Yes, you can change your novel

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A sacred object?

You know what one of the upsides of self-publishing an e-book is?

If you find something wrong in your book — or something that you could obviously improve — you can update your book file and re-upload it to the publishing site. With, say, Amazon, your changes are live in the marketplace within 48 hours.

Having lived in this world of near-instant publisher responsiveness for the past year or so, I’ve noticed my brain has trouble re-adjusting to the world of legacy publishing that many other people are still living in. Thus, I was honestly confused when I saw this Slate article: “Karen Hall’s Rewrites: A thriller writer gets a second chance to revise her novel 20 years after it first came out. Did she make it better?”

My first reaction was: Uh, why is this news?

The gist of the article is, Wowee, this “thriller writer” Karen Hall dared to rewrite her book and re-release it, something that, according to the article writer, “almost never happens.”

Let’s leave aside the fact that Hall’s book is a horror novel, not a thriller (the novel is about an exorcism, for Mephisto’s sake!). I already ranted last time about people’s gross misunderstanding of horror, which probably accounts for why the Slate writer doesn’t deign to apply the label here. Instead, let’s start with this assertion that writers almost never change their books.

A quick glance at indie publishing shows the lie here: self-published authors change their books all the time, going back and fixing up older titles when they feel they have more to offer those books. But the Slate writer has already demonstrated a bias against self-publishing, so in her world, maybe indie books don’t count as “books.”

There’s a more interesting question embedded here, though: why did this book revision strike the Slate writer as heresy? Or at least, as something shocking enough to write a whole article about?

Because this is what happens when people are too precious about books.

Now, I say this as an author. And as someone who maybe made a fetish of books in the past. But just imagine a person gasping their surprise at, say, an extended edition of a movie, or a remake of a video game, or an updated version a song. This happens all the time in other forms of media in the mainstream, and nobody bats an eye.

Books are somehow different, though. Almost, but not quite, “entertainment.” Burdened with this extra baggage of seriousness by many people.

It’s the reason why some people dread reading altogether. And (going back to the snobbery about self-publishing) it’s the reason why some critics feel compelled to draw the line about what deserves to be called a “book” and what doesn’t.

For Preciousness Exhibit B, just look at this other, ridiculous recent Slate article (yes, I seem to spend a lot of time hate-reading Slate). Wherein the writer complains that J.K. Rowling tweeting about rugby ruins the magic of the Harry Potter books themselves. Because, you know, an author is supposed to be removed from ordinary mortals, serious and erect on her throne at Olympus.

Look. George R.R. Martin’s blog entries about football bore the fuck out of me. But they don’t affect my enjoyment of his A Song of Ice & Fire books, because I never pretended that his books were written by anything but a human being.

Once we stop being so goddamn precious about books — and learn to enjoy them as mortal creations — then we can allow ourselves to realize the potential value in updating a book. Changing it for the better.

There’s a reason that developers update software. Nobody gets everything right in the beginning. Not even after extensive bug testing.

And honestly, the more that aspiring writers themselves accept this, the less likelihood there is of them slaving away on their first novel for ten years in agony and isolation (and maybe even chucking the thing in the trash in the end).

I would much rather see a writer put out an imperfect product and revise it later than to have that writer wait in the wings for years, struggling for a perfect draft that not only may never come, but may not exist.

Books are not sacred objects. And authors ain’t saints. We can leave this absolute notion of “canon” to the priests and rabbis.

But hey, don’t take my word for it. You already know my bias; I’m the guy who wants you to ignore the gatekeepers and just go for it. I’m like the democratic socialist of books these days.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make a few tweaks to Player Choice. I’m writing the prequel now, and it’s helped me realize a few things I could clarify and improve in the original. Who knows, maybe I’ll even make the main character slightly less of a dick. Time to go defile the holy text of my novel!

We’re not the Chosen Ones

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What does it mean??

The prophecy was wrong, okay?

There is no Chosen One. There never was, actually. Do you know what happens in real life when we anoint someone as a savior?

They let us down. Inevitably, and invariably. They were supposed to save the world, but they’ve been doping on the sly. Or fucking their nanny. Or secretly slipping a hand down the pants of corporate interests. You know, when you weren’t watching.

So when I read about a Chosen One, I can’t relate. I’ve never seen a Chosen One in real life. I don’t think there’s one staring me in the mirror.

What I see here, on this warming rock in the year 2016, are people who were never supposed to save the world, and yet they’re doing it anyway. In small ways. Small kindnesses and acts of courage. People whose coming was never foretold by a guy with a long beard and a rune-covered scroll; people whose lineage doesn’t contain a trace of magic or divine power. No long-forgotten royal blood or familial estate waiting in the wings, either.

Just schmucks. Plebes. But clever ones, for all that.

I don’t think I can stomach one single more Chosen One in the fiction I read. And honestly, I don’t think you should either. The worlds of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror offer infinite possibilities, and that goes double when it comes to main characters. (Yeah, that’s right: I just doubled infinity. Eat that, Einstein!)

If we can imagine any reality we want to, let’s imagine one where our protagonist survives only by the skin of her wit. Not by the power of the Jesus Dragon from which, we learn, she was actually descended.

I’m not letting kids’ books off the hook, either. Sure, every kid’s secret fantasy is to learn that their real parents were a werewolf samurai and a centaur master necromancer. Whose awesome powers are about to awaken in said kid on their thirteenth birthday, etc., etc. That doesn’t mean we have to market directly to that fantasy. That’s a lazy way to make a buck, and does the kid no favors down the road.

Let’s show our heroes triumphing not from inborn gifts, but from skills they’ve had to work to win. Let’s still put them up against evil empires and malicious demigods and horrors from beyond the curtain, but let’s strip them of their father’s Greatsword +5 and their best friend the almighty archmage, and just see what happens.

Well, I’ll tell you what happens: these heroes will have to use their brains, and their hard-won skills, or they will die. How’s that for stakes?

That’s not just my manifesto as a reader, but also the mission for my own work. In Player Choiceyou’ll find a main character who has been handed nothing, who’s been working toward a dream for nearly his whole life. In The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntleythe protagonist has been given not a gift, but a curse, and his mind struggles not to break in the face of an overwhelming darkness.

When these characters succeed (or if they even do), it’s earned. Because, like you and me, they’re not the Chosen Ones. They have to do the best they can with what they’ve got. I believe that the very best speculative fiction uses its fantastical setting as a kind of funhouse mirror, to show us something about ourselves. What we’re capable of, for good or bad.

Demand more from the fiction you read, and we’ll all be better for it. Seek out the stories that reject the Chosen One narrative and show us us. And let me know about your favorite ones in the comments.

Talk to you tomorrow.

(Written as Day 1 of Jeff Goins’ “Blog Like a Pro: 7-Day Challenge.” Thanks for the inspiration, guy!)

Time to call in the experts

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You ever realize just how little you know about, well, many things?

This realization hit me again recently when I wrote the first draft of the first book in a new horror-mystery series. I wanted to set the novels in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a city where I used to live (and which I still live near). But I didn’t know what it was like to be a Portsmouth police officer, or a city councilor, or pretty much anything besides a writer and editor. And if I got anything wrong about the city, there’d be plenty of locals happy to call me out on the mistakes.

So I figured, why lone-wolf it? Why not ask some of those local folks for help with my research?

That’s how I ended up interviewing a couple of Portsmouth police personnel last week. One a current detective, and the other a retired police chief. The chief has also connected me with a former FBI agent based in Portsmouth. So far I’ve learned a lot of great info that I can use in my new book — and that can help me fix my dumbest mistakes, too. (Not every cop works with a partner, you know!) And there’s lots more people who have offered to talk to me about various other jobs in Portsmouth, too.

Turns out people are happy to talk about their jobs if you just ask them. (Buying them a coffee or beer can help, too.) Next time you get stuck in your creative endeavor, whatever it may be, try seeking out some advice from the local community. Not only can you hear some great stories, but it also invests others in your project.

Quick note: Part 4, the final part of my serialized horror novel, The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntley, is now available on Amazon. That means you can now read Mark’s saga from beginning to end. Just in time for Christmas! If, you know, reading about the end of civilization puts you in a Yuletide mood.

I’ve got plans in 2016 to spread the wider word about both Player Choice and The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntley. I’m going to better connect with the speculative fiction community. And I’m thinking a print version of these books may just help them, like Pinocchio, become more like a “real boy” . . .

Talk to you next year!

Free horror books this week

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Here’s a quick heads up. The first three parts of my serialized four-part horror novel, The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntley, are free this week on Amazon.

Find them here:

Part 1: http://amzn.to/1L6iliN

Part 2: http://amzn.to/1Sc0n3A

Part 3: http://amzn.to/1iNM1dR

It’s the story, in blog format, of an underachieving fact-checker in Washington, D.C., in 2004, who uncovers an evil, otherworldly conspiracy — and rediscovers a long-forgotten power within himself. Readers are calling Mark Huntley “thrilling,” “humorous,” and “awesome.” Grab it before this Friday night.

OK, talk to you later this month during our regularly scheduled broadcast.

Controlling your inner control freak

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Are you able to seek out help on a project when you need it?

This has historically been . . . a problem area for me. And I suspect for many other writers as well.

I first gravitated toward writing because it was something I could accomplish myself. Unlike a movie director, I wouldn’t have to rustle up a massive team to build the world in my head. I would play not just the scriptwriter, but also the set designer, the cameraman, the costume designer, etc. My “actors” would never flub their lines or show up high.

Basically I could do it all without having to worry about managing others, or about potential compromise. Then I could put my own name in big letters on the cover of the finished product.

But you know what, any creative enterprise ends up being, to some extent, a team effort. And writing is no exception. Once I finished those novel drafts, I needed an editor to identify my weak spots and offer improvements. I needed beta readers to catch more little stuff and provide valuable gut reactions. I needed a cover designer to make something to catch people’s eyes in the first place.

I couldn’t go it alone. Because I couldn’t get everything right on my own. None of us can.

I still have trouble with the lesson sinking in. I couldn’t just let cover designers do their thing with Player Choice and The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntley; I had to provide the exact images I wanted, and in the case of the latter, I felt I had to actually lay out the cover myself, and only ceded control on the question of what fonts to use.

And lately, I’m spending far too much time creating entire fucking posters for the upcoming flagship events of New Hampshire Writers’ Week—after conceptualizing, creating, and booking the events myself, creating, collecting, and assessing entries for the contest to determine the events’ speakers myself, and I could go on but it wears me out just writing about it.

Doing all this extra stuff myself scratches the control-freak itch, but it also drives me just a little bit insane. And my wife a lot bit insane. Less insanity would be a laudable goal. So, too, would superior results. Since I’m not actually a real designer, or marketer, or whatever, I ought to be turning to the people who are good and real in those essential fields.

I’m hoping to get better at letting go. Knowing when to entrust pieces of a project in other people’s hands. It’s going to take a little more faith in others, and a little more practice at “project management,” the fine art of making sure other people get their shit done. But these are valuable life skills anyway, no?

How about you—have you had trouble relinquishing control over absolutely every detail on something like this?

Been busy proofreading The Pseudo-Chronicles of Mark Huntley: Part 3. I expect to have it for sale on Amazon on November 3. In the meantime, don’t forget to catch up on Mark Huntley with Parts 1 and 2. Readers are calling this serialized horror novel “awesome,” “thrilling,” and “compelling.” Not bad, right?