Posts Tagged ‘thoughts from the editors’

Periodically I hold conversations with people who ask, in so many words, why I choose to focus all my energy on fantasy fiction, of all things. It’s not serious, really; I could be doing more challenging, more important work.

I disagree entirely with the premise from which those conversations proceed. I believe speculative fiction is the most challenging work a person not blessed with mad mathematical skills could take up. This genre has been called the literature of ideas, and I think that’s an entirely apt description. It offers writers the tools to take readers far enough outside their normal contexts to examine ideas that are otherwise beyond contemplation. The majority of people are not wired for digging directly into issues that make them intensely uncomfortable; but take those issues outside a context that looks familiar, run them through the filter of story, and they become possible to engage with. Through these filters we can look at the ideas without flinching away, think about them, and take them back into our everyday context.

Bells of the Kingdom, the third book in Leona Wisoker’s acclaimed Children of the Desert series, is one such work. It’s a gripping, impossible-to-look-away-from story–but there is a darkness running through it, elements of things people would prefer not to confront. Leona herself has written:

I set out to write a fantasy novel with a cast of Heroes, and wound up with rather a lot of Reluctant Heroes who needed their arms wrenched round twice to go where I wanted them to go. Not a single cheerful “let’s go get ‘em!” sucker among the lot. What’s worse, the longer I worked with them, the more convincing their reasons for being Reluctant became. Some very ugly stuff crept in along the edges and wormed its way into the heart of the story: child abuse, prostitution, torture, and all manner of sadistic behavior.

I never set out to write this sort of novel; but there it was, one day, staring at me with big mournful eyes. And with every revision, with every re-read, I remembered more and more clearly that I’d drawn this or that horrible snippet from things that really happen, every single day, all over the world.

Robert M. Tilendis, in his introspective review of Bells of the Kingdom on The Green Man Review, notes, “Wisoker’s series so far has not been what you could call light-hearted, but this volume takes us some places I found very hard to go.”

It is very difficult, even in the context of fiction, to contemplate “every horror we’ve found to inflict on each other and on ourselves”. It is devastating to look into a book and discover it is a mirror of humanity, of ourselves. To see the monstrous possibilities of our species, and to recognize the tendrils they stretch into us, whether we are participants or merely apathetic bystanders.

But if it is horrifying, it can also be redemptive. These mirrors into our species and ourselves can allow us to stir out of apathy, to take some sort of action. One avenue of action available to readers touched by the dark truths in Bells of the Kingdom is offered by the Not For Sale Campaign, which is working to end human slavery–not just in places comfortably distant, but in dark corners much closer to home. We’ll be donating ten percent of the profits on all direct sales of Bells of the Kingdom, whether via the website or at conventions, to the Not For Sale campaign this year. Leona will be donating ten percent of her profits for this book to the foundation as well. Both of these campaigns will run through the end of the year, and they cover both print and eBook sales.We hope that if this book touches you, you’ll consider supporting the Not For Sale Campaign in other ways as well.

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Want to win a free Mercury Retrograde Press book? Of course you do. Click over to the Dab of Darkness blog, where nrlymrtl is conducting a really sweet giveaway: a chance to win a Trade Paper book (if you’re in the US) or an eBook (as long as you’re within network range of Earth). The best part? You get to choose the book you want.

While you’re there, you can read an interview nrlymrtl and I did about goings-on around here. Or–wait? Is it the other way around? Is it possible this post you’re about to click through to find is actually about the interview, and the book giveaway is sort of an afterthought tacked on to the end?

Guess you’ll have to click through to find out.

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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 at @HomeCon(TM) on Darkcargo, editor Elizabeth Campbell interviews Mercury Retrograde’s own Barbara Friend Ish about Mercury Retrograde Press, Slow Publishing, and the mysteries of editing books. @HomeCon has been running all weekend, and will finish up in a blaze of glory today, but we’re not sure what plans have been made for a Dead Dog Party. Eliz says:

One lucky commenter will get a choice of books from the stacks at Mercury Retrograde Press (or ebook sent to them if they should happen to be in a foreign country right now…). There are other prizes for participating in Darkcargo’s @homeCon all weekend, such as this one, this one, this one and this one. And this one. (Pop over to the post to see what prizes are still in play.)

As per Darkcargo tradition, Eliz asks truly penetrating questions. If you’re interested in the stuff that goes on behind the curtain at a small press, this is the interview for you. And if you have yet to dip into the wonderful insanity of @HomeCon, this is a good place to start.

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It’s time to admit that we’ve already taken on at least as much as we can handle.

This is a disappointment of the ideological variety to me, and it’s a decision taken with regret. I am a fervent believer in open submissions, in giving the unagented as much of a shot at publication as the agented. I feel keenly the importance of keeping submissions open, of being ready to champion the Next Cool Thing. But the fact of the matter is we’re still very small, and only one of us is at this full-time, and even more important than an open-transom policy is doing justice to the writers and works we’ve already taken on.

It may be worth noting that we’re not closing to *unagented* submissions, but to essentially everything. We may, under unusual circumstances, still take a look at things that come to our attention–in workshops, for example. And we’re looking forward to opening submissions again when we have the resources to handle more. For now, writers who have queries in our submissions queue should consider those works released by us, with apologies for letting them languish as long as they did; we’ll be individually notifying as many writers as we can reach. Writers who have manuscripts on our desks can expect decisions in the next week or so; we expect to be able to take on one more writer for the lone remaining slot in our 2012 schedule.

We wish all the writers who have expressed interest in working with us the best of luck in finding just the right home for their work, and we look forward to seeing you in the submissions queue in the future.

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In her interview in last month’s Locus*, N.K. Jemisin issued one of my favorite calls to action yet:

“The way we write traditional epic fantasy now is making the whole genre look bad. I’ve heard so many people who read my book say, ‘I stopped reading epic fantasy years ago, but I liked this. It doesn’t feel like those epic fantasies.’ I think what they’re saying is that the genre has become so formulaic that it’s almost stagnant. I’m tired of fantasy medieval Europes in general, but what really bugs me are bad medieval Europes. … There’s no reason for medieval Europe-based fantasies to be as boring as they are. It’s time to shake things up.”

If that novel–okay, that series–you’re working on bears more than a passing resemblance to the works of Tolkien/Jordan/Eddings/{other wildly popular epic fantasist}, are you certain what you’re doing isn’t just rehashing a story you loved? For that matter, does that vampire/werewolf/other urban fantasy tale on your hard drive break new ground? Really?

I would not suggest that either urban fantasy or epic fantasy, even epic-fantasy-in-a-setting-that-smells-like Europe, is *dead*–but both of those territories are pretty seriously over-farmed, and if you’re writing for publication, you need to bring something new to the party. If your setting smells like settings we’ve seen a hundred times before, why did you make that choice? Why is it important to the story you’re telling? Would your story be improved by digging deeper into your setting and making it actually serve the tale you’re telling?

Yes, people are still selling the same-old-same-old. And people are still buying it. But I think Jemisin’s right: we can do better. Fantasy and science fiction are uniquely suited to explore characters and ideas that can be handled nowhere else. We have immense freedom in the tools and settings we use. What ideas are you pursuing in your story? How does your setting contribute to what you’re doing? Do your characters truly arise from the world you’ve created for them? Why does any of it matter?

Fantasy may be immensely popular, but it’s still the Rodney Dangerfield of genres. I think that’s because fantasy writers and readers have largely forgotten the power of the possibilities and challenges we grant ourselves when we work in this field. Senseofwonder is why we come to this genre; but it is the question of meaning that makes us stay for the end of the tale.

You mustn’t be afraid to dig a little deeper. That’s where the gold is.

* Yes, I’m behind on my reading. This is a surprise?

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Torrents seem like manna from heaven. You can go out on the interwebs and get something for free. It may feel like an opportunity to Stick It to some fat corporate entity, and if it’s a corporate entity you hate (frex a software giant with grossly overpriced and yet indispensible programs) it can be very easy to see it as either harmless or Just Desserts.

We don’t have time to address all the aspects of that legal and ethical can of worms. This is a blog. However, I submit that–even if you think stealing from corporations is either harmless or well-deserved–when you’re downloading books or music, the situation is not quite the same. Even if you don’t believe in the concepts of intellectual property or copyright (which, for the record, I do) it’s possible to understand this:

People paying for books (or songs) is how artists make a living.

There are some Very Real Reasons why people who want to read a book or listen to a song download it illegally, and we’ll come to those in a minute. But even if  those reasons apply to you, when you’re downloading illegally you are literally making it more difficult if not impossible for that artist to go on creating.

Artists have to eat; they have to pay bills. If they can’t make money on the art you’re enjoying, then they have to find some other way to get the money they need. Like, for example, a second job. (Because contrary to what you may think, most artists already have day jobs. Just to survive.) If it’s a nearly superhuman feat to create marketable art while also holding down a job and other adult responsibilities, it becomes impossible when another job is added into the mix. There are only so many hours in the day.

Yes, there are corporations involved in publishing books and music–and some of them don’t treat either consumers or artists with respect. But I submit that’s not what we’re talking about here. And I will spare you the long breakdown of how and why publishing businesses are just plain lucky to keep their doors open in this market.

Suffice it to say that illegal book downloads are not Sticking It To Some Fat Corporation. They’re making it harder for publishers to keep discovering and publishing new authors, and making it harder for authors to make ends meet.

I do know (see? I remembered) that there are Very Real Reasons why people feel the need to download a book or music. For example:

* don’t know if I’ll like this artist and want to try it out

* just can’t afford to buy it now

And yes, I get those. But if you believe that paying for art is worthwhile because it allows the artist to keep doing his or her thing, consider these ideas:

Check out the free samples. With a little effort, you can read or download the first chapter of a very high percentage of books, legally and for free. Reading the first chapter will tell you whether you want to read the book or not. The big online booksellers usually offer the first chapter or at least a good chunk of it on a book’s sale page. Otherwise check the author’s website, if she has one. If it’s a Mercury Retrograde book you’re interested in, look at our free samples page, which includes the first chapters of all books currently in print and many of those coming out in the next year.

Try your local library. If they don’t have the book you want, you can ask them to order it. Not only will the author get paid, because libraries buy books; any number of other people in your community will also get to read the book. For free. And that’s not the only way borrowing a book from the library benefits your community; in many cases a library’s budget, which is likely to be allocated from a local municipal or county budget, is significantly influenced by the number of library patrons served. Yes, that’s right: it may very well be that the more you use your library, the more money it will be able to get to serve the community. Getting your book there benefits many people.

If you like that book or song you’ve downloaded, buy it. If you’re a read-it-once person, buy a copy as a gift.

If you can’t buy it now, and your local library can’t help you, and you just can’t resist the urge to download, find other ways of supporting the artist. Introduce friends who you think will like the work; write about it in your blog or on Facebook; and did we mention asking your library to add the book to their collection? Those things make a difference in an artist’s career too, and will help to create future sales…which means the artist whose work you liked is getting paid. And can afford to keep on creating. Are these things just as good as buying the book? Not really. But if you honestly can’t get it any other way, those are ways to help even the score.

I’m not sufficiently delusional to believe that we can eradicate pirated torrents from the net. For a publisher or an author, trying to keep their books off torrent sites is the legal equivalent of Whack-a-Mole. But I do hope that you, having thought about the issue, will find better ways to fill your need for a good read.

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On her personal blog today, Leona Wisoker shares What We Ache For: a post named after a book that encapsulates for her the importance of rising above the mundane and mechanical to tease out the profound ideas waiting for someone to bring them to light. Here’s a taste of what she says:

My writing has been accused of “suffering from an emphasis on the poetic,” a criticism I am still struggling to understand; I am baffled that any writing could suffer from being poetic.

Oh, to be afflicted with meaning; to challenge the reader to open her mind and soul and discover what lies within, to admit ideas so large that one must sit down in order to absorb them lest we topple to the floor. How terrible to live in that tiny segment of the world that needs these things like others need food.

Not terrible at all. That need is the reason I get out of bed in the morning. It is the reason Mercury Retrograde Press exists. Write fiction for the lowest common denominator if you must, read it if you will, and all the blessings of the universe on your efforts. But that’s not what we’re doing here.

We ache for more.

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Over on his blog, Mercury Retrograde editor and author Zach Steele shares some thoughts on nailing the opening to your story…and the pain that is sometimes involved. Take a look.

Among all the salient points he manages to sneak in among the entertaining narrative, the thing I’m walking around thinking about today is something more alluded to than discussed: the fact that it’s almost impossible to nail the opening the first time around. The opening of any story is one of the two hardest parts (the other being the ending, of course). And it’s nearly impossible to write an appropriate opening until you know exactly what the story is.

And, as any writer knows, you don’t know what the story really is until you’ve written it. Sometimes not even then.

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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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