Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mockingjay: A Good Conclusion to a Great Series

This blog is filled with spoilers, from one end to the other, so stop now if you care about that kind of thing.


Well, now that those people are gone, we can talk about things openly. (Man, I hate those guys.)

First, I just need to make a complaint. I like to support bookstores and such, but I ended up trying to buy this book at Walmart (because I work in a cultural wasteland that has no bookstores, and I was buying this on my lunch break). (That cultural wasteland is: West Valley City.) Anyway, Walmart failed me. They didn't have Mockingjay anywhere--no displays, no shelf space, no anything--and this was the day after the book came out! I had to go next door to the Sears Grand, if you can imagine. They seemed shocked to have a customer (and rightly so, because their shelves were mostly empty). But, they had Mockingjay, and I purchased it, and the fourteen dollars I paid doubled that store's revenue for the entire week.

But on to the book.

I loved it, and it bugged me. But mostly I loved it.

My loves are many, but the biggest thing that I liked about the book is that it was written honestly. Mockingjay was the natural conclusion to The Hunger Games. Any society that would treat it's children as is protrayed in the first book, would do equally cruel things elsewhere, and overthrowing that society would reveal the worst elements of it. So, while some people have complained about the gore and the shock, I think they were absolutely necessary, and I really couldn't imagine the book without them.

But as far as natural conclusions go, I think Suzanne Collins excelled far beyond the requirements of the setting. Elana Johnson and I were recently talking about Hunger Games, and how the dystopian world was created. One worldbuilding technique for dystopia is to take a troublesome aspect of our culture, extend it out to it's furthest, most dangerous conclusion, and look at the consequences. Using this model, I simplistically said that Hunger Games is an extension of our love for reality TV and voyeurism. Elana looked at it much deeper: it's not just about reality TV, but it's about using the media to control people.

Collins took that theme--controlling the populace through propaganda--and took it to its natural conclusions as well. Katniss has been a propaganda puppet in every book, though managed in a different way. In Hunger Games, she's somewhat independent, but controlled by Haymitch, who teaches her how to perform on camera (and rewarding her when she creates the right TV story). In Catching Fire, she's controlled by Snow, performing on camera to prove that she's not a rebel leader--she's just a girl in love. And in Mockingjay, she's now controlled by the rebel government (which isn't so much good, but the lesser of two evils), and she's followed from photo-op to photo-op by stylists and producers.

(It's worth noting that every propaganda campaign is foiled when Katniss rejects the control of her puppeteers--attempting suicide, destroying the force field, and killing Coin. She did all of it on camera, taking temporary control of the propaganda message being spread.)

So, to me, all of this kind of thing is what really makes the book work. There are smaller aspects of the plot and characters that I questioned, but it's this ongoing consistency of the deeper themes and messages that really make Mockingjay a great conclusion.

I'm only going to quickly touch on the characters, since I didn't really have any issues with them. I think that Katniss is also the natural continuation of Katniss--she's exactly how we should have expected her to be. I think that there was a feeling among fans and internet forums that this book was going to be the romantic culmination: Team Peeta vs. Team Gale. But, while that is an interesting element of the book, I don't think anything in the previous two books have led us to expect romantic happy endings. Katniss has been Katniss since the first chapter of the first book, and her actions and motivations have remained very consistent.

(Sidenote: From a storytelling perspective, I've never understood the Team Gale crowd. While Katniss liked him, he's never had enough significant screen time for the readers to get to like him, and a romance where the readers don't feel emotionally connected is the touch of death. So, I think that most Team Gale people were deluding themselves. They were Team Gale because they didn't like Peeta; they liked the idea of Gale, not the actual character.) (TAKE THAT, TEAM GALE JERKS.)

(Another sidenote: I thoroughly enjoyed Peeta rediscovering Katniss and learning that she's kind of a jerk. He's always put up with her crap, because he's in love with her, but when he's no longer in love with her, he realizes that she's always treated him terribly. I found that phase in his recovery delightful.) (This is not to say that I dislike Katniss. I just think it was a clever turn.)

A few problems:

I have two main complaints with Mockingjay, and they both have to do with the final third. First, it was hard to suspend my disbelief with all the "pods" in the Capitol. To have so many of them, and so creative and wacky, all over the place would have been insanely expensive and logistically impossible. (For example: the Meat Grinder or the street that opens up--when did they build those massive crazy things? How did they keep it a secret from the populace? How did could they afford them all (because, presumably, there are wacky, enormous things like the Meat Grinder all over the Capitol).

Second, and more important, everything that happens in the final third--from the point where Katniss enters the Capitol and heads for Snow--is ultimately a failure that doesn't accomplish anything and costs a lot of lives. The government would have been overthrown just as effectively if she hadn't gone (because the rebels get to Snow at the same time Katniss does). I have no problem with her failing; I just didn't like that her failure didn't mean anything. Nothing was gained, and the losses were only chalked up to "War sure stinks", not "Katniss wasted all their lives for nothing".

But, all of that said, I think this was a phenomenal book, and a really groundbreaking series. It's always nice to see dystopia do well, but this one brought a whole new audience to the genre, and then kicked the genre's butt.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Three (Bad) Emotions You Will Experience as an Author

One of the nice things about spending time with authors who are at different stages of their careers is being able to share experiences. Some things (like movies, books, and even meals to some extent) are even better when it’s a surprise. But as a writer, it can be downright annoying to expect things to be one way and discover that you have no clue how things really are. I remember years ago when I first met Sariah over the phone. As we talked about sales numbers, I told her that I wished I’d known coming in what realistic sales numbers were. I’m not sure how completely she bought into what I was telling her at the time. She had some pretty lofty goals. I think having big goals is great. But you also need to have someone tell you what the rest of the market is doing, or your goals are nothing more than wishes.

New writers seem to ask this same question more than any other. What can I expect? So today, I thought I’d share three negative emotions you WILL experience and how to deal with them. Next week I’ll share four positive emotions.

1) Impatience.

I sat on a panel last weekend with a bunch of other published children’s authors. When we were asked what we dislike most about the industry, almost universally people said how long everything takes. For example, let’s say you come up with an amazing book idea today. If you’re a really fast writer, you might have a first draft done in three months. Then take another three months to rewrite. Next comes submitting. Let’s say eight weeks to get a request for a partial. Another eight to twelve weeks for a full. And at least another three months for an offer of representation. So far it’s been let’s say fourteen months—if everything works like a charm—just to get an agent.

Next the agent is probably going to give you edits. Another two months. The agent starts submitting. Another two months. Maybe more, maybe less. You get a deal. Now there is a very good chance that you will wait at least 1½ to 2 years for your book to come out. More if it’s a picture book.

From idea to book on shelf—three years. If everything works like a charm. And all during that time, you are waiting on pins and needles for the next step. Will she like my query letter? Will he like my full? Will they make an offer? When will I get my edits? When will I hear back? What if they hate my changes? What if the editor moves to a new publisher?

Now you understand why published authors can’t help smiling a little when a new writer comes up and says, “I’m writing a book because my husband lost his job, or we want to buy a new car or I’m sick of working in a shoe store.” There’s nothing wrong with these reasons at all. In fact most authors who are honest will tell you that we all dream of writing for a living. But we’re talking about three years. That’s a long time. And don’t get started on how little most published authors earn.

Now let me be the first to say things CAN happen quicker. But for most authors they happen even slower. It might not be until your third book that you get an agent. Your fifth that you find a publisher. And remember that panel of published authors? They have books out and they’re still impatient. You WILL experience impatience. How do you deal with it?

In my experience there are three ways of dealing with impatience. The first way is by cutting out the middle man. Tired of waiting for an agent? Self-publish. Tired of waiting for the time a traditional publisher takes to get out a new book? Create an e-book. This is certainly an option. As we discussed last week, more and more people are taking this route. I will say that unless you already have an audience though, this is not a shorter or quicker route to publishing success. You are still going to need to put in years of work to build up enough of a following to make the effort pay off. If you’ve already got a following or just want to see your work available to the public. Go for it.

The second response is to give up. Three years is a long time to wait, so why try? The thing is, three years from now you will still be three years older. You can either be three years closer to your dream, or you can be right where you are today. Which leads me to the solution I recommend.

Stay busy. Work on the next project. You know that whole thing about the watched pot never boiling? That’s true with publishing as well. You never know what’s going to work. It may be the book you wrote a year ago finding a publisher. It may be the book you’ll write a year from now. The agent you get may not sell this book, but she may sell the next one. The horror novel I have coming out next year was actually written and agented more than six years ago.

If you sit watching the mailbox or waiting for the phone to ring, you are killing yourself one day at a time. Remember the three year’s older thing? If it’s going to take you that long, why not have four novels ready and waiting by the time your first one makes it? You’re still going to be impatient, but at least you can be productive.

2) Envy

Travel and food writer, Kim Wright, wrote a great post on authors and envy here. I won’t repeat what she says, because she does it so well. But two things in particular caught my eye. One was that it feels as uncomfortable to be envied as it does to envy someone else. There’s nothing harder than telling people you know are as talented or more than you are about a success they deserve every bit as much as you do. Unless it’s having someone you’re close to succeed while you’re still waiting to. Neither of these feels good. But if you write long enough you will experience both sides.

The second thing is her point about how we envy the most those who are closest to our talent level. You don’t envy the huge national best-selling author. You envy the person in your critique group, or your writing league, or your friends.

I had serious envy just in the last couple of days while reading the ARC of Ally Condie’s soon to be released “Matched.” Her writing is so elegant, so beautiful, that I seriously would have given almost anything for that talent.

So how do you deal with envy? Exactly the way Kim says. Use it to motivate you. Remind yourself that if they can do it so can you. I tell people that I inspire other writers all the time. They say, if he can publish a book anyone can. And it’s true. I didn’t start writing my first novel until I was thirty seven. I didn’t sell the first novel I got an agent with. I’ve never won an award or hit a best-sellers list. But what I do have going for me is persistence and a string desire to improve. If you have those two things, you will succeed.

3) Depression

I’m not talking about the clinical illness—although that can come along for the ride as well. I’m talking about the moment where you just want to throw it all away. It’s when you just feel like you don’t have what it takes, and you’re sure quitting is the only way to go. Interestingly enough this moment almost always comes along from someone on the outside. An agent, and editor, another writer, a bad review. Someone tells us we aren’t good, and we believe them. It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve heard we ARE good. The one negative is what breaks the camel’s back.

If you are a writer, you are going to have to deal with depression. It could be tied to envy. Maybe you are bummed out because another writer had some great success. Maybe you just realized your great idea had been used somewhere else. Maybe you just got your hundredth rejection. It’s perfectly okay to feel depressed. Just remember that like Kim says about feeling envy, you’re in good company. Anyone who strives to succeed in the arts will experience depression.

The key is to not let it last too long, and to come up with a course of action. Someone said your writing sucks? Find out if it does. If so, improve it. Take a class. Read a book on writing. Fix what’s broken. If this project is hopeless, set it aside and start on something new. If your writing doesn’t suck, then remind yourself as Rob pointed out in a recent e-mail that Pride and Prejudice has one star reviews on Goodreads, and something called Everybody Poops 410 Pounds a Year got a five star review.

Either a book with interesting facts about bowel movements is better than P&P, or different people have different tastes. My good friend Ally may have an amazing book, but does it have demons who strip naked and camouflage themselves to slip past a circle of hell hounds? I think not. The best cure for depression is to remind yourself that things are not as bad as you think they are at the moment, and that absolutely nothing is stopping you from starting on something amazing today.

So, yeah, you still want to be an author? Even though I promise you that you will experience all of the above emotions, and many just as bad? Excellent. Because we need authors who are willing to fight through adversity, and your prose will be that much stronger for having made it through the fire. Next week, the good parts about being an author.

Sunday, August 29, 2010



Moving in one week. Still not sure how that's going to happen.

In case I haven't mentioned it lately, packing bites.

So back to packing, which leaves no time for blogging.

I'll check in next week so you can all find out whether or not my head has exploded from stress.

Friday, August 27, 2010

This. Is. Also. Not. A. Blog. (Sorry)

by Kerry Blair

Since I happen to have a tape measure at hand, I have been able to ascertain that inch-for-inch, Jeff (bless him!) has easily covered this week both for me and that kid who used to blog on Tuesdays. (He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named walked the earth back in the days when I used to blog on Fridays, I think.) Thank you, Jeff!

That decided, I was polishing up my handy-dandy "moving-to-another-town" excuse and going blithely on my way when I happend to see Sariah's post. Oh. My. Gosh. Suddenly, my cross-county move is paling in comparison. Not only do I already have a house to inhabit, I've actually told my kids that anything they still have on the premises will need to be boxed and moved by them personally. (Yes, guys, this includes fish, fowl, and whatever leftover pit bulls you might have left laying around.)

So . . . in the fifteen minutes I have before leaving to meet the contractor who is going to knock holes in my perfectly good new walls, I am blogging.
Okay, so I'm not actually blogging. I'm more like . . . telling you that I'm not blogging because I'm in the midst of a move to beautiful, downtown Dewey-Humboldt, Arizona. (Don't look it up; it looks kinda depressing online, but it's amazing in real life.) Sariah sought your advice about trivial little things like schools and pediatricians, and many of you responded. I have a much more pressing concern. I have a corral.
A really big corral.
It looks like this, sans horses: (The horses in the picture moved to Wyoming, and good luck to them, I say.)

I don't have horses. I want to adopt a pair of wild burros from a local rescue, but I also want my husband not to divorce me, so I'm trying to think of other uses for this vast area of . . . um . . . baren dirt. Elsewhere on the property there is a house, a large lawn, a barn-type-thing, a well house, a garden, a chicken/goose yard & houses, a little road to the stable, a stable, and a good half-acre of weeds. There is also a another cleared horsey-kind-of-area where I will soon set up my own Field of Dreams. (I've always wanted a baseball diamond. It even has a built in grandstand-kind-of-thing -- again, somthing to do with horses, but serviceable in real-life.) So . . . here's the question: Now that you know what we already have, what do we still need? What creative uses can you imagine for the corral?

The use of your idea will entitle you to a free stay at Lazy Acres! (Named after a motel my grandparents operated in the area in the early 1950s.) All meals included -- assuming, of course, you consider Cheerios and frozen lasagne a meal. I'm not exactly a B&B kinda gal. Just ask Melanie. Or Deb. Or Doug. Or Jeri. Or Susan. Or anybody else who's ever been to see me in Chino Valley.

That said, the door is always open for YOU! Or it will be when the contractor knocks that aforementioned hole in the wall. Which he won't if I don't get out there. Happy weekend, all! (And good luck, Sariah. I feel your pain!)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A New Cover & Two Books

by Julie Coulter Bellon

I have some very exciting news! I got the cover this week for the Christmas booklet that I’m a part of---and they chose to title it after my true Christmas story. I am thrilled and want to share, so here it is:

Isn’t it a great cover? I love the colors and the layout, and I’m told it will be on the shelves in October. I can’t wait.

I also wanted to tell you about two other books that I’m currently reading. As I’ve mentioned before, we have a Bellon Family Book Club at our house. For us, this means that my children and I read a book together, and then we go out for milkshakes to discuss what we did or didn’t like about it. My twelve-year old son is an avid reader (he read the entire Percy Jackson series three times through just for fun) and he loves Jeff Savage books. He’s read all of the Far World series so far, and loved them, so when the ARC of The Fourth Nephite came in the mail, we were both really excited. As we’ve been reading, I really wanted to say what an impression Jeff will make on a younger generation with this book. It is well-written, and a novel idea that completely engrosses you in the plot. My son is barely able to put it down each night and would gladly keep reading into the early morning if I would let him. I can’t wait to see how it ends, and I want to do a book review here when we’re done. (Hopefully by this time next week).

The other book I’ve been reading is Stephanie Black’s Cold as Ice. I’m to the part of the book now where I can’t read it before bed anymore. This is how Stephanie’s books go for me. First, you meet these nice people and you start to get to know them and their lives, and then these problems start happening and you feel bad for them, and then they handle the problems all wrong and these sinister things keep popping up, and then it gets so suspenseful I know if I read further right before bed I will have nightmares. When I mentioned this on Twitter yesterday, someone said, “Is it really that scary?” and wondered if it could be compared to Dan Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer. I quickly assured them that it’s not like that at all. I’m just a big scaredy-cat when it comes to stuff like that and so I just read Stephanie’s thrillers in the daylight. (I’ve never read Dan Wells’ book for that reason. I also was at a friend’s house in junior high and they watched a horror show. I tried to be brave and watch part of it, but honestly, I watched one horrifying scene and had to leave. I still remember every detail to this day and if I think about it too much, I will get a nightmare, but suffice it to say, I don’t think about it much.) I know, it’s probably silly to most of you, but I’m just a little sensitive when it comes to very suspenseful chills and thrills. Stephanie is the master at it though, and I am smack dab in the middle of her book, hoping the heroine doesn’t do what I think she’s going to do.

What are you reading these days? Do you have any books your children have read this summer that you particularly liked?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Conversation Continued

The cool thing about it still being Monday, is that I can post again, and still be legal. Heck, I can probably post again tomorrow and still not step on anyone’s toes. We used to have a Tuesday guy. He was funny, and made great pirate ships. I think he had a rib infection or infarction or something. But, since he (or the janitor pretending to be him) occasionally drops by, I’ll limit my additional blog posts to today.

So anyway, I wrote the equivalent of a novel chapter in my earlier blog. While I was eating pretzels and glorying in the fact that I’d posted regularly for like 1700 weeks—more or less—William Morris dropped by. We started to chat.

“1. I think much of what you say, Jeff, holds true for fiction. I'd be very, very worried if I was non-self-help, non-fiction writer,” William said, munching on a handful of pretzels.

“I agree,” I said, trying to get my pretzels back. “I think non-fiction has always been an easier transition to electronic media. “

“2. Publishers are going to try to wring out as much as they can out of fiction authors when it comes to e-rights,” William replied, holding the bag out of my reach. “That may be fine for many authors. But if publishers (or a publisher -- they're not going to act in unison, or at least signs point to that not happening) get things wrong and depress potential e-book sales (because they are trying to protect their paper business) and take huge cuts of e-book profit, then you as an author are leaving money on the table. There are lots of "ifs" there, of course. At the very least, if you have a back catalog of books with no e-rights attached, talk to somebody before you sign anything your publisher puts in front of you.”

I nodded vigorously, licking the salt off my fingers and wishing William wasn’t such a snack bully. “Yeah. Royalties on e-books are absolutely going to be an issue. The tricky calculation is how much less an e-book costs to produce and how much of that profit should go to the author. In general a hardback costs around $2 to print. There are huge variances based on type of printing, dust jacket, color, foil, illustrations, etc. But let’s use that as an example. So if a hardback lists for $20, and I make 12.5%, that means my royalty is $2.50. If it wholesales for 60%, that means the publisher grosses $12, less my royalty. So call it $9.50 per book. Subtract the $2 production cost and the book brings in $7.50. (Of course this still isn’t taking into account the other costs, editing, art, marketing, PR, etc. But those are the same with an e-book as well. So let’s call them a fixed cost of goods.)

“Now if an e-book sells for $10, and I make the same 12.5%, I only make $1.25. So I need to sell twice as many e-books to make the same royalty. The publisher is probably selling the book for a bigger margin. Let’s say 80%. So they get $8. Take away my $1.25 and they make $6.75 per book. Less than they make on hardbacks, but lots more than they make on paperbacks. I think there is room to increase my margin. But not the fifty percent some people are talking about unless there are significant additional sales.”

“The big publishers so far have bet on the iPad,” William says, getting rid of the numerals to my relief. “All signs point to Amazon dominating the e-book space in the near term. This debate about bookstores and e-book adoption is cast in too large of terms -- the focus really needs to be: who can give you as an author the best profits over the next five years while also being nimble enough to put you in a good position should major changes happen to the market?”

“Not to mention who can sell more books,” I add, sneaking the pretzel bag back and looking for a Dr. Pepper. “If you sell books for less money, you really hope more people are buying books. But I’m not sure that’s true. What if the same number of people buy books, but more of them buy e-books for $10?”

William swishes his drink. Wait where did he find a soda in my house? “The dreck argument doesn't mean much in this debate. In fact, sometimes somebody gets lucky and dreck sells. But the real book-buying public will find good work and the self-publishing stigma is rapidly eroding IF the final product is compelling and of good quality. The democratization of content isn't all that the utopians claim it is, but technology does allow individuals to produce high quality work -- and to be honest some of the best stuff out there is done by individuals with skills. The DIY ethos produces some amazing creative work that looks as professional and is often more fresh and in tune with current trends than the big firms. And these days a viral hit can be a viral hit no matter the provenance (but don't count on that -- work instead on a cultivating an audience).

“The quality of the final product and the marketing and sales and distribution all needs to be right on -- how that happens can vary. Big publishers can screw up any of those stages. So can self-publishers. So can indie presses. The basic advice is still the same: write the best book you can BUT ALSO be informed and in control. If your agent sucks, fire him or her. If you don't like the e-rights contract (or anything else), shop the book around and if there are no takers at your terms and you think you can do it, self-publish. The point is that authors now more than ever need to be small business owners and entrepreneurs.”

“This where we may have to disagree,” I say, settling for a day old opened Fresca. “The stigma of self-publishing is every bit as string today ad it was five years ago. If you don’t believe that try getting your self-pubbed book into a book store’s shelves. Once a self-pubbed book has proven itself, it’s a different story. But the book store doesn’t have the time to pull the hay from the chaff. I don’t believe most readers want to either. In a perfect democratic process, all books would be put in a big electronic pile and readers would pour through each of them raising the cream to the top. But unlike a song, where garage bands can pull this off, a novel is a huge commitment of time. Generally you’re not willing to read 100 bad self-pubbed books to find the good one. And if you aren’t who will? That’s the role that agents and editors currently play. Not perfectly, but they wade through tons of bad books to find a few good ones. I believe that you could write an amazing book, self-publish it as an e-book, have a blog, tweet, facebook, and all that good stuff, and still sell 20 copies, because it’s just too easy to get lost if you don’t already have an audience. I think most authors who self-publish e-books without a base of readers are going to be extremely disappointed.”

William asks if we can get rid of the whole phony discussion thing for the sake of getting on with it. I agree, but decide to leave the colors so you can tell who's commenting.

5. Mid-list authors are being dropped left and right (or at least having advances curtailed). If you are going to stake your hopes on a big publisher (or are already in bed with one), make sure you have an agent that is up-to-date on industry issues, dogged as all get out, and a firm believer in you as both an author and a generator of book sales.

Midlist is fine in the LDS market. In fact one might argue the LDS argue is best at making midlist authors. But that’s always been a dangerous position to be in the national market. And with the current economy it is even more so. If you are not growing in readership, there’s a good chance you will get left behind.

6. You don't have to blog or use Twitter. But you have to figure out where your audience is and how to connect with it. There are all sorts of pockets of people out there using all sorts of technologies (from Google Groups to web forums to microblogging to blogs, etc.) that have grouped themselves for various reasons. Figure out how to reach them and then actively and appropriately engage them.

True. But I will say this. Most authors are currently using these tools not to build a readership but to maintain what their books have given them. Without a base of readers in the first place, a Twitter account will not do much for you.

7. There's no doubt that publishers do a lot of things. But they also do a lot less than they used to in terms of quality control and marketing. Much more is put on the agent and the author. Make sure that you are getting real value out of your publisher for the percentages you're getting.

The economy has caused layoffs in all aspects of the publishing world. But as my friend Brandon Mull said, a big publisher can do nothing for you and a small publisher can do nothing for you. But if the big publisher gets behind you, they can do a lot more. Yes Paolini started as a self-published author, but look how quickly he jumped on the big publisher gravy train as soon as it came along.

8. Don't go the self-publishing or indie press route because you think it's going to be easier or that you are going to make more money (70% on e-books from Amazon!). Do it because you want that level of control, you have the skills (or can acquire them), and you want to write stuff that for whatever reason isn't a good fit for the major publishing houses.

Right. I see way too many people convinced that throwing an e-book onto Amazon, or wherever is going to build them a nice retirement income. I think they will be surprised as how most books sit there selling next to nothing, no matter how good they are. Self-publishing is not for the faint of heart.

9. If you are a current working author and writing your only means of support, sock away as much as you can. There's a real potential for there to be a narrowing of income streams before they widen up again (if they widen up again). Also strongly consider opening up another market (age, genre, whatever --possibly with a pseudonym) with your writing (although be aware that every Mormon and his/her cousin is writing YA these days).

Yep. It’s a crazy space right now. And even a fairly successful author can find themselves out of work like that.

The beautiful thing is that all of these changes mean that authors have more flexibility than ever before. And the road to success (no matter which one you take) is still the same: write well, find an audience, actively manage your career and your brand.


There's been a wave of Utah writers getting picked up by national publishers (it's in part the network effect) -- the question is: when will it crest? Hopefully not for awhile.

Knowing most of these authors, it’s a lot less of the network effect than you might think. My suspicion is that more of it is the concept of seeing your friend doing it and having that give you the confidence to believe you can do. I can take you to my agents front door (figuratively speaking.) But if your book doesn’t knock him out, it won’t help a bit.

That's interesting to hear about your LDS royalties. I think that the LDS market has room for some decent growth -- or at least to have a smoother transition.

a) because American Mormons tend to adopt technologies [I see a lot of smartphones and even some iPads and e-readers at church] I think the e-book market will be strong for LDS titles.

(Plus the fact that you can read a novel during Priesthood.)

b) hopefully the Harry Potter generation (and their parents) will continue to be readers and bring in their younger siblings (and even kids -- I mean some of them are close to becoming parents now); there's some serious momentum in the fantasy realm thanks to LDS success in the national market and Shadow Mountain's titles. Such trends tend to slow down, but I would guess (just a guess) that it'll have more legs in the Mormon market because of our overrepresentation as authors and aspiring authors and because fantasy is uniquely suited to modern Mormon mores (for example, I don't see a trend in gritty urban YA gaining quite so much traction among young LDS readers).

(You might be surprised. Twilight is huge among the LDS crowd.)

c) from what I can tell there are a still large numbers of LDS who ignore fiction coming out in the Mormon market (whether LDS-themed or not) because they only know the market from 15 years ago when the quality and diversity wasn't what it is now. There's potential for some of those folks to be drawn in.

Yeah, but that has proven a hard barrier to break. In my opinion a big part of that is the sheer number of titles being published. Quantity and variety has risen faster than quality has, although generally quality is up.

d) Deseret Book is a diversified bookseller (within its niche). Yes, some stores may have to be shut down, but I think consumers will see a need for a DB store for quite a bit longer than, say, a local Borders or Barnes & Noble.


William leaves and some street person wanders in.

This is a great book. I've been reading about the Dance Teacher and it's a wonderful story about how to get things accomplished through dance. That's for the reference.

Wait who are you. Get out of here and give me my pretzels back.

Michael holds up his new Kindle. “Great points all. I was one of those who said I'll never do without hard books until I actually held a friend's Kindle in my hands and I was converted in about 15 seconds. It might not happen so fast, but book media will certainly be diversifying in a major way over the next 12-24 months.”

Deb baps him on the head with her knuckles.

“Kindles are all well and good, but the baby boomers of this country are quickly becoming seniors, and our eyesight isn't quite like it was when we were "kids". I'm not saying I'm old, but reading something as small as a Kindle can be eye-straining. iPads may be bigger, but, they’re not that much different than a laptop.

I buy books.

Hard covers and paperbacks. I will, on occasion, read stories on my computer, but anything smaller than a full screen is more difficult to see without reader glasses. My sons are in their early twenties, and the last time either of them bought something to read, it was a hardcover book, and they both have Apple laptop computers and iPods. Granted, this is a very small control group. But the boomers are a huge consumer category, and their opinions shouldn't be shelved.

So, who are the people buying Kindles, exactly? There must be demographic studies done. And if the publishers are smart, they will use this information and target specific books to these ages. As I see it, the influx of e-readers, and therefore the selling of e-books are just an addition to publishing, buttressing the world of reading, and will, in no way, replace paper publishing, or the necessity of literary agents to screen the mediocre writers from the good.”

As Michael and Deb duke it out, Marion wanders in wearing a “Rob Wells for President” tee-shirt.

Debra, you can adjust the font size on a kindle. Crank that font all the way up to 60! Don't think you can do that on a paperback. :)

Marion whips out seventeen gizmos and adjust them all with a single remote.

Jeff, sounds like you, and I need to have a public debate at the next Storymakers. An oratorical fisticuffs! :)

That would be a riot. As long as you didn’t have funny sayings showing up on the screen behind me . . . wait a minute. I sense a trap.

Truth be told, I think much of what you say holds merit. But I also think the industry will be affected in a deeper way than you're describing above. No, bookstores aren't going away. No, publishers, editors, agents aren’t going to disappear. But make no bones about it, their industry is going through significant changes, and those that adapt to those changes will emerge as the new leaders in the market.

True. But I still think it comes down to who has the best story and the most marketing.

Think Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble. Which one has a for sale sign up in their front yard? If the publishers don't make changes, and make them fast, they'll find themselves irrelevant.

Okay. I was with you on the first part, although I think B&N’s troubles are more related to a tight economy than e-books. When money is tight you go shopping less and look harder for the lowest price. But I still think the publishers being irrelevant thing is way off track. E-books are another form of the same product. The fact that it’s on a screen instead of paper doesn’t change all the things a publisher can provide.

We’re also looking at the golden age for authors. Yes, Kindle will give everybody and their uncle a chance to sell their book. But the internet gave everybody and their uncle a chance to create a webpage, and the end result was that a lot of really cool stuff was created. Social media gives us the perfect tools to help push the cream to the top, and it can be enjoyed by all for a much cheaper price, and at a much greater convenience.

Ahh, but along with all the really cool websites, came a ton of not so cool stuff. For every web site that is new and exciting and interesting, there are thousands that are boring and unread by anyone other than a few friends and family. Nothing against those, everyone should have a chance to write what they want. But look how lost a single web-site can be right now and then turn that into books. Will some of the self-published e-book authors become rock stars? Yes. But the chances will be about as good as your personal website getting a million viewers. And despite all the mom and pop sites out there, the big guys still get the most views.

Electronic publishing gives you a chance to put your writing out there without anything standing in your way. But what most people fail to realize is that distribution and demand are not the same thing. You can make your novel available to anyone with a computer or e-reader and 99 cents to spend. But what you can’t do is create the buzz that a big publisher can. You can’t create the credibility. You can’t get the big reviewers. You can’t get the media attention. You envision a perfect world where everyone reads every book and the best rise to the top. But the truth is that most self-published e-books won’t get the views necessary to rise at all, because they will be buried by the avalanche of other self-published books. There will be exceptions, but they will be just that. It’s tough to get a snowball rolling without having any snow in the first place.

Great post, thanks for your thoughts.

You too!

Is the Bookstore Extinct?

Last week, I was asked by a reader (writer?) to comment on a recent Wall Street Journal article titled, “Get ready for the bookstore massacre.” Sounds pretty scary, huh? I can just imagine floors running with ink, pages fluttering in the wind blowing through broken windows, dismembered novels crying for help.

Before I respond, let me start by saying that I have a little personal experience with the internet taking over traditional, brick and mortar stores. A little over ten years ago, I was the CEO of a two-hundred person internet company. The technology we created allowed internet users to compare features for a product (say a TV) by all kinds of cool metrics, price shop, and order, all on-line. Not that revolutionary now, but at the time it was pretty cutting edge.

One afternoon, I met with the CEO of a company called eToys. It was an interesting experience. There was a six foot tall Etch-a-Sketch in the lobby, employees rode scooters around the halls, and a puppet show was taking place in a conference room. I later used some of these elements in my first published novel, Cutting Edge. eToys was a giant at the time. They had recently gone public and were valued in the billions. They were poised to blow the doors off of every other toy store in the US. In fact Toys-R-Us, was so frightened of them that they offered eToys the chance to be the on-line site for Toys-R-Us. And eToys turned them down. (So they had to settle for some upstart book reseller called Amazon.)

Have you heard of eToys? Have you bought a toy from eToys lately? If you did, you bought a product from the company that bought the domain for dirt cheap, because the original eToys didn’t stay in business long enough to let any of its employees even cash out their stocks. It was going to drive Toys-R-Us into the ground because we were all going to buy our toys on-line. Why wouldn’t we? They are cheaper. There is no sales tax. They can carry a bigger inventory. Very smart, very savvy investors—including the kind of people that write for publications like WSJ—were sure your local toy store was going out of business. To state the obvious, they were wrong.

I mention this story to make a point. Just because a lot of smart people say something is true, doesn’t make it true. In the past twenty years, I’ve seen more scary headline than I can list. We were all heading into another ice age back when I got married (the world, not my wife and I personally!) When my now married daughter was a baby, Meryl Streep came on 60 Minutes and urged to me to pour all my apple juice down the sink because I was poisoning my baby with a pesticide called Alar. You can’t watch a promo for the nightly news with hearing at least one “dire” warning a week.

I’m not saying that there aren’t environmental concerns. I’m not saying that I want a ton of pesticides on my food, or that Alar was 100% scare. What I am saying is that while journalists are paid to make informed decisions, they are also paid to get readers/viewers. Unfortunately headlines like, “Bookstores likely to sell fewer books,” don’t draw the same kind of attention as, “Get ready for the bookstore massacre.”

If the past has proven anything, it’s that trying to forecast—even five or ten years in advance—is a crap shoot at best. You can look at trends. You can make informed decisions (or uninformed decisions.) You can do polls. You can make graphs. But you cannot say with any degree of certainty that X is going to lead to Y. So let’s look at some of the things being forecast and see what’s likely, what’s possible, and what’s out and out hyperbole.

1) In the next five years everyone will be buying their books electronically. Imagine a world in which your book is smaller, lighter, and more portable than a traditional hardback. You’d snap it right up, wouldn’t you? You’d never buy another hardback again. Um, yeah, it’s called the paperback, and it’s been out long enough for the Beatles to make a song about it. In fact isn’t that basically what the penny dreadfuls were shooting for?

The point people seem to miss when they talk about paper books disappearing, is that hardbacks are collected. People like them. While it’s true that many more people would buy paperbacks if they came out at the same time as the hardback, it’s also true that hardbacks would have disappeared a long time if no one bought them. Publishers make hardbacks because they can make more money on them and people buy them. Reality is that the world is changing. Twenty years ago, nearly everyone subscribed to a newspaper and about a dozen magazines. Now most people read their news on-line. Especially with younger generations, the idea of reading a hard copy of something that is available on-line is far less appealing.

E-book sales are skyrocketing, and with the dropping price of readers, it’s unlikely that trend will slow for quite some time. However, just because e-book reader sales keep going up, it doesn’t mean books are going away. Don’t believe me? Electronic documentation has been available to office workers for over a decade, and yet paper usage is higher than ever. I think it’s very likely that e-books could take a huge bite out of paperback sales. But, as long as people still like hardbacks, I don’t see them going away any time soon.

2) Bookstores are going the way of the way of the dinosaur. If I am wrong about point 1, then I think point 2, could happen. One thing the internet did prove analysts right about is that if you can create something that can only be done (or can be done exponentially better) on the internet, it can succeed. Think about E-Bay. It’s essentially a world-wide garage sale, a model that only works on the internet. Think Amazon, no single store could carry that kind of inventory at that kind of discount. But . . . other models that looked just as promising failed miserably. How many of you order your groceries on-line and have them delivered to your door? It was available, and actually cheaper, and much more convenient, than having to go to the store. But people didn’t use it.

The thing is, just because something is cheaper or even more convenient, does not mean everyone will use it, as long as there is another option. Predicting the demise of brick and mortar doesn’t take into account the people shop for a variety of reasons. The fun of browsing. Stopping for a book after going out to lunch. Getting a gift. Getting out of the freaking house and seeing something other than a computer screen. Lots of people like to go to stores and shop. If it wasn’t for the interaction—the fun—of shopping, Indie bookstores would have gone out of business a long time ago. It’s not all about price and size.

The other thing being left out of this equation is that many books don’t easily fit into the e-book model. Picture books, coffee table books, kids books. Yeah, I know you can out all of these on e-books, but I don’t believe for an instant that families are going to buy e-book readers for every kid in the family. Or that flipping through the pages of Hungry Green Monster will be the same, even on an I-Pad. Yes, I know, e-readers can add even more stuff. Videos, music, animation. All of that has been available on computers for years. I have a really cute Little Critter book on the computer that I’ve had since my big kids were little. But I still didn’t replace their picture books with a laptop.

It’s entirely possible that the look of bookstores may change. You may download an electronic book while you browse paper books. At the BYU bookstore I recently saw a print on demand machine. Want a paper book we don’t stock? Great we’ll print it for you. But I don’t see bookstores disappearing the way some people are forecasting.

3) E-books will make publishers and agents obsolete. Of all the predictions, this is the one that proves to me prognosticators don’t have a clue. Who knew that all we needed was mass distribution to make publishers obsolete? It actually makes perfect sense if all your publisher does is distribute your book. But if you really believe that a publisher and a distributor are the same thing, you don’t know the industry at all. What does a publisher do?

Well, let’s start with quality. Go to Amazon. Download their free reader app. Then randomly pick a few of the free, or even 99 cent self-published books. I’m not talking about the stuff that has gone out of copyright. That actually had an editor. I’m talking about Jimbob Farklecker, who tried to publish his book, failed, and self-published it in e-book format. Or even better, just browse the internet for novels people are publishing on their blogs, or web-sites, or forums. I’m not saying Bob’s book is bad—although it is. What I’m saying is that even if Jimbob’s story is great, it still needs a professional editor. It still needs direction. And, yes, it still needs a net to weed out all the crap, and take what’s good.

Now, I know all you self-published authors are screaming at me. Your book is good. You either don’t need a professional editor or hired one before you published your books. You’ll also remind me of all the great authors who started out self-publishing, or even moved from traditional publishing to e-books. Richard Paul Evans, Christopher Paolini, JA Konrath. And those are the norm right? Or even a majority? A decent-sized minority? No, using these examples to say that publishers are going to be obsolete is like saying that every traditionally published author will make millions of dollars because just look at Meyer, King, Grisham, etc.

The fact of the matter is that the huge majority of self-published books are not up to the quality of traditionally published books. Even when the authors are good, they don’t get the necessary feedback and editing required to make a really good read. And this is a shame because all the crap out there puts such a stain on the group as a whole that the good books become hit with the same paint brush. I know that a traditionally published book had to make it through probably an agent, an editor, and a committee, before hitting the streets. That doesn’t guarantee a good book, but would you take your car to be fixed by a guy that had no certifications or professional training? And it’s only going to get worse as more people realize how easily they can “publish” their book. If anything, I think there is going to be so much garbage spewed into e-book stores that people are going to be scared of downloading anything self-published, unless it’s gotten great reviews from people they trust or they know the author already.

And that’s just quality. There is so much more a publisher does. For a really good read, check out this article.

There are many more things being suggested. Oh, no, all your e-books are going to be filled with ads! Read this for a reality check of what is happening, what might happen, and what is unlikely to happen. Soon authors won’t be able to make any money because books will be copied freely back and forth! Yep, look at all those poor rock stars begging on the streets now because of MP3s. Agents are going away! Publishers are gone! Bookstores will be empty by Christmas! We’ll all be driving flying cars by 2010! Oh , wait looks like we missed that one.

I’m not saying things won’t change. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. What I am saying is that ten years from now, things will have changed in a way that almost no one predicted. And many of the things people did predict will be wrong. In the mean time, I’m writing the best book I can. Getting the best agent. Hoping for a big publisher with a great editor. And looking forward to heading down to the bookstore this weekend to see what’s new. But hey, that’s just me.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Attention Utah County Residents! (Or, I Am Moving)

by Sariah S. Wilson

When it rains, it doesn't just pour, it opens up the skies with golf ball-sized hailstones.

The Wilsons are moving to Utah!

Everyone in our home ward said they'd give us one year until we followed my family out west. I will have you know that it will be one year and 29 days, thankyouverymuch!

I have a brother who is an IT recruiter (which is nice, given that my husband is an IT recruitee) and despite our three-year plan we had for moving to Utah, told us that he could get us a lot more money than we were making and we could come out to Utah right away. (This was back in May/June.)

He passed my husband's resume along to his clients (being in the midst of changing employers himself), and handed it out to his network of other recruiters. We got phone calls/emails about the same three jobs and then...nothing.

That's not really typical for us - when my husband puts out a resume he usually gets a lot of responses and interviews set up so we were a little surprised. Well, we thought, this must not be what the Lord wants for us.

We settled back into our lives, thinking that when the timing was right, we would go.

My husband started a Twitter account, and complained one night that he was following someone he didn't recognize. He then remembered that it was a recruiter who had contacted him somewhat recently and mentioned a possible position. He interviewed - the company told him that while he could certainly do the job, he hadn't been doing that specific work for a while and they went with someone else. But the interviewer mentioned that they might have a position better suited to him and that they would call him back.

Weeks passed, nothing happened. I reminded my husband to follow up with the recruiter, just to see if they still had the job.

They did. They called, they did the tech interview, he had a second interview, and yesterday flew out to Utah for a third, in-person all day interview. We didn't expect to hear from them until early next week, but they called Friday evening to let him know that he had the job!

I didn't know it was possible to be happy and excited but this completely freaked out at the same time. I've never moved a family this big from a house this size. We went from apartment to condo, and from condo to this house. Two very small moves. I don't even know how to do this, and didn't get much sleep last night because of how much I was stressing out!

I'm happy he got the job, but honestly, I would have been just as fine if he hadn't.

I do miss living by my family, but we have a life here. We've lived in this house for ten years - had the same pediatrician, family doctor and OB-GYN for 11 years, been in the same ward for all that time, lived in one of the best school districts in Ohio, etc. The roots have gone deep.

Probably one of the things I was most looking forward to - when a child has special needs, the local school district has to start providing an education for them at the age of three. In our school district, they took in not only those special needs children (who attended for free), but filled the other half of each class with typical kids (who pay a fee). When my oldest son went, it helped to socialize him and to emulate the other higher functioning kids. It helped the typical kids learn empathy and compassion for people who weren't like them. The teachers are so well educated and certified - the waiting list for this school is unreal. Thousands of kids get on the waiting list.

My second son got to attend for a year and a half when an opening came up, but we had been on that waiting list.

But my in on the first try. She's going to love preschool, I was going to love having a bit of a break from preventing her from trying to take out the baby, and I thought the baby was probably going to be beside himself with joy that his sister would be gone for a few hours a day.

Now, no preschool. I'm probably most sad about that.

I'm terrified about trying to sell my house. The housing market isn't great here, and I'm worried we won't even get out of the house what we need to pay off the mortgage and the realtors.

We have to go and live in my mom's basement in Eagle Freaking Mountain until we find a place to live.

We talked about the whole living apart thing - he would go there and go to work while I stayed here until the house sold. But I didn't want to be apart for however long that would take, and I can't even keep my house clean enough to have anybody over, let alone the immaculate state it would have to remain in in order to sell it. So I'm heading out when he's heading out.

This means I have two weeks to pack up ten years' worth of stuff in my house. Two weeks. It makes my brain hurt. I don't know how I'm supposed to get that done.

I'm thinking about Utah County, and I hear good things about the Alpine School District. Is it true you can go to any school you want in that district? (I also hear good things about the American Fork schools.) Does anyone have a child on an IEP that would contact me if you're in this district?

Is there a really good preschool in the Saratoga Springs/Lehi/American Fork area that anyone could recommend?

Any other fun places to live where I can get a big house (my kids are huge. They need a giant house. I can already picture them as teenagers having to duck through doorways) that doesn't cost a ton of money? (From looking online, it looks like houses are more expensive out there than they are here.)

Does anyone want to come help me move when we do find a house? (Just kidding on the last part. Sort of.)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Right Kind of Criticism

by Julie Coulter Bellon

There hasn’t been a lot of family fare on television this summer. One series we’ve started watching, though, is Wipeout. Our toddler is fascinated, not by the show, but by the bad looks we have on our faces and the myriad of “Oh, that’s gotta hurt,” comments that seem to follow every segment. If you’ve ever seen that show, I think it’s a miracle people aren’t wheeled away on gurneys to a waiting ambulance by the end.

The other show we’ve started watching is America’s Got Talent. I was so surprised by what some people deemed talent, but just as surprised by how much talent there really was. The show is gearing up for the semi-finals this week and I’m hoping my favorites get through. (Did you SEE Jackie Evancho? Amazing. But I love Fighting Gravity, too. Hard choices).

One thing I don’t really like in the show, however, is the way Piers Morgan criticizes the contestants. He buzzes them during their performance, and then when they are done, all smiley, and thinking they’ve done their best, he out and out tells them, you were terrible. I was totally bored watching you. That was the worst performance I’ve ever seen. Most people just stand there and say nothing, some have welled up with tears, and others have argued, but it’s disheartening to watch because he rarely offers constructive criticism. He states his opinion, but doesn’t say WHY he hated their performance. He doesn’t tell them how to improve it, he just seems bent on saying something horrible to them. And he’s really mean to Howie Mandel, calling him half-wit and other names, and totally discounts his opinions. He just comes across as an arrogant twit to me sometimes. (Can we say twit on this blog? I should have checked.)

But if Piers were an editor, reviewer or reader, I think HE would be terrible at it. He just doesn’t seem to have the constructive gene needed to make a work or performance better.

As you know, for a writer, criticism is part of the job. Evaluators, readers, editors, reviewers, all get a say on our performance, but it’s the way they deliver their “say” that matters to me. Yesterday, one of my newer readers dropped off my manuscript with her comments, and she was worried because she felt she’d only put the negative and not enough positive. And yet, as I went through her feedback, she was dead on in her comments and I knew that by following her advice, my story would be stronger. She had a positive at the end, but honestly, while I loved the positive, I loved the negative more. I could totally see what she meant, was surprised I hadn’t thought of it myself, and was eager to get on the computer and fix it. Those are the types of criticism I find valuable. Something like, “this book was terrible,” or “I was totally bored reading this book,” (to quote Piers Morgan) would be entirely unhelpful to me.

So, the moral of the story is, I don’t think any writer out there just wants positive, happy, comments, with no criticism ever (okay maybe sometimes), because if we did, we would never become a published writer, since there is no way to make everyone love your book. But it’s the constructive criticism that we get during the process and when our books are on the shelf that helps us improve and grow and that makes us better writers. It’s those little things that get pointed out for improvement purposes that makes it invaluable to a writer. (Even though sometimes it does sting. I’m still working on that a bit.) But we need that sort of input if we ever want to be a better writer.

(And can I just say that I would LOVE to see Piers Morgan on Wipeout? Just once.)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

What's for Dinner?

by Stephanie Black

Since I blogged about exercise last week, it seems fitting that I blog about food this week, especially after Rob opened the topic by mentioning bacon grease. You should all give up bacon! And donuts! And French fries! And cream cheese! Put that cookie down! Shape up!

Wow, that was a lot of hypocrisy for one day.

Mmm, donuts. We have this great donut shop nearby. Little-known fact: if you walk to a donut shop instead of driving, you are legally allowed to categorize donuts as health food.

Okay, I really do think healthful food is a good thing, at least for other people, and I have tried to eat less lately, so if anyone would like to pat me on the back, that would be awesome. But don’t pat too hard, because I haven’t done that well, and besides, you might knock me over, because my core muscle strength and balance aren’t yet what they ought to be. But give me time.

Next on the list of tasty topics: barbecue pulled pork. I finally had a lightbulb moment regarding pork after I made some pork carnitas that my family loved, wherein I used a good, fatty cut of meat. I realized if I was making shredded pork, I needed to stop using that lean pork loin that looks so nice in the package at the store, and instead go for something streaked with fat, like a pork shoulder. Oh, baby. I cooked the pork for a few hours in a pan I am extremely fond of—do you ever have fond feelings for certain cookware or dishes? Anyway, it’s enamel-covered cast iron in a lovely blue, and I have warm, furry feelings towards it. And the pork was extremely tasty.

I’m a decent cook, though it’s not something I view as recreation. My husband, who is a bread baker, doesn’t mind making something that takes hours (ask him about the ward Christmas party last year—he spent the entire day baking two kinds of bread for the dinner. I would have gone to Costco). To me, cooking is a household task, like vacuuming. I don’t dislike it; it’s just something that needs to be done. Or it’s a means to an end, as in, man, don’t blueberry scones sound good right now? I think I’ll bake some. I love it when a simple, quick recipe is also delicious, like tortellini-basil soup (chicken broth, cheese-filled tortellini, chopped tomatoes, cannellini beans, fresh basil, balsamic vinegar, sprinkle some parmesan cheese and pepper on the top and you’re done). I do like trying new recipes—my first attempt at pad Thai was the pits since we made a last-ditch effort to substitute tamarind soup mix for the tamarind paste. Warning: do not try this substitution at home. You need tamarind paste. When I tried it again with the right stuff, it was very tasty, and my five-year-old devoured it. Of course, I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the rest of that jar of tamarind paste in my fridge. Maybe it could hang out with the capers.

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to plan out weekly dinner menus, so I would know what we were eating that week and could shop accordingly, instead of saying “What’s for dinner?” at 4:30 in the afternoon and having to run to the store multiple times each week. I’d like to say I’ve done really well on planning my meals. I’d also like to say that I’ve done really well on cleaning my carpets, but neither would be true. I’m still hit and miss on the dinner planning—sometimes I have a list of meals; often I don’t. But it all works.

My daughter is heading back to college next week, and she put together a binder of recipes for use at school. I’m glad she can cook—she makes excellent hot and sour soup, for one thing. I need to pester my next oldest daughter, who is a senior in high school, to make sure she has basic cooking skills before she leaves. I want all my kids to have basic cooking skills. If they leave home without knowing how to make cream cheese chocolate chip cookies, they’re just asking for trouble in life.

So what kind of cook are you? Do you love it? Hate it? Love trying new recipes? Prefer the tried-and-true classics? All of the above.

Oddly enough, I’m hungry. Time for lunch!

What I've Been Up To

I haven't blogged as much as usual in the last few weeks (defining "usual" very loosely). I've decided that rather than form a coherant thought, I'd catch you up on my comings and goings in bullet-point form.


I recently went on a whirlwind trip to Yellowstone. All summer we've been promising the kids that we'd go camping, but all manner of time commitments have stood in our way, so two weeks ago we packed up and spent a quick weekend watching water boil.

By strict definition, it wasn't "camping". One night we stayed in a one-room cabin in the woods, and the other night we stayed in the Marriott. But, we totally looked at trees out the window, and I think there was a show about nature on our plasma screen TV.

Being August, there wasn't a lot of wildlife to be seen. If you go to Yellowstone in early summer all the elk and buffalo are hanging out by the roads, hoping to see and be seen. But by August they've decided they hate tourists. This is all normal and we've experienced it before (we go to Yellowstone a lot). What we haven't experienced before is that all the geysers were taking summer vacation, too. My theory is that there's less water due to the hot weather, so they don't erupt as much, but the other theory is that we didn't spend a ton of time and our lack of patience was our downfall. Either way, the hikes were dull, with no geysers, just steamy puddles. That said, we managed to see all the animals we wanted to, including a huge grizzly on the shoulder of the road. They were just fewer and far between.

The Emergency Room

My next trip was to the ER on a Sunday evening. In the morning I'd been experiencing some weird symptoms which I described to my wife as "a migraine without the headache". It was all nausea and pressure and lightheadedness. Then, at church, she said I looked pale and my lips were blue, so I went home and discovered my blood pressure was really high. (Those of you who know me might not be surprised at the high blood pressure, since I shower in bacon grease every morning, but I've actually never had high blood pressure in my entire life, ever. And yet this was REALLY high.)

And then the kicker: after a few hours of weird symptoms and high blood pressure, my face started to go numb. A quick consultation with Dr. Internet indicated that I was having a stroke and that I needed to visit the hospital and an estate lawyer.

Fortunately for all, it wasn't a stroke. I had an EKG and a CT scan, and the doctor and nurse had a long conversation where they tried to find something sharp to run across the bottoms of my feet. In the end, I can't remember what they chose. But I flinched several times during the conversation, so it wasn't needed.

The ultimate verdict was: A Complex Migraine. It's like a migraine, but with more random crap they can't explain. Then they paged the crazy doctor for a consult, and he came in and told me that my body was filled with toxins caused by aspartame and food additives, and the only possible therapy was to give me an expensive placebo (and to make me an independent placebo distributor!) Or maybe I made that part up. But it was a Complex Migraine.

The Edits

The first round of edits for Variant are in the bag, and I still have a few days before the second round begins. Overall, the edits weren't bad at all. They certainly weren't like my third book, when the main edit was "We like it, but make it more like The Da Vinci Code."

There were three main revisions, one of which was to knock off the repitition. And, as I looked at my editor's notes, I discovered that I repeat stuff constantly. Constantly. I repeat stuff constantly. What I'm trying to say is that when I say a thing, I will repeat it. Constantly.

We're Moving

I move a lot. In ten years of marriage, we've had nine different addresses (though that includes a few quick little moves, like when we house-sat for someone for four months, and when I interned for my MBA). This time, however, we're moving to a far more stable place--a house. It's a marvelous house in a good area with a big yard. It was built and decorated in the fifties, and it has a fine selection of gold and baby-blue carpet.

Also, we discovered yesterday, it has a chubby rat lounging on the back lawn. So, hooray! Watch out, Mrs. Frisby! The exterminators are on the way!

Another thing the house has: a walnut tree. I cut open one of the fruit to figure out what it was (because it looked green and round, not walnutish) and the juice permanently stained my hand. It's been six days. Dang walnuts.

Anyway, the important thing about moving into a house is that now you can help me carry the piano up the front steps. Come one and all.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Demon Spawn Part 2

Last week I wrote about how I came up with the idea for Demon Spawn, my latest YA WIP (Young Adult Work in Progress for the acronym impaired). I won’t recap, since if you are reading this and haven’t read that, it’s easy enough to scroll down. The plan was to submit the finished product to my agent last week. Unfortunately life stepped in the way, and I was called on a week-long business trip to the east coast. That slowed me down a little. The good news is that I’m >< this close to being done. One more chapter and an epilogue. There were so many parts I was worried about, and every one of them has ended up even better than I hoped. That is definitely not always the case. In fact, many times I have to make significant changes to parts I planned well in advance because they just don’t fly.

So the current plan is to have everything submitted by Wednesday afternoon. Good news since I’ve got a fun but crazy weekend.

Thursday night, my sister and author, Deanne Blackhurst and I will be speaking to the Tooele, UT chapter of the League of Utah Writers. It’s at the Purple Cow. You can call the store for more information or directions. It’s free too! Free, I say!

Friday, I will be signing books in the BYU bookstore from 11-1.

Saturday, I will be at Writing for Charity in Sandy, Utah. It’s a great event. You get a free critique from a children’s book author, an author panel, genre Q&A, lunch with authors, auctions, raffles, and all kinds of other really cool stuff. Plus all the money goes to buy books for underprivileged Utah kids. See more about the event here.

I left off last week with having signed a contract with Michael Bourret of Dystel and Godrich. I to have such an amazing agent, but wondered if I should have finished the whole manuscript first. Normally the answer to that would be a resounding, “Yes!” Even with eight books under my belt, there were still agents who wouldn’t sign me until they saw the whole ms.

Michael assured me that I’d made the right move. He felt the story idea was very strong, but was concerned about how I would execute on it. Not the writing—he’d read enough of my stuff before to know I could write—but the plotting. He asked me to send him the entire book, outlined chapter by chapter. I’m actually not a big outliner, but I felt like I knew the story well enough to pull it off.

In my mind, I envisioned Demon Spawn as kind of a mix between Uglies and Hunger Games. I know neither of those takes place in Hell, or even has paranormal characters. But it wasn’t those things so much as the plots. DS was an action-oriented love story in my mind, that focused on issues like how we judge others and discrimination. The seraphs look down on the demons who look down on the damned humes, just the way pretties look down on uglies or the capital looks down on its colonies. Like Hunger Games, I envisioned much of the story to be focused on the traveling between Heaven and Hell. Instead of fighting which each other, the group must fight the dangers in the outer circles. That’s where much of the action took place. That’s where the love triangle really built up. And that’s what I was in a rush to get to.

This is where a wise agent comes in. His first advice was, slow down. Unlike Uglies or Hunger Games, this story takes place in a world the reader is unfamiliar with. Both of the previous two YA novels take place in a dystopian future, but their worlds are not so different from ours. But Hell. What is Hell like? What do the Demons think of it? What do they do? Where do they go? How does it look, smell, feel, taste? Michael convinced me that before we could enjoy a story about humans, demons, and angels escaping from Hell, the world of Hell had to be strongly established.

That meant taking the fifty pages I’d written and turning it into almost three times that many. We don’t actually even leave Hell until halfway through the book. At first I admit I didn’t like the idea. It seemed to slow things way too much down. But when I was forced to beef up the beginning, it magically did other things. It filled out the characters. It built up the suspense. It established the world. Basically it did everything you need to make a book not just a story, but an event. (I know that sounds like bragging, but when I compare what I have now to what I had then, it’s like going from a short story to a novel.)

The good news was that it made my novel MUCH better. The bad news was that I didn’t even have the outlined approved until nearly March. I’d taken on a new job. I’d written another novel (The Fourth Nephite, which is on store shelves—at least in Utah) and I’d finished a second one. (A Time to Die) In fact, by the time I got done going back and forth on the outline, I felt like I’d lost at least a little of my previous energy for the story. For about a month I told myself I needed to write, but all I could do was dabble.

I had to re-immerse myself in the story. One thing I’ve learned (for me at least) is that if you “tell” your story too much, writing it is not as fun. I felt like in going over and over the outline, I’d “told” my story a little too often. One thing that really helped me get my energy back was to get a couple of BETA readers who knew nothing about DS to read what I’d written so far. Hearing their excitement helped get the flame burning again. Once I got back into the story, it clipped right along.

I also allowed myself the freedom of letting the charters really pull things where they wanted. Cinder, who had basically been a sidekick at first, became a teenage demon spawn who is probably too smart and sexy for her own good. She understands guys and can get them to do whatever she wants. But inside there’s a lot of insecurity that comes out when things are on the line. It’s not until she nearly loses her life that she realizes how selfish she is. When she puts her brains, insight, and maybe still looks a little, toward something positive she surprises even herself. She still makes me laugh more than any other character in the book. But I really care about her now. I worry for her, and cheer when she succeeds.

So here we are. The book will be done tomorrow or Wednesday at the latest. It’s coming in at just over 100,000 words which means I need to trim a couple thousand. YA editors don’t like breaking 100,000k if your initials aren’t JKR or SM. That’s okay. Tightening isn’t too bad and it usually makes the story better anyway. I’ve gotten wonderful feedback from my BETA readers. I’ll send it to my agent this week, wait for changes, and hopefully start shopping it next month.
I’ll take a week or two off and then start working on the 3rd Farworld book and the second 4th Nephite book. I’d expected to have more time for 4th, but DB likes the early reviews on book one enough that they’d like to release book 2 in May, which means an end of November deadline. Yikes. Back to writing.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Waiting Room

by Julie Coulter Bellon

Yesterday I had the opportunity to spend some time in a waiting room. I have always hated waiting rooms, mostly because I’m an impatient person. (I sent in my new manuscript and the waiting from here on out always kills me, but I digress). So there I was in the waiting room, somewhere I have always previously hated to be, and then a large group of people walked in.

Part of the group of people who walked in was a missionary, and he was with his mother and his sister. I knew that because his mother was talking very loudly on her cell phone (disregarding all the signs about not using a cell phone in there) and she was talking about his sister also being in the hospital with her baby. The point of the conversation was that she was having to travel between this waiting room and the sister's hospital room and she couldn’t be in two places at once, so she was contemplating leaving her missionary son in the care of his sister and a nurse, and was chatting to someone about the prudence of that decision. The mother then gave her son a very wet kiss, (which he wiped off when she wasn’t looking), and then kissed her daughter and left. The daughter, (who had a sort of orangey/pink hair with black tips), leaned over to her brother, the missionary, and asked if he would like to see the pictures of his sister giving birth. She did promise to cover up any parts of the picture that wouldn’t be appropriate for him to see and he agreed.

The second part of the group was a mother with three boys. Two of the boys were younger (about ten or eleven I’d guess) and they were running all over the entire room, hitting each other and playing a game of chase between the uncomfortable chairs, while trying not to bump into or fall into anyone else’s laps. The mother of these boys sat quietly reading her People magazine while the chaos ensued around her. It was so incredible to me that it seemed as if she were able to tune out the shouting and racing around her and calmly read that magazine. I’ve honestly never seen anything like that before.

The last part of the group was a very quiet woman, dressed in a long-sleeved, to-her-ankles dark-colored dress, with non-descript black shoes. Her long beautiful hair was done in an intricate braid and I wished I could do my little girl’s hair like that. She was hovering around her husband, trying to anticipate his every need as they checked into the waiting room madness. She sat near me and gave me a small smile as I rubbed my ginormous baby tummy and tried to get comfortable, and it was almost like she spoke to me in a quiet way, acknowledging me, my tummy, and just that we were two women stuck in the same waiting room.

So, if you can imagine this---the missionary looking at his sister’s birth pictures with all the inappropriate parts being covered by his other sister, two boys playing chase through the crowded room, and this quiet woman sitting near me, bringing a sort of calm to the chaos. It honestly made me more aware of how people-watching can affect me as a person and as an author. I want my characters to touch you somehow, or to make you feel, or have a reaction. When I write, I want you to feel the annoyance of having someone talking loudly on their cell phone in a quiet place, and having children running around bumping people, or laugh when the son wipes off a wet kiss from his mom, and then I want you to feel the calm of a sweet smile that brings it all into focus.

If I can do that, if I can make a reader feel like they’ve been there and experienced the events with my characters, then I think I’ve done my job.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Time to Sweat

by Stephanie Black

I would like to proudly announce that I have now been exercising for a week and a half! And guess what? It worked! I’m skinny now with abs of steel!

Just kidding. I wanted to see if anyone would believe me. But truly, don’t you think that’s what’s wrong with exercise? Not enough instant gratification. Time and time again I’ve started exercising, been really good about it for a while, and then fizzled out (The Fizzler would be a good name for a mediocre villain--the guy who comes up with a fiendish plan to take over the world, but about halfway through, he gets bored, wanders home, and eats Death by Chocolate ice cream instead).

Anyway, now that vacation is over, here I go again, determined to get in better shape. I’m trying a little variety—some days I go for a walk around a nearby park (it’s about two miles to walk all the way around the park). Some days I exercise on our old Elliptical. And I just bought a groovy weight thing called a kettlebell so I can do some resistance-type exercise on some days. It’s this weight with a handle, and looks a bit like a rounded cowbell. When I watched the video explaining how to use it, the instructor talked about “throwing” it, which seems like a questionable idea at best—picture the weight sailing across the room, taking out a small child, and crashing through the window—but it turns out she wasn’t talking about actually flinging the thing, but just the way you’re swinging it (while still holding on). Whew. I’m just beginning, so I have my five-pound weight, but as you get stronger, you can get bigger weights. We’ll see if I make it that far.

I’m hoping I can keep up with the exercise this time. While I was driving my sixteen-year-old daughter to the zoo this morning (she volunteers at the zoo), she opined that the whole “it takes twenty-one days to form a new habit” thing that you always hear is baloney. I agree. Who came up with that theory anyway? Some organized, motivated person, I’ll bet. The rest of us are perfectly capable of doing something good for us for twenty-one days and then letting it go by the wayside. Habit, my eye.

But I am a bit more motivated this time than I’ve been in the past. I’m getting older, so good health no longer seems like the “free pass” it was when I was younger—I feel like I really need the exercise. Plus, I’d love to lose a few pounds. Not badly enough to actually diet, mind you, but badly enough to keep up with the exercise. I hope. Wish me luck.

Backup plan: buy bigger pants.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Demon Spawn

First of all, thanks so much for the great feedback on what makes you drool for a next book. I agree that characters are so key. I really want to relate to them and care about what they will do and what will happen to them. As I promised, my next few posts will be about how my current WIP came to be. The first two weeks, I’ll focus on coming up with the idea and submitting. After that, what I learned as I crafted the story.

Sometime this week I am sending my newest project, Demon Spawn, to my agent for final edits before we shop it (in September?) This has actually been quite a ride—going from an idea that appeared almost full blown in my head one night, to a concept, an outline, a manuscript, and hopefully a novel. I thought some of you might interested in how the process works.

Last summer was a frustrating time for me. Farworld had been put on hold (it’s off hold now), I was struggling with The Fourth Nephite an Mormon time travel I had promised to write for Deseret Book, and I was years past deadline on my next Shandra Covington mystery, A Time to Die (which is now on store shelves.)

I had recently had lunch with my friend James Dashner, and he mentioned a term I was not familiar with, “high concept.” I have seen a few definitions for high concept, but the one I like best is from Carol Benedict at “The Writing Place.”

“An idea that is so compelling that it will appeal to a large group of people based solely on a pitch of a few words or a couple of sentences.

The appeal of a “high concept” story is in its premise. It should be something people can relate to, but must feel like a new idea. Often it is a story line that’s been told before, but has a twist or hook that gives it a strong commercial appeal. Simply being unique doesn’t qualify; some things are unique but wouldn’t interest a large audience.”

This got me thinking about stories with a new twist that would appeal to a large group. I’d recently read several YA novels that I felt fit that mold including Uglies, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, and Hunger Games. I’d always been interested in a book that took place in Hell. My original idea had been a Dresden File type book about a hit man who is killed and sent to Hell, but given a chance to come back to life. In my mind, I pictured him riding this train to Hell, which looked like a rundown urban city.

That was a fun idea, and one I still like, but not a YA series. While lying in bed last summer, I again pictured the train arriving at a station in Hell. A message rings out, Welcome to Hell, all ye damned and demented. Please keep moving. Welcome to Hell, all ye damned and demented. Please keep moving . . .

But this time I found myself viewing the scene through the eyes of the demons waiting to meet the damned humans. What were they like? What did they think of humans sent to Hell? What did they think of Hell? What if they wanted to escape? Soon I had an angel trapped in Hell, an old scarred human with his tongue cut out, his translator—a tough woman (possibly leading a group of underground humans?), and three teenage demon spawns.

In a matter of minutes, the plot fell into place with a twist that blew me away. And talk about high concept. All kinds of issues. Judgment. Prejudice. Loyalty. Trust. An awesome love triangle. Adventure, mystery, everything from imps to hell hounds. Devils, efreets, incubi, succubi. And it had to be told female first person from the view of a teenage female demon.

Over the next couple of months, I wrote fifty pages, and a synopsis. I sent this package out to several agents. Here was the basic pitch.

Blaze, a sixteen year old demon spawn, thinks her biggest worries this year will be fitting in at academy and getting used to guarding the humes damned to a lifetime of servitude in Hell. That’s before her close friend, Jazz, a third year, is involved in an attempted hijacking of the J-trans that brings new humes from Judgment every month, and an injured seraph shows up in the dorm room of Blaze and her best friend, Cinder, asking for help. In order to clear Jazz’s name, the three friends agree to help the Seraph return to his home before the atmosphere of Hell kills him. They are joined by a mute hume who seems to have memories of the outer circles of Hell and what dangers lie on the way to the mountains of Judgment, and the woman who translates for him.

On the journey, Blaze and the Seraph become attracted to each other—to the point that he lowers his blinding aura enough that they can touch and even kiss. When they finally manage to reach the city Blaze must decide whether to stay in Hell with her friends or live a life of hiding with the man she thinks she loves. But all of that is about to be turned on its head when she learns the real truth about Judgment, Hell, and the identity of the Seraphs.

(The story has changed since then, but much of it has stayed the same)

I first started sending out queries in mid October. Over the next month I received several rejections, but I also got more than one request for the full fifty pages. Finally, in mid November, I received my first offer of representation. Let me stop for a minute here, and say that receiving an OOR from an agent you admire is one of the most thrilling experiences in the world. You’ve dreamed about it forever, and when a great agent says they like your work enough to take you on as a client, it’s incredible. But . . . .

This is still a business. You have to find the best agent for you and your work. After receiving my first offer, I contacted all of the agents who had requested partials and let them know I would be making a decision within a week. This was a key time for me. What I really wanted was to shop what I had and get a deal in place by the first of the year. But I’d learned from past experiences that you need an agent who a) loves your work, b) represents the kind of story you are selling, and c) knows the industry inside and out. There are lots of agents who can do the job, but you have to find the one who can do the best job.

What made this decision the hardest was that I would have LOVED to work with any of the four agents that offered to take me on. Ultimately, though, one stood out. Michael Bourret at Dystel and Godrich seemed really in touch with what was going on. He knew what publishers were looking for, how things were selling (or not selling), and he felt very strongly about working with me to make sure my story was something that would appeal to a lot of editors. I signed with him the end of November. My goal was to have Demon Spawn written and out by January.

Next week, why that didn’t happen and why I am so glad that it didn’t.

(I’m really hoping this will be useful to other authors out there. Over the next couple of months, I’ll keep you updated on how things go. So if you have questions, shout out!)

Saturday, August 07, 2010

The Boring Guy With the Watermelon Head

by Sariah S. Wilson

So, as far as excuses go for last week, my oldest son was in an accident - he and my brother were rear-ended and got their heads smacked around in the car. My son was dressed for football practice, and I do think that padding helped him from getting bruises and such, but it was a pretty scary few days as we tried to make certain that he didn't have any worse/internal injuries. It wasn't my brother's fault - the other driver was the only one cited, and her injuries actually seemed to be worse - several windows and the windshield shattered, leaving her with lacerations and bleeding. Help arrived right away, and everyone is fine now, but it shook all of us up (particularly my little guy). (We can add this to one more bad thing that happened to Sariah, right?)

Not that my stress levels aren't already extremely high. I've been running on empty for a while now - probably close to three years. I remember my mom talking about how when she was a young mother, people were always telling her to smile. People who didn't know that she had a severely handicapped child at home, five other kids, and that she had to run a daycare with seven to eight additional children out of our home. Her life was constant stress and it was all she could do to make it one day to the next. When people told her to smile and be grateful, all she wanted to do was scream at them.

I'm starting to get that. I don't have the trials she did, but my trials are overwhelming for me. I try not to be down or depressing, but I'm starting to suspect that I may be dealing with some form of depression (thank you, DNA).

Has my writing suffered? Definitely. I haven't written since my daughter's birth three years ago. At first it was because I was just so worn out - this was a child that would not sleep in a crib. I literally had to hold her all the time or else she wouldn't sleep. And it was worth it to hold her or else I couldn't sleep, and I desperately needed to sleep. But she is definitely a mommy's girl, and wanted everything from me. I gave her, my sons, my husband, everything that I had. And then along came another miracle baby, and as much as I love and adore all of these people, it's hard.

By the end of my day, I'm done. I should be writing. I have time. But there is nothing left inside of me. The well feels dry. With my two youngest I'm realizing why it is that a lot of people don't start a writing career until their children are older. Even writing these weekly blogs - I sit in front of my computer and think, "What should I write about?" And there have been weeks where there's been literally nothing (or next to nothing).

I decided that I don't want to look back on this time and regret not being with my babies. I want to be with them, I want to raise them and watch them laugh and learn to talk and throw a ball and lay on the cat - I want to be there for all of it. This comes at a sacrifice, but it is one I'm willing to make.

I wish I were a different kind of writer. I wish I were the sort of writer that this was a release and a necessity, that I needed to write. But I'm not. I write because I want to put something inside of me on paper. It's hard when there's nothing inside of you to give.

I know it won't always be this way. I know that things will get better, children will get older. I will always have my own trials that come in my home life, but as far as writing is concerned, it will change. I'm even thinking that it might be this fall, as my daughter goes off to preschool and I don't have to spend 12 hours a day preventing her from trying to off our youngest, that there might be time. I might start filling up my well again.

I also worry that as long as it's been, that my writing won't be the same. Maybe it'll get worse.

We've talked a lot on this blog how much criticism stings, even when it's warranted, even when we secretly agree with what's being said - when you put a piece of yourself out there, it's painful to hear that somebody didn't like it. When I think about sitting down to write, that invisible audience gets to me. There's few things I hate more than a negative review.

This isn't logical. I get it. I know I can't please all of the people all of the time. And while I've been mulling that over, I recently read an article in "Entertainment Weekly" regarding the actor Liev Schreiber (image Google him - you may not recognize his name but I'd be willing to bet you recognize his face). The article spoke about how despite being an incredibly talented actor, Shakespearean trained and all that, despite accolades for his stage work, movie stardom eludes him. He's a solid second banana (i.e., recently playing Sabertooth to Hugh Jackman's Wolverine), but Hollywood doesn't seem to acknowledge his talent.

EW went on to name Liev Schreiber as "The Best Actor Of His Generation (Or At Least Pretty [Darn] Close)." While Schreiber thanked them for this title, he recalled a critic's review of some of his stage work and said this about it:

"...the somnambulistic Mr. Schrieber with a head the size of a watermelon." "I had to look up somnambulistic,” Schreiber says. "It means someone who puts you to sleep. So if you’re going to be okay with being the best stage actor of your generation, you also have to be okay with being the boring guy with the watermelon head."

That has to be my new battle cry. For someone I might be the best writer of my generation, and for another, the boring chick who couldn't write her way out of a paper bag.

And that will be okay. I will take them both. The time is soon coming when the invisible audience won't get a say anymore, when I'll put pen to paper (or keystrokes to computer) and get lost in a story I want to tell. I'm looking forward to it.