Self publishing – 10 things to know

Joe’s Post #107 – The More I Learn, the More I Know I Don’t Know (or something like that)

From PBS

From PBS

Having read a bit on the whole self-publishing thing, I have come to one conclusion. I need to read a lot more.

Here are a few things that I need to know more about.

Call it a top 10.

  1. Understand my rights and copyright. This is, like, lawyer stuff. Lots of big words and long sentences. This is going to be hard.
  2. Understand social media marketing more than I do. I need to know how to build audiences, get traffic to a site, and figure out this damned twitter thing.
  3. Read up on publishing options and houses that do that kind of stuff.
  4. isbnUnderstand getting and using ISBNs. I don’t even have a clue about those things, yet.
  5. Understand marketing way better than I do right now. I think most of my family will buy my book, but that’s about it. I need to find a way to market it to about a billion Chinese.
  6. Read up on the technical aspects of publishing, from formatting to layouts and fonts to computer programs and platforms. And all that design stuff. Cover. Back-cover. Art.
  7. I am the world’s worst editor (especially of my own stuff). I’ll need to find someone to help me with this.
  8. Learn how to negotiate. I can barely get someone to add extra cheese to my pizza without a surcharge, so this is going to be a toughie.
  9. I need to figure out this whole pricing thing. How much is my book worth? I’m thinking that I’ll charge $1,000,000 for one and hope like hell just one person buys it. All I need is one person.
  10. Go and talk to people who own book stores and actually buy local authors. Do these people still exist? I’ll try to find out.

But more importantly, the one thing I absolutely MUST do is write!

WRITE!

But I tell you, there’s a lot to learn. A lot.

Sorry there’s not a lot of answers, yet. This process is just beginning.

More coming.

Any thoughts from others?

Silk’s “Trinity Method”

1-2-3

Silk’s Post #96 — After reading a lot of how-to books and attending a lot of workshops and classes on the craft of writing, I’ve come to a conclusion.

There is no comprehensive step-by-step process to follow. At least not one that works for everyone.

Some advice seems analogous to the art of cooking. I call this the Betty Crocker Method. But writing a novel is simply not like baking a cake, where you assemble ingredients in precise quantities, then put them together according to a specified method, and cook for a recommended time. Yummy when it comes to cakes. Perhaps not so much when it comes to books.

Then there’s what I call the Central Planning Method, which reminds me of the old “paint by numbers” kits. Draw your characters and outline your plot in detail, perhaps aided by stacks of index cards or hundreds of sticky notes, then simply use words like paint to fill in the spaces. The results can be, let’s say, a tad mechanical.

Hardly anyone actually recommends the Pantsing Method, which is more often treated as the default approach of the undisciplined writer. Unless a masterpiece is produced, in which case it’s lauded as the artistic process of the true genius.

But, of course, I’m exaggerating for effect and I don’t mean to be dismissive of anybody’s pet methods. And this is not to say craft advice is worthless. Much of it is extremely valuable. Like diet books, the advice may be excellent. Following the advice is the hard part.

The difficulty comes when one tries to create a step-by-step method out of all this received wisdom that leads the writer from concept to completion. Just follow these simple instructions, and in only X days you can have a finished novel, ready to publish! This is the Holy Grail that emerging writers are desperately looking for when they sit down in front of that blank white page and wonder (maybe for the hundredth time): Okay, where do I start?

The problem is actually pretty obvious: writing a novel is not a linear process, and linear thinking will not get the job done.

Conceiving a plot, structure, theme, characters, world, and all the other storytelling requirements of a long-form piece of fiction – and then putting it into words that stir the reader’s emotions, curiosity and thoughts, compelling them to turn page after page … this is a highly complex, layered, interconnected undertaking. It can be a little overwhelming.

So, where do you start?

I’ve come up with my own Trinity Method: just three things I want to nail down before I decide to invest my time in the much longer process of writing a story I have in mind. After these three things are well and truly accomplished, I believe a writer can pick and choose among all the bits of good advice available to create her own personal method of getting the job done successfully. In fact, I’m now retracing my steps – applying these “necessities” to my book in progress.

The Gravity Field

My theory is you start in the centre, with your biggest idea – the idea around which the whole book will revolve, the idea that will create the story’s gravity field. Some might call this a premise or a theme (the two terms seem to be often confused and I find the notion of a gravitational centre easier to visualize). This could be character related (Catcher in the Rye), a thematic saga (Lord of the Rings), action/intrigue driven (Hunt for Red October), a moral message (12 Years a Slave), or any of the million variants of big ideas that give successful stories their heft. No matter how well structured or how well written, I think a book without its own strong, inspired, internal gravity field will be, if not a failure, then a small story at best.

The Lode Star

Next, turn your big idea into a log line – one sentence that tells what the book is about, introduces the protagonist, poses the problem/villian he faces, and provides a unique “hook”. This is probably as hard to do as writing the book itself, and might take as much time as writing a whole chapter, or more (there are many excellent books and online resources to help you write a good log line). You don’t need to know all your characters at this time, or your sub-plots, or every little detail about your protagonist and all the various hurdles and reversals he’ll encounter. These can be woven in later. Just fixate on the most critical elements that will drive the story (this may keep you from later being lured into blind alleys by secondary characters and distracted by plot points that are bridges to nowhere). Log lines are a common practise in scriptwriting that can really help focus a novelist. Your log line is a lode star, which (especially for pantsers) may be more valuable than a map (outline) to find your way through the plot.

Beginning and Ending

This may not be for everyone, but I’ve come to believe that the next useful step – before getting lost in the inevitable details of character and plot and setting – is to figure out the beginning and the ending (not write them, just figure them out). I’ve really struggled with this, thinking that in order to know the beginning and the ending, I needed to be able to visualize the full plot and all the action that moves the story from the first page to the last. I now think all that’s necessary is the big idea at the centre and the log line, which will dictate the arc of the story.

Personally, I like the freedom to follow my nose, so I’m a natural pantser. I’m in my comfort zone when it comes to developing characters, but I’ve come to realize that I need a bit of structural discipline – perhaps in the form of a fairly short narrative synopsis in three acts, and maybe a timeline. The rest is likely to be a somewhat messy process, rummaging around in my imagination, chasing butterfly ideas that float by outside my window, and grounding myself with research without being swept away in it.

For me, the most joyful part is always the words. Playing with them, massaging them, trying to evoke emotion and create tension and make them sing. I can’t wait to get to this part. Pure freedom. I will try to keep my internal editor at bay. She’ll show up soon enough with her blue pencil as sharp as a fileting knife, looking for cliches and purple prose and any hints of author voice.

But first, I need to get my Trinity in hand. I’ll let you know if it works …

PS – I’m standing at the end of a dock right now, lightning in the sky and the occasional shower. It’s 11:00 pm and getting cool. I have some links to add, but the funky little wifi server at the Poulsbo Marina has other thoughts. It wants to go to sleep now, please. If I can, I’ll add later!

Self publishing – changing times

Joe’s Post #106 –

I’ve had the chance to talk to two people who’ve been there and done that. Karen A and Matt B. They’ve both gone the non-traditional publishing route, though Matt has also had success in the mainstream. I think they’ve both given me some things to think about – A lot of things to think about, actually.

kriswebNow I need to add someone who’s had massive success following both paths. Kris Rusch. I’ve been down to workshops run by her and her husband, Dean, and I have to say they are 2 of the best people in the business, giving so much of their knowledge to unpublished writers like me.

I am going to reblog from her website, and while it’s only one blog post, I want you to check out her whole site.

I mean, hey, if it’s information you want on the publishing business, it’s like one-stop-shopping at her site, she got it all. In fact, she has so much great information on there, she could make a book.

Oh, wait, she did.

kris booksThe Business Rusch: Changing Times

(Overview)

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

As I have mentioned many times in the past, my industry—publishing—is changing.  I have written a few posts about it, but generally, I have avoided the topic.  My reason is simple: this business blog, and the Freelancer’s Guide before it, are geared toward the general business reader, not just toward everyone in the publishing industry.

However, the changes in publishing have become, at least to me, the elephant in the room.  I’m going to deal with them in the next few posts, and I hope you general business readers who are not in publishing give me some leeway.

After all, these changes do have an effect on you.  You’re all readers and consumers of electronic publishing or you wouldn’t visit this blog.  I have a hunch you’re also readers of books, or you probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon me.

Right now, if you read all of the blogs and articles, listen to the pieces on the evening news, or walk into a bookstore, you hear a confusing amount of information about the future of publishing.  Some sources claim it’s going to die an ugly death.  Others say everyone will stop reading.  Some claim that reading will increase. Still others believe that the publishing industry as we know it will collapse by 2012.  A few believe that publishing has become completely irrelevant.

Only a few seem to understand that one thing will remain consistent.  Readers will want to read somethingStephen King has a great take on this. He points out that the book is a delivery system for a story.  Readers want stories, and readers will chose the delivery system they prefer so that they can consume that story.

The same thing applies to nonfiction, of course.  Nonfiction provides information, and readers want that information.  In some cases, the book is no longer the best delivery system for that information.  Witness the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which has always—from its inception—been unwieldy in book form.  The OED has decided the next volume will be entirely online, which is a much better delivery system for their product.  We still need the OED’s exhaustive derivation of words.  Now we don’t need a magnifying glass to read it.

What is happening worldwide is that the delivery system for the things we read—fiction, nonfiction, plays, poetry—is changing.  In addition to the book itself, we now have online books.  We have e-books.  We have audio books.  And we have books with enhanced content. The new delivery systems have created new ways to consume stories—stories that wouldn’t exist outside of the new delivery system, like the cell phone novels in Japan and the multimedia app books reaching iPads here in the U.S.

Each group involved in the old system of publishing has new challenges.  And the challenges are different for each group.  Existing publishers must change their business model to accommodate the growing e-book phenomenon.  Writers (and other creators of content) must figure out on their own the best way to get their creations to consumers.  Bookstores must figure out ways to become relevant as books, audiobooks, and e-books become available at the touch of a finger.  And readers have to figure out what they want to read, and how to find it in the growing and changing marketplace.

I’m going to deal with all of that in the next few weeks.  But first, let’s look at what’s really happening to the publishing industry.

Most people compare the changes in the publishing industry to the changes experienced by the music industry in the last twenty years.  This is a scary comparison, particularly for big publishing (which is what I’m going to call established publishers).  The record labels (which changed their name from “record labels” which was accurate to “labels” which wasn’t to “studios” which isn’t accurate either) suffered greatly in the last twenty years. The profits to the labels went down significantly, many went out of business, and most are a shadow of their former selves. They do survive, but in a diminished capacity.

The musicians suffered as well.  First they got screwed by the labels, who wanted an increasing piece of the pie.  The labels have always mistreated the artists, especially financially.  The problem was bad in the heyday of the industry—the 1950s and 60s—but it became even worse in the 1980s.  Unless an artist  became a blockbuster star, that artist could not maintain a career in the industry because of the financial baggage the label itself put on the artist. If you want to know more about this, read Jacob Slichter’s So You Wanna Be A Rock And Roll Star (or really, any book on the music industry).

Add to this the constantly changing format of the music you bought.  In my lifetime, purchased music went from the 78 and the 45 to the 33 (the long-playing album, which is short by today’s standards) to the 8-track to the cassette to the CD to the MP3.  Music buyers got sick of repurchasing their entire collection for a new system.  (In 1990, I sold all my albums because I couldn’t get a turntable any longer.  I regret this now.)

The music marketing system was vastly different than the book marketing system. In short, music consumers were used to hearing songs—or entire albums—for free on the radio before they purchased.  Most consumers play their music over and over. When the radio stations consolidated, and the independent stations vanished, free music disappeared for all but the most successful artist. CD prices went through the roof, and music stores tried to compensate by letting you listen for free. But listening once for free is not the same as constant airplay on your favorite stations.

Fans fought back by sharing files, which then cut into the music industry’s profits.  The music industry fought file sharing hard, not understanding where it was coming from.  File sharing came from two major areas: first, music wasn’t available online in the early days and second, price point.  The price to buy a single had become prohibitive.  Either you had to buy the full-length CD, which cost too much, or in a very few cases, you could buy the single for $3 (in the 1990s!)  Music lovers didn’t want 12 songs; they wanted one. And they didn’t want to spend $3 for it.  It wasn’t until the advent of the free download as a promotional device that the music industry started to recover from piracy.  And then the sale of the 99 cent single online boosted music sales all over again.

The final difference is this: the music industry has several arms: the sheet music publishing arm, the album/CD/MP3 arm, and the performance/concert arm, all of which were (and still are) profitable.  The sheet music arm which was the most profitable a hundred years ago is the least profitable now.  A few years ago, the concert arm became the most profitable with the loss of album/CD revenue, but the recession has killed the high end concerts except for the megasuperstars.  The MP3s have become profitable, but not at the monetary numbers of the late 1980s (although the number of actual purchases have gone through the roof on all types of music).

In other words, the music industry is now a shadow of its former self.

For those of you who are about to write me a screed, let me add this:  Yes, I know, the changes in the music industry are more complicated than that.  Other factors came into play.  Yes, piracy is wrong.  Okay.  I know. But this particular post isn’t about the music industry.  It’s about publishing.

Publishing has and always has had a completely different business model than the music industry.  About the only thing they have in common is that they are both part of the entertainment industry and they both need the occasional blockbuster (big hit/artist) to survive.

But the book industry never gave its product away for free on a mass level to entice purchases.  Books rarely get read over and over again.  Nor have books constantly changed form since they were introduced.  Until recently, the biggest technological change in the publishing industry was the introduction of the printing press so that books didn’t have to be laboriously copied by hand.

Although writers have gone on tour and made money—Charles Dickens’s speeches in the 19th century drew capacity crowds—the concert arm really doesn’t exist for book publishers.  Most writers who get appearance fees are not contractually obliged to give that money to their publishers.  And most writers don’t receive appearance fees, period.

To top it off, the book industry treated its artists much better than the music industry. The music industry tried to take everything, from the copyrights of the songs a singer/songwriter wrote to the bulk of the recorded music profits to most of the income from concerts.  Some writers have lost everything to book publishers because the writers didn’t know business well enough to understand their contracts, but generally speaking, publishers haven’t screwed their artists—at least not as thoroughly as the music industry has.

The music industry’s greed in two areas—the price of CDs and the price of concert tickets—caused its sales figures to go down long before the technological change hit. And the only reason profits remained the same or went up was because the recording industry jacked up prices.

You see a similar phenomenon in the movie industry at the moment.  Profits are still high, but ticket sales are down dramatically from ten years ago partly (mostly) because ticket prices are so astronomical.  (The movie industry has yet a different business model, which I will not get into here.)

The differences between the book industry and the music industry are so extreme that comparing the industries is like comparing apples and flowers: they both grow, they both have a finite lifespan, sometimes they’re both red, but they’re not at all the same thing.

Instead of looking at the music industry as the model for what’s going on in publishing, look instead at the television industry. To do this, you have to go back decades.

From the moment television sets became available across the country, somewhere around 1955, television programming consolidated into three networks: The American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS), and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).  (PBS is a different phenomenon altogether; but it did join the line-up most places in the late 1960s.) These broadcast networks developed local affiliates all over the country to help distribute the broadcasting signal. Those affiliates had to agree to broadcast only ABC’s programming or NBC’s programming, although when I was little (the early 1960s) a few local affiliates were still protesting that.  The affiliates had to agree to broadcast network programs at selected times. The evening block was untouchable, but other times—late night, mid-afternoon—could be given over to local programming instead.

Big stations, like KTLA in Los Angeles, developed a lot of local programming and sold it to the networks, but small stations like KATU here in Oregon didn’t have the resources to develop such programming. So the smaller stations ran as much network programming as they could.

The networks developed some content on their own, but outside providers—production companies (think DesiLu for I Love Lucy)—developed most of it.  Networks, in other words, became the delivery system for the content.  (Publishers are the delivery system for books, which are generally produced by outside services [writers].  Occasionally publishers produce their own content [think house names], but mostly, they contract out the content.)

Television networks wanted a count of the number of people who watched each program.  (Think of this as the sales figures for the program—a show like Bonanza, the most watched show of its long run—could have upwards of thirty million of viewers; a news program, like the NBC Nightly News, might only get ten million on a given night.)  If you didn’t like the programming on the big three networks for, say, the hour between 8 and 9 p.m., then you settled for the show you liked the least or you read a book.  If you missed Star Trek’s latest episode on Friday night, then you missed that episode.  Period.  You might catch it in reruns—if the network deigned to rerun that episode at all.

If the show didn’t attract enough viewers to win the timeslot or to satisfy the advertisers, then the show got canceled.  In other words, no more national delivery.  This happened to Star Trek in Season Two, and only a write-in campaign by viewers allowed a Season Three.

Enter cable television in the 1970s.  It became a nationwide phenomenon in the late 1970s with the advent of Home Box Office (HBO), a channel you could pay for that would provide movies only a few month old direct to your home.  You have no idea what a revolution that was.

You also needed to have a good discretionary income to add HBO to your TV line-up, because it was extremely expensive.  My parents bought HBO in its first year in Wisconsin because my mother loved the movies and she watched television all day. But she soon realized that the programming repeated over and over again, and she would have been better off going to a few movies than paying for premium service.  So my folks canceled.

I didn’t own a TV from 1978 to 1983—I couldn’t afford to buy one—so the gradations of change in that period are not as clear to me. But somewhere in that period, local cable channels became regional channels which then became part of a basic nationwide cable network.  Around that point, too, someone got the bright idea to do new programming on cable—although the new programming was mostly news because news was cheap to produce.

By the late 1980s, we had 57 channels (and nothing on) in the words of the songwriter.  By the mid 1990s, we had hundreds of channels and a lot of choice.  You could watch new shows on USA or Lifetime (which started with movies) or the SciFi channel (now SyFy) and never again look at a network show.

Also in this period, the DVD got introduced and someone got the bright idea to put old shows on DVD. DVDs worked better than video tape.  In order to have a full season of say, Classic Star Trek, on videotape, you needed one tape per episode, but you could put four episodes on a DVD, not to mention a few “extras.”  Eventually, the TV industry got smart and put season one of a current show on DVD, releasing that a week before season two started.

Then the internet came in, and now you can download last week’s episode of your favorite show off Hulu or the show’s website.  You will never ever miss an episode of your favorite program again.

Has all of this expanded viewing gotten rid of network television? Of course not. But what it has done is this: the number of watchers per show has decreased dramatically.  Forty  years ago, Hawaii Five-0 could command one-third to one-half (or more) of all the people watching television that night; now the revamped Hawaii Five-O commands about 14 million viewers when it’s aired.  It gains about 4 million more viewers within the first week, because those viewers recorded the show on their DVR and watch on their own schedule. That’s all the advertisers care about. They don’t care about people like me who watched that first episode nearly a month after airdate.

Because of the advertisers, television needs as many viewers as possible as quickly as possible.  That’s how TV makes its money.

From a viewer’s point of view, we’re in TV heaven. We can watch any show from any time period at any hour of the day or night—and we do.  In addition to watching the current seasons of my favorites (and trying to see the new shows), I’m catching up on the first season of The Closer, which is several years old.

For the big three networks, revenue has declined with the audience per show. The new Hawaii Five-O is highest rated new show of the 2010 fall television season, but its numbers are pathetic compared to its predecessor.

But don’t let anyone tell you that the Big Three fail to make money. They still have the highest viewership of all the television channels. As a Hollywood producer who wants to buy one of my projects told me just last week, he wants to sell my work to the networks so that we’ll get the biggest audience—and the biggest payday.  But if the Big Three turn us down, we’ll still have a lot of options.

Nowadays, if you want to write, produce, and sell a television show, you have hundreds of places around the globe to sell it to. And that doesn’t count webisodes—web-only television episodes.  The thing is, if you sell your television show to cable, you can have four million viewers and be considered a success.  In the 1960s, four million viewers for a primetime TV show would have been laughably small—and that show would have gotten canceled.

How does all of this apply to publishing?

Simple.  Quite honestly, until a year or so ago, the major publishers were the only game in town if a writer wanted a national or international audience.  If you didn’t get into a big publisher’s program, your book either got put into a drawer or put out by a regional press.  Instead of selling tens or hundreds of thousands of copies, your book would sell maybe 500—and no one outside of your region would see it.

With the wild success of the Kindle, all of this changed.  For the first time since the development of the e-book twenty years ago, readers found a good way to consume the form.  Combined with Amazon.com’s huge backlist, the Kindle provided a voracious reader with a constant stream of books twenty-four hours per day if the reader wanted it.

The Nook, the iPad, the Sony E-Reader, and soon-to-be countless other devices have continued this phenomenon.  Writers whose books are easily available in e-book format have seen their sales increase (at last count) by 197%.  This will continue to go up as more and more e-readers penetrate the market.  Right now 9% of all books sold are e-books.  Some estimates put that number at 50% within five years.

Does this mean big publishers will go away?  Heavens no.  No more than the television networks (or the  music studios, for that matter) went away.  Big publishers will still be the biggest game in town. But their share of the pie will become smaller.

What all of this means is that readers now control what kind of content they consume.  Instead of easy access to the bestsellers and blockbusters, limited access to all other titles, and no access to the quirky unusual title, readers can now read whatever kind of book they want.  Most readers will mix current books with books published ten years ago, quirky with blockbusters, big with little.  Readers don’t care who published the book just like television viewers don’t care who produced the TV show.  They just want to be able to read what they enjoy.

As readers, our choices have just expanded, and will continue to expand, in exactly the way television has done, until we reach the point when most people will not read the same books, just like they don’t watch the same shows.  The proliferation of content, and the forms in which we can consume that content, matches television as well.  Readers can choose between an e-book, a hardcover, a used book, reading online—a huge variety of different ways to look at a “book.”

From the perspective of some writers, this is a tremendous thing. But it’s not a boon to all published writers.  Nor is it a boon to all publishers or all booksellers.  The changing landscape means that there will be short-term winners and short-term losers.

The only group that I can say firmly will benefit from this as a group (meaning everyone in that group) is readers.  Readers will get to finish a book series that big publishers cancel before it ends because the writer can afford to finish it now.  Readers can buy a book published five years ago right now on an e-reader, instead of scouring libraries and used bookstores, hoping to find a copy.  Readers will be able to chose between everything that’s being published, not just everything that’s available.

And of course, the book—the hardcopy book—will remain.  Unlike the music industry which never really settled on a form, the book industry has had the bound book as its form for hundreds of years.  It works.  It’s permanent.  So if you read a book on your Kindle, and want to make sure you have a copy you can access forever and ever, no matter how e-readers change, you’ll buy the hardbound book.

I’m very excited by these changes, but I belong to two of the groups that benefit.  I’m a reader, who has fallen in love with her Kindle and her iPhone (and who still reads hardbound books).  I’m a midlist writer with a long track record who will be able to make her entire backlist available again.

But because of my background as a retail store owner and as a former publisher, I understand the concerns of the booksellers and the publishers.  I also know that blockbuster bestselling writers have some things to worry about as well.

I’ll explore all sides of this changing landscape over the next few weeks. I will also draw more upon this analogy in the weeks ahead.

One note: things are changing so rapidly in publishing that in the time it takes me to write these blog posts, some subtle changes will occur.  I’m teaching right now, so I wrote this in my free time from October 17-20.  In four days, some parts of the landscape changed—small parts, mind you, but they changed.  That’s how quickly the sands are shifting.

So if you’re at all part of the publishing industry, keep up on the day-to-day industry news.  It’s essential—and will be for the next few years.

I’ve been taking part in the change by writing a business essay every week on my blog and asking you, the readers, to support this effort.  No big publisher pays me to write these.  What brings me to the computer week in and week out is you.  So thank you.  And if you like what you’re reading, please contribute, comment, or share the post.

“The Business Rusch: Changing Times (Overview)” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

– See more at: http://kriswrites.com/2010/10/21/the-business-rusch-changing-times-overview/#sthash.4KXi9lYP.dpuf

**********

I would highly recommend you see more. Honestly, it’s gold.

As she said, though, not all of it is up-to-date, so please check out her subsequent postings.

Thanks to Kris for letting me reblog this.

I hope it helps anyone interested in where the industry is at and where it’s going.

 

Cruising Sunny’s turf

Bell Harbor Marina, Seattle (Silk Questo photo)

Bell Harbor Marina, Seattle (Silk Questo photo)

Silk’s Post #95 — Our summer cruise down the Puget Sound to Seattle this year is immersing me in the setting of the book I plan to finish over the next few months. Re-visiting the haunts of my heroine, Sunny Laine, is plunging me back into the story I started in our 5 Writers challenge in 2012, but never finished. After nearly a year in the bottom drawer, Catch and Release (working title) is back on my desktop.

A couple of days ago, we sailed the sinuous length of Whidbey Island’s west shore, past the beaches Sunny loves to stroll, past the bluffs where she goes to watch the sunset, past the community where her crazy family lives, past the bridge where … but let’s not give away too much here.

I do have to keep a few surprises to myself, for now.

Tomorrow we begin a 5-day stay at the Bell Harbor Marina, just three blocks from Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market. It’s about as close to a major city downtown district as a yacht harbour can get. There, I’ll be scouting locations for the book’s scenes. Capitol Hill, where Sunny lives. Washington University, where she studies law. Belltown, where she hunts for … but I’m getting ahead of myself again.

I’m looking forward to soaking up as much of Sunny’s world as I can (without turning our whole summer vacation into a fact-finding mission), knowing I’ll need to come back in late fall when the book’s action takes place. Seattle in late November will be a different world from Seattle in high summer. A much darker world, as befits the plot.

When it comes to writing an authentic setting, there’s nothing quite like being there. (Living there is even better.) When you read James Lee Burke’s New Orleans, or Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles, is there any doubt that the writer has the setting deep in his bones? These living, breathing settings are not simply backgrounds against which action takes place. They are more like characters in the story, with a heartbeat all their own.

Yet fantastic settings have been created by authors who never set foot in the place they’re writing about. Obviously, historical novels are set in places and times that can never be experienced again, except through research and the imagination. Fantasy and sci-fi stories often are set in places that exist only in the mind – worlds that the author literally has to build. I marvel at the skill of writers like Diana Gabaldon and Jack Whyte who transport us to vivid historical settings. I’m in awe of fantasy masters like J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling who have imagined worlds so vast and detailed that they take on a life of their own. And even readers who don’t delve deeply into the sci-fi genre are transfixed by greats like Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury, who invented their own cosmos.

I’m starting with a more modest goal: to see and feel real places through the eyes of a made-up character who’s different in age, temperament, background, experience, wants and challenges than myself. That seems like a pretty tall order already.

And then I’ll be looking for some beta readers who really do know the settings intimately. What gaffes might a reader who lives in the actual setting find? Will there be local expressions and shorthand names for local landmarks that I’m blissfully unaware of? Did I get the food right? The weather? The character of the neighbourhoods? Ethnic mix? Local transportation habits? Dress codes? How about longstanding local tensions, or points of pride? It only takes one tone-deaf sentence to reveal to a reader who really knows a place that the writer … doesn’t.

Real “local knowledge” shines through (even if the place is imaginary). When you read a book whose setting rings with authenticity, it’s a transporting experience. You’re there. You can see, hear, smell, taste and feel it.

Now, there’s no shortage of advice for writers on the subject of settings. Plenty of how-to books and articles and workshops. But for me, the most important thing about a great, authentic setting is that it’s not just a place. It’s a whole culture. A world that’s specific and unique, and at the same time full of the diversity that makes the real world … real.

Some writers are terrific researchers. Others are blessed with soaring imaginations. Creating a memorable setting takes both skills in spades. It’s a challenge I’m looking forward to with enthusiasm – and not a little trepidation.

And I’m open to suggestions! How do you research, conceive, imagine and polish your settings?

So little time, so many plots

Helga’s Post # 88:  Friday already? My posting days come fast and furious, especially at this time. What will it be today? I will try a slightly different topic. I feel like story-telling.

Busy times for me. We are in moving mode. Or I should say ‘mood’, because that’s what we were gearing up for until two days ago. Alas, the stars are not aligned just yet. We thought we were moving, in fact in less than three weeks. Turned out the prospective buyers of our house got skittish and walked away from an accepted offer. So, after cancelling the moving company, cleaning staff and miscellaneous helpers, we’re back to the drawing board: open houses, showings galore, and keeping the house pristine 24/7.

But every cloud has a silver lining. We are not homeless! Not yet. We can still enjoy the magnificent west coast summer in our own place instead of frantically searching for a place to buy or rent, all within a ridiculous deadline. The moving boxes are piled high in the garage, but they will just have to wait for their content. We can actually do fun things now, like attending the annual Harmony Arts Festival at Lawson Park at the beach. It’s a really cool event for great music, visual arts, delicious food and it’s free (well, not the food). Terrific live concerts by popular bands on an outdoor stage, free outdoor movies, a serious art market, local art exhibitions, innovative food events and more. If you are visiting Vancouver at this time, make sure to drop by. None better.timthumb.php

There is even a special event on tap for writers. It’s a free workshop titled “Writing for the Faint of Heart”. Its promise is to ‘Enjoy learning to ‘free write’ with Fran Bourassa of the North Shore Writers Association. This workshop will demonstrate how to write by triggering memories, strong emotions, and eliciting ideas for story and poetry. The method is quick and powerful and everyone can do it. Perfect for all ages and levels of writers.’ (If you click on Fran’s link you will find she also has lots to say about getting published)

Nice. Not to be missed. Just steps from the ocean in a picture-perfect settings. Views of the Lions Gate Bridge, and to Stanley Park across the inlet included at no extra charge.

So we would have missed all this fun if our prospective buyers had been less skittish. The Universe works in mysterious ways.

Talking of writing, I have time again to sit down and create stories instead of pounding the pavement to find us a place to live. Yes, stories. With that in mind, I’ve been rummaging through my e-storage boxes on my Mac and reviewed some of my start-ups from several years ago. Just to see if anything might grow legs and could morph into a novel. Good grief, did I really write this?

A sampling: A teenage adopted girl, half Caucasian half Indonesian, living in Vancouver (of course), finds out her boyfriend impregnated her fourteen-year old half-sister. She plots revenge with the help of a Muslim man who exploits her for his own deadly agenda.

Another start-up, about a ‘travel’ agency that is in fact a purveyor of body parts for well-heeled patients waiting for organ transplants. Hmm, maybe this one could grow. Such as, Chinese prisoners getting executed so that their kidneys, corneas, skin, bone, heart, ligaments, liver, pancreas, bowel, tendons, in fact pretty well the entire cadaver, can be ‘donated’ to wealthy westerners. Sound familiar? Because you may have heard it on the news. (Go on, open that link above.) All I have to do is invent the characters and a plot to wrap this up. Such as, what if…. a ‘nice’ young Chinese man is in prison for something minor – shoplifting, stealing pigs, whatever – and gets the death penalty. What if…. our heroine, a journalist, is doing a documentary at that time in China and hears of the story. Meets the boy’s family. Meets the young (handsome) man in prison. Tries to save him by exposing the scandal. Etc. etc.

But wait, there is more. A missing husband. Missing in Thailand or Indonesia (I happen to have lived there, so no coincidence). Wife goes in search for him. Adventures, kidnappings, betrayals abound. She is caught in the riots of 1998 when Jakarta is in flames during Suharto’s forced resignation (I was there).

How about a wine mystery set in the Okanagan valley of British Columbia? About a Picasso drawn wine label and of course murder? (Just ask Paula if you want to know more).

I could go on. There are more skeletons in my attic. But I better spend the time deciding, and then writing one, and only one (the bane of all writers).

So for me, the whole question of publishing and marketing is a while off. But I will have to keep my ear on the ground, as all writers have to, because that day will come when we have to chose which fork in the road to take. Or take both and become a hybrid author.

Happy summer reading and writing!reading+on+beach+03