Archive for May, 2010

Accuracy, believability, and the modern reader

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

I am in the very, very tentative stages of writing my fourth book. As in, I am working on the second scene as we speak. (I have written more than that, but I am going back to the second scene and adding in detail.)

This book is taking place in a tiny village in England. It is not some made-up hamlet; it is an actual village. In any event, the hero–who was born in this tiny village, but who has been surrounded by the hubbub of London and other, louder places for the last two decades–is standing in the middle of the Market Place, and observing to himself that nothing has changed. Part of his observation includes him making a mental wager with himself that the market stalls–big heavy benches made of wood, with tile roofs overhead–haven’t changed since medieval times.

Of course, we know that everything is about to change for him, when the heroine, who is very new, swans by.

But I wrote this line about the market stalls being medieval and then stopped. You see, to a modern reader–and especially to a modern American reader–I’m afraid that will come off as unbelievable at worst, or weird hyperbole at best. That’s because we are used to impermanence. Old houses are houses from the 1900s–maybe dating from the 1860s. There are old houses. Maybe, we understand old houses.

But market stalls? Those are flimsy things that get erected and then torn down the next day. They aren’t made to last ten years, let alone a hundred. It doesn’t make sense to a modern reader to have market stalls that have been there since medieval times.

The Medieval Shambles (photograph by Frank James Allen; now public domain)

But, in point of fact, these market stalls did date from medieval times. The medieval stalls were in use up until at least the early 1900s. Think about that: four hundred and fifty years of using the same market stalls.

My hero would have no way of actually dating the stalls. He’s not an expert in medieval construction. He can’t say “these date from the 1450s,” and it would be awkward authorial intervention if he did.

I thought about sliding this under the rug so it turns into “much older than I am” rather than “medieval stalls still in use.” But I think that the “medieval stalls still in use on a biweekly basis” captures the character of how slowly this little town changes in a way that “old” simply doesn’t. My heroine is not just jolting my hero out of his ways; she is unmooring him from traditions that are literally centuries old. Those centuries matter to the story, and the whole point (well, one of the whole points) of setting it in this village is to give my hero’s inertia mass.

And so my job as an author is to convey the reader into that moment, to make the reality feel natural instead of awkward. My job as an author is to make  the modern reader forget that she lives in a world where the things that she uses will be relegated to the junk heap after three or four years. My job as an author is to make the reader forget about a world that is IKEA-disposable–and to do it all so quietly that she doesn’t even notice it’s happening.

I do not yet know how to do this. Maybe I will figure it out before I reach the end of the book.

Titles so awesome, they used ‘em twice

Friday, May 21st, 2010

So, first things first: the winners of my giveaway!

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms: Jami G.
The Demon’s Covenant: Gillian
The Knife of Never Letting Go: Aja

Today’s blog post is about titles that get used more than once. When I was trying to come up with a title for my second book, I knew I wanted something that evoked my first one. That is, I wanted something that had the same structure (Blank by Blank), that was also a subtle play on words, and that had a kind of sexy element to it. Thus I came up with Trial by Desire–a title the book really grew into, in ways that I hadn’t anticipated when I first started writing it, since you can take pretty much any of the definitions of “Trial” in the dictionary, starting with “the determination of … the righteousness of his cause, by a combat between the accuser and accused” through “the fact or condition of being tried by suffering or temptation,” and everything in between.

In other words, it was the perfect title. But when I checked Amazon, there was already a book called Trial by Desire–written by Elisa Curry, published in 1984. What was I  to do? I shrugged, figured that the book was no longer commercially available, and that was that.

The same thing happened with my February, 2011 release, which is titled Unveiled. Unveiled was the perfect title–absolutely perfect. I had sat with friends for hours, rejecting one title after another. I wanted something that suggested mystery, spotlessness, pristine beauty–and the hint of something to come. When a friend of mine suggested Unveiled, I knew it was the right title.

This was more problematic. When I checked Amazon, there were actually a number of books called Unveiled–one about the hidden lives of nuns, one about women in Islam. One of them was even a historical romance, written by Kristina Cook in 2005–an author (and an all-round wonderful person–I hadn’t met her at the time I chose the title, but did shortly afterwards) who is still writing today, under Kristi Astor.

Ultimately, I decided to just go with it. Our names sound different enough–and there was enough of a time-gap–that in mass market, the likelihood of confusion was small.

But sometimes books end up with the same titles even though they are released within months of each other. One example of that is Maggie Robinson’s Mistress by Mistake–a fabulous, funny, extraordinarily sexy book about a woman who goes to visit her fallen sister, only to be mistaken for a courtesan herself. This book happened to be released within months of Susan Gee Heino’s Mistress by Mistake–a fabulous, funny, extraordinarily sexy book about a woman who gets tipsy in celebration, and accidentally ends up in bed with a man who thinks she is a servant. They are both debut books, both quite excellent, and both really awesome.

Still, I know some people wondered: How on earth does this happen? Easy–Maggie Robinson is published by Kensington. Susan Gee Heino is published by Berkley. Neither knows the titles the other is planning on using, until the catalogs come out–at which point it is too late to change the title, because accounts are placing orders and the covers are already finished. Sometimes, lightning strikes. What are you going to do?

First, you can shrug your shoulders and say, “oh, well.”

Or second, I can give away a copy of both books–which is what I’m going to do. So if you want a copy of either Mistress by Mistake–by Maggie Robinson or Susan Gee Heino–let me know in the comments, and I’ll draw a winner early next week.

P.S. Maggie Robinson’s second book is titled Mistress by Midnight, and I am eagerly awaiting its arrival in January of 2011. Of course, I just got wind that Nicola Cornick’s December 2010 title is Mistress by Midnight. What can I say? Mistress titles are all the rage!

Giveaway: Three books you should read, today

Wednesday, May 19th, 2010

This book has a companion post, which will go up soon, called “three awesome books you should read tomorrow,” in which I will gloat about having read early copies of some of the most-anticipated releases.

But today, I’m going to talk about three truly incredible–and I mean utterly mind-blowing–books that I read in the last month. These books utterly blew me away. And because none of these books is a romance, I don’t know any of the authors. The closest you get is Sarah Rees Brennan, who I (a) met once at a booksigning, and (b) shares an agent with me.

Here you go: incredible books you should read, today.

1. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, by N.K. Jemisin.

Okay, I did meet N.K. Jemisin at the Romantic Times booksigning–I went up to her just before the doors opened to babble freakishly and demand a signed copy. This book utterly blew me away. I have read a lot of fantasy–a lot. I’ve been reading fantasy since before I started reading romance. And I have never read anything like this. It winks at the fantasy tropes, and then it turns them around.

This book is about a really awesome woman who is summoned by her grandfather, who happens to be the most powerful man in existence, and told that in a few weeks she will either be the ruler of the not-so-free world, or her cousins will have killed her.

It’s got plot. It’s got characterizations. It’s got romance. And the romance it has–between the main character, who describes herself as someone who is sometimes mistaken for a boy, and the oldest god in the universe, who might actually kill the heroine, just because–is phenomenal. Normally I do not like the “he is so powerful, and he might kill her!” thing because extreme power imbalances between hero and heroine get my skeeves up. But this book is not one where I ever, ever feel that Yeine, the heroine is powerless. Not because she is so almighty and grand and imbued with special snowflake skills and sweet-smelling blood. No; it is because Yeine is empowered, even when she feels most helpless. Love, love, love and adore this book a million times over.

I’m not sure which books to compare this to, because it is like none of them. All I will say is that I put it in the category of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, and Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora. It is nothing like either of those books, though, except that it is utterly brilliant. If this is the future of fantasy, I am giddy.

Which is why I have now purchased 4 copies of this book: one in e-format, another in print, so Mr. Milan could read it (he says that it gets 4 1/2 stars, but 3 1/2 Sherman Tanks, it having girly stuff)–and that copy has since been given to my sister–then the signed copy at RT, which no, you can’t have, and then another copy at the bookstore the other day because it looked pretty on the shelf–that copy is the copy I am giving away at the end of this post.

2. The Demon’s Covenant by Sarah Rees Brennan.

Okay, so I blogged briefly about the first book in this series. And that first book pretty much kicked ass. It was full of awesome. It made me weep. For reasons that I will not disclose, because they are spoilery, and reasons that I will disclose: because Sarah Rees Brennan is a genius.

The Demon’s Covenant, the sequel, is even better. I did not think it was possible. But it is. The book is so, so brilliant. It is about a girl, named Mae, whose mother is a lawyer and works long, long hours, and whose father ignores them. Naturally, she and her brother get into trouble. You might think that Mae’s pink hair and sassy T-shirts would indicate the sort of trouble she gets into. But no, it’s not that kind of trouble. Jamie’s peer pressure is from magicians: “See, Jamie, you could be cool like us! All you’d have to do to get unlimited power is to kill a few people.”

Needless to say, Mae is more than a little unsettled by this–especially since she’s already sacrificed a great deal to keep Jamie magician-free. And so naturally, she calls the quiet, unassuming fellow at the bookstore, who might also be a bit of a psychopathic killer, to come help.

I started reading this book over dinner. I had a deadline and stuff. I did not stop, and then I had to stay up until 2 AM. Curse you, Sarah Rees Brennan. Curse you, and your incredible skills. Everything I can say about this book is a spoiler, and so all I will say is: Mmmmfffff!!

Mae is the protagonist of this book. And I wasn’t sure about that at first, because I loved Nick–creepy, odd, weird Nick–so much in that first book that I was really frightened to leave his completely unsettling point of view.

Also, I am shipping Alan so hard it is not even funny. I am not even sure what that says about me, but he is such an earnest, geeky little Slytherin, and that so hits every button I have. I am not sure who I am shipping Alan with, but it has to be someone awesome. Like maybe Sin. Why, oh why, do I have to wait for that book?

I bought this book in e-copy. Then I went to the store and I bought another two. One of those I will force upon Mr. Milan. (One of the reasons I married Mr. Milan is the ease of forcing books upon him.) The other, I will give away. Again at the end of this post!

3. The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness.

I don’t know how I heard of this book, but the title intrigued me and so I picked it up. The first three pages–written in this colloquial almost stream-of-consciousness style–kind of annoyed me. Then I started getting into the narrator’s head, and it all just kind of worked.

And oh, how it worked.

The narrator of this book is almost thirteen years old (or is he?). And he is looking forward to becoming a man in a month’s time. In the interim, he has chores to contend with and his very annoying, stupid puppy, named Manchee, who he said he did not want to get.

His dog talks. Manchee is not very smart for a dog–my dog is much, much smarter than Manchee, but Manchee is actually a ruddy good dog, as we come to discover. Todd lives in a place called Prentisstown, which is the only settlement on an entire planet. A little more than a decade ago, there was a bit of biological warfare. The germs that were spread made two things happen: animals all talk (although they’re not very smart), and men–and I do mean, men, not women, all began to broadcast their thoughts, all around them. There’s no privacy any longer. The germ didn’t affect women the same way, though–the women all died instead.

This book is completely, utterly brilliant. I reached the end, screamed, and immediately dashed for book #2, which is winging towards me as we speak. This book was absolutely ridiculously good.

Most of all, I have to say that there was a fair bit of violence in it. I’ve admitted before violence makes me queasy, but this worked for me, mostly because the violence had the real, emotional cost that I think this all takes. Books that don’t recognize that cost–where someone kills someone, however evil, and then blithely moves on–do not work for me. They work for some. But this book was laden with all the shades of emotional and moral complexity that I love.

I haven’t had time to get a second copy of this book, but I will before Friday.

So, here’s the deal: I’m giving away copies of each of these books, to three separate commenters. Post, tell me which one(s) you want, and on Friday I will pick winners. These books are all utterly mindblowingly amazing. I don’t really know any of the authors–something that is rarely true in romance. Edited to add: You can say you want more than one. It will not hurt your chances at the others.

These books are so awesome I cannot resist buying extra copies. You benefit!

Auctions to bid on!

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

At this moment, I am starting work on my fourth book–when my second is not even on the shelves yet. I am very, very excited about this book.

This is the problem. I am always excited about books when the idea is new and fresh in my head. I am so excited, that often I fail to realize when the idea is utterly stupid. Which, sometimes, it is. I have to write part of it, and then my editor and/or my agent will read it, and they will tell me if I am insane.

(Technically, nobody needs to tell me that–I am perfectly aware of it already.) This idea I have is either utter genius or complete lunacy, and I rely on my editor and agent to tell me which one it is. (And sometimes, they say Really Important Things like, “This is not a bad idea, but don’t you think it would be a good idea to make your hero more proactive?” And I listen, because while I am a lunatic, my editor and agent are both geniuses.)

This is rather unfair to new authors, because they do not usually get editors and agents to tell them if their ideas are crazy.

Every year, however, around this time, Brenda Novak holds an auction to benefit diabetes research. My uncle died of complications arising out of diabetes, and this cause means a great deal to me. Which is why I am pleased to point out that if you fear that you are a lunatic, there are some very awesome auctions you can bid on.

Namely, you can get Kristin Nelson, my genius agent, to read the first 30 pages of your manuscript. She won’t actually say “that’s completely crazy” because she is not only a genius, but she is nice–but she is honest, thorough, and very, very smart. I can’t imagine the value of that.

You can also get my genius editor, Margo Lipschultz, to read the first three chapters of your manuscript and then talk to you on the phone about it.

While I’m here, I should mention that back in the days when I was unpublished, I bid on a critique from a published author that I really respected. Her name–which all of you assuredly know–is Anna Campbell. She’s a relatively new name in historical fiction, but a rising star who writes dark, deeply emotional historical romance. She is also a truly amazing critiquer. She read the first bit of a book that has never seen the light of publishing, and gave me some advice that really just nailed what was wrong with my writing. It was the best two-hundred-something bucks I ever spent on anything in publishing, and it is a crying shame that the exact same auction today is only at $145 today. That is a complete steal, people!

Along those lines, Ann Aguirre/Ava Gray (who is also half of Ellen Connor) is offering a critique of 100 pages of a book. I think Ann/Ava/0.5Ellen is one of the best up-and-coming authors there is, and she is relentless in her pursuit of excellence.

Finally, I have a critique up for auction on 50 pages. I know. You are thinking, “But Courtney. You have already admitted you are crazy. Why on earth would I want you to critique my manuscript?” To which I say–it often helps to have crazy people read your manuscripts! They see things sane people miss.

There are lots and lots of other great things up for auction–more editors and more agents and more authors offering critiques, signed books, advance copies…. I am bidding on some of them.

On self-dealing

Friday, May 7th, 2010

Sorry I have been absent. I handed in a book early this week, and I have been playing catch-up ever since. This blog has long been neglected, and it is only getting unneglected today because I am going to say something I shouldn’t say.

There is an unspoken rule in publishing that you should not criticize publishing professionals. I am going to criticize publishing professionals, and I am going to do it because I think that what is happening is wrong and unethical. Some of the people I am going to criticize, I will say in advance, I have heard glowing things about–marvelously awesome things–and so please keep this in mind. Even marvelously awesome people do things that cross ethical boundaries.

The Association of Author’s Representatives has a canon of ethics, which states (among many other things): “Members shall not represent both buyer and seller in the same transaction.”

The basic idea is this: If you advise someone, and you are in a position of trust, you should not compromise that position of trust by steering them towards options where what you want and what they want do not coincide. For instance, a financial adviser should not steer her clients to invest in a company owned by her brother-in-law: The clients just want to make money, but the financial adviser is emotionally involved with the company, and perhaps will not be able to emotionally separate herself from the prospect of helping her brother-in-law get his company off the ground. Even if the financial adviser believes she is operating on a perfectly rational level, and is willing to invest her own money to get the company off the ground, she can never be sure that her emotional involvement does not color her picture. The end result is that to avoid any appearance of ethical lapses–and to protect herself from emotional influences that are so subterranean that even she can’t detect them–a wise adviser avoids such issues entirely by never, ever steering clients towards investments where she, or her loved ones, will profit personally.

The same is true for agents. An agent is an author’s most zealous advocate. She fights for every aspect of her clients’ careers. A great agent monitors print run, coop, marketing. She pushes for foreign sales. When you go back to contract, she asks for more money, better royalty rates, a bigger push in marketing. An author trusts her agent explicitly–and it’s easy to do so, because an author and an agent have interests that are wholly aligned. You want to make more money as an author; your agent wants to make more money as an agent. She gets 15% of what you get. Her interest is your interest: to sell as many books to as many people as possible.

When we were deciding between publishing houses, my agent helped lay out the pros and cons for me of all my options. We talked about our biggest worries with each one, and I believed that she was pushing to get the very best offer we could from every house, so that I could make an informed decision. I knew that she wanted to get the best for me, because (a) my agent is the kind of perfectionist who would never let anything stop her, and (b) it was never in her interest to do anything else.

This stops being true if your agent is either a publisher herself, or is so intertwined with the publisher that you cannot distinguish between them. And, sadly, this is the second time this year I’ve seen agents who have morphed themselves from agents. The first is Lori Perkins, whose clients are sold to a publisher in which she holds a financial interest, Ravenous Romance. Lori Perkins has explained that she doesn’t take a commission on those sales to Ravenous from her clients–but all that this accomplishes is that now she truly has no financial interest in doing what is right for her clients. She has no interest in fighting for an extra 2% royalty rate, or a higher advance for her clients, because now she isn’t even getting paid for that.

The second is the Waxman Agency, which recently announced Diversion Books, an electronic press. Diversion Books has already published books written by Waxman Agency clients. And I have to ask: Really? If your agency owns a publishing house, do you really think you won’t be biased–just a little–in negotiating contracts with your clients? Will you really be able to tell your clients, “Yes, I think that it’s best if you publish with us, versus a more established e-publisher like Samhain?” without having the teensiest bit of bias? Can you evaluate your chances of success–logically and dispassionately, the way you would for an author choosing between publishing houses? Will you fight yourself for the best royalty rate? Will you be asking hard questions of yourself? If you produce a horrendous cover, will you call yourself up and say, “Honey, no. We have to lose the mullet,” or will you be the one to placate the author? Can you really wear both those hats?

Don’t get me wrong. I have several friends who have Holly Root of the Waxman Agency as an agent, and they universally sing her praises. I have heard nothing but good things about her. But for me, this would be an instant deal-breaker.

I don’t think these people mean to screw their clients. I honestly believe that the Waxman Agency really does think that this is, in fact, a good thing for their clients, an additional opportunity that their clients can avail themselves of. None of the people I have named are bad people. None of them are perfidious jerks, trying to do their clients wrong. But all of them have put themselves in the way of temptation. They have complicated straight-forward interests. And smart people who zealously represent their clients don’t do that. That’s the point of rules of ethics: to steer you away from temptation, even the ones that are so subterranean you might not recognize them.

I understand that publishing is changing and that the role of agent will see revamping over the next few decades. But the one thing I can say for sure is this: If the role of agent morphs into the role of publisher, the person needs to stop calling themselves an “agent.” If there is anything–anything at all–that stands in the way of an agent zealously representing her client, that person has ceased to be an agent. They may be a publisher. They may be a full-service book-packager with editorial add ons. They may still be something very valuable in the publishing world–don’t get me wrong–I understand where all of this is coming from. They may be visionaries in publishing.

But what they are not doing is zealously representing their clients’ interests. If there is any financial issue that stands as a roadblock between your client’s best interests and your own, you’re not 100% an agent any longer, and that is a problem.

So, what do I think you should do about this, if you’re looking for an agent? My best advice is to look for an agent who is a member of AAR. The Association of Author’s Representatives has a smart canon of ethics. It’s not a guarantee–there are always liars, or people who bend the rules–but look for someone who values that canon.

I know that this post is not going to make everyone happy. I’m sorry for that–but the truth of the matter is this. If you’re going to pay someone 15% of your work, you deserve full value for your money. And someone who is conflicted about that–or is willing to enter into such conflicts–in my mind is not worth the price.

Courtney Milan writes historical romance novels like the ones you see to the right. She still remembers bits and pieces from her old lives, where she was (variously) a scientist and a lawyer.

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