Saturday, December 8, 2012

My Love/Hate Relation with Gene Wolfe
by Stella Atrium 12/8/12

Gene Wolfe inspired me to write when I was younger, and by example expanded my courage to take chances for breaking the rules and following my characters into new territory. But his stories also make me pull my hair out, like he betrays the reader after so carefully gaining her trust. Do you have a similar frustration with Wolfe or with a favorite author?
Below are examples of my ongoing love/hate relationship with Gene Wolfe: only a taste, I could talk about this frustration all day long.



Love – Wolfe has no fear of made up words, mostly based on Latin such as dimarchi for soldiers. In the combined four books of Shadow & Claw, I viewed the peppering of strange words like ornaments on a Christmas tree.

Hate – He carries this habit too far in The Urth of the New Sun where sunset is nightshade and sunrise is shadeup, along with many other simple word changes. The one-to-one transposing is only irritating and slows the reader who recognizes the device. Less is more.


Love – The narrator is identified as writing from a place of long experience, injecting his later-gained wisdom into the story of a young man’s adventures.

The narrator often starts a new section within a chapter with a sidebar about his present visceral responses – left to answer a summons, but returned after dark –  without explaining the gap between where he sits and how he got there.

Hate – The narrator changes voices! I hate that! At the end of Book I of Shadow & Claw, he adds an appendix that tries to explain the use of Latin words as substitutes for translations of a dead language, thus casting himself as a translator rather than the writer of the memoir/adventure story.

Hate – In On Blue Waters, the narrator who again is an older version of the protagonist starts with a remorseful description of how he lost his wife, but never mentions her again after he rescues a mermaid who he maimed (naked, of course). The reader suspects the short piece of remorse, written separately maybe as a short story, utilized as impetus for starting the adventure, was inserted to get the reader going without a connection to the ultimate outcomes.


Love – Gene Wolfe is a great favorite among guys who are sci-fi fans because the point of view is from a soldier or executioner. The brooding philosophy adds moments of considering life on a larger scale and his place in the stream of events.

In Shadow & Claw, again, the protagonist named Severian has executioner skills and delivers a sucker punch better than Jason Bourne. He wins all fights, and women all want to bed him, stripping at a moment’s notice, even those women who are about to betray him.

Hate – Minor and long-term characters are often underdeveloped, only in the scene to help Severian unravel the present mystery. His nemesis Racho comes and goes posing as any convenient character and seems a paranoid delusion much like Moriarty to Sherlock Homes.

Hate – Characters are varied and described for personal quirks that are endearing but not revealing of motivation. Coincidences that force paradigm shifts are taken in stride. Female characters have no occupation and never wield decision-making power, only there to hold his sword.


Love – The worlds are complex and the gods are kept at arm’s length. The powers-that-be seem about to arrive with punishment for infractions. The hero’s impetus is well-drawn and his daily motivation is steady.

Love – Often a side adventure while the protagonist is trying to retrace his steps while lost in the city, or an engaging dream while the hero is healing from a fight, add to the reader’s enjoyment of myth and otherworldliness.

Hate – Plot developments are dependent on coincidence, and change-ups happen out of the blue. The characters shrug and drift in a new direction without anger or worry about where to gain tomorrow’s meal.

In Lathro in the Mist, for example, the writer covers this habit of disjointed plotlines because Lathro is brain-damaged and doesn’t remember yesterday without the help of his diary. However, the denouement of the plot is so general and poorly connection to characters (Lathro is rescued by the Roman soldiers – deus ex machina  –  who think he’s a great warrior) that the reader, once again, feels cheated after the investment of time to read 600 pages.

Of course I will continue to read, and re-read, Gene Wolfe in order to feed my soul. But I may soon be bald from pulling my hair out from frustration. Feel free to add your ideas about his genius and bad habits, or mention an author who has a similar effect on you.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Halloween Postscript:

What is the fascination Americans have with the undead? Vampires and zombies and wrights (read GRR Martin) and werewolves and immortal enemies of Asgaard fill our screen with increasing levels of gore and violence.  Even Abraham Lincoln must address bloodlusty creatures before he can rid the country of the bonds of slavery.  There’s some spillover too.  Regular people in a post-apocalyptic world must be destroyed.  Who saw Book of Eli?

My class of college freshmen chose the undead and comic superheroes for film reviews.  There was no essay on Jane Ayre or Bowling for Columbine or even The Notebook. Presentations in class fell on Halloween, I grant, but that date was coincidental.

Students were invested in the series The Walking Dead or Paranormal Activity and followed the characters as they also follow the Kardashian sisters.  On, no.  Oh, no, no, no, no.  Most likely, there’s a movie in the works where Kim and sisters are vampires --  maybe good vampires ridding the world of dallying sports stars!  LOL!

So I chewed on this issue of our fascination with the undead in movies and on TV. I have a working hypothesis.  The world has shrunk and our post-WWII military-industrial complex is too big for the size of our enemies.  We cannot fire the big guns after the murder of an ambassador because we need the country that harbors the terrorists as friends with oil benefits.

There’s no longer a need for a beach head and heroism under fire and strategic deployment of aircraft carriers except to aid New Yorkers who need gasoline so they can shovel sand out of houses with no electricity.  We are no longer the world’s police, but rather the world’s primary caregiver.

The new normal poses a specific problem for moviemakers.  How to show acts of heroism when the enemy is an illiterate unemployed gun-nut, probably a virgin, riled up by religious leaders hiding their own failures to the community, fresh from a training camp where he just learned how to fire shoulder-mounted grenades?

From Here to Eternity was on cable last weekend.  Burt Lancaster grabs the machine gun that is meant for a tripod mount and fires at overhead Japanese planes attacking Pearl Harbor.  A grimace of determination, muscles taut, and no jiggling fat on his perfect torso.  I got vapors of Arnold or Sly or Jason or Vin firing the big guns to save comrades and set the world straight.  Except we aren’t fighting overwhelming forces anymore.  We bow to oil sheiks and bow again to Chinese financiers, and laud a new socialism at the Nobel Prize ceremony.

The world was shrinking while Stallone completed a series of Rambo movies.  First, he displayed misplaced aggression in a narrow-minded southern town which, if not politically correct, was forgivable. In the second movie Rambo returned to Indochina to rescue soldiers who were left behind. Later he journeyed to a vaguely drawn Middle Eastern country – maybe Caucasus that nobody knows where it is – to rescue his one trusted friend.  The bad guys in this series kept changing because the world had changed.  We’re now friends with Cambodia and former Soviet satellite countries.  Our movies must reflect the parity of competing with emerging countries for scarce resources.

So the movies turned to the undead because the hero can kill large numbers of them without compunction.  Heroism survives. Sword fights, up-close decapitation, men on fire, general maiming and severing of limbs, destruction of the evil installation.  The hero can prove his worth to the community if he kills zombies and wrights.

And orcs.  In LOTR the castle lord and small band of heroes mount horses to exit the castle and take the fight to the sea of orcs who are breaking down the walls of the keep. Our heroes ride down a ramp into the overwhelming odds of enemy forces, and some orcs fall off the ramp from the crowding.  Viewers don’t think, “It’s a shame that orc with the misshapen skull had to die. He only wanted what’s best for his family.”  They’re orcs; they have no souls.

Take the problem of Mr. and Mrs. Smith where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie work for opposing government agencies. A contract is taken out to kill them both, god knows why, so they run and fight an unrelenting force of contract killers. Except the enemy here are supposedly real Americans working for the government.  The filmmakers resolved this problem of killing large numbers of our own kind by suiting the agents with black helmets like motorcyclists wear.  We don’t care if they die: we didn’t know them.

And how does a college freshman absorb this turnabout in American movies where the heroes are preserved, but the bad guys must morph into an alien force (think Prometheus) with no redeeming value?

I tried to start a discussion in class about the difference between Tony Stark and Captain America in The Avengers. Captain America was a product of government engineering and kept to a narrow moral code of leadership and duty in adversity. Tony Stark didn’t recognize the imperatives of duty and sacrifice.  He was busy playing games of one-upmanship with rival corporate CEOs – self-centered and reveling in gadgets and strategic maneuvers that trip up the other superhero on his own special power.

Captain America seemed stiff and stilted in the movie, adhering to a code reinforced under Truman in a time of adversity when any American could save another citizen through acts of altruism and teamwork – and annihilation of enemy cities.  Except now the weapons of mass destruction must point into another galaxy so our fragile planet is not abused.

Better to kill the undead. You can kill them as many times as you want with no overtones of political incorrectness.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Uses for Magic are like Playing Chess

 The second installment of a stumbling series about fantasy writing...

When I was a kid, my Daddy taught my brothers and me how to play chess. Only one brother excelled after the first lessons, but the introduction to the game was exhilarating, like the opportunity to make fancy moves (oh, that space is open, so I can move my knight!) and to take the opponent’s queen. What fun!

Later we learned that chess is a game of strategy and the player doesn’t move pieces without a plan. Some strategies are used many times and have names such as a fianchetto bishop or back rank checkmate.  To maneuver into these board structures takes several accepted moves that your opponent will recognize with the very first move.

Magic drives the story:

Some writers are still in the learning stage (from which I never emerged as a chess player) where the intrigue rests with executing exotic moves. The purpose of writing is to explore the uses of magic.

The (often charming) development of magic systems in these stories overwhelms the plot and serves to engage the reader on its own level – sometimes a cloying banquet of magic where the love story or the need for a final battlefield are tertiary.
I place The Last Airbender and Percy Jackson in this category.

Magic enlivens the story:

Some writers have stepped past the stage of fun with magic and use the presence of characters with magic to drive the plot. These writers are similar to chess players who have studied some famous chess strategies and want to employ them in a match. One rule of thumb to recognize this type of writer is that the magic is similar from one series to the next – because the strategies are similar.

I place Eragon and How to Train Your Dragon in this category; formula writing using well-established plot points that delight audience expectation. But we know the outcome by page 60 because we know the strategy with the opening move.

Magic inserted just because we can:

In Theft of Swords by Sullivan, an entire early sequence was about rescuing a wizard from a prison that nobody had succeeded at opening for two centuries. The descriptions were fun and the logical problems intriguing. But when the wizard is free, he says thanks and leaves. I suppose he returns later to return the favor, but I didn’t get that far.

I read (part of) Throne of the Crescent Moon due to a recommendation from Kirkus Reviews. I suppose the readers at Kirkus are jaded and liked the story because the setting, and therefore the magic, was oriental. But the magic was everywhere, in every scene used by every character. I couldn’t follow the story – but I also couldn’t follow Battlestar Galactica, so go figure.

Magic provides a strong ending:

The duel with the basilisk in one of the Harry Potter books is an example of overcoming the raging opponent, after which all questions are settled and Harry can return to Hogwarts or the next term with a fresh slate. And the final duel with Lord Voldemort that winds up the series is a great example of using magic to bring all influences to a conclusion.

Magic is often tamped down in this type of story by the limitations of the user, but serves as deus ex machina in the story climax or end of a trilogy.  I enjoyed The Daughter of the Forest trilogy by Juliet Marillier and cried for the last 60 pages of the first story – something about swans and sacrifice to end a curse.

Marillier’s novels included elements of formula, though, just like with chess moves. A ingénue who is touch by magic but ignorant of its uses, guided by a would-be lover with unwavering devotion, an unrelenting female opponent, along with benign spirits and druids with little to do. Sound familiar?

The third story titled Child of Prophecy repeats these elements for a third generation while the milieu remains static. The climax is a battlefield, of course, where our ingénue enters without a plan, without her magic, and without a weapon, encouraged by spirits to “fake it”. Of course, the gods have a place for her that is not hinted at earlier in the trilogy (that I won’t reveal here), and the gods make all the combatants awestruck while our heroine performs her final farewells to family.

Magic is used sparingly or when necessary:

Some writers use magic to change the story rather than to bolster the story, a subtle difference. I enjoyed reading The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling, especially the first story that sets up the curse – much like Snow White except the agent of the curse is helpful rather than mean. The reversal of the curse came (close to) the middle of the trilogy and included gender questions for girls-with-swords, so I was intrigued.

The final story Hidden Warrior has an inserted holy man from a different culture who happens along the road at an opportune moment to serve the hero, but he wanders off before the final battle. Once the initial curse was alleviated, the presence of magic was not essential, so the inserted holy man was a maneuver (like in chess) where the reader can see the rationale.

Magic as a developed system:

Brandon Sanderson: ‘nuff said.

The only issue I have with the entire story depending on uses of magic by good guys and bad guys, that Sanderson calls “hard magic”, is that the story becomes predictable, even repetitive. The characters are dependent on skills or discipline to save them and have few other interests.

The Fantastic Four fits this category. Even the bad guy has a power, but must use it in certain ways with specific limitations. The plot revolves around how to trip him up on his own special power.

Magic from a master:

I’m currently reading The Blade Itself (Book I of a trilogy), which is long. Joe Abercrombie uses magic to build the plot and keep the reader engaged. His scenes are episodic (irritating), and too involved with the details of torture (revolting), but the reader feels the cold rain and sword cuts (shows good choices).

Magic is used at surprising moments and differently than a rehash for training dragons. A campfire has a spirit that he can tamp under his tongue to light the next campfire: he, he, he. I’m not but 48% through the book (did I mention that it’s long?), but I have hope that this chess match begins a new strategy that has yet to be named.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

On Writing a Fantasy Series

Part I of a stumbling series of blogs about the trials of grappling with writing a fantasy series...

Wrap up story in first book:

Here’s my experience… I wrote the first story for SufferStone in the 1990’s without a thought that the “planet story” may grow into a series.  The action of the first book comes to a conclusion and all loose ends are tucked in at the denouement.

I should have thought ahead and allowed a bad guy to escape as George Lucas did in Star Wars when Darth Vadar survived the destruction of the Death Star. This villain returns to trouble the rebel forces in a later story.

The urge to satisfy reader interest in Book I is difficult to resist. Take, for example, Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey. Phedre is a servant of Naamah that places a high value on a tattoo along the servant’s back. She is loved and guarded by a Cassiline brother named Joscelin. When the Book I wraps up, she has inherited an estate and can ease into motherhood, except how does that whet the reader’s appetite for Book II? The last chapters actually push Joscelin away so our young heroine is available for new adventures.

By way of comparison, JRR Tolkien wrote The Hobbit as a stand-alone novel and embarked on the LOTR series only after the success of the first book.

Wrap up story over three books:

So I got started with Book II titled HeartStone and pushed the story into the next generation, following characters who were children of the main characters in Book I. Favorite locations were revisited; the vocabulary grew with terms that held leitmotifs; and pressures on the residents of Dolvia were similar -- so part of my work as a writer became familiar, like greeting an old friend.
I also had big themes I was pursuing such as how do women solve problems within a segregated community, and how do the tribes bind together to become an emerging nation.

The second book became part of a story arch that, I thought, would be resolved over three books as Brianna Miller is introduced as a teenager and grows into a capable businesswoman and politician for her tribe. Good plan, huh?

What happened to me was that a section of Book III titled StrikeStone blossomed into its own story line with a new narrator who I could not resist, so the plan to “wrap up” the story in three books is abused. I’m so grateful for the series of six or twelve books from other writers so I’m not a pathfinder for returning to Dolvia for a new go-around with familiar characters.
I wonder if you (as a writer) had similar experiences where the characters take you to (delicious) places you had not imagined months earlier?

For example, Robin Hobb wrote the Farseer series, followed by the Liveship series. I could see hints that she would combine the two because the worlds were similar enough to become tangent. The Farseer series mentions stone dragons and memory stones, but real dragons are introduced later as part of the reader learning more about the milieu.

Keep the characters alive for a series without becoming formula:

I enjoyed The Bone Doll’s Twin by Lynn Flewelling, but the mystery of the twins is resolved in Book III before a final battle scene that ties up all story lines, so I cannot imagine why she would begin again with this characters. Maybe she has already moved onto developing a new milieu.

In The Curse of Chalion by Lois MacMasters Bujold, the ingénue Iselle wins her true love and plot points are tucked in nicely after the bad guy dies.  The following book Palladin of Souls follows the adventures of tangent characters so that Iselle who became a ruler of the kingdom, and Caz, the narrator of Book I, are only mentioned in the later stories. Bujold has a tendency to provide character studies within an otherworld with several planets (or castles) and several tangent sets of characters rather than the growth of one hero/heroine during a war or regime change.

So the arch of a series in fantasy is dictated more by character growth and changing action than by a formula the writer has sketched out in advance. My question today concerns controlling elements of the story and what experiments from writers seemed to work, and which ones may have been less effective.

In Magic Study, I think it was, Book III of a series by Maria Snyder, the main characters travel over a mountain pass to speak with a sibyl and meet a new tribe who happen to show miniature dragons as a curio, much like the baby dragons in (which one, Book V??) of Harry Potter that never re-enter the story. Here are fantasy elements that titillates but are left undeveloped.

What are your experiences with writing/reading fantasy series? Which ones lacked the magic? Which ones were overloaded with fantasy elements?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Self-Publishers: Managing Process Frustration

frus_beach.jpgSo I finished a sustained writing effort and felt euphoria from working consistently with characters and scenes. (200 pages! Yeah!) I wanted to share my elation and found my artist friend to explain what I had accomplished. He said, “I’m glad you finished your piece.” And that was it.Later he caught up with me and wanted to expand his response. “It’s just that I have not read the book, and I don’t know what you mean.” I told him my theory about process frustration that all artists feel, but novelists feel in spades.

frustrationSigns of Process Frustration:

1)    Did you ever talk for hours about your characters or themes to complete strangers?
2)    After expressing you ideas about where you are in the project, did you find that you no longer have the creative energy to write?
3)    Did you ever wear out family members describing the fresh scenes so they wonder what’s in your head and why didn’t you make dinner?
4)    Did you become silent and selfish about the project or characters or themes because you believe expressing the ideas dilutes them?
5)    Conversely, did you ever lend chapters to a friend only to get the critique “It needs work?”

How to Manage Process Frustration:

1)    Recognize it for what it is. You are engaged with characters who your friends don’t know. Why mix the two?
2)    Enjoy to euphoria of completion without tying it to the work – try a walk along the beach
3)    Avoid visiting the emotive quotient on friends and family.
I had a good friend once who was a big sports fan. If his team won, we went out for a meal and batting practice. If his team lost, we left him alone in the man-cave rather than try to cheer him up.  During play-offs, Sunday nights could be grim.

As a writer, I have found that this kind of spill-over makes even less sense because your family cannot engage with your characters.
Another choice is to find friends among writers and trade stories and chapters for critique. One recommended source is the fantasy writers group on Reddit.  Some people swear by this process, but I have always found that my critiques are too detailed and poorly received. New writers, especially, are too sensitive for ideas for improvement.
So, what’s the solution? Tolerate the solitude and learn to treasure good reviews on GoodReads and LibraryThing?

I have found that discussing craftsmanship with fellow artists, some from tangent disciplines, helps with articulating method, constraints, signals for poor choices, finding satisfaction, learning from finished products, avoiding bad critiques.  The chats about craft are often conceptual rather than practical, but serve as an area where we can at least admit the pressures and face the long stretches of time spent alone.
Your turn to participate… How do you manage process frustration?

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Self-Styled Reviewer

By Stella Atrium

In this age of self-published writers, we also have the self-styled reviewer.

Review opportunities are circulated for many products – Consumer Reports on cars, Angie’s List for home repairs, comparisons of cellphones or ereaders when deciding which to buy.

We also review work in many stages of development – plans for remodeling the house, a change of direction in the middle of travel, the first draft of a short story on Reddit, peer editing before marketing, focus groups to test how key phrases play in the public discourse.

For this blog, though, I want to look at the reviews from readers for self-published books. I have a friend who manages a blog and is seeking to become a reviewer of romance stories or chick lit or adventures for kids. She asked me what writers are looking for so she can build a fan base for her reviews.

I believe her instincts are good. Write a review that each audience can use – the writer, the reader, the publisher, the fellow reviewer, the client who may re-publish your review on a digest blog.

Here are some basics:

1)  Work in a genre you prefer – I met a fan of romance who read my fantasy novel and complained there weren’t enough fairies or kissing.

2)  Get the facts straight – What genre, length, style, and appeal?  By appeal I mean is the book targeted to the GLBT audience, or does the story include erotica? Mention who may want to avoid the book as well as who may find the read rewarding.

3)  Include a two-sentence overview of the story – pithy and descriptive. NO SPOILERS.

4)  Mention where this book resides in a series or in the arch of the writer’s career, if applicable. Relate the story to previous work, such as  “more geared to a younger audience”, or “scarier even than his last novel”.

5)  Act as a confidant to the reader. What will she like if you pass along the book to her? “Don’t read this story on Sunday because you’ll be up all night and miss work the next day.”

6)  Think about the ways the review is used later. Include a few shorter sentences that can be quoted by the writer, or by Amazon, or by a blog that re-publishes reviews.

What to avoid:

1)  Some reviewers embrace the need to be critical. Suggestions for improvement are fine, but avoid the “this is how I would do it” tone. Include sugar with the vinegar.

2)  Mention your qualifications, but don’t make the review about you. Your emotive responses are a good way to connect with the reader who looks to you for advice. Your ideas for where you met the writer once at a sci-fi convention belong in a profile article, not a review.

3)  It’s okay to show your smarts by comparing the story to Homer or JK Rowlings. However, don’t speak in that complaining voice. “It wasn’t what I expected,” or “it took too long to get started.” Nobody knows your expectations, or cares.

4)  Avoid a blow-by-blow analysis. Readers want to know if they should invest time and money, not how Part II opens in a different voice. A book review for your 8th grade teacher had to show that you read the whole book.  We aren’t in school anymore.

5)  It’s great to list what was irritating or inconvenient such as too many character names or sudden time changes. Personal attacks, however, don’t serve anybody. “I was looking forward to this book, but was so disappointed” can be damning to the writer, but also damages your ability to find the next writer willing to solicit a review.

6)  Remember that readers spend about 60 seconds on your review, so provide a strong opening and write sparingly. Edit the sentences for any ideas that don’t serve the theme or the constructive criticism.

You will know you have succeeded when readers become fans and when writers solicit you for a review of a new work.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The GoodReads giveaway has ended for July.  540 poeple requested a copy of fantasy novel SufferStone, and 382 people requested a copy of the sequel HeartStone.

Thanks for all who participated!

Watch this space for more opportunities to win a paperback copy of the first two novels in the Dolvia Saga.  And remember, Book III titled StrikeStone is due out in January 2013!

Visit my Good Reads page here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Better Than "Used to Be" for Self-Publishers

by Stella Atrium

Last week a self-publisher complained to me that the lag-time between a GoodReads giveaway and posted fan reviews on Amazon was three weeks.  I turned away to hide my smirk.  I supposed it's true that we're so spoiled by the internet, we don't remember how it used to be. 

A decade ago I trusted a small publisher to produce a paperback fantasy novel I wrote. Turns out, he was really a printer masquerading as a publisher with no press release plan or distribution plan.  The weight fell on me to get the word out.

I did research and surfed the web for compatible sites and posted articles about writing and even a "glass bead game" that asked readers to buy the book.  This was before FaceBook in the days of listserv — remember listserv?

I attended sci-fi conventions and traveled to bookstores in the Chicagoland area and staged and attended author appearances.

I begged friends to lend support at my author appearance at the local and famous bookstore where the proprietor could boost my contacts inside the industry.  Except it rained cats-and-dogs that night and I felt sorry for the four friends who did make it to the event, late and drenched.

puzzleMy efforts went nowhere.  It used to be that a self-promoter expended time and treasure and never reached the intended audience. Listed are a few memories that are burned into my mind.

1)    Introvert at Tradeshow — Did you ever see a booth at a trade show inhabited by a painfully shy writer who spoke to three people the whole day?  I have.

2)    Author Appearance with No Fans — Did you ever see an author at Borders seated alone at a table with stacks of her books and a blank expression of defeat? I have.

3)    Retail Marketing to Bookstores — One writer told me he boosted sales by driving up the California coast visiting bookstores for a personal pitch to owners to place 4 books on the shelves of each stop. An E for effort, but the price of gasoline makes this adventure prohibitive — even if the retail stores are still there.  A hit-or-miss method at best.

4)    Book Signings at Conventions — Writers hate this duty and function like turtles out of the shell. I count Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Jordan in this number. Writers often drink to get past the dread, so they function like hungover shell-less turtles at the morning signing, drinking copious amount of water.bags

5)    Regional Conventions — Did you ever attend a regional convention where you negotiated a giveaway of your book as part of the "fan appreciation" bag, only to discover the 80 attendees preferred stories about zombies and were really there to get laid?  I have.

6)    Listings on Industry Websites — These were accomplished using a form with no personal contact and no acceptance of connected blogs or Amazon listings.  Some of these still hover online, static and aging and misleading. convention

7)    Fan Websites — These genre lovers accepted articles and shameless self-promotion to boost traffic by adding your fans.  Except your fans and hers together came to five, including your mother.

8)    Getting into the Pipeline — Used to be... All promotion was accomplished with paperbacks, so each event included shipping a case of forty books to the hotel that hosted the convention, and then shipping them home again. 

9)    Managing Remainders — Did you ever work with a printer who wanted to be certain the check cleared before he shipped the books, even at 40% off?  Did this same printer dump remainders on the market so they hung around for three years at $1.89 sold by resellers on Amazon?  I have. 

10)     Tardy Reviews -- Did you ever find a complimentary review of your novel three years later by a respected reviewer on LibraryThing who must have picked up a remainder book?  Guess what...  that happened to me too!computer

So don't bring your complaints here that GoodReads or Twitter or LibraryThing aren't working for you.  Industry connections today are accomplished without shipping cases of books to neighboring states, and without leaving the house. 

Spoiled, spoiled, spoiled.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Self-Publishers: Pricing for Hardbacks

by Stella Atrium


textbooksSo I went to purchase the textbook for a freshman course to write a syllabus for fall term.  I know textbooks are obscenely overpriced, so I was expecting to pay $35.  The university bookstore wanted $65 for the reader and $87 for the handbook.  I was appalled at the greed.  These books were required and guaranteed to sell, so where's the risk to the publisher that justifies a higher retail price?

By comparison, for those of you who only open free ebooks, I bought a handbook for Wordpress online for $35 – but it teaches how to use Wordpress!

Once a friend was moving to another state and giving away whatever he was not willing to drag along.  In the pile was a complete set of hardback copies of Harry Potter, except Book 3 was missing.  I asked him about Book 3 and he said the cat threw up on it. The set has no value if it’s not complete. It’s an artifact of history more than a repository of the living truth. Potter_set

When I was young – in the previous century – I owned Norton editions of university books that we treasured and displayed to show our smarts. I held onto the valuable ones such as Martin Esslin’s Theater of the Absurd.  The price printed on the back (I just looked) is $14, which I’m certain I thought was outrageous at the time.

Book publishers are experiencing hard times, and we should feel bad for them, right?  Just like we should feel bad for Usher and JayZ because new singles are available on iTunes for 99¢.

Book publishers are pricing themselves out of business.  They set the retail price high so Amazon can offer a discount, and so publishers get the investment back from the naïve author who buys HIS OWN book for HIS OWN marketing efforts.

smashwordsNo wonder epub is expanding and Smashwords is a global marketplace. My point of view is that publishers get what they deserve.  I know this stance doesn’t make me popular, but I’m not the one who set hardcover copies of my fantasy novel at $32.95.  Not a soul in the world will pay that, especially since the ebook is listed on Amazon at $5.28.

I didn’t want to print hardback copies of the fantasy novel, and argued with the publisher to drop that option, but hardbacks were included in my “package”.

Supposedly, the existence of the hardback version of my novel makes me a legitimate writer.  Raspberries. ePub

I lost the argument, and Amazon is winning the conflict.  The writer waits on the sidelines for sanity to return to the marketplace.  But then, I’m also waiting for my balloon mortgage payments to be ameliorated.

I'm a writer, and I want the publishing industry to succeed. I want the consumer to believe he got a good deal, and to become a fan, and to buy the next book in the series.

But I hang my head these days when I see how each group grabs profits at the expense of the very people who should be partners or colleagues. Is this any way to run a business?

I'm called cynical at the dinner table.  Am I the only one?


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Self-Publishers: The Problems with Statistics

by Stella Atrium


I had a screaming fight one time with my brother about which brought in the most money – Chicago sports franchises or Chicago museums.  My stubborn stance was that museums had long hours and no off-season.  He insisted that one need only look at the stadiums and know sports fans live here.  Soldier_field

Chicago is home to great sport franchises – Chicago Cubs (go Cubs!), White Sox, Chicago Bulls, Chicago Bears, Chicago Blackhawk and more.  Then we have the college teams including DePaul Blue Demons (yeah, Demons!).

Chicago is also home to world-class museums – The Art Institute (of which I am a graduate), The Field Museum, The Shedd Aquarium, The Planetarium, The Museum of Science and Industry – and those are just the ones along Lake Shore Drive. 

So… which brings in the most money? Care to vote?

Art_InstituteOf course, I wouldn’t blog about a fight that I lost – dead giveaway.  The museums bring in half again as much money as sports in Chicago.

Statistics can be surprising.  Before computers were ubiquitous enough to compile cross-platform statistics, information was gathered in a more casual manner.  An urban legend holds that for music lists, compilers called their favorite stores along the East Coast and asked the store owner what was selling.  Of course, the music store owner named his favorite artists as best-selling – in rock, funk, classical, rap, or easy listening genres.  When the real statistics were published for the first time in the late 1980s – Garth Brooks outsold them all.

Here’s a caution for self-publishers.

Statistics that include all ebooks for a quick look at what’s selling are impacted by the fact the romance novels outsell all other genres.  The most successful indie ebook writers/marketers are women, because the biggest fan base is women who read romance.

For non-fiction writers, maybe with a story about the struggles of raising a child with cancer, do you really want to follow the methods used to sell romance? Racy cover, short paragraphs, paced story with few surprises, long backlist for branding.

For fantasy writers, do you really want to follow the methods used for selling Hunger Games?  If you have read the hype, but not the story, it’s about teenagers killing each other for sport.
My publisher tried to sell me a module where my new release HeartStone sits on THEIR website in a colorful page with bells and whistles about searching for favorite characters and tweeting friends for which page you’re currently on.  The sales person – selling me – said more than once: “This is how Hunger Games did it.”

Yes, and Nicole Kidman and I have the same color hair.  So why aren’t I married to a country-western star?

Here’s an alternative method of developing a fan base.  Look at what books are successful in your genre.  Non-fiction is especially treacherous for follow-the-leader because books for marketing that reach out to confused self-publishers sell almost as well as romance.

Fantasy writers should look at the successful marketing strategies of Robin Hobb (Farseer Trilogy and more) and Lois MacMaster Bujold (Curse of Chalion and more), for example.  Brandon Sanderson used this method, in part.  He’s from Australia but joins the conversations on Reddit where Hobb and Bujold are certain to appear.  He piggy-backs on their fan base to promote his similar works.

I like Mistborn by Sanderson. I like Theft of Swords by Sullivan.  I watch them for marketing techniques and to puzzle out what might work for me.

I’m not making my hair black, though, to fit into that group.  It’s me and Nicole Kidman all the way on that score…

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Middle Story of a Trilogy

by Stella Atrium


Consider for our example The Lord of the Rings in movie form.  The Fellowship of the Ring got all the acclaim, and The Return of the King got all the awards.  But The Two Towers (with the walking trees and the assault on Isengard), um… not so much.LOTR

I’m aware of this odd pattern with the middle story carrying much the weight, but none of the praise. So for HeartStone: Book II of the Dolvia Saga, I went the extra mile to secure a Kirkus Review and also petitioned some friendly GoodReads reviewers to look over ARC versions of the story.


The complete paragraphs provided by Kirkus Reviews are below, and one GoodReads reviewer said this:

“The plot of HeartStone revolves around several offworld characters, including Dr. Edna Edwina Greensboro, Lieutenant Michael Peter Shaw, and Dr. Henry Beecham, in addition to Dolviet tribal members, leaders, and outcasts.
      Readers will be reacquainted with old friends and like them try to determine who is truly the enemy of Dolvia, a new one or the same enemy with different tactics.  Either way, the tribal people of Dolvia are the pawns, along with those who choose not to see or act or those who are just naive.

HeartStone         As an orphaned child of an offworlder and a Dolviet, Brianna Miller is condemned to be an outcast among the tribes.  Yet, she strives to better herself so that one day she may travel to Earth, the planet of her father's birth.  With the gifts that Dolvia has provided her, the generosity and teachings from the various characters, the pain that she endures, the compassion she feels for others, and the risks she takes, Brianna prepares for a future...a future she will choose for herself!

        You have a really great series going here.  I love your descriptive writing style!  I really can't wait to see what Brianna thinks of Earth and then what happens when she returns to Dolvia!”

-- Phoenix Carvelli

HeartStone: Book II of the Dolvia Saga
Atrium, Stella
$19.95 paperback, $6.99 e-book
ISBN: 978-1462070442; June 15, 2012

The second installment of Atrium’s Dolvia Saga is a character-driven sci-fi tale that explores profound—and timely—themes of sexual oppression, environmentalism and cultural intolerance.
      Atrium’s intricate novel ranges widely in theme—gender, politics, existential philosophy, mysticism, etc. Set primarily on the planet of Dolvia—where the females of the indigenous, frequently warring tribes of the savannah maintain few rights and are forced to wear burkas—the storyline revolves, at least initially, around Dr. Edna Edwina Greensboro, a bush-clinic doctor whose courage, compassion and vision have begun to change some of the insular ways of thinking.
       Getting married to Lt. Mike Shaw, an off-world military man, and keeping two female gualareps—oversized and sentient iguana-esque reptiles—increases her status. But when she witnesses a “mixed blood” girl being brutally abused, she realizes that she’s working against centuries of oppression reinforced by cultural mores, folklore, myth and cruel men dead set on guarding the status quo. After all, the victims “are only women.”
        The commentary on gender politics benefits from a foreign setting; it’s an exercise in considering discrimination without finger-pointing. But that’s only one aspect of this multifaceted story—as Greensboro fights to save lives and educate the tribespeople, nefarious individuals and companies seek to profit from the chaos.
        Aside from a few instances where the storyline becomes erratic—as with Greensboro’s marriage, for example—Atrium’s saga continues with another entertaining and powerful read, reminiscent of Octavia E. Butler and Margaret Atwood.
         An allegorical, emotionally intimate narrative for sci-fi fans, with broad themes that could appeal to a mainstream audience, too.

HeartStone is “live” this holiday weekend.  Yeah!
As an incentive to get started with the series, we’re offering the ebook version of SufferStone: Book I of the Doliva Saga at the 55% discounted price of $3.09 on  The offer is good through June 2012.

Sign up for GoodReads giveaway of softcover copies of SufferStone to celebrate the release of Book II.  Ten days only!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Self-Publishers: Taking the Long View

by Stella Atrium


FairGirlI live in Old Town in Chicago, as I have mentioned in previous blogs.  We have a series of street fairs in the summer here, and I like to attend to watch the well-heeled residents. At one fair last summer a kiosk was set-up outside the entrance to the actual fair where bright-faced young people were giving away samples of a new energy drink in a red and black aluminum can with a twist top.  I carried my sample around for forty minutes so they couldn’t force another one on me when I passed again.

I was headed home at two in the afternoon when the fair was just going into full swing, and one of the young venders at the kiosk announced that they had sold out.  “We sold out,” she proclaimed, even though there was no cash drawer for receiving funds. “That other booth still has product, but ours is gone because we had the better-selling item.” I didn’t argue with her. It’s not good to discourage young people.

The booth she indicated was actually selling their drinks, at Chicago prices, street fair prices, and was stocked for the entire day, rather than with enough product to last only five hours.  artfair-booth

I turned the corner and passed some overfull trash bins, many holding unopened cans of red and black design.  I threw my unopened can on top.

Self-publishers can take a lesson from this incident. Best-selling is an abused term when talking about 99¢ items, or free items. Maybe more pieces moved out of the kiosk, but what profit was made?

You may argue that promotions are not about profit, but about branding. I would counter that a free sample is not the same as a purchase, and doesn’t imply that I will remember the product’s name, open it, or look for one later at the store. Branding didn’t happen.

Some entrepreneurs advise writers and self-publishers to work at providing the personal touch, spend hours on Twitter and Tumblr, solicit interviews on the websites of other writers, engage with giveaways at reading sites, join in blog tours, lower the prices for ebooks, and constantly reassess what works for your genre or your story. These advisors are the people who are making money – from writers – If we stop the rat race, they would have no audience.

bkstore top10Maybe in the old paradigm short-term sales pushed visibility of a new book. A flurry of reviews followed by a prime location in chain bookstores were coordinated with a print run that ensured enough copies to meet demand after the writer appeared on the Today Show.

Monthly sales were monitored by chain bookstores so that, if a book didn’t move in six weeks, copies were returned to the distributor.

The new era of ebooks changed that need for quarterly sales figures and lists of top ten sales numbers.  In ebook form, the item is not returned so bookstore inventory stays fresh. An ebook is published forever and can gain an audience by word-of-mouth, and by good reviews, over six months or eighteen months.

Or eighteen years.

The writer can reinforce her brand by publishing a second book in a series.  I learned on Reddit that some fans of fantasy (my genre) don’t pick up the first book of a trilogy until all three books are available.  That’s the long view. I’m not published to my fan base until Book III is in print.

HeartStone coverBut where’s the downside of taking the long view?  Book II of my Dolvia Saga titled HeartStone is due out in June 2012.  I paid for a Kirkus Review so some quality press accompanies the release, and a couple reviewers from GoodReads were kind enough to review ARC copies.

I’m considering RAISING the price of the ebook version to a level more in keeping with other writers in my cohort – equalizing the price for Book I and Book II at $6.99, similar to Lois MacMaster Bujold or Robin Hobb or Jacqueline Carey. After all, the paperback copy sells for $19.95.

What is lost if I take the long view? A lot of busywork to keep pace with the Smashwords crowd?

So… if you made it this far.  Please BUY NOW.  SufferStone: Book I of the Dolvia Saga is still priced in ebook version at $3.19 on Amazon.  BUY NOW at this 55% discounted price before June 2012. 
Starbucks drinks

Each ebook version of the Dolvia Saga is well worth $6.99, just like the fantasy novels of Bujold, Hobb and Carey are each worth the cover price. That’s equivalent to two cups of Starbucks coffee.  But today, you can BUY NOW at the discounted price of $3.19.

And you can claim that you’re in with the in-crowd.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Self-Publishers: Unrequited Love is Key to Keeping Fans
by Stella Atrium

BarbietatI recently read Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey over several days – that’s one long story.  I was completely enamored with the well-drawn characters and descriptions of Europe before the 100 Year’s War. The politics for a game of thrones in tangent kingdoms were intricate and multi-various.

I admired the level of diction using Old French, Old German and Celtic, and the writer’s many stories taken from the myths of several religions.  Plot keeps the reader engaged, so I thoroughly enjoyed the later surprise about Master of the Straits (I won’t give it away here).

I was crazy for the writer’s courage to kill her main character in the middle and turn the reader’s attention (as well as the narrator’s) to more than one focus for a potential ‘chosen’ lover. The pantheon of characters was easy to follow, and several women characters took prominent roles.  The writing style found a rhythm that was comfortable and measured, leading the reader into delight of strange words from many languages.

I even started to compare the work to my own writing and felt I was second-rate.

So I decided to find some fans of Jacqueline Carey, and looked around at the many websites developed to keep the fantasy alive and maybe start some group role-playing adventures using character names and the milieu of the story (similar to the old game of claiming a character from Jane Austen as your muse). Nicoletat

Fan sites for Jacqueline Carey’s characters are often highly developed.  I was green with jealousy.

I was shocked to find, though, that few fan sites provided a map of the territory or artist depictions of the weapons used by Jocelin or the many warriors with well-described fighting styles. Artist depictions of The Master of the Straits don’t show up anywhere!

Rather, fan pages focused on scrolled fonts and provided wallpaper, and images of women with tattoos on their backs.  Some showed famous actresses with (added) tattoos or smoldering looks under mussed hair. Kushiel’s Dart was narrated by a courtesan in a discipline of yielding, and the heroine (along with many others) decorated her body with a ‘marque’ or back tattoo that designates her status as indentured or free.

But what about the great writing, plotting, sense of history, shared languages, old myths, and plot surprises?

I guess I’m an old fart.  I enjoyed the aesthetic qualities of the writing style.  Fans looked more to the fantasy of a dominant male and yielding lover who tolerates pain.

Oh, jeez…

How do we apply this revelation to our search for loyal fans? Online advisers for self-publishers encourage us to find our ‘fan base’ and go to where they congregate for promotions.  But who and where are they?

I read A Canticle of Lebowitz at age 18 and was swept away. Today I cannot find the appeal in the story.  Like Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, the Lebowitz story must be read at a certain age to display its magic.  A reader must devour The Once and Future King before age 14, for example, or miss that opportunity to be enthralled with experiencing the world as a fish or a bird.

I read the The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe at age 35 and read everything else he wrote within a year.  Now the books on my shelf look like ashes of a bygone era.

ShrekFionaFor those of you who haven’t explored the canon for the fantasy genre, a likely comparison is the Shrek movies that are cartoons about cartoon characters with slapstick humor and fart jokes – beloved by children everywhere. But the movies include in-jokes and adult references (that hopefully get past the kids) such as Pinocchio’s ability to make wood. The parents who took the kids to the movies also had a good time.

I love Shrek for breaking the mold of fainting princess and providing work for Fiona and her mother, along with the shrinking violet princess characters -- compared to Disney’s cartoon for Beauty and the Beast that remains so stilted, I cannot sit through the full hour of its run-time.

But Shrek suffers from the same problem of all trilogies.  When Shrek and Fiona are wed and start making babies, the sexual tension flows away. The introduction of Artie and the need to bring a new Prince Charming to FarFarAway revives the interest of young viewers, but not so much the parents.

Sexual tension keeps the fan engaged.  You can write that in stone.BonesPreg

For the TV viewer, now that Bones and Booth are wed with a baby in diapers, where do we find the titillation that kept us engaged for six seasons?

For the fan of Old Hollywood, the tension between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall that made To Have and Have Not a box office hit was largely settled by the time Key Largo was shot four years later when they were an old married couple.

BogartBacallAre you still following the thread here?  When I finished Kushiel’s Dart the ‘couple’ who leave the newly wedded king and queen to retire on a country estate don’t wed and make babies. The warrior sworn to her protection makes excuses that he cannot be her lover and her protector, choosing the latter to define his life.

I found the ending so unsatisfying because of the lack of resolution. But the lead character is a courtesan and barely eighteen.  If she settles in, sexual tension flows away and there’s no need for a sequel (of which there are twelve).

Here we find the real problem of women as heroes.  A female hero succeeds when she finds a protector while she goes about producing the next generation.  A guy hero succeeds when he rides off into the sunset to the next adventure.

No matter how well written for style, scholarship, pacing, plot, or level of diction – the fans of our stories ride along on a fantasy that resides in the hero’s (or heroine’s) unrequited love.

It’s the story of unrequited love that captures the fans.