Friday, December 30, 2011

2011 in a Nutshell

Read an agent's blog this morning where she tallied the queries and her responses for the year. There were some sobering numbers.

In January she received 442 queries. She responded by requesting eight manuscripts, which means she sent form rejections to 434.

You do the math. (Seriously. You do the math. I'm terrible at it.) I'd guess it's in the neighborhood of two percent receiving positive response. And she didn't mention how many of those she ultimately decided to represent, or whether she was able to actually sell any of their works. And this is a newbie. She's not some established agent with a long list of authors.

Actually, that's very close to my own results for the year. Of the many, many queries I sent out for Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter, a couple resulted in requests for the manuscript and one actually decided to rep me. So I'm not complaining. 2011 was a little hard in terms of all that rejection, but I'm WAY ahead of the game. I ended up with an agent. And who could possibly complain about that? Not me!

I'm still hammering away on the revision. I've almost completed recasting the opening chapters, trying to get more action faster without losing the character development. I think it's mostly working, but it's really hard to convey progress. A word count doesn't tell the tale. In fact, I'm sort of working on an anti-word count. Eddie wants me to see if I can trim the first six chapters into three. I'm pretty sure I won't make that, but I will get it down to four. And the next couple can be slimmed down quite a bit too. Then it's pretty straightforward, smooth sailing from there.

I actually spend a fair amount of time pacing between the front door and my desk (about 17, 18 steps, but remember I'm not a tall man and don't have a long stride) thinking "How do I get around that and still make sense?" or "What's the timeline events have happen in to be believable?" and suddenly a phrase or image will occur, and I'll dash back and clean it up. This is cleaning up time, not creating. It's more nitty gritty, nuts and bolts work. But it's what tunes up the story so that it runs like a race car instead of a jalopy.

This is what the job is really about. Not the writing, but the polishing and editing and shaping. Making sure all those words I wrote are pulling their weight. Making sure it works.

Happy new year!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Did I say that was the last word? Sorry, this is

I couldn't help myself. I have one more thought to add about sequels, and then I'll shut up. Probably.

The year was 2006. We were all eagerly awaiting the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The first, three years earlier, had been terrific and we were all expecting a great string of pirate movies.

And then one day I ran across an interview with Orlando Bloom (Will Turner) and Kiera Knightley (Elizabeth Whatsername.) And Bloom used the three words. Or perhaps to give you the full effect he had on me, he "USED THE THREE WORDS."

The interviewer asked what the new movie would be like. Bloom smiled and said:

"Bigger and better."

And I said - "Uh oh."

Visions of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom flashed through my head. The filmmakers wanted to outdo themselves and were once again mistaking the flash for the what really made the original work – the characters and situations.

Bloom repeated the phrase later in the interview, and I knew it was a bad sign. And I was right.

Look, I get it. The PotC series has raked in almost $4 billion dollars worldwide, they don't need me to tell them their business. But anyone who's honest will have to admit none have been as good as the first. You could even argue that none has been good except the first. The third – At World's End – was so bad it actually went back in time and made me like the first one less.

Even the first one, if you think about it, isn't a pirate movie. None of them are. Sure, there are pirates in it, but they're almost innocent bystanders – as innocent as pirates can get, anyway. The PotC films are monster movies, ghost stories, in which pirates get involved almost by accident.

And that's not just my opinion. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer rejected the original script because it was just "a straight pirate movie." Like there would be something wrong with that. It was his idea to add the whole supernatural aspect because why would anyone pay good money to see a pirate move that didn't have the undead in it?

But that goes back to my point about sequels. They didn't trust that audiences would fall in love with the characters, that Depp would be so entertaining, that the relationships and the – dare I say it? – acting would capture viewers. So instead of trying to tell a story, they junked up the sequels with virtually non-stop action and explosions and monsters and some crazy shit about the East India Company.

So any way that's my feeling about sequels, movie, book or otherwise. They ought to keep in mind the elements that made the original popular in the first place, and develop those.

Now, back to work.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Unexpected Treasure Trove of Books

Some friends are moving away, and that's sad. They've lived on St. Croix almost three times longer than they'd planned to, and now they're on their way to Panama.

But in a sliver of a silver lining to this cloud of woe, they cleaned out their bookshelf and gave us a couple of dozen books they thought we'd like, including four they were pretty sure would interest me. Man, were they right!

I have already begun using one as a reference work for the revision of Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter. It's Samuel Eliot Morison's The Great Explorers: The European Discovery of America, an encyclopedic compilation of the histories of the mariners who "discovered" the New World – as if people weren't already living here and it needed discovering. But socio-politics aside, it's a great book. They're all here – not just Columbus and Drake and Magellan. The Cabots have their place here and Hudson and plenty of other mariners, with their tales of adventure. Some you've heard of, some you haven't. And it's not just that – there are great descriptions of ships, sailors, life at sea, that are invaluable to someone trying to write about this age and this world. Morison isn't just a thorough, painstaking historian and a colorful writer – he's an adventurer and a sailor himself, and the book includes many photos he's take on the scene. When he describes Magellan's fatal landfall in the Philippines, he shows you photos he took of the spot! Terrific book and a great resource.

Then there's The Oxford Book of Sea Stories, a volume of 26 short stories about sailors and the sea, written by a host of writers including Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Melville, both Foresters (E.M. and C.,) Jack London, Kipling, Stephen Crane and Peter Ustinov.

Also included were two that I have to admit that – shockingly – I've never read. Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, considered by many to be the best maritime adventure ever written, and Jimmy Buffett's A Pirate Looks at Fifty. I know! Can you believe it? I started reading Buffett's book in the library several years ago and was loving it, but couldn’t check it out that day and never got back to it. I will soon have resolved that hole in my literary history.

Anyway, we'll miss our friends – and Tori will really miss their daughter, who she taught last year and directed in Midsummer Night's Dream. She's a great kid. Four books is hardly fair exchange for their friendship. They are pretty good books, but couldn't they just have stayed put and lent them to me?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sequels - Part 3

When I wrote my first YA novel, Chance, I envisioned three books and knew what they'd be about. Their titles were obvious – Chance, Second Chance and Last Chance. (Chance is the name of the main character, by the way.) I mentioned this to my then-agent, who said not to start planning the second and certainly don't start writing it until he'd sold the first – which he never did. So instead of writing Second Chance, I started working on Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter. But the then-agent decided he didn't want to represent it – or by extension me – any more. So that was the end of that until this summer, when I got the new agent.

When I signed with him this summer on the strength of Chrissie Warren, the new agent called and we talked a little about the book. Needless to say, it was my favorite phone conversation of 2011! And then he made it better by asking. "Would you consider a sequel?"

Let me say that again the way I heard it. "Would you – yes YOU!!!! – consider writing a SEQUEL??!!!!!!!!!!!"

I allowed as how I just might. It was not an accident that I left a couple of loose ends at the conclusion of Chrissie Warren Pirate Hunter, just as I had with Chance. Not holes, the story wraps up in a totally satisfying way, and I particularly love the last line. But there's an allusion to what they might do next that leaves me plenty of room for a sequel. And the agent caught it immediately.

His suggestion is, after I finish the revision (which I'm working on and very happy with) I write out a one- to two-page synopsis of each sequel I envision so that publishers will know I have something concrete in mind.

It's definitely a double-edged sword. If they like the book and are excited about it, it gives them one more thing to love. But it also feels like I'm going to rise or fall not just on how good the book is, but how good the ideas for the following two also are.

It's a risk I'm willing to take. I love the characters – Chrissie, her father Dan, shipmates Jack and Charlie and Nathan – I enjoyed spending time with them writing their story and want to see where I might be able to take them next. Or where they take me, because not everything in the book is my idea. They did some of it all on their own. They already have histories and personalities, so it won't be like starting over. And if a pubis her wants three books – well, hell, that's three times better than a publisher wanting one, isn't it?

So I'll definitely give it a shot. And that's all I have to say about that.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sequels: The Sequel

Not all sequels are created equal.

Yesterday I started talking about sequels, and talked about reading the three books of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series backwards. It's not the best way to do it. I confirmed that last night by picking up The Girl Who Kicked Over the Hornets' Nest and read the final couple of chapters. The end of that final book was as good as I remember. Although there are telltale signs that had the author not died, he might have gone for another sequel.

There is another series of books – wildly popular, best sellers the day they come out – that requires nothing of you as a reader except to move your eyes across the text and turn the page. Actually following the story is almost optional. The books are pure Teflon, they slide in and out of your head and nothing sticks.

Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum stories (which, like Dragon Tattoo are about to become a movie soon) are unique in my experience. To my knowledge there are 17 of them so far, and more power to Evanovich for finding a formula that works so well for her.

Here's the thing. It doesn't matter what order you read her books in. If you enjoy them, you'll enjoy them regardless which you start with or which you read next. You could read all the odd numbered ones first, then read the even numbers backwards down to 2, and it wouldn't change anything. It doesn't matter. You'll love 'em or loathe 'em the same.

Someone gave us about a dozen of them in June 2010, and over the course of about a month we passed them back and forth among ourselves, reading whichever happened to be free at the time. It didn't matter. The stories aren't interdependent and the characters – while colorful cliches – were amusing and the situations unlikely enough to keep you going. And since the characters and their backstories never change, it doesn't matter.

In fact I'm convinced that not only do you not have to read the books in order – I think you don't have to read the chapters of a given book in any particular order either.

But here's the catch. Once you've finished reading her for a while, you can't go back. At least we couldn't. At first read the books were amusing, fresh. A few months later I tried to reread one and just couldn't. And this summer someone gave us a newer one and we tried reading it aloud to each other. (I do a very good voice for Lula.) We made it, but it was a chore and we spent way more time making fun of the story than wondering what would happen next.

It seems the author has become trapped by her own formula – stuff happens and characters do things for no other reason than the author decides it must. Whatever the last one we read was (16? 17?) there were several scenes with Grandma Mazur that had nothing to do with the story – nothing – but exist only because the formula requires a couple of zany scenes with Grandma in every book. Most of the book involves Stephanie and Lula driving around Trenton, with Lula talking about diets. Oh that Lula and her diets.

But who am I to complain? The books are hugely successful, Evanovich has far more fans than I have hairs on my head (that's a different problem that I can't blame on Evanovich.) She clearly doesn't need my advice and would probably be a fool to take it. I'm pretty sure she's not a fool. She just has low standards about what constitutes a plot.

You, on the other hand (assuming anyone reads this and that's not likely) might want my advice. And that is, if you think you want to try them, buy a fistful and read 'em all at once, nonstop. Because if you pause, there's a really good chance you won't pick them up again.

But maybe that's just me. She must be doing something right. I just can't figure out what.

• Tomorrow I'll have the final sequel on my rambling discourse on sequels and why I've been thinking about them in the first place.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Sequels: A note, with more to come

One of the five or six most beautiful words to a writer must be "sequel." It's right up there with "published," "royalties," "options," etc.

I mean, if someone wants to publish a sequel to your work, it must mean the first was successful. And it's a chance to get paid to spend more time with characters you've already created in a situation you already know a lot about. No, it's hard to see a downside to sequels.

So here is the first of three notes on the subject.

Finished – I just finished reading "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" in time for the movie. I'll tell you the truth. I don't see what all the fuss was about. Yeah, it's a good story, interesting characters, a lot better story than many, but I've read a lot better, too.

It starts slowly, and is overwritten, especially that half a chapter explaining how Swedish guardianship law works. Didn't need that. I'll bet no Swedish reader needed it either.

I'll also be honest when I admit I read them backwards. It just happened that way. Someone gave us "Hornets Nest" about a year ago, and I read it. Liked it better than the other two, and loved the courtroom denouement. Then last spring we found "Played with Fire" and so I read that. It felt weak, and someone just a few days ago told me he thought it was the thinnest of the three, just "connective tissue between the first and third." I couldn't disagree.

Then I got my hands on "Dragon Tattoo" about a month ago and finally read it. It was OK, but there weren't a lot of surprises, I already knew about Harriet Vanger, about Wennerstrom, some other things. So that probably wasn't the best way to do it.

And if Dragon's half chapter on guardianship was bad, the obsessive drumming in Hornet's Nest on the history of postwar Swedish politics was even worse – not enough to make the reader actually understand, but way too much to let the story just run unimpeded. And that was the one I liked!

Together, they don't feel like three separate books, an original and two sequels. They feel like one huge mother of a book that was just too damn big to publish, so they broke it into three. And that's definitely a lesson to be learned. Sequels are all well and good – in fact, from an impecunious author's standpoint they seem fantastic! But make sure each book is complete, stands on its own and ends satisfyingly to someone who doesn't read any more in the series. Ironically, that's probably the best way to guarantee they will read more.

So anyway, I've read it, finished the cycle, and I'm glad I did. It was pretty good.

But I don't understand what all the fuss was about.

Next – Teflon sequels.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Keeping Up on Scurvy Dogs

Chapter 9 of Scurvy Dogs!, which I read to the kids last week, was as good as I'd hoped, and they loved it as much as I'd thought they would. There's a nice zig zag at the end, and only about five of the roughly 30 kids saw the zag coming. That's always nice. (And the adult in the room didn't, so that's satisfying.)

Finished chapter 10 yesterday and was supposed to read it to the class today but got pre-empted. So I'll be reading tomorrow.

In the meantime, mostly been doing work stuff, and a lot of it. (I get paid by the story, so that's good, especially around Christmas.) And nibbling around the edges of the Chrissie Warren revision. I'll turn full bore, hard core on that next week, when school breaks for the holidays. Which works perfectly, schedule-wise. By the time school starts up again I'll be done with Chrissie. I'll send the finished (this time around) manuscript back to the agent, then be back at work on Scurvy Dogs! in time to have another new chapter for the class.

So 10 chapters done, and they work. I'm pretty sure in the final draft I"m going to want to cut these first 10 in half, but hat's a problem for another day – hopefully by early spring.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

E-books: Mistaking Content for the Container

On Nathan Bransford's blog, he often opines about the growth of e-books and the future of the "traditional book." And people always complain – rightly, I think – that e-books "just aren't the same." It got me thinking, and here's my take on the matter. I was a little surprised by my conclusion.

A newspaper where I worked many, many years ago, was converting from typewriters to computers. We had an early text editing system made up of primitive video display terminals hooked to a big mainframe. We thought we were in the future.

Inside each of these VDTs was a small speaker, maybe two inches in diameter. Every time you pressed a key, the speaker emitted a little "click." Or maybe it was a clack. Hard to recall now.

This was because the hidebound old traditionalists in the news business, the older reporters and the editors, had been working on typewriters all their lives and couldn’t deal with a machine that didn't make a noise when you hit the key. It made them nervous, edgy. So these little speakers clicked and clacked comfortingly. Those of us a bit younger (whippersnappers!) found the whole thing amusing.

The old farts (like I am now) grumbled that they weren't computer jockeys and they weren't typesetters. They said their job was writing stories or editing them, then sending the typed copy off to the composing room where the words would get set into type. They objected to the blurring of that boundary. They didn't think they're job had anything to do with using a computer.

But as time passed, people got used to the new "normal." Computers became more ubiquitous in newsrooms and in our lives. And one day one of the younger copy editors grew tired of listening to the pointless, artificial clicks coming from the VDTs. She went around the newsroom with a pica pole (another obsolete newsroom tool) and gave every VDT a "speakerectomy," cutting the wires. No more clicks! The units stopped making noise but continued to function just fine. Because of course, the purpose of the system was not to produce clicks. It was to get copy to flow from the reporter to the editor to the press.

E-books are something like that. Some – maybe a lot – of people talk about how they love the tactile experience of reading, the smell of a book, the feel, the crackle of the page. The heft of a book. They can't accept the idea of reading without those parts of the experience. I'm one of them. And I am the first to agree that a book is a desirable object in its own right. There's something about a bookshelf crowded with volumes that gives pleasure for its own sake.

But the function of a book is not to smell a certain way or feel a certain way or look cool on a shelf. The function of a book is to convey information from the author's brain to the readers', whether a novel or a textbook, an adventure story or a political treatise. Just like the clicks in the primitive VDTs, the tactile experience is secondary. It's altogether separate from the actual function of the book. It has nothing to do with reading.

When we make that distinction between e-books and traditional books, we're mistaking the content for the container. And the simple fact is, e-books have it all over traditional books in performing the actual function of a book.

Yes, I own lots of books Before we moved from Oregon to the tropics, I had to winnow our collection, getting rid of almost 3,000 volumes, and that stills leaves me with about 2,000. They are, unfortunately, still in storage in Oregon and I want them. I want them NOW. I want my copy of "Treasure Island" with the Wyeth illustrations, and my autographed "Peter and the Star Catchers: and "Empire of Blue Water." I particularly want the copies of the four "Caper" stories I wrote and self-published with Cap'n Slappy. Surprisingly, you don't find them in the thrift store here on the island.

If they were all e-books, I could have slipped them into my pocket before I got on the plane. I'd have them now and not still be sending monthly checks to the storage company.

If you've ever directed young people in a period play, even something written in the 1960s like "Play It Again, Sam," you'll find that when the character they're playing has to make a phone call, they have no idea what to do with a dial phone. They really don't. They stare at the thing and you have to show them how to pretend to use it, and even then, it's not convincing because they have to think about it instead of doing it naturally. They don't miss dial phones, or even digital phones wired to the wall, because they've never experienced them. And that also points to where books are headed. It won't be long before they are curiosities, not necessities.

And if you think about how telephones and newspaper text systems have changed in just a couple of decades, you'll realize e-books will also change so much, so fast, that in a few years we'll barely recognize today's Kindle or Nook as e-books, just like today's reporter would be baffled by those old VDTs.

E-books will replace traditional books because in the ways that matter, they offer far more benefits. They're less expensive to produce, don't consume trees, are far more portable. Soon we won't even say "e-books." The word "book" will mean the content, not the container, to coming generations, most of whom will never read or even hold a traditional book. Just like the comforting clicks of the old VDTs, the tactile experience that we think of as reading but which actually has nothing to do with what the word means, will bow to the realities of the electronic world.

Books will go on. Masses of paper smeared with ink and bound between covers probably will not.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Someone a Lot Smarter than Me (16)

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.

Anton Chekov

Update: 685 words on "Scurvy Dogs!" this morning, but it finished what I think may be my best chapter ever, and brings the total for the book so far to 14,205 words.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

General Thoughts/This and That

Did some really good revision work on "Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter," the last couple of days, though there's much more to do. Did write one passage that I like very much, so I'll probably have to delete it ("Murder your darlings," as the saying goes) and the new framing device is working very well.

Today and tomorrow I'm finishing up a new chapter of "Scurvy Dogs!" because the kids don't care that I have a deadline – they want another chapter.

And it's not a pressing deadline. The agent thinks there's little point in pushing before the holidays, you can barely get publishing house editors on the phone, and you certainly can't get them to read something during this time of year.

In the meantime, there were two good blog posts today on dealing with agents when you're in the query stage. The first post is some good advice on turns of phrase that might set off alarm bells for a potential agent. (Alarm bells are bad things, of course. You want your query to set off choirs of angels or something similar.) The second blog has some advice on how not to behave with agents, written by an agent who had just had an off-putting experience. It's the sort of thing you wouldn’t think you'd need to be reminded of. I mean, real "duh!" stuff. but there you go. Some people think the rules don't apply to them, or aren't aware that there are in fact rules.

Anyway, the agent, Janet Reid (who has both her personal blog and the very helpful "Query Shark" blog, explains it really succinctly. If I may quote: "I'm astounded people think this is Undergraduate Lit 101 and I'm some sort of prof with office hours for writers to drop in and get help. This is a for-profit business and I spend my time doing what I think is going to make me boatloads of money. Shiploads would be better. Helping you figure out why your book doesn't work is not going to make me any money. It makes you feel better. Those are NOT the same things."

Books are such a personal thing, and a love of good books marks you as a sensitive individual. So sometimes people sometimes forget that the first thing about the book business is – It's a business.

As to the boatloads of money, sounds good to me. Although I'm always ready to settle for a suitcase full, as long as it's a pretty big suitcase and none of the bills are smaller than twenties.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

THIS is the fun part!

It may be Saturday, but I couldn't wait to get to work today. Not on "Scurvy Dogs!" My agent yesterday sent the revision notes for "Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter."

These are suggestions that he has, six pages of notes with his reactions to the book, things he thinks I ought to consider before it's ready to be shown to publishers. Plus a marked-up copy of the manuscript with thoughts and suggestions.

Scanning them, they fall into three categories – things I agree with completely; things I can see the point and have to consider; and a few, very few things I don't agree with. He made it clear, these are his suggestions, it's my book and it’s my call.

But c'mon. He's the agent, he's the one who will show it to publishers, he's the one who understands what they're looking for and how they think. More importantly, he's an informed eye giving me the benefit of an outside view. I'd be a fool to ignore him.

The big issue is the pace of the opening chapters. I knew some people found that problematic, but wasn't sure what to do. I thought I'd made it as solid as I could and couldn't really think of how to pick up the pace. If the book is about the change the main character goes through as a result of the action, changing from a quiet, timid girl into a courageous, active figure, then don't we have to see that timid person?

But I had one of those "Aha!" moments, literally. I was driving home from an errand, I wasn't driving more than 10 minutes and I wasn't thinking about the story. But when I got out of the car I had it all in my mind – exactly how to make it work! "Aha!" I said.

I love moments like that.

Funny thing – One of his notes is that he's not crazy about the title. "Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter." Now, as I wrote earlier, that was not the original title. The original was "The Wreck of the Gladys B." and it was the name for about two years. It took me a long damn time to come up with "Chrissie Warren Pirate Hunter," and it took a chance comment from my daughter to get that. So I don't know if I've got anything better. But I'll think about it.

And if anyone is reading this and has an idea, I'll listen.

But I've gotta get back to work. I have already written – rewritten – the first 700 new words, and I’ve got lots of work to do. This is the fun part. Writing the story is hard work. That's where you discover what the story is. This is the part where, I know the story, now how do I tell it the very best way possible so that people will want to read it? That's fun.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Scurvy Dogs" Update

I'm not sure when and I'm not sure how, but today I wrote about 2,200 words on "Scurvy Dogs!" This after managing just a couple hundred here and a couple hundred there the last four days. Sometimes it's nice when you can clear the deck and just plug away.

So anyway, the total is now 11,961, which isn't bad. We're making progress, it's (at a wild guess) about a fifth of the way from the end.) And the next chapter will be the best yet. I'm certain of that.

I do really like one part of the last chapter, where the squire is talking about his youth on Jamaica, sailing with Henry Morgan, and Jamie is kind of shocked. He'd known that the squire hadn't always been a middle-aged, mild-mannered man peering over the top of his glasses, but it had never occurred to him that he might have been young and adventurous and – well, of course they didn't use the word this way back in 1690s Jamaica, but – cool!

And I thought about my own folks. We never can know the whole truth about our parents, and it's hard to think about my dad as a young man, marching across Belgium with a rifle, ready to shoot other young men, some of them probably with the same last name – Baur is the Bavarian spelling of a common German name, after all. He talked very little about his experience in World War II, mostly just his Christmas story (perhaps I'll share it at Christmas) and a few funny basic training stories. Whenever, as a boy, I asked for a "war story," he kindly and gently excused himself. It wasn't something he wanted to talk about, so I can only guess. We can never really know our parents.

Anyway, after reading the chapter to the class (I added another bunch of students – the other fifth grade class – so now I've got an audience of about 40 for this) I asked them to do some homework. Go home and TALK to their parents and find out one cool or unexpected or just fun thing their mother or father did when they were young.

I'm looking forward to hearing the stories.