Livia Blackburne's Blog, page 7

July 18, 2013

You've probably heard by now that JK Rowling published a crime novel in April 2013 under the secret pen name Robert Galbraith. There's been a huge amount of buzz about the novel, titled The Cuckoo’s Calling, since the news was broken. The press has focused mainly on two details. First, the novel came out to a very good critical reception, including a starred review from Publisher's Weekly. And second, the book sold quite poorly in its first three months -- 1500 copies in Britain. (Since Galbraith’s real identity was revealed, of course, the book has rocketed up the bestseller charts.)  (Edit:  Shad has pointed out a source saying that the book sold  comparably to similar debuts, and sales numbers were actually similar to Harry Potter in its first few months.  So "poorly" might be too strong of a word.)

I was really excited to hear the news. I loved the Harry Potter series. Though I didn't read The Casual Vacancy since it seemed too literary for my tastes, The Cuckoo’s Calling is definitely something I'll be adding to my to-read list.

I've also enjoyed reading online reactions as the news broke. In some ways, they’ve been a litmus test of peoples’ underlying views on the publishing industry. Some people, like author Nathan Bransford, have written about how the book's poor sales illustrate the fleeting nature of publishing success. Others commentators took this as more evidence that publishers no longer have anything to offer writers.

And what’s my reaction to the Rowling story? It’s to recall a statistical principle known as regression to the mean.

Regression to the mean roughly says that any instance of superlative performance will likely be followed by a mediocre performance. For example, a student pilot who lands a plane exceptionally well is likely to make a mistake the next time around. An athlete who wins an Athlete of the Year award will have a surprisingly ho-hum record the following year. And the top performing branch of a chain restaurant is likely to show less growth than its peers the next year. So on, and so forth…

What causes this? When asked to explain this phenomenon, people come up with myriad reasons. Perhaps the pressure of doing so well the first time made the student pilot choke on the second landing. Maybe the Athlete of the Year got too confident and partied too much, which hurt her future performance. Maybe the restaurant branch got lazy and stop recruiting customers after their good year.

All us could possibly be true, but there is another, simpler explanation.

Think about it this way. In order to be exceptional in any field, what has to happen? Well, you'll likely have to be good at what you do. That's a given. But skill is not enough. To be an extreme success, all the stars have to align in your favor. The weather has to be perfect for your landing. You have to hit the winning shot in that crucial game. You have to have some unexpected influxes of restaurant customers. In other words, you have to be very, very lucky.

So what happens the next year? Well, your skill remains high. But what are the chances of everything going in your favor again? Your luck will most likely be average the second time around, and you overall performance will drop accordingly.

So you can see where this is going. Both Harry Potter and The Cuckoo’s Calling were well-written books. One was a commercial slamdunk that made Rowling the world's first billionaire author. The other didn't do as well, at least not within its first three months. Why is this? Did the book have a less commercial premise?  Was three months too slow to find an audience? Did the publisher screw up? Was there a secret alien conspiracy? We'll probably never know all the details. But before jumping to conclusions, make sure to take into account that humble principle known as regression to the mean.

Readers, what's your reaction to The Cuckoo's Calling?  Will you read it?

(BTW, If you’re interested in reading more about this and other types of statistical reasoning, check out Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.)

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar.  By the way, friend of the blog Kristen Kittscher recently released her debut MG mystery The Wig in the Window.  Here's the blurb. 

 Best friends and seventh graders Sophie Young and Grace Yang have made a game out of spying on their neighbors. On one of their midnight stakeouts, they witness a terrifying, bloody scene at the home of their bizarre middle-school counselor Dr. Charlotte Agford (also known as Dr. Awkward).

At least, they think they do. The truth is that Dr. Agford was only making her famous pickled beets. But when Dr. Agford begins acting even weirder than usual, Sophie and Grace become convinced that she’s hiding something—and they’re determined to find out what it is.

Soon the girls are breaking secret codes, being followed by a strange blue car, and tailing strangers with unibrows and Texas accents. But as their investigation heats up, Sophie and Grace start to crack under the pressure. Will solving the case destroy their friendship?

Check it out! It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on July 18, 2013 15:46 • 48 views

June 5, 2013

Hi everyone!  Today I’m happy to welcome Barry Eisler back to the blog.  If you’ve been paying any attention at all to publishing news lately, you already know about his fascinating publishing journey.  Barry started out traditionally published with his bestselling John Rain series.  Then, in 2011 he turned down a $500,000 deal from St. Martin’s press --  first to self publish, but then he then accepted a deal to publish the series with Amazon.  Since then, he’s continued be a leader and innovator in the digital transition.

About a week ago, Barry ran a special promotion where he offered his entire backlist for 99 cents.  As a fan, I thought it was awesome (and may or may not have dropped everything right then and there to run to Amazon).  As a writer,  I thought it was a really interesting strategy, and Barry graciously agreed to chat about the goals behind that promotion and how it went for him.

Great to have you back, Barry!  The last time you visited the blog, you’d just released The Detachment with Amazon Publishing.  Since then, quite a lot has happened.  Would you mind quickly catching us up?

Hi Livia, good to chat with you again and thanks for the invitation.  Let’s see, catching up... well, The Detachment earned out in less than two months, which was nice, and has sold a healthy six-figures worth of units since then.  I managed to get the rights reverted to my entire Putnam and Ballantine backlists, and have since repackaged and self-published those eight titles.  I’ve published a short story and a novella with Thomas & Mercer -- The Khmer Kill and London Twist -- and they’ve both been doing well.  And I’ll be turning in the new novel, a Rain prequel, this summer, to be published by T&M later this year.

So this past weekend, your entire backlist was available for 99 cents.  Can you tell us about the goals and reasoning behind this promotion?

I’ve done a couple of free promos of individual titles through KDP Select, advertising the sales using BookBub and EbookBooster, and the results were good -- the #1 free spot for my first novel, A Clean Kill in Tokyo, and the #2 slot for my second, A Lonely Resurrection.  I like the free promos because if things go well with the giveaway, the title in question tends to bounce back much higher in the paid store, with more visibility and more sales.  Possible shortcomings of the free promos, though, are:  (i) the people you’re initially reaching are by definition a demographic that is motivated to download books for free, and that might therefore be less interested in buying them; and (ii) people who get books for free are probably less motivated to read them, meaning fewer new customers and less word of mouth.  So I started wondering what would happen if I tried a 99-cent promo instead... and what would happen if instead of doing it for only one title, I did it for my entire backlist.

I mentioned the idea to Thomas & Mercer (one of the reasons I love working with Amazon is that they love to experiment).  They were game to drop the prices of all my T&M-published works during the same three days during which I wanted to run the sale of my self-published works, and they did some email promotion, too.  In the end, the only title that wasn’t 99 cents for the 72-hour sale was The Detachment, because that was slated for a separate promotion, which as it happens is going on right now.

The primary goal of the experiment was to move the rankings of the books higher to give them more visibility -- specifically, to get onto various sublists.  I didn’t expect to make more money during those three days themselves, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t, though I haven’t crunched the numbers and I’m not sure.

Now that promotion is over, how did it turn out?

I think the results were mixed.  On the one hand, all the books made it back onto all the subgroups they’re listed under -- Mysteries and Thrillers, Spy Stories and Tales of Intrigue, that sort of thing -- and at single-digit slots.  They also shot way up in the Kindle Store rankings overall (the title I promoted through Bookbub, Winner Take All, topped out at #57 in the Kindle Store -- not bad for a book that was first published in 2004).  But the benefits lasted only a few days, and in the ten days since the sale, my numbers have dropped back to more or less where they were beforehand.

On balance, though, I’m glad I did it.  The three days of dropping the price of my backlist from $3.99 to $0.99 cost me little if anything during the three days in question, and it’s really too soon to conclude there were no lasting benefits.  Certainly I reached hundreds of new readers, many of whom have already posted reviews (most of them positive, but not all... London Twist is (“pornograhic sputum?!”).  And it’s been my experience that the primary benefits of marketing exercises tend to be less tangible and longer-term than we might overall like.

FWIW, Joe Konrath did something similar for his entire backlist a month or so ago, and he seemed to get better and longer-lasting results than I did.  The difference could be due to a variety of factors; my guess is that primary among them is that Joe has three or four times the number of titles I do, and I think there’s a multiplier effect at work with these kinds of promos.  In fact, the multiplier effect was a big part of what I was going after:  “What if I advertise a single 99-cent title through BookBub, and customers then discover they can get all my titles for 99 cents?”

In fact, Joe was so pleased with the results of his across-the-board promotion that he’s doing something similar now, even offering his latest novel, Haunted House, for free.  It’ll be interesting to see how the latest experiment turns out -- so far, it seems to be going well.

In retrospect, I also think there were some things I could have done to optimize my results.  Better communicating the limited-time-only nature of the sale, for one; making people aware that it applied to the whole backlist, for another.  But on balance, I think the theory behind the experiment was sound, the results overall were good, and the lessons learned valuable.  Also, a lot of my fans loved it -- they were glad for the opportunity to acquire my entire oeuvre in digital for less than the price of a single paperback, and I think their enthusiastic mass purchases were a significant part of why the books shot up as high in the rankings as they did.

Ha! Pornographic sputum, huh? London Twist was actually my favorite work of yours, thus far. It’s the most tightly plotted, nuanced, and exciting piece of sputum I’ve ever read. :-)

That would make, hands-down, the best blurb I’ve ever seen. :D

Publishing London Twist has actually made for an interesting, albeit unintended, sociological experiment.  Some people were obviously just freaking out about the lesbian aspect, with one guy writing, “Eisler's usual good work. But I get a little bit tired of the social cheer leading for gays. I hear and read enough of that stuff already.”  By “social cheerleading,” he pretty obviously meant, “Acknowledging that gays exist and depicting them as fellow humans.”  Because, can you imagine someone making a comment like that about a straight character?  And he was far from the only one.  Society has come a long way on the homophobia front, but we’re clearly not all the way there yet.

Since we're on the subject of bad reviews, it’s been noted that *free* promotions often produce a larger proportion of 1 star customer reviews because people end up downloading it who wouldn’t usually read that genre, and then they trash it because it’s not what they usually like to read.  Did you notice any difference in the proportion of bad reviews between your free and 99 cent promotions?

I’ve read about that potential problem and the theory behind it makes sense to me.  I’ve read the customer reviews my books have received in the wake of promotions, and they might skew a little less favorably than is usually the case, but not so strongly so that I’ve noticed anything definite.  What I have noticed is that post-promotion reviews seem shorter.  You’re a brain scientist -- explain that one! :)

I'll start looking into question that right away :-)

I'm also curious -- I know you don’t have data to customer behavior at the individual level, but I’m curious as to whether you got any feel at all about buying patterns.  Do you feel like a lot of people were scooping up your entire backlist, or were most buying one or two?  And for the former case, do you worry about lost income from selling all your inventory at once at such a low price?

I heard from a lot of my existing readers on Facebook, Twitter, and my blog that they were vacuuming up the entire backlist.  They already had the books in paper, the explanation went, but at such a low price they couldn’t forgo the opportunity to get the whole series in digital, too.  I hadn’t been expecting this, but of course it makes perfect sense:  offer enough perceived value, and people will spend more money.  So that aspect of the sale feels like a huge win for everyone:  I reached a group of readers who wouldn’t otherwise have purchased my books in digital, and they got to buy the whole digital backlist for a ridiculously low price.

And because I only promoted one of the titles through BookBub but saw a huge lift during the sale for all eight novels, I don’t think my existing readers were alone in going for the plate-piling buffet option.  I can’t prove it, of course; Amazon did some advertising itself and there are various other elements that would render the experiment less than perfect for determining whether people were mostly buying one book or buying multiples, but yes, my sense was that quite a few people were buying more than one.  Which is what I expected -- it’s like when, back in the day, you would go into Borders expecting to buy a DVD, and you’d see they were doing a three-for-two sale.  You’d wind up buying twice what you’d originally planned on because of the additional perceived value (at least that’s what I used to do, and I figure I’m not so different from other consumers).  This is why one of the things I’ll want to do better next time is find ways to more clearly communicate that *all* these titles are on sale for a limited time only.  That way, no matter how a person finds her way into the sale, she’ll see it’s bigger than just the one title that brought her in.

BTW, one thing I’d like to see KDP offer authors is the ability to do three-for-two sales.  Very powerful tool (though, in fairness, it wasn’t enough to save Borders).

As for lost income, I don’t worry about it at all.  The digital marketplace is growing all the time, and the more people who are aware of my books, the more inroads I’ll continue to make into that expanding market.

In fact, in general I think one problem a lot of people (myself included) sometimes have in understanding the digital marketplace is that we try to approach it through an analog prism.  The analog world is characterized by finite shelf space, various either/or decisions, and a greater danger of cannibalization (though I think these limitations are exaggerated even in analog).  But I see far fewer such constraints in digital.  Which is why I not only don’t worry about piracy, fan fiction, free promotions, etc; I embrace them.  They all help increase my exposure in an expanding digital marketplace.

Sometime we’ll have to talk more about the tendency of the human mind toward false binaries.  I see a lot of it at work in publishing and I find it fascinating.  In fact, I think there’s usually more going on in the world than an either/or framework will allow you to see.

I’m actually reading a book now called Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman.  While it doesn’t directly address an either/or framework (Or at least, the parts I’ve read so far) it does offer some really interesting insight as to how people think and make decisions, and about how we are perhaps not as logical and careful as we think we are.  You might enjoy it.

Anyways, thank you so much for dropping by and sharing your experiences!  And now I’ll turn the floor over to commenters.  What have your experiences been like with promotions, either as a reader or a writer?

Hope you enjoyed this blog post!  To get regular updates from this blog, use one of the subscription options in the sidebar.  

Also, friend of the blog Roz Morris recently released her new writing guide Nail Your Novel:  Bring Your Characters to Life.   Here's the blurb.  Go check it out!  (Also, she quoted one of my unfortunate attempts to write realistic male characters in the book :-) )

How do you create characters who keep readers hooked? How do you write the opposite sex? Teenagers? Believable relationships? Historical characters? Enigmatic characters? Plausible antagonists and chilling villains? How do you understand a character whose life is totally unlike your own?

How do you write characters for dystopias? How do you make dialogue sing? When can you let the reader intuit what the characters are feeling and when should you spell it out?

I’ve mined 20 years’ worth of writing and critiquing experience to create this book. It contains all the pitfalls and sticky points for writers, laid out as a set of discussions that are easy to dip into. And it wouldn’t be a Nail Your Novel book without a good dose of games, exercises and questionnaires to help you populate a novel from scratch.

Whether you write a straightforward story-based genre or literary fiction, Bring Characters to Life will show you how to create people who enthrall readers – and make you want to tell stories. It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on June 05, 2013 12:57 • 54 views

April 18, 2013

"You probably know that understanding your audience is essential if you want a document to work. But this means understanding not just their level of knowledge of the subject at hand, but also their history, their cultural references and associations and their past experiences, argues Livia Blackburne."

I guest posted at  this week on the psychological idea of schemas and how writers can use them to inform their word choices.  Check out my  post here.

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar.  

Also, friend of the blog Gail Gauthier recently re-released her backlist title Saving the Planet & Stuff.  Michael Racine is spending a miserable summer alone at home when he stumbles upon a temporary job and housing with his grandparents’ friends, Walt Marcello and Nora Blake. Walt and Nora made names for themselves in the environmental movement with their magazine, "The Earth’s Wife," and Michael believes he’s headed for an internship with them that could rival the summer activities of his far more industrious and accomplished friends. Lack of air conditioning and biking to work get old very fast for him, though, and he has trouble taking seriously Nora’s concerns about the environmental impact of golf courses and Walt’s interest in composting toilets. He gets to leave his hosts’ solar home each weekday only to be faced with turmoil and revolt among "The Earth’s Wife"’s staff. How can Michael—or Walt and Nora—decide on the right course of action?

"Saving the Planet & Stuff" was originally published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons. This new edition includes an unpublished short story that uses early versions of the Walt and Nora characters, as well as a new cover illustration by Eric Bloom.

It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on April 18, 2013 13:21 • 73 views

March 18, 2013

A while ago, before Midnight Thief went out on submission, I had tea with a veteran writer friend. Amongst discussion of all things publishing, the topic turned to editing. My friend mentioned that early on in his career, he wouldn't have been able to judge good editorial advice. It was only after writing several books and growing in his craft that he had the experience to do so.

I distinctly remember wondering what he meant by good editing and whether it really was that hard to identify. After all, I’d put my novel through several rounds with beta readers and felt like I had a good instinct for sorting through feedback.

Fast forward ten months later, when I got my first editorial letter from Abby Ranger. That was when I realized that I’d had NO idea what a good editor was capable of. The difference between the manuscript I submitted and my story now is the difference between a pencil sketch and a full-fledged oil painting.

And not only have I improved my book, I've also gleaned tips on how to be a better critique partner. Here are some of the things I've learned, both from my first editor Abby and my current editor Rotem.

1. Decreasing the suck Vs. Increasing the awesome

When I critique manuscripts, I tend to focus on things that I don't like. But I've come to realize that it's equally important to be look for good things so they can be emphasized -- for example, noting an intruiging character trait that be brought out more, or pointing out intriguing themes that are hinted at but could be developed. A side benefit of doing this is that you decrease your chances of being “that guy.” You know, the beta reader who suggests you rewrite the story to his personal taste.

2. Ask good questions

Some the best feedback that I've gotten was not in the form of specific suggestions, but questions that help me clarify and deepen my story. What does the character want here? What does she learn? Why does she feel this way?

3. A spoonful of sugar ...

I don't consider myself an incredibly sensitive writer when it comes to feedback, but apparently I'm as susceptible to flattery as the next person. I’ve realized that I get more excited about revision suggestions that are phrased in a positive way. And when you think about it, there are many ways to give the same advice.  Saying "The first chapter of your book is boring ”  vs. “Your book would be even more exciting if you tighten the pacing in the first chapter,” are ultimately suggesting the same thing, but I still feel more motivated after reading the latter. Both my editors (and agent Jim as well) are really good at this phrasing suggestions in an encouraging way. You'd almost think that they spend a lot of time delivering editorial feedback to writers or something.

So these some principles I've gleaned from my editorial letters so far. After I finish my revisions, I'll blog more specifically (in a non-spoilerish kind of way) about the changes I've been making to my book. But for now, let me turn the question to you. What kind of editorial feedback do you find most helpful?

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar.  Also, friend of the blog Susan Bradley recently released her YA mystery Unraveled

.  Check it out!

Sixteen year old math whiz, Autumn, spends her days reading about serial killers and dreaming of becoming an FBI Profiler. She never dreams her first case will be so personal. Her world is shattered when she comes home from school and discovers her murdered sister’s body on the living room floor. When the initial evidence points to a burglary gone wrong, Autumn challenges the police’s theory because of the personal nature of the crime. Thinking that finding the killer will bring her family back together, she conducts her own investigation using her affinity for math and forensics, but her plan backfires and her obsession with the case further splinters her family. When her investigation reveals the killer is someone she knows, Autumn offers herself up as bait and sets a dangerous trap to unmask his true nature and to obtain a confession for her sister’s murder. It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on March 18, 2013 07:00 • 68 views

February 11, 2013

Spoiler warning: Major spoilers for The Sword Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe, The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons, Rain Fall by Barry Eisler, Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, and The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson.

Wow, time flies. It's been over six months since the last installment of Operation Chest Hair.

Operation Chest Hair started when I had a story idea with a male point-of-view (POV) character. And not just any any old guy -- a manly man. The rugged, tough type that wrestles grizzly bears and uses undiluted tabasco sauce for mouthwash. A far cry from my teenage girls I usually write. To train my voice to write such a paragon of masculinity, I’ve been studying books with manly characters.

My previous article focused on how these man characters respond to the introduction of a love interest. In this article, I want to look at how they deal with grief, and how their reaction to loss compares to YA heroines in similar situations.

As before, I chose to study books with male POV characters that were written by male authors. In each of these books, these male protagonists lost loved ones. How did they react? There was a lot of variation, but I did pick up some tidbits.

1. No crying

First, take a look at these passages where YA heroines mourn their loved ones.

Her eyes burned, but she was cried out. Hopelessly she plucked at his sleeve, wishing she could bring him back. Crying would have helped.  - Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce

Glad to be alone, Alanna sat and wept, letting the Dragon go at last. - Lioness Rampant

Something flashed through her, surprising her with a sting of tears. She thought it was bewilderment, anger, fear – before she recognized it: grief.  - Plain Kate by Erin Bow

I hear a keening sound. High-pitched, wild. I realize it's me. . . . I can't speak. I'm shaking too badly. The faces of my companions blur as a sharp pain streaks to my temples. Oh God, oh God… .The Godstone warms to my grief. - The Girl of Fire and Thornsby Rae Carson

There’s lots of crying and grief here here from the YA heroines. But from the men? Across the board, not a single tear.

So how do the men respond? Let’s move on to the next observation.

2. Muted Grief (sometimes)

In two of the books with male characters, I noticed a muted presentation of grief.

In the passage below, John Rain talks to his associate Tatsu, who tells Rain that he must let his lover Midori believe that he’s dead.

"You may be tempted to contact her," [Tatsu] continued. "I would advise against this. She believes you are dead."

"Why would she believe that?"

"Because I told her."

"Tatsu," I said, my voice dangerously flat, "explain yourself.". . . .

He paused for a long moment, then looked at me squarely, his eyes resigned. "I deeply regret the pain you feel now. However I am more convinced even than before that I did the right thing in telling her.. . .

I wasn't even surprised Tatsu had put together all the pieces. "She didn't have to know," I heard myself say.. . . .

I realized, but somehow could not grasp, that Midori had already been made part of my past. It was like a magic trick. Now you see it, now you don't. Now it's real; notes just a memory.

- Rain Fall by Barry Eisler

Here, John Rain’s grief is only hinted at by his “dangerously flat” voice and his confusion. He “hears himself” protest. He tries but “somehow cannot grasp” that Midori is gone. The only pain mentioned in this passage is brought up not by Rain, but by Tatsu when he mentions the “pain you feel now.” There’s no wallowing in grief here, but because we’ve been with Rain for the whole book and know his voice, we pick up on these more subtle clues.

In The Sword-Edged Blonde, Eddie LaCrosse finds out that his friend Cathy has been murdered. His reaction is a bit stronger. Though he doesn’t speak directly about his grief, his worry for his friend shows through in his actions.

The roof of Betty's little not-a-tavern collapsed in a big puff of sparks. My chest was on fire, too, from all that running, and from the agony of realizing Cathy had to be among the dead.


I had to know. I ran through the village, heedless of the heat and danger. "Cathy!" I yelled. I dodged chickens and goats, free of their pens and frantically seeking shelter or escape. I did not look at the other corpses except to make sure they weren't her.

After he’s sure of Cathy’s death, however, LaCrosse’s grief reaction is also more muted than the YA heroines. I’d describe it as drained.

The only person I buried was Cathy, in a shallow grave with no marker. I found her charred – boiled, really – body still in the metal tub inside one of the ruined buildings. . . . The smell was as appalling as it sounds. 

At dawn, I returned to Epona’s cottage. No horses followed me through the forest. No weird bird sang overhead. The house was exactly as I've left it, but the woman – whoever she'd been – was gone. Perhaps the poisoned wine had driven her into the forest to die. I didn't know, and didn't really care. I considered torching the place, but I'd seen enough destruction to do me for a while.

LaCrosse talks about the apalling smell of corpses, about how he'd seen a lot of destruction, but he doesn't talk explicitly about how sad he is.

The one case where grief was not muted was for Raul Endymion, from Dan Simmon’s Hyperion series. He had the most painful loss of all three male characters. Endymion was forced to watch his longtime friend and lover be tortured to death, and his reaction is full-on pain and madness.

I began screaming in my high-g tank, ripping at life support umbilicals and banging the bulkhead with my head and fists, until the water-filled tank was swirling with my blood. I tried tearing at the osmosis mask that covered my face like some parasite sucking away my breath; it would not tear. For a full three hours I screamed and protested, battering myself into a state of semiconsciousness at best, reliving the shared moments with Aenea a thousand times and screaming in agony a thousand times, and then the robot ship injected sleep drugs through the leechlike umbilicals.

--The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

3. Reactions of Pain/Anger/Madness

Another thing I noticed was that the male characters reacted to their loss with anger. John Rain’s voice, for example, becomes “dangerously flat” when he hears of Tatsuo’s deception.

When Eddie Lacrosse hears that Cathy has been murdered, he runs in panic to the city to look for her body. He discover the man who killed her, and he also responds with anger and battle rage.

My pulse returned to normal, then continued to slow, as panic and horror dissolved into cold soldierly professionalism. I saw no reason to delay any longer. "Did you kill Cathy, too?" . . . .

I let my jacket fall to the ground. After Eppie’s hut, and my mad run, and the heat from the burning village, I was drenched in sweat. Yet inside I was solid ice.

-The Sword Edged Blonde

And of course, there’s Endymion’s violent reaction quoted earlier.

I was curious about whether the young adult heroines exhibited the same anger and wish for revenge.

Plain Kate, when she loses her dear friend Taggle the cat, is angry at the man responsible for Taggle’s death, but she also takes his hand in compassion as he lays dying.

[Linay] looked up first at Kate, then Eleanor, and then – blankly – at the clearing sky. "I feel strange," he said. "I think I'm dying."

Kate, with the little body in her arms, answered, "Good. We don't like you." But she knelt beside him and took his raw hand.

-Plain Kate

Interestingly, a few heroines blamed themselves rather than the villain. When Alanna loses her twin brother Thom to the schemes of the evil wizard Roger, this is her reaction.

Alanna didn’t know how long she sat, holding Thom’s cold hand. She was certain somehow this was all her fault. How was she supposed to live without her other half? -Lioness Rampant

In the next scene however Alanna does become angry.

Rage was replacing her grief.  She wanted to act...  -Lioness Rampant

In The Girl of Fire and Thorns, when an enemy kills Elisa's good friend Humberto, her first reaction is also to blame herself. Convinced that the Godstone in her navel is the reason her enemies have been hurting her and her friends, she takes a dagger and attempts to cut it from her flesh. After her initial grief, however, Elisa also makes plans for revenge.

Strange that I have been loathe to use a knife on a man. Now, I relish the prospect. “Tomorrow, I kill Trevino.”  -Girl of Fire and Thorns

So in summary, it appears that both the manly men and YA heroines express anger and a desire for revenge, although the YA heroines' anger was more delayed, and they were more quick to blame themselves.

4. Philosophizing

One thing I didn’t expect to find was that two of the male characters processed their loss in a through philosophical reflection. John Rain has a long interior monologue on the nature of his loss.

I thought about Tatsu. I knew he had done right in telling Midori I was dead. . .

He was right, too, about my loss not being a long-term issue for her. She was young and had a brilliant career opening up right in front of her. When you've known someone only briefly, even if intensely, death comes as a shock, but not a particularly long or deep one. After all, there was no time for the person in question to become woven tightly into the fabric of your life. . . .

There were moments with her when I would forget everything I had done, everything I had become. But those moments would never have lasted. I have the product of things I have done, and I know I will always wake up to this conclusion, no matter how beguiling the reverie that precedes the awakening.

-Rain Fall

In the case of Raul Endymion, the entire book is his memoir, a vehicle to help him understand what had happened.

We’re leaving here, Raul, my darling,” she whispered in the darkness last night.” Not soon, but as soon as you finish our tale. As soon as you remember it all and understand it all.  -Endymion

There was nothing like this in the YA books that I checked. The closest was in Alanna’s story. A few weeks after her lover’s death, she receives a letter from him (written before his death) telling her he is at peace and explaining that he had found meaning in his upcoming death.

The truth is we never saw death the same (like some other things), so I didn't talk about it with you. All you think of death is ending. To me, it's how a person goes. Dying for important things – that's better than living safe.

I often visited Tortall, though we never met there. The last two times . . . I felt a change. . . . If I can protect this beginning, I will have died a Dragon.

So Alanna does find meaning in her lover’s death, but he's the one who explains her to her.

I’m not sure if this difference is due to gender or age. The YA heroines are much younger, and perhaps their youth is why they don’t process and make sense of their grief this way. Or is it a gender issue?

Now readers, what do you think? Are there differences in how grief is portrayed in men vs. women in literature? If so, are these due to true gender differences or societal expectations?

Addendum.  As I was writing this, I found out that Barry Eisler, author of Rain Fall, is about to release a new novella -- from a woman's point of view!  The novella is called London Twist, and is about Delilah, John Rain's sometimes lover.  I was lucky enough to read an advanced copy, and loved it.  Intrigue, adventure, complicated relationships and moral shades of gray, kick ass women... It reminded me of the old La Femme Nikita TV show on USA, which I was a huge fan of.  Check it out!  (Parental note:  The novella is not YA and has some adult content.)

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar. It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on February 11, 2013 10:07 • 43 views

January 1, 2013

Happy new year everyone! I hope you're all having a restful holiday season. I usually don't review books on this blog, but every New Year's I like to recommend my five favorite books from the  year before (I read these books in 2012, but these books were not necessarily published in the past year). You can see my five picks from 2011 here.

And these are my five picks for this year, in the order that I read them.

1. Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowskey 

This is the most unconventional pick of the list. I'm not a regular fanfic reader, but this story has been making the viral rounds, and it's like nothing I've ever seen before. Think enlightenment thinking meets Harry Potter. In this universe, Harry Potter is a child prodigy well-trained in rationalism and the scientific method. When he enters magical Hogwarts, the developments are both hilarious and educational. I actually learned a lot about science reading this.  It's truly unique and fresh, and you can read it for free!

2. Some of the Best from 2011 Edition

This is a short story collection compiled by Lots of gems here. My favorites are Beauty Belongs to the Flowers about a girl growing up in futuristic Japan, the noir alien story A Clean Sweep With All the Trimmings, and Shetl Days, which I can't really describe without ruining.

3. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

What can I say that hasn't been said already? This tale about a World War II pilot and her best friend is amazing. The characters, the brilliant way in which the story unfolds.... I'm a little surprised it was categorized as YA, since it's strongly character driven and features characters in their late teens and early 20s, but who cares? It's brilliant.

4. Hyperion by Dan Simmons

I'm very late to the party on this one, since this book won the Hugo in 1990.  I've been catching up on sci fi since marrying my sci-fi loving husband. Hyperion is styled after the Canterbury tales. Seven pilgrims travel to the planet Hyperion to meet  the mysterious Shrike creature. On their way, they tell their stories. Simmons explores different styles with each story, leading to six unique yet interrelated tales. One story is written as a noir detective tale, another is written as a series of diary entries, etc. The world building is also fantastic. Definitely check this one out.

5. Anything by Laini Taylor

I'm not usually the type of reader to track down all of an author's books, but I've been doing so for Taylor.  She's probably best known for Daughter of Smoke & Bone, but she also has two books from an earlier series Faries of Dreamdark and a short story collection Lips Touch: Three Times. I love the sense of wonder in the worlds she creates, and her language is beautiful. I'd check out Daughter of Smoke and Bone you want a more commercial YA romance. The Fairies of Dreamdark are younger and lighter in tone (though just as magical).

So these are my picks this year. What are yours?

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar. It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on January 01, 2013 15:14 • 40 views

December 12, 2012

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya.

You had me at hello.

Life is like a box of chocolates.

Luke, I am your father.

Every year, a handful of movie quotes become integrated into popular culture. What is it about them that makes them so memorable? Is it just that they bring up fond memories of the movie, or is there  something about their structure that make them more likely to be remembered and passed on? A recent study from computer scientists at Cornell sheds some light on this.

In order to do this research, one first has to definite what one means by "memorable." These researchers decided to use quotes from the Memorable Quotes section of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) as a way to identify enduring quotes.

First, the researchers wanted to see whether there was something about these quotes that distinguished them from non-memorable quotes. They had volunteers look at pairs of quotes from the same movie. One member of the pair was a “memorable quote” as defined by IMDb. The other was comparison quote spoken by the same character at approximately the same time as the memorable quote.

Could people tell the difference between memorable and nonmemerable quotes? Indeed, participants were above chance at identifying the memorable quotes, even though they had never seen the movies in question. So there does seem to be some thing about the memorable quotes that makes them recognizable even without the context of the movie itself.

Now that the researchers had some evidence that memorable quotes were intrinsically unique, they set about trying to figure out what made them different. They analyzed the member and non-memorable quotess, and this is what they found.

1. The memorable quotes used more distinctive vocabulary than their non-memorable counterparts.

2. The memorable quotes used more common syntactic patterns than non-memorable quotes.

3. The memorable quotes had some syntactic characteristics that might have made the quotes more generalizable to outside situations. For example, the memorable quotes had more present tense and less past tense, which might make them easier to quote in different contexts. They also had fewer pronouns than  non-memorable quotes.

What are some of your favorite movie quotes? Do they follow these patterns?

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar. Also, friend of the blog Kurt Crisman is running a really cool Kickstarter project to create a software that matches your fiction to literary journals using computer text analysis. Check it out!

Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, Justin Cheng, Jon Kleinberg, & Lillian Lee (2012). You had me at hello: How phrasing affects memorability ACL 2012 arXiv: 1203.6360v1 It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain
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Published on December 12, 2012 15:40 • 47 views

November 6, 2012

Note: Wednesday, November 7th is the last day to bid on a critique from me and other debut 2014 authors to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy!

In April 2011, I had a conversation with my dad about changes in the publishing industry and what to do with my manuscript MIDNIGHT THIEF. By the end of our discussion, I’d decided to self publish.

My writer’s group was supportive, but suggested I query a few agents to keep my options open. Sounded reasonable, so I mailed some queries while I sent the manuscript to one last round of beta readers, figuring I wouldn’t lose time this way. Seventeen days later, I had five offers of representation and a lot of thinking to do.

As most of you know, I did end up signing with an agent and selling my book to Disney-Hyperion. Since I hang out a lot with indie authors, people have asked me why I went traditional. So I thought I'd outline my reasons here.

1. Editing

This was the biggest reason. Many of the agents I spoke with had solid revision suggestions that I was excited about implementing, and these conversations convinced me that I would benefit from working with an editor. While I  could have self-published with a freelance editor, in practice, I probably would have made do with beta readers. Since I had no prior sales record, I wanted to keep expenses for the first book low. And there was some risk to hiring a freelance editor. I would've had to vet editors myself and pay for the editor’s time before knowing how I would resonate with her suggestions.

On the other hand, if I went traditional, there were people willing to share the risk with me (Agent Jim works on spec, and Disney-Hyperion pays my editor's salaries.). Also, I knew going in that both agent Jim and editor Abby had strong track records and that they “got” my book. Thus far, I couldn't be more pleased with how things have turned out. The original manuscript I queried with was a fun read, but the changes since then have added depth and maturity, and I’ve grown significantly in my craft.

2. Advance

Self-publishing is backloaded income. You start out in the red, and you make the money back in small amounts over years. Traditional publishing is frontloaded income. You start out with your advance, and you only see royalties once you earn out your advance. For me, an advance was attractive because it allowed me to spend more time on my writing, thus increasing my output.

3. Brand

Disney-Hyperion has an established brand, which matters to a subset of readers that includes influencers like booksellers, librarians, and book reviewers. As a new author starting to build a readership, I wanted that extra push.

4. Reaching Teen Readers

This is related to #3. My online platform is limited mostly to adults, and if I were to launch my book, I would primarily be marketing to this audience. By releasing my book with Disney, it will be easier to reach school librarians through netgalley and conferences.

5. Convenience 

 My publisher takes care of the book design, e-book formatting, cover design, finding copy editors and proofreaders, etc.  All things I'd have to arrange myself if I self published.

Those are my main reasons. Am I going to tell everyone to sign with publisher now? Of course not. I've never seen the indie versus traditional debate as a either/or decision. It's an exciting world with lots of options, and what path you take depends on your priorities for any particular project. To balance things out, here are what I think are the main advantages of going indie.

1. Higher Profit Per Book

If you take on the role of publisher, you take the publisher's cut of earnings. For e-books especially, this makes a big difference.

2. Total control

 If you self publish, you have the final say on everything, from editorial to cover design to pricing to release date.

3. Faster time to release

With traditional publishing, it takes about two years from sale to publication. If you self publish, you're only limited by how quickly you can work.

4. Flexibility with Rights

Because publishers invest money into your book, they justifiably buy the rights for a certain period of time in order to recoup that investment. Your book will stay with your publisher until the requirements for rights reversion are met (This usually will be a time limit or a minimum sales threshold.). If you self publish, you own your rights, and you're free to switch between services or sell the rights to another publisher at any time.

5. Flexibility With Other Work

Some publishing contracts have noncompete clauses that limit what other work you can publish at a certain time. Obviously, if you self publish, this won't apply to you.

So now readers, your turn. What publication path are you pursuing, and why?

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar. It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain

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Published on November 06, 2012 22:36 • 36 views

November 2, 2012

It's been a crazy week, with Hurricane Sandy.  I hope this blog post finds you all well and safe.  In an effort to help with the relief efforts, Jennifer Malone is organizing an auction of reading and writing related items to benefit the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund. A group of 2014 Debut Authors (including me!) have teamed together to donate a group critique package.

If you win the package:

Two authors will critique your query

Three authors will critique your first 10 pages. (I'll be one of them)

Plus, a 20 minute Skype chat with three authors about publishing, writing, anything else.

The auction runs from now until Wednesday, November 7. Check it out if you want more details on the authors involved (They are fabulous!), and also look through the other very cool items offered!

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar. It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain

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Published on November 02, 2012 17:26 • 22 views

October 23, 2012

My first round revisions for MIDNIGHT THIEF involved ramping up a romance arc. Specifically, this required MOAR KISSING.

And it was kind of difficult.

Okay, okay, I know this is hard to believe, given the hot and heavy action MIT neuroscientists get on a daily basis, but really truly, it was. Maybe it says something about me that I wrote five unique fight scenes in my novel, but by my second kiss scene, things were already starting to feel repetitive.

(Those tempted to explain in the comments section exactly what that says
about me, do so at your own risk. Did I mention that I write a lot of
murder scenes? :-P)

So I spent a week brainstorming one or two kiss scenes per day and rejecting them one after another. It was incredibly hard work, and definitely interfered with my day job. Here I was in lab, trying to run my data through another analysis, and then I’d start thinking about the latest version of THE KISS, and what INTREPID HEROINE and HOT LOVE INTEREST were thinking, and whether they were standing close to each other or far, and just what exactly is that look in his eyes and whether her heart was beating faster…


Since I had to suffer through all that, I thought I would share the lessons I learned about writing kiss scenes. (Plus some shoutouts to some fellow 2014 debut authors who shared their own tips).

1. Employ All the Senses.

What does the HOT LOVE INTEREST look like? Smell like? If it’s cold outside, does your viewpoint character feel cold, or does she feel warm despite the weather? Are the two of them close enough to be touching? What about taste?

2. It's All About the Emotions

The emotions are just as important, if not more important, than the physical actions. To quote Jenny Martin, “Some bad love scenes feel like biology 101.” It's the emotions and context behind a kiss – the history between the kissers, what it means, how it makes them feel – that’s what makes the kiss interesting and unique. In fact, you can take the exact same set of kissing actions, change the thoughts behind them, and it becomes a completely different kiss.

3. Kissing is Pacing Dynamite. 

If you want to characters to kiss, be prepared for tension in your story to change drastically. If a kiss comes out of nowhere, it introduces tension, uncertainty, and angst. But if your characters have been flirting since Chapter 1, a kiss will probably release the tension -- perhaps too much. Jessica Corra adds, “Kissing is great for tension, but you also have a certain catharsis or release once chars finally do it. You can play with this by varying your kissing - interrupted make out, a single chaste kiss, indecision on where to go from the kiss, etc. “

and finally, one last bit of advice from Julie Murphy...

4.  Make sure your characters brush their TEETH.

Now readers, what about you? Do you like (to write about) kissing? Any tips?

Hope you enjoyed this post! To get regular updates from this blog, use the subscription options on the sidebar. It got me to thinking about how to set my readers up for better anticipation, the satisfying feeling they get when they correctly predict "what's next." William Ockham's review of From Words to Brain

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Published on October 23, 2012 15:16 • 26 views