Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Fallacy of the Built-In Audience

I spend a lot of time on writer's sites. One site in particular is full of aspiring and already published writers. And I notice a lot of the aspiring ones doing something that drives me up the bloody wall: Claiming that their book has a "built-in audience."

I didn't pay much attention to this phrase until someone said their supposed built-in audience was Roman Catholics. I'm Roman Catholic. I had no interest whatsoever in this person's book. It was about history. I read fantasy, and urban fantasy in particular.

Since then, I notice it everywhere. One person's novel has a built-in audience of knitters. Another has a built-in audience of Chinese Americans. Another has a built-in audience of cat lovers.

Your book has exactly one built-in audience: People who read the kind of things you have written. The reason your book doesn't have the built-in audience you thought it did?

1) Not everyone in that "built-in audience" reads.

2) Not everyone in that "built-in audience" who reads reads fiction.

3) Not everyone in that "built-in audience" who reads fiction reads your genre.

4) Not everyone in that "built-in audience" who reads your genre will like your book.

Saying you have a "built-in audience" is a lie. You're either lying to yourself, or you're lying to the agent you want to represent you. Lying to either is not a good way to make a living.

Monday, September 28, 2015

In Defense of How-To Books

Imagine you know a young boy who's very interested in butterflies. He wants to collect them, study them. He wants to be an entomologist and study butterflies all day. Now, imagine you tell this boy that the best way to learn about butterflies is to go out and collect them. Just keep looking. The boy trusts you, and goes out and collects butterflies. He comes to know a great deal about what butterflies look like. But he doesn't know the names of the parts, or that males and females are the same species even when they don't look alike. He might not even realize that butterflies start as caterpillars, because he's only been collecting butterflies.

Imagine you told the same boy instead to read about butterflies while he was collecting them. Imagine you gave him a book that you trusted, and let him match up what he saw when he collected butterflies to what was in the book. Now he not only knows what the butterflies in his collection look like and how they move, but can also describe how their parts fit together and how they can fly.

For some people, books are like those butterflies. We can read all we want, but we will never intuitively put together why things work the way they do, or if we do it will be only after spending ten years reading and nothing else. We will never figure out on our own why our books don't work. But once we read a good book or two about why good books work, we can match that information to the books on our shelves and the ones coming out of our fingertips.

On the other hand, it's far too easy to become lost in the sea of how-to books and not do the work of reading and writing. And in the end, if you want to learn about butterflies, you're going to need a net.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fear of Finishing

A few years ago I read a lovely essay about the fear of finishing writing a book. It was a brilliant piece that made me own up to the real reason I hadn't ever finished a novel-length story, or any story without a deadline. It made me confront it, and from there I started finishing things. (When I figure out how to finish editing a piece, I'll let you know.)

That's not the kind of finishing I'm talking about today.

There's another kind of fear of finishing: The fear of finishing reading a book, or especially a series.

I read YA almost exclusively, where books are published almost exclusively in trilogies. And I've discovered recently that while I devour the first two books in a trilogy in about a day apiece, I drag my feet on the third book. I just returned two such books to the library after finally admitting to myself that I wasn't going to finish them anytime soon.

There are two reasons I'm afraid (I'll use that word, it's honest) of finishing a series. One, what if it's bad? This fear, I feel, is fully justified. A lot of these books were not conceived as series, and a lot of the series end horribly. See Divergent for an example. I could write an entire series of posts about why I hated Allegiant. If the series turns out to end badly, it will sour my love of the other books in the series. It's hard for me to enjoy Divergent when I wanted to set Allegiant on fire.

The other reason is the much bigger one, the one I think a lot of readers relate to. We don't want the book to end at all. It's like the Eleventh Doctor, who ripped out the last page of the book so it wouldn't have to end. (He didn't like endings.) If I drag my feet through the third book, then it never has to end. I can return it to the library unfinished. I don't have to know how it ended. I can make up a better ending. And I can rest safe in the knowledge that I can go back and read it anytime I want, and it will be new because I never finished it.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Meta Monday: In Defense of Genre Fiction

I know I've been absent a few days. I stalled at the end of my trip to Michigan and now I'm in Denver, which delights in giving me headaches. Altitude's a bitch. Anyway, I'm back now, and I'm going to talk about something that's very near and dear to my heart.

Today an agent I follow on Twitter posted a link to this HuffPost article asking if people agree with it. To summarize the article, it claims that literary fiction is more successful than genre fiction because success in novel writing is defined not by money, but by influence and "importance." Let's take this apart piece by piece.

1. Success in writing is not defined by money.

There are two problems with this. First of all, there is more than one kind of success. It is disingenuous to suggest that there is only one kind. Honestly I could throw out the entire argument on the basis that success can be defined in numerous ways. Monetary success is different from emotional success and both are different from prestige.

Second, I want to make something very clear here. If you are a professional writer, then writing is your business. And people get into business to make money. It's that simple. So yes, at least one kind of success in writing is defined by money.

2. Genre fiction is not successful because it is not influential.

Look, I'll agree that people mostly don't want to think very hard while they're reading. Let's get that out of the way. But that doesn't mean genre fiction isn't influential. It in fact can mean the exact opposite.

There's a phenomenon that can be observed when comedians are telling offensive jokes. People laugh. They laugh because when we're being entertained we turn off the part of our brains that would normally go "Dude not funny." The same thing happens in genre fiction. When we're being entertained, we're not examining the ideas that are entertaining us. We're just taking them in. Which in turn means that entertaining fiction can bypass the parts of our brains that would normally think an idea to death. Authors of genre fiction can suggest ideas that we'll just accept. This can be good or bad. I for one learned that suicide was a common thought because of how it's treated in New Moon. On the other hand, I learned that people really do understand the feeling because of how it's treated in Heroes of Olympus.

In fact, I'm going to go on record as saying that Percy Jackson influenced me more than Gentlemen of the Road (the author of the piece cites Michael Chabon as a "successful" writer because he is "influential"). I don't remember anything about Gentlemen of the Road except that I didn't like the ending and I thought what's-his-face traded down by going with the girl instead of his partner. Percy Jackson taught me things and made me feel. I learned about Greek myths, I learned about possibilities, I learned how to write an ensemble cast, and for the solid week it took me to read both series I was happy. Literary fiction doesn't give me any of that.

3. Literary fiction is influential, therefore it is successful.

I've already dismantled the part of this argument that equates influence with the only kind of success. But let's look at this for a minute.

If a literary book is read by a hundred people, and those people walk away with deeper ideas about life, then yes, it was influential. But its sphere of influence is very small. If a genre book is read by a thousand people, and those thousand people have good days because they read a good book, then that book's sphere of influence is much greater. Further, that happy feeling can be replicated by reading another good book. Literary fiction might be chewy, it might make you think for a while; but how will you replicate that feeling? More to the point, how long will you hold onto it before you go back to your normal way of thinking?

Never forget that the Potterheads grew up to believe more in equality. That's millions and millions of people whose worldviews were fundamentally and permanently changed by reading a genre series. How many literary books can say that?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Wordy Wednesday: Why you REALLY want a translator

I am a serial language student. I can hold a conversation in French and Spanish, and even ASL (American Sign Language) if the other person is patient with me. Accordingly, I have bilingual characters. Nico speaks Spanish. Devin and his whole family speak French. Leighton speaks Italian. And when writing, I try to sprinkle some of that in. Always done by me.

My mom, for those who don't know, is a Spanish teacher. She tells stories about the days when entering "How tall are you?" into a translator would result in "Cómo alto eres?", which is what's called a transliteration or word-by-word translation. It makes no sense to a Spanish speaker.

Presently, Google tells you the correct translation ("Cuánto mides?"). But if you translate "Pleased to meet you" into French, it gives you "Heureux de vous rencontrer," which among other things is the wrong kind of "meet" ("rencontrer" refers to a meeting, not meeting someone; that's "faire la connaissance").

It's little things like this that mean translators will never go out of business. Even though Google's translation into Spanish is technically right ("Encantado de conocerte") you're unlikely to ever see it. Google can't tell you that the easiest and most common way to say "Pleased to meet you" is "Mucho gusto," because the way it's giving you is technically right. It also can't tell you that you don't need "de conocerte"; "encantado" by itself means the same thing. And it won't tell you that if you're female you need to say "encantada" or if you're talking to a CEO you'd say "conocerle".

When friends write bilingual characters, I do the translation for them. And even if you're only doing a few sentences, you should get an actual speaker to do them for you. Patricia Briggs talked about how several books into the Mercy Thompson series, a nice German man wrote her to say that her (self-translated) German was kind of, well, bad. It's embarrassing and it's so easily avoided if you can find a friendly speaker who will translate a few words of dialogue for you.

Of course, if you're translating a whole book, then you definitely want a translator; but they're not as likely to do it for free, and if they offer you should be suspicious.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Meta Monday: Werewolves

Werewolves are one of those classic monsters, like vampires, that everyone has written about. And every single one of them will tell you in their book or movie or show that the myths are just that, myths. That werewolves don't (kill people, only turn on a full moon, die if you shoot them with silver, etc.). So if the stories are always different, what makes someone a werewolf?

I've read Mercy Thompson, Raised by Wolves, Twilight (don't judge me), some Sookie Stackhouse, Harry Potter, and a bunch of others I forget. I've also seen Teen Wolf and The Vampire Diaries. That's the tip of the iceberg, because I've read a lot of werewolf stuff, and I've sampled some of it and put it right back down. But that'll work for now.

In essence, a werewolf is someone who turns into a wolf or half-wolf creature. That's it. Period. That's the sum total of what binds all the werewolf myths together. But there are other rules too, like:

  • Werewolf stories will always laugh at the person who says werewolves are only a myth.
  • Werewolves are almost always weak to silver. If not, the myth that they are will be directly addressed and explained.
  • If werewolves are not weak to silver, they will be weak to wolfsbane.
  • There is always some way to force a werewolf to change against its will. If they don't have to change at the full moon, then they change when they get angry, or their Alpha can force them to change, or something else. Werewolves are, in general, not allowed to be in control of the shift all the time.
  • Speaking of, even if werewolves can change at other times, they usually have to change at the full moon.
  • Werewolves always function best in packs. In the real world, incidentally, wolves only form packs in captivity, and otherwise function in family units.
  • Oh, also? If vampires exist in the same universe, they almost always hate each other.
With vampires, incidentally, the weaknesses and strengths vary a lot more.

Why make a post about werewolves? Because they're so common they're practically a trope in and of themselves. Because I read a lot about them and it's fun to look at the similarities. And because it's Meta Monday which means it's time to talk about fiction.

What did I miss? Are there other rules that all werewolves follow? Have you seen exceptions to the rules above?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Squishy Saturday: Publication!!!

About a year ago, I submitted a poem for publication. You may remember this, because I blogged about it. (Probably not, because no one follows this blog. I am in essence shouting into the void. And I'm okay with that.)

Anyway. I submitted it. I never heard back. After a while I forgot about the poem entirely. Then a few weeks ago I got a response. And it was that response. The "We want it" response.

I was over the moon. Still am. As of this August, I will officially be a published writer. A professional writer. Granted the magazine only pays a semi-pro rate, but that's fine. Semi-pro is still money, and money makes me a professional.

I'll post details when I get my contributor's copy (and money! Did I mention the money?) about where to get yours. Until then, I'm just going to be over here glowing about it.