Churning Out Novels

I thought I wrote fast. I tell people I can write a 100,000 word novel – a first draft – in four months, writing for an hour before work, an hour or two later in the day, and a few solid hours on the weekend. I only thought this was fast because people told me so. Other writers spent a year, two or more, to get similar output.

So I was a little surprised when I started to follow a podcast by three authors, all in the sci-fi and fantasy world. These three, along with the different guests they interview each week, publish 4-6 books a year, often keeping different series’ and even different genres going.

So I did some digging. There are many writers out there who are churning out a 50-80K novel each month … and I mean from Chapter 1 through The End and into editing (I assume), book cover design, and placements.

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Wow!

I am emotionally exhausted when I finish a novel and only once (between Books 5 and 6) did I have any desire to continue straight into writing the next of the series. Editing, sure. Marketing, okay. But the idea of churning out another 100K?

I am trying to work out what it takes to do this and, as I listened more to these authors, and even got to question a couple, I think I get it.

1. Outsourcing – these people do nothing for the production process. Everything is outsourced and they do not play a part in the process. This makes total sense except when there is no investment in the process, when the author really doesn’t care about the end product. As one author said: “My book covers are more or less the same. Only the title and book number changes. The cover artist knows what to do.”

2. Editing – when my editor returns a manuscript, there are changes suggested in almost every paragraph. I am expected to go through these comments and decide what to do. True, I accept 95% of the suggestions, but sometimes the editor writes that a scene is not clear, a conversation does not make sense, or a description is repetitive. In this case, I need to rewrite. Sometimes, the editor suggests I delete something. If I am attached to what is written, I might rewrite it much shorter or insert elsewhere (oops – don’t tell my editor!).

images-63. Strict genre adherence – in order that some writers can keep pace with production, they keep the plot tight and similar – the same highs and lows. The protagonist acts as he (usually a he) is expected, the bad guy too, and often the women are…well, behaving in what is expected of women in that genre. Now there is nothing wrong here. If it ain’t broke, why fix? Who needs a bad guy you sympathize with, a woman who kicks the crap out of someone or simply  falls in love with the bad guy and not the hero? Real life is already too complicated. There are no twists in the plot and I expect that somewhere there is a story arc written that is faithfully adhered to. No time to spend experimenting. Take no risks with the loyal readership.

4. Investment in the characters – this is something I find hard to understand. I have never understood how people can write a stand-alone novel, and walk away. I feel so close to all my characters – I worry about them, fear for them, get angry when they screw up (and especially when they have the audacity to blame me). Long after the novel is finished, I think about them, and yes, I mourn the ones I kill off.

Now there is nothing wrong with any of this. There are people who write for the art and people who write for the royalty check and that is just fine. Most of us are somewhere in between. If the quality of the book is enough for the reader to enjoy, to read effortlessly and then crave the author’s next book, then what’s wrong with that? If the genre is popular just the way it is, then this is what the reader wants. And if it sells and so do the rest of the author’s work, then that is a clear sign that what they do is right and recognized by the most important views – the readership.

But sometimes it is tough to accept. In seeking the highest standard of writing, I agonize over a scene, word choice, how a character develops. Sure I can write a first draft in four months, but it takes longer to edit, rewrite, consider feedback, and feel once the book is published, that I have done my absolute best.

I’m trying not to be critical, but the book churn must have its limitations. And, in the end, a book exists forever. If the market is swamped by mediocrity, how will the special books get noticed? Will a generation get turned off novels because they just aren’t as gripping as a video game, a You Tube clip, or an on-demand TV binge?

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And I can’t help but wonder: what does George R.R. Martin think about this?

EXCITING NEWS: Tourmaline Books are offering At The Walls of Galbrieth for FREE during the month of March though Smashwords (good for all ebook platforms). Feel free to gift it to a young person (or not so young) who might benefit from a story of hope and friendship. 

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, and five other Wycaan Master books all released by Tourmaline Books. The link above takes you to the Kindle versions. For all other eReaders, please click here. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

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A Damning Tribute to George R.R. Martin

This tribute is a rewrite of a previous post written in honor of the launch tonight of HBO’s fifth series.

Dear Mr. Martin,

Let me begin by saying I’m a big fan. I’ve read all five books and, if that isn’t proof enough, I can’t wait for Book 6 (hint, hint). I have sung your praises on my humble elfwriter blog and keep your photo under my pillow (I don’t – but I want to make sure I still have your attention).

It’s like this, sir. One day when I grow up (I’m only 50-teen) I want to be a bestselling epic fantasy author like you. My fifth book comes out in the fall and I have sold more books as you’ve killed noble characters (I think!).

I spend a lot of time hanging out with other writers: online and (I know this is rare) actually in person. Everyone tells me to “observe the rules,” “don’t break the conventions,” and, my favorite, “Tolkien was one-of-a-kind. You wouldn’t get away with that.”

But you, sir, break all the rules, tippexed (anyone?) over the conventions. One friend suggested you only get away with it because you’re already famous, have a huge following, and probably don’t care anymore what anyone outside of the Seven Kingdoms thinks.

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So here is my list of 10 things you have done wrong:

1. Your books are too long. I keep getting told that 90K is way beyond the commitment that most readers are willing to invest today. But then why do I enjoy your tomes (and Christopher Paolini, and J.K Rowlings, and some unknown ancient language, Oxford professor) and feel a sense of loss when they are finished?

2. Your books are too slow. People want action, action, action. Instant gratification …debate in 140 characters or less. Have a car chase or blow up a bridge – well, you get my point.

3. Your books are too detailed. You mean I need to think? Concentrate? Invest? I hear you keep flow charts in your office – can we peek? How about a deal with Cliff Notes or an app that you can enter a character, your book and page number and get an update. Dude – I totally expect a commission on the app idea.

4. Your characters are too flawed (especially the good ones). If I’m not seeing Ryan Gosling or Kristen Stewart then it simply won’t do. If I want real people, I would put my book down and hit the pub.

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5. Your characters are too dead. I actually wrote a blog post about this (I Need A Hero), keeping the book and you anonymous so as not to spoil it. Guess what? Everyone knew who I was talking about.

6. You drop some characters for hundreds of pages – are you tempting me to skip pages, sir? Just so as not to spoil this for any readers on Books 1-4, you know what I mean when I connect this to Book 4//5.

7. You miss out key scenes – battles in particular – and subtly let us know they have happened. I know it is incredibly difficult to write battles and only the best can pull it off, but well sir, you are one of the best.

8. You have too many minor characters. I hope you are keeping track of them because, to be honest, I am developing a habit of scratching my head whenever someone resurfaces 1-2,000 pages later.

9. You care more for the old gods and the new than the critics.

10. Your books are too addictive. I can’t stop…

You broke all the rules, sir. Congratulations! I can’t wait for the first episode of Book Five tonight … not to mention Book 6 …Oops! Are there any Starks left?

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of GalbriethThe First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 – all released by Tourmaline Books. His latest novel is Sacrificial Flame, the fourth in the series.

Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes.He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+

I Need A Hero: Can You Kill Too Many Good Guys?

I’m reading (or rather listening to) a best-selling fantasy series. Each book is thick and extensive. The world-building is impressive, the multiple plots intertwine seamlessly, and the characters are deep and plentiful. 

imgresThis series has made my oft-challenging commute almost enjoyable and several times I have sat in the car outside my house waiting for a chapter to end. I dream about these characters and imagine myself alongside them.

 I am about two-thirds through the third book and happy to know that there are at least two more waiting in the wings. If I intersperse each book with something different, I can easily keep my commute comfortable until well into the summer.

But, and here is the reason I have not revealed the author or series, twice this week, as I was merrily driving home from work, a number of the good guys were put to the sword (or otherwise dispatched). Now, this is not the first time that our well-respected author has killed off heroes/heroines. He does it with drama, dignity and a huge amount of skill. He has left me in tears or sitting stunned at my driving wheel (hopefully while stationary) on a number of occasions.

But suddenly, I feel adrift. Each time one of my heroes dies, another emerges to take his (or her) place. These characters are usually in the background and, figuratively speaking, step up to the plate. And once more, our intrepid commuter is as happy as those drivers who gloat as they pass all the stationary cars while in the carpool lane.

imgres-4One of the fascinating aspects of this author’s craft is that most of his characters are not totally good or totally bad. It is challenging but possible to remain interested, even invested in some of the more fiendish without rooting for them. And there are plenty of characters with the potential to be heroes who fail or turn to the dark side (not a hint to the series).

But, suddenly, I am bereft of a hero: one who is fueled by noble principles, by a cause, and who is…well, heroic.

I find myself questioning my considerable investment in the series, the immense time I am spending on it, and even walk to my car with a certain level of tension and resignation. I am no longer sure with whom to stand when I dream and fantasize about the outcome. 

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And so I must pose the question: Can you kill too many of the good guys and still engage all your audience? What say you, sir/milady?

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

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Writing An Epic Fantasy Series Is Not Easy

I dropped in on an interview by Franny (not sure if this is her real name) who runs the Mind Reader blog. I have visited a few times – she writes great book reviews. Franny interviewed Meredith Bond, author of Magic In The Storm, (full interview here) and opened with the following question:

“Why is almost every book published now part of a series? Have you noticed this? I don’t think I’ve seen one single stand-alone title (aside from anthologies) in over a year! Is this a good thing? Isn’t it good enough to find books by an author you like without the books having to be tied together in some way?”

Ms. Bond’s answer is thoughtful and worth reading, but she does claim, frivolously I hope, that we authors are “lazy bums.” I took exception to this. Writing a series of books in one world with many recurring characters demands that we show this world in different forms throughout the series. In fact, I draw my own world-building inspiration from nature and I hope I will never stop seeing new lands and areas of natural beauty. When we see a beautiful vista, it is a family joke to say in a breath-taking voice: Alagaesia, a tribute to the beautiful world that Christopher Paolini built.

imgresSimilarly, my characters do not stand still. They grow, and as they age, experience conflict and love from a different perspective, as do we all in the ‘real world’. Terry Brooks is a master of this with his Shannara series.

I would venture to suggest that the onus is even greater with recurring characters because we need to show significant depth in their development. Perhaps it is easier to create a new warrior, hero, heroine, villain etc., in each book, because you can keep them relatively shallow.

Next month, The First Decree, my second Wycaan Master novel, will be released by Tourmaline Books. Since the Xmas holiday break, I have been writing Book 4 (Book 3 is written but not edited) and am about 30,000 words in. My characters are older, wiser, have more to lose, and a greater sense of responsibility.

They are growing up and each developing into the unique, ever-changing individual that they are. I care about them too much. I would never let them languish and become stagnant. What kind of a father would I be (I am, however, in no rush for my real kids to grow up!)?

There are obvious and legitimate reasons to write a series. Every author wants to build a readership and why not create an ongoing relationship between readers and the characters they are rooting for?

Tery Goodkind wrote 12 books in the Sword of Truth series.

Tery Goodkind wrote 12 books in the Sword of Truth series.

I don’t mean to begin a feud with Ms. Bond because of one phrase in an otherwise excellent interview, but it struck a chord. I recently told a friend that I have written a book a year for the last seven years (I am published in two genres), and she responded by saying that it must be easy for me.

It is not. I work very hard at my craft, spend considerable time building the world of Odessiya, and worry about my characters and their destiny. I cry when a main character dies (I can even cry several times as I reread, and reread, and reread) and feel equally exhilarated when they succeed.

The story flows out of me but I put considerable time and effort into it. I wake up early and go to bed late, squeezing in a full-time job and hopefully trying to be an active parent and sharing husband.

When I finish writing a first draft I am exhausted mentally. But I’ll keep coming back for more, just as a marathon runner pushes themselves beyond their limit during a race, but knows s/he will be back running soon.

There is an incredible high when the words flow, exhilaration as a plot unfolds, and pure joy when someone says: “Hey. You’re an author, right? I read your books.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The First Decree-hi resolution

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. His latest books include: Unwanted Heroes and At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.