I Ought to Write Romance; a Statistically Bankrupt Analysis

I used to study and write poetry, a fact that is relevant to this post in two ways. First, it helps to explain why the statistical methodology to follow is so shoddy, so truly terrible that it would make any self-respecting statistician gouge out her own eyes, Oedipus-style. Second, this post helps to explain, in small part, one of the reasons I stopped writing poetry and started with the epic fantasy.

Every year Goodreads hosts the “Readers’ Choice” awards, which the site bills as “the only major book award decided by readers.” That claim depends, of course, on what you consider “major”, but with nearly two million votes cast in 2013 competition, it’s fair to say that Goodreads is running a big competition. There are twenty categories, with fifteen books nominated in each. I’m thrilled to be nominated in two categories: Best Fantasy and Best Goodreads Debut Author. I also thought this was a perfect opportunity for someone who hasn’t done math since high school to do some math.

Specifically, I was curious to see if there was any difference in the average number of reader ratings per book by category. These ratings have nothing to do with the Choice awards – they’re just the number of ratings each book has accrued since its release. Still, it seemed like the nominations offered a sort of snapshot of each genre.

Of course, there are problems. The books are released at different points in the year, for one thing, and obviously books released in January have more ratings than those released two weeks ago. It’s very possible that readers of certain genres might be more likely to use Goodreads than others. Ratings might not translate well to sales. I accept my D- for data analysis.

Still, check this shit out:

Category        Average Number of Ratings per Nominated Book

YA SF/F:                    23,726

Romance:                   14,871

Fantasy:                     9,957

Fiction:                      9,554

SF:                              5,269

Non-Fiction:             2,591

Poetry:                       242

The discrepancy is pretty astounding. It seems to suggest that writers of Young Adult Fantasy and Sci-Fi are just absolutely killing it, sales-wise, compared to anyone writing what we might call (for lack of a better term) Adult-Oriented Sci-Fi and Fantasy. The YA title with the most ratings was Cassandra Clare’s City of Heavenly Fire, with 73,629 ratings. This is half the number of ratings all fifteen nominated adult fantasy titles combined. The only other genre that even comes close to these numbers is Romance.

That said, I think this is good news for those of us writing non-YA fantasy. I, for one, am delighted to see the YA market so robust. I like to think that when these kids get older, they’ll keep reading fantasy.

And then, of course, there’s the plight of non-fiction. After the breakout success of such books as The Perfect Storm, and Longitude, I expected non-fiction to have a much higher readership. Maybe it does in other years. Maybe non-fiction readers just hate goodreads. I dunno. Again, the holes in my method here are massive, but these numbers seem bleak.

Finally, poetry. It wasn’t until I was in graduate school writing poetry that I started to really understand it would be almost impossible to make money in the enterprise. I admit that this was pretty late for what should have been an obvious realization, but I love poetry. I still write the occasional poem. My son and I recite poems before bed every night. If you want to make a living as a writer, however, and I do, it’s not a viable path (unless you couple it with teaching or prostitution or something). Fortunately, my other great literary love, the writing of epic fantasy, offers more possibilities.

I’m delighted about the nomination of The Emperor’s Blades. Both slates (fantasy and debut) include some incredibly stiff competition, but it’s exciting to find my name in the fray alongside the likes of Rothfuss and Sanderson. I hope some of you wander over to the site, check out some of the categories and titles for yourself, and let me know what you make of all this data. Where have I gone horribly and wildly wrong? Or do you think that, warts and all, this is actually a pretty accurate picture of the current publishing world? Finally, please vote, either for The Emperor’s Blades or another writer you’re excited about. I love doing this, I’m incredibly grateful to be making a living at it, and I couldn’t do it – no writer could – without you.

Lesson (sort-of) Learned

Well, seven years after I wrote a scene in which a young monk is whipped while trying to paint a thrush, I can finally say it: The Emperor’s Blades is out on the shelves. Oddly, the money-laden dump truck driven by attractive fans has not yet arrived in the driveway, but maybe that happens tomorrow.

I’m a slow learner, but even for slow learners seven years is enough time to pick up a few lessons. Here’s what I’ve got:

1. It is never a good idea to drink five cups of coffee before noon.

2. That scene you spent a week and a half on, the one you thought was going to be the psychological pivot for an entire act? Yeah, it’s crap. Cut it.

3. When you find a brilliant beta reader, marry her. It’s the only way to ensure she’ll see the project through to the end.

4. Back up your fucking hard drive. Back up your fucking hard drive, you idiot. Back up your fucking hard drive.

5. If you dress zombies up with a fancy new name, they are still just zombies. Cut ‘em.

6. One beer might help the creative process. One.    O. N. E.    1.

7. You think you write clean prose? Prose that will leave the copyeditor with little to do? Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha.

8. When you start cursing and poking at the screen, it’s time to get up and go for a run.

9. If you’re still worked up about whatever wasn’t working when the run is over, the run is not over. Go do the other loop.

10. Tweeting is not writing.

11. Facebooking is not writing.

12. Google+ing is not writing.

13. Blogging is sort of writing, but you’re not gonna get a book out of it.

14. That whole plot line with the Urghul girl as a point of view character? The one that’s a hundred thousand words long? Yeah. Cut it.

15. If you make eye contact with the dogs, they might stop chasing you. Or they might not.

16. Always listen to your agent. She is smarter than you. She is more experienced than you. Without your agent you would be like a baby deer wandering around inside the lion cage at the zoo. Except you are not cute like a baby deer.

17. Your friends, for reasons known only to them, actually believe you can pull this off.

18. Your baby is probably screaming because you’re not writing fast enough.

19. Remember when you didn’t know what an editor did? No? That’s because now that you’ve realized your editor does everything, the thought of putting out a book without him is inconceivable.

20. Stop typing and make a sandwich already. A healthy human can go thirty days without eating, but it doesn’t make for very good prose.

21. Just because you wrote eight thousand words in one day doesn’t mean you’re allowed to keep any of them.

22. Stop trying to come up with titles. Just stop. Stop.

23. The book has your name on it, but without your wife’s help at literally every step of the process, it would just be a pile of scribbled-on pages like Russell Crowe’s crazy papers in A Beautiful Mind.

24. Even if the book is a steaming turd, it doesn’t matter. You have wonderful friends and wonderful family, people who don’t really want to handle a steaming turd, but will do so if necessary and keep loving you at the same time.

25. That scene with the monk? The first one you wrote seven years ago? Yeah. It’s crap. Cut it.

The Lounging and the Bon-bons

Followers of this blog will have noticed that I haven’t posted recently. I can hear you all muttering, “He’s lounging in the November Vermont sun eating bon-bons.” Well, I am. But I’ve also been writing articles about fantasy — they’ve just been ending up in other places. For those of you who are curious, here’s a recap:

The Problem with Prophecy: On the role of prophecy and the troubles it presents. Ruminations on the irritating oracle at Delphi, the book of Revelation, and the Bhagavad-Gita. Also, a raging discussion in the comments section.

Depicting the Divine in Epic Fantasy: Gods are all over the place in fantasy, but it’s tricky to do them well. I take a look at a few different approaches here, with discussion of ass trumpets and brain eaters along the way.

Asymmetrical Ass-Kicking: On real life heroism and what it can teach us about the writing of fantasy. If you don’t know the name Miyamoto Musashi, you don’t know about one of the most bad-ass real-life people ever to wield a sword (or two). Myke Cole was generous enough to post this over on his blog, which is filled with great content. If you head over there, it’s well worth spending some time looking around.

Finally and most exciting, the first seven chapters of The Emperor’s Blades are now up for your reading pleasure. You can check them out on tor.com, here. Feel free to let me know what you think, either on this blog, or in the comments below the chapters themselves. If you like what you find, please consider pre-ordering the book here. It’s cheaper than waiting for the publication date, and it helps me out a lot!

As always, thanks so much for reading, chatting, and generally loving fantasy. Now, back to my bon-bons.

 

Is That a Mast Between Your Legs?; the Role of the Fantasy Cover

I love judging books by their covers. I will look at a cover and just judge the shit out of it. “Boob armor,” I’ll scoff, and toss the book contemptuously away. “That dragon looks like a lobster.” Gone.

Is this an effective method? Not really, but I count on the internet to keep badgering me about the shittily-covered books that are really great. This is why we invented the internet, right?

When I first saw my own cover (check it out here), however, I started feeling a little less blasé. Fortunately, I love it, but it got me thinking about the role of covers and the messages they carry. Never one to pass up a little side-by-side comparison, I decided to take a look at the old cover (OC) and new cover (NC) of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World.

The Original Cover

The Original Cover

First, the stats:

Weaponry

OC: Three swords, one axe, and a helmet. Don’t tell me that helmet’s not a weapon.

NC: A piercing blue stare.

Elements of Vague Menace:

OC: Night, dead trees, agitated horse.

NC: Weather, possibly inclement.

Possible Magical Shit:

The New Cover

The New Cover

OC: One staff, elegantly carved.

NC: Something gleaming yet indeterminate in the middle distance. (I know this is the tower of Genji, rabid Jordan fans, but I wouldn’t if I was looking at the book for the first time.)

Serious and Immediate Threats:

OC: An airborne, malevolent, human-stalking bat creature.

NC: Falling off the mast?

Coed Fellowship of Like-Minded Heroes:

OC: Eight strong.

NC: Conspicuously lacking.

Clothing:

OC: Armor, gown, jerkins, capes.

NC: Lush, billowy shirt. Immaculately laundered.

Phallic Imagery:

OC: Minimal.

NC: To the max.

Based on the new cover, someone unfamiliar with the novel might reasonably expect a coming-of-age tale about a young man with impeccable laundry service, who goes to sea, then secretly pines for the love he left behind, yearning for the day when they will be reunited. Not a lot, in other words, about trollocs slaughtering villagers, or the impending destruction of all creation.

And it doesn’t matter! The new cover doesn’t need to convey anything about the actual substance of the book because The Wheel of Time has been around for decades. The book has been vetted. The role of the cover art now is not to convince the hard-core fantasy fans to read it, because the book, even if you hate it, is already an inevitable part of the fantasy canon.

So what’s this new cover doing? Two things. First, trying to broaden the appeal of the book beyond fantasy’s traditional readership. I know heaps of people who look down on or sideways at fantasy, people who are always starting sentences, “The thing most readers don’t understand about Proust is…”, people who would hesitate to so much as glance at the old cover. Too many swords, too much horseflesh.

The new look, though – Oho! Who’s this strapping young man striking the type of implausible pose usually reserved for models from clothing catalogues? Who does his laundry? Is he pining for his lost love? And that sky! Evocative of someone famous… maybe Turner?

Which brings me to the second goal of the new cover: dressing up the book. This is related to point one, but transcends it. If the old cover says, “Hey, I’m sorta trashy, but I’ll show you a good time,” this new cover is all buttoned up. This is the kind of book you could read in front of your in-laws. Or in church. If you read in church. Which you probably shouldn’t.

That’s my interpretation, anyway. The folks at Tor have their own explanation, which, given that they’re the ones who commissioned the new look, might have a slight edge over mine. The thing I’m curious about, though, is this: If you knew nothing about the book, which cover would prove more enticing?

Shakira and Usher Hate Tolkien; Opening Sentences in Fantasy

I suspect something horrible may be happening to us; I suspect that someone – the CIA, aliens, maybe that dude who works at the late-night burger place down the alley – is siphoning away our brain power a little bit at a time. My suspicions were first aroused last night, when my wife and I sat down to watch the premiere of The Voice. If you’re not familiar with the show, all you need to know is that the singers get ninety seconds to impress the judges. Not a full song, or, heaven forbid, a set of songs that might showcase different abilities: ninety seconds. And it was awesome. We were never bored. While watching the show I forgot that boredom existed.

Then I remembered a writer’s conference I attended many years back in which I went to a number of pitch sessions entitled “Two Minutes; Two Pages.” Sorta like The Voice, but with literary agents instead of Shakira and Usher, reading instead of singing, and an extra thirty seconds to hawk your shit. Also, I don’t seem to recall a cheering live audience of thousands. At any rate, these sessions made a real impression on me, as the agents, all of the agents, kept saying things like, “I see a million submissions a day. If you haven’t hooked me by the end of the first paragraph, I’m done.”

I really wanted an agent. I rewrote my opening paragraph.

Let me be very clear: I’m not complaining about these agents or their advice. They were passing along what I think is the overwhelming opinion of readers, the people who actually buy the books. It is their job to know what sells and they were excellent at that job. They were just a little ahead of me in the realization that aliens are thieving our attention spans.

These days, it seems that many readers want something good, and by good I mean awesome – a bomb threat, a zombie, someone naked, several naked people, naked people defusing a bomb while fending off zombies –  by the end of the first paragraph if not the end of the first sentence.

Was it always this way?

Well, I didn’t have time for an exhaustive study of opening lines, but I did have time for some half-assed Googling. Half-assed Googling, I realize, runs a distant second to actual statistical analysis, but I was so surprised by the results that I wanted to share them here. I Googled eight fantasy novels, famous novels. The first four were published before 1990, the next four, after. I ignored prologues where they existed, focusing instead on the opening sentences of the first chapters.

Consider:

Old Stuff:

“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home.” Eddings, Pawn of Prophecy (1982)

“The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land. The trail stretched out unevenly down the northern slope, winding through the huge boulders which studded the rugged terrain in massive clumps, disappearing into the thick forests of the lowlands to reappear in brief glimpses in small clearings and thinning spaces of woodland.” Brooks, The Sword of Shannara (1977)

“The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. From the towns in its high valleys and the ports on its dark narrow bays many a Gontishman has gone forth to serve the Lords of the Archipelago in their cities as wizard or mage…” Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

New Stuff:

“Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever. This time around, he planned to spend those three seconds getting strangled.” Lynch, Lies of Locke Lamora (2006)

“The morning had dawned clear and cold, with a crispness that hinted at the end of summer. They set forth at daybreak to see a man beheaded…” Martin, Game of Thrones (1996)

“The lapping of water in his ears. That was the first thing. The lapping of water, the rustling of trees, the odd click and twitter of a bird. Logan opened his eyes a crack. Light, blurry through the leaves. This was death? Then why did it hurt so much?” Abercrombie, The Blade Itself (2006)

“In the dark of waking, a soul has died. Its flesh, however, is still hungrily, savagely alive. The Reaper’s task is not to save.” Jemisin, The Killing Moon (2012)

You don’t need to be a literary scholar to see the differences.

Kicking off the old books we have: a birthday party, some geography, the description of a trail, and the sights and smells of a kitchen. Eddings, for his part, seems determined to absolutely destroy any narrative tension right at the outset, giving us love and security instead of mystery or suspense. Of the early works, Le Guin’s opening is probably the most exciting, but even she doesn’t zero in on a particular scene, providing us instead with something that sounds suspiciously like history.

In the new books, by contrast, we have: a beheading, a strangling, the potential death of the POV character, and a soulless Reaper. I can tell you right off the bat who’s going to end up on The Voice.

Now, I don’t want to suggest that the old books are weaker. In fact, the old books are classics, and deservedly so (whatever you think about Brooks ripping off Lord of the Rings). I do want to suggest that it looks as though the way readers and, therefore, writers approach beginnings is changing. The question is: is this bad? I have no idea. I’ve lost the ability to focus on the question long enough. Maybe one of you, however, someone who has escaped the brain suckers, could tell me what it all means…