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I’ve had people ask me what made me decide on a desert setting. My usual response involves a blank stare and a fumbling attempt to make “I haven’t the foggiest” sound like a rational answer. Once in a while I launch into the story I told in my previous post on this topic, and really, the proper answer is much the same: someone critiqued the Kingdom of Salt manuscript and said it was too standard-Euro-Medieval-white.

I agreed, and set about trying to fine-tune the various details into a different shape. That’s the point at which I started asking the Big World questions: where and how life developed, who the various gods were, what happened to atheists, who the vegetarians were as opposed to who raised cattle (and where to find bacon, cheese, chocolate, and coffee–very important items to the development of civilization, as far as I’m concerned!), why  humanity had moved from point A to point B, and why nobody had done the equivalent of the route-to-China schtick.

Short answer on that last: I was feeling lazy and didn’t want that complication. I knew that wouldn’t fly as a reason, so I had to come up with a plausible reason why travel to date had been restricted to the one large continent. That reason is not mentioned anywhere in the Children of the Desert series, mind you, although it is hinted at during the end bit of Fires of the Desert. I may or may not reveal it in subsequent series, or in special mini-stories along the way. But it’s in my Secret Background Notes. Mwah.

Back to the question of uniqueness. Essentially, I referred to the many excellent guides scattered across the Internet about the worst fantasy mileu tropes, cross-checked my writing against those, decided which ones needed changed, inverted and rearranged what I could, and came up with plausible reasons to keep the rest. There was no point to developing a totally unique inn and tavern setup, for example, or a different kind of beer, wine, or tea. Those are backdrop items that really don’t need a whole lot of tweaking to work, and if I messed with that basic trope, I risked distracting the reader from the action. I tried to keep stuff like that as simple as possible without being overly tropistic (is that a word? If not, it is now), and focused more on the strange creatures like firetail birds, gerhoi, desert lords, ha’ra’hain, and ha’reye, along with the cultures and characters, to make the world stand out.

In the fourth book especially, I had fun doing research on ceremonies and musical instruments; while the northlands are still patterned largely along standard Euro-medieval lines in many ways, the southlands is an absolute riot of cultures and a mishmash of time periods, none of which was randomly chosen. The Aerthraim, for instance, are quite austere and are inclined toward simplifying ceremonies, if not outright avoiding them altogether; on the other hand, Sessin Family is fond of creating absurdly ostentatious ceremonies in order to look wealthier and stronger than everyone else.

Once I started figuring out broad categories like that, and developing the answers to questions such as what, exactly, Aerthraim Family considers to be excessive ornamentation and what Sessin considers to be too little, a cascade of increasingly fine tuned details started snapping into place, and critters like the firetail bird and outfits like the one Azni wears to the Scratha Conclave just sort of appeared on the page as I wrote. I rarely had to stop and consider what someone would wear or what the nearby flora and fauna looked like.

I will note that I’ve had to pull or sharply condense all sorts of geeky-cool details from the final text, even stuff I desperately wanted to keep (like a detailed description of the Scratha Conclave room), because as my publisher ever so gently pointed out, it really just got in the way. And I had to remove Teilo and Lord Evkit’s POV altogether from this series, which really hurt; Evkit is such a bloody fun character (well, to write about, at least. Not to deal with, certainly). And Teilo has a…well, a unique perspective on matters. One day, perhaps, I’ll get the chance to present “extended cuts” of various scenes, and the two POV lines that were entirely removed from Guardians and Bells. But not today. Not just yet…

I did have to stop, as noted above, and do some research for the sake of creating two powerful ceremonies in the fourth book. I leaned on accounts of an ancient Japanese processional for the one, I’ll give you that hint, and the other…well, listen to some of Coyote Run’s music and you’ll probably see where I drew at least the musical inspiration for that one from. I like to think that Cat and Dave are in the shadows at that ceremony, gleefully whacking on those gigantic teyanain drums…*ahem* but I mustn’t spoil it, now! Book four won’t be out until April, at RavenCon of Richmond. Except for our beloved book reviewers, who will get to devour the ARCs of books three and four rather sooner than January and April, respectively. (Yes, yes, Colleen, we have you on the list, I absolutely won’t forget you, don’t worry!) 🙂

Ah, but I still haven’t answered the question of “what made you choose a desert setting?” Unfortunately, I still don’t really have a proper answer. When I started writing the book that  became Secrets of the Sands (it was originally called Walking the Kingdom), I had no notion that it would eventually see real publication, so I didn’t record stuff like that. (To be honest, I still don’t.)

The best I can do is to say that I had, truly, no notion past a few scattered notes about the origins of humanity to work with when Idisio first strolled onto the page. When Scratha grabbed him, and I started asking why Scratha was so ominious, the term “desert lord” just showed up on the page, willy-nilly. So I had to develop a desert culture that would have feasibly produced someone as catastropically bad-tempered as Scratha. Then I had to figure out why Alyea would go south with so little knowledge as to what she was facing; developing the immense suspicion between north and south kicked off a whole new set of details and questions.

I suppose at some point it began to seem like something of a shame not to use all this amazingly cool information I was putting together. So Scratha threw in the towel and went south, dragging Idisio and Riss along.

Events took on their own direction and momentum from there. I had to run fast enough to keep up with the weird stuff I was writing, and provide rational or at least plausible reasons for it to be happening. By Bells of the Kingdom, the world was fairly well established and had been accepted by fans, and writing about the setting was very nearly intuitive.

So the best answer I can offer is this: I didn’t choose the desert setting. It chose me. And I can only hope I’ve done that incredibly complex world justice with my words, and that one day I can show my readers a more complete view of the stuff happening in areas that Alyea and Idisio, and even Cafad Scratha, never get to visit.

There’s this expatriate master thief named Lamb, for starters, who may well show up in the fifth book…and then there’s the story about Azni’s twin brother, Allonin…and there’s all the side story about Lord Evkit, and how he came to power…and what happens at the Night Market in Water’s End… and, and… well, there will be time for all that. I promise. Right now, it’s time for me to draw the curtain once more and leave the stage, so that the cleaning crew can tidy up before the next blogger comes on. Please do leave questions and comments in the box by the door as you leave…and I’ll be back in a few days with another post about the series, characters, plot, setting, or whatever else you indicate that you’d like to hear about.

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We lost a friend this week–and Mercury Retrograde, indeed all of SF/F, lost some of its magic. On Wednesday, my dear friend, talented artist, and editor Brett Shanley left this life, and in so doing left a hole in my heart. I will always remember my friend and his gentle soul; but this week I grieve the songs he didn’t get to compose, the novels he didn’t get to finish, the books by other authors that won’t benefit from his keen eye and generous spirit. This week it’s hard to imagine what Mercury Retrograde will look like without him.

Brett was a man of many talents: for years a fixture of Seattle’s music scene; a true professional armsmaster for the U.S. Army; a novelist of unique vision who didn’t find the time to bring that vision to fruition; a generous, thoughtful, and deep-sighted editor of other novelists’ works. It was my great privilege and pleasure to work with him on both sides of the desk: working together as editors to develop Mercury Retrograde’s catalog; working as writer and editor on my first novel. He made my work, and those of other authors he worked with, far more than it would have been otherwise, and did it in a way that respected each author’s unique voice and vision. I am so very proud of the work we did together, and grateful that he was my friend.

Brett is survived by his best friend and wife, my friend Jenelle Shanley. They nurtured one another and shared much joy and many sorrows, and the opportunity he created for me to know her is another of the many things for which I am grateful to him. And as those of us left behind reel, I can do no more than be grateful for the time we had together, and wish both Brett and Jenelle peace.

I miss you, my friend. Seems we hardly knew ye.

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It’s easy to understand how writers get into these binds. So excited that someone, finally, loves his work, the writer simply asks a few questions about his particular hot-button issues (or not!) and gets out the pen to sign.

Please, stop.

Writers, it is critically important that you understand what you’re signing. That contract is not the Golden Ticket, and the publishing house is not the Chocolate Factory. The contract on your desk is the playbook for your relationship with that potential publisher: it contains all the rules and plans for the operation of getting your books into the hands of customers, and each one is different.

Let me stress that: each one is different. Each publisher has a preferred boilerplate contract, which is different, if only in seemingly minor things, from anyone else’s; and any individual contract is likely to include modifications specifically for the project in question, which reflect the writer’s, the agent’s, or the publisher’s particular needs and wants at this moment. And whether or not you understand the terms it sets out, by signing you have agreed to its terms. You won’t successfully argue these points later.

The bottom line: if you can’t read and understand the contract, right down to the letter, it is incumbent on you, in not only your best interests but also the interests of everyone else involved, to stop and make sure you do.

There are a variety of resources available. Your agent, if you have one, can help you understand the details of a publisher’s proposed contract. (We hope you are sure of the conditions of your agency contract as well!) If you don’t have an agent, there are books on publishing contract law, notably Kirsch’s volumes, that can break down the meanings of clauses that aren’t readily understood by people new to the industry. If you can afford it, consult with a lawyer who is familiar with publishing. Take the time to know exactly what you’re signing.

It’s true that there are some so-called publishers who are really just in the business of separating writers from their money; there are ample resources on the internet to help writers check out the reputations of publishers and agents they’re considering working with. But just because a publishing house has a good reputation does not mean it operates in the way you assume it does, nor does it mean you would be pleased with your specific contract if you took the time to understand it.

Please, do yourself and everyone involved a favor: understand what you’re signing, and don’t sign until the document (not the verbal agreements, but the document itself) reflects terms you’re prepared to live with. Anything less at this stage is just a recipe for misery later on.

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Today, for your reading pleasure, some thoughts from Mercury Retrograde author Leona Wisoker, whose Secrets of the Sands comes out at the end of the month. This is Leona’s first trip through the wormhole of having a book published, and she kindly agreed to share some of the lessons learned:

As my first novel gets ready to go to press, I find myself more and more in the company of other professional writers, either in person or via blog, Facebook, and newsletters. It’s exhilarating to refer to myself as a professional writer, and more than a little unnerving. I bounce around and screech with joy over positive reviews, have an incredible sense of accomplishment, and of course I adore being able to hold the advance review copy of my first published novel in my hands.

But recently I came across a piece where an established writer talked about all the jobs and tasks she has completed in the past year. My first thought? Wow, she is busy. My second thought: I am soooo lazy. I can’t possibly call myself a professional writer; I haven’t even managed to sell any non fiction articles! And I don’t serve on any committees, or mentor writers, or. . . .

Then I started thinking about how easy it is to use a distorted measuring scale. Many of the writers I read about or speak to have many books out, often through and across multiple publishers, genres, and markets; they have won awards and have been at this way longer than I have. Bit silly to use someone like that as a measuring stick when you’re just starting out, isn’t it?

A quote from my favorite inspirational poem comes to mind:

“If you compare yourself to others, you may become vain & bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”

That’s from the Desiderata, an awesome collection of advice that I think every writer should nail to their wall by their workspace. It tends to restore my perspective when I’m feeling particularly inadequate.

The most important quote in the whole thing, in my opinion, is:

“Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.”

Words to take to heart for all writers: we are notoriously hard on ourselves. So for anyone out there who fears they can’t possibly “make it” as a writer, don’t give up just yet; it took our idols some serious time and effort to get where they are now, no matter how easy it may look from the outside.

You’ll get there. Just take it one step at a time; but unlike climbing a ladder, looking up will only scare you. So don’t look up too often. Look down instead; that’s where you get the best – and least frightening – perspective on how well you’re doing.

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Lately we’ve been hearing from customers who are having problems ordering Mercury Retrograde Press books on Amazon. There are a couple of variations on the story: either the system says the book is NO LONGER AVAILABLE, or the customer places an order and pays for it–only to be notified by Amazon, sometime later, that the book they bought is gone. Frustrating? Disappointing? You betcha.

Here’s why that happens and what to do about it:

Why it happens:

Amazon practices “just in time” supply, which means that they buy only as many {books, CDs, coffee makers, etc.} as they’re sure they’ll sell within a certain window of time. That window of time is proprietary information, of course. No doubt you’ve looked at items on Amazon and seen notations on pages that say something like “Only two left in stock! Order now!” They’re not making that up. There really are only two left in stock. That’s a way of keeping costs down, which allows them to give you the price you want.

Here’s where that system falls apart:

The system fails to cope with “Temporarily out of stock” situations. In the human world, when local-on-the-shelf stocks have been depleted, a person can recognize this fact. Humans can say to one another, “Oh, I see we need to order more.” Amazon’s computers, apparently, are not intelligent enough to recognize this. Like a newborn playing Peek-a-Boo, the system concludes the item is GONE FOREVER. Oh no…

The system fails to cope with overselling existing stock. Because Amazon runs on online orders, it can–and, evidently, frequently does–happen that any number of people can place orders against those two (or whatever small number fits) remaining units in stock. The system can take orders for far more copies of a book than they actually have. Even this situation could be handled with a reasonable amount of grace: when, evidently at the order-filling stage, some human finally figured out what the system had done, emails could be dispatched to the people whose orders were fulfilled after the oversold item was no longer on the shelf, informing them that there would be a small wait while stock was replenished.  That’s not hard, after all: it only requires Amazon’s computers to request more copies from the book wholesaler’s computers. More would be on their shelves in a few days, and could then be passed on to the people who ordered them.

But that’s not what Amazon does. Instead, when Amazon accidentally oversells its stock, it just tells the disappointed consumer, “Sorry, we don’t have this any more. Here’s your money back.”

Sad, sad Amazon.

What you can do if this happens to you:

First of all, Don’t Despair.

When the thing you’re trying to order is a Mercury Retrograde Press book, a note from Amazon saying “Sorry, we don’t have this anymore” definitely does not mean the book is GONE, no matter how things look on Amazon. Mercury Retrograde books don’t go out of print; when readers buy up all the copies printed, our suppliers print more.

Look for it elsewhere.

Mercury Retrograde Press books are easy to buy on Amazon.com. But they’re also available on BN.com, and can be purchased from any bookseller in the US, Canada, UK, or European Union. Did you forget how much fun it is to go to a real bookstore? Now’s your chance to refresh your memory. If by chance your local bookseller doesn’t have the book you want in stock, they can order it for you. You’ll probably have it in your hands in a few days…which, coincidentally, is about how long it takes that online bookseller to get it to you. If they have it in stock, you’ll have it–mirabile dictu!–THAT DAY.

If you’re that committed to Amazon, wait a few days and try again.

Once a stock position in Amazon’s Great Warehouse empties, computer minions are dispatched to restock that place. Assuming it’s a Mercury Retrograde Press book, the book you want will be back in stock in a matter of days.

We absolutely share your frustration with Amazon’s silly order management practices. If you get caught in the gaps in their system, we hope you’ll take it as a reminder to experience other methods of acquiring books. There really are some wonderful bookstores out there. Maybe you should check one out.

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At the risk of having all the aspiring writers in the whole Interweb misapply this in a way that will somehow come back to haunt me, I would like to direct the eyes of those trying to write The Perfect Query Letter to this list written by novelist J.M. Donellan.

It’s true that what he wrote is not a query of the sort we usually think of; but he is writing something he wants people who don’t yet know him to read. Further, the astute reader will observe that he has written something whose ultimate goal is to get the reader to click through to something else entirely. That’s what we do when we write a query. And Donellan’s is an example of attracting the reader that works brilliantly: he made an editor who didn’t even think she was interested in being pitched find herself clicking through in the midst of a busy day. Note what he does–and what he doesn’t do:

First, and most important, he’s got a dead-on perfect opening line:

When I first arrived in India I was working on a novel about a rockstar sliding into insanity.

Rockstar? check. Insanity? check. I’m interested. Personally, I suspect if you don’t recognize that rockstars and insanity are interesting, you may not be human and are therefore going to have a much bigger problem with the novel form than your cover letter anyway. So part of why this opening line works is that it demonstrates a massively compelling theme. However, it also does another very important job: what folks in the sales world call qualifying the lead. If you’re not interested in rockstars and insanity or, more to the point rockstars on the brink of insanity, then you are not his target market. You should move on, and so should he. See how you both saved time?

Second, he doesn’t try to persuade the reader that what he’s on about is important. It’s interesting and has a definite, personal voice. That’s enough to get the reader to move on to the second sentence, which is arguably the most important job the first sentence has.

Third, and possibly most important of all: he doesn’t expect the reader to hang with him while he finds the thing that will keep her interested. He has figured out what his message is and what aspect of it will hook the unsuspecting reader. And that’s where he focuses his opening.

There is, of course, no universal formula for the perfect opening; there is only the opening that encapsulates your message in such a way that your target audience, i.e. the people who will naturally love your story, cannot fail to be intrigued. It’s what your mother always told you: just be yourself, and the right people will like you. All you have to do is be yourself at your most fabulous. That’s true whether you’re writing a pitch or a story–or, dare we suggest, trying to Meet Someone.

But we were talking about writing queries.

When you’re writing your query, just like when you’re writing your novel, it helps to apply your own reading experience. Pretend you’re in a bookstore or on the interwebs. I’m not going to ask you to objectively evaluate your own work: of course you can’t do that. But you can consider the way you shop in a bookstore: which is a fairly accurate metaphor for the editor or agent trying to find the next project into which she will sink weeks or months, except for the fact that you probably don’t spend nearly that much time on a book you pull from the shelf at your local bookstore.

I can’t speak for you, of course, but when I am in a bookstore shopping, I consider the pitches on the outside–the jacket art, the title, the back cover copy. Each of those things can incite me to read further; none of them is likely to make me decide to put the book down once I’ve chosen to look at it. What makes the critical go/no-go decision for me is on the first page.

It’s the first sentence.

As writers, we don’t like to hear that. As readers, we can admit, if to no one but ourselves, that it’s true. If the first sentence of something which you have no pre-existing reason to read does not intrigue you, are you likely to proceed to the next?

Of course not.

Neither is that editor you’re pitching.

Remember that queries, like the first paragraphs of novels, exist primarily to get the reader to read on. Make them want to know more. And for goodness’ sake,  listen to your mother and be yourself; accurately represent the story you’re selling. Otherwise you are just wasting everyone’s time. Including, believe it or not, your own.

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So, I’m a reader, just like you, and I’ve spent the better part of my life collecting books, selling them to used book stores when I have too many, and then investing the better part of the next few years desperately trying to buy them back.  I like being able to peruse my shelves, touch the spines, journey through the tactile memories of when I first read them.  I enjoy the feel of the page against my fingers, love the process of turning my way through another world (gently…do not bend!), and will never tire of falling asleep with the solid weight of a tome against my chest.

I cannot fathom a life without books.

But the Electronic Age can.  It can imagine a world in which paper is rendered irrelevant, and bookshelves are replete in unwatered plants, and pictures of loved ones, with nary a book to set them apart.  It can imagine a world in which an epic is downloaded, where heroes battle nemeses not across a page, but through the pixelated kaleidoscope of a computer screen.  It wants your books, and no amount of kicking and screaming will turn it away.

And you are kicking and screaming, aren’t you?

Just ask any book aficionado, and you will receive a diatribe against the Machine, unlike any this side of John Connor’s rebellion.  “No way,” they will say, just shy of screaming.  “The book will always exist.  People like to hold a book, to bend a book, to flip pages, and remove dust jackets!  This whole e-publishing thing is a fad, meant to placate the lazy, techno-geeks amongst us.  Just a fad, that’s all.”

Mhm.

To a degree, though, they are right; and to a greater degree they are drowning in a shallow pool of denial.  Motoko Rich of The New York Times recently wrote a splendid article about the rise of the e-book, in which he spends a very short amount of time extolling a very large amount of readable information, all of which is meant to help us understand the financial ramifications of the e-book vs. the traditional paper-bound.  It’s a fantastic read, and is quite the enlightening journey through the numbers involved.  And, in the end, it’s difficult to argue to point he makes.  The current economic downturn has everyone thinking cheap, lean, and efficient.  The publishing industry has been hammered over the past two years, and is reeling in one direction, or another, hungry for any means by which to gain a better foothold on the future.  The truth is–whether we like it or not–e-books are a more cost-effective process.

Here is the crux of his cost-based argument for e-books:

On a typical hardcover, the publisher sets a suggested retail price. Let’s say it is $26. The bookseller will generally pay the publisher $13. Out of that gross revenue, the publisher pays about $3.25 to print, store and ship the book, including unsold copies returned to the publisher by booksellers.

For cover design, typesetting and copy-editing, the publisher pays about 80 cents. Marketing costs average around $1 but may go higher or lower depending on the title. Most of these costs will deline on a per-unit basis as a book sells more copies.

Let’s not forget the author, who is generally paid a 15 percent royalty on the hardcover price, which on a $26 book works out to $3.90. For big best-selling authors — and even occasionally first-time writers whose publishers have taken a risk — the author’s advance may be so large that the author effectively gets a higher slice of the gross revenue. Publishers generally assume they will write off a portion of many authors’ advances because they are not earned back in sales.

Without accounting for such write-offs, the publisher is left with $4.05, out of which it must pay overhead for editors, cover art designers, office space and electricity before taking a profit.

Now let’s look at an e-book. Under the agreements with Apple, the publishers will set the consumer price and the retailer will act as an agent, earning a 30 percent commission on each sale. So on a $12.99 e-book, the publisher takes in $9.09. Out of that gross revenue, the publisher pays about 50 cents to convert the text to a digital file, typeset it in digital form and copy-edit it. Marketing is about 78 cents.

The author’s royalty — a subject of fierce debate between literary agents and publishing executives — is calculated among some of the large trade publishers as 25 percent of the gross revenue, while others are calculating it off the consumer price. So on a $12.99 e-book, the royalty could be anywhere from $2.27 to $3.25.

All that leaves the publisher with something ranging from $4.56 to $5.54, before paying overhead costs or writing off unearned advances.

But that’s not the only reason that we, as the book buying populace, need to come to understand, and even to a degree, appreciate the reality of electronic publishing.  Just look around you.  We live on the computer.  We’re on Facebook, or Twitter, playing computer games, writing, or reading documents for work, getting our news, watching videos on You Tube, or catching up on shows on Hulu.  We have the I-phone, blackberry, the I-Pad (that still hurts to say), and various other mobile devices that have essentially become mini-mobile-pc’s that dominate our days.  How many times have you gotten stuck playing that ridiculously awesome paper ball in the waste basket game?  Generations of children are being raised on this as a normal facet of society, and no amount of reminiscing about rotary phones will change what the future holds.  Computers–the Electronic Age–is here, and it stands to reason that books will follow.  Actually, books must follow.  If we want people to read, then we have to give in to the conveniences they so desperately seek, and allow that books won’t exist if publishers aren’t around to print them.

Me?  I still want to sprawl out on a lawn chair at the beach with a paperback.  I still want to stick my nose in a book, and smell the scent of paper.  And I still want my dream library, wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, replete with as many cobwebs as they can build.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go flop on the bed, with my copy of The Magicians, and read until I fall asleep.

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