Tag Archives: Jennifer L. Carson

The Way Forward is Sometimes the Way Back: Escaping the Labyrinth

The wind is a cat:
Angry, it hisses through the trees.
Soft, it brushes against the house
Like a friendly cat rubs against one’s knees.

The wind is a cat:
Wandering, it meanders about
Vicious, its claws rake the shingles
Like a cat’s nails scratch the carpeted floor.

The wind is a cat:
Chill, it bites with tiny, sharp teeth
Gentle, it softly tickles one’s skin
Like a cat’s whiskers may tickle bare feet.

~Carolyn Bond

Wind is a cat2

I liked this poem when I read it in eleventh grade. It fired up my imagination, so since I was on the high school lit magazine, I volunteered to do the artwork for it.  Back then, as now, I had the perfect personality for editing and line art: I was an uptight perfectionist.

Deadlines were approaching so I stayed after school. I was working in the art room with a true artist, which even then I knew I was not.  I was an illustrator, but James, he was the real thing.  As I drew my stylized picture of a cat, I screwed up…something I did a lot with my illustration.  After muttering a few mild curses, I was only sixteen after all, I asked James to pass me the whiteout.  This was for repro on a Xerox machine.  The whiteout wouldn’t register.  James picked up the little bottle, but instead of handing it to me, he put it in his pocket.

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“But I made a mistake, I need it!” I protested.

“No, you don’t,” he told me.  “It’s not a mistake, it’s an opportunity. Embrace it.  Turn it into part of your picture.”

I was not at all happy about that, but the deadline was looming.  I altered my plan and did just what he said; I incorporated it into the drawing.  I did it well enough, that I cannot tell you today where that mistake was.  It is no longer a mistake, it is art.

It was a lesson I picked up readily for my artwork and used as I minored in art in college.  But I wasn’t clever enough to apply it more broadly to my other art—writing. Not until I met Teresa Edgerton.

We used to take long walks and talk about the craft of writing.  At one point, I became stuck in my writing.  I could not find may way out of the labyrinth of plot I’d constructed for my characters.  She told me something similar to what James had told me:  Look back at your work.  What is there that you can use for your needs now?  As with James, I had my doubts, but I also had nothing to lose.  So I combed over my story and found just what she had said I would.  The seeds of something I’d not even known I’d planted were now grown enough for me to use to climb out of my maze.

The advice from James and Teresa is likely the best piece of advice I’ve ever received about my artistic endeavours.  I’ve used it over and over again.  I’ll share some examples.

First an introduction to a few characters from In a Mortal Shadow:  Falion is our hero trying to rescue the damsel in distress, Venae, a magic-wielding character.  Karill is his nemesis in hot pursuit.

My first example is about using using location you have already set up. Karill has nearly caught up with Falion at an inn.  Just as he’s about to go in, the tavern across the way has a loud disturbance. Karill goes to investigate that instead.  It was a distraction, both in plot, but worse, for the reader.  I think one of my writer’s group folk summed it up best in this comment at the point where Karill goes clambering off to the tavern over yonder: “Squirrel!”

She was so right.  I had to fix it.  I realized that the inn also had a tavern, which I’d mentioned already.  So this time, Karill goes to the innkeepress, who is in her tavern, and is distracted there long enough for our hero to get away.  The change may seem inconsequential, but the result was major. Instead of being clearly a red herring that took Karill away from Falion, this tavern visit takes him closer.  Falion nearly runs into him.  Tension is built where as before, it was dissipated…perhaps even comically so.

In this second example, I looked to what I had already established as part of a character’s talents to recycle that talent in a new way to perform a new action. Falion and Venae need to flee the city of Cete Kellen.  Originally, I made up new magic for her to walk through walls.  It never sat right with me.  It hadn’t tested well with beta readers, either.  So here I was, stuck in a city on lockdown, and I had no idea how to get out—until I remembered a magic skill I had used earlier.  Falion, through a curse, is immune to magic directed against him.  But magic can be used around him. For instance, if you were to stop the air moving about his hand perfectly, he would not be able to move it any more than he might if his hand were encased in stone.  If she can do that, then she can stop the air from moving under his feet, and he can stand on it.  Falion escapes the city by walking off the city wall.

In my third example, I found an existing character ready to take up a new role. Sharp started out a walk-on character.  I needed someone to guide Falion and Venae across the border. I was about to create a new character when I heard Teresa’s and James’s voices in my head. I looked around, and there he was, sitting in the corner, whittling away on a stick and whistling, waiting for me to discover what, apparently, he already knew.  He wasn’t some wandering merchant after all, he was much more.  Merchant was just his cover.  Good cover—it worked on me for years!

So when you are stuck.  Take time to review your work keeping your problem foremost in your mind.  Get a friend or beta reader to go over it if you can.  New perspectives can widen your view of your own work. You two can talk it through, stir up the story, which has been too staid in your mind. See what seeds are growing back where you dropped them two chapters ago, or five, or ten.  Not only can it get you out of the Labrinth right now, but it makes your story look richer and more put together.  Those incidental seeds you cast out have suddenly turn into foreshadowing. Now don’t you look clever!   And all you had to do was remember:

Sometimes the way forward is the way back.

The Writer’s Toolbox

I was adrift, alone.  After college, my life had somehow turned into a blur of wake, work, eat, and sleep.  Sometimes I wondered if I might be stuck in the movie Groundhog Day.  I hadn’t yet found the community that I have often written of as so important.  Even though I was working editorial for Addison Wesley/Benjamin Cummings, I had no connection to the fiction-writing community—not for fantasy and SF where my heart lay.  I didn’t even know a genre community existed.

My favorite place to break the parade of endless days was a little hole-in-the wall mom-and-pop SF/F bookstore on El Camino in Palo Alto.  I used to drop in and talk to the owner.  It gave me a tenuous but much treasured connection into the genre world.  One day, the subject of writers groups came up.  Turned out, she knew a customer…  I was so excited to have hope of getting involved in anything writing. It had been years since I’d had that at college.  In those pre-Internet days, I left her my phone number and prayed that her customer would use it.

She did.

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That call was one of those moments that your life changes, and you don’t even know it. She not only brought me into a writers group that boasted professional  genre writers (oh, the thrill of it!), she introduced me to my first SF/F con.  The seed of friendship sprouted fast and rooted deep.  We spent hours talking about writing, the mechanics of it, the people, the cons, the books.  She talked most about her Clarion West experience and one of the instructors that changed her life, Algis Budrys.  She was always on the look out to hone her skills or discover new ones to, as she put it, put in her writer’s toolbox.  Algis and Clarion evidently put some pretty nice tools in there.

Looking back, I now see that moment was the linchpin in my genre life. Without her I wouldn’t have met the friends who fill my life and make up my community almost entirely.  Had she not chosen to dial the phone number of a young woman loitering in bookstore and bugging the hapless proprietor, I would not be posting this here today.

Her name was Tina, and she opened her heart, her world, and her toolbox to me. I am sad to say, she only graced my life a few short years before she died, but I’ve never forgotten.  So today, I honor her by opening up my toolbox to you.  I have a lot I want to share after 35 years of editing and writing, so in Tina’s honor, I have put together this series, The Writer’s Toolbox. In each of these blogs, I will take out one tool and share it with you.  I will tell you why I like this tool and how I use it.  Maybe you will be able to find a use for it, too, and tuck it into your writer’s toolbox.

Here’s to you,Tina.

Next in The Writer’s Toolbox: There’s Got to Be a Better Way

My Path to Self-Publishing

By J. L. Doty

Sword series

Coming soon—The exciting conclusion to the Gods Within series: The Name of the Sword. Haven’t read them yet? Go to Amazon and get The Child of the Sword, The SteelMaster of Indwallin, and The Heart of the Sands.

When Jennifer Carson asked me to write a guest blog about my path to self-publishing, I was thrilled.  I started writing about thirty years ago with no training or experience in fiction.  I had concocted all these stories, and I wanted to write, so I just sat down and started writing, pencil on paper.  The first thing I wrote was a 250,000-word SF novel that was so bad it never saw the light of day—and never will, but I learned a lot.

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After that dismal failure, I wrote Child of the Sword.  In the 80s, I submitted it to Del Rey, and an editor there showed interest.  We corresponded back and forth for several months making changes, and then Judy-Lynn del Rey died.  The correspondence dried up at that point, and I got a rejection letter. I’ve always suspected that the uncertainties at Del Rey following her death had something to do with it.  I had no idea how lucky I was to get the attention of an editor at one of the major SF houses.

I had a demanding day job, but I continued writing, submitting, and being rejected.  In early 2012, I had four completed books, plus a couple more about half done, along with a stack of rejection slips. I remember wallowing in self-pity and thinking, Someday I’ll die, and no one will have ever read anything I wrote.

At that point I decided, What the f*$#@*@$k and started self-publishing.  I lined up my books one by one, about one every quarter, got a cover made, formatting done, and published them for 99¢ on Amazon and Smashwords.

I had this day-job that required me to fly to Europe and Asia ten to fifteen times a year, plus about ten coast-to-coast trips in the U.S.  I was basically living on Mars-Central-Standard time and had no time to do any of the savvy marketing stuff that self-published writers are supposed to do.  I just threw the eBooks out there and ignored them.

The first three books trickled along, sold a couple of copies every month, and it was really gratifying to get the occasional nice review from a reader.  Then in late 2012, I published Child of the Sword, and—what the heck—raised the prices on all my books to $2.99.  I threw Child out there and ignored it like the other books, then got on a plane and flew somewhere.  About two weeks later, I checked its sales, hoping it had sold a copy or two.  When I logged onto Amazon, I learned it had sold 85 copies—and was climbing; within four weeks it was selling 150–200 copies a day.  Needless to say I was stunned, and I truly did believe I’d get a call from Amazon: “Mr. Doty, we’re really sorry, but there’s been an accounting error.  It was J. L. Duty who sold all those books, not you.  We’re taking the money back.”

When it finally sank in that it was real, I had some money saved up, and I was making a decent living as a writer, so I quit my demanding day job.  No longer a running dog lackey for the Bourgeois capitalist establishment, I was now a full-time egalitarian writer.  Wah whoo!

I had dozens of questions about what was happening, what to expect, what should I do, etc.  The good news is, by searching through blogs and online forums, I quickly got answers to all my questions.  The bad news is, I got ten different answers to every question.  Even worse, more often than not, all ten were wrong.

Other self-published writers told me, “. . . you can’t sell books without a lot of Facebook friends and Twitter followers.”  So I rushed home to set up Facebook and Twitter accounts.  Right after I set them up, I was sitting at my computer and checked my sales figures: I had sold somewhere around 15,000 books, and still no Facebook friends or Twitter followers.  Hmmm!

I went to LosCon in late 2012, right about the time Child had sold 10,000 copies. BTW, an excellent Con that I will attend every year.  Everyone there agreed that, with the book’s track record, I’d have no problem signing up with a traditional publisher—there are plenty of reasons for a successful self-published writer to do so, but that’s fodder for another blog.  Boy, were they wrong.

A well-known small press publisher said his biggest press run was less than half what I’d already sold, so I’d be disappointed with him—he’s wrong, but that’s what he believes.  One agent, said, “I’m not interested in anyone who’s self-published, especially someone who’s sold a lot of eBooks.”  He used a certain romance writer as an example.  She had sold about 100,000 eBooks and because of that got a traditional contract.  He said, “She trained all her readers to buy cheap books.  That’s why she bombed with traditional publishing.”

Two years ago when I approached traditional publishers and agents, I’d get this nonanswer response, and I’m almost certain I saw fear in their eyes.  I think they were honestly concerned that people like me would put them out of business.  A year later the fear was gone; I think they realized they weren’t going out of business, though there would be a new paradigm for the publishing industry.  Today, it sounds like they all got together in a room, and carefully chose the wording they would use to reject successful self-published writers.  We don’t want to see something that you’ve successfully sold, but show us something new and unsullied by self-publishing.  I suppose, in many ways, that is reasonable.

As of this writing (December 2014) SFWA is going to vote in January on the criteria for admitting successful self-published writers.  Apparently, admitting self-published writers is a foregone conclusion, the only issue being the criteria for successful.  From what I’ve heard, the criteria they’ve chosen is reasonable, and there’s no double standard for self-pub vs. traditional-pub.

To date, I’m close to about 50,000 books sold.  What’s going to happen in the future?  When I try to predict the future I usually lose money in the stock market.  The best thing any of us can do to promote our books is sit down and write the next one.

Interested in more authors’ Paths to Publishing?  This month, Melissa Snark is hosting a series of guest blogs on that subject. See my story about how I got into the editing and publishing world.  Jennifer L. Carson’s Path to Publishing.

Interview with an Artist Q3: Capturing the Ghost of an Idea

Question 3

My vision for my character Falion was more a feeling than it was a concrete image.  I knew how to get that across in words, but not in image.  But as words are my medium, color and images are Liiga’s. Where I knew how to get you to feel Falion’s angst and world weariness in my novel, Liiga knew how to put that into his face.  It amazed me to see his transformation from a page of words to a canvas of color.  So I asked her how she did that magic.

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Question 3. How do you capture other people’s visions and get motivated to do someone else’s project?

The process of getting from an idea in someone else’s mind to a painting can be a little esoteric. I usually start by trying to capture the mood or essence of the character in the initial concept sketches, intentionally keeping them fast and loose. Once the client and myself are on the same page on the general feel of the thing, the details can be narrowed down further.

How smoothly this goes can be affected by a number of things, such as the description and references, if any, and how specific the client’s mental image of the desired painting is. Sometimes the provided materials can be scarce, while other times they can be too specific or abundant. There have been a few cases where so many symbolic elements were to be included that it was difficult to find a composition that did not omit any, but also didn’t dissolve under the clutter or impossible spatial relationships.

Solving these challenges is usually enough of a motivator in itself, though for me anything that comes with a need for shiny details, creative, surreal, or creepy things holds just a little extra charm.

Full interview will be available after the last of the selected questions has published on December 12.

Interview with an Artist Q2: Communication

Question 2

Screen shot 2014-11-24 at 10.58.33 AM

We are literally on the same virtual page, and yet… alldayjokes.com

One of my fears for this project was communication.  I thought it would be difficult enough to get across what I wanted for this portrait under ideal circumstances. Add to that that I’ve been a production editor overseeing journals, a fast-paced environment, and worked with off-shore subcontractors. It hasn’t always gone well.  On this one project, I and an off-shore typesetter  were pushing deadline (what else is new in journals?).  When done, I emailed saying, “Great, we’re good to go.”  I then pushed it to the back of my mind and moved onto the next squeaky wheel.  Two weeks later, I get an email.  Do you want us to print this now?  ACK!  We scrambled and got it out…late.  Sigh. Thereafter, I tried to spot my idiomatic language use, but it’s hard to do that sometimes when these phrases are so second nature (see…second nature!).  But with Liiga, turns out my concerns were unfounded.  I found myself so comfortable working with her that I slipped into idiomatic language use.  Never threw her.  So I was curious as to how she knew English so well.

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Question 2.  I know you are from Latvia, but you have been very easy to “talk” to via email  How did you learn English so well?  Are cultural and language barriers ever an issue in working clients?   

In Latvia it is very common to study a few foreign languages at school, so I got an early start on learning English. This went on through high school, where I took the International Baccalaureate program, and a university that is popular with students from all three Baltic states so the studies were in English here, too. Of course the Internet has played a huge part in expanding my vocabulary, too, particularly when it comes to colloquialisms, and the amount of practice it provides while living in a country where English is not used on a day-to-day basis is invaluable.

There was also a certain element of need to learning it, as the digital medium is relatively new here, so to be able to learn how to draw better, I also had to learn how to speak English better—again, largely through the Internet.

At this point the language barriers usually aren’t much of an issue, unless you count the fact that I’m so very used to dealing with agreements in English that the last time I needed something art-related in Latvian, I had to sit and scratch my head for a while.

Full interview will be available after the last of the selected questions has published on December 12.