Sunday, September 15, 2019

When To Take the Market into Consideration


Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is our most frequent story starter -- idea, milieu, character, theme, what-if, trope, editor request, etc.

It's an interesting question because when people ask me in interviews where I start with a story, I always say a particular character or sometimes a specific image. But in reading this week's suggestion, I realized that I've changed on this somewhat. It's not that the ideas themselves don't start for me with characters in a particular situation or image - that's absolutely true - but I also have a LOT of ideas, all dutifully listed in my notes. So, as far as a story starter is concerned, I've realized that it is largely affected by the "editor request" category.

By that I mean, what editors are looking for, what my agent thinks she can sell, what my non-compete agreements allow, or - for self-publishing - what I think readers are most likely to pay me for!

In short, what "prompts" me to start a story these days is a business decision. For traditional publishing, my agent (Sarah Younger at Nancy Yost Literary Agency) and I discuss what steps might best advance my career. We talk about goals, publishing houses, possible advance money. We also have to navigate agreements with my current publishers not to compete with the books I'm doing with them. I really love that she brings this business perspective to the table, because I am trying to making a living with my art.

This is something I discuss with authors when I'm advising them on making decisions about an agent. (I seem to be doing a lot that lately.) One key criterion in choosing an agent is do you want someone who will advise you on your next project this way, taking market considerations into account, or would you rather write your next story without input and give it to them when it's ready?

Both methods are valid, and different artistic temperaments work better with each, or somewhere in between. And agents fall out on the same spectrum.

Also, with my self-publishing career, I could make a choice based on my heart - what story do I really want to get out there? - and I've done that. But when I have an eye on paying the mortgage for the next year, I have to be practical and think about what I can write that I'll love, but that my readers will love, too.

A very long time ago, when I was an aspiring writer with a few publications but not much more, a pro writer friend advised me to enjoy that time. He said being able to write whatever I wanted without practical considerations was a freedom I wouldn't have once I became established.

It was good advice, because that's largely true. As a newbie author when you're still casting about for your voice and what story will work, there IS a tremendous freedom in that, a kind that's worth savoring.

At this point, however, I find that applying practical considerations isn't at all stifling, the way he implied. Instead it helps me filter out all the many wonderful ideas. AND it helps pay the bills.

Win, all around.

****
Speaking of win!

Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is our most frequent story starter -- idea, milieu, character, theme, what-if, trope, editor request, etc.

It's an interesting question because when people ask me in interviews where I start with a story, I always say a particular character or sometimes a specific image. But in reading this week's suggestion, I realized that I've changed on this somewhat. It's not that the ideas themselves don't start for me with characters in a particular situation or image - that's absolutely true - but I also have a LOT of ideas, all dutifully listed in my notes. So, as far as a story starter is concerned, I've realized that it is largely affected by the "editor request" category.

By that I mean, what editors are looking for, what my agent thinks she can sell, what my non-compete agreements allow, or - for self-publishing - what I think readers are most likely to pay me for!

In short, what "prompts" me to start a story these days is a business decision. For traditional publishing, my agent (Sarah Younger at Nancy Yost Literary Agency) and I discuss what steps might best advance my career. We talk about goals, publishing houses, possible advance money. We also have to navigate agreements with my current publishers not to compete with the books I'm doing with them. I really love that she brings this business perspective to the table, because I am trying to making a living with my art.

This is something I discuss with authors when I'm advising them on making decisions about an agent. (I seem to be doing a lot that lately.) One key criterion in choosing an agent is do you want someone who will advise you on your next project this way, taking market considerations into account, or would you rather write your next story without input and give it to them when it's ready?

Both methods are valid, and different artistic temperaments work better with each, or somewhere in between. And agents fall out on the same spectrum.

Also, with my self-publishing career, I could make a choice based on my heart - what story do I really want to get out there? - and I've done that. But when I have an eye on paying the mortgage for the next year, I have to be practical and think about what I can write that I'll love, but that my readers will love, too.

A very long time ago, when I was an aspiring writer with a few publications but not much more, a pro writer friend advised me to enjoy that time. He said being able to write whatever I wanted without practical considerations was a freedom I wouldn't have once I became established.

It was good advice, because that's largely true. As a newbie author when you're still casting about for your voice and what story will work, there IS a tremendous freedom in that, a kind that's worth savoring.

At this point, however, I find that applying practical considerations isn't at all stifling, the way he implied. Instead it helps me filter out all the many wonderful ideas. AND it helps pay the bills.

Win, all around.

* * *

Speaking of win!

I'm participating in the Romance for RAICES fundraiser! You can win a critique from me and genre analysis - which means I'll help you figure out the right agent for you, if that's what you're looking for. Such a great cause!

 

Saturday, September 14, 2019

House with a Library at the Heart

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There’s a line in my author bio about growing up in a house with a library at the heart, and that’s actually not hyperbole. When I was about 7, we moved from an apartment in Syracuse, NY to a house out in what was then a dairy farming and game preserve countryside and when we moved in, my parents had one room turned into an actual library. I remember the local handyman commenting he’d never been asked to build bookshelves before and how much he enjoyed the assignment. The shelves went floor to ceiling, all the way around the room, and then there was a chair, a side table and a lamp. 

I think probably the room was supposed to be the dining room, but we always ate in the big country kitchen anyway, so the library worked. I remember how cool it was to walk in there – my Dad had all his engineering and science textbooks from his undergrad work at Rutgers, plus shelves and shelves of science fiction, philosophy, Louis L’Amour westerns, thrillers, etc. It was a real library!

My Dad was a voracious and extremely fast reader. I inherited that from him, as well as my love for SF.

My mother was a reader of the classics and poetry (neither of which I inherited any love for). She liked to read and re-read, annotate, ponder, make diary entries about specific passages, correspond with her sisters and other friends about the books…she also tended toward really thick Russian novels like The Brothers Karamazov. She did read the occasional historical novel, like The Robe and I grabbed those when she was done. 

DepositPhoto
We had the obligatory-at-the-time Encyclopedia (not sure which one we owned) as well as my grandfather’s really old encyclopedia from the 1930’s. I loved that one because it had so many entries about ancient Romans and other facts which the more modern one ignored completely. We had Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, which I loved but which frustrated me every time because they were condensed and I always wondered what I was missing. And we had Time-Life books about the ancient world, which I drooled over because my interests have always been science fiction and ancient Egypt.

Books were the thing at my house. I never had to spend my own money on books. (Our topic this week is what was the first book we ever bought with our own money.) My parents believed in the value of reading widely and they kept a flow of books coming for me. My father used to spend one night a week after work in Syracuse with my paternal grandfather and they’d always go to this huge used bookstore after dinner and pick books for me. I read so many series, like Tom Corbett Space Cadet and Trixie Belden, my Dad always knew what to get me and in those days there was no Amazon or eBay to order backlists from so if he got me volume 7 and volume 23, I didn’t care – I was thrilled. He’d come home with a bagful of books for himself and for me, and I’d be in heaven. 

I actually got to set foot in this book paradise twice as I was growing up and I still remember the joy I felt digging through all the shelves. In my memory it was a huge place – who knows how big it really was, but to a little girl set loose to find all the books she wanted in an hour, it was paradise.

Now what I did spend my allowance on was comic books. My mother despised comic books, deeming them trashy and immoral (not sure why – it all went over my head at that young age) and I remember an argument between my parents every week when we drove into town to go shopping, because I had my allowance in my plastic purse and I fully intended to buy all the new issues of as many of my favorite comics as I could afford, at the drugstore. Dad was the ultimate authority in our household so I knew I’d be allowed to splurge, but Mother was Not Amused. Every week. I was stubborn. I guess their compromise was they wouldn’t pay for comics, but if I was willing to use up my allowance, okay then.

I was really into DC superheroes, Tarzan (but mostly because I loved the B feature, which was ‘Brothers of the Spear,”) Magnus Robot Hunter, and a few others that were SF or Fantasy. One year I talked them into giving me a subscription to Justice League and I remember being so happy every month when the comic showed up in the mail! I felt very adult getting ‘my’ new issue directly, not off the revolving stand at the drugstore. Of course they wouldn't let me subscribe to more than one so I was still buying others every week and when the year was over I didn't get to resubscribe either.

So there you have it!
(We won’t talk about how much of my budget disappears into Amazon’s coffers for books and ebooks nowadays…I don’t seem to buy comic books – or manga or graphic novels – any more!)

Friday, September 13, 2019

Scholastic Book Fair Fear

My parents lived in terror, you guys. They knew that at least once a year, my elementary school was going to do a Scholastic Book Fair. They knew that when that happened, I was going to come home with a catalog of books with every single book (that wasn't about sports) marked as a must have.

In no way was my allowance going to cover more than two books.

Yet my parents, on an NCO's paltry salary, so valued books and reading that they'd solemnly take my allowance money, tell me I could pick a maximum of 10 and then they'd write out the check while I spent the rest of the night agonizing over how to finalize my order. I don't know if this kind of subsidized book buying qualifies as "My First Book Buy" but hey, I did throw cash into the pot. But yes. I was self-servingly not at all curious about why the dollar amount I had for book buying didn't match the dollar amount written on the check. Adults were so inscrutable when I was 8. I'm pretty sure that's the year I got A Pony Called Lightning. It was the book that got me started on rollicking, fast-paced adventure stories.

I have to say that looking back, the Scholastic catalog from the early 70s was short on SF and Fantasy. Horse books were the best I could do. SF was still a young-ish genre at that point and fighting hard for legitimacy. I do recall picking up some post-apocalyptic dystopian kinds of stories in later years - precursors, I think to today's YA books.

Do you know, I think I still have this book packed in a trunk. It has this exact cover, in fact. I wonder if the read still holds up to my childhood memories. <Wanders off in search of the book and a cup of tea.>

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Tiny fangirl buys book about fandom and we are all so surprised

I was five when Empire Strikes Back came out in theaters, so I completely missed out on that whole experience, but over the next few years, Star Wars (later called A New Hope) was shown on network television. We didn’t have cable in my house, but I did watch ANH, commercials and all, and was absolutely enchanted. I guess Empire was shown on cable, but I never saw it. As 1984 and the release of Return of the Jedi approached, I furiously, desperately printed letters on notebook paper — because I didn’t know how to write in cursive yet — and sent them snail-mail to the local network affiliate, begging them to screen Empire before Return of the Jedi’s release in 1984. No one ever replied, and of course it wasn’t shown.

With the clock ticking down, there was really only one thing for an eight-year-old to do. I saved up my birthday and newspaper-delivery money and bought the novelization. This was fairly heavy reading for such a young kid, and it was probably my first book completely without pictures, but I inhaled it, sighed, and then dove right back in for a second read. I memorized whole passages. The cover hung on by a splinter.

It was the first book I ever read that had kissing on the page. Crazy! Revolutionary! I didn’t even know what a date was, and here Princess Leia was kissing somebody. Whoa.

People, I was beyond ready, when Jedi came out, to stand in line to get into the theater and then wait, breath bated, to see if Darth V had been lying his mostly-mechanical booty off. (Spoiler: he wasn’t! Obi-wan, that fibber! It was unbelievable to a second-grader that the villain would be telling the truth and the hero would be lying. My world was rocked.)

So say what you want about merchandizing or movie novelizations, but that particular one initiated me into a whole new galaxy of fandom, reading, and relationship goals.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Little Me's First Book Buy

The first book I bought with my very own hard-earned chore money?

Probably an Archie comic book, one of the digest multi-issues; the thicker the better because those had the stories with the characters I actually enjoyed, like Midge and Moose, Jughead, or better still Katy Keene. Best of all would've been a Sabrina inclusion or Josie and the Pussycats. I hated Betty and Veronica for being so mean and vacuous whenever Archie was involved, then being besties whenever he wasn't around to mess things up. The whole fighting over a boy who chased anything with boobs? Little me did not get that. Old me still doesn't.

If I didn't like the titular character, why bother with the comic? It was the only series on which my sister and I could agree, and we figured out early in the allowance game that if we each bought an Archie comic book then we could switch and have two books for the price of one. Psht, I could put up with the dumb stories in exchange for twice the good ones.

Also? Archie was one of the few comics consistently stocked in the PX or the Shopette regardless of base. Yes, dear reader, I am an Army brat. 

Yes, dear reader, my sister and I still swap Archie comics because we're silly middle-aged broads who love a waltz down memory lane. Yes, Archie is still TDTL (which someone agreed with when they killed him in 2014).


Sunday, September 8, 2019

What Was the First Book You Ever Bought?


Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is the first book bought with your own money.

I usually look at the topic a few days ahead, to put in the back of my mind and mull. So I've been thinking about this question for a few days. And, really, I have NO IDEA.

There were a *lot* of books in my youth. My mom and I visited the library every Wednesday afternoon, where I was allowed to select five books and no more. Sometimes I ran out before the next Wednesday arrived. But even then I had books in reserve on my shelves - ones I had already read and ones I hadn't - because people gave me books as gifts. And there were always my mom's books to get into.

I read an awful lot of books that I didn't love, simply because I had nothing else to read. Back then I had no concept that maybe I wouldn't like a book, or that a book might be beyond me at that point in time. Some of the gifted books, while well-intentioned, had likely been bought on bookseller recommendations. You know the "well, she likes fantasy" and so someone gave me the box set of Stephen R. Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant when I was WAY too young to understand it. I can't tell you how many times I started Lord Foul's Bane and bounced off. Same with Tolkein's The Silmarillion. I don't think anyone realized the vast distance between reading The Hobbit and that.

I started earning my own money when I was... seven? Eight? I think it was after my mom remarried (my father had died several year previous) and my stepdad believed in giving an allowance and assigning chores. I received $5/week, but I don't recall what I spent it on. Maybe I was older? I know I started babysitting when I was twelve, and that's when I had actual pocket money that I saved up. I remember saving up to buy this crystal bird on a brass hoop for something outrageous like $75. (I still have it!)

And I have a very clear memory of buying Anne McCaffrey's DRAGONFLIGHT. The book was first published in 1968, but I definitely bought this edition. (That pic is an actual scan of the book, which I also still have.) That edition came out in 1979, according to Goodreads, which would have meant I was likely twelve. I do know I spotted it on the mass-market paperback display at mall bookstore - probably a B.Dalton - and feeling that rush of sheer astonishment and joy.

See, I'd read DRAGONSONG in my elementary school library when I was ten, and loved loved loved it. I had no idea that there might be *other* books by the same author, and in the same world! Back then the world of books and series was much more opaque. Whatever was on the bookstore or library shelf was all that existed, so far as readers knew. There really wasn't much of a way to find out more. You could ask booksellers and librarians, but they only had limited means to look stuff up.

Amazing how that's changed.

Anyway, reader, I bought the book. For $1.95 - a substantial dent in my weekly allowance, but I paid it gladly. And I bought the sequels. And related books. I cheerfully spent most of my allowance on books, then threw myself into babysitting with enthusiasm so I could continue to afford the habit.

A habit that continues to this day. I very much believe in buying books. I figure what goes around comes around, and if I want people to buy my books, I should buy their books. It's always entertaining when tax time rolls around and I add it all up. I spend easily a couple of thousand dollars each year on books.

Money well spent. My twelve year old self would approve.



Saturday, September 7, 2019

Andre Norton's Influence


Our topic at the SFF Seven this week is In Memoriam: a tribute to a writer you admire who has left us.

I have to concur with my fellow SFF7 member Marcella Burnard and say Andre Norton is my person, although my reasons are somewhat different, I think.

First of all I’ve written about Andre Norton and her influence on me many times. For example:
The earliest influence on my writing was Andre Norton. Her books were favorites of my science-fiction loving Dad and he gave me Catseye at a very young age. He figured cats, outer space, archaeology – why wouldn’t I love it? And I did…

I read every book of hers that I could find, intrigued by the infinite possibilities of a future civilization in space. I particularly enjoyed the glimpses and hints she gave of other, alien civilizations that came before, beings that we would never know firsthand but would always puzzle over when we found traces of their existence. She called them the Forerunners. I relished the adventures her characters had in a well-established world. The camaraderie her main characters always found with a select group of like-minded people, be it the Space Rangers or the Free Traders, made me (an only child for eight years) happy!

There was clearly not enough romance in the books, however! That’s one of the reasons I started writing my own science fiction around the seventh grade and never looked back. I understand at the time Ms. Norton was writing and especially in her science fiction (as opposed to the Witch World fantasy series), romance wasn’t a “done” thing. Thank goodness we can write science fiction romance now and have fully formed female characters who want their part in the adventure and in solving the problems to arrive at a Happily Ever After.

… Andre Norton presented her readers with mysteries and back story that often never got fully explained to the audience or to the characters. She provided tantalizing glimpses of all the other stuff, just enough to leave me wanting more. Because I always enjoyed that element of her plots so much, I try to create similar worlds to the best of my ability. For the SFRs, which occur in a future galactic civilization called the Sectors, I have a detailed backstory for myself about things and events that happened before the humans ever got out there. I work hints into the plots as I can.

When it comes to the planet-based happenings, I like to have a mix of mystery and mythology, unique to that world but also sometimes tied back to those unknowable civilizations that “came before”. Then as I write the story, I ask myself “why this…” and how does that…” and “if I lived on this planet what would I…” The novels may be science fiction, based in a technological, galactic civilization, but I want there to be that element of something else, something mystical, that can’t quite be explained. By anyone!

I never met her, I never corresponded with her, I only devoured her books, even her Gothic romances. I still have my collection of battered ACE paperbacks. Those are nearly the only actual books I’ve kept over all these years and through many moves (because I love the convenience of the kindle) and will NOT part with. I periodically reread my favorites by her.

The most significant thing to me about Andre Norton, aside from the pleasure her books gave me, was that she was a woman and she wrote books that were science fiction but not laden with technical and engineering jargon and details of how the author thought science might evolve. She skipped over all of that and got to the story. I loved her assumption that humans would get out there into the galaxy and we’d have adventures. I knew I could write stories but I also knew I’d never be any good at creating actual technical discussions of how the darn blasters worked. So for a long time I doubted I could ever get published but then I'd remind myself of all her books and know that I could.

Who cares how a blaster works? Not me. My characters use them and a lot of other nifty tech and no one - especially not me! - tries to explain the inner whatever...

In a house full of very heavy duty science fiction, and a Dad who worked as an engineer on the Saturn 1B and the Saturn 5 rockets, Andre Norton gave me permission to tell the stories I wanted to tell.

I was also thrilled to ‘know’ of a woman who made her living as a writer. Being very fuzzy on how publishing worked, my image for years was Jo from Little Women toiling away in her attic, and I never could figure out how one made a living on a penny a word BUT hey, it could be done! Andre Norton did it!

To be clear, for most of my life I didn’t dream of being a fulltime author because despite Ms. Norton, I never thought of it as a way to earn my living until late in 2010 when I decided now was the time to figure it out and give it my best shot while I still had the day job. Then in 2015 I went fulltime as an author.

Early in my career as a published scifi romance author, someone asked me why I always mentioned Andre Norton as an influence. They put it in disparaging terms, which I don’t remember exactly, something like “she’s so outdated”…well, to put it simply, without Andre Norton there would not be Veronica Scott.
And a good story is never outdated…

For a post I wrote a few years ago about some of my favorite Andre Norton novels, go here.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Legacy of Hope

My memorial post will shock exactly no one. Andre Norton. Wikipedia says: Andre Alice Norton was an American writer of science fiction and fantasy, who also wrote works of historical fiction and contemporary fiction. She wrote primarily under the pen name Andre Norton, but also under Andrew North and Allen Weston. She was the first woman to be Gandalf Grand Master of Fantasy, first woman to be SFWA Grand Master, and first inducted by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

I never got to meet Ms. Norton, as much as I wish I could have. She was my constant companion through out my childhood. Her books gave me glimpses of a much broader and stranger world than the one in which I lived. Her books presented diverse heroes and heroines. She served up different races, different religions and wove them into compelling aspects of the stories she had to tell. It may not have been any kind of culturally complete representation, but it was at least assurance that the future wasn't entirely white and male. 

More importantly, her books and characters gave me hope. She liked to write about the outcasts and the odd - the people and creatures living on the outskirts. I was a lonely military brat who felt pretty keenly like she was living on the edges. If book after book of characters can have happy endings even if they are weirdos, maybe there was hope for me. (Spoiler: there was. Why do you think I write books?)

To this day, I look for Andre Norton books I might not yet own. And when I had to swap out my library of paper books for electronic versions thereof (this is a much less satisfying library, btw) the books I flat refused to part with were hers. Because they mattered that much. They still do. I have an entire truck of nothing but Andre Norton books.

Yes. She has an award named in her honor. I love that. But really, when we talk about legacy, the one that I feel matters most is the fact that an author I never got to meet touched and changed my life simply because she told me a story. And kept telling me stories about many different definitions of success and of what kinds of sacrifice might be required in order to find or make my place in the world. If I get to pick what kind of legacy I leave, there is no better one I can think of than to have my books hoarded because they matter to a reader. I can think of no better legacy than to bring a little light and hope into someone else's life the way Andre Norton did for me.