Over the past year, I’ve spent a fair amount of time on Twitter, playing writer hashtag games. What’s a hashtag game? you may ask.
We all know what a hashtag is. It’s that # sign, followed by a word or phrase that’s used to identify social media messages on a specific topic – #wedding, for example, or #ihatemondays. People interested in that topic can search for the hashtag and see the latest messages.
A hashtag game takes things a step further, by establishing a central theme and then inviting others to use the hashtag to share their own message on the theme. #5WordsToRuinADate is a popular one (typical response: “I don’t think it’s contagious.”) Twitter is the main social media outlet for hashtag games; I haven’t found many elsewhere on the web.
A writer hashtag game establishes a central theme (often a single-word prompt such as “dream” or “fire”) and invites writers to search their WIP (Work In Progress) for lines containing the theme. Participants then share their lines with the online writing community by using the hashtag. Because tweets are limited to 280 characters, the game forces brevity – a useful asset when writing.
Since I’m writing this blog on a Wednesday, I’ll use today’s #1lineWed theme of “secret” and a selection from my just-released book Ragis as an example. Here is how my game entry appeared:
You may notice I’ve stuck some other hashtags on there. This is so the post can be seen not just by fellow participants in the #1linewed game, but by writers in general, writers who write fantasy, and people who like epic fantasy (which is my series’ genre). What you can also see from this screenshot (taken just a minute or two after I posted it) are the reactions to the post – those who liked it my deathless prose, and one person who retweeted it to her followers (in this case, the retweeter is my editor for Ragis).
Ah ha! you may be thinking. So this is not just a game – it’s a promotional tool.
Ah ha – you would be correct in thinking that. It took me a while playing the various writer hashtag games (and reading, liking and retweeting others’ tweets) to come to that realization. And it wasn’t until September of last year, when Twitter increased its post limit from 140 words to 280 characters, that writers were able to share not just a substantive quote from their work, but increase its visibility outside the game.
Once I had this revelation, any guilt I felt over wasting time playing hashtag games was allayed. Not only was I having fun playing the games, I was actually working! I was DOING PROMOTION! I was NETWORKING WITH OTHER WRITERS! So I played even more of the games: the weekly ones like #musemon, #tuesline #thurds, #fridare #SlapDashSat and #sunwip, and the daily ones like #wiptruthordare and #authorconfession. I found some very specific games like #martialmon (fight lines!) and #salacioussun (smexy lines!), #WhoNeedsAHero (antagonists!) and my current favorite, #TrickyTues, which asks you to find unusual words like “paroxysm” in your WIP (to my surprise, I actually had THREE usages of that word). Some of the games have rules, like “no buy links,” but in general they’re run in a pretty relaxed fashion.
And their promotional impact is fleeting. Your post in the game sinks down the page pretty quickly, especially in the more popular games., so unless a fair number of people like/retweet it, it’s largely gone after an hour or so. Reactions to my example post above, about an hour after posting – yes, it takes me that long to write a blog – seem to have stalled out at eleven likes, three retweets and one comment. That’s about average for my posts. There are writers who get a lot more responses to their game entries and end up on the “top” page for that particular hashtag, so their posts will have a little longer Twitter life.
I don’t really care about the reactions – although they’re nice to get. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to attract followers; if people like my work and want to follow me, that’s dandy, and if they seem interesting I’ll give them a follow back. But I don’t play the game to get followers. I just like sharing my stuff and reading other writers’ work.
There is one extra thing I do, particularly when I’m super-focused on the promotional aspect of the games. I often create a graphic to feature my quote – because 1) a picture is more eye-catching than just text, and 2) I get a kick out of designing them, and 3) I always like to zhush things up.* I can usually put an effective graphic together in about 15 minutes. I use Canva to create my graphics; the site has lots of free content and it’s very user-friendly. I made the “paroxysm” graphic above yesterday, not just because it was Tuesday but also because it was Release Day for Ragis, hence the extra language in the text portion of the tweet. (And well…because paroxysm.) It only got 4 likes and 3 retweets, but that’s okay. Occasionally I’ll post the graphic on my Facebook page, although my FB friends tend to be more focused on my theatrical work. And as I said, I do this more for my own enjoyment than for its promotional benefit.
Here’s something weird, though, and what prompted today’s blog. I don’t share material from first drafts, or even second drafts. I always pull my excerpts from completed but unpublished works. With the publication of Ragis yesterday, I am suddenly without a completed work to draw from. And that realization was kind of a kick in the head.
For the past several years, at any given time, I have had at least one novel completed, and at least one in the works. For example, when I signed with my publisher in July 2016, I had completed Kinglet, was polishing up Fiskur and had started work on StoneKing. That pattern continued until the end of last year, when my output began slowing. At that time I was in NYC understudying the Broadway musical War Paint – a stressful and demanding job that sapped much of my writing energy. What little I had left was going into blogs, interviews and other promotional material for Kinglet and Fiskur (which came out in August 2017 and November 2017, respectively). When StoneKing released in February 2018, I was back home and Ragis was waiting in the wings, and but I was only just starting the first draft of the fifth and final book in the series.
I confess I’m having a bit of a timeline issue with Book 5. The action of the Gemeta Stone story has been largely continuous from Kinglet all the way through Ragis, but the fifth book’s plot begins after a considerable passage of time. Events that occur in that timeframe, while not important to the plot per se, have effects that impact the existing characters, so those effects have to be factored in. I’ve also recently re-thought two of the major characters who will be introduced in the fifth book, and those new characterizations also impact the plot. And of course, the time-suck of promoting the existing books, plus some other factors I won’t go into just yet, are contributing to my slowdown.
But never fear. The fifth book IS coming. It’s just coming slower. And there’s another little project sitting on the back burner: a prequel that I wrote a couple of years back. I never intended for it to be published; I wrote it because, prior to starting the StoneKing/Ragis portion of the storyline, I needed to sort out exactly what happened the first time my protagonist (Kristan Gemeta) and my antagonist (Daazna, the Wichelord) actually met. I also wanted to explore how certain events in their youths shaped their personalities. What I wrote ended up being pretty interesting, I think – especially as an insight into how Daazna got to be the way he is.
So here’s a question for those of you who’ve been keeping up with the series: is this something you’d be interested in reading – maybe between Ragis and the fifth book? You can answer in the comments below, or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do let me know – I’d love to hear your thoughts.
*And, I must confess, because a graphic lets me circumvent Twitter’s 280-character limit. I can share a longer excerpt and use the text portion of my tweet for additional hashtags and other information.
I’ve been having deep thoughts lately on the importance of speaking up. They’ve been triggered by two recent instances, one based in my acting life, and the other in my writing work.
In the first instance, I was performing in a theatrical production and a technical glitch caused an unsafe situation on stage. To be specific, a large, center-stage trapdoor that allowed access to an elevator shaft had jammed in the open position during the transition into the show’s final scene. As a result, there was a gaping hole in the middle of the stage as the final scene began. The actors entering the scene were unaware of this hole.
I happened to be in the stage right wing, waiting for an entrance, when I heard someone – either a crew member or an actor exiting the scene – say “the sun roof is open.” (We called it the sun roof because it worked like one: that section of the stage deck lowered slightly and then slid beneath the deck, clearing the way for the elevator to rise.) I could see the opening in the stage as the lights came up, and both the crew and fellow actors in the wings were hissing to each other about the situation, but no one seemed to be doing anything. I turned to the assistant stage manager and said “We need to hold.” The ASM was on headset and didn’t seem to hear me, so I called her by name and said, “Tell the stage manager to call a hold.” *
Meanwhile, in a fairly dim lighting cue, the actors onstage were moving toward the hole. I repeated that we needed to hold, keeping one anxious eye on the onstage activity. I was ready to call out, but just then the actors noticed the hole and adjusted their staging to move past safely. A moment later, the trap door slid shut.
All told, the trap was open for about one minute, but it seemed like an eternity. At the show’s conclusion, I headed down to the dressing room, stewing about what had happened. Since I was the actors’ union representative (or “deputy”) for the production, I knew I would have to speak up. My opportunity came when the stage manager put his head into my dressing room to give us the next day’s call time. When he was finished, I asked him why he hadn’t called a hold when there was a dangerous situation on stage. He told me he was aware of the situation and was poised to call that hold, and reassured me that no one had been in any real danger.
I disagreed, but rather than pursue the issue with him, I decided to take it to the next level. When I got home, I emailed both the theatre’s artistic director and company manager, apprised them of the situation and asked them to take action. Their response was both prompt and gratifying. The upshot was that when we had further issues with the trap door during the final week of the run, those issues were dealt with in a much more safe and satisfactory manner.
So – long story short – I spoke up. First, it was my job as deputy to look out for the safety of my fellow company members, both union and non-union. Second, I have been involved with productions where people didn’t speak up, and accidents occurred and people got hurt – some seriously. And in those situations, people didn’t speak up for one of two reasons:
- They weren’t thinking proactively. They noticed a potentially dangerous scenario, but didn’t think to take the next step; i.e. letting someone know so the issue could be dealt with. In a stage production, this can be something as minor as not asking a crew member to put glow tape on a protruding set piece, or something more serious, such as the lack of safety rails on escape stairs.
- They were afraid to “rock the boat.”
Reason #2 is the one that’s harder to deal with. Everyone fears repercussions for speaking out, and those fears are sometimes quite real: in another production in which I was deputy, I had to go to the union over a safety issue that the theatre was refusing to address. Under union pressure, the issue was resolved, but I was the unhappy recipient of a pretty nasty email from the director as a result. Did it upset me? You bet it did. In the show biz world, no one wants to be labeled as a “difficult” actor – meaning someone who complains, is high-maintenance or just doesn’t go with the flow. If you’re labeled as “difficult,” that means you might end up on someone’s DO NOT CAST list (and if you in the business think those lists don’t exist, you’d be wrong.) Every actor is always looking ahead to the next potential gig, and if they think speaking up might hurt their employment chances, then they won’t speak.
But in situations like this, deputy or not, you MUST speak. Sometimes you must speak loudly and repeatedly, but you MUST SPEAK.
On the writing side, the situation was a bit different. On Twitter a few days ago, a post about a short story competition was showing up repeatedly in my feed. (It’s a “promoted” post so that’s probably why.) The sponsors of the contest were offering sizeable monetary prizes – from $5,000 to $125 for the top ten winners – and they were getting an enthusiastic response to their Tweet from writers eager to enter, so I took a look at their website.
I was not surprised to see an entry fee of $17. That may sound like chump change to some of you, but for writers (who are often as impoverished as actors are – wonder why I’ve chosen two careers with that attribute?) it’s a fairly sizeable sum.
It’s a fairly sizeable sum for the contest sponsors, too. Take that $17, and multiply it by, oh, let’s say 1000 eager writers, and you’ve got $17,000 – which will cover your prizes with a good bit left over. In other words, your contest is actually a revenue stream – a stream coming from your willing target audience.
This kind of contest is rife in the writing world. It has the same attraction as a multi-million dollar Powerball drawing, with about the same odds of winning. There’s also the added enticement of getting your story published. More experienced (and grumpier) writers generally shrug these things off and go about the real business of writing, which is to write your thing and submit it to a publication, which will then maybe buy it from you and publish it. You don’t pay them, they pay you. But for writers without a lot of publication experience, contests like these can be like a siren call: Money! Publication! Fame! Look, Everybody, I’m A Real Writer! And all for the low, low price of $17!
So – I was cynical already as I read the contest details. But as I dug deeper, I found (in very small print) a link to the contest’s Terms & Conditions. And look what I found there:
The somewhat oddball syntax aside (I believe the contest sponsor is based overseas), this is what this clause means: SIMPLY BY ENTERING THE CONTEST, you are giving the contest’s sponsor the right to use your story, change your story, and generally do whatever they want with your story, for free, in perpetuity.
Think about that. You’re giving this sponsor $17 to TAKE YOUR STORY FROM YOU.
Now, being a grumpy experienced writer, upon this realization I could have just rolled my eyes, closed out the contest website and stepped away. But I kept thinking about all those sweet, naive writers who had responded so eagerly to the Tweeted contest announcement – not only that they were going to enter, but tagging fellow writers so they could enter, too.
So I spoke.
I went back to Twitter, found the contest announcement, and Tweeted this:
And then I went to the sponsor’s Twitter page and posted this:
The individual I tagged in the second Tweet, asking for her opinion, is Victoria Strauss. She runs Writer Beware, an entity sponsored by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), a watchdog organization not just for SFF authors, but for writers of every genre. Victoria then had a look at the site, found other warning flags and will be writing a blog about the contest next week. She has a much bigger reach on social media than I do, so I’m glad she’s getting involved.
The other, more unexpected result of the first Tweet is that it’s been getting a lot of retweets by other authors – so the word is getting out that this contest may not be such a great opportunity after all.
Who knows what the upshot of this kerfuffle may be? I don’t have a dog in this race – I certainly wasn’t going to spend $17 to enter the short-story contest, and part of me also feels like people dumb enough to enter without reading the fine print deserve what they get. But I couldn’t stand by and watch others potentially lose their “wonderous hard-worked stories.” I didn’t HAVE to speak up – I’m not a deputy for the writers’ union (even if there was such a thing, and oh, how I wish there was). But I spoke up nonetheless. Because in this instance, speaking up was the right thing to do.
This has been a particularly long blog post (probably what the late, great Ursula K. Le Guin would have called a “bung puller” – I haven’t blogged in a long time and was overdue for one). I may post updates once Victoria’s article comes out, but meantime, I’m going to conclude with this quote from Eckhart Tolle:
To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.
So be brave, y’all. SPEAK UP.
* In stage jargon, to “call a hold” during a performance means the stage manager will make an announcement over the theatre’s PA system to “HOLD.” This announcement is audible to both the onstage company and those backstage, as well as to the audience. The company knows this means to stay where they are and wait for further instructions. Usually these problems are technical in nature, especially in this era of automated sets, but sometimes a hold can occur if someone has been hurt, either onstage or offstage. No one ever likes to hear the word “HOLD.”
ADDENDUM: Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware weighed in on the questionable clause in the contest’s Terms & Conditions (and found another sketchy clause as well): CONTEST CAUTION.
This a continuation/conclusion of a blog from a few days ago, where I re-posted some of the blogs I wrote for FISKUR’s virtual book tour. I wrote a total of eight; these are the last four. I hope you enjoy reading them.
#5 – Writer, Know Thyself
There’s a game that writers play on occasion that I’ve never been able to work up any enthusiasm for, and that’s the “Cast the Movie of Your Book” game. The game bugs me for two reasons: 1) I’m superstitious and it feels like a jinx, and 2) I don’t strongly identify any of my characters with any actual person, living or dead.
And I don’t want readers of The Gemeta Stone series to be force-fed any particular “look” for the characters, either, especially the photo-shopped models that appear (often simply as bare torsos) on so many book covers. I want my readers to have the experience of reading the characters’ descriptions and imagining those characters for themselves.
That said, there are certainly elements of family and friends that I’ve incorporated – sometimes deliberately, sometimes unwittingly – in my characters. (A fair number of them have physical characteristics in common with certain of my nieces and nephews, along with similar names.) I think it’s also safe to say that most of my characters have quirks that resemble my own, or traits I wish I had.
For example, my main character, Kristan Gemeta, values kindness above all and has tried his whole life to do what is right. It’s a theme that has always fascinated me, which may be why I find the endings of Babe and Sense & Sensibility to be so moving and satisfying. Both Babe the Pig and Elinor Dashwood struggle to do what’s right, even though “what’s right” may not be easy and actually stands in the way of their own happiness. Kristan’s innate decency is what I like best about him. His female counterpart, Heather Demitt, has a brave, impulsive nature that I envy, and it’s the thing I like best about her. Even my bad guy Daazna has a trait I admire: a ferocious desire to learn and to master new skills.
If I was to pick one character from the series who is most like me, it would probably be Ariphele, Daazna’s mother. She’s a middle-aged magic user of limited skill, a little on the lazy side, but very observant. She’s also sarcastic and has no qualms about goading her son, sometimes to incite him to greater achievements but more often just for the sheer pleasure of getting under his skin. Ariphele not only serves as a stimulus for Daazna, but she also humanizes him. She allows the reader to see him, not simply as the “bad guy” (although he can be very, very bad) but as someone with frustrations, doubts and desires just like the more heroic characters.
And that’s my main job as a writer: to create characters that are not just stock “good guys” and “bad guys,” but who are as fully-fleshed, as contradictory and as intriguing as the people who inhabit our real lives.
#6 – A Day in the Life of an Actor/Author
I think I must have been a farmer in past life. I always wake up early in the morning, no matter how late I was up the night before. This can be inconvenient because as well as being an author, I’m a professional stage actress and usually don’t get home from work until after 11 p.m. But I can’t help it – as soon as sunlight begins to creep through my window, my mind clicks into gear, even if my body doesn’t want to come with it.
If my body is super-reluctant, I’ll lie in bed for fifteen minutes or so and let my mind wander. Usually it wanders in the direction of whatever I happen to be writing, which these days is the final book in my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone. I’ll think about where I last left off, mull over plot points and listen to my characters talk in my head. When my body finally gives up and joins the party, I’ll get up and slog into the kitchen to make tea.
I drink a lot of hot tea in the morning – maybe about half a gallon. (No, I’m not kidding.) I’m picky about my tea – I don’t like tea bags – and use loose leaf Nilgiri, an Indian black tea which stands up to the milk and sweetener I take with it. While the tea is steeping, and if weather permits, I’ll step out onto my back deck and get a good whiff of the weather, then stroll around and visit my plants. If the weather’s inclement, I’ll spend some time watching the birds at my dozen or so feeders. Then it’s back to the kitchen for a big mug, and off to my little study to fire up the computer.
First comes the email. I have six different accounts – personal, writing, website, junk and even junkier junk, plus a super-secret account I only use to back up completed manuscripts and other writing. I check them all, answer what needs answering and delete the rest. There’s usually some correspondence from either my editor or my publisher, and sometimes I’ll hear from one of my agents (I have three: theatrical, film/TV and literary). Then I start about an hour’s worth of promo. I check into Facebook, post a bit and chat with friends, then head over to Twitter and spend some time participating in writer hashtag games (I’m a regular at #musemon, #meta4mon, #thurds and #51writers). For the run up to FISKUR’s release, I created a dozen or so graphics using quotes from the book, and posted one or two a week as a teaser. I’ll probably do the same for STONEKING, the third book in the series, which will release in early 2018. I don’t promote every single day because I don’t want to be one of those relentless authors who are constantly pimping their books – that’s as tiresome for my friends/followers as it is for me.
From Twitter I’ll cruise over to my favorite writers’ forum, AbsoluteWrite.com, and spend some time reading and posting there. Then I’ll go to Lumosity.com and play a few games to get my brain into high gear. By then I’ve usually drunk most of my tea, and am ready to start my day in earnest. My husband is usually afoot as well (he works from home, which is great because otherwise I’d rarely see him), so we’ll check in with each other before he heads downstairs to his office.
If I’m rehearsing a show, I’m called to the studio as early as 10 a.m., so I may have to truncate the schedule above. If I’ve got an early call, I’ll warm up in the shower, dress and head off to work. If I know I’ll have a sizable break during my rehearsal day, I’ll bring my laptop and work on my writing then – in my dressing room if I can, in the theatre lobby or a nearby coffee shop if I can’t. If the show is already in performance, I’ll write in the morning, break for lunch with my husband and then continue into the afternoon until it’s time to leave for work – unless it’s a two-show day. Then the laptop definitely comes along with me and I’ll write between shows during our dinner break. If I’m in a show where I have long breaks between entrances, I may sneak in some writing then, but most of the time I’m focused on the show. In fact, unless I’m between projects, I do very little writing in the evening.
As hectic and scattered as this may sound, I’m more productive when my time is limited. Every minute is precious then, and I don’t have the luxury of procrastination. I don’t spend a lot of time putzing around on the internet – I get right down to business. The creative atmosphere is really stimulating as well. Theatre people are generally articulate and often funny, and working with them can really get the juices flowing. It’s a crazy life, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
#7 – Throwing Rocks at Your Main Character
“The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” – Vladimir Nabokov
Old Vladimir is right. For a book to be gripping, the main character must have desires, needs and goals. Achieving those goals can’t be easy (otherwise, why tell the story?), so there must be plenty of big obstacles in the way.
I sometimes feel sorry for Kristan Gemeta, the main character in my fantasy series THE GEMETA STONE, because I’ve been abusing him for years. In fact, in an early chapter of KINGLET, the first book in the series, I literally put him up a tree and trapped him there (spoiler alert: no rocks, and eventually he got down). But that’s picayune stuff compared to what he has to go through in FISKUR, the second book, which was just released this month. It’s life-changing stuff that will scar him: emotionally, mentally and physically.
I don’t abuse Kristan just for laughs, and not just to advance the plot, either. It’s important to me, and to the story as a whole, that Kristan grow as a character. He’s a fairly straightforward young man when the reader first meets him in KINGLET – a little solemn, a little naïve maybe – and his approach to his problems reflects that. As his world gets more complicated and his obstacles more challenging, though, his mindset and his personality change. The more Kristan learns from his experiences, the more he’s changed by them, and the more complicated and nuanced his character becomes.
I think that’s what keeps him interesting, not only for the reader, but for me as the writer. Even as a child, it used to bug me when a character in a book didn’t seem to feel the effects of what happened in their lives (I mean, Nancy Drew was exactly the same from book to book, no matter what kind of adventures she experienced in the previous story). If I can always anticipate what Kristan’s going to do in a given situation, then he becomes dull.
This may be one of the reasons I don’t outline my books, or if I do, it’s a sparse, loose outline. I will start writing knowing more or less where I’m headed, but it’s never a straight road, and Kristan will occasionally surprise me by wanting to take a completely different route. And his route is always the more interesting way, so I’ll let him take the wheel. It’s the least I can do, after throwing so many rocks at him.
#8 – Searching for Inspiration
“I have learned, and been happy.” – T.H. White, The Once and Future King
There have been so many authors whose work has inspired my own, especially fantasy authors. I love Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. LeGuin, J.R.R. Tolkien and Terry Pratchett. But it’s T.H. White’s The Once and Future King that really spoke to me and made me want to write in the genre.
For the uninitiated, The Once and Future King is a retelling of the Arthurian legend, published by White in 1958 and made up of four earlier, shorter and substantially revised novels: The Sword in The Stone,The Queen of Air and Darkness, The Ill-Made Knight and The Candle in the Wind. (There’s a fifth book, The Book of Merlyn, which was published after White’s death.)
Like many people my age, I came to the book by way of the Disney cartoon The Sword in the Stone – a film I loved as a child – and the Broadway musical Camelot, which was inspired by the third and fourth parts of the book. I discovered that the original work was so much more whimsical and wistful than the movie, and far more stirring and melancholy than the musical. White’s prose is elegant, but it’s the characterizations that really make the story come alive. Arthur progresses from an innocent boy to a young warrior, to the idealistic king of Camelot, and finally, to a man beaten down by betrayal and the woes of the world. The wizard Merlyn lives backward through time, and he prepares Arthur for the trials he knows are coming by changing him into various animals so Arthur can experience their lives and use those experiences to shape his own rule when he becomes king. My own main character, Kristan Gemeta, has a similar struggle throughout The Gemeta Stone books to find a balance between power and compassion – although there’s no helpful magic-worker to show him the way. (Most of the magic-workers just baffle him.)
My copy of The Once and Future King is somewhat battered and its pages are yellowed and dog-eared. One of those dog-ears marks my favorite quote in the book – the one that starts this blog. I love it so much that I use it as my signature in emails, and I’d like to have it as my epitaph when the time comes. I can’t think of any better way to live one’s life than to spend it always learning.
FISKUR, the second book in my fantasy series THE GEMETA STONE, has now been out for a month. Its virtual book tour is complete, so I’m going to do what I did for KINGLET and put all the guest blogs I wrote for the tour here, for your reading pleasure. I wrote a few more of them for this release (my publisher, Fiery Seas, hired a new marketing person and she’s a real fireball), so I’m going to make this blog post a two-parter, so as not to overwhelm you readers. They’re on a variety of topics, and I hope you’ll find them interesting.
#1 – The Perils and Pitfalls of Researching the Fantasy Novel
I’m a fiend for research. In fact, it’s one of the things I like best about writing: learning new stuff which I can then incorporate into my stories.
Even when you write fantasy, as I do, you still have to ground your make-believe world in reality. The setting of my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone is a traditional European, medieval-esque world. My characters ride horses, use bows and arrows, fight with swords and live in and around castles. Fortunately it’s an era I’ve always been interested in, so I had years of reading (and stacks of books) on various aspects of that time.
However, when I was about to write my first one-on-one swordfight, I realized how little I actually knew about swordplay – beyond what I’d seen in movies. Fortunately, we live in the Era of the Internet, where information is yours for the taking if you just look around a bit. I found a number of sword-centric websites and YouTube channels that were extremely helpful, but when you’re trying to write a sword fight from a combatant’s point of view, there’s nothing like hands-on, real-life experience to give real veracity to your writing.
So I started casting around for a swordsmanship class. Fortunately, I live in a major metropolitan area where you can find a class in just about anything. Unfortunately, I’m a Woman of a Certain Age, so I knew I was probably going to be one of the older participants in the class.
I had no idea just how MUCH older.
First day of the course, I dress in yoga pants and a long-sleeved shirt and my new white sneakers and my gloves (the class brochure said to bring your own for hand protection; I’ve purchased an inexpensive pair of golf gloves). I drive to the community center, head to the classroom – and discover that my fellow students are children. And only children. The youngest is about six, the oldest…well, let’s just say I am a full forty years older than the oldest kid in the class. The teacher eyes me warily, the parents dropping their kids off stare as I slink sheepishly into the classroom.
We’re outfitted with masks and lames (chest protectors). Some of the kids didn’t bring gloves and get loaners from the instructor, some wear winter gloves and one bright spark actually has gauntlets. GAUNTLETS.
I line up with the kids. The instructor shows us some basic footwork but the kids are impatient and can’t wait to start slashing around with the array of foils, epees and sabres on display. The instructor hands out foils and we face her as she demonstrates various moves. We try them out, but the kids are getting antsy as hell (to be honest, so am I) and so eventually the instructor pairs us off to practice the moves we’ve just learned. I end up with a gawky twelve year-old who’s the tallest of the kids. As we square off, I’m thinking hard about Kristan Gemeta, the hero of my series: a small, slight young man who’s nonethless an excellent (albeit reluctant) swordsman who relies on his agility and powers of observation to defeat larger, more powerful opponents. I want to see if this actually works, but I tower over the kid, and due to his mask, I can’t read his face for clues. However, his whole being is suffused with embarrassment over being paired with a woman older than his mom, and that makes him awkward. Me, too. We clump through the exercises like a couple of ill-matched plow horses: me the heavy-footed old mare, him the knock-kneed, gangling colt. We’ve only gone a round or two before class is over. I’m sweating like a horse, too, as I slip past the parents.
I go home and tell my husband about my first class and he absolutely HOWLS. He says it reminds him of that episode of Seinfeld when Kramer takes a karate class with a bunch of children. He wants me to go to the following week’s class and TERRORIZE the kids, just like Kramer.
I am too pure-hearted to Kramerize the kids, though, and I return to class the following week resolved to learn regardless of the situation. And I do. Several of the kids have dropped out (no surprise there) so we get a little more individual attention. The instructor corrects our stances, adjusts our grip on the swords. I fight with the littlest kid, who isn’t interested in getting past my guard; he bashes my upraised sword ferociously, forgetting that he’s supposed to be fighting me. I defeat him and file that experience away under INEXPERIENCED OPPONENT, but then I’m paired with the oldest kid in the class, a girl of about fourteen who actually knows what she’s doing and feints past me again and again. She hands me my ass and is gracious about it. I file that away under HEROIC BEHAVIOR.
I absorb other lessons, too, especially once we start working with the heavier epees and sabres: how you forget to breathe when you’re fighting a determined opponent; how your neat, careful braid gets pulled loose by the mask and how the loose hair sticks to your cheeks and forehead; how surprising and painful it is to get jabbed in the shoulder with a weapon, even a blunt one; how your muscles tremble after a long bout and how you ache all over the next day.
After six weeks, the class was over. Am I a good swordsman as a result? No – I’m not even a passable swordsman. But I’m a better writer, at least when writing those swordfight sequences. My experience in that humble little class gave me confidence and allowed me to narrate those scenes with authority and describe them viscerally – and that’s worth a little time and humiliation.
#2 – Deleting a Favorite Scene, or My Writing Bleeds When I Cut It
One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned as a writer is when to acknowledge that a scene isn’t working. I’m not talking about when the scenario doesn’t flesh out properly, or the writing is forced and clumsy. That happens all the time, and I hack that stuff out quickly and without remorse, and start again. No, what I’m talking about is when a scene is good, and the writing so polished that it shines, but the scene just isn’t serving the story as a whole. Sometimes it’s just extraneous material that’s bloating the word count, but more often – at least for me – it’s when the scene isn’t moving the plot forward with vigor.
I remember one instance of this particularly well. In an early draft of Kinglet, the first book in my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone, I opted to start the book with a scene from the point of view of my antagonist, Daazna, as he arrives on the shores of the kingdom of Fandrall. Beginning with the antagonist is a departure from a traditional opening, which introduces the protagonist. I was happy with the opening and it’s how the completed book starts, establishing tension by displaying Daazna’s skill with magic, the ruthlessness of his character and his nefarious motives for being in Fandrall in the first place.
The very next scene introduced Robert, the king of the realm and father of the series’ main character, Kristan Gemeta. It was a beautiful scene, with Robert on the battlements of his castle on a clear spring morning, Robert is admiring the view, and for sheer pleasure, throws out his arms as if to embrace it. He’s interrupted by Maxwell, his senior knight and oldest friend, who ribs Robert about making love to his kingdom. The two chat about Kristan and how well he’s grown up, and together they descend to the council chamber, where the character of Kristan is finally introduced.
It was a nice scene, with solid character-building and good descriptions, and I was in love with the image of the king standing high above his realm with his arms outflung. The problem? It was too nice. All the tension I’d established with Daazna in the first scene had completely dissipated. Yes, there was conflict coming in the scene with Kristan and Robert, but I’d have to rebuild the tension I’d already lost. And with Kristan being introduced by Robert and Maxwell singing his praises before the reader ever met him – well, shades of Mary Sue.**
So I cut that king-on-the-tower scene. It hurt. I’d lavished a lot of descriptive energy on it but it was simply not serving the story as a whole. After a lot of trial and error, I settled on a completely different second scene, which began with Kristan and his horse Malvo and introduced the upcoming conflict with Robert Gemeta in a much more interesting and effective way. I’d been pleased with the original scene, but I was delighted with this one, so much that when it was finished, I said out loud, “Yeah, that’s the stuff!” ***
Still, I mourned the loss of that king-on-the-battlements image. Even though it was cut, it refused to die. It was not until several years later, when I was working on the fourth book in the series, that I finally had the opportunity to use it – in a slightly different and even more interesting way (you’ll have to wait until that book comes out to see how). Not every cut scene gets a chance at resurrection, though – an early draft of Fiskur: Book Two of The Gemeta Stone had a great frolic-in-a-waterfall scene that got cut as well. It’s still breathing, though, and waiting for its chance to be in a story.
Maybe in Book Five.
* Or, in the case of thrillers and mysteries, someone who is about to get killed off.
** For the uninformed, a Mary Sue character is one that’s idealized to the point of nauseating the reader.
*** I talk to myself when I’m writing, but most of the time I say things like “well, that sucks.”
#3 – Where I Write Is How I Write Is What I Write
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head, feed your head
“White Rabbit” by Grace Slick
I write this sitting on a pair of house slippers.
That’s not entirely correct. I write this sitting on a tall wooden stool at a faux-granite countertop in a teeny-tiny sublet in midtown Manhattan. The house slippers are between me and the stool because the stool is hard and makes my sciatica flare up.
I am writing in this less-than-ideal environment because I’m temporarily in New York working on a Broadway show. I’ve been here for about nine months. Another week left, and the show will be closed and I will be headed back home to Virginia, where I have a proper desk and a proper chair in a proper office.
Do ideal settings make me write more? Or write better?
No. Sometimes the odder the writing environment, the more the ideas flow. I’ve written in coffee shops and restaurants, libraries, parks, trains, buses and airplanes, conference rooms, hotel rooms, laundry rooms, dressing rooms and theatre lobbies. I’ve written in lined notebooks, on scraps of paper, bits of napkin and out loud into a recorder, but I’m happiest if I can use my laptop on a proper surface with a decent chair. (Because sciatica.)
I don’t need silence; as long as the sounds around me aren’t blaringly intrusive, they’re just absorbed into the experience. If things get too loud, I can always put in my earbuds and listen to some music while I write.
Since I write fantasy, I rely heavily on my imagination, and the more I’m stimulated by my surroundings – odd though they may be – the more open I am to new ideas. Sometimes my desk and chair at home are too familiar, too comfortable, so I make a point of getting up and moving around every hour or so. (Also because sciatica.) I look out the window, go out on the deck, head into the garden and pull a few weeds. If I’m really stuck I go for a walk. Sometimes I’ll take a notebook with me, just in case inspiration strikes, but mostly I just walk and breathe and think.
My most productive walks are in nature and in solitude: open fields, forests and deserted beaches are best. I like both an expansive view and minute details: open ocean and grains of sand, towering trees and a chickadee on a twig, wide open spaces and a cricket at my toes.
But sitting on a pair of house slippers will work just as well. It’s all grist for the mill. My discomfort – as far as I can stand it – is another experience that I can use in my writing. It opens my mind, it releases my imagination, it feeds my head – far better than the potions and mushrooms advocated by Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane in “White Rabbit.”
#4 – How I Started Writing
It’s hard for me to remember a time when I wasn’t making up stories. I’m the middle child of a big Army family and when I was a kid we moved just about every other year and usually in the middle of the school year. I was always the new kid, and consequently it was hard to break into the pre-existing cliques. I was saved from being a lonely kid by always having siblings to play with, and endless games of pretend with them (and an ever-expanding cast of stuffed animals and dolls) gave me a solid grounding in the world of storytelling.
Later on, I graduated from acting out stories to drawing them. On pads of wide-lined, rough-textured elementary school notepaper, my younger brother John and I scrawled out complicated chambers inhabited by characters we called “Pirits.” Pirits were stick figures, clad in pointed hats and triangular gowns and as far as I can recall, were essentially sexless. Pirits were sucked into these chambers by a giant vacuum and then blown out into little sub-chambers, where the sheer force of the wind activated mechanical contraptions that fed them, put them into shoes, cleaned their hats, and whatever other goings-on our young minds could contrive. Stretched out on the floor on our tummies, with the notebook open between us, John and I would draw on our own page and describe to each other what was happening in our particular Pirit world.
When we’d learned how to read and write, we started creating little books of construction paper with illustrated stories of perhaps four or five lines. I can’t remember any of my mine, but one of John’s involved a little guy eating pizza with extremely stretchy cheese. In its entirety it read:
Would you like to eat a pizza pie? (picture of little guy biting pizza)
And try and try and try and try? (cheese stretches way out)
WHAP! (cheese recoils, hitting the little guy in the face)
You think and think (little guy ponders)
And WHAP again! (little guy punches the pizza maker)
I never said we were brilliant writers. The family thought the stories were great, though, and urged us to write more.
Our tastes and writing abilities expanded and matured. We returned to writing in notebooks again, only this time they were the more grown-up composition books – handy because they had sturdy covers that made a good writing surface. We started drawing comic books together, based on The Lone Ranger cartoons that ran on Saturday morning TV. Initially they were tongue-in-cheek spoofs, but later on we took the characters of the Ranger and Tonto, updated them and made them into contemporary secret agent-types. The stories turned from spoof to serious, with real plots and real villains and (gasp!) even love interests. John wasn’t much for the love interest stuff. Our creative differences meant we started writing our stories separately, on regular notebook paper, and enshrined them in separate ring binders. We’d still read and enjoy each other’s work, though. Even after we stopped writing them, we kept them for a long time. They finally disappeared from our lives, probably during one of our last moves as a military family (my dad was ruthless about throwing out stuff before a move).
Now, decades removed from our Pirits and construction paper books and fan-fic comic strips, my brother and I are both published authors. John’s book is a scholarly work called Playing War: Wargaming and U.S. Navy Preparations for World War II. And I’ve got my fantasy series The Gemeta Stone. The first book of the series, Kinglet was released last August, followed by Fiskur, now available now from major retailers everywhere. The third book in the series, StoneKing, will be released in early 2018.
It’s funny how far enthusiasm, a little paper and some encouragement can get you.
In the run-up to the August 2017 publication of my debut novel, Kinglet: Book One of The Gemeta Stone, I wrote a half-dozen essays on aspects of the writing process and creating Kinglet’s world. I posted the essays in sequence on the News, Notes & Info page of my website, but since that page changes a few times a month, I thought it would be fun to gather those six essays here. I hope you enjoy them.
How Kinglet Came to Be
It feels both weird and a little pompous to say that the idea for Kinglet came to me in a dream, but that’s absolutely how it happened.
I was a junior in high school, a time when I used to have particularly memorable and vivid dreams (ah, how I miss those days). One morning, just before I woke up, I dreamed about a dark-haired young man on a black horse. In the dream, he and the horse were standing still, on a level road running through green and sunlit countryside. I saw just a flash of him, and at that moment I immediately knew his name: Kristan Gemeta.
I woke up wondering what that was all about. The name rang through my brain as I showered and dressed and gathered my books. I thought about it as I ate my breakfast, on the bus ride to school, and even after the first bell rang. And when I walked into my favorite class – Mrs. Cooper’s Advanced Composition – I was still carrying that image, and that name, in my head.
Our assignment that day – again, weirdly – was to write the beginning of a story. Not the whole thing, just the beginning. And so I started a story about a young man on a black horse who meets a red-headed girl, on an isolated, sunlit road. I named the young man Kristan Gemeta.
I don’t know what kind of grade or commentary Mrs. Cooper gave me (I expect it was favorable; English was always my best subject), but something about that story made me decide to save it. I tore the pages out of the notepad I used for that class. I still remember that pad, plain as day: college-ruled, top bound, with three holes in the left side so you could put it in a binder. I put the beginning of that story away with some other story ideas.
Years later I came across that fragment of story again. I read it, and felt Kristan’s character tug at me once more.
Over time, I’ve rewritten and revised the plot that eventually became Kinglet. I’ve built the world of The Gemeta Stone series, created its landscape, and peopled it with hundreds of characters, all of whom I care about intensely.
While the story and the supporting cast have changed over time, one thing has never altered: the name and character of Kristan Gemeta. It still seems unreal that, nearly 45 years later, a tiny scrap of a teenager’s dream about a gentle young man is now fully fleshed, and out into the world for everyone to see.
Creating Kristan Gemeta
When I started writing The Gemeta Stone series, I knew right away that I wanted a main character who was, first and foremost, human. And I don’t mean human insofar as species – I mean a character who has doubts, fears and flaws in addition to his good qualities.
Kristan Gemeta is the only son of a king – heir to the throne of Fandrall and to the responsibilities and privileges that come with it. But he’s also something of a misfit in his father’s court. Kristan is small, slight, introspective and gentle. Worse, he believes in Wiche, the ancient magical lore which has fallen so far out of favor that it’s been outlawed in neighboring kingdoms. This belief, coupled with his compassionate nature, puts Kristan at odds with both his warrior-king father and the pragmatic, battle-hardened knights of Fandrall.
Once I created this misfit prince, I wondered what would happen if he was suddenly and violently thrust into a position of leadership. Would he rise to the occasion, or falter and fail? I chose the latter.
With his father murdered, his kingdom overtaken, his family’s protective talisman stolen and his courage lost, Kristan flees to the forbidding wilderness of the Exilwald, a forest of outcasts and criminals. It’s there that his story really begins.
All the books in The Gemeta Stone series take their titles from nicknames Kristan is given on his journey. In the case of Kinglet, it’s the name of a small, reclusive Exilwald bird that seems like nothing special until it displays its hidden crown of red feathers. Like the kinglet bird, Kristan’s choice is between the relative safety of a life in the shadows, or the dangers of stepping forward to reclaim both his name and his birthright.
The World and Magic of Kinglet
I’m often asked about the “world” in which Kinglet is set. Let me say at the outset that it’s a familiar world to readers of fantasy: a medieval-esque setting, a largely human population, a male-dominant society, horses for transportation, swords for weapons.
But it’s a world on the brink of change, and that’s brought about by the long-suppressed and much-denigrated magical lore known as Wiche. As Kristan Gemeta, the protagonist of Kinglet explains: “My old teacher Simeon once told me that Wiche is simply a catchall term for anything beyond our power to comprehend or explain. Not everything Wiche is magic, but all magic is Wiche.”
In the world of Kinglet, there are two kinds of magic. The first is Learned, meaning it can be taught and studied and understood. It can be written down and passed on to another. It can be twisted and altered to change its purpose, and its power is limited by the abilities of the one who uses it. Daazna, the main antagonist of Kinglet, is a Wichelord – a master of Learned magic.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is True magic, or Tabi’a. It is magic in its natural form. No spell created it, no spell can master it, and no spell can destroy it. It exists for its own purpose, and no other. The Gemeta Stone, the legendary protective talisman which belongs to Kristan’s family, is one example of Tabi’a.
It’s this clash between Learned magic and Tabi’a that catapults Kristan’s life into chaos, and it’s his struggle to understand the Stone’s Tabi’a that’s an ongoing theme throughout the series.
The Gemeta Stone: Writing a Series
With the publication of Kinglet: Book One of The Gemeta Stone, I’m often asked by people how in the world I was able to write one book, let alone an entire series. My answer is: “I didn’t realize it was going to be a series!”
When I first started work on the series, I didn’t even know it would be a series. I was simply writing scenes about characters who appealed to me. While I don’t outline, I had an idea of a through-line, but letting myself write all the “fun stuff” first – the fight scenes, the exciting dialogue exchanges, the introductions of each character. I’d skip the hard stuff like transitions and exposition, promising myself I’d get back to them later. Eventually I had a ring binder full of scenes, and realized I only had to put them in order and write the missing parts, and I’d have a book. Easier said than done. When I finally finished, my heart sank at the knowledge that the book was too long (like, 350k words of too long).
So I dived back into the story, cutting and tightening. I ended up with a more manageable 225k words – still too long, and I had a lot more story to tell. That’s when I acknowledged that what I was writing was not a single book, but a series. Fortunately there was a logical place to “break” that first massive tome, so voila! I suddenly had not one book, but two. I didn’t know what to call them, so I put them aside and started work on the third book.
This time I made myself write in order, so I wouldn’t have such a scrambled-up mess to deal with later on, and I also edited and polished as I wrote. As the story spooled out, I had two big realizations: 1) the nicknames my protagonist earned along his journey would make great titles for the individual books in the series, and 2) Book Number Three was going to be another whopper.
I had about four months of being semi-blocked while I dealt with a major stumbling block in the plot. During that time I did a fair amount of editing, but barely wrote anything new. Instead, I stewed over solving that plot problem.
At the end of those four months I was visiting my elderly mother in Tennessee. She’s a devout Catholic, and even though I’m not, I accompanied her to church. During that Sunday’s sermon I was sitting quietly, letting my mind wander, when suddenly a potential solution to my plot problem hit me. I confess that I sat there, barely breathing, as a partial idea took shape. I’d had other solutions that hadn’t worked out in the end, so I didn’t rush home to the computer. For a week I just let things percolate. Lo and behold, the following Sunday, again at church, again during the sermon, the rest of the solution came to me. This time I rushed home and started work again. (Thank you, Mom. Thank you, God.)
The place where I’d been blocked turned out to be the very place to break the story into Books Three and Four. It was while I was polishing Book Three for my beta readers that my agent called and told me we had an offer for the series. That was just about a year ago, and I’m still stunned at how fast things moved once I’d signed on the dotted line. Kinglet is out in the world now, with its sequel Fiskur to follow in November, and the third book, StoneKing due for release in early 2018. Meanwhile Book Four, Ragis, waits in the wings while I work on the series’ finale.
The Strong Female Character
I recently joined a Twitter group called #51writers, named for the percentage of women vs. men in the U.S. It’s focused on the creation and development of strong female characters in literature. Even though Kristan Gemeta, the main protagonist of Kinglet (and of the entire The Gemeta Stone series) is male, and his primary antagonist is male, it’s the women in the series who end up being most influential.
Foremost among these female characters is Heather Demitt. Heather is young when we first meet her; barely eighteen, impetuous, bright and outspoken. Originally she was conceived as a love interest for Kristan, but her bold vitality contrasted so well against Kristan’s more cautious and introspective personality that she developed into a co-protagonist. Nearly half of Kinglet is told from her point of view.
Then there’s Ariphele, the mother of Kinglet’s antagonist, the Wichelord Daazna. As powerful and terrifying as Daazna is, Ariphele’s sarcasm and blunt opinions never fail to get under his skin. Theirs is a strange and complicated love-hate relationship that provides some of Kinglet’s most unsettling moments.
At the beginning of Kinglet, Kristan receives a warning of coming catastrophe from two old women he meets while out riding. They were such an interesting pair and I had such fun writing their dialogue. Here’s a sample:
The larger woman looked at him sharply. “The world is full of little splits and cracks and clefts and rifts, boy. You can see them every day – not when you ride a fast horse, mind – but only if you walk slow as we do, with your eyes and your ears open, with your skin feeling and your nose smelling and your tongue tasting the air like a snake.” Suddenly she ran her tongue out and in, and Kristan jumped a little.
“But when the cleft is large, like this one,” said the small woman, “when it runs a long way and spreads as it runs, like this one – it’s a Reaving. Something even a boy on a fast horse can see. For years these Reavings have moved through the mountains north of Hogia, as is right, because the mountains are fearsome things, full of strange and terrible magics. But in the last few seasons, Reavings have wended down the mountains and spread into the Plain of Hogia itself. This is the first time one has crossed the River Mor. It signifies, boy.”
Their words have such a profound impact on Kristan that he tells his father the king of their warning, knowing full well that such magical pronouncements are viewed as nonsense and he’s risking his father’s wrath for even speaking of them. That simple action sets Kristan up for a disaster that will change his entire life.
The funniest thing about that scene is that it was inspired by this photo of my mother, Marge Lillard, and her younger sister Julia deRooy. I took the photo some years ago, when we were strolling in Aunt Julia’s large backyard on a gray winter day. I can’t remember now why Mom and Aunt Julia were pointing at the ground, but the image hung with me for years. In Kinglet the season changed to spring, and the setting is somewhere in the royal fields of Fandrall instead of a suburban yard, but that’s the magic of writing: you can find inspiration in the most familiar faces and the most mundane places.
Creating a Believable Bad Guy
When I was completing the first full draft of Kinglet: Book One of The Gemeta Stone, I attended a week-long writers’ workshop – one that I found valuable mostly for the discussions with my fellow author/attendees. One day when we were kicking around the topic of antagonists and how we introduced those characters in our books, I discovered that I was the only one who began my story with my bad guy – the other writers started off with their protagonist. When I revealed that my villain, Daazna, was a powerful magic-worker with a thirst for revenge, one of the other authors got very excited. “Then you have to show just how dangerous he is right away,” he said with a gleam in his eyes. “He needs to do something awful.”
I realized he was right. Originally I just had Daazna arriving by ferryboat on the shores of Fandrall, thinking about how he’d been wronged by the kingdom’s royal family years before. It was interesting, yes, but it wasn’t the kick-ass start I needed. And so I took that author’s advice and rewrote the beginning – and what Daazna ended up doing gave even me the heebie-jeebies.
But an all-powerful, 24-7 bad guy can get dreary. I found that it was equally important to show how deeply Daazna’s anger was rooted in jealousy and hurt. I’m not saying an antagonist has to be sympathetic, but certainly the motivation for his actions should be clear – otherwise he’s just a cartoon villain. It helped that Daazna’s mother Ariphele is a supporting character, and I was able to use her sarcasm to goad Daazna and ramp up not just his anger, but his need to prove himself to her. Their relationship is one of the most intriguing in the book.
And that’s why I really enjoyed writing Daazna’s scenes – even the creepy ones.
Back in July of last year, I was headed to the beach for a family vacation when I got The Call from Cynthia, my literary agent: we’d received an offer for my fantasy novel KINGLET. In fact, we’d received two offers.
To say I was gobsmacked would be putting it mildly. I had been anticipating a quiet week of sun and sand but instead, my stress level began to ramp up. I was excited, of course – who wouldn’t be? – but how can one relax at such a time?
Two offers – both from small, independent publishers. Publisher #1 was a brand-new outfit, based in Atlanta, with a real go-getter attitude and waving a contract that included a nice advance and a generous royalty split.
(For those unfamiliar with the world of publishing, an advance is a sum of money paid to the author up front, in anticipation of book sales. Royalties are the monies – usually a percentage of the book’s cover price – paid to the author from those sales. If an author receives an advance, their book must “earn out” its advance before the author receives any additional money – in other words, if Author gets a $1k advance, their royalties are withheld until Publisher recoups that $1k from the book’s sales.)
Publisher #2 was based in Alabama, with a two-year track record, offering a decent but less-generous royalty split and no advance. On the face of it, this looks like a no-brainer choice, right? Choose the one offering the most money, right?
Actually, nope. Further study of Publisher #1’s contract revealed that their royalties were based on net profit – meaning that certain expenses had to be recouped before royalty payments began. This is a business model one sees fairly often in new, undercapitalized publishers. It’s a bad deal for the author, because in this scenario the author ends up paying for the publisher’s cost of doing business. I’ve seen some publisher business models wherein the cost of cover art, editing, printing, marketing and distribution are all creamed off the top before the poor author sees a dime.
In the case of Publisher #1, they wanted to recoup the cost of printing the paperback edition of my book. They were planning on using offset printing rather than the more common small-publisher print-on-demand (POD) process. However, while it results in a higher-quality book, offset printing is far more expensive than POD, and in this case, was projected to cost more than double the advance Publisher #1 offered. This meant that the book would have to make more than three times the advance before I’d be paid a cent of that generous royalty split. This, coupled with the publisher’s lack of real experience in the business, made me leery of the deal.
I should add that all these negotiations were ongoing via email and phone calls while I was supposed to be relaxing in the sun (ha), and I complicated matters further by first cracking the screen of my laptop (I closed it on one of my headset’s earbuds) and then dropping my brand-new HTC 10 cellphone in the toilet (I was carrying it with me everywhere in case of phone calls from my agent, and had it in the back pocket of my jeans when I went to answer a call of nature). The phone immediately died, which resulted in a near-meltdown from me – thank goodness for my husband John, who took all the appropriate steps to activate the phone’s “Uh Oh” warranty (was ever a contract clause so aptly named?).
The upshot of all this drama was that I opted for Publisher #2, Fiery Seas Publishing. I signed with them for both KINGLET, the first book in my fantasy series (to be released in August 2017) and its sequel, FISKUR (to follow three to four months after KINGLET). The ink was barely dry on the contracts before the publishing process started. I was assigned an editor, filled out a lot of paperwork to assist in the marketing and promotion of the books, and spent several days writing and rewriting what would eventually become both the back cover copy for KINGLET and the meat of Fiery Seas’ October press release announcing the acquisition of the books. The publisher provided me with some nice art to accompany my own social media blast on announcement day, and meanwhilie my editor Vicki forwarded her first editing pass on KINGLET to me, along with her compliments on how clean and tight the manuscript was. It was small comfort as suddenly everything I’d written seemed awful and I was sure I was a talentless hack. Vicki was incredibly patient as I made a number of tweaks and returned the m/s for its second editing pass.
For once I was grateful that my 2016-17 theatrical slate was pretty bare, with only a summer show, a holiday production and a few miscellaneous gigs on the books. Even though that meant I wouldn’t be making much money, it translated to more time for both the publishing process and to continue writing on the series. As the holidays approached, I finished the third book, fired it off to my trusty beta readers, finalized Vicki’s second pass on KINGLET and her first pass on FISKUR.
And then I booked WAR PAINT.
Suddenly my time was no longer my own. In the space of a few weeks, I had to complete the run of my holiday show, negotiate the WAR PAINT contract, travel to NYC to look at potential sublets, and upend my life in general, while trying to enjoy Christmas and New Year’s (ha). I signed a one-year contract for the show and prepared myself for the move to NYC, all the time driving myself crazy with worry over how I could learn and rehearse a Broadway show AND maintain my commitment to Fiery Seas AND keep writing the rest of the series.
Once again, the upshot of all this drama is that I could, and did. Because Vicki had kept us so far ahead of schedule, I was able to complete the second round of edits on FISKUR and review the galley proofs for KINGLET without undue pressure, as well as work with my publisher and cover artist on the covers for both KINGLET and FISKUR. (If you float your cursor over the “Writing” tab above, you can click on KINGLET to see that beautiful cover, but you’ll have to wait a while for the FISKUR cover reveal. Trust me, it’s equally gorgeous.) I’m currently working on the final draft of STONEKING, the third book in The Gemeta Stone series, with book #4, RAGIS, already in rough draft form.
Everything continues on track for WAR PAINT’s April opening and KINGLET’s August 2017 release. I’m still overwhelmed by it all, but so grateful for both opportunities. As tiring as it’s been, and often nerve-wracking, I know how lucky I am to be experiencing not one, but two huge life events at the same time.
Two years ago, if you’d told me that I would be simultaneously working on a Broadway show and getting ready for the release of my first novel, I would have laughed at you. Nay, guffawed. I had no plan to return to The Great White Way, was happily ensconced in regional theatre, and had barely begun looking for an agent to represent my book. But the world whirls on its merry way whether you like it or not, and I keep wishing there was some way I could put the brakes on both projects just long enough for me to sit back and appreciate the bounty of riches that has landed in my lap. I decided I’d blog about them, as a way of stopping time a bit.
So I’ll start with Broadway first. I’m currently understudying the legendary Patti LuPone and swinging three ensemble roles in WAR PAINT, now in previews at the Nederlander Theater. I’ve had a number of non-theatrical friends ask me “what does a swing do?” and I can now tell you from experience that it’s one of the hardest jobs in show business (right up there with stage management, in my opinion). A swing’s job is the same as an understudy’s, except that a swing covers multiple tracks (a track being a particular performer’s journey through the show, including their spoken lines, sung material, entrances and exits, set or prop moves and costume changes). The swing must be ready to “swing into” any of those tracks when a performer is absent or otherwise unable to perform.
What this translates to in real life is that I spent most of my rehearsal time sitting and watching and taking copious notes. In the studio I was parked at a table off to one side with the other swings (there are five of us), but once we moved into the Nederlander our table was up in the mezzanine, which afforded a great view of the stage and made it a lot easier to observe specific moves. We also had the freedom to move about the theater and watch the show from different angles.
As Ms. LuPone’s understudy, I was (and still am) occasionally called on in to step into the role of cosmetic titan Helena Rubinstein during our daytime rehearsals. It’s a taxing role, and in order to give Patti plenty of time to rest (especially if there’s a show that evening), she isn’t called when we’re focusing lights or running transitions from scene to scene or doing other tweaks and adjustments to the show. Last week, prior to our first preview, we did a run with our wonderful orchestra, mostly for the sake of timing the show. I had the great privilege of standing in for Patti that afternoon, and even though I was not in costume and occasionally had script pages in hand, it was still thrilling.
Costumes – can I just say the costumes for this show (by the amazing Catherine Zuber) are absolutely stunning? I had my first fitting with her last week, to try on “emergency” costumes for the Rubinstein track. My own set of Rubinstein costumes are being constructed as I write this, but the “emergency” ones were pulled from stock against the very slim chance I’d have to go on before mine are completed. Even so, the care that Ms. Zuber and her staff took with fitting those costumes and choosing all the attendant accessories was just awesome. I’ll also have a set of costumes for the ensemble tracks I’m swinging, so a lot of fittings are in my immediate future. (I’ve already been fitted for wigs; I’ve seen a couple of them in the wig room but haven’t had a chance to try them on yet. Stay tuned.)
Once the show has its official opening (April 6th), then I’ll rehearse four hours a day, twice a week, with my fellow swings and the other understudies.( “Other understudies?” you may be asking. Yes, indeed. Typically, in a Broadway show, each major role is covered by two people: a swing and a cast member who performs in the ensemble.) Meanwhile, I’m required to be in the theater for every performance, “standing by” in case I’m needed. I hope I’m not. But to quote the Immortal Bard, “the readiness is all.”
Next up: A Bounty of Riches – Part 2 (Getting Published)