January 25, 2013

Writing book two of a series

A writer friend (more experienced than I) recently asked for advice on writing the second book in a trilogy.

Having just published Forsada and beginning work on the third book in the series, I was astonished to find I hadn't really thought about it. Looking back over the past year, though, I did learn a couple of things. I can sum them up in three points:

It's not as bad as you worry it might be

The crowds loved the first one.
Will the second be as good?
Having the first book published and hearing the feedback while you're writing the next book is a double-edged blessing. On the one hand, the praise and great reviews and warm, satisfied glow of watching sales figures tick up is a huge motivator. "People like what I wrote!"

On the other hand, that creates a pressure that didn't exist while you were writing the first book. With the first book, you always had the choice to lock it up in a closet and never let anyone see it. You could always back out. But now, with 34 reviews a 4.7 star rating, you've got a standard to live up to.

As if the pressure of creating something and then showing it to the world weren't enough. As if trying to live up to the fantasy of success you've built up in your own mind weren't enough. Now you've got to live up to the reality of expectations you've already set, both for yourself and your readers.

Which is like steroids for your Inner Critic. You start believing your first book is better than it really is. In writing the second book, you start seeing plot and character complexities that you cleverly set up in the first book take shape, but you worry you're not doing them justice. You remember brilliant turns of phrase from the first book and worry you can't keep being so original through a whole other book. (Then you remember there's another whole other book you have to write when this one's done.) In the first book you introduced your reader to a new world, but we all know the second day at Disneyland is never quite as magical as the first.

In short, you love the story, but you wonder if your readers will. Are you missing something important? Is all your brilliance translating onto the page? Or are you deluding yourself, and you actually used up all your brilliance in the first book and just didn't realize it?

But you power on because, through the 10,000 hours you've spent becoming a writer, you know how to silence the Inner Critic and make the Inner Editor wait until the draft is done. You power through. And at the end, because you've built your skill over years and years, your first draft isn't nearly as bad as you worried it might be. And then you remember how much work went into revisions on that first book to make it so good. and you see how this second book can get to that place, too.

Familiarity breeds contempt, but absence makes the heart grow fonder.
I don't mind saying that I was inspired to write Semper when I read The Hunger Games. So much about the writing, voice, and characters in that book came alive for me in ways that many books don't. (The story and world and characters in Semper are totally different from THG, of course; being inspired by something doesn't mean you try to recreate it.)

Semper was the first novel-length story I tried to write in first person, present tense. That POV ties the reader to the main character in a close, personal way. For good and for bad.

Have you ever traveled with one person for, like, a month? Sharing hotel rooms, sharing cabs, eating together? What about a whole year? Or, have you ever had a roommate?

Writing a novel is like moving into a two bedroom apartment with all your novel's characters for a year. But your readers, the outside world... they only see your characters with their makeup on after they've had their coffee. You have to spend all that time behind the scenes with them. Dishes piled in the sink. Fuzzy green things in the fridge. Laundry spilling out of the hamper. Late night crying jags when their boyfriends don't call, and all those times they had a few too many drinks and you had to clean them up and put them to bed.

Yeah, it kinda feels like this sometimes.
The reader only sees them when they're on stage. We live with them all. the. time. Familiarity breeds contempt. I do get tired of my own characters sometimes while writing. But the readers don't (or shouldn't!). In fact, while you're writing the second book, spending all this time cleaning up after your characters and pushing through their lives, your readers are still in love with them from the first book. They're waiting for that sequel. They don't know anything about it, so to them it's still an anticipation. Absence does tend to make the heart grow fonder (assuming of course your first book was good).

In the end, the story is king
As I said above, I loved The Hunger Games. I don't hesitate to use the word "brilliant" when talking about that book. Catching Fire? Liked it. Seemed a little bit "more of the same," though. Even the beginning is an oh no here we go again moment. But the story is executed with such cleverness and tension that I still enjoyed it. Mockingjay, though... to me, that felt like a 40,000 word story fattened up to 80,000 words.

When I was writing Semper and plotting out the trilogy's overarching arc, I thought a lot about my reaction to Mockingjay. I wondered how I could keep the story fresh for the reader over three complete books all in first person present. The whole series covers only a year or so; while Dane could certainly grow and change a lot in a year, I didn't think I could pull off three separate books, each with its own beginning, middle, end, closure, and character growth.

So I wrote book two from Lupay's point of view. Semper is Dane's story. Forsada is Lupay's story. Both are critical components of the series, but they are their own stories as well.

When writing Forsada, I worried that I'd made the wrong choice. I worried that readers wanted more of Dane, that maybe I should have structured everything differently to fit the more conventional model. But the more I wrote and the farther I got into the plot, the more I realized this book had to be written in Lupay's point of view. There was no other option. Because the story required it.

Changing the books up like that gives me a lot more freedom with the third book. I'm not locked into one character's POV, voice, traits. I'm not finishing up the last bits of a nearly completed story; I'm writing a whole new one that completes the series. And that means I won't have to plump it up if it's too thin. Because that's not serving the story. The structural choices I've made have given me the freedom to let the story be king. I'm not sure that's always true for authors when they're deep into their second book or starting their third in a series.

Every story is a labyrinth for the author.
Your mileage may vary
These are my experiences and my observations. I guarantee you'll find other authors who have different thoughts. Writing the second book felt, during the writing, somewhat different from writing the first. Having the first out there, hearing reader feedback, knowing what I had to live up to and was being directed by... it took more discipline in how I applied my creativity. In a first book, you can just look forward and keep pushing toward the final scene. With a second book, you still have to do that, but now you've got the third book pulling you forward while the first book provides a counter-tension that keeps you restricted to a certain path. It was a fun challenge, but now I'm looking forward to the challenge of concluding a series.

January 21, 2013

hanging around with writers (at #SFWC13) - blog post

What do you call a guy who hangs around with musicians?

I don't hang around with musicians. I hang around with writers. Mostly online, but also in person whenever my schedule allows. For the past five years I've spent three days each February hanging around with a really awesome group of writers: the volunteers at the San Francisco Writers Conference.

Next month will be my sixth straight year. Volunteering at the conference is a great gig. Not just because I get to listen in on a bunch of fabulous sessions (how much do you think the "tension on every page" and "bringing characters to life" sessions really change year to year?). Not just because I get to chat with agents (four of the five years I've had nothing I was actively pitching). Not just because my work has appeared in the two anthologies I submitted to (including the one pictured here).

I come back year after year because of the people. Although the organizers (Michael, Elizabeth, Richard, Barb, Linda, Laurie, and the others) are fabulous people with a wonderful vision, I really come to hang out with the other volunteers.

Nearly all the volunteers are writers. Many have published books, either independently (like me) or traditionally. They write in all genres, from business to romance to horror to cookbooks. And they all are committed to the same vision that Michael expresses for the conference: To foster a friendly, open, learning community of writers, agents, editors and others all trying to help each other learn and succeed.

I am sure I'll get to tell people about Semper and Forsada, but I don't expect to sell any books. I am sure I'll talk to a couple of agents about my new project, and I may get some requests to see it. And I'll have fun tweeting to #SFWC13. Those are important side benefits.

The core benefit for me will be to refill my tank, to reenergize my creativity and my zeal for this work. To hang out with writers, real writers who take their craft and their business and each other seriously.

Oh, yeah, the punchline: What do you call a guy who hangs out with musicians?
The singer.

Both Semper and Forsada are 99 cents for Kindle now through January 27 as a special introductory price. Both are also available in print. Semper is currently available at Barnes & Noble, Powell's, and other bookstores. Forsada will be available in those locations soon.

January 16, 2013

SEMPER and FORSADA bargains, plus a blizzard of #free #kindle #ebooks! (blog post)

Looks crazy, right? 64 free or severely discounted ebooks January 17 through 19.

Even better, to celebrate the launch of my new book, FORSADA, I'm offering the following specials:
  • SEMPER 99c download January 17 through January 27
  • FORSADA free download January 17 through January 21, then 99c through January 27
Plus, you can get the other 62 books at the following pages through January 19:

You really have no reason not to go grab these great bargains.

Please help me celebrate the launch of my new book by sharing either the link to this blog post, or the links above. There are some great books in this promotion besides mine. But I'd sure like it if you read mine first!

The beauty of the 4-way stop (blog post)

This morning, after dropping my boys off at their schools, I stopped at an intersection I've been through thousands of times before. Just a standard suburban four-way stop. I intended to go straight across but waited to allow the pickup truck coming the other way to make his left turn across my path. He had arrived first, after all.

But he paused. He started into his turn, but tentative. He and the two guys crammed into the little cab with him watched me as they crossed slowly.

The pickup was cruddy and old, probably held together by string and prayer. The back was filled with gardening tools--rakes, a dented trash can, a lawn mower. A stereotypical independent lawn service coming to work in our upscale neighborhood from one of the neighboring, less affluent towns.

Behind me as I waited, an enormous SUV, the kind with room for eight kids and all their accoutrements, pulled up behind. Our town is filled with trucks like these, driven by moms who might not be decked out in Tiffany and Cartier but who almost certainly have some in their bedrooms at home. Our town is also crawling with BMWs and other vehicles that cost, I am sure, more than all three of those guys in the pickup truck make in a whole year. (For the record, I live in the "poor" part of town. No Tiffany or Cartier or BMWs for us.)

As I drove home from the intersection, I pondered the tentative way the pickup driver took his turn, the wary looks on the three men as they watched me. I don't know them or why they acted that way. Maybe they'd been hit by an impatient driver there before. Maybe it was something else.

In any case, it was their turn to go. So I waited. And they drove on.

The four-way stop does not distinguish between rich and poor, male and female, old and young, gay and straight. The four-way stop does not recognize the socioeconomic differences between a white bank executive and a Hispanic gardener. Everyone is equal at a four-way stop, subject to the same rules and order of precedence.

I find that beautiful.

But all my pondering left me with a big question. If we can all accept each other as truly equal at a four-way stop, why can't we do it everywhere?