About Writers, Magic and Science, reading, Uncategorized

The Magic of Science of Magic

Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” thereby wedging open the door between two things that are often viewed as being diametrically opposed: magic and science.

Trying to define science in the modern sense of the word would probably provoke a lot of hair-splitting arguments, but any reasonable definition would have to involve a description of the scientific method, which Websters defines as “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.” Magic, on the other hand, is defined as “the use of means believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.” In reductive terms, science attempts to understand the natural world while magic operates outside of it—even above it, as the prefix super- suggests.

My interest here isn’t really in semantics or even the scientific method, so much as the way the two are presented in two genres of speculative fiction: science fiction and fantasy.

Superficially, the two genres seem to be at odds. The former traffics in spaceships and rayguns, the latter in dragons and magic wands. But even on a deeper level, there is a fundamental difference: while both present events and processes that might seem impossible or unexplainable, sci fi works from the premise that such things will be possible and explainable in the future, while fantasy tends to ignore the whole question by labeling the extraordinary as supernatural: magic.

I know, this is simplistic, so lets dive in a little deeper by looking at some examples:

One)  The Enterprise is about to blow up. Never mind how or why or which Enterprise. Maybe it’s a subspace inversion or an innerspace subversion or a race of telepathic protozoa, but either way, they need a fix and fast.  Cue the Science Officer or Engineer: “Captain, if we depolarize the ophion emitter and detonate a platonic charge in the region of 25 thousand gigahertz, it might create a plasma shock. The resulting discontinuity would only a last a few seconds, but it might give us time to warp the hell out of here. It’s so crazy, it just might work.” (Spoiler alert: It works.)

Two)  Harry, Ron and Hermione are in transfiguration class. “Bloody hell!” Ron exclaims, slashing the air in an ungainly fashion. “This stupid spell doesn’t work. Portipot Vertigo! Portipot Vertigo!” A column of blue smoke rises from the thoroughly untransfigured toad, which croaks dismally. “Ron, you insufferable pillock,” Hermione huffs. “First off, it’s Proteo Fortissimo. And don’t swing your wand so. You aren’t beating a rug.”

Okay. I admit I’ve just made fun of two venerable franchises that I’ve always enjoyed (it was done with love, people!). But let’s examine each. In the first, we have what seems to be a science-based solution to a science-based problem. Scientific investigation gives us the parameters of the problem, and our advanced technology provides the means for solving it. But it isn’t real. I mean, some of the words might be real, and maybe the tech has at least SOME connection to real technology  (or at least the concept behind it)  but it’s only the trappings of science. The context—spaceship, computers, beams and rays, big numbers—gives the impression that this is science in action, but the mechanism itself is every bit as opaque as a magic spell. It works because it works. It might as well be magic.

In the second, we have the same thing in reverse. The spell they’re trying to learn involves saying particular words and making particular gestures. If you do it right, it works. Presumably, if you do it the same way each time, the results will be consistent and repeatable, which sounds suspiciously like science. The mechanism for how it works remains unknown, but as long as you know the recipe, you can make the dish.

Now before anyone thinks I’m bashing Harry Potter, I am not. I admire Rowling’s series a lot, and though I have occasional issues with her writing, the story is fantastic. I use it here only because it is surely the best known series of its type, and because it does typify some of the challenges faced by the average writer of magical fantasy.

Rowling does play with the notion that there are deeper, more arcane magics in the world. The protection that Harry experiences in the Dursley’s house, for example, is less the result of a spell and more the product of Lily’s self-sacrifice. (These deeper magics, it should be noted—the magic of family, of love, of loyalty—could be just as applicable in a story that didn’t involve any fantasy magic at all.)

But for the most part, these are not the kind of day-today magics that occupy the story. Mostly we see very specific spells with specific names and formulas for operation and we rarely get into theory. In fact, the actual learning of magic looks pretty rote most of the time. In the Deathly Hallows Harry casts the imperious curse without any difficulty at all, even though we know he has never performed it before. We’re told it’s a high level spell (as well as an illegal one) yet use seems to be as simple as pointing your wand and saying imperio. There are similar issues with the patronus charm, which, we are told, is very advanced, yet Harry has no trouble teaching the callow kids in Dumbledore’s Army to use it. Again, it seems pretty simple. Get in the right mind set, then say the words. No problem.

I don’t want to dump on Harry Potter too much. It really is a great story, and the ambiguity about magic that JK Rowling (eventually) develops and sustains for its duration is both intriguing and enjoyable. But I think it highlights a problem that writers of science fiction and writers of fantasy must face (in different ways). Sci fi can’t explain the science because—even if it is genuine—most readers would find it incomprehensible or boring. Fantasy can’t explain the magic because there is no explanation. That’s why we often end up with science that might as well be magic, and magic that is as mundane as science.

It’s interesting to consider how some of Rowling’s predecessors tried to account for the mechanism of magic. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings features surprisingly little magic, at least in the sense of spells and incantations. Certain objects have magical properties, obvously, but the powers are often vague. The one ring allows domination of all of the other rings, but aside from invisibility, it conveys no other definable powers. Neither does Gandalf wield much in the way of curses or conjuring. He stands off the balrog by literally standing in the way and forbidding it passage. He starts a magical fire at one point, but even there, he mostly seems to be calling fire forth by force of will and knowledge of the elvish language. It is not, in the way we normally think of them, and incantation.

Possibly, Tolkien’s use of magic is closer to Ursula Leguin’s in A Wizard of Earthsea. Earthsea wizards attend an academy (of sorts) and learn spells, but underlying all of the magic is the knowledge of the names of things. Knowing the true name of anything gives you power over it.

My own relationship with and presentation of magic has varied from book to book. In Flight of the Wren, the magic was in the magic carpets themselves. and a rider’s proficiency with various related spells mostly depended on how well they connected with their nearly sentient carpets. In Whisper Blue, the manifestation of Wysteria is given a plausible science fiction style explanation, but that is as much a quirk of the character of Miles Faber as anything else. Miles needs an explanation for the unsettling events of the story, but there’s no textual reason to assume that he actually got it right (or wrong, for that matter.) In Spark, the nature of the eponymous fleck of light remains conjectural right up until the end (though I plump for the shard-of-divine-entity explanation.) Does it matter? Only, I suppose, to the rare reader who cares to read beyond the surface events of the story. Hopefully the mystery is at least a little intriguing, a small source of wonderment. I’m not sure we can, or should, hope for more than that.

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About Writers

And Now, Ursula K. Le Guin

It looks like my time to blog post has come ’round again. Are Curtis, GD, Mimi, Atthys, Sue and I the only writers in regular rotation here? I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say: We’d love to hear from others! (Perry, Tom, Amber, et. al.) You’ve got a ready-made soapbox and a built-in audience here on Writers Co-op; let us know what’s on your mind these fear-fraught dystopian days, eh?

Truth is, however, that I have nothing urgent to communicate at present. Therefore, I’d like to step aside and let Ursula K. Le Guin take the stage. Here is the speech she gave when accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters a couple of years ago. (After clicking on the url, scroll down and click on the embedded video link three-quarters of the way down the landing page to watch this 85-year-old dynamo in action.) Her speech is a marvel of concision, eloquence, truth and power.

:::applause-applause:::

http://www.oregonlive.com/books/index.ssf/2014/11/ursula_k_le_guin_on_reaction_t.html

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book promotion, book sales, Writers Co-op

FROM NICHE TO SCRATCH

(OR HOW TO MAKE A SIX-FIGURE INCOME WITHOUT LEAVING YOUR CHAIR)

I get these ads in my Facebook feed from time to time (all right, every day) suggesting that my lackluster book sales are the result of my unimaginative marketing plan and my lack of vision. There are fortunes to be made on the internet and, with their guidance, I too can board that boat I keep missing, grab the brass ring, quit my day job, start drinking the good stuff and enjoying wafer-thin after dinner chocolates whenever I damn well like.

I am, in case you haven’t guessed, skeptical. I have seen so many of these pitches—and yes, even done a seminar or two—and I always, ALWAYS find the same thing: tired platitudes about perseverance and “giving the people what they want.” Find out who your core audience is, they tell me, and then market directly to them. Grow your mailing list (they love to use grow as a transitive* verb, it’s market-speak doncha know?) Offer free stuff! Find your niche! Become a brand! Write a blog with a cute and catchy name! People will WANT to buy whatever you sell because they will want to buy YOU!

Or, something like that. Maybe it all sounds so unlikely to me because I really don’t find being marketed to at all appealing. You want me to buy your stuff. I get it. Don’t try to razzle-dazzle me with bling or tchotchkes or other crap I didn’t want in the first place, and don’t try and tell me that I’m part of some special club now, and I should hashtag you every time I twit. All you’ll end up doing is making me feel insulted. I don’t want to be critical of the general population (gen pop in eerily-appropriate prison parlance) but if this approach really works with a sizable number of them, well, then, I guess it’s not much wonder that I can’t connect.

Do I sound old and irritable? Check. And check.

A musician I’ve never heard of pitched my feed this morning. She makes six figures working from home (homeschooling mother of four!) selling her CD’s on the internet. She doesn’t perform live or do personal appearances (homeschooling mother of four!) It’s all internet-based marketing. And yet—six figures.

Okay. So sell me. Tell me one new thing in your pitch and I’ll sign up for your marketing course.

Probably my inner skeptic automatically prevents me from approaching this sort of thing with an open mind, but honestly? She’s got nothing. As far as I can tell, her big reveal (and yes, they love to use reveal as a noun) can be summed up in one sentence: “Why be a little fish in a big pond when you can be a big fish in a small pond?” In other words, find a niche.

Niche marketing isn’t a particularly new idea. Back in the days when brick-and-mortar bookstores (remember those?) were still a thing, there was a lot of handwringing about the big chain stores—Barnes and Noble, Borders, Waldens—driving the independents out of business. As it turned out, they had all underestimated the white whale lurking beneath the swells, a little thing called Amazon.com, but I digress. A lot of independent bookstores did go out of business, especially the be-everything-to-everyone-get-your-bestsellers-for-thirty-percent-off-but-we-also-have-a-great-backlist-and-you-can-get-a-cup-of-coffee type of bookstores. Curiously, it was often the small niche stores that survived. The New Age Salon in Santa Fe. The Knitting Book Nook in Seattle. Cats Are People, Too in Minneapolis (plus Cats Are People, Two in St. Paul.) I made all of those up, of course, but it was a real phenomenon. Providing a specialized list of books to a very specific audience can be a successful enterprise, if you’re not too fussy about your definition of success.

And with the internet at our twitchy fingertips, such specialized stores should be even more viable. Now you don’t even need a store, and you can reach millions of potential customers. Our Homeschooling Mother of Four’s niche? Celtic Heavy Metal. Christian Celtic Heavy Metal, as it happens. I admit, it’s hard for me to write those words without feeling my eyes roll, but hey, everybody likes something. I’d plug her website, but I don’t want to get curmudgeon all over her nice, shiny, heavy Celtic Christian vibe. Frankly, it was all a little slick and predictable for my tastes. She can play, and it’s a very professional production for a homemade disk, but—six figures? Really? Is she counting the ones after the decimal point?

(Yeah. That did sound bitter. I withdraw the question, your honor.)

And besides. If she’s making a hundred thousand dollars doing what she loves best, following her calling, etc, then why is she wasting her time hawking some by-the-numbers marketing program to wannabes like me? Wait. Is it because she wants to share her innovative strategies with others? Cuz she’s been so fortunate and now she wants to give something back? It’s amazing how many marketing gurus have tried that line on me. And every time they do, I feel my brain getting a little bit smaller, atrophying in its bony shell.

So niche marketing, yes or no? It certainly has many proponents. There was a guy the other day telling me that selling books on Amazon wasn’t necessarily good, because you might be selling to the wrong people. Amazon’s search-and-sell algorithms are keyed to recognize patterns. Did consumer A purchase your book? Okay. What else has she purchased? Is there a pattern? What else might she want? How can we steer her to those things? It’s all about your target audience, and selling books to people outside of your target audience only confuses the algorithms. It gums up the works, dilutes the information stream. Better to sell fewer books but to the right audience. That way, the marketing machinery will recognize your audience members and find more of them for you.

I think that’s what he was saying. I glazed over a bit around paragraph three but that was the gist. You need to focus on your target audience. Also, write a LOT of books. One a month if possible. (And no, I’m not making that part up.)

I can’t do that, but maybe I could do something like it. I have two thirds of a YA historical trilogy about the Minoan civilization. It’s fun, and has lots of magic and adventure. Plus, did I mention the Minoan civilization? You can’t get much more niche-y than that. By the time I finish book three, it’ll be somewhere in the neighborhood of 1300 pages, but I can break it up into fragments, 200 pages here, 150 pages there. That’s gotta be good for at seven or eight books. I can saturate all the pre-Hellenic Greece websites, twitter-blitz every website about ancient matrifocal cultures, haunt the linear-A chatrooms. Who knows what could happen? I could catch on, and soon a whole herd of bookish kids and history geeks will be hanging on my next installment. And then, the movie deal. Maybe Miyazaki. It’s ready made for Studio Ghibli.

And then, while plotting out this strategy, I see this quote from, of all people, Hayao Miyazaki. ”In order to grow your audience,” he says, “you must betray their expectations.”

Yeah. I don’t know whether that’s really true in the age of the instant entertainment, but it should be. It really should. Otherwise, what tipping point have we gone past where people only want more of the same? Only want what worked for them before? Cuz, wow! Culture-wise? That’s an ocean that’s barely knee-deep.

 

*Yes, I know grow can be a transitive verb when we’re talking about string beans or snapdragons, but the modern fixation with “growing your business” or “growing your client base” is definitely market-speak.

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book promotion, book sales, Uncategorized

Got You Covered

Never mind any old adages you have hanging around about how not to judge a book, it’s pretty much universally acknowledged that book covers matter. In fact, a book’s cover may be the single most important factor that you, as the book’s producer, have some control over. There are certainly bigger reasons for why buyers buy—author name recognition, word of mouth, personal recommendations—but all of those exist outside your scope of influence. You gabbing about your book on Facebook probably will not create a significant word-of-mouth buzz, and until you actually are famous, your name isn’t going to sell anything.

So covers matter. Granted. But how much? A poll at Book Smugglers of 616 respondents gave an overwhelmingly positive response to the question: Do covers matter at all to you? That is, do covers play a decisive role in your decision to purchase a book? Seventy-nine percent said YES. Twenty-one percent said NO.

On the other hand, when asked whether an eye-catching cover for a book you’ve heard nothing about was enough to make you buy it, only 6% said yes. And only 3% categorized the role of a cover in a purchase decision as “dominant.” And, conversely, about 83% of readers said they will go ahead and purchase a book they are interested in reading even if the cover is “truly hideous”(this figure drops when paying for a trade paperback or a hardcover, naturally.)

Polls like this don’t tend to produce definitive marketing numbers, but they do give us a general lay of the land. A good cover helps your chances of selling a book. In most cases the difference isn’t trivial, but neither is it normally a make-or-break factor.

At its most basic level, a cover is an invitation. Open me up. Check me out. Take me home. It’s meant to intrigue the prospective reader into checking out the blurb, maybe reading a page or two (though it is surprising how few people include “reading a sample” among their decision making tools.) What works for one reader might not work for another, so most cover designers aim for somewhere in the middle, which is to say they tend to be pretty conventional. There are plenty of professional book designers out there with their own list of dos and don’ts.  Avoid clashing colors and elaborate fonts. Keep it simple and eye-catching. Make it easily readable, even as a thumbnail. Beyond question, the one piece of advise they all agree upon? Don’t do it yourself. Hire a professional.

The webpage on book cover design at iUniverse provides this handy list:

Your Cover Should:
1.  Fall within the norms for your genre but visually stand out among other books.
2.  Appeal to readers and convince them to take a closer look at your book with a strong visual presence.
3.  Reflect the content of your book and expose readers to your writing style.
4.  Convince a potential reader to invest in a literary journey with your story.

Yeah, no problem.

Your cover should fall within the norms for your genre… Fair enough. Your book cover probably ought to give readers some idea of what to expect inside. If you’ve got elves in the story, maybe you ought to put one on the cover. But the use of genre tropes can lead to a tired sameness. Generic genre covers proliferate, and while these might be a comfort to the diehard genre reader, they hardly entice anyone else, and certainly don’t make your book stand out in a crowded field.

And so the second part of the quote: …but visually stand out among other books. Great advice—only a little weak on the how part of it. Any decent cover artist is already trying to do exactly that. That’s pretty much the first line of the job description. But there’s no secret formula for success. As John Lennon said when asked why the Beatles excited people so much, “If we knew we’d form another group and be managers.”

When I think about the whole question of how a book cover sets the expectations of the potential buyer, I wonder if I didn’t make a mistake. Here. Have a look at the covers for my two books:   spark   and  ag_flightofthewren_hires

Both were created in house by Lycaon Press (now defunct), specifically by Victoria Miller. Victoria does extremely nice work, and she is very easy to work with. I highly recommend her services. Her covers are polished and professional, easily comparable to books published by major publishers.

But I’m always just a little nagged by the suspicion that they are, ultimately, not the right covers for these books. My audience for both books was assumed to be young adult. Lycaon (a YA publisher) certain saw them that way. So did I. With young protagonists and the fantasy elements, it seemed obvious that my ‘target audience’ was younger readers.

But I don’t think that has turned out to be true. I think the largest part of my readership actually comes from adults who like YA stories. And if so, are my covers a hindrance? Are they too kiddish? Do they, perhaps, turn off some readers who like to consider YA as serious literature rather than simply a fun read? I have no problem with either characterization, but I have a feeling most of my own particular group of readers probably fall in the former camp. And if so, might a more restrained—more mature, perhaps?—approach to cover art be more appealing?

I don’t know. I’d welcome any feedback, either specific or general.

As far as the bigger question goes, sure, a nice professional cover is always a plus. But unless you’re talking a faced-out cover on a bookstore shelf, there’s no guarantee anyone is going to see it unless they go looking for it. I don’t think many people browse online waiting for book covers to catch their eye. Most people still shop based on word of mouth or personal recommendations or by looking for the latest book by an author they already know. If they ever do get to your page, then it’s absolutely better to have an appealing, well-wrought cover. But getting them to that page in the first place?

That remains the challenge, folks.

Comments? Questions? Criticisms? You know what to do.

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book promotion, book reviews

How Genre Dysphoria is Ruining my Writing Career

I hate the dropdown list.

If you’ve ever tried to enlist your book at a book-marketing website or even just self-publish it on Amazon, you’ve seen the dropdown list:

Please select a genre for your book:

  • Fantasy
  • Romance
  • Science Fiction
  • Mystery
  • Horror
  • Thriller
  • Paranormal
  • Literary
  • Young Adult

Of course, many of the lists are more diverse, giving you everything from Urban Fantasy to Paranormal Romance, but you know what? That doesn’t make any difference, because no matter how specific the genre, it still doesn’t fit my books. In fact, making the choices more specific only makes the problem worse. The smaller the pigeon-hole, the worse the fit.

***

There are two golden rules of selling stuff:

1. know what you are selling

and

2. know who you are selling to.

They are the twin maxims of marketing. Write something people want, and then go out and find them. Know thy audience! Then target them. I’ve given almost no thought to who my books are for. It’s not that I’m not interested. I want people to like my books, of course, but I have no control over that.  I haven’t gone to a single bookstore, online or otherwise, trying to find other books that are similar to mine so I can tap into a ready-made audience.

I’m supposed to do that. I’m supposed to go and find that audience.

It’s one of the many things I’ve done wrong. I don’t target my audience. I don’t write high-concept. My books don’t sit comfortably in any particular genre. I can’t even identify an appropriate age group. I classified Spark as Young Adult, but in all the comments by reviewers at Amazon, what was the single most common observation?

The book isn’t really YA:

“…definitely different from your typical young adult novel.”

“I’m not sure it can be classified as Young Adult.”

“I am trying to think of the best genre to which this book belongs.”

“what separates this book from other YA or science fiction-type of books is the attention to detail and language.”

“…not typical of YA books in general.”

“…may be a little misclassified as a YA novel.”

Here’s the thing, though: while everybody mentioned it, nobody called it a bad thing. In some cases, not fitting in was a bonus. Being different can be a good thing.

So while a marketing consultant might leap on my genre dysphoria as the fatal flaw that is preventing the book from catapulting to a wider audience, I don’t think most readers really care all that much. And sure, there are plenty of people out there who only read cozy mysteries or high fantasy or YA dystopian, but those people probably aren’t going to be in my audience anyway. We’ll never be more than just friends.

And if I’m going to be totally honest about it, I like genre bending. I enjoy books that are hard to classify, that defy convention, that live in the spaces between categories. I like reading them. I like writing them. So maybe it isn’t a problem at all.

Except for those damned dropdown lists.

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