Announcing the winners of the Goodreads giveaway…

WOW! Thanks to an amazing groundswell in the last 24 hours, the Absence of Blade paperback giveaway closed on November 11th, 11:59 PM with 919 entries! That is not a typo. 😀

Congratulations to the winners, Timothy, Dan, and Jennifer! Copies of your book have been ordered and should be sent out in the next couple weeks. I’ll notify Goodreads when I’ve mailed them out, so stay tuned over there.

I just want to give a heartfelt thank you to everyone who entered and helped spread the word by sharing the giveaway on social media. If you’re not one of the lucky three but still want a free, signed copy, you can head over to my Book Gobbler giveaway until December 15th for a chance to win 1 of 2 paperback copies! Book Gobbler hooks up readers with free ebooks in exchange for honest reviews*. The first 14 entrants are guaranteed a free ebook, so what are you waiting for?

*You don’t need to commit to reviewing the book to enter the paperback raffle. No purchase is necessary to enter the giveaway.

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Why I’m NOT Doing NaNoWriMo 2017

In the months of September and October, I often see posts aimed at helping writers gear up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo participants undertake a personal challenge to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November–the equivalent of a short novel. These words can be for a new project or added to an existing project; the only requirement to finish NaNoWriMo is that they be 50,000 new words.

I completed NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2016 (my second attempt). It was a wonderful experience, just the push I needed to make some serious word count on my latest novel. I’m not doing it this year. Here are three reasons why. 

I need to revise Book #2 in my Expansion series. My editor has recommended heavy rewrites to some sections, as well as general tweaking, which will likely take a couple of months. NaNo is great for producing new material, but production alone can’t be the goal if you want to be a professional writer. My time in November will be better spent attending to the words already on the page.

I’m still settling down after an international move. If you saw my post in August, you know my partner and I moved to Vancouver, Canada from the United States. We were lucky enough to find an apartment relatively quickly, but we still have a myriad of tasks to complete before we can consider ourselves firmly settled.

I have to focus on my paid work. I’m a freelance academic nonfiction editor by day, and there’s a certain amount of hustle involved in sustaining that business, especially after relocating. Besides taking much-needed time to build business connections in Vancouver, I also have a big project due by middle of November. Although in the long run I would like to make a living from my fiction, and am slowly building that business, I’ll be shortchanging myself if I neglect what pays the bills now.

Final note – Production vs. Productivity: Writers and other creative types feel a lot of pressure to be “productive”. It’s worth stepping back and asking yourself if putting words into a new project is the best use of your energy at this moment. Sometimes we may be creating something of value that’s not as readily visible: for instance, revision may not seem productive but it’s an essential part of the writing process, as is outlining. Also, sometimes life takes precedence over art — it’s hard to write effectively when your non-writing life or work is tugging for your attention.

Rather than pushing yourself to write for the sake of feeling productive, even when it doesn’t make sense for your current situation, think of production as a cycle. Make use of creative sprees in your free time, but also cultivate periods of rest when your creative mind can lie fallow and replenish its energy. Production is a cycle of spending and replenishing energy, and both phases are important if you want to do this long-term.

Readers, I want to hear from you – Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Why or why not? What strategies have you found for restoring your creative energy and avoiding burnout? Share in the comments below. 

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The paperback Goodreads giveaway is now live until November 11th!

In celebration of Indie Author Day, I’m running a giveaway of my debut space opera novel on Goodreads! Because I love Goodreads and the community it provides for writers and readers, and because who doesn’t like free books? Enter until November 11th for a chance to win a signed paperback copy of Absence of Blade:

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Absence of Blade by Caitlin Demaris McKenna

Absence of Blade

by Caitlin Demaris McKenna

Giveaway ends November 11, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Author’s note: This is an update of an earlier post some of you may have seen before the giveaway went live. Since it launched on Thursday, it’s garnered 166 entries; I am beyond honored at the interest and responsiveness of the Goodreads community. You guys are awesome!

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Life Changes

Hi everyone, 

Phew. This year has been intense, for reasons both good and not so good. However, it is with wholehearted excitement that I write today to share some personal news: after months of planning and saving up, my partner and I are moving to Vancouver, Canada! 

For me, this will be a return to a city for which I feel considerable fondness; for him, it will be a return to that sweet vacation where he had that great gelato, but it will be a big change for us both regardless. We both hope to put down roots there as we move into the next phase of our lives. There’s going to be uncertainty going forward, but I hope there will also be discovery, seredipity and hope. 

Thanks for following me on this journey so far; I anticipate much more to come!

P.S., For those of you who follow me on Twitter, I’ll be posting road trip pictures there. 🙂 

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Interpreting Reviews – A Writer’s Guide

Rows of star ratings, from 5 to 1.I got my first reader review on Goodreads about a week ago *cue the champagne*. Overall, it was positive, with a couple areas of critique that got me thinking about the eternal question for writers and other artists: how do you deal with critical interpretations of your work?

Before we begin, it’s important to note that criticism doesn’t imply a negative evaluation. Criticism as I’m discussing it here is the art of analyzing and interpreting a cultural object (in the case of fiction writers, a book or story) for its craft, artistry, and impact or relevance to the larger cultural landscape. Scholarly analysis of literature is a form of criticism, as are newspaper staples like the New York Times Review of Books, all the way down to user-generated reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. All participate in a rich tradition of reading, interpreting, and sharing views on books.

By adopting a zoomed-out perspective, it’s possible to see the benefit of garnering reviews, favorable or otherwise, for your work: it’s a sign your book is being read, and even more importantly, considered. Another person has taken the time not only to read your words but to construct a personal interpretation of them. They have contributed in some small way to the critical body of work about your work. To me, that’s pretty humbling in itself.

Of course, even after keeping this in mind, there’s still the dilemma of what you should do when you get a negative review, or one that contains negatives as well as positives. My two cents are below.

What to do:

Have perspective. Are the opinions expressed limited to one review, or are they part of a trend of negative feedback? Did the reader expect one thing from your book and get another? That’s an issue of marketing, not necessarily the writing.

Focus on the good. Print out or save the parts of the review you like. We tend to remember the bad, so it can help to reinforce the good.

Look at how the review ends. This can say a lot about the reader’s overall impression. For instance, did the reviewer express interest in your future books?

Consider the negative without dwelling on it. Thoughtful critique in a review can be hard to take, but it can also help you improve as a writer.

What not to do:

Argue with a negative review. Just don’t do it. The reviewer has a right to their opinion, and arguing with it makes you look childish and petty. In the long run, that loses way more readers than a bad review.

Brood. Consider criticisms but don’t obsess about them. Use that mental energy to keep writing and improving.

Revise the book based on negative feedback*. When making changes is as simple as revising and reuploading an ebook, it can be tempting to make changes based on negative feedback. I added the asterisk because, on occasion, withdrawing and revising a book based on negative reviews can be the right decision. Sometimes a book just isn’t finished “cooking”, whether it’s the premise, story, or execution, and consistently negative reviews can act as a signal for that. In this case, it may be worthwhile to withdraw the book and release a revised edition later.

However, if the reviews on your book are a mix of positive and negative, that’s the business. It’s not a sign your book isn’t ready, and you waste time trying to be all things to all people. The same thing one reviewer disliked, another may love; don’t cheat them out of the story they liked by trying to please everyone.

Now I want to hear from you: if you’re a writer, how do you cope with criticism of your work? If you’re a book blogger or other reader-reviewer, what do you take into consideration when reviewing a book? What’s most important that the story get right, and what’s less so?

 

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What’s in a Name? Titling a Book

Pic expressing a blank page used for title brainstormingConfession: I dread coming up with titles. It’s hard in part because so much is riding on it: not only does every book or short story need a title, but the title is an essential part of the book’s first impression. Unlike the cover art or even the content, book titles are rarely changed once decided on. That ill-chosen title can dog the book (and the writer) for years or even decades. No pressure!

There’s an artistry to a good novel or short story title. You can probably think of your favorite titles readily. What do you like about them? Often great titles have a poesy, a gravitas, and evoke some quintessential feeling about the story. In fact, I contend the best titles more often are about creating atmosphere rather than conveying exactly what the story is about.

Consider this shortlist of my favorite titles:
“Vaster than Empires and More Slow” – Ursula K. LeGuin
A Fire Upon the Deep – Vernor Vinge
The Escapement – K.J. Parker
“Love is the Plan, the Plan is Death” – James Tiptree Jr., a.k.a Alice Sheldon
The Clockwork Rocket – Greg Egan

Maybe you’ve read these books and stories too, maybe you haven’t. That’s the point–without knowing anything about the content, what makes these titles interesting? Sometimes they inspire curiosity by combining seemingly contradictory terms (Egan); they may invoke a single, important concept or object from the story (Parker); or they instill a certain feeling that hints at the atmosphere of the story as a whole (LeGuin).

When coming up with the title for my book, I obsessed over titles I like, analyzing them for pattern, structure, and feeling. I asked myself how I wanted potential readers to react when they read my title. I thought about structures I could apply to titles across my series, a subtle but important signal that the books belong together. I made lists of terms and literary allusions I thought might encapsulate the theme or invoke the atmosphere of the book.

Here’s a shortlist of titles I considered:
Drawing Weapons
Advanced Pawn
Some Rock’s Vast Weight (The only literary allusion in the bunch, this is taken from the Iliad: “…as Ajax strains some rock’s vast weight to throw…”)
First Move
Edged Overture

After many hours of research and brainstorming, this is the title I chose:

Absence of blade (n., fencing): The situation in a match when the opposing blades are not in contact; the opposite of engagement.

I chose this title because of the resonances the fencing term shares with the tone and atmosphere of the story: in many ways, Absence of Blade is about characters waiting for the right moment to act, enduring the hardships and tensions of a situation they can’t yet resolve, then seizing the moment to strike.

Titles have to do a lot of work for their books and authors. Beyond thematic appropriateness, they need to sound good to the ear and look good on the page; they need to be memorable enough to be “sticky” to the reader, but not become tiresome even as they’re repeated over and over in marketing copy. I’ve probably spoken or written down my title a hundred times already, with no sign that will be slacking off anytime soon!

So readers, what are some of your favorite titles? And for the writers out there, what’s your method (if any) for coming up with titles?

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Upcoming Space Opera Release – ABSENCE OF BLADE

Absence of Blade (Expansion #1)I’m excited to announce the release of my debut novel, Absence of Blade, coming September 2017!

Absence of Blade is the start of a new space opera series set against a backdrop of interstellar strife. On a contested world, a hegemonic human empire is set to crush an alien colony. An assassin, a spy, and a scientist will have to summon the last of their resolve to resist the Terran Expansion.

Whether they succeed depends on what they can withstand.

This is the first book in my Expansion series, out September 14th, 2017, and now available for pre-order on Amazon.

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So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 3: Creating Continuity

I’ve seen a lot of writers talk about the importance of writing book series to gain and keep readers, especially as an independent author. But what they don’t often discuss is how to write a great book series, one that will hold your readers’ interest not just for one book, but over multiple volumes.

In Part 2, I explored ways to create and maintain a coherent plot and character arcs over multiple books. In this last installment, we’ll look at how to create continuity in the smaller details that give your story life.

As a writer, you ignore the work of continuity creation at your peril. Detail-oriented readers will spot gaps in your continuity and bring this to your attention–sometimes directly, but just as often in reviews. However, creating continuity is more than simply filling in the gaps. You can also turn it to your advantage to create a more realistic-feeling, lived-in world. It sounds simple, but having strong continuity makes your books better by:

Building readers’ trust in your world building. The details, large and small, you include as part of the backdrop can organically suggest a larger world. Working these details in is a way to deliver information without info-dumping the pages’ worth of exposition in your notebook.

Making it feel like your world persists when the main characters aren’t in the frame. Stories can feel a bit thin when only your main characters seem to have jobs or a family, or when all the important backstory in the narrative somehow relates to them. Adding background detail like references to historical events or places we haven’t seen or witnessed strengthens the verisimilitude of your world.

Adding color and texture. For me, often equally as memorable as a series’ main ideas and characters are those little background details of the world around them. If these details are good enough, they can even steal the show to an extent: think of the visual interest of the cobbled-together Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, or the highly detailed maps in the Song of Ice and Fire series.

4 Ways to Create Continuity

1. Feature returning minor characters. These can (and probably should) be characters you found yourself interested in or who showed promise for growth. It’s even better if your minor characters have arcs and roles that change with time.

2. Make reference to future plot hooks. These can be settings the reader hasn’t visited yet, pieces of history, characters the reader hasn’t met yet, etc. This has the added benefit of making you look clever when these details become plot-relevant later.

3. Reference events from past books in current ones where appropriate. This seems really obvious, but it’s worth restating: Your characters will remember what happened to them in past books. Having them react to or recall these events in later books develops the character and shows how they grow and change in response to their experiences.

4. Mention details–places, species, cultural practices–that never become plot-relevant. For obvious reasons you don’t want to overdo this technique: mention something enough (at least twice), and readers will expect it to be sanguine to the main story, and may get angry when they find out it isn’t.

So why mention it at all? For the same reason you include minor characters, or places we only see once: to create a living, breathing world going about its business for whom the characters are not the center of the universe. How impoverished our stories would be if they didn’t have that kind of rich background stage against which the drama of the story could play out!

In a way, all storytelling is creating continuity. Narrative is a linear art form. By weaving in small details and recurring characters, places and themes, you can create a story with much more depth than the bare words on the page. And isn’t that your ultimate goal?

Other articles in this series:

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 1: Choosing a Structure

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 2: Managing Plot and Character

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So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 2: Managing Plot and Character

I’ve seen a lot of writers talk about the importance of writing book series to gain and keep readers, especially as an independent author. But what they don’t often discuss is how to write a great book series, one that will hold your readers’ interest not just for one book, but over multiple volumes.

In Part 1, I took a quick look at three types of book series. Now it’s time to zero in on one of the biggest challenges of series writing: creating and maintaining a coherent plot and compelling characters over multiple books.

This post is necessarily going to focus on the Single-Arc series, since that type tends to make the most demands on plot and character. However, some of this advice is applicable to the Episodic and Shared World series as well.

What Writing a Series Is

Essentially, it’s telling a single, very long story. Before books or even writing existed, storytellers wove tales in the form of epic poetry and oral narratives that were commonly interconnected–in other words, a series. The reason that book series today are published in multiple volumes instead of as a single, massive book is the same reason the Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh would have been told over the course of several nights around the campfire. Splitting a series into parts helps the audience or reader absorb it more easily, not to mention increases their anticipation for the next part.

Series have an advantage over standalone books in that they allow for more story; they give the writer the space and the word count to realize ambitious, nuanced plots full of both scope and depth. Characters have more room to grow and change, and readers have more time to become attached to them and follow their journeys.

However, the challenge of balancing plot and character can be exacerbated by the sheer size of a book series. With so much narrative space, it’s easier than ever to lose the thread of the plot or forget what your hero’s driving motivation is. This gets even trickier when you account for series’ tendency to develop large casts of characters.

5 Ways to Manage Plot and Character Across a Series

Create a series bible. Outlining is your friend. I’m a born outliner: for the latest installment in my Expansion Universe series, I sketched out the scenes and beats in 120 PowerPoint slides, indexed by color, and over 100 pages of supplemental handwritten notes. While you don’t have to be as detailed as this, it will be super helpful to have a solid set of notes delineating at least a tentative plot and character arcs. Do yourself a favor and back up your memory, which can be fallible, especially if it takes you months or years to write your series.

Give consideration to character arcs over the whole series. You know you need characters to grow and change over the course of a book; this is no less true over a series, and I’d say actually more so. I’ve seen reviewers complain about books where the characters don’t change, or worse, backslide from earlier development. Your plot should throw opportunities for growth at your characters over the whole series. Ideally, these challenges should build on growth we’ve seen in past volumes–for instance, by having your character respond to a familiar challenge in a new way

Have an idea of the endgame from the beginning. Readers aren’t too fond of a story that seems like it’s making things up as it goes along; this can often be a symptom of the writer not having a solid idea of where the story is going. Outlining the whole series before you begin, however sketchily, can help a lot. Some writers even advocate writing the whole series before publishing it, so you can go back and plump up earlier volumes based on what you know of the story by the end.

Give each book its own arc. Each installment of a series inevitably builds on what came before, and unless it’s the last one, will leave the overarching story incomplete. However, this shouldn’t mean you leave the arc of the current volume unfinished. There still needs to be a recognizable beginning, middle and end to the plot of the book. And please avoid cliffhangers! It’s okay if the story finishes on an uncertain note, but try to at least end on some kind of concluding beat to wrap up the action for the time being.

Establish each book as part of a whole. Having made sure the book stands on its own, it’s also important to include some form of recap. This helps both readers who may be coming into the series not having read previous volumes, and readers who may not remember what happened. Dropping in small details or summaries is better than infodumping. My rule is a paragraph or two of recap at most. If you can do it naturally by working it into the characters’ thoughts or dialogue, that’s even better.

I want to hear from you, writers: what are some of your strategies for wrangling plot and character across multiple books? What are some plotting challenges you’ve overcome (or are working on)?

Other articles in this series:

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 1: Choosing a Structure

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 3: Creating Continuity

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So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 1: Choosing a Structure

I’ve seen a lot of writers talk about the importance of writing book series to gain and keep readers, especially as an independent author. But what they don’t often discuss is how to write a great book series, one that will hold your readers’ interest not just for one book, but over multiple volumes.

So, who am I to talk about writing a book series? My soon-to-be-released novel, Absence of Blade, is the first volume of the six-part Expansion space opera series. This story has gone through many permutations, but I always knew it would be a story I’d have to tell in multiple volumes. And that’s one defining characteristic of a series: the story has to be big enough to warrant multiple books.

There are different ways to do this. To figure out if your story idea would best be served by a series, it might help to look at some common types of series below.

Types of Series and Considerations for Each

The Single-Arc Series

This first subtype is probably the most common type of series. An example that’s likely familiar to anyone reading this is George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, a.k.a. Game of Thrones. What do I mean by single arc? Essentially, there’s an overarching, plot-driven story that begins in the first volume and is more or less tied up by the last volume.

Pros: A single-arc series works really well for giving your story the same sense of urgency and stakes of a standalone book, while the series format gives you leeway to craft a more ambitious plot and larger cast of characters than is workable for a single book.

Cons: With a single-arc series, you run the risk of reader fatigue; especially if readers have to wait a long time between installments, they can grow impatient waiting for the resolution and may well decide to move on to a more productive author.

There are a few ways you can mitigate this, such as planning out your series beforehand so you can write it more quickly, writing shorter series that are quicker to produce, or having two or more series going at the same time. That way, if you ever find yourself needing a break from one, you can switch to the other and still keep up a regular output.

The Episodic Series

The second-most common type of series is what I call the episodic series. The story follows a few main characters through a series of standalone adventures that take place in the same universe. A good example is Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan series, which can be read in any order. Although the novels do make reference to what came before, it’s not necessary to have read the previous installments to understand the current one. Instead, the series is held together by its focus on Miles and other recurring characters.

Pros: One obvious pro of this approach is the standalone nature of each installment. If readers don’t have to have read what came before, they can dive in at any point of your series, enjoy it, and come back for more. Some of the longest running and most popular book series, such as Bujold’s Vorkosigan series and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, take advantage of the episodic series’ newbie-welcoming format.

Cons: The flip side of the coin is that you must do a greater amount of worldbuilding and setup with each new book. Single-arc series offer considerably more slack, with the assumption that anyone who’s read the first one or two volumes more or less knows the characters and plot arc by book three. In contrast, with an episodic series, every new book must be treated as potentially the first time your readers are encountering your universe.

The Shared World Series

The last major subtype is what I like to call the Shared World series: while this type of series may have recurring characters, typically it follows a new cast for every book, with the unifying factor being that the stories take place in the same universe. An example is Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels: each volume takes place in the Culture universe but starts fresh with a new story and characters.

Pros: Shared world series give the writer even more freedom than episodic series, since they only have to establish the existing world with each installment. This kind of series offers a lot of opportunity to create a sprawling universe while avoiding the danger of overly repetitive storylines that can come with the episodic series.

Cons: On the other hand, the writer of a shared world series has fewer shortcuts available to get readers invested in the story and characters. Since the plot is not a continuation from earlier volumes, and the characters aren’t people the reader might be expected to know, the writer has to do all the work of both plot setup and character setup just as they do with a standalone book.

Standalone Novels Are Still Okay

With all the hoopla about series these days, writers might well wonder if it’s even worth writing a standalone novel. My answer is, absolutely! Your choice to write a single book or a multiple-volume series should be determined by one factor above all–the needs of your story. If you think the story can be told effectively in a single volume, listen to that. You don’t serve yourself or your readers by cramming the narrative with filler to stretch it over multiple books just because “series are hot right now”. Write that one book. Many readers enjoy the change of pace offered by a standalone. Plus, you may find that one book inspires ideas for more in the future. Some of the best series are those that arise organically.

Other articles in this series:

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 2: Managing Plot and Character

So You Want to Write a Book Series Part 3: Creating Continuity

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