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By: Darcy Pattison
Blog: Darcy Pattison's Revision Notes
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Alternate publishing has been a quiet, behind-the-scenes subject for the last two or three years, but I keep hearing people talking about how they’ve taken the plunge. The terms vary: self-publishing, indie publishing, niche publishing. Some authors are apologetic; some are arrogant; some are business-like. But more and more, people are taking their copyright into their own hands and asking: how can I make money with what I have written. This week, we’ll look at seven stories of people who have done exactly that. For every story told here, I probably know of two or three more similar stories.
Dusting off an old publisher’s hat
Guest post by Joni Sensel
My latest book starts with a mouse-gnawed, bedraggled hat, and I found myself donning an old hat myself to get this book to readers who were asking for it.
More than ten years ago, I started a small press and self-published two picture books. One earned an award, both sold out their print runs, and I got a terrific crash-course in publishing — enough to know I’d rather write. I stuffed my publishing hat into a closet.
After four traditionally published middle-grade novels, however, I dusted off my DIY cap. Having published THE FARWALKER’S QUEST and its sequel (which were contracted individually), Bloomsbury didn’t even want to consider the trilogy’s finale. Though the books earned good reviews and even a little award notice, sufficient copies didn’t sell for the company to invest in the third.
Farwalker’s Quest was a 2009 Cybil Award finalist and a 2010 Bank Street College ‘Best Book’.
- This is a solid and well-paced fantasy in which the journey is more important than the conclusion. The theme of finding and accepting one’s true calling resonates. –School Library Journal
- [T]he book is at once elegant and lyrical, while also offering an intensely paced and action-driven plot for readers who are seeking adventure along with poetic contemplation.
–The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books
- This stand-alone fantasy has a unique setting with an intriguing history and a suspenseful plot. –Booklist
- The story offers crisp dialogue, an exciting plot, and strong secondary characters. –Kirkus
Yet readers were asking for more. So I finished it myself.
A review that originally ran in the Edge of the Forest:
Reality Leak Jodi Sensel with illustrations by Christian Slade (Henry Holt, April 2007)
When Acme, Inc. rolls into South Wiggot, Bryan’s not entirely sure what to think. Something about the company head, Mr. Keen doesn’t seem quite right. Before long, Bryan and his best friend Spot (a girl who thinks she’s a dog) are finding messages popping up in the toaster instead of toast, tea bags that turn into mice, and a message in a bottle… in the toilet.
When Bryan gets a job at Acme planting popped popcorn that grows into glowering dandelions, they know something very, very strange is going on. Of course, none of the adults in town believe them. Can Bryan and Spot figure out what Mr. Keen’s up to and can they stop it before it turns ugly?
Mr. Keen comes off as a slightly sinister Willy Wonka in this wonderfully bizarre tale about the unexpected, the importance of dental hygiene, and the power of Imagination. Sensel’s imagination keeps the story moving in completely different directions with every page turn, making the book hard to put down as the reader wonders what will happen next.
Slade’s drawings well-capture some of the books odder oddities and add to Mr. Keen’s creepiness.
The ending leaves open the possibility of a sequel. While this book is a tough act to follow, we hope there is another in the works.
Modern update: No sequel. :(
Book Provided by... The Edge of the Forest, for review in their publication (sadly, now defunt. sniff sniff sniff.)
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You might not be aware that when this blog was created, the original group of posters agreed to keep it going for 843 days exactly. We had done some pretty complicated calculations on the shelf-life of a blog about speculative fiction for teens and pre-teens, with some assistance from several persons (and a robot) who arrived from the future to warn us about impending utopian conditions.
So here we are at Day 843, feeling compelled to say goodbye so that we can enjoy the sudden utopia we have been informed is about to be created on Earth. (We’ve been told there will be free iced coffee and several Harry Potter sequels for everyone.) We’d like to thank you, blog readers, for following us for so long (two and a half years! over 500 posts!). We’ve appreciated your comments and silent visits alike. We feel this has been a great opportunity to explore our thoughts on various topics important to us science fiction- and fantasy-lovers, and to chat with people we otherwise would never had known existed.
We hope that you will continue to visit us on other places on the web so that we can chat about books and hear your recommendations for what we should be reading and share thoughts about writing and publishing. You can find links to our websites here. Thanks, lovely blog readers, and Happy Reading!
Filed under: Chris Eboch
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, Parker Peevyhouse
We hope some of you had a chance to read CHIME since we announced our Book Talk about a month ago. CHIME has received six starred reviews and has garnered a lot of praise around the web. The story follows Briony, a young woman living at the start of the twentieth century in Swampsea, where the swamp is being drained to make way for train tracks–and the monsters who lurk in the mud are angry about losing their home. In order to save her twin sister from a curse brought down by the Boggy Mun, Briony must stop the swamp from being drained, all while balancing her self-hatred and her new-found love for a boy who has just come to town.
Today, Joni Sensel and Parker Peevyhouse chat about the book. We hope you’ll comment with your own opinions on some of these topics. We’d love to hear what you thought of CHIME.
Joni Sensel: So, let’s talk about CHIME! I haven’t read it yet, but I’m intrigued by the swamp setting. Is it used well?
Parker Peevyhouse: Yeah, the swamp was COOL. The setting was fab. I loved the swamp, and all the creatures were varied and wondrous.
Joni: What’s the main character like?
Parker: Briony. She was really into hating herself — she took it to a new level. Okay, well, not Black Swan level. But high up there. When she was young, she used her “witchy” powers to knock her twin sister, Rose, off a swing. Rose hit her head and suffered some kind of brain damage. She’s since been rather off–but Rose is a wonderful character. I loved her. She has a great way of talking, very blunt, and always, “I don’t prefer to do this or that.”
Joni: That’s an interesting twin contrast — like one “good” personality and one bad in two bodies?
Parker: Well, Rose isn’t exactly “good.” She’s rather rude and always runs off. They’re both pretty mischievous. But it was hard for me to love Briony or connect with her, although I found her sense of humor sharp and creative.
Joni: How important do you think that kind of connection is for enjoying a book?
Parker: For me, it’s key. I liked the setting of CHIME, I liked a lot of the characters, and I liked the magic, but Briony wouldn’t let me get close. She has this STRANGE way of talking, of narrating. At one point she’s looking for Rose, is desperate to find her in the swamp and wants Rose to call out to her. She says, “Jab your scream into my ear squish.” I honestly don’t understand why Briony talked the way she did.
I thought maybe Briony is just so crazy with self-hatred that she can’t quite keep a hold on her sanity, but it’s hard to say. Briony is just an unusual girl, I suppose, and I like unusual, but there’s a fine line between unusual and un-relatable. I love to read an unusual book, I really do, but it’s got to have an anchor in that main character. This isn’t to say that Briony is categorically unlovable. I think her relatability will vary from reader to reader.
Joni: Was that kind of language something that took you out of the story?
Parker: I didn’t like most of the language, to be honest. There were some lovely bits swimming around in all these strange bits, some really beautiful descriptions. Briony kept saying that Eldric’s eyes we
I had an interesting conversation with a nonfiction author the other day regarding a manuscript about chakras.
The nonfiction author’s viewpoint: It had to be fiction. And most likely fantasy.
My viewpoint: Millions of people believe in chakras as fact. Who says it couldn’t be nonfiction?
Which makes me think there’s a discreet category of work that is not clearly fantasy, not like magic-and-dragons fantasy, but we’re not sure what else to call it because we don’t agree on how “real life” it might be. You don’t have to go as far as ghosts. Think of stories revolving around auras, intuitive or energy healing, reincarnation, remote viewing, etc. — much of which is the typical stock-in-trade of New Agers (in the Western world) and Most Everyone (in the Eastern world). Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction depends on who you ask. And so does whether it’s fantasy or could fit right into a contemporary story.
The word “paranormal” used to have a definition that fit here pretty well. As in paranormal activity. But I think that, thanks to recent market trends, most people can no longer hear “paranormal” without associating it with 1) vampires, werewolves, or other supernatural creatures and 2) Romance (for teens or adults). I don’t often hear the term used with middle-grade work, and certainly not picture or chapter books.
I started to wonder if “occult” or something like that could work. Then I remembered the knee-jerk reaction that word causes among certain faith communities. (Speaking of which: would the same people consider a story about the devil fantasy? Or not? How about angels?)
Hey, I know — how about “speculative?” But that’s already got a much broader definition, at least here at The Spec. Too broad, maybe.
Is there any other word or characterization that would work? I’d especially be interested in hearing from someone with time in an Eastern culture or background. Or is it goofy to try to distinguish anyhow?
— Joni, who resisted the urge to give non-kidlit examples of “are they fact or aren’t they?” stories ranging from Holocaust denial to conspiracy theories to the lives of the saints. Almost resisted, that is.
Filed under: Joni Sensel
Okay, one more post on self-publishing and I’ll stop. (I can’t speak for other Spec bloggers.)
I’ve been thinking about points raised by commenters in the last week that essentially get at this: how does an author know the work is “good enough” to self publish? How does an author know that her manuscript isn’t going to be just one more entry in the “aren’t they awful?” morass that represents the vast majority (still) of self-published books?
And why ARE so many self-published books bad, anyway? As someone pointed out, indie film-making and indie bands get respect; the indie publisher doesn’t. At least, not if only one person is involved.
And I think that’s the key. Even the smallest film requires a minor army of actors, camera folk, editors. Even an individual indie musician has a producer, a mixer, maybe a separate songwriter, and probably some audience members somewhere along the line who were encouraging — if not a full band with a vested interest in every member’s quality. True indie presses are usually the efforts of multiple people. But a lot of self-published books are written by one person, with input from maybe a spouse or at most a few other relatives, friends, or other people not in a position to be very objective and who are often as blinded by love as the author is blinded by authorial myopia.
To complicate matters, it really is so subjective. I’ve read a couple of books now by a small but acknowledged, mostly paperback publisher you’ve all heard of that made me think, “Really? Somebody really thought this was good enough to publish? Wow.” And I’ve heard an agent speak disparagingly about this publisher, too, for similar reasons. But obviously at least a handful of people there disagree with us both and were willing to put money behind their opinions.
Still, the more people involved, the more likely a consensus will be reached on marginal books. I think. And personally, I don’t think I’m any more objective about my own work than your average author, and I’m sure I’m less so than some.
So here’s a minor suggestion for authors to consider: If we think that one of the important roles of the publisher is to serve as third-party, objective discriminators who decide what’s really “worth” publishing and what isn’t, but we want to sometimes publish work without the benefit of a publisher, for whatever reason, there’s no reason on earth we can’t play that role for each other. Suppose authors formed in groups of five or six or 10 and agreed to vette each other’s work prior to (self) publication? Even tough critique groups may not pull their punches enough on the details of a critique — and this is a role that would probably be better served by a group of peers who are NOT as familiar with a work as crit partners become, anyway. But if it’s just an up or down decision, not actual feedback, it should be possible for groups to work out a system — with anonymous ballots or some interesting techie solution — where they could essentially say to each other, “you know, I don’t think this one is ready yet, ’cause you’re going to embarrass yourself — and us, too, by implication.” (The latter might be especially effective if the “Sanction Group” is identified on/in the books they give the thumb’s-up to.) Or, “yeah, go for it.” Or even rank it on a scale of 1 to 10 — 10 being “NY is crazy not to pick this up” and anything under, say, a 6 or 7 being a “no, don’t do it!”
That would be an interesting function for an SCBWI region to formulate, for instance. Or a longtime critique group with multiple published members. Or a writing school/class program. Or…? I’ve talked a little with a couple of different people in the last few months about authors essential
As I get ready to follow Chris’s footsteps with my very first ebook, published by me and not one of my “traditional” publishers, I can look back to the first time I stood on Self-Publishers Row. Lots has changed. Other things haven’t.
Early in, early out
I first dove headlong into self-publishing more than ten years ago. This was early in the industry’s hey-day, before AuthorHouse or PublishAmerica or any of those other names we’ve learned to run screaming from, but after Dan Poynter was already on edition six or seven of his self-publishing “bible.” To make a long story short(er), I poured over a copy of that bible and won a substantial grant to create a small press. One of the two resulting books won a national award, both got attention in PW*, both had national bookstore distribution through IPG, and today, at least five years after one of them went out of print, I still have people regularly begging me to reprint it. Because I had a specific niche, lots of the required skills from my day-job, and a professional product (though I certainly would do some things differently now), I sold roughly the same number of each as I have my first “traditional” novel.
*Random side note: Not one of my four traditionally published novels has ever made PW, though they’ve been reviewed in all the other standard places. I can’t help but wonder if the PW folks later felt like I’d conned them and crossed my name off forever, but maybe that’s “writer blacklist paranoia” talking.
I learned an immense amount from that experience, which was by far and away its greatest value (a lot more than any monetary return. Marketing expenses add up fast, and I intentionally didn’t track how many hours of labor I spent because I sensed early on that the return would be pennies per hour, and it would have been too depressing to know.)
The most important thing I learned was that I didn’t really want to be a publisher. I’d rather write. I also wanted the third-party validation that traditional publishing bestows.
…and soon to be in again
But here I am again, and boy, how self-publishing has changed. I got in, and back out again, before the flood: before attitudes about it were quite so disparaging, before booksellers automatically said “no.” And while the sheer volume of self-published work only keeps growing, lately the disparagement is ebbing again, thanks to the small percentage of stand-out work that’s gone mainstream and to more traditionally published authors who are taking matters into their own hands. Their work is raising the quality average, at least perceptually. (I’m pretty sure there’s still plenty of dreck.)
What hasn’t changed for me is the answer to this question: Do I want to be a publisher? The answer’s still no. But I’ve become convinced that for some objectives, it’s the most logical route for an author to take. (And frankly, traditionally published authors without lead titles are now expected to do such a large percentage of the promotion, including sending around galleys and trying to finagle press coverage and events, that there’s less and less difference between the two roles anyhow.)
More good reasons all the time
I’ve taught workshops on the advantages and disadvantages of self-publishing, and until recently, the best — and most honest — reason I ever heard to self-publish was this: an older woman told me she wanted to self-publish her book because doctors had given her less than six months to live, and she wante
I recently attended a great session on doing author visits by Skype. It made me wonder what the next technical innovation would be for bringing readers and authors closer together.
Perhaps you could buy a device that would broadcast your favorite author’s dreams into yours. It would be like getting the story before the author wrote it down or even realized it was an inspiration.
Perhaps you could download an author’s voice for a 24-hour period so that everything you wrote would sound like your favorite writer. Or perhaps you could hyper-jump into an author’s eyeballs so that you could LITERALLY see through their eyes, instead of just trying to do that through their words in a book.
What part of your favorite author’s brain would you like to Skype into?
— Joni, who, with the right technology, might not spend any more time in her own head at all
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Blog: The Spectacle
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All the buzz right now is about the latest book in a certain trilogy. Some of us on this site have written series or sequels. I wrote the Haunted series and Linda Joy Singleton’s work includes the Dead Girl and The Seer series. Joni Sensel’s The Farwalker’s Quest was recently followed by a sequel.
What author wouldn’t like to have a series, whether the original contract is for several books, or a single title is so popular that readers (and the editor) want a sequel? And what reader wouldn’t want to return to a favorite literary world?
And yet, series can be a hard sell. Some publishers of course focus on series, typically the direct to paperback, open-ended type. I sold Haunted (about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, for ages 8 to 12) based on a first manuscript, series proposal, and outlines for books 2 and 3, to Aladdin, a paperback series publisher. But most publishers want to see how a first book does before they request a sequel.
“Characters that carry over a number of books certainly work well, but this isn’t the same thing as a series,” a former Llewellyn Acquisitions Editor said in an interview. “I’d rather see a strong standalone with sequel potential. If a single title works and the main character isn’t too old, it’s rarely a problem to continue the story into a new book, if there’s interest.”
Another editor commented, “I wonder how many trilogies or series were conceived as such—and how many began as one-offs that performed well and/or became bestsellers, at which point authors are often encouraged to write a follow-up.”
I wonder as well. As a writer, perhaps the best thing you can do is to bring your first book to a satisfactory conclusion, but leave the sense that the characters will go on to have other adventures — and wouldn’t it be nice to read about those?
This is also comforting for the author, who doesn’t feel as much like she’s abandoning her characters forever. (I ended my historical fiction novel The Well of Sacrifice with the characters heading off to a new Mayan city. I imagined their adventures, though I never wrote a sequel. Some teachers who use the book in the classroom have students write about what happens next.) This is a bit different from “And they lived happily ever after” — unless you believe that happily ever after would involve new challenges and adventures!
As readers — or writers — do you like to feel that a book is complete and self-contained, with no questions or concerns left for the characters? Or do you prefer an ambiguous ending that suggests challenges ahead? Something in between?
The Well of Sacrifice is a drama set in 9th-century Mayan Guatemala.
Chris Eboch likes happy endings!
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I don’ t think I’ve made anyone mad for a while; let’s see if this does it.
There’s a fine tradition of fantasy (or horror) in rural, even pastoral, settings, from Tolkien to King. So much so that you could call it the default; fantasy set in cities gets its own sub-genre, urban fantasy.
Science fiction, by contrast, probably because of its more technical nature, tends to have more urban sensibilities: think space ports, crumbling dystopias that once were fine cities, overpopulated masses, etc.
I’ve been thinking about this because I have noticed what seems to be a bias in publishing, probably a function of its New York/New England foundation: a lot of movers and shakers seem to think that readers can’t relate to rural stories, country people, or simple lives. DAIRY QUEEN is a lovely exception that almost proves the rule… but where I live, a LOT more kids relate to kicking cowpies than to riding a subway, or to growing up in a metro apartment instead of a house with a yard.
And I wonder if that bias encourages gatekeepers to think of rural = fantasy (vs. real-life). Which is why, perhaps, I know writers who’ve been told things like, “Nobody wants to read about a girl living in a trailer park.” (Besides THE HIGHER POWER OF LUCKY, I guess.) And I’ve gotten personal feedback about things I know in everyday life that folks in NY or LA have thought was old-fashioned because it’s more rural — or simply more lower-middle-class — than their personal experience.
Just throwing it out there. I might be making it up. Any thoughts? And to bring it back to spec-fic, at least nominally: can you think of any relatively recent, rural or pastoral sci-fi that’s not that way because the world ended?
— Joni, who likes both the city and the country for different reasons
Filed under: Joni Sensel
3 Comments on City aliens, country aliens, last added: 9/20/2010
In many ways, “writing” a title is a completely different skill from writing the book. Yet it can have a big impact on the right readers finding it.
Or maybe not. I’ve heard several booksellers, not to mention regular folks, complain about the title of my fellow 2K7er (yay!) Rebecca Stead’s award-winning WHEN YOU REACH ME. Most people adore this book, obviously. But many do not adore the title — it’s not easy to remember, and while you understand the reference once you’ve read the book, beforehand — when the title has to do its most important work — it give you no idea what the story is about. When I first heard it, I thought it must be a YA romance. I would love to have insight into the editor’s discussions with Rebecca on that title. (Rebecca, if you’re reading…? )
On the other hand… revising a title can be tough after you’ve lived with your working title for a while, even if you know it may well change.
Sometimes it’s a matter of tweaking, adding to or deleting from what’s already there, just like a text revision. The U.S. and U.K. versions of the first Harry Potter book — SORCERER’S STONE vs. PHILOSOPHER’S STONE — are a good example. I’ve been pretty lucky in that my first two books were published with the title I submitted on them, basically. REALITY LEAKS lost an S, that’s all. Everyone loved THE HUMMING OF NUMBERS’s title from the start. (Assonance works, I guess.)
But my first Farwalker book was originally titled just that — FARWALKER. I thought it was strong, intriguing, centered on the main character and her arc, and was also literal enough, with enough resonance among the gaming crowd, to be clearly a role or a description of a person. But Bloomsbury didn’t think it was clear enough what kind of story it was, and they weren’t keen on any of my secondary suggestions, so they published it as THE FARWALKER’S QUEST. Interestingly enough, the vast majority of people who mention it to me in person or email call it THE FARWALKER. So I wonder if that revision made any difference in the long run?
Other title revisions are more like those big draft revisions that involve starting over with your idea in mind and a new computer file. The FW sequel was originally THE STORY ABACUS because I thought the abacus in the story was thematically important, tied the whole thing together, and had a meta-fiction angle I liked. But I understood when my editor said they wanted something that would more clearly relate to the first book and give a hint of the time-bending aspect of the story. They thought perhaps we could do that with a similar “The Blank’s Blank” construction. So I brainstormed about a fifty options, using the same basic method Greg uses, including a lot of thought about key plot elements and themes, and we all thought THE TIMEKEEPER’S MOON did a better job of what we felt we needed to accomplish. Like REACH ME, though, it’s not very intuitive until after you’ve read the book, so I wonder.
4 Comments on Revision week: Titles, last added: 9/24/2010