Friday, March 25, 2011

News and thoughts

First, I have an interview with the wonderful Mihir of Fantasy Book Critic. There are mild spoilers, but nothing huge, especially if you've already read book 3.

Second, I got my first look at the new cover for the Eli Omnibus (that's book 1-3 combined for your pleasure, due out next year). I gotta say, that is a fine looking cover. As soon as Orbit posts it, I'll be linking it everywhere.

Third, the writing on book 5 is going well, though, as always when I'm writing a first draft, it feels like I'm crawling through the story. I always tell myself "I'm going to write all day today" but I never do. Five hours of writing is about all I have in me for any one day. Still, it's a pleasure to be almost done with the story. Not because I'll have to leave the characters, let me tell you how I weep at the thought of no more Eli. No, I'm happy because the story is finally reaching the big, big meta plot goodness I've been toiling over for 5 years now.

When I look back at the Eli books, I have a strange mix of pride and shame. I love the books, I love the characters and the world, but I'm ashamed of the mistakes I made. Sometimes, I wish I could go back and redo them. I wish I could write all the mistakes down so other writers could learn from them, but they're all so personal, so specific, no one would learn anything useful. With every book I write, I make more mistakes, some new, some new versions of mistakes I've been making since I started writing. I don't think I'll ever be done making mistakes, or doing things that couldn't be done better if only I'd know more, tried harder. Sometimes I think I've failed all together and there is no way I will ever be clever enough or eloquent enough to tell the stories. But I can't not tell the stories, can I? Even if I wasn't writing them down, I'd be telling them to myself. Since I've never been able to keep my mouth shut, I guess I've got no choice but to keep writing and, though I fail, at least try to fail better.

If I keep writing at my current pace of two books a year and live to 80, I'll have written 108 books by the time I die. That number fills me with such hope. Every time I finish editing a book I think, "that's the best book I've written." But by the time I write the next book, I'm sure I screwed the last one up. But all I can do is keep writing and hope that the next book will always be better than the one before it. By the time I hit book 50, book 100, surely I'll finally be the writer I want to be.

But then again, when I see the emails people send me, the reviews that say "I had such a good time reading this book," I think maybe I'm already there. The greatest pride in my life is knowing my stories made people excited, made them happy. What greater vocation can there be than making people happy? To be a source of joy in the world, even if it's only a joy brought on by snarky wizard stories full of mistakes. Every book gets better, and with every book, I'm building my way up, and I hope you'll come along with me.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Ok, so I was going to post this at Orbit, but after much hemming and hawing, I decided it was too nuts and bolts of writing oriented. I'm going to write something a little more reader oriented for Orbit later, but for now, have a post about developing tension. I hope someone finds it helpful, or at least entertaining! - R

Have you ever read a book so quickly you had trouble remembering everything that happened? I'm not talking about rushing through books for school (though we've all been there), I'm talking about turning pages like a desperate animal because you simply CAN NOT WAIT to get to the end and see how it all turns out. (I read the Harry Potter this way, attacking anyone who came near me. Limbs might have been lost, I couldn't tell you. I was reading.) Now, have you ever wondered what the author did to make you so desperate to get to the end?

Well, probably not. You were reading, after all. But let me ask you a second question: have you ever been reading a book and liking it ok, and then suddenly you finish a chapter, put the book down, and feel absolutely no urge to pick it up again? Like, it wasn't a bad book, you were just... done, even though the book wasn't.

At their simplest level, these phenomena are two manifestations of the same book construction principle: Tension, one done right, one done not-so-right. I'll let you guess which is which.

Tension is one of those things critics and agents and editors and book reviewers and pretty much anyone who reads critically is always commenting on.  It's the tug of the novel, the gravity that pulls the reader toward the end. It's the force that makes you turn a page, and it's every bit as important to good fiction as plot and character. (Don't believe me? Try reading a novel that has no tension and see how far you get.) But while it's easy to talk about tension like it's some mystical force, it's not very helpful to someone looking to actually put tension into their work. As someone who struggled a lot with tension as I learned how to write a novel, I offer you the simple writer's definition I finally came up with for myself.

Tension is making the reader ask a question, and then not answering it.

At least, not immediately. To give an example, let me turn back to that old stand by, Harry Potter. Why HP? Well, not only is it one of those few things I can expect everyone to have read, but also because Rowling is the freaking ninja master of tension. In the very first paragraph of Sorcerer's Stone , JKR spends her first sentence talking about how the Dursley's are perfectly normal. The second sentence reiterates this, adding that, of course, these are the very last people you'd ever expect to be involved in something magical.

And right there, the tension's locked in. Already you're asking the question: what magical doom is going to befall these stringently normal people? JKR spins this answer out over the course of a chapter, by which point more questions have been posed and you can't help it, you have to keep reading to learn those answers. Some hooks are big, some are small, some are long term, some are short, but they all add their pull. Before you know it midnight has come and passed you're still up, snarling at anyone who dares try to pry that book from your clenched fingers. You, dear reader, are hooked.

Speaking of hooked, the above example could also be called a hook, which is another thing critical readers, especially agents, are always going on about. But all of that violent language - hooking a reader, grabbing a reader, pulling a reader in, has to do with tension. They all force questions: Will she get out alive? Where is her husband? How did that wizard end up in evaporating most of central park? Can a zombie find love?

Of course, part of a satisfying read is having all your questions answered eventually. Dangling threads make for pissed off readers. But, and here's the most important thing I've learned about tension, you have to be very, very careful doling out your answers. If questions are the engines that drive a reader forward, answers are the destination. Once all pertinent questions are answered in a book, the tension is gone.

Let's jump back to paragraph 2 and the book you put down. For sake of argument we'll assume you didn't put it down for obvious reasons (characters were too stupid to live, something horrible happens that makes you throw the book across the room, the story completely jumped the shark, etc). So we have a decent book, maybe even a book you were enjoying, which you just stopped reading and have no real urge to start again. Why? What made you stop? All other things in the book being decent, I will bet you money that it was because the tension fizzled.

Several years ago this happened to me with a romance novel. Things were rolling along initially - broody hero, snappy heroine, money problems in high society, all good and going along fine. And then, a little over half way through, the couple confessed their love for each other and got married.

I put the book down shortly after. Now, I had another five chapters at least of the couple solving the mystery of whatever, but as you see, I didn't care. At least not enough to keep going.

In Romance, the tension question is always "will they get together?" Once this question and all its requisite "How? Where? Why? Is there sex?" facets are answered, that's it. Unless the framing plot is AMAZINGLY compelling and has plenty of tension of its own, once the couple is happily together, the question is answered and the tension is over. Most of the time, that also means the story is over, even if the writer's not done writing.

All that said, though, the final point I'd like to make is that there's no greater tension builder than reader investment. You can hook people with questions all day long, but unless you give the reader a reason to care about the characters and world you're trying to hook them into, they're not going to stay. Initial curiosity will get someone to turn the first page, but not the second. However, if you can create a character the reader cares deeply about, if you can force them to worry for that character, to make them ask "what's going to happen?" and really mean it on a deep, emotional level, you've achieved the highest pinnacle of fiction. But the only way to get to this lofty peak is good tension right from the beginning.

And that's what I've learned about tension so far. Any advice you see here is purely my own and should, as with any single opinion, be taken with a grain of salt. I hope you found it helpful, or at least interesting. I'm always interested in how other people approach tension, or any part of story telling, so if you have a comment, please chime in. I'm all ears (well, all eyeballs, since this is the internet).

Monday, March 7, 2011

thoughts while writing

Dear Self,

Just a note of reminder, since you seem to need it. Remember, just because it's interesting doesn't mean it has any place in your story. Just because you LIKE it doesn't mean it belongs in the book. If a scene doesn't move the main story forward, no matter how amazing it might be, it's not going to stay int he book.

Because you're nearing 40k words, and frankly you haven't hit the middle hump of the action. I shouldn't have to tell you this, self, but this is BAD. You'd think you'd know this after 5 novels, but noooooo. So, remember, darling self, word count does not equal done book. The book is done when the PLOT is done, and at this point that's a long way from here. Stop futzing about with the loose ends and focus on getting your intrepid hero to the END of the story. Once he's comfortably settled in the falling action, THEN you can focus on wrapping up all those little things you threw in because you thought they'd be cool at the time.

But seriously, a 6k chapter focusing on side plot is NOT COOL. In the words of Gold Five: "Stay on target... Stay on target." We'll blow up this Deathstar/novel together, just stop writing BS, okay?

Yours always,

Friday, March 4, 2011

A reply to Jezebel's story about Amanda Hocking

I you like the cruise the interwebs, you may have already heard about Amanda Hocking's pretty rocking rise to the top. I'd heard a little about it, but no details until I read the article below from Jezebel.

26-Year-Old Writer Makes Millions On eBooks — But How, And Why?

It's a short write up, but as this is my turf, so to speak, I felt I should comment. However, comments aren't working on Jezebel at the moment, so, perhaps more wisely, I'm posting my comment here. Enjoy and feel free to leave a comment of your own!

Dear Jezebel,

I'm a published fantasy author with 3 books in print, and I gotta tell you, I'm 1/2 overjoyed, 1/2 sobbing about this story.

You can believe me when I say that the industry knows that stupid shit sells. The trouble is no one knows which stupid shit will sell and which won't. Every year sure-fire hits fizzle while unknowns rocket to the top. There are several stories of authors who were rejected by publishing houses and sold millions, Paollini is one, Hocking's another. But then again we have Stephenie Mayer who woke up one day and decided to write a book, wrote it in 6 months, got an agent with her first query letter, and had an enormous publishing deal by the end of the year.

The book market is no more fair or predictable or controllable than any market that makes its living catering to people's imaginations. For every Amanda Hocking out there buying a house with her ebook money, there's millions of authors whose ebooks never clear the friends and family threshold. That's why I'm so happy to hear that Hocking made it. That is a feat, and you better bet she worked her ass off for her success, both for writing books that, whatever faults they may have, must have made a lot of people happy to get sales numbers like that, and for the obvious effort she put into promoting her books online.

The part that makes me sad is how people who will dismiss her obvious achievement, forgetting all the work we don't see, the novels that didn't work, the insane risk of betting your family's future on words, and treat this story as some kind of phony sea change. "She made millions from home, now you can too! Screw New York and Big Publishing, publish your novel on Kindle and retire early!" So while I'm ecstatically happy for and, yes, a little envious of her phenomenal success (I would LOVE to sell 100,000 books, let me tell you), I'm also sad that, no matter how much she says "Even I don't know how I did this," scammers and people who prey on the writing dreams of others are going to be using her rise as a pitch for over priced "publishing services" for years and years to come.

And on another note: To the commenter who pointed out there are books on torrent sites. Chica, I feed my kid off book sales. Please don't support pirates. It's the authors who lose, not the publishing houses, and we're not all millionaires.

- Rachel Aaron

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Still alive!

Just writing, which tends to consume everything good/intelligent I have to give the world on any given day, leaving me a slobbering shell of a human being good only for drinking a beer and ignoring the dishes. It's times like this when I really admire the writers who produce epic amounts of writing AND maintain a daily blog. Tis inhuman, I tell ye. They be not writers, but word gods.

Moving on, here's some neat stuff!

- I did an interview for The Write Thing, who also posted really great reviews of my novels. There is nothing more flattering for me as an author than when other people take the time to not just read my books, but to write about them. Good or bad, all reviews are priceless. Thanks for the kind words, Pip!

- CSI Librarian has some lovely things to say as well!

- Mihir at Fantasy Book Critic put The Legend of Eli Monpress as one of his top favs for 2010, which is saying something, because 2010 was an awesome year for Fantasy!

- SciFiChick does a short and sweet review of The Spirit Eater, featuring one of my favorite lines so far: "This series is a must read for fantasy fans." I could not agree more! :D

I'm sure there's more, but for now I need to get back to Eli. You know how he can be when he's being ignored...

Now: cake.