A boy, a sphinx, and an unanswerable riddle

I have a new story out! It’s only a short story (quite tiny at 4,000 words), but it makes me feel all accomplished and author-y to have two books to my name—even if they are only ebooks at present. (Don’t ask my why the paperback of Twiceborn isn’t out yet. Sigh.)

So, new story: it’s called “The Family Business”. Here is the cover. Cute, no?

The Family Business small

The blurb is:

“Renardo and his brothers are up to their eyeballs in debt, with one last chance to save their merchant business (and their gonads) from the moneylender. The great city of Tebos is holding its Festival of Song in three days’ time, and they have a wagonload of songbirds to sell.

There’s just one large, man-eating problem: the bored sphinx who guards the city’s gates, and her deadly riddle game. Renardo doesn’t even want to be a merchant, but somehow it falls to him to outwit the sphinx. No pressure. All he has to do is come up with an unanswerable riddle.”

It’s on sale at Amazon for only 99 cents. Grab a copy and fill in a happy fifteen or twenty minutes on your next commute, or while you’re waiting at soccer practice/the doctor’s surgery/whatever.

And speaking of 99 cents: Twiceborn is also on sale at that bargain basement price for the next few days, so if you’ve been meaning to grab a copy of that but haven’t quite gotten around to it, now would be a good time! It was featured on Valentines Day on the Kindle Books and Tips blog. Not exactly your typical Valentines Day fare, unless your idea of romance includes homicidal dragons, but oh well. Not being much of a romantic myself, the significance of the date had slipped my mind when I made the booking!

So, you may be wondering why “The Family Business” has suddenly appeared. Weren’t you supposed to be working furiously on The Twiceborn Queen, Marina? You never mentioned anything about some random short story being published in that big long list of things you were going to achieve that you blogged about recently.

Well yes, that’s true. Life, as they say, is full of surprises, and one that landed in my lap mid-January was a sinus infection that is still ongoing. Surprise! At its worst I was getting maybe three hours’ sleep a night, and let’s just say that the revision schedule fell a little behind.

I decided to call it early on and shift my deadline with the editor from 1 March to 1 April, which meant that it would be four months between releases instead of the three I’d planned. So I decided to put out a short story instead, one that had already been published a couple of years ago in a magazine, so it didn’t need any work from my end apart from organising a cover and the formatting.

I’m still on the first revision of The Twiceborn Queen, a little over halfway. That’s not where I’d like to be, obviously, but all the new scenes I had to add were in the first half, so hopefully progress will be quicker from here.

The Carnivore even took the ducklings out on Valentines Day so I could work without interruptions. To a writer, that’s the best Valentines Day present ever!

When they came home, Drama Duck presented me with a single rose, nicely gift-wrapped.

“It’s from Dad,” she said.

They were both grinning like idiots, and she couldn’t hold it in any longer.

“We totally didn’t find that on the train where some guy had left it behind,” she added.

The Carnivore gave me a fond smile. “You’re worth it, honey.”

Hope you enjoyed Valentines Day, if you celebrate it. Did you get anything nice from your significant other (scavenged or otherwise)?

Twiceborn cover reveal

I’m very excited to be able to show you the cover for Twiceborn at last. It was done by Yoly at Cormar Covers several months ago, but I didn’t want to reveal it till I was almost ready to publish.

Guess what? I’m nearly there! Twiceborn is buffed and polished as shiny as I could make it, and it’s now off at the formatters getting a fresh lick of paint. It’s almost a Real Book!

Are you ready?

Here it is in all its glory:

Twiceborn small

Isn’t it gorgeous? I feel like a proud parent showing off baby photos, only this baby doesn’t have forcep marks on its face, or a weird pointy head. Or jaundice. Or any of the other not-so-photogenic features my real babies had. And unlike Baby Duck, the insides of this baby are all present and correct too.

Let me remind you what the story’s about:

 “Still grieving her beloved son, Kate O’Connor’s just going through the motions. She doesn’t care that strangers often shadow her on the unorthodox courier jobs she does for a friend. She doesn’t even care what’s in the packages till the day she returns from a special rush job with no memory of the event. But it must have been pretty wild, because now there’s a werewolf in her kitchen trying to kill her – and he’s just the first in line.

Dragged into a supernatural war of succession between the daughters of the dragon queen, Kate discovers a Sydney she never knew existed, peopled by all kinds of strange half-human creatures. To have any hope of surviving she must uncover the explosive secret hidden in her memory – but first she has to live through the night.”

Can’t wait to share it with you!

Elsewhere, on the glorious internet: Netball Barbie!!

OMG! Barbie’s a netball star! You’re all going to think I’m obsessed with dolls after ranting about Disney’s Princess Merida doll in my last linktastic round-up, but it’s not true, honest.

However, I freely admit to being obsessed with netball! One of these dolls may already have made its way into my house … what can I say? She comes with a netball! And a drink bottle! And a sports bag – and even A TROPHY!! How awesome is that? Plus she’s a Goal Attack. Shooters rule!

It’s nice to see a doll that encourages little girls (and the odd big one) to focus on their love of a great sport, instead of continually pushing the beautiful helpless princess ideal.
 
Still in the land of toys, an interesting review of Minecraft, a computer game that is Baby Duck’s latest obsession. Him and umpteen billion other small boys around the world! We have a rule in our house that “the M word” is not to be mentioned at the dinner table, otherwise the Minecraft chatter would be non-stop.  Despite that, it’s a good game, just like playing with Lego onscreen, with the odd monster thrown in to make things exciting. You build during the day and defend yourself at night – “it makes clear the ancient ties between creativity and survival”.
 
Teeth-grinding stuff on “the lack of books for boys” in the YA section: It’s ironic that people complaining about this can’t see “that YA is so female-centric because coming-of-age stories for young men have already been staples in the ‘real books’ section for decades. Because being a young straight white man is universal, see, while being a girl is something that’s impossible to care about unless you’re both a girl and stupid.”

Hey, maybe all these boys who aren’t reading are too busy playing Minecraft.
 

On to writing advice:
 
An interesting take on the old “show, don’t tell” maxim: “Think of your book as a movie. Telling is anything you write that the camera does not see.”


Fantasy writer David Farland is wise on “being prolific”. There’s no magic to it. Work hard, focus, find little bits of time between other things and use them. Don’t fritter your life on Facebook or watching television.

Which brings me to indie publishing, which is a field where the successful writers seem to know all about being productive. The question is not “write a series or stand-alones?” with them, it’s “one series or more?”. Writing fast is no longer the problem it was when a writer had to wait on a big publisher’s schedule. Now it seems to be the key to success.

It’s an exciting time to be an author. As Kristine Kathryn Rusch explains, “indie writers, indie books, indie publishers now have the same access to bookstores that traditional publishers do. The playing field has just leveled.”

Which means that a lot of authors are leaving traditional publishing, or at least combining it with indie publishing. An interesting story from Elisabeth Naughton explains how traditional publishing wasn’t as great as it seemed from the outside, and how self-publishing came to the rescue. “I even hit the USA Today bestsellers list! But what no one saw was the hard reality: I wasn’t making any money. I was working my ass off for a couple thousand dollars, which I was then spending on promotional materials, conference travel and expenses to write MORE books. In fact, I was spending more money than I was making.”

Did you guess I’ve been spending a lot of writing time reading about indie publishing instead? Bad Marina. No biscuit.

One last link, from Lindsay Buroker: on establishing a fan base before you have a book out. 

The long and the short of titles

Over on Magical Words, Will McIntosh raises an interesting point about story titles: that you have a lot more leeway in naming short stories than novels, because a short story is usually part of a collection (either magazine or anthology) that people are reading, and most will try each story regardless of whether the title grabs them.

With a novel, however, the title is one of the holy marketing trinity that makes a browser pick up a book in a bookstore, or click on it on a website (the other two are the cover and familiarity with the author’s name). A good title is a selling tool that hints at what the reader can expect to find in the novel while making it sound enticing. A lot to expect from a handful of words, no?

Some writers don’t worry too much about finding the perfect title, knowing that their editor will probably want to change it anyway to suit what the marketing gurus think will sell. Many publishing contracts specifically say that while the author may be consulted on the title, final say lies with the publisher.

Other writers obsess over their titles, feeling that their knowledge of the book makes them the best person to find a title that perfectly encapsulates it – and who wants to get stuck with an awful title? Better at least to have some suggestions ready when the publisher starts to talk titles.

But what makes a good title?

Till last November I always thought I had a knack for titles. The “perfect” title usually leapt into my brain along with the story, usually something drawn from the writing itself. Easy peasy. (I say “perfect” since very few of my stories have been exposed to the rigours of the outside world, so they could be atrocious titles in reality, but at least I haven’t had to strain my brain too much to think of them.)

Then I started last year’s Nano novel. Step one: open new file. Check. Step two: name and save new file. Er …

*crickets*

Despite being unusually prepared story-wise, nothing leapt to mind. Oh well. “Nano novel.doc”. Brilliant, I know.

Never mind, something will occur to me as I write the story.

Nope.

I’ll think of a title when I finish writing it, then.

Nuh-uh.

I’ve now been working on the revision for two months, and it’s still called “Dragon novel”. It’s like having a six-month-old baby called “Hey You”, because nothing better’s occurred to you yet. Very frustrating.

So. Back to the elements of a good title, courtesy of another post on Magical Words:

You want something punchy, and short enough to fit on the spine of a book and still be legible (a very practical consideration that I hadn’t considered!). It should raise a question in the reader’s mind, so avoid common words – uncommon words, or unusual combinations of words are intriguing, like A Game of Thrones, or Fahrenheit 451. And make sure you don’t have to read the story for the title to make sense.

All of which are good tips, though sadly not helping with “Dragon novel”. There are a couple of huge secrets at the heart of this novel, and every title I’ve thought of is too spoilery. I guess I’ll just have to keep plugging away at the revision and hope that something brilliant comes to me eventually.

In the meantime, have you come across any intriguing titles lately?

Taking flight with Andromeda Spaceways

Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine has been around for ten years now. To celebrate, ASIM#56 is a bumper edition containing no less than 20 – count ’em, 20! – fabulous stories of sffnal goodness. From aliens and asteroids to demons and zombies, if science fiction and fantasy are your thing, there’s something here for you.

There’s also the story of a sphinx who’s bored with asking riddles and the desperate family of merchants who have to outwit her or lose everything, including bits of their anatomy they’d really rather stayed attached. A story – and I quote from the editor – which is “light-hearted and whimsical, a story that makes you smile”.

Well, it certainly makes me smile, because it’s my first semi-pro publication. Very exciting to see it looking so grown-up and real in print. And even though the pay rate wasn’t “professional”, everything else about this magazine and the experience of working with them was.

They have one of the best submission systems I’ve seen. Instead of disappearing into a black hole for months, as happens with so many other magazines, you can track the progress of your submission through first readers, second readers, editors, etc. When you get accepted, the editing is painless, and the contract, payment and contributor’s copy arrive in a timely fashion.

The whole process was smooth and stress-free. And now I get to hold this cute little magazine in my hands that has my name on the cover and my story “The Family Business” inside.

It’s almost exciting enough to make me stop procrastinating and write another one …

Who am I?

I received my first “editorial letter” recently. One of my stories is being published in a semi-pro magazine in a few months, and the editor sent me an email with a file attached suggesting a few changes.

I was quite nervous about opening it. What if she wanted to change great chunks of it? Or delete parts I felt were integral to the story? She said they were only minor changes, but maybe her idea of minor would be different to mine.

As it turned out I needn’t have worried. One phrase deleted, a couple of words switched for synonyms and a handful of commas added. Nothing to alarm even the most sensitive of writers, and I’d already decided before I opened the file that I’d agree to any changes she wanted. Editors have a lot of experience at prettying things up for publication, after all. If they think something needs changing then it probably does.

So – big sigh of relief, trauma over … until she sent another email requesting a paragraph-long biography to go with the story.

“Marina is the best-selling author of Blah …” I wish.

“Marina has travelled the world and held 57 fascinating jobs that make her uniquely qualified to write this awesome story …” Not quite.

How do you describe yourself without boring people on the one hand or sounding like you’re blowing your own trumpet on the other? It has to be true (damn), interesting, relevant to the magazine’s audience and preferably humourous.

I could tell them I’m a skilled quilter, but readers of a spec fiction mag aren’t going to care about that. I have three children (likewise, yawn). I could say I have a masters degree in English, which might be relevant but makes me sound like a tosser.

Hey look! I have eyes that look blue in some lights and green in others. Also, I’m a pretty ordinary photographer.

I’ve been to more weddings than anyone who isn’t a marriage celebrant (I used to play the organ at weddings). And I cried at every single one of them. I always cry at weddings. And funerals. Even if I don’t know the person.

I own a dog with a death wish. I have a huge collection of dragon statues. I’m a really crap housekeeper but I cook a mean spaghetti bolognese. I had to beg my sister for months to give me her Super Secret Spaghetti Recipe.

That one little paragraph caused me a lot of trouble. This is what I came up with in the end:

“Marina lives in Sydney where she divides her time between kid-wrangling, writing and many other interests. She has a bad habit of starting new novels without finishing the old ones, which she’ll have to kick if she is ever to get any of them published. She blogs at www.pecked-by-ducks.blogspot.com.”

How do you sum up a life in one little paragraph? What would you write if you had to describe yourself?

Bunfight at the SF corral

There’s been much discussion on the internet over the past couple of weeks about pay rates for short stories. John Scalzi, author and respected member of the sff community, pointed out in this post that people who are serious about building a career as a writer shouldn’t virtually “give away” their work to low-paying or “for the love” markets unless they are getting some other advantage from the deal.

Some of the semi-pro magazines have experienced editors who can bring out the best in a story, for instance. Some of them get a lot of critical notice, leading to awards or inclusion in best-of anthologies. Some just cater to a particular niche that might fit a story that wouldn’t find a home elsewhere. All of these could be good reasons to forgo the big dollars – though with five cents a word counted as a professional pay rate, no one’s going to make their fortune on selling short stories.

Some leapt to hot defence of their beloved non-pro magazines, seeing slights where none were intended. The resulting debate has been enlightening.

Yes, I can see how people are happy to submit anywhere, just to get into print. I’ve done it myself, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It’s a great feeling to be able to say “I’ve been published”, even if it’s in a magazine that only the other contributors have heard of, like my ZineWest publication.

And yes, it may be good to experience the whole submission/working with the editors thing. It’s fun and it can be instructive, depending on the editor. And at least your work gets some readers rather than languishing in your drawer, though obviously not the wider exposure a big-name mag can bring.

But if you’re trying to build a career, people like Ann Leckie and Patrick Neilsen Hayden – people who ought to know – are saying not only are these minor credits not helping, they may actually be harming your efforts.

Obviously not all publication credits are created equal. Editors may be inclined to take a closer look if I can say I’ve been published in Asimov’s, whereas telling them I’ve been published in ZineWest means nothing. So much I knew. What I didn’t realise was that listing a string of unknown credits may actually put the editor off. Patrick Nielsen Hayden says in comments “speaking as a sometime short fiction editor, I find I’m much more encouraged by ‘Here’s a story, hope you like it’ than ‘Here’s a story, here are 25 mediocre small-press publications I’ve managed to eke out sales to over the last eight years thus making it highly unlikely that I am an undiscovered genius, hope you like the story.’ ”

Making it as a writer isn’t like climbing the ladder of promotion. You don’t get points for “serving your apprenticeship” in the smaller mags and working your way up. This from Ann Leckie: “I’m just telling you, if you’re submitting somewhere only because you think it’s necessary to have some credit, any credit! on a cover letter, that any credit at all that you can scrape up will make an editor pay more attention to your story, you’re absolutely dead wrong … Don’t worry about credits. Just write better.”

Which leads to the point somebody raised (sorry, I can’t remember who, I’ve read a lot of comments all over the place) that getting published in the easier markets may lead to complacency. “Hey, they think I’m good enough to publish, so I’ll send more stuff to them”, rather than striving to improve enough to make it at the big end of town. Again, not a problem if your goal is the fun of seeing your work in print, but if you want to be published by the pros you have to learn to write at pro level.

So the take-home message is: if you want a writing career, submit to the pros first, and move on to the semi-pros if you get rejected by the pros (unless you have some particular reason for aiming at the semi-pros, as discussed earlier). Aim high and keep working to improve your writing. I’d heard this advice before, from Jay Lake, but I have to admit I haven’t been following it. I guess I hadn’t thought it through properly. I’ve just been sending things out rather randomly, without formulating a proper plan of attack.

That needs to change, and I’ve found some recommendations of good markets through all this discussion, as well as discovering the amazing website http://www.duotrope.com/. I’m ashamed to say I’d heard of it before but never got around to looking at it. It’s a fabulous tool for a writer looking for places to submit.

Time to get serious!