Returning from the Imaginarium

HorrorPanel Wow.

I have only attended a handful of book/author events over the past few years but it always amazes me how much they affect me. I was able to go to the Imaginarium Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, last week and although I was bone tired when I drove back in the driveway at home, I was also rejuvenated about writing.

There was a wide range of authors at the convention, varying from some who are still in their infancy and looking for that first published sale to those who are full-time authors and many in between.

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As is always the case, I was able to catch up with old friends, make new ones, and meet authors that I may have only interacted with online or have admired their works from afar for many years. Every time I go to one of these events, something always surprises me and this year it was having the chance to be on the Arm Cast Dead Sexy Horror Podcast which is run by author Armand Rosamilia. You have seen me mention Armand before because he also runs the Authors Supporting Our Troops program which collects books from publishers and authors and then ships them overseas to our troops.

ArmandRosamillaWell, when you hear that you are going to be on a horror podcast late at night, you need to go into it with an open mind and expect some surprises and in this case, the surprise was where the podcast was to be recorded. The event took place in the downtown Louisville White Castle restaurant with the blessing of the corporation’s public relations department. I don’t know if the p.r. people quite knew what they were getting into but the diners in the restaurant were able to listen in as a handful of horror writers talked about blood, gore, and craft – all while munching down on a few sliders. It was a terrific time and if you have the opportunity, go out to the Arm Cast podcast and listen.

IMG_0027The Imaginarium event had a lot of variety to it and was centered mainly around the craft of writing with some fun events thrown in for good measure. There was a live concert in on Friday night in one of the convention halls, a masquerade ball, and a very active dealer room which was open to the public. And since it was in Louisville, I tiptoed away from the event on Friday morning before the first panel I was speaking on and visited Churchill Downs which was only a few blocks down the street. Not a bad way to spend the first day of the fall racing season.

If anyone reading this has any interest in writing either as a career or an active hobby, I would encourage you to attend a conference. Imaginarium is a terrific place to start if you want something more intimate and low key and is within easy driving distance of Ohio. If you want to see something much, much larger and more geared toward the professional writers, then next October the World Fantasy Convention will be held on Columbus, Ohio. There are also lots of other opportunities in between those two options. Go and use the opportunity to learn about writing and the industry, meet some terrific people, and return home with your love of writing renewed. I know I always do.

(Photos, top to bottom – First photo: The Ask a Horror Writer panel with Armand Rosamilia, J.H. Glaze, Jessica McHugh, Stuart Thaman, Tim Waggoner, and Michael Knost. Second and third photos: Armand, Jack Wallen, Jessica, Brent Abell, Jay Wilburn, Dave Creek, myself, and others at the Arm Cast podcast at White Castle. If you look closely you can see the look of astonishment on the faces of some of the other diners as we talk about blood and guts. Fourth photo: Armand and I after the podcast and before the sliders took affect – you know what I mean. Fifth photo: How can you be in Louisville and not go see some races at Churchill Downs?)

World Fantasy Convention 2014

WFC2I have taken a few days to think about what happened last week at the World Fantasy Convention in Washington D.C., trying to gain a little perspective with some distance. With that said, I came away with a few highlights:

1) There is nothing like immersing yourself in that kind of atmosphere for several days to re-energize your enthusiasm for writing.

WFC12) The people from Ragnarok Publications were very nice and let me hang around them way too much. Their publisher party was also the talk of the convention, although that may have been in part to the infamous “swamp gas” incident. (Enough said – what happens at WFC, stays at WFC.)

3) It was terrific to finally meet in person some people that I have known in the industry for years.

4) I almost knocked down Peter Straub (Ghost Story, Koko, Black House) in the convention area one afternoon.

Meeting industry people was my biggest goal for this year’s con. With the release of Dreams earlier this year, I had a product that we could talk about but not necessarily to attempt to sell something new, although I did make a couple of pitches. The key for me this year was to begin to put faces with names.

To that end, I thought this was a tremendously successful convention for me. I talked with a handful of agents and some people from independent presses. I talked about the writing process with other authors – some still looking for their debut novel and some with tons more experience than myself. I met Tim Marquitz in person for the first time, something I was happy to have happen because we were introduced to each other online several years ago in the same critique group and have kept up the conversation despite never having met before. Joe Martin, Kenny Soward, Melanie Meadors, Django Wexler, Betsy Dornbusch, Eric Bakutis, James Moore – the list needs to stop here because I will never remember everybody but suffice it to say that everyone was very nice.

WFC3In addition, the book signing went great on Friday night. The scene was a little unbelievable. Imagine nearly 200 authors in one large convention/ball room with row upon row of tables, pens in hand and their books in front of them. Now insert a swirling mass of humanity, at times so thick the room appeared to be one convulsing organism, slowly rotating from spot to spot. The room jumped 20 degrees in 15 minutes and was extremely hot (except for those lucky few of us who were seated underneath the air conditioning) and loud.

That is the book signing at World Fantasy.

And Dreams sold out.

I had no idea what to expect so the fact all the copies of Dreams were gone by about halfway through the signing was amazing.

So now I am back home, negotiating my way through my day job and moving kids from event to event. But I am also still amped up about WFC and already looking forward to the next convention, probably World Horror in Atlanta next year unless I can find something smaller and closer to home in the meantime.

As for Peter Straub, someone should put a bell on him when he is turning corners in a busy convention center. Sheesh.

** One last note – I hope to have some news to announce that came out of WFC in the next few weeks. **

Off to WFC I go

A friend stopped me at a local business/social function a few days ago and asked me how “Dreams of Ivory and Gold” was doing. He had read the book so we talked for a few minutes about the story and some mutual favorite authors before he moved on. Before he walked away, however, he leaned in close and said, “I don’t know how you find time to do it all with your schedule.”

As he left, I considered what he had said and, yes, my schedule leaves a lot to be desired. I still work between 60-65 hours per week. I have four kids, all still in school, so that means clubs and meetings and horse shows and karate lessons/tournaments and weight room workouts and…. you get the idea.

That often does not leave a lot of time for my writing. But since my last post a month ago, a lot of has been happening despite the time constraints. Since October 4:

1) I have had three short stories accepted into anthologies/magazines for print.
2) I finished editing my latest novel.
3) I attended a question-and-answer at a book club in Columbus. One of the month’s selections for the club had been Dreams and the members asked me to come in and talk about the book and the process of writing.
4) I plotted out and researched the sequel to Dreams. In fact, as the plotting came together, it became obvious the overriding story arc needed to finish in a third book so the series will now be a trilogy.
5) Despite most of my writing needing to be accomplished sometime between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. (before getting up and starting the new day again), I now have a good start on the second book and plan on having a first draft done in the first couple of weeks in December.

WFC2My friend would probably only shake his head harder if he knew I was going to be attending the World Fantasy Convention in Washington D.C. later this week. But as I was reminded at ConText in Columbus a few weeks ago, attending these conventions are a necessary part of being a published (or trying to publish) author.

These conventions offer a multitude of discussion panels on a wide variety of writing and industry topics. You could walk into one room and find a best selling author talking about their process when they plot or world build. The next room may offer a view of where a certain genre is headed or what agents/publishers are currently searching for to sign.

But for me, the biggest opportunities at the conventions are the chances to meet people in person that I have “known” for years and to network with industry professionals. For instance, I found my current publisher through a writing group buddy that first read my work several years ago but all of our interaction has been digitally. He and I will meet in person for the first time this week.

I know other authors, editors, illustrators, and public relations people who I have exchanged ideas with or worked with for months, if not years. Many of them will be in Washington D.C. this week as well. There will also be people who I have only a passing acquaintance but who I want to get to know better because of their work.

Invariably, there will be at least one conversation that sticks out and remains in my memory forever from these conventions. At ConText in September, that conversation happened on Saturday night.

It had been a long day. I had been in panels or in the dealer room with the AKP crew all day. I had screwed around and missed lunch in the con suite and supper was pushed back so we could continue to talk to people. By the time we finally got out, it was later than normal so we just ended up eating at a nearby bar/grille. By the time we finished, the clock was pushing midnight on a long, long day.

But then we started talking about writing and the topic ended up on whether to plot novels or to just write in a free manner, going where the story takes you. That talk with a handful of other writers and a couple of publishing industry people turned out to be one of the best writing discussions I have ever had. My publisher definitively called it the best convention talk she had ever been a part of.

And that is why I am making time this week to go to the World Fantasy Convention. Hopefully I will shake the hands of some friends (new and old) and get into a late night discussion that will stay with me for years.

I will try to check in from the convention, either here or on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Hopefully I will have some good news about my future projects.

ConText 27 recap

Context1web ConText 27 took place last weekend in Columbus and it was a great experience.

You never know quite what to expect the first time you go to a new con but ConText held extra meaning for me since it was the first one I had attended as a published writer. It was also the first chance I had to meet face-to-face with the Angelic Knight crew. Stacey and Dani were great but it says a lot about the use of technology today in publishing when more than a year after signing the contract, months of editing, and months of the initial marketing, that we had accomplished all of that remotely.

I met Aaron Gudmundson for the first time as well. He is also an Angelic Knight author (“Snowglobe” is a great, scary read if anyone is looking for one around Halloweeen.). In addition I sat in on two terrific panels that included Jason Sanford, talked with Matt Betts, met the Giant Squid (trust me, that was worth the price of admission by itself) and Ken MacGregor, and many other authors and people in the industry. If I try to name them all, I will feel bad about forgetting someone.

Context2web I also met with the most important people, some of the avid readers that make the writing worthwhile. That included Linda Munn, who was one of the winners of an autographed copy of “Dreams of Ivory and Gold.” Her excitement at winning the book made everyone in the booth smile.

But most importantly, I came away from ConText with a lot of excitement and optimism. It had been several years since I had been at a convention. The last time I went to one, I was very early in the learning curve on my writing. Believe me, I shudder when I pull out any of my work from that time now.

That’s not to say I think I’m done crafting my writing. In fact, it is just the opposite. I came away excited because I still learned a lot when I was able to sneak away from the booth for a little while and sit in on some of the panels. And if you think you have seen an animated conversation before, try catching five authors in the hotel bar at 12:30 in the morning as they “discuss” their methods for plotting stories. I think we had the staff spinning around for a little while but it was great because we were sharing ideas.

My point is that my trip to ConText left me feeling reinvigorated. I am marketing two manuscripts, working on the sequel to “Dreams,” and recently pulled out the first three novels of my fantasy series to begin revisions and edits. I’ve got a lot of hard work – and learning – left in front of me but the load feels a little lighter after last weekend thanks to Stacey, Dani, Aaron, and the others.

And the best news of all is that World Fantasy Con is just around the corner during the first week of November in Washington D.C. I am getting excited already.

7-7-7

Over on Facebook, a new participation thread has been going around with authors sharing  from their work-in-process. With that in mind, from “Reset” starting on  page seven, seven lines beginning at line number seven. (I cheated a little and put it a little more than seven lines.)

“Some of the hair pulled out when I touched it, the skin was slipping but not loose … I’d say he’s been dead ten days.”

“Maybe a day more,” the tech said. “The air conditioning was cranked and had the room temperature down to about sixty degrees when we arrived.”

Rick turned to the desk and began pawing through the drawers. “Dead for almost two weeks. So where’s the peeper?” He closed the lap drawer and looked at the tech. The other man shrugged and turned up his empty hands.

Jim sighed. “And if he died while he was inside the game …”

“Then where’s the Becky?” Rick turned to his partner. “Where’s the intravenous line that fed the poor bastard and left the scars on his arm? Someone knew our vic was dead and cleaned up the room rather than call for help. Something besides the dead guy stinks here.”

The In-between

I hate this part of writing. I call it the “in-between.”

When I am in the middle of a novel project, it is easy to get pumped up about what is happening. “Hey, I wrote 5,500 words today.” “I worked out the plot hang-up and completed the chapter that had been giving me problems.” “Only 10,000 more words and I will have the first draft done.”

Those are easy days. Even the bad days when only 500 words make it onto the page are easier to deal with. You convince yourself they were good words, moved the story forward, developed the character depth. You shut off the computer and tell yourself that you made progress and tomorrow you will write more. And for the most part, the self-encouragement is all true.

That’s not where I am at right now.

writer-1I completed my novel, “Reset,” which has been sent to my beta readers and returned with suggestions. Now comes the final edits and the beginning of locating a market for it. In the meantime, I have also started research and plotting on the sequel to “Dreams of Ivory and Gold.” I would like to complete it in time to publish before the World Horror Convention in Atlanta next May.

Both are exciting projects and the work I am doing on them is important.

But the work is also very hard to quantify. There are no massive word counts each day. There are no milestones reached. Success is measured by finding that one piece of information that will make the plot work in the sequel or an interesting tidbit that gives the main character depth. Success is measured by rewriting a paragraph so the action flows or, even more minutely, making changes to two words in an entire chapter.

If you are lucky, when you start writing you meet authors who are willing to share their experiences with you. Typically, you receive the advice about “growing a thick skin” when it comes to editors or critics. “Active voice,” “show, don’t tell,” “write every day,” and “edit, edit, and edit some more” are other common tenets.

Obviously “kill your darlings” is the lesson that George R.R. Martin learned the best.

But what you rarely hear about are times like this when your production is hard to measure. I have one friend who told me this is exactly why he chooses to write primarily short stories – he can not stand waiting for the long payoff.

Stephen King is one of the most prolific writers in history and he sums up this part of the process pretty succinctly:

“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

I guess it’s time to get back to work.

 

The thing he would not kill

Why does the hero always need to wear the white hat?

That is a typical question to ask of protagonists as a reader ages and reaches a certain level of life experience. When we are kids, life is a lot more black-and-white. The good guys always do the right thing and the bad guys have no motivation except for spite or greed. There were no shades of gray, just right and wrong.

But as we grow older, we begin to see the world in various shades of gray.

SamSpadeTake Humphrey Bogart. In this publicity photo, he is dressed as Sam Spade, the detective from “The Maltese Falcon.” Spade is the good guy, the shamus who cracks the case while using his brain instead of a roscoe.

But Spade was not squeaky clean. He was a womanizer who was sleeping with his partner’s wife. He has no problem with beating up smaller men that he can manhandle and he frequently uses his rapier wit to tear apart people who are not as smart. And when push comes to shove at the end of the tale, he turns the woman he liked into the police rather than help her escape.

Deep down, Spade is not a nice guy. But he is the hero of the story because despite all his faults, he sees the case through to the end.

I like characters with flaws – the bigger the better. Those are the characters that feel more real, more human. Books are more exciting when the protagonist hangs on the edge, drawn into only looking out for himself rather than the group, answering a needs that only he feels.

Flawed characters and anti-heroes add excitement to a story. Yes, they have solved the mystery/beaten the bad guys, but will it all fall apart at the end because of those faults?

I am reminded of this because a reader of “Dreams of Ivory and Gold” sent me a message a few days ago. They said they found themselves cheering on Greg Novara as the book continued, despite his quirks, his past, and his unpredictability. Then in the next sentence they told me how if they ever met Novara in real life, they would punch him in the nose.

I figure that is why I kept him around.

(The headline for this post is a partial quote from one of the most famous anti-heroes in literature, Shylock from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.”

Shylock to Bassanio – “Hates any man the thing he would not kill.”)

Who are you?

Andy Weir

Gillian Flynn

Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

John Scalzi

Keep those authors in mind for a few moments.

The publishing industry has been up in arms – and name calling and rock throwing and swearing and petition signing – for the past few weeks as Big 5 publisher Hachette and online mega-retailer Amazon have locked themselves into DEATH BATTLE 2014! Writing giants such as Hugh Howey with his gladius and James Patterson wielding a hasta have squared off against each other to decry the penny pinching of Hachette or the inhumanity of Amazon.

PrintingPress(For the record – Hachette is a very large corporation trying to make money. Amazon is a very, very large corporation trying to make money. Any authors who now find themselves caught in the middle of these two behemoths needs to remember that both companies have boards of directors and stockholders who could care less if either is nice to their authors unless it means more money in the coffers. Amazon is not completely wrong and Hachette is not completely wrong in this fight so the smart authors are protecting themselves and keeping as many publishing avenues open as possible so they do not find themselves cut out completely.)

However, this contract fight ends, an interesting side note has pounded a fist into the side of the heads of the big publishers.

No one knows who they are.

In the past few years because of the Internet and other technological advances, customers have become more comfortable dealing directly with the producers/retailers where they buy their goods and services. And the companies who have performed very well are those companies who have found ways to reach out and interact directly with the end users. This is a lesson the newspaper industry has been beaten over the head with the past few years and now it is publishing’s turn.

And no one knows who the Big 5 publishers are.

But everyone knows Amazon and that, ultimately, is where the “power” in this Hachette/Amazon power struggle lies. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at that list of authors again:

Andy Weir – “The Martian”

Gillian Flynn – “Gone Girl”

Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child – “White Fire”

John Scalzi – “Redshirts”

These novels are the last four I have reviewed for our company’s entertainment magazine so I know all four of them were best sellers. Who published them?

For the record, in order: Crown, Crown, Grand Central Publishing, and Tor Books.

My guess is that no one reading this post knew all four publishers and I will back up that evaluation with a confession of my own. Neil Gaiman (“Neverwhere,” “American Gods,” “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”) is my favorite author and I did not know William Morrow was his publisher until I looked for the information for this post. I am a writer who pays attention to the industry so why would Regular Joe reader know who was publishing their favorite author’s books?

My guess is that fact, as much as the wheeling and dealing with Amazon might affect Hachette’s bottom line, is even more frightening to the company’s officials than the realization they have no real interaction with the end user except through someone like Amazon.

That cannot be a good feeling.

Who is in charge?

Just who is in charge of this monstrosity anyway?

I am winding down on my current work-in-process but last week I hit a small hiccup.

As I have said before (See the blog post, The Process), I am a plotter when it comes to my novels. Not all writers like to work through this method but I cannot imagine creating a 90,000-word book with multiple plotlines without some sort of guide to keep the story on track.

writerI also keep character sketches. The depth of the detail on the bios depends a great deal upon the importance of the characters themselves. The reason is obvious: consistency. How many times have you been watching a movie and suddenly realized the protagonist who was right-handed suddenly switched to holding the gun in his left hand near the end of the film? The same holds true in novels. No author wants to find out their protagonist stares longingly at the love interest with green eyes in chapter two and blue eyes in chapter 30. This practice actually helps me more with side characters who are involved in the plot for two chapters and then go away for ten before returning.

But just because I have a roadmap for my storylines and a relatively detailed character list, that does not mean the items cannot change. In “Dreams of Ivory and Gold,” the character of Morgan changed dramatically. I realized about a third of the way into writing the novel that I had written her too young. She needed to be older for some of her motivations to make sense. But the changes could not just happen to her. That meant Father Greene needed to be older as well since they had been classmates as children. The change dictated movement in her brothers’ ages, the ages of her nieces and nephews, etc.

I also routinely add to or take away from points in the plot either for brevity or to close a gap in the reader’s knowledge of the story or about a character. Sometimes things I had planned just don’t work. Or, even better, sometimes I think of something that had never occurred to me when I was planning.

And that happened to me last week.

I was within six chapters of the end of my WIP, “Reset” (working title), when in the middle of a sentence I stopped typing and stared at my computer screen. My protagonist was in the middle of narrowing down his suspects when I realized I had him taking too big a leap to the final answer. He needed to make the wrong assumption – chase one more red herring, if you will – before he discovered the killer.

And just as importantly, the red herring was right in front of me.

So I wrote in an answer to the question that my protagonist asked, one that I had never imagined until that moment. It added another chapter to the end of the book but it also deepened the growing tension as I built toward the climax. Best of all, it kept the conclusion within the character’s personality, something I had been building with the reader for more than 80,000 words at that point. All of that is good because I was on top of the story and realized it needed to move in a slightly different direction.

But I could not help but wonder about some of my friends who are writers who believe their characters are in charge of the storylines. You see, they believe the writer is only there to put down the words describing the novel unfolding from the characters they created.

I was once in a critique group where a friend started off with this terrific story. She had created deeply flawed characters, multiple plotlines promising a whirlwind of action, and an intriguing main conflict. The first few chapters she turned in for the group to read were amazing.

Then, the wheels started to wobble. Another subplot was followed by still another. Characters diverged even farther apart. On their own, each individual chapter was well-written but the story itself began to careen wildly out of control. At one point another group member and I asked her what was happening to the story and she sheepishly bowed her head. “My characters are going off in crazy directions,” she said. “I don’t know where the story is headed.”

She is not the only writer I have heard say this before. Many times I have heard others announce excitedly that their characters have hijacked the story and found a whole new storyline/direction/ending.

I do not understand that thinking. This author is in charge of the characters he created. That means sticking to the personalities, making plot decisions based upon those bios, but in the end, still in charge of the outcome.

So the next time you are halfway through a book and suddenly find yourself wondering why the plot just veered off in a weird direction, you may have been hijacked by the characters.

And as for my friend who said her characters took control of her plot, he wheels finally fell off her novel. It has been nearly ten years of effort and she has still not finished her book.

But that’s not me

I’m not Greg Novara.

I’m also not Father Roger Greene, R.J. Dowland, Rev, Stick, or Ted Prince. In fact, none of the characters I have ever created are me.

Are there parts of my personality in some of my characters? Sure. Are there parts of my friends and family represented in a novel or two? Absolutely.

But using bits and pieces from real life is part of being an author – observing life and using it in order to (hopefully) write something entertaining for readers. I remember sitting in a shopping mall during the Christmas madness season a few years ago. By that time of the day my wife and I had been shopping long enough I was just a glorified pack mule so I grabbed a seat in the middle of the aisle and piled up the bags around me while she went into the next couple of stores. I began watching a gentleman sitting a few feet away – the way he was dressed, his mannerisms, the sound of his voice as he said hello, the look on his face when his wife came to collect him.

In the 15 minutes I watched this man, I created a whole backstory about his life: why he was wearing an odd little hat, how he got to that point, and who he was. When he left, I had the beginnings of a side character for one of my stories. And it was all because of my observations of him.

But my character was not him.

I bring this up now because a friend of mine was called out a couple of weeks ago by a reader of one of his novels. This person berated the author, calling him all kinds of nasty names and assuming he knew my friend and his beliefs. This person just “knew” my friend was evil incarnate because the main character was not a nice guy. In fact, the protagonist was an anti-hero, someone intentionally written to not be perfect.

Writers create faults within characters in order to make them interesting. As an example, think back on some of your favorite books and the heroes in them. Were they infallible? Did they always do exactly the right thing? If so, then what they probably ended up being were one-dimensional, flat actors in a predetermined play.

Real people have faults. Life is messy. If an author has chosen to use an anti-hero as their protagonist, part of the conflict within the story might be whether or not they can clean their act up enough to do the right thing by the last page. By the same token, using a generally good man/woman in the lead role who does something bad in the course of 400 pages does not make them an unlikable character.

Faults are what make characters interesting. Just remember those faults do not necessarily belong to the author as well.