What’s in a name?

It’s been too long since I wrote a legit blog. Time is relentless in its march. Still, I want to talk about names. Really, I want to discuss made-up names and words of all kinds. Maybe the benefit of what I’ve learned will help you in your writing endeavors. If not, at least it should be interesting.

If you’ve been with me from the beginning, you probably remember the tragic first edition covers on my first two books. I’m embarrassed to show them now, but it makes a point. (Just to ease my mind, I’m putting the newer versions, too.)

 

 

To this day, the Space Balrogs won’t call my first book anything except, “The Cracide.” Which is what the title looks like on that initial cover. Since then, I’ve learned it’s best not to title a book after a made-up word at all. Not only because I get confusion by people who think the book is about killing God as some kind of anti-religious statement (which it isn’t, it’s about killing a Theocrat who claims to be God), but a lot of people aren’t attracted to the title at all because it inspires confusion more than curiosity.

I went to a book signing where Terry Brooks shocked the entire audience of fans by informing us that Shannara is pronounced Shan-uh-ruh, not Shuh-nar-ra. Every person there had been pronouncing it wrong for decades. I’m guessing after a lifetime of correcting people’s pronunciation of his title, he wishes he hadn’t used a made-up word in the title, too.

Exacting Essence isn’t much better. It sounds cool (to me), but nobody knows what it means. So again, it causes confusion instead of curiosity. So, by making bad decisions in the past, I’ve learned to title books using only common words people already know. It is much more likely to inspire them to want to learn about the book. Here are some better book titles.

 

Uniqueness in titles isn’t as important as getting the reader’s interest. Common words can make a really good title.

I think this has also affected how I think about made up words in the book as well. I have a few in Salvation, because it’s a straight up fantasy and monsters and towns need names. But even though there have to be made up words in it, I think I would advise authors to use as many common words and when they are made up, spell them in a way that’s easy to understand.

Schism is the name of the planet. An actuator is a legitimate machine part. The sense of something familiar being used in a new and “magical” way is more intriguing, I believe, than if I named the planet Blarghdorugh and the machine R.T.C.I. (Reality Transforming Computer Interface). There is a place for fancy made-up words, of course, but less is definitely more.

So what brought this up now? My work-in-progress involves me deciding what to call a city, the people in it, and various aspects of their culture. So I have been revisiting some of the wisdom I learned by past mistakes. The title will not be a word I make up. The city must be called something that sounds like a real city, named as real people would name one. And the characters will have names that are “futuristic” in the sense that they are names people might really use as a result of a real societal evolution… not Zaphanianna or some other nonsense that readers can’t pronounce. It’s unlikely that after people used the name Matthew for thousands of years it will suddenly disappear in 100 years and nobody will be giving it to newborns.

If I save just one author from making the same mistakes I did, this blog will have been worth the effort. 🙂

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The Big Fandom Debates

Daniel Swenson hits a panel of high powered fans (Robert J. Defendi, R. A. Baxter, Nathan Croft, and yours truly) with some of the hardest questions to plague sci-fi fans for decades. It felt like a convention panel gone off the rails!

http://www.dungeoncrawlersradio.com/episodes/episode-sticks-and-stones-or-is-that-blasters

Also, Immortal Works just opened an imprint with a new logo! What do you think?

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Is Sci-fi More Optimistic than Fantasy?

In a recent discussion with my friend, R. A. Baxter, I casually mentioned that magic and future tech were fundamentally the same thing in different settings. In some ways science fiction and fantasy are the same, which is why they are often shelved together in stores and libraries. Fans of both often prefer the term “speculative fiction,” since the lines between them have been blurred so much.

He pointed out that one big difference between them is that readers often assume future technology will be possible some day, whereas most of the time nobody believes magic is real. What I realized when I heard this, was that sci-fi seems fundamentally more optimistic than fantasy for that reason.

Traditional sci-fi is full of ideas for inventions that would make life better. It is set in the future, and as real time catches up with the imagined worlds of past authors we are amazed that so many were correct. In many cases, the inventions presented as fiction inspire later engineers to invent them, thus fulfilling a kind of techno-prophecy.

Medieval fantasy is set in the past, and tends to include a longing for bygone ways. The magic changes the balance of power and often alters the course of lives or worlds. However, the overall statement seems to be that life would be better with magic.

Based on these stereotypical genre descriptions, fantasy is more pessimistic. In reality, there are many dystopian futures and fantasies that include a positive ideal of humanity (which is about the characters more than the magic). Indeed my own fantasy novel, Salvation, is much more socially positive than my science fiction book, Theocracide.

What do you think? Does one of these genres represent a more positive view of humanity in general?

 

How many words make a story?

 

I remember the first time I checked out a really big book from the library. Not just a novel, this thing was gargantuan. Noble House by James Clavell. I think half of my motivation was just to prove that I could read such a huge tomb. In retrospect, I wish somebody had caught me and recommended War and Peace instead. Still, I finished it, and that was important to me at the time.

Since then, I’ve read and written stories of all different sizes. Some of the most powerful, ideas that have endured in my memory to this day, were crafted with very few words. For a while, most of the industry seemed ready to declare short stories extinct. Only a few magazines held out against the falling market, and writers largely considered those venues resume builders. Then Amazon revolutionized publishing and opened a way for people to get anthologies (or even stand alone novellas) out with very low overhead. Luckily, the dying art was given new life.

It was especially fortunate for me, since I managed to get into some of those anthologies and build enough cred to sway a publisher to take a chance on my longer works. I believe if nobody made any more short stories, we’d lose something very important and valuable. While I like books for the journey they offer, I feel in many cases the books are inflated beyond the needs of the story. This might be to raise the price of the book, or to extend the escapism time it provides. However, I think we’ve all read a long book or series and thought, “That could have been done in half as many words (or books).” Fans may argue that they want 20 books set in their favorite world, but I feel those massive collections are only one facet of the many possibilities for transmitting stories via fiction. In fact, the most powerful ideas can only be shared in much smaller works.

I guess that’s why I knew the Actuator series had to be done with stories of many sizes. It isn’t only a study in the meaning of various genres, it’s a study on the impact of differing story lengths. Thus, it is over 20 authors, working in different story sizes with characters intertwined through the larger arc. I didn’t realize it when we organized the series and pitched it to Curiosity Quills Press, but the whole thing is not just a multi-genre thriller. It’s also an exploration of every facet of written story telling. It will be nearly half a million words by the end.

Book 3, Chaos Chronicles, is just a few months from release. It contains some of the most imaginative, unique stories in the series yet. It started out as another anthology in the same setting, but once I read the amazing work in it, I knew we had to bring those characters back in for the finale (book 4). I can’t wait for you to read it!

Skill vs. Marketing

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Lately I’ve spent a lot of time ruminating on books. What makes some books sell and others go nowhere? How important is it for a book to have “meaning?” What makes a book become a “classic?” What significance do I want books to have in my life?

A lot came together to cause such an internal inquiry. First, I realized I reached my initial writing goal. Once I had several books published and I found my place in the local writing community and with a good publisher, I fulfilled my plans. So I naturally wanted to re-evaluate what my next goal should be. Second, I observed that book sales at conventions and signings didn’t change whether I had one book to sell or half a dozen. I felt good about having more books written, but it didn’t seem to affect my overall numbers to have more books on the table in front of me. So I began to ask myself, “Why write the other books?” (Don’t worry, I write because I love it, and that won’t stop.) Finally, what do I want readers to take away from my books?

Obviously, any writer wants to sell more books. But as I’ve tried to examine what makes a book sell better than others, the variables get very convoluted. Sometimes a mediocre books is marketed so well, or referred by somebody so popular, that it becomes a best seller. Other times books that I love and seem masterfully written, will flop and find no readers at all. So there is some measure of luck involved. What seems to be the only discernable pattern is when an author writes one book that “breaks out” and is hugely popular. It gains momentum all its own, in excess of the marketing. It takes on a mythos greater than the content or skill by which it’s written. That’s really the “dream” of any author, to write something that becomes wildly popular. But how much control does anybody really have over such a system? Or is trying for such a thing like chasing a white whale?

Michaelbrent Collings said something profound. “Selling your own books won’t go anywhere. You need to write books so good that other people will sell them for you.”

I stepped back from writing for a while to internalize these things and come up with my next plan. I’m going to finish the Actuator series, of course. (Book 3 coming soon!) After that?

What I’ve come to realize is that much of this is out of my control. I can develop skills and invest in the stories I write. I plan to focus on better and less instead of faster and more. And deep down, I have to believe that a really good story will resonate with people and have a better chance of “going somewhere” than an average story. I love all the books I’ve written, and the people I’ve worked with. Now, I just need to take my art to the next level. It isn’t a quest to write a best seller. It’s just refocusing to make the best story I can. Thanks for sticking with me on the journey. I’m looking for brighter and more exotic destinations!

What’s the best genre and publisher for you?

I did an interview for the Author’s Think Tank over a year ago, before The Actuator: Fractured Earth was published. It’s got a lot of great advice about choosing genres and publishers. Check it out!

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Writer Mama #Bloghop

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Happy Star Wars Day! May the fourth be with you.

Making no comment whatsoever about the gender bias in this bloghop’s title… Just kidding, Sharon Bayliss said Papas are welcome, too. Plus it’s a great idea. How do authors juggle a family with their writing? In my case, as with many others, it also includes a day job in the mix.

At a book signing, Terry Brooks told me, “You write because you have to. If you don’t have to, do something else.” For me, writing is meditation. It’s the only time my attention-deficit brain focuses like a laser and gives me some relief from the myriad stresses pulling me in so many directions. So I must write. Unfortunately, the only time-machines I have access to are in my stories. So here are my tips for carving out a few precious hours when you’re used to being “on” twenty-five hours a day.

First, take writing seriously. For decades I dabbled in writing. I put some words down here or there, sprinting through a book occasionally. I didn’t know how to edit, so I slowly amassed a dozen books over the course of twenty years, most of which weren’t good enough to show anybody. Eventually, I realized I needed to take it serious. It was important to me, not just as an occasional diversion. So I began reading books on how to write, talking to friends about it, and attending writers conferences when I could. Learning the skills is the minimum.

Second, prioritize. Don’t just prioritize what you want to write, prioritize your whole life. Despite feeling busy all the time, I knew there were plenty of other distractions in my life. Everybody has some down time. I watched television and movies, played games, and painted models. I left the priorities in place. Job and family had to come first, but video games certainly didn’t. I haven’t painted a single model since. (Although, when I become a full-time writer, I plan to pick that up as my “break” from writing as my day job.) Also, I realized I had to read less. As much as I loved books, reading took too much time.

Third, experiment with writing times and places. Humans are supremely adaptable. We can live in arctic tundra or steaming jungles. We can sleep odd hours, eat strange foods, and find ways to feel alone among teeming hordes. If you have a job and family, you probably don’t have the luxury of blocking out nice four hour chunks of time when you are rested and feeling creative. Such extravagance is reserved for people who have somebody else supporting them. Don’t despair, though. Hard working parents have a kind of mental energy and drive the pampered artists can’t channel. So I recommend looking at your life and finding time, regardless of when or where, when you can snatch part of an hour. Lunch break? On the bus? After the kids go to bed? In the morning before they are up? Don’t just try it once and think, “I’m too tired, it doesn’t work.” Force it to happen for a few weeks. Give your mind time to adapt. Once you train it to know when the time for writing is coming, it will step up to the plate and deliver. I know somebody who wrote a whole novel during his lunch hour at work. For me personally, I discovered I write best in the morning when everybody else is still asleep. So I get up early on Saturdays, holidays, and vacations to bash out a couple thousand words. If I plan for it during the week, my limited writing time is remarkably efficient and productive.

Fourth, stay off social media. Maybe I should say STAY OFF SOCIAL MEDIA! Do not check e-mails. Do not go on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else. Don’t check it first before you write. Don’t peek while writing. You can do that when you’re waiting in line at the grocery store, but you can’t write in line at the grocery store. (Maybe you can, I’ve never tried. I assume it’s possible.)

Fifth, get your family on board. Talk to them about your adventures. Get their ideas. Share your heartbreaks and successes. When you meet your goals, celebrate with them. Hopefully, they will see a benefit to helping you and ease up on your stresses when you write.

Finally, don’t stop writing after your first book. You wrote one! Yeah! Have a party! Send it to friends and family and a critique group. Do NOT stop. There are no one-book-wonders in the writing world, not really. If you are going to be a published author, you will need to write more than one book. Don’t get out of the habit. Don’t lose your writing time. Take a small break. Think of a new story. Then get yourself two chapters into the next book. It took me a dozen books to get published. If you take a long break after book one, it can easily become the only book you ever wrote.

The journey is worth it. Good luck!

(If you want more authors’ ideas on how to write with kids and/or a job, see the rest of the Writer Mama #Bloghop. I know I could use some new ideas.)