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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The Fatherly Figure in Fantasy

As a warm up for reading this blog, please  say the following five times as quickly as possible: The Fatherly Figure in Fantasy.

I shared some thoughts on Left Coast Voices regarding Father’s Day this Sunday. But it occurred to me that the father figures in epic fantasy gets a tough time. Here is a brief overview of a few of our beloved characters and their fathers (I acknowledge that I am encompassing a wide definition of the genre for this post. Purists – please excuse me this once).

WARNING: There might be spoilers here, so I am giving the name of the character first and won’t be offended if you skip that part.

1. Luke Skywalker:

I know this is sci-fi and not fantasy, but we have all hung there with Luke as his father, who had just chopped off his arm, now looms over him with a lightsaber. What a time to discover your father! As if it is not enough that your uncle and aunt who brought you up were murdered, now you discover your father is a metallic mass-murderer.

Suggestion: Do not buy Dad a lightsaber. It is the first step to the Dark Side and he already has plenty of power tools he never uses.

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2. Tyrion Lannister:

So your father abused you and openly hated and insulted you. As if you don’t have enough to contend with two older, beautiful siblings, who are bonking, or the fact that you were born stunted and are accused of killing your mother as she gave birth to you. Not hard to understand why A Lannister Always Pays His Debts!

Suggestion: Don’t give your father a ‘quarrel’ even if he deserves it.

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 3. Eragon:

Also grew up never knowing his true father and then, like Luke Skywalker, finds his uncle, who was like a father to him, is murdered in his stead. Of course, no sooner does he discover who his father really is, than he has to bury him, and take considerable blame for brave father’s death.

Suggestion: Giving your old man your dragon/porche just before he dies is classy, but do check your insurance policy first.

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4. Drizzt Do’Urden:

Gotta give the dark elf considerable credit. He grew up in the Drow city of Menzoberranzan. where all males were merely fighters and concubines. Of course his mother and sisters abused him and tried to kill him, and by the time he discovered who his father really was, well…I don’t think he even got to bury him.

Suggestion: a bit stumped here. When your father gave you a genetic sense of justice, enough to turn you against your mother and sisters, what can you really reciprocate with? 

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Artist – Noche

5. Frodo Baggins:

I admit, I had to look this up and cannot guarantee my sources. Frodo’s father was Drogo and we don’t know much about him other than he went and drowned in a boating accident. Hobbits should know not to participate in such dangerous and adventurous pastimes as boating. At least, Frodo had a nice secure upbringing with his first cousin once removed (and not his uncle as even dear Bilbo often referred to himself). It was not as though Bilbo passed on any artifact that was incredibly dangerous and held the fate of the entire Middle Earth!

Suggestion: Stay away from the jewelry!!!

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In epic fantasy we gravitate to protagonists who are the underdogs, who overcome adversary, and make great personal sacrifice. But we also seem to be sending out a message to our young readers that the absent/weak/villain father is the norm.

It must not be so. Every young man deserves a father who is a role model, imperfect and flawed as we may be, but a father who will teach him to fish, nock an arrow, believe in a just society, and to be a good human being…or elf…dwarf etc.

I’m sure if we were to meet Luke, Eragon, Tyrion, Drizzt or Frodo in a pub, they would all agree that they wished they had fathers they could truly appreciate and learn from.

Perhaps being the best father you can is the greatest quest any of us can embark on. It may not save Middle Earth or Menzoberranzan, but it will make our world a better place to live in.

Happy Father’s Day.

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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 the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA – At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @elfwriter. For more about the author, check out his website.

Being A Bestseller, Being A Mensch

The majority of this post has come from an account by a non-fantasy reader, One Ill Writer,  who happened upon a book signing of Terry Brooks in August 2011.

I have been looking of a way to recognize Brooks, whose first novel, Sword of Shannara,  will soon celebrate its 30th anniversary. I have personally finished three of his trilogies and I am, one would say, indeed a fan.

“This past Thursday, some friends and I went and checked out Terry Brooks at the Cedar Hills Crossing Powell’s Books. I had read one of his books back in the late 80′s. He writes elf magic fantasy novels mostly, which aren’t really my thing, but I’m always interested in hearing what an experienced novelist has to say regardless of genre.

“My favorite thing about genre fiction is that the fans are dedicated to their favorite authors. And let me just add here that Terry Brooks’ fans are fanatics. I love that. There’s something infectious about people being so in love with an author’s world that they squirm with unrestrained giddiness and exchange obscure trivia about the different books set in that universe. I didn’t know much about Terry Brooks or his novels, but within five minutes of sitting down, I was pumped for I didn’t know what.

“In all about 60 people sat in folding chairs and stood around the edges. There was a guy a row ahead of me who had a duffle bag full of all the Brooks novels in paperback. An employee from the store was handing out post-its so Terry would spell your name right when he personalized your book.

“There was a rolling rack full of dozens of copies of his latest novel and a few people grabbed a copy before they sat down. There was a microphone at a podium behind which was propped a large poster of the new book cover. To the right of that, a table with pens on it. Pretty standard book release/signing setup. I’ve been to a few of these things and sometimes the authors come out, they read, they answer a few questions (one of which is invariably, “Where do you get your ideas?”), then they sign books. The author’s demeanor at these things normally ranges from contemptuous to putting-on-a-good-face.

“But Terry Brooks has been in this business a long time. When he came out, he said hello and from that instant, he was in 100% control of his fans. He said he would read a few pages from a book, but instead of the book being released, he would read from the next, unpublished book. He then said he would make an announcement about upcoming works that he hadn’t even told his publisher.

“Lastly, he said he was going to release a book every sixth months instead of once a year. If you think the crowd was excited when they showed up, after these three statements, people were losing their minds. It wasn’t like they were cheering and screaming like a drunk at a soccer match, but they were exchanging looks and shifting in their seats. If there’s one thing about fans and collectors, they love knowing something before anyone else. And more than that, they love to be the ones who tell their friends who didn’t make it to the reading! More than one person was using their phone get video of the announcements.

“Mr. Brooks understands his readers. Maybe better than any novelist I’ve seen speak. When the Q&A came, he didn’t laugh or scoff at the obscurity of any of the questions. And he answered every question quickly with engaging humor and honesty. I couldn’t tell if he actually had his whole universe in his head, or was just making stuff up on the fly, but either way, every fan was satisfied with his answers. He never dismissed anyone or said anything like, “What do you think should happen?” It was amazing. I won’t even go into the pages he read, but I’ll sum up by saying the reading ended with a cliffhanger. I read one book 20 years ago and suddenly I can’t wait for the next one? Brilliant. The guy was a master of his element.

“What I took from this besides an admiration for the professionalism of Terry Brooks was that it’s crucial to know your audience. Crucial! He writes books that he knows his audience will love. He’s not writing to a general fantasy market, but specifically to those who already read his books. John Locke, the million-selling ebook guy, said the same thing. Guys like them know they will ultimately sell more books because their hardcore fans will be a marketing army. For FREE.

“I had noticed he pronounced “Shannara” (his universe) differently than all his fans did. He said “Shanneruh” while everyone else says, “Shuh-nara.” You know, sounds more elf-y that way. So I asked him if he ever got into arguments with fans who pronounce things differently than he does. He said, “No, man. It’s your book. Say it how you want.” People behind me in line laughed. Flawless. Now it’s MY book!

“The number of books he sold that night was astounding. People who had casually picked up a used paperback before he spoke had stacks of books by the time they got in line for the signing. The new release rack was nearly empty when I left. He had converted everyone in the room. He reminded his die hard fans why they read his books. If said before that the energy of the fans was infectious, Terry Brooks’ respect for his fans was doubly so.

“People who aren’t sci fi or crime or fantasy dorks don’t get it. Book nerds are weird people, they think. They also think it’s ok to dress head to toe in Timbers or Seahawks colors and get hammered in the nosebleed seats on game night, but not ok to take an armload of books to the suburbs and actually shake the hand of the man who enriched your life for the past 30 years? Give me the book nerds any day.”

I love this account because it comes from someone outside the genre. Brooks endears himself to people because he is both a master of his craft and a humble person. That’s a rare blend for a 21st Century celebrity. It feels almost mythical, even other-worldly.

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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 The First Decree, the sequel to At The Walls Of Galbrieth. Alon tweets at @alonshalevsf and @elfwriter.  

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Big Boobs and Book Covers: A Critique of Fantasy Art

When I began soliciting artists interesting in creating the covers for At The Walls Of Galbrieth and The First Decree, I asked the artists for a rendering of Mhari, an elfe (politically correct term for female elf in Odessiya) who would become the first teacher of my protagonist, Seanchai.

I explained that she was old but vibrant, tough but wise, and I waited for the examples. Every one of the four artists produced sexy, buxom female warriors. I realize that sex sells ­– I considered moving to T-Mobile because of the woman in the advert not her motorbike, helicopter or the beautiful color purple (okay I am partial to motorbikes and purple, but lets stay on topic…) ­­– but these are YA books.

Wycaan Master 1 Just Front Cover

Apparently, the use of beautiful women on covers of YA Fantasy and Sci Fi are nothing new. This article follows the noble battle by author, Jim Hines.

Hines produced a series of great photos in which he poses in similar positions to scantily-clad women on book covers. Mr. Hines wasn’t against showing some skin himself.

_65356744_scifi“The way women are portrayed is just so ridiculous, so often, you just stop seeing it,” Hines says. “I think posing has made people see it again – you see how ridiculous it is when a 38-year-old fantasy writer is doing it.”

Hines began posting his poses at the beginning of 2012 and they quickly became the most visited. This gave him the idea to create a series to raise money for research to help fight Aicardi Syndrome, a genetic disorder, and he has raised over $15,000 to date.

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The issue of depicting women in fantasy art in a sexual way is nothing new and, in fact, quite rampant in role playing games like D&D. Tracey Hurley, co-founder of Prismatic Art Collection, has commented: “Women are so often portrayed assuming that a stereotypical hetero male is going to be the person looking at the cover, … Male characters [are] powerful and strong, and women’s sexuality will be emphasised. And why is that a problem? It’s constraining for both men and women.”

I find this really depressing. I guess I expected something different from a genre free of stereotypical constraints because it creates its own reality. This is all the more disappointing when dealing with Young Adult literature because of the target audience. I wonder whether a scantily-dressed, thin, and cleavage-heavy woman might also be a turn-off for young women, conscious of their own body-type. Add to this that most of the women portrayed are white and I am left wondering if this explains why less teenage women read fantasy. I also think it explains the success of The Hunger Games, though the promo photos for the movie also follow the concept.

imgresIt is not enough to just thrust a sword in her hand or dress her in a chain mail bikini to project strong images of women, nor is the cover of the book enough to reinforce strong, positive female values.

While my protagonist is a male, I made sure to add strong female characters, who are indispensable to his quest. I believe I showed them as more than equal warriors, each with her own special character. I needed prodding with this, I admit, and even changed Seanchai’s teacher from a man to a woman. Interestingly, it opened up a number of exciting avenues.

Authors are powerful influencers in the community, and even more so when writing for a Young Adult market. But power comes with responsibility and we have a role to play in shaping the next generation of thinkers, leaders, and innovators.

Even though many of us write about different worlds and kingdoms, let’s help make this world a better place.

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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 GalbriethThe First Decree is due out in March 2013.

Judging A Book By Its Cover

The last few weeks have been spent communicating with a very talented book cover designer, William J. Kenney, who has designed the book cover for At The Walls Of Galbrieth. I am quite amazed how someone who has never met me or understands how my brain works (disclaimer: not that knowing me will guarantee that either), can interpret my jumbled explanations into a cover, far better than anything I could imagine.

I might be bias here, but I think epic fantasy book covers (and also sci-fi) must answer to higher standards. My social justice-themed novel, The Accidental Activist, is based on a photograph that I took in San Francisco’s financial district. The cover artist did an amazing job, but it is still based upon something real.

Claudia McKinney, the artist who designed Amanda Hockings’ book covers, designed the cover to A Gardener’s Tale. The different concept from the first edition is amazing and, I believe, a big help in raising my sales levels. My publisher told her that he wanted to stress the strong Pagan theme and earth spirituality running through, she came up with a number of excellent options.

Designing book covers for a series is an additional challenge and, given that there are three, maybe four books in the Wycaan Master series, I now feel I have clear picture of how I imagine William will develop each cover. What I find interesting is that it doesn’t always have to be intricate. Christopher Paolini’s covers are not detailed, but still instantly recognizable. As each new cover was announced, my sons and I shared a collective gasp of anticipation.

 The question I want to pose here is what constitutes a good epic fantasy cover? There are some covers that I just sit and gaze in wonder, often several times when I pick up the book to commence reading. So, please also share your favorite fantasy book covers. Let’s make a Top Ten: over to you… 

Next week – the official unveiling of the book cover: At The Walls of Galbrieth – Wycaan Master Book 1.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written three epic fantasy novels and the first, which reached the Quarter Finals of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2012, is due out in January 2013 by Tourmaline Press. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

At The Next Dwarf Mine Turn Left.

I came across this great article by Roberta Osborn called How to Create A Map For Your Novel. It is very cool and I strongly recommend to those of you who are fantasy or sci-fi writers and may be considering drawing a map, that you follow the link.

Two other articles that I found are from Fantasy Faction and a low-tech video.

When writing Wycaan Master, I never thought to draw a map. Only when I began to write a sequel and realized that I had to keep my characters following a certain geographical framework did I consider making one.

Given that I have no artistic talent, and that my son who helped me write and edit, better understands which end of a pencil is which, I charged him with the task. Being of prime pre-teen material, he refused. In the ensuing negotiation, we agreed to tackle it together.

We went through the manuscript and highlighted every change in direction, every named mountain range and forest. He then took a piece of paper and began to draw. We were soon off the page and took another piece of paper and, utilizing cutting-edge technology, taped the two pages together. They soon blossomed into several pages at unruly angles one to the other, with absolutely no way the map could be folded.

it was clearly destined to be crumpled, torn, and otherwise abused. Today, it sits somewhere in our humble abode under a pile of mutually discarded papers that are not yet quite trash-worthy. It is a tragic tale.

As I look through the articles above, I am struck with a series of questions for those who read epic fantasy. Remember, that I am new, if enthusiastic, to the genre. If you have the energy please answer any or all of the following questions.

1) Do you look at a map at the beginning of a fantasy novel? If so, how much do you study it?

2) Do you refer back to the map as you read the book?

3) Is there any room in epic fantasy for a GPS?

Answers to the first two questions will be greatly appreciated.

Have a great weekend,

Alon

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first has reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Ever Been To The World I Invented?

How do you explain to someone how to write about a place that you made up? Or a race that has never existed? How to describe the unexplored or give directions to a destination that you have never been to?

Fantasy (and sci-fi) writers are in a unique position in the writing world. A friend of mine is writing a historical novel from the Vietnam War. It is from a time and place that she never experienced. Yet, thorough diligent research and patient interviews, she has built an authentic account of the jungles, the battles, and the actions of soldiers.

But I have to confess, and let’s just keep this between you and me; I have never met an elf, never yielded high magic or walked and breathed underwater (I tried the latter – it didn’t work). In Wycaan Master, one of my elves performed a particular feat. He will do it several times throughout the three novels and his teacher explains the rudiments to him. Nonetheless one of my dear friends from my writer’s group (not a fantasy writer) proclaimed: “elves can’t do that.” 

Our group boasts a number of very smart people, all of whom I am sure, thought what one asked. “Oh really? How many elves do you know?”

We laughed and decided that these were my elves and I could do what I want with them. It was amusing and yet, who sets the rules?

The obvious answer is that the market does, and the market is the reader. Buy a fantasy writer a couple of beers and s/he will admit that we all live in the shadow of the greats, with Tolkien being the greatest of them all.

In the pantheon upon which the great Ring Writer sits, are others held in great esteem. I am devouring Terry Brooks‘ Shannara series, and so I came across a book he wrote to explain his craft.

 The book is called: Sometimes The Magic Works – Lessons From A Writing Life. Brooks deals with such issues common to all who write fiction such as plot, characters, hook, dialogue etc., but he also spends time on more specialized aspects such as world creating, or even how it is different perhaps to hold the threads of a plot through a number of books or corresponding paths in a single book.

I read through Sometimes The Magic Works – Lessons From A Writing Life once, enjoying his autobiographical content as much as his craft teaching. I am going away soon for a week and plan to take the book and reread.

 I have two questions:

 1) What makes writing fantasy different from other genres in terms of craft and technique?

2) Are there other good books on writing that are specific to the fantasy genre?

Drop me a note on the blog or tweet any suggestions. I appreciate your help.

Good Writing and Reading,

Alon

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He has written two fantasy novels and the first has reached the Quarter Finals of  the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award as of March 2012. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (@elfwriter).