Commercial Fiction and Literary Fiction

Thank you everyone who stopped by last week, and welcome to all the new people .  Because of you, it was my website’s most viewed couple of days to date.

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the relative merits commercial and literary fiction. Specifically, I’ve been struggling with how to characterize the writing I like to read and write.  Science fiction and fantasy is generally categorized as commercial genre fiction, but most of the books I love most fall somewhere in between these two broad (and ill defined) categories.

Commercial fiction at its best is a wild, enjoyable romp through an incredible plot with easily accessible characters and prose. Commercial fiction sells well because of this focus on an plot and accessibility.  Reading it should feel like watching the most exciting movie you’ve ever watched, the one that makes you forget the theater or your living room until the heart pounding finale. Bad commercial fiction, however, is a lot like watching a collage of b-rate Hollywood explosions, over the top, melodramatic love scenes, and dialog recycled from TV commercials.

Literary fiction, by contrast, generally focuses on complex and dynamic characters and artful prose. Literary critics love the poetry of language, the shifting motives of mysterious characters, the deeper questions of human experience. When done well, literary fiction feels like standing on the Acropolis staring at the Parthenon, so moved you barely notice the sun set, the moon rise, and the distant tides come in.  Done poorly, however, its nothing more than self referential art for art’s sake, the pedantic ramblings of an author convinced of their superiority to their entire audience.

Ultimately the fiction I love to read and try to write is a healthy hybrid of the two. It takes the excitement and accessibility of commercial fiction and tempers it with dynamic characters and an understanding of language. It assumes the audience is capable of understanding complexity while simultaneously appeals to as wide an audience as possible.  It understands that art is ultimately a dialog between artist and the masses, not just artists and their peers.  Finally, if it leans in one direction, it errs on the side of commercial accessibility in deference to the readers.

It is this balancing act between commercial fiction and literary fiction that draws me to an author and it is also one of the things that drive me to write.  My goal, put simply, is to write the novels that I’ve been looking for on the shelf.

Sexuality and Science Fiction

To be perfectly clear on the subject, I am a gay male thirty something who has never been in the closet. There were people, important people, I tell until later in life, but the moment I understood I liked guys I never felt the need to lie about it when asked. I grew up in suburbia when alternative music was cool and same sex attraction was just another way to be “alternative.”  Prejudice certainly still existed, but it was moment of transition towards acceptance, one of many forefronts of what America is still going through today as we crawl towards equal rights at glacial speeds.

It was Science Fiction’s willingness to explore otherness and its examination of society’s progress towards a more inclusive standard that attracted me to the genre. Too often, however, minority writers get pigeonholed into the tropes of their minority.  There is a certain expectation that homosexual writing should address the modern day struggle for identity and equality.  Gay writers are supposed to write about coming out, about homophobia, about AIDS, about religious persecution.

I prefer more nuanced writing. Instead of writing about sexuality as a source for conflict, I choose to write about sexuality as an accepted detail in the fabric of society. Instead of crafting monochromatic binary worlds of gays and straights, my worlds are populated with individuals of ambiguous sexuality whose attractions are revealed only through their interactions with other characters. Individual characters may have individual biases against specific subsets of sexuality (and race, gender, and species for that matter), but when they do it is a character flaw not a societal expectation.

When humans are no longer alone in the galaxy, it’s hard for me to imagine future where the color of your skin, your sex, your sexuality, or your religion are still going to be the most divisive details of human existence. The best Science Fiction isn’t just predictive, its also prescriptive, describing not just what things will look like in the future but what things should look like. In this way, it is one of the best mediums to explore sexuality without the constraints of modern bias.

In an upcoming post, I intend to take a look at speculative authors who have helped shape my own views with their depictions of sexuality and one author who managed to offend me enough to make me stop reading them.

Writing, Facebook, and Google

     It’s been a long time since I posted anything here.  There are a lot of half written posts which I hope to edit and post in the coming months, specifically about Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Sexuality and on the current state of speculative fiction publishing.
     My life has happily been busy writing a new novel, editing and submitting short stories, and waiting for a certain publisher who has had a novel manuscript for almost a year to get back to me.  This time frame is not unusual for un-agented material, but I am also buoyed by the fact that at least one publisher has liked my novel enough to hold onto it this long.   My best news is that one of the professional speculative magazines asked me to send more material in a very friendly and humorous rejection letter.  Indeed, looking back at response times and the names attached to my various rejections, I now believe I’ve gotten onto the second look pile on more then one occasion.  If true, I am very happy with the current momentum.  Wish me luck.
     Recently, I’ve been noticing a lot of traffic, domestic and international, being directed here from Google.  I had known when you search for my name, Trevor Boylan, this page comes up as number 4.  Given the relative unusualness of my name, this makes sense to me.  However, I was a bit surprised to find that searching for Facebook Pages You Must Like my last post comes up as number 5.  (UPDATE: A friend just point out it’s number 2 with search words Must Like Facebook Pages.)  Given how off topic that post was to the intent of this blog, I’m a bit flattered by how much Google’s search algorithm likes me.
     In respone to this trend, let me add three more Facebook Pages you must like.
Oh Myyy – As George Takei’s life has gotten easier, his husband Brad and staff have taken up the mantle of posting ridiculous photos.
Sun Gazing – Some days I just need a positive affirmation about my life, the universe, and my chosen creative pursuit.  Sun Gazing provides all these things as well as some rather stunning art work.
Black Cats are Good Luck – Because there are simply not enough pictures of cats on the internet.

Five Pages You Must Like on Facebook

The First rule of Facebook: Don’t talk about Facebook.

The Second Rule of Facebook: Like first, don’t ask questions.

If you’re alive and human you probably have a Facebook page.  Here is a list of pages that you must like on Facebook.  (Remember a decade ago when that last sentence would have been grammatically incorrect?

1) I FUCKING LOVE SCIENCE.  First let me apologize to anyone with dainty sensibilities who finds the title of this page inappropriate.  To edit its title though would be to inaccurately portray this page as much as calling Evolution or Global Warming a controversial scientific debate or to claim the Earth was exactly 6000 years old because He Who Should Not Be Named said so.  Humorous and informative Science for the Win.

2) GEORGE TAKEI – For anyone who has ever wondered, Takei rhymes with gay which is of course the only reason anyone would possibly like Takei’s boring waste of an internet page.  George throws news articles, internet memes, and puns into a hypothetical blender resulting in laughs so hard as to result in involuntary bodily reactions.  Ohhh Myyy!

3) ANNE RICE – I don’t want my Vampires to sparkle any more than I want my archaeology and mythology whitewashed by Victorian ideals.  Even if Anne sometimes talks as if Lestat is real (is he?), her interesting questions and links to interesting articles are a refreshing break from lesser internet fangirl dribble.

4) DOCTOR WHO AND THE TARDIS BY CRAIG HURLE – A long time ago one of  my friends was a child and her parents made her watch Doctor Who.  The sound of Dalek’s screaming Annihilate! terrifies her to this day.  To fix this, Craig makes Dalek’s into cute and snuggly My Little Ponies with mostly spoiler free fun.

5) CAT SWAG – Because Cats.  Period.

And may I remind you of the Second Rule of Facebook: Like first, don’t ask questions.

How to Host a Great Book Signing

In the ten years I worked for Barnes & Noble, I have managed and attended many book signings, some very successful and some not so much. Whether we like it or not, part of being an author is being a salesman. In this post, I hope to offer advice and insights I’ve learned on how to set yourself up for a great book signing and how to hand sell your work.
1. Good Location
Having a good location is the first step to having a good book signing. What you are looking for is traffic. The more people who see you the more opportunities you have to sell your book. In a bookstore, this is often right at the front of the store or right in front of the children’s department for a YA book. At a convention, try to get a table where there will be high traffic and then during the convention watch the traffic patterns to plan for next year.
2. Good Timing
Timing is also key to good traffic. In a bookstore, for instance, Friday nights and Saturdays are busier than Monday day. You can also try to pair up with other local authors or with book fairs supporting local schools. Both options will net you more traffic with little advertisement on your part. The weekends leading up to Christmas and Fathers Day are the busiest times of year for the book industry. Book signings on these days are the most sought after so ask early. Even if they can’t fit you in this year, building a relationship with the store managers and having a few good signings may help you out next year.
3. Ask for 15 minute overhead announcements.
Some stores believe overhead announcements are best left to Kmart. Despite this, they do drive curious customers to stop by and see what’s happening. Discuss this with your contact person beforehand. If they’re willing, be ready with a short prepared copy on the day in case the store hasn’t prepared one. Something like, “Please join local author Trevor Boylan at the front of the store.  He is signing copies of his new science fiction book…”  followed by title and a one line sales pitch of your book.
3. Don’t be Passive
The worst mistake an author can make at a book signing is to passively sit back and wait for customers to come to them. Stand up, greet every person you see, and introduce yourself. The best authors will ask about a customer’s interest in their subject material then ask if family and friends might like a book on that subject. This opens up the conversation and also allows you to gauge the interest level of your potential customer.
4. Stay Calm
The second worst mistake an author can make is to sound desperate to sell. Inevitably, it will alienate customers. Stay calm, be yourself, and don’t try to sell your book to the staff unless they come to you. Your goal should be to try and sell as many copies as you can while having as much fun with it as you can.
5. Ask for the Sale.
Once you’ve initiated conversation and had a brief conversation, ask if your customer would like you to sign a book for them (or as a gift for a friend.) The simple act of asking often makes many people say yes. Even if they say no, it allows you to take another shot at convincing them or move on to the next customer. Knowing when to move on is sometimes just as important as making a sale. If ten customers walk by ungreeted while you are chatting with one customer for a half hour, you may have just lost the one customer who would be really interested.
6. Advertise
A store will only bring you so much traffic. Your best bet is to bring in more yourself. Make a poster and put it in local coffee shops. Have a website and post your signings there. Develop and email mailing list to keep those people who you’ve already sold to informed of upcoming book releases and book signings. Team up with other local authors with complementary titles to do signings together and cross advertise.
7. Sell to your Friends
One of the best pieces of advice I received from a former professor was to sell to your friends. If you can’t sell to your friends who can you sell to? Invite everyone you know to your book signings and be up front with them that in store sales will help you. The best way to be invited back or to get a better date for your next signing is to develop a relationship with the store managers and by having great sales numbers to back that relationship up.
8. Bring your own stock.
At a bookstore generally provides the stock. However, if you do your job very well you will run out of books. There are two solutions to this. First, you can use it as an opportunity to set up another signing. Secondly, some stores will allow you to use your own stock which they will then return in kind when they get a shipment.
9. Be yourself and savor the moment.
The book signing is all about you and your work. Just be yourself and savor the moment. Just like the rest of the publication process, there’s going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of rejection. The moment you become a jaded used car salesman people will start shying away from you. Your own exuberance for your work is your best weapon for success. Good luck on your next book signing.

A Declaration of Shared American Values

In conceptualizing this blog, I did so with the intention focusing on science fiction, fantasy, the art of writing, and the business of writing. Science fiction, is at its heart the genre of big ideas: technological, scientific, societal, philosophical, and political. As such, I have decided to occasionally meander off topic onto subjects which influence my own writing.

The first thought experiment I want to share a political question. What do we mean when we say American Values? As American citizens, each of us has a different, and often contradictory, definition of American Values, based on political affiliation, family upbringing, and regional variation. I have tried to strip the question down to its most basic form to make this declaration palpable to the largest number of Americans. Unavoidably, it is still written with my own point of view, but I hope that it also represents a broad understanding of American Values and can serve as a starting point for a reasoned dialog about the role of government in civil society.

A DECLARATION OF SHARED AMERICAN VALUES

We believe the most effective form of government is a government for the people by the people, a democratic republic where individuals are elected by the citizenry to represent them by making and enforcing laws which provide a framework to ensure its citizens have certain basic rights.

We believe these basic rights include the freedom of speech, affordable and healthy food, adequate shelter including access to clean water, electricity, heat, and broadband, a quality high school education and access to affordable universities, basic healthcare, a living wage, the opportunity for employment, and the freedom from violence, theft, harassment, and discrimination.

We believe that a free market is a dynamic system for creating wealth and providing these basic needs in an ever changing economic situation, but that a free market must also be well regulated in such a way as to ensure all citizens basic needs are met and their rights as stated above are not infringed upon.

We believe that where the free market system fails to provide these rights, the government can and should intervene to provide them either directly or indirectly through regulation.

An Open Letter To Literary Agents – The Art of Writing Letters

Dear Agents,

Authors have many resources on how to write a query letter: from books, to forums that provide feedback, to the agents themselves. In my own quest to get my novel published and the seemingly endless query process that accompanies it, I have noticed that many agents could use the very same critical eye of an editor as authors. Ultimately, authors are potential clients who might make an agent a lot of money. Failing to be professional in all communication causes that potential client to question how capable you are in the rest of your business affairs . My aim here is not to call out any individual agent but to provide advice to help improve the industry standard.

1. To agents whose guidelines request just a query letter and synopsis:

The only things you can learn from a query letter and synopsis are that an author has a good idea, knows how to summarize a novel, and knows how to market themselves. An author who can do these two things well is no guarantee of a quality novel. Asking for even just five pages of text tells you so much more about the style and quality of the work than any query or synopsis ever could.

2. To agents who only respond to queries if they’re interested:

This policy certainly saves you time, but leaves the author wondering if their query was received. At the very least, give an idea of your response time in your guidelines. Even better, send an automated response that you have received. This will save you the time spent on follow up emails asking if a query was received.

3. To agents with poorly written rejection letters:

An impersonal “Dear Author” letter is just as unprofessional as an impersonal “Dear Agent” letter. If you’ve decided to use form emails, a simple “Thank you for your query.” will substitute nicely as a salutation.

Second, avoid wordiness. Unless you’re sending feedback, a good rejection letter can easily be written in 50 words or less.

Finally, before sending out rejection letters, have a friend or colleague read over it. A poorly written letter can lose you future business. SOME EXAMPLES: Saying “I’m sorry you didn’t send enough to intrigue me” suggests the author should have sent more than your guidelines ask for. “I’m sorry your story just didn’t pan out” doesn’t really say anything relevant. Finally, “My boss has limited room for additional projects and this just ain’t it” really makes one wonder about your interpersonal communication skills.

4. To agents who do not accept electronic submissions:

All businesses of a certain scale now have email. I don’t really understand the waste of paper, postage, and time.

5. To agents who are unprofessional on social media:

Your official social media is your public face and as such a prospective client‘s first impression and should be just as professional as other correspondence. Authors do not care that your favorite TV show is back on, what your favorite food is, or that you and your friends are catching drinks when you’re in town. They do care what conferences you are attending, that your author has released their new book, that you’re closed to queries, and about the convenient resources for authors that you post. It’s unprofessional to make your prospective clients sift through the chaff to get to the wheat.

One detail I really love seeing is how many queries an agent has received and how many partials/fulls they’ve requested.

6. To agents who have responded personally:

Thank you. Almost every personalized rejection letter has been extremely professional. Several agents have even taken the time to help me improve my own query process, either in advice on their website, in their rejection letter, or in their response to my questions. I just wanted to take a moment to thank them and encourage more agents to do the same.

Sincerely,
Trevor Boylan

Short Stories

I hate short stories.

When I mentioned this fact to a friend of mine, he was incredulous as to how this was possible. He just couldn’t believe that a writer who wrote short stories wouldn’t like short stories. I suspect the phenomenon is more common than he thinks.

A short story should do everything a novel should do. It needs to entertain, it needs to educate, illuminate, or instill a sense of wonder, and it needs to have beautiful prose. In a novel, you have 100,000 words to do all of these things, but in a short story you have perhaps 5000 to do the same thing. In that short of medium, each of the qualities begin to fight for room. Do you write a fun story at the expense of any real substance? Do you pack so much information into a story that you sacrifice quality prose? Do you write the most beautiful, florid prose that ultimately says nothing at all?

A good short story must balance these competing qualities perfectly or you will lose your reader. As I reader, though, short stories often fail to do just that. I subscribe to the reader response criticism theory of literature. A story has little meaning outside of self satisfaction if no information is being transferred from author to reader. The author might have had the best idea, intent, or technical skill, but if it doesn’t translate into readership and understand, what’s the point? It’s like a museumgoer rushing past a Rothko painting to get to a Picasso or a Van Gogh because ultimately the
Rothko just a giant square. In this sense, most short stories I have read have failed because they were unable to bring me, the reader, along for the ride. It is true that for other readers they may have been successful, just as plenty of critics love Rothko, but ultimately I can only speak for myself.

Despite my difficulty in finding a good short story, I do not want to leave you with the impression that no one can write them well. The short story author who stands out in my mind as particularly successful is Ursula K. LeGuin, particularly her short stories Buffalo Gals Won’t You Come out Tonight and Foam Woman, Rain Woman. Neither are the stories usually talked about in classes, but they are the ones I remember a decade after having read them. That, ultimately, is their greatest success and why I continue to try and write short stories despite my dislike for them.

POSTSCRIPT: As of this writing, I happily have six finished first drafts of short stories just waiting to be edited. (And of course hopefully published and read by an audience.)

Happy New Years

2012 has been one of the happiest, productive, and healthy years of my life.  I finally finished a salable novel and am now actively trying to sell it.  I finished several short stories and submitted them to magazines and contests.  I received an Honorable Mention from the Writers of the Future Contest (2012 Q4) for my short story, Chasing Tornados.  I received many rejection letters from agents and magazines alike, but they merely strengthened my query process and my editing process alike.  I have several new projects, both short stories and novels, started.  I even started putting applications in for a new day job.  All in all, it was a pretty good year.

Hopefully, 2013 will be even better.  This starship is ready to sail.

I would like to take a moment to say thank you.  Thank you everyone who answered my calls for assistance and information, regardless of the outcome.  Thank you everyone who let me bounce new ideas off them.  Thank you everyone who read drafts of my writing, provided feedback, and helped proofread them before I send them out to the world.  And thank you anyone who reads this infant of a blog.  I really do appreciate it all.

Finally, thank you everyone for making 2012 the quietest apocalypse ever!

And so, on to 2013.  Happy New Years everyone.

Nano – Fail, Writng – Win

On day 8 of Nanowrimo, I had 13623 words, just above the 13328 words needed for the day. I had been much further ahead but had sputtered out in those last few days as I contemplated my priorities. As you might already be aware, I am sending out query letters for the novel I have written and submitting short stories for publication. Deciding to take November to do Nano had been an attempt to increase productivity and keep the writing process going.

It didn’t work out that way. I’ve stopped writing that novel.

I saw only two reasons to keep going. 1) To keep my friends who were also doing Nano motivated to finally finish a novel. 2) The simple goal of completing Nano.

The reasons not to keep going were greater. I found out I’m not nearly as interested in writing in the real world as I used to be, even in a magical realism genre. I’m much more interested in world building.  I’ve created some great characters and some interesting plot, but it wasn’t enough to keep me going. Retooling the query process and focusing on short stories to increase my publishing resume were both a higher priority and, quite frankly, more interesting to me.

I found the process of Nano, however, to be quite interesting. It was quite freeing just to type words without worrying about editing as I go. I spend a lot of my time editing instead of writing, as I’m sure many authors do, so it was a nice break from that process. It also worked well with my organic, unplanned approach to writing. I try to write interesting plot and then come back in later and layer it with a cohesive narrative. I may use the technique of writing without thought to editing in the future to try and generate new text. We shall see.

In the end, I failed Nano walked away with much more than I walked in with. I couldn’t ask for more.