worldcon in Kansas City, so I thought I’d post my schedule. Please note that I have neither a reading nor an autograph session this time around, so if you’d like me to sign something please feel free to flag me down after panels or in the hallway, and we’ll make it work. My handwriting is pretty terrible anyway, doing it in a hallway isn’t going to degrade the quality of the product that much.

The panels!

Writing Games in Fiction   1 hour |  2:00 PM – 3:00 PM, Kansas City Convention Center, 2204

From Azad to Armada, fictional games, gaming and gamers are an increasingly visible part of our SF landscape, offering us complex characters and interesting discussions of how gaming is becoming an integral part of our lives. Our panel discuss how these representations present gaming to a wider audience.
New Titles from Titan Books 1 hour |  3:00 PM – 4:00 PM, Kansas City Convention Center, 2503A

What’s on tap from Titan Books, including SF, fantasy, horror, Alien, Flash, Predator, and a couple of major project announcements that’ll blow your socks off! Senior acquisitions editor Steve Saffel is joined by a couple of special guests to give you the scoop.
5 Questions to Ask When Creating a Fictional Culture 1 hour |  2:00 PM – 3:00 PM, Kansas City Convention Center, 2505B (Costume)

How does one create a fictional culture that is tangible, realistic and sucks readers in? Need help avoiding overdone or stereotypical culture devices? This panel will discuss 5 important questions writers must ask themselves when creating a fictional culture.

Maybe making the model

Right, so, model status. When a book first gets released, the bookbuyer for a company like B&N or Waterstones will place an initial order, and then each store will get a certain number of copies. For B&N the number of copies a store gets is based on how well they sell that particular kind of book. So a place like Oak Brook, which does a lot of sf/f traffic, will get three while the store in Bloomingdale will only get two.
 
Those books then sell or sit. If a particular title sells through and the store does good business in that genre, the store manager might choose to order more copies. That decision is left entirely up to the manager. After three months the book’s status is considered and stores that haven’t been moving copies might send them back to the vendor. Sometimes the book has sold through before that point, but the manager hasn’t reordered for whatever reason.
 
The cumulative effect is that the book starts dropping off shelves. Some places are selling out and not reordering. Some are sending their copies back as remainders. In time, the book simply isn’t on shelves. Sales plummet.
 
This was happening to The Pagan Night. In most cities it was no longer on any shelves. In some, where it was selling well, it was maybe on a third of the shelves in the area. But nationally, our sales were in the single digits per week, compared to a high of nearly 200.
 
Then a couple weeks ago, stores began to restock. Nearly all B&Ns nationwide have at least one copy on their shelves. We didn’t know if this was a buyer directed reorder, or if it had been put into the reorder model. But a store from me restocked, sold out, and then restocked again. So it looks like we’ve made the model.
Ah, but what is a model? B&N will create an inventory model for certain titles, indicating how many should be in stock at their various stores. This is how you can walk in and buy some titles that came out seven or eight years ago, but the book you’re looking for that came out seven or eight months ago is no where to be found. It didn’t make the model. If a title is modeled at two copies, when one of them sells the computer will automatically order another. If it’s only a single copy (as appears to be the case with The Pagan Night) the reorder after sale still happens, but there will be a period of time when it’s not on the shelf while the new copy is being shipped from the warehouse.
All in all, this is good news. I think these models get revisited every 3-6 months, but I’m honestly not sure. This is the first of my titles to make the model, and even if it only lasts for three months that will be considerably longer than either of the Veridon books were on shelves. The Pagan Night might very well still be on shelves when The Iron Hound (book two in the series) comes out next year. And wouldn’t that be spectacular?

In shadows dwell, and shadows make for heaven, and for hell

The following is a repost from my old blog. I thought it would be interesting to see something I was thinking about while writing The Pagan Night, and how the fundamental theme of the book remains unchanged, even though the characters, plot, focus… well, even though almost everything else is different from the draft I had when I wrote this post. Enjoy!

 

June 24, 2011

 

I have one of those colds where you turn your head and something slips inside your skull, some deep, tectonic plate of mucus, and then your whole head squeaks for about twenty seconds while the phlegmy geology of your sinus caverns readjusts itself.

It’s unpleasant.

On the plus side, I was on an actual vacation last week. Like, I left my house and bought souvenirs and everything. I still remember when I was in France and we visited a winery, and the tour guide handed me a wine label and said “Souvenir!” and the verb (souvenir = to remember) and the noun (a bit of kitsch that only has value as it relates to my memories of this time) connected for me. Language is weird.

I was thinking about the current project last night. We’re out of nyquil so I was drinking a glass of wine before bed, and I was thinking about what I was trying to get at with the religion. In the book the dominant religion worships the sun and the moon as dual deities. I’m using a lot of the mesoamerican idea of duality for this religion. See, the Aztecs treated their gods as both good and bad things. I guess it’s more accurate to say that what you and I would think of as a good deity would frequently have evil aspects. For example, Quetzalcoatl. He seems to be the one most Westerners know. The feathered serpent, his name means. I’m just speculating, but I think the name comes from rainbows. See, QC at his most basic level is the god of the wind. There are a lot of connotations to that; The wind brings rain, and it blows seeds from one place to another, so he was a god of fertility. But the wind is also the storm, especially as manifest in the hurricane. So one aspect of QC, the hurricane, was the god of destruction. He brings life, but he also tears your home down and floods your fields. Duality.

So in the book you have this church that worships two gods, each of which has positive and negative aspects. The sun is life, growth, beginning, exuberance, fertility and joyful abandon. It’s also fire, drought, sickness (as expressed by fever), fury, madness and war. The moon is death, sacrifice, winnowing, darkness, hidden things (both good and bad), secrets and mystery, as well as the logic and intelligence to puzzle out those secrets and that mystery. The moon is ending. And since all things end, meditating on the nature and value of your own ending. It is peace. But it is also the harshness of winter, the sadness of autumn, and the terror of darkness.

Anyway. I guess in my small way I’m trying to get people to think about evil. Good and evil, but mostly evil. When people ask where I get my ideas I usually shuffle something off about accumulating images in my head and trying to puzzle out what those images mean, and how they might relate. But often my books start as a meditation on something, and it’s usually something related to religion. So, in this case, I can tell you that this book started off as a meditation on the nature of evil.

The important thing is that, if and when you read this book, I don’t think that will smack you in the face. In fact, if you hadn’t read this post, I’m not sure it would have occurred to you at all. Because if you read a book that is obviously about the nature of evil, it’s because you are actively seeking out and looking for books about that subject. And while that’s noble of you, I think it might be a little much to ask of the general population. And I don’t worry so much about people who are actively thinking those kinds of thoughts. The people who need to think about these things are usually people who have to be tricked into reading about them. And tricked is the wrong word. I seek to entertain. And in my entertainments, if I can subtly introduce the idea that a black and white worldview is perhaps a bit juvenile, and that you the reader might be better off thinking more broadly than that, then that’s great. And if you can read the book and start thinking in those directions without realizing that the book is pushing you in those ways, that’s even greater.

The Currency of Dreams

There’s a pretty common joke that goes through the creative community every few months. The basic idea is that a developer offers to pay an artist in Exposure Dollars, and the artist goes off and spends those Exposure Dollars on hot cars and penthouse apartments and diamond earrings. The point being that you can’t spend exposure. There is *some* value to exposure, since the biggest danger to most artists isn’t piracy or writer’s block or the cost of materials. It’s obscurity. But developers tend to overvalue their exposure, and really only artists get asked to do their job for free on a regular basis. It’s kind of nuts.

There’s a similar problem in publishing: the currency of dreams. That is to say, aspiring writers (and a lot of readers) put a lot of value on publication itself that subsequently undervalues the financial benefits of publication. Let me broadly lay out how this works.

First off, publishing is a business. Duh. Just like any other business, there is supply, there is demand, and there is some service that sits between those two that can be monetized. Diamonds are worthless rocks until they’re dug out of the ground, cut by someone who has dedicated their life to the craft, and then sold to consumers. Also, they remain worthless cut rocks until someone on the consumer end agrees to pay some amount of money for them. It’s a fairly simple model.

Publishing is no different. Writers, editors, printers, marketers, distributors and booksellers all have a hand in moving the product from the mine to the consumer, and all of them get paid something for their tasks. Most of those costs (the editor’s salary, the printer’s run, the paper costs) are fixed. The writer’s cost is not. We get royalties, and advances against those royalties. In some ways we’re the ones who have the most to gain from a book doing well, but we’re also the ones who lose the most when a book fails. That’s both good and bad, but for the purposes of this post it’s just a fact.

Now, demand for books fluctuates. There are only so many readers out there, and they only buy so many books in a given month. There are spikes, but that’s usually attributable to one-off events like the next Harry Potter book or celebrity tell-all, but for those of us in the middle, demand averages out to a constant (honestly pitiful) medium.

Let’s be clear about this. Demand is wavering. People are reading fewer books, not more. Borders has failed (for a variety of reasons) and B&N is struggling. Yes, indies are doing better than they were, but every day I get a newsletter that covers the world of publishing, and every week another bookstore closes, or goes up for sale, or launches a GoFundMe campaign because they can’t pay their bills. And sometimes a new store opens, often by someone with no bookselling experience who is “fulfilling a lifelong dream”. Dreams don’t pay the rent.

There’s also something to be said about what Amazon is doing to this process. They’re kind of the Walmart of the bookselling world, dictating prices and opening revenue streams, all while pocketing a cut. Maybe I’ll write a fuller post about that later. For now, just know that they’ve disrupted an already unstable system, and the key beneficiary is Amazon itself.

On the other hand, supply is nearly limitless. There are considerably more aspiring writers with a basic grasp of storytelling, grammar and plotting then there are publishing spots in a given year. The people responsible for moving a writer from aspiring to published (that is to say, the publishers) are flooded with applicants for the job. And a lot of those applicants place an enormous amount of value on making that transition, so much that they are willing to overlook the other aspects of the deal.

I know this because I was one of them. Only publication mattered to me. Once I was published, everything else in my life would be fine. That was the dream, that was the hope, that was the belief. Get published, and joy would follow.

Of course, once I was published I realized how hollow that was. The very mechanisms that drove me to that point were evolved to discard the majority of writers who get published. The thing that mattered wasn’t that first book, but the second, and the third, and the tenth. Staying on store shelves becomes extremely difficult when hundreds of new books come out each month. Bookstores don’t add shelf space. They discard books that have only been there for a few months.

So how does this work at all? How has publishing not simply collapsed in on itself? Simple. Publishers understand all of this. They have to, it’s their job, and they’re just as at risk of failure as all those booksellers. The basic structure of most houses is to put out as many books as is economically feasible, discover which ones readers truly love, and then double down on those authors. It’s incredibly difficult, perhaps impossible, to figure out what readers will want. That’s why there are all these stories about famous authors submitting their book anonymously to editors and receiving countless rejections, or books that couldn’t find a publisher for years finally breaking through and going on to sell a million copies. It’s also why you get success stories in the world of self-publishing.

For the authors whose books make it through the bedlam, catch the eye of a sufficient number of readers, achieve the escape velocity of word of mouth, it’s possible to make a living.

And for the legions of writers whose books appear and disappear without a splash? Well. Fortunately you can spend those dreams on food. Just like exposure.

Writing complicated books: The Curse

Last week I was playing a game with some folks at my local store, and when it was over I did the awkward thing that I always have to do when I meet someone new who seems to have similar interests and hobbies as me. I dug in my bag, pulled out a business card, and handed it over.

“Hey, thanks for the game. Just so you know, I’m a novelist, and think maybe you’d like my book. It’s the first in a new epic fantasy trilogy, so it’s a great place to get started with my work. You can get it at Barnes and Noble, or Amazon, or really wherever you like to buy books.”

The guy took the card, glanced at the cover, and said “Cool. What’s it about?”

What the fuck, guy. What. The. Fuck.

I do actually have a plan for this situation, a spiel I unravel and deploy as part of my standard operating procedure. Several of them, in fact, depending on the situation. Do they actually seem interested, or are they being polite? What’s the environment here? Will they be able to understand me clearly, or do I need to simplify? How drunk am I? How drunk are they?

In the business, this is called the elevator pitch. It’s your interview face, the tight-five stand up comedians create for limited performances. The first time I saw it in action was at a convention. I was standing with my editors in a party. The book (my debut) wasn’t out yet, and I knew nothing of publicity. Someone asked the three of us what it was about.

I launched into a clumsy and entirely accurate description of the book. That it was my take on the New Weird, but with a healthy dab of crime noir mixed with a meditation on the nature of religious belief and the intersection of faith and divinity. The guy stood there, a little dumbfounded, a little drunk, trying to figure out what I’d just said.

One of my editors shook his head, tapped the guy on the chest to get his attention, then leaned in and yelled just loudly enough to be heard over the crowd but not so loudly that it was rude:

“Steampunk! Thriller!”

And the guy nodded, took my name, and probably bought the book a couple months later.

I balked at this because I didn’t write a steampunk novel. I didn’t really write a thriller, either. But that was the pitch. That was my tight-five.

The pitch for The Pagan Night is a little longer, but whenever I throw it out there, I feel like I have to apologize and clarify and expand. Which is exactly what an elevator pitch is not supposed to be.

So when this guy asked “What’s it about?” I had something to say.

“It’s epically weird fantasy. Think Game of Thrones meets Princess Mononoke.”

If you’re familiar with the three tentpoles here, you know what a strange statement that is. Game of Thrones is a sweeping political drama with fantastic elements. It has great characters, and a *lot* of them, but it’s mostly a grand story on a big stage. Mononoke is more personal, more spiritual. It’s almost claustrophobic in its narrative.

The Pagan Night is both of these things, and really neither. On twitter, Sarah Avery said that the book was clearly a conversation between those two works, and I’m pretty happy with that.

For all that it’s a book about feral gods and culture wars and sword fights, it’s also a very personal book for me. The story between Ian and Malcolm, son and father, is my story. Their conversations have their roots in things my father and I have discussed, and their conflicts belong just as much in my home as they do in Tenumbra.

So when someone asks what the book is about, I have answers. I have marketing strategies I deploy. But the real answer is that it’s about me and my complicated faith. And how are you supposed to sell that?

Emerging from the Tomb of Veridon

I’m excited to announce that, after languishing in electronic form for a few years, the Veridon books are once again available in paper and ink form! These are Print On Demand editions, created here in the US of A, with new artwork. Additionally, each title includes two Veridon short stories that have previously only been available in print in the original magazine (Interzone for three of them, Electric Velocipede for the fourth).

I’ve seen the proof copies, and am very happy with the print quality as well as the fit and finish of the books. This technology has really improved in the last few years. So if you’ve been waiting to pick up physical copies of Heart of Veridon or Dead of Veridon, rejoice!

Seriously, folks. Rejoice.

You can get Heart of Veridon here, and Dead of Veridon here. Enjoy!

Let’s go to the numbers

As an author, I have limited access to BookScan numbers for my titles. And while I’ve heard some horror stories about how inaccurate their numbers can be, I find them helpful for tracking trends and demographics. I’d like to talk a little bit about those trends for The Pagan Night.

First of all, we’re two months into the release. That’s enough time to smooth out initial demand and any localized campaigning that I might have done. Early on, the book was selling very heavily in the Chicago area. That’s evened out. The people who are buying the book now are folks who have heard good things from their friends, or who happen to see the book on the shelf and pick it up. My sparkling personality has little to nothing to do with this.

One of the coolest tools that BookScan gives me is a Sales by Geography feature that’s a literal map of the US with counts over a 4, 8, 24 and 52 week period. This is how I know that Chicago was doing so well early on, but has now pulled back. The current top five cities for The Pagan Night are Chicago, New York, Boston, Seattle and Los Angeles. In some ways I think that’s just a heat map of the population, with the noted exception of LA coming behind Boston and Seattle. There are also a lot of high population areas that don’t seem to care about my books at all, including much of the south and south west. There hasn’t been much movement in Ohio, Indiana or Michigan, but Minnesota is number six on the list, only a hair behind Los Angeles. Strange stuff.

More interesting still, if you only look at the last month of sales, there are surges in places like Atlanta, Sacramento and Dallas. Nearly all my sales in Texas have been in the last month. Salt Lake City suddenly appears on the map.

Of course, there are things worth noting. BookScan misses a lot of sales, especially among independents, and it apparently doesn’t track ebook sales at all. The fact that Portland barely registers on the list might have more to do with the strength of Powell’s bookstore than anything else. And maybe folks in Texas simply prefer their kindles. I have no idea.

I will say, one disappointment is the weakness in my home state, North Carolina. Maybe everyone’s just watching basketball.

Where do updates come from?

In this case, they come from the depths of my writing bunker as I struggle to make my next deadline. The sequel to T he Pagan Night is maybe half way done, and that’s only the first draft. I’m really a revision writer, so even after I finish these 160k words, there’s going to be a lot of work to get them presentable. The reaction to TPN has been so positive that I really want to get this book to you as soon as I can, which means I haven’t been updating here. And now I’m taking it a step further and withdrawing from social media for the next month or so.

Anyway. Thanks for your patience. And thanks also for all the feedback on The Pagan Night! It means a lot to me that so many people have read and enjoyed the book.

See you on the other side of the deadline!