The Magic of Old Books

This past week, I finished the rough draft of my fourth Clockwork Legion novel, tentatively titled Owl Riders. These novels are steampunk steeped in history. The first novel, Owl Dance starts in a wild west very much like the wild west of history. However, as an alien character called Legion interferes in human affairs and humans themselves gain confidence in their inventions, the world of the novels gradually diverges from the world of history.

Because I start in the world of history, I like to do my homework and understand the places and peoples I describe in my books. Even when I diverge from history, the cultural experience of the people in the novel will be the same up until the divergence point. Reading books that discuss the history of the region and peoples I’m writing about is, of course, important, but one thing I like to do over and beyond that is find books written by people who lived at the time the book takes place.

One of the challenges of Owl Riders is that I have some scenes set in Persia of 1885. I found some good histories of Iran which gave me insights not only into the country in the nineteenth century, but how that history helped to shape the modern country. However, I wasn’t sure what I would find written at the time period. A search at my local library didn’t turn up anything. On an off chance, I went to COAS, our wonderful used bookstore in Las Cruces and happened on a book called Land of the Lion and Sun by Absalom D. Shabaz, published in 1901. The book’s subtitle is “Personal Experiences, the Nations of Persia—Their Manners, Customs and Their Beliefs.”

This sounded perfect, a personal viewpoint of someone living in Iran within a few years of my story’s time period. On closer inspection, I discovered that the book was written as a guide for people hoping to be Christian Missionaries in Persia. I’ve just started the book and I find that Shabaz was raised a Christian in Persia and had to deal with the reactions of his friends and neighbors. This actually proves to be an interesting viewpoint because it combines elements from both my protagonists, Ramon Morales who is a Catholic-raised lawyer visiting Persia for the first time and Fatemeh Morales who converted to the Bahá’í Faith as a young woman and then left home.

For me, the real magic of a book like Land of the Lion and Sun is that I can hear the words of the author speaking directly to me across more than a century. I can read a personal perspective in the language of the time, with all the attitudes and prejudices of the time intact. I think it’s important to start by reading modern histories precisely because an author of a particular time can’t help but share their prejudices. It allows me to separate the perceptions of the historical author from history as it unfolded. I look forward to seeing how Mr. Shabaz experienced the history I’ve read about and see where that might lead me as I prepare to revise my novel.

While you’re waiting for the fourth novel, be sure to catch the three novels that are already published. Clicking the titles will take you to pages with more information:

Marketing Buzzwords

One of the things that drives me crazy about the publishing business is that as writers and editors we strive to be clear, concise, and avoid clichés and hackneyed phrases. Yet, when it comes time to market books, many people including some very talented writers and editors will fall back on some very tired and overused phrases to describe the process. One phrase in particular that sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it is “building buzz.”

The idea here is that when a new book comes out, an author should make a concerted effort to get word out about the book. Because there are only so many people an author can interact with personally, the author wants to encourage others to talk and write about their book. And just to be clear, this is a good thing and authors absolutely need to do this. My problem is with the hackneyed phrase used to describe this activity.

My first problem with the phrase is that it sounds horribly egotistical. It’s like what you’ve written is so totally amazing that everyone is going to drop what they’re doing and talk incessantly about it until it becomes a drone, like the buzzing of bees. Let’s be real, no one has ever written a book that’s set people talking that much before they even read them. The closest I can think of are the Harry Potter novels. Of course, these books were discovered, read, recommended and discussed enough that they became best sellers, then had movies made of them, and remain popular years after they were written.

“Buzz” is earned through engaging writing. It’s not something manipulated and built artificially after the book has gone to press. People talked and wrote about the Harry Potter books because they liked them, not because J.K. Rowling, Scholastic Publishing, or some marketing company told them to talk about them. The buzz happened because the books touched the imagination of the audience.

What’s more, I think clichés like “building buzz” do a disservice to writers and publishers trying to navigate the complicated and ever-changing world of book marketing. It lends credence to the notion that there’s some magical recipe that will make your book so successful that everyone talks about it. If you didn’t successfully “build buzz” with your first attempts, you’ve failed and you should stop trying. As I implied earlier, the hard work of “building buzz” happens when you write the book and create something people want to read. Once the book is out, your job is to find creative ways to tell people about your book without droning on like the buzz of a bee.

When your book comes out, do tell people it exists. Tell them what it’s about in concise, clear words. Find creative ways to get that message out. Talk to other writers and find out what worked for them. Those almost certainly include such things as newsletters, blog posts, sending out free copies to reviewers, book trailers, social networking, bookmarks, and lots more. That said, don’t limit yourself to those things people have told you work. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box and try new things. This is not a recipe. It’s a process.

Finally, if I ever use the phrase “building buzz” as a shorthand for getting the word out about your books or mine, you’re more than welcome to call me on it!

Meet Mike and Claire

This past weekend, I’ve been working on a book trailer for my novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. To make this trailer, I’ve been collaborating with actor, director, and producer Eric Schumacher, who played Wyatt Earp in the Fox Network TV series, Legends and Lies: The Real West.

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of book trailers. Some are more successful than others. I’ve even made a few using graphics provided by the wonderful artists who worked on my covers. For this trailer, Eric and I wanted to kick it up a notch, and make a more cinematic trailer featuring a scene from the novel. Eric is playing telescope operator Mike Teter and Sara Mirasola is playing astronomy graduate student Claire Yarbro. Here’s a sneak peak of the actors in character.

I have tried my hand at writing a couple of screenplays, and even submitted one to Star Trek: The Next Generation when it was on TV, but this marks the first time I get to see my words translated to the screen. Eric and I collaborated on the screenplay. Like most book screenplays, it’s not a word-for-word translation of what happens in the book, but we worked hard to keep the essence of one of the book’s scariest moments. As the scene opens, Mike and Claire’s dialog teases what’s been happening in the novel so far, then Mike leaves Claire alone. In the book, Claire goes through an internal monologue as she waits to find out what’s happening to the others with a few exclamations. We worked to translate enough of the words to give you a sense of what she’s thinking without giving you a Shakespearean-style monologue. I’ll leave the description there to avoid spoilers both for the book and the trailer.

The writing process started with me picking a handful of scenes I thought might be suitable. We developed one in hopes that Kitt Peak National Observatory could be a stand-in for the novel’s fictional observatory. However, that request was denied. The powers that be felt the Mayall 4-meter was just a little too recognizable and such a film would imply organizational endorsement for the project. Disappointing, but fair enough.

The new scene is set in an observatory control room, which is easier to mock up without implying institutional endorsement. So we went to one of our backup scenes. The scene I picked only had Claire. Eric roughed out a draft based on that scene, then I suggested an opening based on the previous scene where Mike and Claire are together. This allowed two actors to play off each other and set up the scene before Claire has to carry the ending alone. We then sent the script back and forth a few times. I checked for both scientific accuracy and assuring the script was true to the flavor of the book, while Eric worked to assure the scene could be filmed and actors could speak the lines.

It’s been exciting to see Eric and Sara bring Mike and Claire to life. In a future post, closer to the trailer’s release, I’ll discuss more of the technical aspects of making our short film. In the event you don’t want to wait for the trailer’s release to read the book, you can learn more about The Astronomer’s Crypt, read a sample chapter, and find places to buy the book at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Roughing It

Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been plugging away on the rough draft of my eleventh novel, Owl Riders. The novel will be the fourth in my Clockwork Legion series, which includes Owl Dance, Lightning Wolves, and The Brazen Shark.

I haven’t said much about the new novel as I’m writing it, partly since it’s novel four, it’s tricky to discuss it without giving spoilers for the first three novels. However, what I will say is that I hope this novel closes up some loose ends from the first three novels while possibly serving as the first book of a second trilogy featuring these characters. Whether that last part happens will depend on demand.

Those who follow this blog, know that I’ve also been busy with several other tasks, which have included the release and promotion of my novel The Astronomer’s Crypt and the anthology Kepler’s Cowboys, plus, of course, I’ve been shepherding the anthology Maximum Velocity: The Best of the Full-Throttle Space Tales toward completion. Of course, on top of these are visits to conventions and, oh yeah! I have an actual “day” job operating telescopes!

Ideally, I like to luxuriate in the drafting process. I’m the kind of author who likes to spend time in a scene, really immersing myself in it. I write fast, so in the past I’ve often done things like think about a scene for two or three days, then furiously write four or five thousand words in a sitting. Afterwards, I would go back and reread what I’ve written, making corrections and generally trying to make sure I haven’t left out parts or repeated parts. My hope is that when I’m done with this, I’ll have a rough draft that won’t need all that much work to turn into a published novel. Yeah, right.

My beta readers and my editors always find stuff I missed. It’s partly because of time and partly because of this realization that I’ve been taking more of a NaNoWriMo approach to this novel. For those who don’t know what that is, NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month and the formal event happens in November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in a month. To do this, you just draft and don’t look back at what you’ve written, just keep plunging forward.

In fact, my novels, The Solar Sea and Dragon’s Fall: Rise of the Scarlet Order started as NaNoWriMo novels, when I was challenged to participate by my publisher.

The best strategy I found to complete NaNoWriMo was to set myself a daily word count goal and stick to it. That’s essentially what I’ve been doing with Owl Riders. On an ideal day, I wake up, have breakfast, check my mail for important messages, go for a two-mile walk, write 1000 words, have lunch, go for another walk, write another 1000 words, go for a final walk, then get on with the other business of the day. I find that during the walks, I can spend time visualizing the scenes as I prefer, plus it gets me up and moving around, so I can avoid a repeat of the thrombosis scare I had earlier this year.

As I say, this is an ideal routine. Because of the nature of my “day” job operating telescopes from sunset to sunrise, I can’t easily write on those days. Also, if I have a time-critical item on of my other projects, I’ll give myself a break and only require myself to complete 1000 words, rather than 2000 words in a day. As it is, I’m making steady progress. I know I’ll have to go back over the whole thing with a fine tooth comb and make sure the whole book works together. I’m sure there are wordy places I’ll cut and places where I’ll need to add detail, but I’d do that even if I took my time drafting the manuscript.

While waiting around to see how well I succeed, you can read the first three Clockwork Legion novels. All the links above will take you to my pages describing the books which include links to retailers where you can purchase the book. Also, all three of the original Clockwork Legion novels are available in a single budget edition from Kobo and Barnes and Noble.

Hearing My Own Words

Last week, I finally had the chance to hear the audio book edition of my novel Owl Dance. It might surprise you to hear that I didn’t get a chance to listen to it until after it was released, but by contract, my publisher has the right to create an audio edition and there’s nothing in the contract that says I have a right of approval. My approval process wrapped up when the publisher and I agreed the novel was ready for print.

It might sound like I’m complaining about the process, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, a lot of work goes into writing, editing, and promoting my books…not to mention my other full-time job operating telescopes. It was actually kind of nice to let my publisher handle all the logistics behind arranging the production and proofing the final product. I was glad to know another edition of my book was coming out and I didn’t have to add another task to my plate to make it happen.

So, what did I think of the final product? I think narrator Edward Mittelstedt did a fine job. He had a great range of voices and a nice delivery speed that was clear and understandable. His pronunciation of names like “Fatemeh” and “Maravilla” were somewhat different than mine, but they weren’t wrong. In particular, he pronounces “Maravilla” in a kind of a South American accent, which suits the character.

Recently a friend asked if I had a difficult time enjoying the books I read. Her thought was that as a professional writer and editor, I might be so busy critiquing books I read that I couldn’t just sit back and enjoy them. My answer was that I’ve reached a point where I can read books critically, but still enjoy them. The critical part of my brain is sort of like a background task I can access when needed.

That said, I found listening to my own book was much more difficult than listening to books by other authors. Time has passed since I wrote the book and I have gained a new perspective on my words hearing them read by another person. I found myself critiquing my word choices, plot, and character decisions all through the story. Despite that, my overall impression of the book was positive. I felt like I heard the kind of story I like. That said, there were word choices and particularly some repeated phrases I wouldn’t mind revisiting if the chance ever presented itself.

I’ve come to the point where I strongly recommend writers read their work aloud at some point during the edit. It helps you hear phrases you use too often or too close together. I hadn’t quite reached the point where I was doing that regularly when I wrote Owl Dance and I caught a few places where it showed. I’ve taken the lesson to heart and will be applying it as I go forward. Hopefully these issues attracted my attention because I was listening at a more detail-oriented level than most listeners (or readers) will.

If you’d like to travel back in time to an 1877 that wasn’t, but could have been if a sheriff and a healer started wandering the West together while a visitor from the stars encouraged the Russian Empire to unify the world under one leader, you can read a sample chapter and find links to all the books editions at http://www.davidleesummers.com/owl_dance.html

The Danger of Honesty

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King writes, “Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. Anything at all … as long as you tell the truth.” And this perhaps, is one of the scariest aspects of writing fiction, especially if you create a fictional world close to the one you inhabit.

In my most recent novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt, I write about an astronomical observatory similar to several I’ve worked at. There is always a danger of creating characters in a setting where you work, especially when that setting is a relatively small community. People will have a tendency to draw comparisons between characters in the book and real world characters, no matter how carefully I tried to assure that no one had the same name or exact characteristics of someone I know.

Another challenge is that in my experience, astronomers tend to be idealized in fiction. They’re often portrayed as heroes, or at least people who always try to do the right thing. Sometimes they’re portrayed as selflessly devoted to the pursuit of science. If they err, it’s because they put science ahead of everything else.

Of course, we also live in an era where certain politicians want to vilify science or scientists. They want to dismiss well established findings to justify their actions or lack of action in the political arena. It’s important, though, to understand that the process of science is designed to preserve the integrity of science in spite of the personalities of individual scientists.

One of the things I was committed to in The Astronomer’s Crypt was portraying the astronomers as real, fallible human beings. Some are good guys, some are selfish and arrogant. They all have real human problems which both motivate them and lead them astray. Because the media has given us strong preconceptions, I suspect some people will look at the book and see me putting scientists on a pedestal. Some will look at the book and see me as talking trash about people I’ve known.

In fact, my goal was simply to follow Stephen King’s advice and tell the truth as best as I see it.

If you dare to take a walk on this dangerous journey through the truth, you can learn more about the book and find places to order at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/Astronomers-Crypt.html

Warning Signs

In last week’s posts I discussed reading for the Nebulas and the reality of my “day” job operating telescopes vs the perception. In point of fact, operating telescopes involves a lot of time sitting at computers and reading is also a job usually done sitting, unless you want to walk into objects and people. Of course, I also write, which is another activity that involves sitting at the computer. This is pretty typical of what I look like at work:

This may sound like I’ve set myself up to be quite sedentary, but, I do move around quite a bit and I like to take long walks. In fact, my normal daily walk when I’m at home is usually right around four miles. In short I’m not in terrible shape for my age and I walk often enough that I’ve experienced more than my fair share of leg cramps when I haven’t properly hydrated or stretched beforehand.

Last week, around day four of my shift, I started experiencing some terrible leg cramping. The only weird part is that I hadn’t been walking much for the past few days. Mostly I’d been sitting at the computer and working on a project and doing some reading for breaks. Normally, I find that leg cramps subside very quickly. I stand up, walk around a bit and they settle down. This wasn’t like that. Instead, the cramp just kept getting worse for about 24 hours. After that, it started subsiding, but very slowly.

Checking the Internet, I scared myself reading about the dangers of deep vein thrombosis, which is when a blood clot forms in your leg, which can then break loose and travel into the brain, heart, or lungs. In some cases, these things are known to kill people. However, my impression from the reading I’d done was that deep vein thrombosis doesn’t get better. The fact that my pain got better led me to believe it really was a nasty muscle cramp.

Also, I grew up with parents who might be described as hypochondria-phobic. As a kid, if I complained about pain, they usually told me I was imagining it and to “tough it out.” For me, the result is that I have a hard time admitting to pain even to myself. Sometimes I even have a difficult time distinguishing between levels of pain. So, I was already prone to tough it out and follow up later if it didn’t get better.

By the time I got home, the cramp was mostly gone, but I still had a persistent knot in the back of my leg. I assumed this was the muscle that cramped up and gave me problems. When the knot hadn’t gone away, my wife and I decided I’d better see the doctor. I figured he’d tell me it was a cramped muscle and there was little he could do for me. At which point, I’d make an appointment with a good masseuse.

The doctor took a look at my leg, pointed out it was swollen and sent me off for an ultrasound. Sure enough, the diagnosis was thrombosis. Fortunately, it wasn’t in the deep vein that’s the most serious, but my doctor pointed out that it’s a warning sign. He’s helping me take measures to deal with the current clot and to help me minimize the chance for new ones.

In a very real way, this is a first-world problem. It’s a medical issue caused by work that demands I sit too much. There are a lot of people around the world that would look at me and wish they had my problems! That said, this is a case where I should have listened to my body. I really should have called in sick to have this checked out right away instead of trying to tough it out. It’s frightening how serious this could have been.

Despite this unexpected excitement, I’m pleased to report that I haven’t fallen behind on Owl Riders, book four of the Clockwork Legion. I didn’t get ahead as I hoped I would this week, but I’m making good progress. I’m also doing my best to take breaks, and get up and walk around, so this doesn’t happen again!

For those who want to catch up with the first books in the series, you can check out the Clockwork Legion series at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/books.html#clockwork_legion

All the books are available in ebook and print, plus Owl Dance is available as an audio book, and Lightning Wolves is in the final stages of audio production.