Writing and Self Promotion, A Dialogue With Myself

I’m not at all convinced of the value of self promotion, but I’ve got a book coming out in just a hair over two weeks and I end up going back and forth on the subject. It goes a little like this:

MythOS comes out in 2 weeks!

That means that you’re at the point in the launch cycle where you should be frantically trying to do ninety and nine kind of promotion, right?

*cricket noises*


No…Maybe…I really don’t know…but probably, no.

Wait, isn’t that heresy. I mean, your publisher isn’t going to do a whole lot since you’re midlister and this a late book in the series. If you don’t do it, no one will, shouldn’t you be panicking?

There’s something to that. My promo budget is almost certainly minimal by publisher standards. At the same time, I’m not going to spend my way to a successful book launch. Not without a lot more money than I’d ever earn back, thus negating the point of the whole exercise. Even that assumes facts not evidence, i.e. that anyone knows how to apply money to the problem of book promotion in such a way as to generate significant sales for midlist books. If it could be reliably done, the publishers ,who have a lot more experience at the whole thing and a lot more books to sell, and hence greater incentive, would already be doing it.

But what about things that don’t cost much money? Shouldn’t you be frantically running around trying to drum up free publicity?

To an extent, sure. I’ll do any interviews that anyone wants to offer me. But checking in with my radio and print and bookstore contacts takes about an hour. What next? I could spend a ton of time to generate more effect, but I’ve got the same problem there that I have with money. Time is more expensive than money since there’s no way to get it back and there’s a diminishing returns effect that kicks in very quickly. In general, I think most self-promotion is a bad use of a writer’s time

Really? Why is that?

Anyone who is good enough writer to get something published, is almost certainly a damn good writer. This is for the simple reasons that the odds of success are lousy. I’ve got a highly specialized skill set for writing and none of the specialized skill set involved in promotion. That being the case I’m almost certainly better off investing the time and effort I’d spend on promotion in making my next book irresistible. I’ll have more fun that way and I’m more likely to be successful.

Okay I can see that, but I still think you should be out stumping for your book. Got anything else?

How about the numbers argument? Lets say that by doing a ton of promotion I can move a few hundred copies of my book that wouldn’t have sold otherwise. 20 at this signing over here. 50 by appearing on local radio. 50 by going to a con that I wouldn’t otherwise have gone to, and so on.

That’s great!

No, it’s not. A few hundred copies doesn’t really matter that much when a moderate print run is 10,000-20,000 books. Take my first book, WebMage. In the first six months I sold an average of 75 copies (mmpb) a day, every day. That earned out my advance plus ten percent. That was fabulous and I was delighted. But I need to double it.

Double it?

In order to make a marginal living I need to sell at least 150 mass market paperbacks a day every day for the rest of my life +inflation. Ooh, better double it again. To make a decent living I’d need to bump that up to something more like 300 a day. To crack six figures it’d have to be ~800 a day. Now do you see why I’m not that excited about spending many hours to sell a few hundred extra books?

I guess so. But you make it sound like there’s no way to win at this game.

I don’t think there is, not through self-promotion. I would love to believe that I could come up with a self-promotional effort that would have an ongoing several hundred books per day kind of impact on my sales and that wouldn’t eat up so much time it would be counterproductive in terms of writing the next book (or preferably the next several books). I’d also love to believe that my cats will support me in my old age….

That’s depressing. All right, Mr. Pessimist, so what do you suggest a writer does about it?



It’s very simple. Write. If I take the same energy it would take to do a ton of self promotion and I focus it on what I’m good at–writing books—I can produce a complete extra book (or maybe even two) a year. Given that the best promotion that I know of is to have another book come out, one that’s as good or better than the last one, that seems like a simple bet. Especially when I consider that in addition to a new book’s impact on backlist, a new book generates its own sales to add to that books sold per day number. Not only will it promote my books in the best way possible, but it brings in new revenue and it’s a ton of fun. I love writing. That’s why I’m in this business.

Oh, I guess that makes sense. So, you’re not going to do any promotion?

I have a simple rule for promotion: It should involve no money, no time, and no effort.

That sounds like no promotion, all right.

Not quite. I’ll do a little. Here and there. Take this blog post, for example. I’m willing to bend my rules a little for pure promotion’s sake, but not much. I’ll spend some time, a little effort, a couple of bucks. I will also bend them for things that I enjoy doing, like cons, readings, and interviews. I’m a social person and an escapee from the theater asylum. I like meeting new people and being out on stage. I would do these things even if I wasn’t writing, though the book sure helps get interviews. I’m just not going to get wound up about the whole thing.

Any last thoughts for the folks who’ve made it all the way to the bottom of this post?

Yep. If you’re a writer who doesn’t like doing promotional things, or if you’re not good at them, don’t feel guilty about keeping your self-promotion to a minimum. Even if you do enjoy promoting yourself, realize that it’s a trade off. Time spent on promotion is time spent not writing, and writing is the point of the whole thing. Isn’t it?

(Originally published on the SFNovelists blog May 11 2009, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Dumb Things, Mine.

So, I’ve been having trouble getting started in WebMage book 5. It’s moving, but not nearly as fast as I need it to. Anyway, last night I wrote someone shooting Ravirn again, always a jump start moment, though I wasn’t entirely sure who pulled the trigger when I wrote the scene. This morning on the treadmill I came up with what felt like the right answer, though I couldn’t figure out who the prime mover behind the shooter was at first. After a while I had what sounded like a crazy idea that just tasted right even though I didn’t know how I would make it work (call it character X).

So, finally, I’m writing the reveal on the shooter, still unsure why I’d chosen that character and why my brain kept telling me character X had given the orders. At that point, I very consciously split off a chunk of brain to work on that problem while the front systems were writing the actual scene. Just as I get to the sentence where it matters that I know the answer (the reader doesn’t need it for a good couple of chapters) the bit of brain that’s supposed to work on the problem comes back with the reason in a very sarcastic smell the coffee, McCullough you idiot, kind of way.

Turns out that if I’d bothered to go check my $%@*&%#@ outline the answer would have been obvious. Of course it has to be character X. The reasons were already in the master plan. Hell, I even foreshadowed them in books 3 and 4. The important lessons learned here are A) read the %^@$$# outline once in a while, and, B) don’t bang your head on the wall trying to figure something clever out, just write the damned scene and get out of your own way.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog December 3 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Beta Drafting

This is what my office looks like at the beginning of the beta draft process. In this case The Eye of Horus–Black School II.




Things to know:

1) The Wyrdsmiths don’t always critique things in the exact same order due to various sorts of life interference.

2) Some of the critique comes in electronically for similar reasons.

3) By pure coincidence the Horus rough finished going through Wyrdsmiths in the same week that Pat Rothfuss read and commented on Black School (long story redacted) which is why the latter is part of the spread.

4) I just completely reread Black School and did some revisions there (Pat’s edits plus ret-cons from Eye of Horus) which is why I’m doing the Horus beta now rather than in a month or two which was the original plan.

5) While I know #4 is the smart way to do things under the circumstances, it means I have to put down SpellCrash for about a week in the middle of chapter 1*, which in turn means I’m going to be very hard pressed to get it done in the three months I’m shooting for, so I may be scarce for a little bit while I try to repair the hole in schedule.**

*Black School and WebMage are really incompatible in terms of voice and style and shifting between the two is a major gear strip that costs me a couple of days. This reduces the total time used by taking out two gear strips, but it does it at a bad place in the schedule.

**The schedule it dents is mine, not my publisher’s. According to Ace I have 6 and 1/2 months to finish the book. At this point I expect to use 3-4 of those.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog November 21 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

A Group Interview of Me

My friend Jonna’s class has been studying WebMage and they sent me a block of questions, so I figured I might as well post the questions and answers here for anyone who’s interested. Also, my friend Dave’s comments made me go looking for the initial description of the WebMage idea and I’ve included it at the very bottom of the post.

L’s Questions:

1. What inspired you to write WebMage and the novels that followed?

I started messing around with the web back in 1997 or thereabouts and one of the things that fascinated me about it was the way all of the pages reminded me of individual worlds linked together by the internet. Parallel worlds stories are a long standing form in science fiction and fantasy, and this looked like a fabulous way for some entity to arrange worlds. That’s where the first glimmer of the idea happened-I think I called it World Diving when I wrote it down. More on that in later questions.

As for the series:

I hadn’t originally intended WebMage as the first book in a series, but along about the time it sold, I came up with the idea of Ravirn hacking into Hades. That led to the second book, Cybermancy, which has its roots in the Orpheus story and a two book deal. Time went by, I finished Cybermancy about a month before WebMage pulled a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and started a sales run that meant a second printing in the first month of release. Since I had a great time writing Cybermancy and the books looked like they were doing well I decided I should think about writing another one or two in the WebMage world. My agent and editor both thought that was a dandy idea, and I sat down to see what I could come up with that would keep me excited about the characters and their world. Out of that process came CodeSpell and MythOS and next SpellCrash which will be the end of the series arc. So that’s the business side of the story.

The writing side starts with having fun hanging around with these characters and playing in the WebMage world. I want these books to be readable as standalone novels, but also to have an arc where the characters grow and develop and deepen across books. That means that what happens in each book is going to have spillover into the next and later books. Especially the things that Ravirn does that are stupid or the result of hard choices.

2. Are there particular conditions or is there a particular place that you like to write?

My ideal writing space is a screen porch with a nice view of the outside world and about 75 and sunny. Failing that, I like lots of windows and temperature control. Oh, and I need a nice comfy chair and a lap desk for my computer.

3. How did you go about creating the world in WebMage? What process did you use?

After I had the initial story idea I started picking at the edges, what kind of story could I tell that would let me really play with the concept of parallel worlds in web type environment? I decided to go with magic rather than a scientific setup because most parallel world stories go the other way and I wanted to do something really new.

That in turn gave me my main character, Ravirn. A hacker/sorcerer was the logical protagonist for that kind of story. Since I like familiars, I gave Ravirn a familiar appropriate to someone who lived in both those worlds, a shape-changing goblin/laptop combo. When I started to think about plot, I figured that I should have a hacking episode gone terribly wrong–this was for the short story that started it all. So, what was Ravirn’s target? Had to be the heart of the web itself if I was going to really get into meat of the idea. Who would build a web to keep track of all these worlds? That stopped me for a day or two until I came up with the idea of the Greek Fates using this new technology to do their age-old job. To raise the stakes I made Ravirn a grandchild of one of them, and bingo, I had the heart of the story that gave birth to WebMage.

T’s Questions:

4. As far as the Greek mythology in Webmage is concerned, what inspired you to take that angle on the story?

My upbringing and early reading was weighted heavily toward the classics. My mother and grandmother started reading me Shakespeare and the Greek and Norse myths long before I was old enough to understand them. Also Tolkien and Asimov and a lot other science fiction and fantasy. Some of my earliest memories are of listening to things like Lear and Lord of the Rings and Oedipus Rex. So a lot of my core storymaking sensibilities are rooted in the classics and f&sf. As I noted above, I was looking for someone who would build a world-spanning magical web. When I thought of the Fates it seemed exactly right and the rest of the mythological structure built from there.

5. Did you have to do any special research or manipulate the traditional Greek stories to make everything fit in with the plot you had originally imagined?

Not a lot actually. I had a very solid grounding in the Greek myths from my childhood and I try to stay true to the archetypes of the Greek gods as much as possible with the books. I did have a couple of copies of the myths around to double check names and minor details but mostly it was all in my head. Likewise the computer stuff. My mom’s a coder and bug checker and my grandmother was a computer test equipment technician in her last job, so I grew up in an house saturated with computer geekery. Then, when my wife was in college, I spent a lot of time messing around with computers to help her out with various classes as an undergrad and grad student so I had to keep up to date on that too. I did make mistakes there, but a couple of my first readers are IT professionals and they pointed out where I needed to make changes.

6. What inspired you to go with a cyberpunk story fused with other areas of science fiction? What are your favorite science fiction or fantasy genres to read?

I covered the first half of this in 1 and 3. As far as favorite genre, that shifts over time. At this point I’m reading mostly fantasy and probably more urban fantasy than other sub genres, but I’ve got about 1,500 f&sf titles on my shelves, almost all of which I’ve read, and there are another 5-600 that I’ve read but not kept. But I really select my reading based more on writers than sub-genre.

And actually, I probably read more non-fiction than fiction at this point in time. I read around a 100 books worth of material a year. Before I was a writer I read more.

7. What was your inspiration for the character of Ravirn?

As I noted in three, his role came out of my thoughts on how best to tell the story. I really needed a hacker/sorcerer to explore the core idea. The specifics of his personality on the other hand is pretty close to mine, probably the closest of any of my protagonists to date, though he’s more of an idealist and I’m not really interested in hacking.

C’s Questions:

8. Why are all of your fates and furies women?

That’s an easy one. Because that’s the way the Greeks thought of them. But I don’t think that’s a very satisfying answer, so let me tackle a related question.

Why did I focus on the female members of the Greek pantheon? It’s really about the characters I find interesting. To me the female portion of the pantheon seems much more complex and real, and besides that I’ve always liked strong women, both in real life and in my reading and writing. More specifically, given a choice between writing about Fate, Discord, and Vengeance on the one hand or War, Storm, and the Sun (Mars, Zeus, and Apollo) I’m much more interested in the former. As the books go on you’ll see more gods (Zeus, Hades) and goddesses (Persephone, the Muses, Nemesis, Necessity, Athena) but as you can see, I still tend to favor the goddesses. As a counterpoint, MythOS, which comes out next year, takes Ravirn off to meet the Norse gods and there I deal pretty much exclusively with male members of the Pantheon, Odin, Loki, Thor, Tyr, Fenris, Jormungand, Hugin, and Munin. That’s because in the Norse myths I find the guys got all the good roles.

9. What gave you the idea of webgoblins and why would they turn into laptops…instead of some futuristic item?

I like familiars as I mentioned above, and I was looking for one that would fit with Ravirn’s dual nature of sorcerer and hacker. I’m not entirely sure of why a goblin popped into my head rather than a pixie or an elf except that I wanted someone snarky and that triggered goblin for me. As for laptops, I wrote the initial story in ’97. I wanted the story set in a sort of moving window of the now and I suspect that laptops will be with us for at least another decade or two–it depends on how fast certain technologies are moving. If you want an idea of where I think laptops are going, you can see it in Loki’s tech toy in the forthcoming MythOS, something the size of a cellphone that will use projectors and lasers and sensors to give you a virtual keyboard and screen. I think we’ll have keyboards in some shape for writing at least for quite a while to come yet, though they will probably eventually give way to voice recognition.

10. Why put Ravirn in the family of fates rather than another family?

That was dictated by the idea of making the mweb a tool of the Fates. As a writer, one of the things I always try to do with any story is keep raising the stakes. Another is to try to show the inherent complexity of relationships between people. Interfamily conflict is a great way to do both of those things. I wanted Ravirn’s relationship with the bad guys to be more complex and painful than just white hats vs. black hats. Putting him in a situation where his ideals were in conflict with his sense of family and belonging made all of his choices harder and more costly and it let me show the Fates in a more complex way too. I find the ideas that Atropos expounds in a couple of places to be morally abhorrent, but I can also see how someone could believe in them strongly and feel that what they were doing was the right thing to do. I think antagonists need to be every bit as three dimensional as the protagonists and this helped get me there.

11. Why Lachesis as his grandmother?

I wanted him to have a relationship with the Fates that was both close enough for complexity and far enough away to make him seem more human. Also, the Fates have been around for a really long time and I wanted Ravirn to be a child of the modern era, someone who grew up with computers, and I felt that meant some distance in the blood line. Why Lachesis as opposed to Atropos or Clotho? That’s tougher. I felt that Atropos’ role as the cutter of threads naturally made for a harder harsher character and a logical antagonist for the story. That left Clotho and Lachesis and I honestly don’t know why I chose one over the other, though I’m very glad I went the way I did, as it gave me some lovely dynamics to play with with Clotho later in the story and the other books.

E’s Questions:

12. What are your main influences of your writing? How did you come up with WebMage specifically?

I’m a lifelong fan of sci-fi, fantasy, and the classics. My education favored those and the greats of theater (my degree). Everything I write is built on those foundations. Tolkien, Asimov, Shakespeare, Greek and Norse myth, Norton, McCaffrey, Cervantes, Molière, Niven, Heinlien, Zelazney, etc. As for the how, see 1 and 3 above.

13. What prompted you to include Greek mythology into your writing of WebMage?

See 4.

14. Have you dabbled in any other genres besides Science Fiction? Who are some influential authors to you?

I’ve written horror and memoir shorts, and poems as well as co-written short plays, but I’d have to say that it’s all been pretty close to f&sf. As well as the folks mentioned in 12 I have to give a nod to Tim Powers, Mercedes Lackey, Terry Pratchett, Marion Zimmer Bradlley, Garth Nix, Colleen McCullough, Anne Rice and the group of folks who did the Wild Cards series. Also, for their wise council and mentorship: Dean Wesley Smith and Kristin Katherine Rusch, and to a lesser extent Raymond Feist, George R. R. Martin, Kevin J. Anderson, and Tim Powers (again).

15. How did you get started in writing? What would be some advice you have for prospective authors?

From the ages of 11-22 I pursued theater with great passion. I was dead certain I was going to work in the industry and even landed the occasional paying gig in acting or tech theater. Then I met the woman I’m now married to—we’ve been together for almost 18 20 years—and realized that theater and anything resembling a normal home life aren’t terribly compatible. The hours and the travel are both deadly for relationships. About that same time I got my first computer and decided to try my hand at writing a novel. I fell in love with the process inside of a week and haven’t really ever looked back. The funny thing is that I think theater probably prepared me better for writing what I do than an English degree would have. I did renaissance festivals, stunt work, slapstick, makeup, stage combat, lighting, all sort of things really. I got a feeling for story and scene that has served me very well, and developed skills like fencing and dancing that map directly onto writing fantasy.

The advice question is always a tough one. There are a million and one business things I could tell you*, none of which would be the least bit helpful when you’re starting out and all of which are critical once you start selling. The single most important thing you can do if you’re interested in writing is simply to write.


Write more. Write again. Revise. Send out. Write more. All of those things are predicated on the initial writing. You achieve success in this business by the expedient of writing, improving your writing, and not giving up. The formula is a simple one to lay out but it can be awfully hard to follow, especially the not giving up part.

This is something I’ve blogged about extensively:


*I will give you one business note. Money always flows to the writer. If you start submitting your work around and anyone who see it asks for money for development or anything else, run, do not walk for the exits. That is the sign of a scam artist. The only person who ever gets money from a writer is their agent and that comes only as a percentage of money paid from the publisher after the publisher starts sending checks. I actually blog a lot about the writing craft and business at wyrdsmiths.blogspot.com and much of it has been indexed.

M’s Questions:

16. Were there writers from your childhood that inspired you?

See 4 and 12 above and add: Richard Adams, Eve Titus, C.S. Lewis, Margery Sharp, Kenneth Grahame, A.A. Milne, Michael Bond, and E. B. White.

17. Do you base your characters on people from your own life?

Not really. There are bits and pieces of people I know or have known scattered through my characters, but mostly my characters are little bits of my personality split off and played against each other. I have occasionally likened it to being professionally schizoid, in that I spend my days breaking my brain into multiple pieces and assigning personalities to the various bits so that I can spend several hours being a bunch of different people. It can make me a little strange at the end of the work day as I slowly come up out of the world of the book and its characters and reassemble myself and reground myself in the real world.

18. Which character in WebMage do you identify with most?

Ravirn and/or Melchior. People who know me well see both of them in me and have argued on more than one occasion over which is closer to my core personality. Unfortunately there’s little doubt that of the two I look more like Melchior. The character that I have the most fun writing is Eris. I love her attitude and even more I love her problems.

19. How difficult was it to get published the first time?

It took me eight years and around a hundred rejections before I sold my first short story. Then another six years and fifty or so rejections before I sold a novel. I was also writing and selling shorts in there, so my total count of rejections is around 450 for 5 novels sold and 20+ short stories. I do much better with poetry, but it doesn’t pay enough to justify the work involved.

On the other hand someone in my writers group sold her first book to the first editor it was sent to after having it picked up by the first agent who looked at it. On the other other hand, I’ve got a friend who’s been doing this longer than I have and who, despite being a good writer with dozens of short stories sold, has never managed to sell a book in America.

For more general purposes it looks like this: For every novel that is published the editors have looked at and rejected between 500 and a 1,000 other books. That number is both much better and much worse than it sounds. Better, because for every hundred books submitted 90 of them are so poorly written as to not really be in contention. Worse, because that 500 to a 1,000 includes books by already established authors. So, I’ve got 5 novels either in print or forthcoming and that means that 2,000-4,000 of those rejected books were competing with the 4 of mine that sold after Penguin had already invested time and effort in making me a success story. It does get easier after that first book but it’s not a sure thing. My editor rejected 4 books of mine after she bought the first pair.

That said, if you write well and are persistent beyond all reason you have a good chance of selling a book. Publishing is about 15 percent talent, 15 percent luck, 20 percent craft, and 50 percent banging your head against the wall until you knock it over. The thing to remember is that your forehead heals and the wall doesn’t.

H’s Questions:

20. What made you decide upon creating a story that infused both ancient Greek mythology along with new age technology?

See 1, 3, and 4 above.

21. Did you place any of your attributes into the characters within your story/stories?

I did and I do. As I noted earlier Ravirn has a lot of me in him. Particularly his snarkiness and pigheadedness. His adrenaline junky, wild man tendencies owe a lot to my younger self. Melchior’s sarcasm and tendency to be a bit on the cynical side are mine as well. Cerice’s almost OCD level of organization is rooted in my own. You can also find chunks of my philosophy and world view scattered all around the books, sometimes in very unlikely places. For example, Eris’ comments on uncompromising idealism (refusing to choose between the lesser of two evils) being responsible for some pretty bad results has a lot to do with the way I felt about Ralph Nader in 2001. I’m all through the books in many ways, but I also have characters, even my heroes, say and do things that are 180 degrees from what I think is the right answer.

22. What originally inspired you to take up writing science fiction-fantasy?

A big chunk of your answer can be found in 15 above and in 4. Basically I was raised to be a fantasy and sci-fi author. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the intent of either my mother or grandmother but it was the result–I didn’t spend much time with my dad as a kid, though he is also an f&sf fan and a good friend.

I’ll add here something my wife calls “leaking weirdness.”

I’m pretty much wired for creating stories out of thin air. When I was little I did it as part of the elaborate scenarios that constituted much of my playing–I used to build Asgard out of blocks and use my toys to act out the final battle of Ragnaroc. I also used to vanish into the woods around the farm where I spent summers for hours, playing Robin Hood and other scenarios. Later, I channeled that energy into theater, and especially improv at Renaissance Festivals and the like. Then I quit theater and wrote my first novel and my second and so. It turns out that I don’t do well when I don’t have something like that soaking up the creative energy. If I go too long without writing I will begin to have vivid dreams and wake up spouting off about things like “llamaflage” or a “Connecticut Buffalo in King Heifers Court”–leaking weirdness. My wife’s normal response to this is to give me a very patient look and tell me to go write something.

C’s Questions (Being a rebel, C didn’t write any questions but instead made statements inviting comments.):

23. The use of magic in WebMage was interesting and different.

Thanks. I tried and try to create something new with each world I build, whether it’s magical or sfnal. I sometimes call myself a world-driven writer since creating logically framed magic systems or science-fictional futures is what really interests me as a writer. The story and characters almost always come after the place and mode for me.

24. The plot of WebMage has lots of hooks to keep you reading.

Again, thanks. I would probably write travelogues of places that never were if I were just writing for myself. Writing for others makes me think about story and what makes it interesting: high stakes, characters the reader will identify with, interesting circumstances, cost, reversal, betrayal, things hidden from the characters and thus the readers, lulls to allow the reader a chance to breathe, chapter structure that leaves the reader with questions at the end of a scene that will draw them on to the next one, and resolutions that satisfy the reader’s desire for closure and sense of justice while not glossing over the complexity of life or the idea that nothing worth having ever comes cheap.

Original description of WebMage, verbatim from my notes: World-Amberesque family of mages. Responsible for creation of www, internet, and cell phone net. This is actually the material component of spell that allows them to communicate worldwide and across the dimensions. They create webspiders that drop through alternate realities and report back to them via the web. Each mage has a familiar that is essentially a walking talking laptop with a built in cell phone. They travel from reality to reality via Decision locuses. Each locus is a location where a decision was made. Thus, if you want to get to a world where reagan didn’t win you would go to a voting booth and follow one of the decisions to vote against him into the appropriate world. They call it world diving.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog November 8 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

The Plot Synopsis Strikes Back

As part of Joshua Palmatier’s Plot Synopsis Project II I’m posting the proposal synopsis for CodeSpell, the third book in the WebMage series. Links to other writers’ synopses will be at the bottom of this post.

For my full thoughts on how to write one of these you can see my posts on the subject. Pitching and Synopses parts 1, 2, and 3. Plus, what a synopsis should do.

Update: For those who have read CodeSpell you may notice that while the overall sequence of events and emphasis follows the book, there are any number of minor but significant departures. That’s pretty typical and expected. Enough so that this book went straight from delivery to the copyeditor with no revisions. For comparison here’s the synopsis for WebMage written after the book was complete.

Book Proposal for WebMage III (CodeSpell)

The story begins a few days after the end of Cybermancy with Ravirn receiving an invite from Zeus. The big guy is throwing a party of divine proportions. Among the reasons for the party is the coming-out of the newest power in the pantheon, Raven, so Ravirn’s attendance is not subject to negotiation.

The party is held on Mount Olympus in a huge outdoor venue. Ravirn attends with Cerice and Melchior in tow. During the course of the afternoon he encounters Cerberus, Hades, Persephone, the Fates, Dionysus, the Furies, and his own parents. His mother snubs him, his father does not, and in the process we find out that his father is the son of one of the Muses. He also runs into Dairn (last seen being dumped unconscious into a faerie ring in WebMage).

Something is horribly wrong with Dairn, though Ravirn is unable to decide what. This becomes much more important to Ravirn in a few minutes, when Dairn tries to kill Ravirn using powers beyond anything he’s ever previously exhibited. Ravirn is able to escape the attack, but only by the skin of his teeth.

There are a number of things going on that Ravirn doesn’t know or find out about for some time:

1. In the process of falling through the faerie rings, Dairn lost big chunks of his personality and memory. As he was wandering the worlds over the next year by randomly leaving and reentering faerie rings he became merged with the goddess Nemesis. Mythologically the role of Nemesis has a lot of overlap with the Furies, though she is less constrained, because she is without any controlling authority. She is also a bodiless entity, something like a non-replicating computer virus. In merging with Dairn she’s developed a powerful hatred of Ravirn.

2. Zeus is not the buffoon that Ravirn believes him to be. The sex-addled idiot thing is a carefully cultivated and personally rewarding act he uses to help throw his enemies off and reduce his workload. He is not fond of work if it can be avoided.

3. The damage to Necessity in Cybermancy includes a number of things that pose problems for the pantheon in general and Ravirn in specific. Among those is the loosing of Nemesis. Previously she had been confined both in location and power. Also, the resource locator forks for Tartarus (the prison of the Titans) have been destroyed. This last means that Zeus can no longer maintain a tight watch and leash on them, and that they are likely to free themselves and restart the Titanomach (the ten-year war with the gods that ended with the imprisonment of the Titans). Another major result of the damage is severely restricted access to Necessity, both electronic and physical. Not even the Furies are able to access her physical location and they can only speak with her intermittently. There are many other points of damage, but these are the ones of primary interest for this story.

4a. In order to prevent the escape of the Titans Zeus needs to arrange for the repair of Necessity. He believes he could take them in battle again if he had to, but it would be better if he didn’t have to. Fortunately, he sees a perfect out that involves a minimum of effort on his part——make Ravirn fix Necessity.

4b. His method for doing this is to nudge Nemesis into an encounter with Dairn and then to provide an opportunity for the merged being to have an unsuccessful shot at Ravirn, hence the party. Thereafter, in order to get rid of Nemesis Ravirn will be forced to repair the portion of Necessity that also contains the Tartarus forks.

4c. Zeus is also concerned about the increased power of the Fates in the computerized era and would like to see them taken down a peg or two. By framing them for the creation of Nemesis/Dairn he hopes to set the Furies, who are very jealous of the role of Nemesis, against the Fates. He also hopes that in the course of fixing Necessity Ravirn will introduce an anti-Fate bias that will come into full effect once Necessity’s powers are restored.

The initial attack by Nemesis is quickly followed up by further attempts, forcing Ravirn into a running battle with Nemesis while he tries to figure out some way to stop her. Because of Zeus’s machinations Ravirn becomes convinced that the Fates in general and Clotho in particular are responsible. This puts Cerice in the position of either joining Ravirn in direct opposition to her grandmother or of recusing herself. While she is being torn about this decision, Fate intervenes, literally. Clotho acts to remove Cerice from the equation, imprisoning her. Without Shara, who is still trapped within Necessity, Cerice is unable to resist effectively and is largely removed from the scene.

This is the opportunity Tisiphone has been waiting for, and because of the opposing roles of Furies and Nemesis, she is able to act as a desperately needed ally. Nemesis is a full-fledged goddess and her powers are nearly as great as those of Eris or Hades. Only the combination of the fact that she has to work through the relatively fragile medium of Dairn’s body and the intervention of Zeus allowed Ravirn to escape the first attack in one piece.

Over the course of the next several days Ravirn and Tisiphone discover that it is the damage to Necessity that unleashed Nemesis. A significant part of this discovery process results from communications with Shara from within Necessity. These communications are only possible because of Tisiphone’s tight connection to Necessity. Shara literally has to speak through Tisiphone. We also learn here that something truly strange happened with Ahllan’s disappearance in Cybermancy.

Once this is all established, it becomes clear that Ravirn is going to have to try to repair Necessity. He’s going to need to figure out some point of access. He’s also going to need more computing power. Necessity is simply too big a job for Melchior’s current specs. It’s time for a major (i.e. risky) upgrade. Melchior’s goblin shape and personality will remain the same, but he’s getting a new case and (in line with Ravirn’s chaos powers) a new quantum computing architecture that will make him significantly less mweb dependent.

Just as Ravirn completes the upgrade and reboots Melchior, Nemesis arrives. It’s touch and go, but at the cost of a really severe beating, Tisiphone is able to buy enough time for Ravirn and Melchior to escape. Unfortunately, they are now without the link they need to reach Necessity. In a stroke of apparent coincidence that is simply too much for Ravirn to buy, Megaera show up and offers to provide the missing link. She says she’s doing it for Tisiphone’s sake, but Ravirn realizes there’s more going on here than he thought, and he makes the conceptual leap to link it all back to Zeus.

Tired of being manipulated, Ravirn heads out to confront Zeus with Melchior vociferously arguing that it’s a bad idea. The whole way. Zeus’s role is revealed in the plot, including his actual nature. Ravirn is stunned beyond words, and deeply angry with Zeus, but he admits that at this point their goals coincide and he will go through with the scheme to fix Necessity. Scene ends with an accommodation similar to the one Ravirn enjoys with Eris, affection tinged with fear and grudging respect.

When he arrives at the physical location of Necessity however, he discovers that Nemesis, using Tisiphone as a link, has preceded him. A pitched battle takes place, one that Ravirn is able to win with the aid of Tisiphone, Melchior, and Shara-who can act directly for him in the House of Necessity. The fight is won with the death of Dairn and the apparent destruction of Nemesis through the physical destruction of portion of some of Necessity’s hardware.

Then Melchior and Ravirn proceed to repairing Necessity. Unfortunately, complete repair is far beyond their limited resources at the time. They are able to tie up Tartarus, but the Nemesis portion of the system is totally inoperable and the Furies are going to need do considerable hardware repair over the course of the next several years in order to get Necessity back into a state where Ravirn can take a true crack at the software problems.

The book ends on the first day of spring when Shara is ejected from Necessity. Ravirn is triumphant, but a number of loose ends leave him with a great deal of work to do and food for thought. Necessity is still controlling the mweb, but only portions of the destinies of the gods. Cerice and Ravirn parted under very stressful circumstances and Ravirn has developed further feelings for Tisiphone over the course of their conflict with Nemesis. This is further complicated by Tisiphone’s anger and grief over the damage done to Necessity’s physical form in the battle. She feels personal responsibility for that and her fellow Furies also blame her, but she also holds Ravirn partially to blame. And, where is Ahllan? All of which will lead into WebMage IV, MythOS.

Joshua Palmatier

Alma Alexander (Will post on the 20th instead.)

Sam Butler

Diana Pharaoh Francis

Daryl Gregory

Simon Haynes

Jay Lake’s comments and his synopses

Kelly McCullough

Jeri Smith-Ready

Jennifer Stevenson

Edward Willett

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog September 19 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

On Being A Reader

My friend Jen asked a question in a thread on my friend Nancy Pickard’s blog about what all of us wanted from a book in terms of being readers:

…forget about genre, plot and characters, as a reader, what are your favorite elements of craft to encounter in novels?

She then went on to stipulate that the writer is doing all the basics (plot, character, etc) right and narrowed the focus to other stuff. I find it a fascinating question. Perhaps what lifts a competent book to the level of a fantastic book? Or maybe, what delights you as a reader beyond just finding something you can like?

It’s very difficult for me to answer. How do I come up with criteria that encompass the best of Terry Pratchett, Robin McKinley, Tim Powers, Martha Wells, Tony Hillerman, Lois Bujold, six or seven literary authors whose names I can never remember, etc?

Well, one thing that springs immediately to mind is depth of world. Every one of these people is writing stories in a place that feels real to me, one where there is a sense that the set extends beyond the scenes we’re seeing and into the distance where other stories are playing of which we know absolutely nothing.

Another is clarity. The writers I like best don’t leave me wondering what really happened in a scene. Nor do they leave me saying things like, wow, what poetic prose! Here’s a music analogy. I may occasionally pick out a note as very funny, or beautifully written, or particularly sharp, but mostly I don’t hear the notes, I hear the song. The prose serves the story. It doesn’t dominate it.

Illumination. This one is harder to lay out. What I’m talking about are moments that light up the inner workings of the characters in a way that makes me believe in them as people. They can be funny moments, a la Pratchett, or poignant moments of the Robin McKinley sort, or simple nothing-but-the-facts moments of the sort that Hillerman is so good at. They can even mix and match as Wells so often does. The main thing is the a-ha moment were I can really understand and empathize with the character.

Speaking of which, likeability is very important for me. I know it’s not everybody’s bag, but if I don’t like the characters I’m spending time with, I stop spending time with them. Life is way too short for me to want to stand around and watch people self-destruct, even if they do it in really fascinating ways. I saw enough of that shit when I was in theater. Sure, Jane Doe is possessed of a fascinating set of neuroses and makes for great soap opera. Sure, I’ve done six shows with her before and I’d really like to see her finally get her comeuppance. Sure, she’s about to go head first into the chum grinder that is the director running out of patience. No, I’m not going to have anything to do with it. I’m going to go have dinner with the three other people in the cast who also have better things to do. If I’m not rooting for you I’m gone.

Finally, it has to matter. The characters have to be striving for something that I can agree is important. It can be big and important; the fate of the world. It can be small and important, getting onto the path back from personal hell. Whatever the scale, it has to be an important goal. Also, they have to achieve something important. It may not be what they set out to do, people may die in the attempt, it may not be what you would call a traditionally happy ending, but if I don’t feel that all the stress and pain the characters have gone through has been genuinely worthwhile, I will put the book down and never come back to the writer.

So, I realized, looking at this again, that I need to make a distinction between obtrusive beautiful writing and beautiful writing that serves the story. Wyrdsmith’s own Bill Henry does the latter better than any other writer I know. When I read something of Bill’s it’s so clean and clear and bright that the occasional clunky sentence is really surprising.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog July 21 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Ideas = Cheap and Plentiful

2013 update: This post was originally inspired by a post on the same subject by Justine Larbalestier and Eleanor Arnason’s response when I linked it.

When I say that ideas are easy, what I mean is that producing the basic idea isn’t all that much work by comparison to the other parts of writing a book. It can take no more than a few minutes and sometimes happens as a subconscious process.

Doing the research, blocking out what to do with the idea, and writing and polishing the book can take anywhere from months to years of hard work. That’s certainly been the case for me. The core of even the best of my story ideas have happened in a flash or the length of a dream. Crafting that idea into an actual story is what takes real time and major effort.

I’m a relatively fast writer–I’ve written a 5,000 word story in single day and sold it, and I routinely write novels for my publisher in under six months. In that same six months I will come up with dozens of new story ideas. Most of them will be discarded, but a few go into the ideas file, a few get plotted out for possible later use, and might even became the next novel. I’ve had hundreds of novel ideas that I think are really cool and thousands that I’ve thought would make a decent book. I’ve only written twenty because the writing is where the work and the effort go.

Is the production of the initial idea easy in absolute terms? I suppose that depends on the writer. In my case, I can’t not produce story ideas in job lots.

Is it easy by comparison to taking the core of the idea and doing the research and reshaping needed to make it into something you could hang a book on? That’s certainly been my experience. Is it really easy compared to the actual months long day-in-day-out effort of writing and polishing the actual novel? Again, that been my experience.

More than that, idea generation is pure unadulterated joy, especially if you can get someone else to do the fiddly bits. One of the most entertaining things Wyrdsmiths does as a writers group* is to sit around and brainstorm solutions to story problems. I always find that to be an electric experience. Dozens of ideas get thrown out in a matter of minutes, batted around, added to, twisted, knocked down, thrown out–it’s like eight-way tennis with ten balls, some of which have really strange properties. And, if it’s not my story we’re talking about, I don’t even have to make the implementation work.

So yes, I think idea generation is easy for a certain value of easy.

*at least for me.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog May 13 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)

Today’s Lesson

Pay attention to the little things.

Laura finished the beta of MythOS last night and really liked it. But we got to discussing whether it ended on a note that was a touch too dark. So I went back and reread the last 1,000 or so words.

As I was going over the final four or five paragraphs I realized that with a change of just three sentences I could shift the emphasis from the down notes and cost side of the wrap-up events to the up notes and the most important victory. I changed part of one paragraph, less than 25 words and it completely reframed the ending in a way that just lit the whole thing up. The events were identical, but two words of dialog got changed and a bittersweet tear became a bittersweet smile. And that made all kinds of difference. I won’t say more because it would be a serious spoiler, but always remember the little things matter.

2013 Edit: Adding the original text and the revised version below the reblogging disclaimer for those who are interested. The core change is in the third paragraph down.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog March 7 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


The final lines as they appeared in the book:

“Goodbye, father,” said Fenris. With a great leap he joined me.


“Goodbye,” cried Loki, “and…good luck!” Then he smiled like the first breath of spring after a thousand-year winter and whispered, “Somewhere. Somehow.”

I waved back, then looked around for Laginn–I owed him a farewell. Something grabbed my bare ankle.


In a huge room carved from the living wood of the world tree Yggdrasil a million copper beads all moved in the same direction at once.

The world ended. And as so often happens in such moments, a new one began.

And the version from the Alpha Draft:

“Goodbye, father” said Fenris. With a great leap he joined me.


“Goodbye!” cried Loki and the pain in his voice ripped at my heart. “And…good luck.” He waved at us with tears in his eyes.

I waved back, then looked around for Laginn–I owed him a farewell. Something grabbed my bare ankle.


In a huge room carved from the living wood of the world tree Yggdrasil a million copper beads all moved in the same direction at once.

The world ended. And, as so often happens in such moments, a new one began.



Yesterday (February 25th 2008) I finished MythOS, the 4th WebMage book. This one felt like it was taking forever, even though it really wasn’t, and “the end” felt so very sweet to write. I’m going to go off and run around in little circles now. Big errand-encompassing circles, actually.

There’s 40 lbs of prescription cat food waiting for me at that vet. Five cats, two with slight health issues means KD in bulk. I also need to drop the old toner cartridge at UPS for recycling–I go through a terrifying amount of toner and paper with each book, about a cartridge-and-a-half and 10,000 pages (which works out to about 6,000 sheets since a lot of that is double sided). I might grocery shop in there, if I’m running ahead of schedule. Then it’s into the Cities for paperwork for the Scotland trip in May.

BTW, does anyone need a few hundred cubic yards of snow? I’ve got lots. I like winter, but this one is wearing on me. It’s not actually the snow–snow means x-country skiing–it’s the cold and the being trapped inside. My winter office faces south, which would be great if I were a painter and needed the light. I’m not, I’m a writer and the light makes it hard to read my laptop which means that the drapes need to be closed if I’m going to work and that gets dreary after a while.

I’m going to stop free associating now, and wander off to run errands.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog February 26 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)


So, quite a while back I promised I’d talk about research a bit. With 18 books either completed or attempted this is something I would seem to know a bit about. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case, since it’s an awfully idiosyncratic process, and not just in terms of writer to writer, but even book to book. Still, there are a few commonalities that are worth mentioning.

Part I Open Research:

1) Ongoing and general research. I would recommend that every writer do this in whatever way is most suited to them. Which means:

1a) Read. Read constantly. Read non-fiction. Read widely. In my case I do a good bit of web reading–following interesting links from news and science sites. I also always have at least one non-fiction book going, usually several. Right now I’m reading How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World (anti-mumbo-jumbo, pro-science screed), Plants in Hawaiian Culture (just what it sounds like and just started-this one is directed research for WebMage VI should it ever happen), The World Without Us (a book on how fast and in what ways the Earth would change if people were removed tomorrow), A book on Indian (India) myths and legends, and two novels. I’m also reading–as a part of my regular ongoing reading–articles in Discover, Science News, and Popular Science–I get an amazing number of fantasy ideas from science magazines, not to mention a few science fiction ideas.

1b) Take notes. Every time I go somewhere or do something out of the ordinary I encounter new and interesting bits of information. Anytime that any of them tickle my writer-sense I write them down. Sometimes a bit leads nowhere, but just the act of writing it down fixes the whole experience in my memory and other things that happened near the thing I thought was potentially useful are the ones that turn out to be useful.

2) Directed/Undirected useful habits.

2a) Bookstore browsing. Everywhere I go I try to spend some time looking at the local book selection, especially the local used book selection. I’m especially careful to do this in places that are geographically remote from my home ground (Hawaii, Halifax) or intellectually focused (Cultural Museums, History Centers). No matter the topic there are a jillion books on it, but without being able to physically browse through them and see what the local authorities think of as important, it can be difficult to figure out just what you want to pick up. I look especially for small press and/or scholarly work on topics relevant to the place/mission. That’s how I ended up with the Plants in Hawaiian Culture book which promises to be fascinating.

2b) Big Books of ______, Cultural/Historical Atlases, Visual Histories, Timelines, See How A _______ works, Encyclopedias. Scour used bookstores for these. Pick a price point and buy anything that falls under that price point, because you never know which ones are going to be terribly terribly useful three books down the road, and these kinds of book are priceless.

You want something aimed somewhere between the smart 12 year old and the seriously curious tourist, because that’s really the level of detail most readers are looking for, the cool stuff. The really deep, deep expert stuff is usually too much. If you care too much about the really deep details, you will often end up including stuff that bores the daylights out of the reader.

Read them, especially the encyclopedias–juicy little fact bits make great grist for the writing mill and can provide fantastic telling details. The atlases are also especially useful, allowing you to orient yourself both physically and historically. There you’re looking for things like a historical atlas of London with neighborhoods and landmarks shown, or an Atlas of World War II battles that gives you strategic and positional information on the war.
Part II Specific Research:

Here I’m going to talk about specific, directed, research in the context of two books, Outside In (incomplete and temporarily trunked) and Numismancer. I’m picking these two because the primary research process for each is fairly accessible and is really just an extension of the general techniques described in my last post.

A brief digression here on the value of librarians and other human sources. One of the secrets of my research success is knowing a number of good librarians and keeping track of who in my social network knows what about what–i.e. if I ever need to know anything about felt or felting I’ll call Paula. Many research problems have been solved by  emailing my librarian friend Jody or others in my network of experts, and some of that happened with each and every one of these books.

Outside In:

This book was intended to be a dark contemporary fantasy exploring the secret magical history of architecture. I’ve written several novels of this sort–though none has yet sold–and it’s a genre I really enjoy writing. This particular iteration was closer to horror than I usually get and that’s part of why it got trunked.

As with any book I write, a huge portion of the overall structure rests on things already in my head at the beginning of the book. In this case, a bunch of stuff on the Roman household gods (particularly the Lares and Penates–the gods of the cupboards and doors among other things) tied itself together with the grounding I’d gotten in architecture while taking Art History classes, and the construction techniques I’d learned as part of my technical theater training. There were other influences, but that was the core of it.

My research for the book broke down into three major components: setting, context, and history and I’ll address them in that order.*

Setting: In this case, St. Paul/Minneapolis ~2006, a made-up but plausible curriculum for a special Masters program in architecture at the U of M, a huge and semi-haunted mansion in St. Paul’s Summit Ave neighborhood. To cover all of that I needed: 1) a good St. Paul/Minneapolis atlas (already owned). 2) the online course catalogs of a half-dozen architectural Masters programs. 3) Websites detailing several historic Summit Ave. mansions including the James J. Hill house, as well as websites for a couple of other non-Summit mansions. Because the setting was so terribly important for a story built around the magic of buildings, one of the very first things I did was to draw up top elevations of the multiple floors of the mansion.

Context: Magical and architectural. In this case, the Roman gods structure provided a good deal of my underlying magic and was something I’d already refreshed in the course of writing and researching the WebMage books—which reading was in turn built upon intense childhood interest in mythology. The main part of my magical research was to look for more extensive sourcing on the Lares and Penates. Sadly, a perusal of Google and the ERIC academic article search system demonstrated that there isn’t much written on them. What there is, I’ve mostly read at this point. My other primary sources were a copy of Trachtenberg and Hyman’s Architecture, which I read cover to cover and extensively highlighted and bookmarked, and The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture (used as a secondary source rather than read through). The former was the suggestion of a friend who’d spent some time in the U of M’s architecture program, the latter is an Oxford reference book—I pick those up whenever I find them cheap enough.

History: Mostly my research here came from the Trachtenberg and Hyman and Oxford Dictionary of Architecture mentioned earlier, with a leavening of historical summaries from the various mansions I’d studied.


Another secret magical history book, in this case, the secret history of money. This one came out of a dream I’d had in which coins from a fountain drove away a bunch of dark fey that had been chasing me. Set in Edinburgh and Brussels around 2007 with strong references to the Scottish Parliament, the E.U. banking system, small craft sailing, and schizophrenia.

Setting: For this book I drew a great deal on the almost two months I’ve spent in the Edinburgh area over the past fifteen years. I also picked up a good European atlas (which covered Brussels) and an ordinance survey map of Edinburgh (the primary setting).

Context: My main book reference for the context and history of money and coinage was The Teach Yourself Guide to Numismatics which is a sort of history and lexicon of numismatics in alphabetical order, and is absolutely fantastic. It breaks the study up into easily digestible and fascinating info-nuggets. I will buy any of this series if I ever see them again. My sources for the E.U. banking system and the Scottish parliament were primarily the websites belonging to those institutions. They contained more information than I could use or digest laid out in a relatively straightforward format. Sailing? I’m no longer certain what reference books I used for that. I’m not seeing them on the current dig through the heap, though What’s What: a Visual Glossary of the Physical World probably played a part. For the schizophrenia sourcing I mostly called on a lot of memories of what it was like to spend a good deal of time with a close relative who is a paranoid schizophrenia. This last is a rich source of information but can be hard on both the schizophrenic and the observer.

History: Various general histories of Edinburgh originally read because I love both history and Scotland and because I read non-fiction voraciously as fuel for the fires. Also, many text and sites focusing on Edinburgh features that became important to the story as I went along, including the parliament site, websites and books about the history of the Forth bridge, the University of Edinburgh’s website and many others.

2013 update: That’s all for now, though I’d originally planned to go over several more books.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog as two posts on January 21 2008 and, January 23 2008. Original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)