Monthly Archives: March 2011

Trendkilling

As more and more people find out about my book deal, the question I’m usually asked (by the folks who give a tinker’s cuss, at any rate) right after “What is it about?” is “When does it come out?” To which I reply “About this time next year”.

The reaction is universal: Raised eyebrows, open mouths, and “Jesus, why does it take so long?”

And then I get to go into a long discussion about revisions and copy edits and cover design and marketing plans and advertising and blah, blah. About this time their eyes glaze over and they change the topic to something they care about like “kids” or “football” and I shortly thereafter begin to envy the dead.

But the thing about publishing a book is that is does take a long time. Like, a really long time. Which I guess is why so many industry types are fond of saying that it’s not a good idea to write to trends. Unless you’re good at spotting  a trend that’s just about to pop, or can do something on a trendline that’s markedly different to everyone else (which I guess is what I did, because while Steampunk is certainly a trend, ain’t nobody done Japanese Steampunk before that I’m aware of), the truth is that by the time you’ve written the book, landed an agent, scored a book deal, done your revisions, copy proofs, reproofs, cover design blah, blah, blah, the trend you wrote to is probably dead.

To give you an illustration of the point, I just got a full request on a partial I sent out on July 21 last year. For the book I wrote before STORMDANCER. That’s how long it can take just to get an agent (and no disrespect here, these people are busier than most of us could ever dream). This business just takes a long time. To describe its pace as “glacial’ is not too far short of the mark. Being unhip isn’t a bad thing – even bellbottoms are bound to come back into fashion eventually.

So, a quiet word of advice: Write what you love. Write what you want. Certainly be conscious of the trends in the marketplace, the possible niches your book could fill, the fact that 75% of readers are women. This is all important stuff. But at the end of it all, before you spend a year of your life writing an YA dystopian urban fantasy because “YADUF is sooooo hawt right now”, ask yourself if it’s still going to be hot in two years (best case scenario, that’s the timeline you’re looking at before you hit shelves like a muthafuckin’ bomb). Then ask yourself if it’s what you want you really want to do.

 If you’re not writing what you love, you’ll know it. And your reader will too.


Just what everyone needed…

I like writing lists. There’s something Zen about the practice. So I’ve drawn y’all a list of ten things you’ll need to get published. Even with these ten things, “the Deal’ is in no way guaranteed, and the list is far from complete. For starters, it’s missing “A fucking awesome agent” and “A shit-tonne of good luck”. But ten is a nice round number, and with these ten gems in your pocket, you stand a better chance of getting somewhere in this madhouse than with just a wing and a prayer.

So, without further foreplay, it would be lovely if you laid your grubby mitts upon:

A good, original idea: It’s hard to have a good idea, even harder to have an original one. The chances of doing both at the same time? Up there with finding a straight man who enjoys watching GLEE.

Sum up your book in a sentence, and then ask yourself if you can imagine people getting excited about it. “Everyday kid goes to Wizard School”. “Dystopian future where kids battle each other for public amusement”. “Futuristic warfare fought entirely by the elderly”. Those are cool ideas. They have “legs”, as marketing types might say over a round of chai lattes. Unfortunately, they’ve all been done, so you’ll have to think up your own. 😛

An interesting Protagonist: Let’s face it, your hero/antihero is going to carry the entire book on their shoulders. You could be the greatest writer in the world, but if your main character isn’t someone people want to spend time with, your book is doooomed. They don’t have to be likeable, heroic or even competent. But they need to be ‘readable’.

A good litmus test – If you bumped into your protagonist at a cocktail party, would you stick around to chat, or be looking for the first opportunity to hit the eject button? (Pro tip – I pretend I have a phonecall from my wife in these uncomfortable situations. Nobody is going to question you if you fumble in your pocket, look at your phone and say “Damn, it’s the missus…” . Unless she’s in the room of course, eyes on the ball FFS…)

An awesome enemy: Struggle will define your protagonist, and his/her’s conquest of their obstacles (or failure to do so) will be the meat of your book. The enemy doesn’t need to have murdered your protag’s parents or strangle kittens for lols. (the best villains are often the ones that the reader can sympathise with). But they do need to have clear motivations/mechanics, and concrete goals beyond “do something evil here to spice up this plot a bit”.

Quick note from the Kristoff headspace – Victory without sacrifice is meaningless. Your protag will very likely triumph over his/her enemy in some fashion at the end of your book. But if they get there without paying for it, your reader will feel cheated. Your reader must believe that there is a chance of failure. Victory must be paid for. When in doubt, adopt the Joss Whedon philosophy and start wasting secondary characters (“OMG, not Wasssssh!!!”). That’ll make the bastards sit up and pay attention.

A vague idea where you’re going: My thoughts on plot outlines have been set down previously. I firmly believe they are the fruit of Satan’s black loins. That said, you need to have a loose understanding of where all this is headed, or you’re going to wander forever in the Land of No Point. Even if it’s as loose as “Get to tha choppa by page 50” or broad brushstroke outlines of act structure.

When I started writing STORMDANCER, I knew exactly how it was going to end. I just needed to figure out how to get there. But having that goal clearly in mind along the way helped keep me on the winding but narrow path.

A quiet place: Silence in imperative. Not merely in an aural sense. To write, you need to be alone. Phonecalls, text messages, the interwebs, these are all distractions that can not only pull you from the page, but pull you from the moment – that sublime cluster of seconds where it all finally clicks and every single word you write is golden. That moment where the plot comes together in your head, and all the answers make themselves plain and say “fool, we were here all along, you just needed to get off the damn Twitter”.

Distractions are the writer’s enemy. First and foremost, above and beyond the demons of ‘the Block’ or ‘the Deadline’. Slay that shit.

An understanding with your partner: Writing takes time. A lot of it. You get to set your own pace when you’re pulling your first MS together. But believe me when I say that after it gets picked up (and it will get picked up, see point 10), you’re going to be one busy little beaver. Oscar Wilde said that books are never finished, they’re merely abandoned. Depending on the kind of person you are, you won’t abandon that sucker until the final bell.

Writing will take you away from other things. Things like your partner. Your household duties. Your kids. You need to have an understanding with your significant one before you embark upon this journey, because they’re going to see more of the back of your head than the front for a little while.

An ability to self-edit: You need to be able to look at the best paragraph you’ve ever written in your life and realise that it has no business being in your ms. You need to be able to take a scalpel to words you spent hours of your life agonizing over, sacrificing scenes for the sake of flow, subplots for the sake of clarity and entire characters for the sake of brevity. And you need to be able to do this by yourself, without needing anyone else to confirm your suspicions.

If you think it’s too long, it probably is. If you think a scene isn’t needed, it probably isn’t.

A kickass Beta: Your test audience should be more well-read than you. They should be smarter than you. They should have the ability to be brutally, curb-stompingly honest with you, and you need to be grown up enough to still be on speaking terms after they’ve doled out the harshness your MS requires.

Above all, you need to trust their instincts implicitly. This doesn’t mean you have to listen to everything they say. But you do need to share their opinions about what makes a book/film/program good. If you think TWILIGHT was utter pap, and your beta is part of the other 98% of the world’s population, this relationship, she will end badly.

The ability to walk away: You will be ultra excited when you finish the MS. You’ll want to send it out to agents RIGHT THIS SECOND.

Don’t. Put it away. In a box. Buried in your backyard with some Hired Goons standing watch over it. Don’t touch it for a month. Start writing something else, go out in the sunlight (ssssss!), have a drink. Do anything but poring over those words. You need perspective to see your mistakes. You need distance to see the details.

Belief: This is an absurd dream. The chances of getting a publishing deal are not awesome. My agent’s super-powered assistant slogs through 100+ slush queries per week, and my agent signs maybe 1 writer a year. I’ve heard that some agents get over 500 queries per week. 25,000 annually. The odds of actually getting a deal are even longer. Right up there with winning the lottery. But you have to believe you can do it. Because at first, no-one else will.

I’ve never taken a writing class. Never been to a writer’s conference. Never had a college roommate who turned out to be the editor of a big house, or learned a secret handshake. I am nobody, and I still did it. And you can too.

It takes hard work. Sweat and grinding teeth and sleepless nights, and days upon days of the most intense self-doubt you will ever know. You will feel blind. Utterly lost. Struggling through the throes of rejection with nothing but boiler plate to guide you forward. Every writer with a publishing deal does this. It is our baptism. And the only thing that got any of us through it was the belief that we could.

Beyond luck. Beyond talent. Beyond hard work. Before any and all of that, you need to believe you can. And with that belief (and that good luck and hard work) you can do anything.

So believe, motherfuckers.


Two Minutes Hate: Remakes

Dear Hollywood,

Why do you keep taking the properties I loved as a child and sodomizing remaking them for the Halo Fratboy crowd modern audiences? The first Conan did the job. It’s a revenge story about a guy with pecs bigger than your average Norwegian, who hacks people to pieces with an enormous metal penis substitute. How will this tale be improved with shit-tonnes of cgi? What gold do you suspect remains unmined between Conan’s muscular buttocks?

WTF is with this trailer? How many cigarettes did you make that voice over guy smoke before he laid down the track? I can HEAR the fucking cancer in the poor bastard’s voice. And is this honestly the best snippet of dialogue your new pretty-boy Conan spouts in this film? “I live, I love, I slay”? Hell, the orginal Conan was no Shakespeare in the script dept, but at least Arnie had a funny accent.

If this film were to stand before Crom, he would laugh at it and cast it out of Valhalla.

STOP IT.


A Day in the Life

As far as being very busy goes, I can’t really remember a point in my life where things were quite this frantic. I’m essentially working two jobs atm – one regular salary type deal to feed my nerd habits pay my mortgage, and one super-awesome, so-much-fun-it-doesn’t-feel-like-work (but actually, it really is) second job that I do in the spare time I used to have.

An average day:

7.00am – Woken by alarm. Turn off alarm, go back to sleep.
7.15am – Get up, eat, watch half hour of whatever series I’m ploughing through this week (rewatching Spartacus atm), drive to work.
9.00am – Slave like zombie. Waste time Tweeting complete bollocks or blogging about shit no-one cares about because I can’t think of anything better to write about this week.
1.00pm – Eat.
1.05pm – Grab laptop and spare meeting room. Write/edit novel for 55 minutes.
2.00pm – Brrrrrrains.
5.00pm – Drive home.
6.00pm – Walk dog. (I’m one of those people who refuses to pick up my animal’s fecal matter from the bushes he leaves it in. If you think this makes me a bad person,  hatemail and computer viruses can be sent to misterkristoff-AT-gmail.com.)
7.00pm – Eat. Watch 1 hour of couple-friendly TV series with wife-unit (The Walking Dead atm – yes, we are an odd couple)
8.30pm – Write.
11.30pm – Read.
12 or 1am – Sleep.

Repeat. Every day for the foreseeable future.

Thing is, it doesn’t feel like work (well, nothing except the wageslave gig). It feels grand. It feels like I’m doing one of the coolest things I will ever do in my entire life. But it does take up a metric fuck-tonne of my time. So if I don’t return your emails super-quick, or forget to call you back, apologies in advance.

I still wuv youuuuuu!


State of the World Address

A few things are happening on the trilogy front, so I thought I’d update y’all with the skinny.

1) My trilogy sold to French publishers Bragelonne (who amongst other SF/F luminaries,  publish NYT #1 bestseller [huge grats] Pat Rothfuss). Bragelonne offered on books 2 & 3 sight unseen, which makes me feel pretty good about book #1. So yeah, I’ll officially be published in a non-English speaking country. It’ll be interesting translating my psuedo Jap-lish into French (I only know how to swear in French). 😛

2) My editor’s notes have come back on STORMDANCER, and I’m plunging back into the breach this weekend. The vast majority of suggestions were of the “GIVE US MOARR” variety – more detail, more world-building. I chopped a bunch of detail out of the ms in order to get to a certain pivotal point in the narrative by page 50 (mainly for the benefits of literary agents, who often request the first 50) and it feels nice to be told “leave nothing on the editing room floor”. So yeah, really looking forward to getting back into this sandbox I’ve made and building a few more castles 🙂

3) Book 2 is naturally on hold until STORMDANCER is complete, but I’m sitting about 80k and almost at the end of Act 2. It’s feeling really good, but it’ll be helpful to spend a month off from it, finish STORMDANCER and then come back with fresh eyes. My beautiful bride, as always, is serving as Beta-in-Chief and Culler of All Things Lamesauce.

4) Still trying to think of a series title. It’s hard. Harder than resisting the urge to finish this post with a witticism about other hard things…

…Jesus, mind out of the gutter, peoples.


Of Outlines and Merkins

A couple of people have been asking me about “the writing process” lately – the mechanics of actually sitting down and writing a book. Let me clarify something: If I was teaching a writing class, you probably wouldn’t want to attend it. Seriously, I’d just stand up the front looking confused, then start talking about how “Spartacus: Blood and Sand” is actually a brilliantly written and conceived series, once you get past all the merkins and blood-porn.

I’m probably the last person you should ask for advice about how to write. However, I’ll give out one nugget of wisdom, which may only be true for me, and it is this:

Novel outlines are sunless alleys where great stories are dragged and quietly strangled.

Yes, I realise this is tantamount to heresy in some circles. I know of authors who write 30 page novel outlines, with each chapter planned out in meticulous detail. And this obviously works for them. I’m not knocking it, it’s just not for me.

I don’t write an outline in anything but the roughest, most bare-bones sense (usually four of five chapters in advance, and only towards the middle of the book). My problem with outlines is that they tend to take the spontaneity out of the writing process. It’s lovely to never have to sit down in front of a blank page and ask “So what happens now?” But the best twists and turns I’ve thought of in my books literally sprang into my head as I was writing the scene. ( Either that, or just bouncing ideas off my lovely bride). They are not planned. They are tiny, joyous little surprises, like finding that rumpled fifty in the back pocket of an old pair of jeans.

This is where I get my biggest writing kicks  – the moments where I surprise myself. And the problem with writing a novel outline, especially the kind that are minutely detailed, is that you don’t leave any room for that spontaneity – those “OMG, wouldn’t it be cool if…” moments.

(Besides which, if halfway through your book, you think of an awesome twist that totally changes the direction of the plot, all the effort you put into your meticulous plan has to be scrapped, because your book is headed in a direction you never anticipated.)

The best (and worst) moments in life are the ones you probably didn’t expect. If a turn in your novel surprises you, you can be damn sure it will surprise your readers too. And nobody is getting surprised if they have every inch of the journey planned out in some spiffy piece of writing software, color-coded and quantified like some Rimmer-eque revision chart.

You don’t need a map to go exploring. You just need a rough idea of where you want to end up, and a willingness to take wrong turns get hopelessly lost. But hopefully along the way, you’ll also find yourself in amazing places you never would have discovered if you set out with a shiny compass and a crisp set of directions and an exact idea of what your destination will be. And hopefully you’ll have some fun in there too.

Anyway, it works for me. But again, merkins and blood porn, so yeah…

Grain of salt, peoples. Grain of salt.