Sunday, February 24, 2013

Why libraries still matter, damn it.

Brace yourselves:  I've been sick with a cold for most of this week, so I'm cranky enough for a good old-fashioned rant.

Libraries are irrelevant, huh? Tell that to the Founding Fathers!
My target is an article posted last week on The Guardian's website, in which a popular (by all accounts) children's author in the UK claimed that libraries are "no longer relevant."  Terry Deary reportedly said that libraries were originally conceived as a way to get literature in the hands of the poor.  Today, he says, 150 years after the passage of an act that created the first public libraries in the UK, "we pay for compulsory schooling to do that."

The irony is that, according to the Guardian article, Deary, who writes a kids' series called Horrible Histories, is seventh on the list of most-borrowed children's authors from UK libraries last year.  And unlike here in the United States, authors in the UK get a stipend from the government every time their books are borrowed -- about nine cents per borrow, if Google's currency converter is right, up to a cap of a titch over $10,059 per year.  Deary's books are borrowed often enough that he maxes out.  But, he observes, if each one of those borrowers was required to buy his books instead, he'd be making the equivalent of almost $275,000.

Granted, that's a pretty big difference.  But where Deary's reasoning fails is in assuming that everyone who borrows his books would, in fact, buy them.  I have to wonder how many of those kids have families who either can't afford to buy books or don't think it's important to have books at home.  I also wonder how many of those borrows are repeats by the same kid.

And if school libraries are also done away with, too, on grounds of "sentimentality," then reading assignments would be the only way anybody would be exposed to his books.  What do you think are the odds that teachers across the UK would assign books called "Horrible Histories" to their students as a classroom assignment?  And how popular is any book that a kid is forced to read for school?

He goes on to complain that people don't think twice about paying for other forms of entertainment, including movies and TV, but they expect to get books for free.  I guess he hasn't heard that libraries loan out DVDs, too -- and CDs, audio books, and e-books, as well.

Mr. Deary, I am here to tell you that public libraries are, in fact, still relevant -- and not just as a place for people to get their free wi-fi on.  When my kids were small, we made sure they had lots of books to read at home -- and yet, we would often go to the library in order to get more books.  When we lived in Denver and I was subsisting on unemployment payments while I attended paralegal school, trips to the library were a huge deal -- and not just for my daughters, but for me, too.  Even today, we visit the library for reference books, for knitting pattern books, and for pleasure reading.

No, if anything, libraries ought to be getting more funding, not less.

In fact, I'm involved right now in a group called Indie Authors for Hurricane Sandy Libraries.  As you may know, the East Coast of the United States took a pounding from Hurricane Sandy this fall.  Many houses, businesses, and government buildings -- including libraries -- were heavily damaged or destroyed in the storm.

My Indies Unlimited buddy and fellow indie author, K.S. Brooks, got the idea to recruit self-published authors  to send copies of their books to the libraries whose collections were damaged.  It's taken us a while to get responses from the libraries -- in many cases, because the libraries didn't have anywhere to store new books until the cleanup was done.  But we're getting requests now, and we've been fulfilling them as they come in.

If your local library suffered damage during Hurricane Sandy, please urge your librarians to contact us.  And if you're an author who would like to help out, please contact us, too.  The website is  Thank you!


By the way, y'all ought to be proud of me for not mentioning the word "greed" at all in relation to Terry Deary's comments.  Even though I was thinking it.  He ought to be glad he doesn't live in the US, where authors get nothing from libraries except for the royalty payment when the library buys the book.  Hmph.

Oh, speaking of knitting, I was going to post a picture of the sweater I finished.  Here you go.

See the mistake in the cable on the left side of the picture?  No?  Perfect!
And I've already started a new sweater project.  The pattern is called Harvest Moon.  Here's what it's supposed to look like when it's done.  And I found a big button with a ridged pattern that looks a lot like the garter stitch ridges in the collar and pocket edges -- it will look terrific here.

Okay, I think I've gotten into enough trouble for this week.  I'm going to go and knit now.

These moments of in-defense-of-libraries blogginess are brought to you, as a public service, by .

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Write what you know?

We had a great guest post on Indies Unlimited the other day about the old saw, "Write what you know."  The author of the post provided five handy tips for mining your own experiences to incorporate into your fiction.

Which got me to thinking about that old saw.  Sometimes, I think newbie writers take it too literally.  They take their fictional scenes and characters straight from life, changing only the names.  (This is how you tick off friends and family, by the way, especially if the character you've based on them shows them a side of themselves that they consider to be unflattering.)  Or they moan about how they can't possibly "write what they know" because their lives have been too dull to write about.  I guess it never occurs to these people that they could research the activity or profession they want to write about, and learn enough about it to make it sound like they know what they're talking about.

But there are other ways to write what you know -- ways that involve very little research, except in examining the contents of one's own head -- and it's the kind of thing that will make your work stronger.

One thing I've been seeing in a lot of indie books is a lack of getting inside characters' heads.  It's easy to focus on the plot.  In fact, it's almost too easy, particularly when you're telling a story in third person, which a lot of writers -- and readers -- prefer (which I understand, because a first-person narrator can be too precious and/or have his/her head too far up his own, uh, nether parts). Just tell the story, follow the action, move your characters around like pieces on a chess board, and hope the whole house of cards doesn't topple.

Here's a hint: the way to keep the house of cards from toppling is to get inside your characters' heads.

Imagine you are a pivotal character.  You've got some idea of his/her back story (I hope), and you know what's happened in the story so far. Now, you're viewing the current action and the author wants you to do X.  What's going through your mind at this point? What are you thinking that would make you want to react in that way?  This, my friends, is where "write what you know" comes into play.  Maybe you, the author, have been in a similar situation in the past.  How did you feel about it? What decision did you make? How, if you were more like your character, would you have decided differently? How would that have made you feel?

With your newfound understanding, switch back to your author role and figure out a way to portray that.  Maybe all you need is a few lines of dialogue, or some poignant body language.  Maybe you need to write a whole new scene, or lengthen the current one.

Or you might discover that this particular character would never do X in a million years.  Instead, he/she would do Y.  That means X is a plot contrivance; you could throw it out, or give the action to a different character who is more likely to do it.  Or you could run with Y and see whether that doesn't strengthen your story.

You've heard people say that writing is hard.  This is the part that makes it hard.  But this is what will enrich your story and make it believable -- transforming your house of cards into a sturdy structure that nothing will knock down.

My big news this week, which I posted about, somewhat cryptically, on my Facebook page, is that Seized made the first cut in this year's Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest.  For those of you who don't know much about the ABNA, here's what I've gathered about the process:  Ten-thousand entries are taken from all comers. The first cut uses a review of the book's pitch* to narrow the field to 400 in each of the five categories: General Fiction, Romance, Mystery/Thriller, Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror, and Young Adult.  So with this step, we've gone from 10,000 to 2,000. This is where we are right now. Next, Amazon Expert Reviewers (I'm sure they're very nice people and highly qualified...) read the excerpts of these entries and make the next cut, from 2,000 second-round winners to 500 quarter-finalists, or 100 in each category.  Quarter-finalists are to be announced March 12th.

Then reviewers from Publishers Weekly will read and rate the full manuscripts, and select five books in each category to be the semi-finalists.  Amazon Publishing editors read those 25 manuscripts and select the best one in each category.  Then readers get to vote on these five finalists.  The finalists are all guaranteed a contract with Amazon Publishing and a $15,000 advance.  The big winner gets a contract with Amazon Publishing and a $50,000 advance.

I'll let you know when the readers' vote begins.  Regardless of whether Seized is still in the field by then, all of the finalists should be fine reads and worth all of our time to take a look at.

Oh yeah, and the sweater's done, huzzah!  I'll post a picture here next week; I'm at the wrong computer to do it right now.

*What's a pitch?  It's a 300-word description of the book that's designed to entice a reader to buy it.  I'll post my pitch for Seized as a document on my Facebook page, so you can see what I mean.

This search for bloggy meaning is brought to you, as a public service, by .

Sunday, February 10, 2013

News roundup, a PSA, and a quandary.

First, some news.

News item #1:  Seized got a terrific 5-star review this week at Big Al's Books and Pals.  The reviewer even said I might be her new favorite fantasy author -- which is gratifying, humbling, and squee-inducing, all at once.

News item #2: Also in the gratifying, humbling, etc., department, my buddies over at picked Seized as the inaugural book for our new book club.  Maybe I should write a book club study guide....

News item #3:  I sat down yesterday and drafted a rough outline for the final Pipe Woman Chronicles book.  The majority of the research is also done.  So I should be starting to write the first draft, oh, maybe next weekend.  Although I also need to finish that sweater; all that's left to do is the neckline edging (picking up stitches, oh goody) and sewing the side seams.  And I still haven't made myself a scrapbook of the Danube cruise.  So many projects, so little time....

We pause now for the following public service announcement. 

My daughter Amy, who works for a Barnes & Noble store, would like to remind everyone that Barnes & Noble is, in fact, NOT GOING OUT OF BUSINESS.  Yes, B&N is closing some stores, BUT NOT ALL OF THEM.  And she would really like to stop having to explain this to people who call her store to find out the latest discount on DVD boxed sets and whether they've started selling their bookcases yet.  Got it?  Good.  Let's move on.

Now, the quandary.

Publishers Weekly put a curious item on its website this week.  Amazon Technologies -- a division of -- has been granted a patent by the U.S. government for a system to re-sell used e-books and used audio books.

Indie authors have been scratching their heads since the article was released on Thursday, and the brevity of the piece makes me think PW couldn't make heads or tails of the announcement, either.  After all, you don't really own the books on your Kindle -- or the songs on your iPod, for that matter.  What you have purchased is a long-term lease of copies of these digital files.  Amazon made that abundantly clear in 2009, when it yanked copies of George Orwell's 1984 from users' Kindle libraries because the third party who uploaded the book to Kindle Direct Publishing didn't own the rights.  (Amazon settled a lawsuit over the incident later that year.)  And last year, Bruce Willis reportedly was thinking of suing Apple to find out whether he could leave his iTunes music collection to his kids in his will -- a report that later turned out to be false

When the latest news came out, I did a quick Google check of tech industry websites, and learned from that the Amazon patent covers resale of the lease on the content, not a resale of the content itself -- so the Zon isn't changing its business model to let us buy e-books outright.  Basically, the patented system would cut off the seller's access to the content as soon as the buyer paid for it.  Also, there would be a limit on the number of times a file could be resold.  

Speculation is that Amazon might allow re-selling in order to get the content out from under publishers' control.  It occurred to me today that this could be particularly lucrative in the digital textbook market.  Students who buy dead-tree texts pay through the nose for them, but at least they can sell them back at the end of the semester -- an avenue denied to those who buy digital editions of the same texts.  An Amazon-controlled used textbook marketplace could give e-textbook buyers this option -- and as a plus, it could erode Barnes & Noble's lock on textbook sales through its campus bookstore operations.

The Zon could also use used e-book sales as a carrot to attract authors to its own publishing division; authors who sign with an Amazon imprint could conceivably be granted a cut of any resale proceeds of their Kindle books -- a perk trad publishers can't offer.

Other industry wags think Amazon locked up the patent to lock out resales of digital content altogether.  Just because someone holds a patent, these experts say, doesn't mean it will ever be implemented.

It's still unclear what effect, if any, this system will have on indie authors.  As many of us have observed, it's pretty much impossible to tell the difference between a new or used digital file.  It's not like you can dogear an e-book, or break its spine.  And many indie books are already so cheap that the cost savings on a used file would probably be minimal.  Maybe Amazon would grant a cut of any resales to indies who publish on KDP?  Who knows?  Maybe it won't affect us at all.  Time, I guess, will tell.

This moment of bloggy celebration and speculation is brought to you, as a public service, by .

Sunday, February 3, 2013

It's deja vu all over again. Sigh.

At least the critter didn't see his shadow yesterday.
It's that twitchy time of year for me.  It usually starts sometime in mid-January -- not long after the holiday haze wears off, but before the days begin to lengthen appreciably.  Maybe it has something to do with flipping the calendar page.  Or with the knowledge that the weather will be icky for at least another month, and there's nothing I can do about it.  In any case, I always seem to suffer an attack of disgruntlement at this time of year.

I'm not a SAD (seasonal affective disorder) sufferer.  It's not the lack of light, really; as an office denizen, I spend most of my daylight hours inside anyway.  And it's not a full-blown case of depression.  It's just that -- I dunno -- there's not a lot to look forward to right now.

Observing Imbolc helps me.  The beginning of February marks the halfway point of winter, and so Imbolc is a reminder that it won't be cold/gray/snowy forever.  (We had some conversational snow this weekend -- enough to make all the drivers freak out, but not enough to ice up the pavement.  Don't get me started on DC drivers in the snow.)  Winter weather in the mid-Atlantic tends to wrap up by the spring equinox.  I can remember one year when we had a serious snowfall around the middle of March -- we had to delay my older daughter's sixth birthday party by a week, which ought to give you a clue about how long ago it was -- but that's the latest that I can remember seeing a significant accumulation here.

Things were different when I was growing up.  Back when I was walking to school uphill both ways (it's a joke, okay? I rode a bus to school! And not the short bus, either, smarty pants!), we had to step over snowbanks to go trick-or-treating in October, and spring lasted about a day and a half.  I like to tell this to people who have grown up around here, just to see the horror in their eyes.  Muahaha.

(I have a bad feeling that I've told the trick-or-treating story here before.  If I've bored you with it multiple times, I apologize.)

Anyway, I didn't intend to make this post about the weather.  It's just that the gray skies are part of my general disgruntlement.  But my real problem is that another year has passed and I feel like I'm spinning my wheels and not getting anywhere.  I think I need a talking-to, and I'm just the person to deliver it:

"Okay, Cantwell, listen up.  Short term, you've got just two more weeks before you get another three-day weekend, and your sweater's almost done.  Longer term, you'll be in Indy next month -- and you get to take the train, which will be a hoot!  And you're going to Alaska in late May.  Now there's a milestone -- once you get to Alaska, you will have visited all fifty states, and you'll have just one more destination left on your bucket list!  That's pretty cool, huh?  And not only have you been a published author for a couple of years now, but you'll be wrapping up the Pipe Woman Chronicles this spring.  And don't forget that you just bought yourself a really nice podcasting mic, just in case you get the urge to make some books-on-tape or something. Just because you're still in DC doesn't mean you're not making progress.  It's a marathon, not a sprint, okay?"

Okay, okay, you're right.  These bleak days will pass.  But just so you know, Pep Talk Deliverer, we'll probably have to do this again next year.

This moment of bloggy malaise is brought to you, as a public service, by . (Sigh.)