My Five Favorite Reads of 2013

This isn't a book review blog, but every December I like to share my favorites of the books that I've read this year.  I read a lot of great books from all different genres, but I guess I'm still a YA fantasy  nut at heart.  All five of these are speculative fiction, and four of the five are YA. 

And without any further ado...

1.  The Crown of Embers by Rae Carson

I find that I often get really invested into a series at the second book.  It happened with Catching Fire and The Queen of Attolia (see below), and also with Rae Carson's debut trilogy.  I enjoyed The Girl of Fire and Thorns (the first book in the series) when I read it last year, but I loooved The Crown of Embers.  Rae Carson does strong female characters incredibly well.  Too often, "strong female character" is taken simply to mean "good at beating people up" or  "stubborn."  But Carson's Elisa learns strength in the ways that matter -- in compassion, self confidence, independence, confidence, and integrity.  Elisa in The Crown of Embers is a stronger, surer one than in TGoFaT, but we still see her grow as a woman and a queen.  And Hector (swoon)!   Who knew he'd be so dreamy without the mustache? The Bitter Kingdom is on my bookshelf, and I'm very much looking forward to it.

How I Got An Awesome Cover Design from 99 Designs, and Why I'll Think Twice Before Using it Again

Last week, I mentioned using 99 Designs for Poison Dance’s cover. I love the book cover I ended up with, but I'm hesitant to use the service again. A few people asked me to elaborate.

My Traditional Debut and My Indie Debut: A Case Study Comparison

Note: Poison Dance is available at the following stores:
Ebook: Kindle (US) | Nook | Kobo | iBooks
Paperback: Amazon

I’m in the interesting position of being a first time author in both traditional and self publishing in the same year. My novel Midnight Thief comes out with Disney-Hyperion in July 2014, and I’ve recently self published Poison Dance, a prequel novella. (Is it a prequel if it was written after the novel but published before?)

Since there's so much discussion of traditional vs. indie these days, I thought it be interesting to do a step-by-step comparison of the process for both books. Obviously, there are differences – Midnight Thief is a 370 page novel and Poison Dance is a 54 page novella for one thing. Also, Poison Dance was published partly to help market Midnight Thief. But still, it’s an interesting case study.

So I broke it down by each step. I also noted the cost of each self publishing step when relevant.

Poison Dance 99 Cent Launch, Excerpt, and Giveaway!

If you follow me on twitter or facebook, you've likely heard already.  But today, I'm thrilled to finally announce it on my blog.  Poison Dance has officially launched.  From now until December 15th, it's available for the promotional price of 99 cents for ebook and $4.55 for print.  To celebrate, I'm also giving away a signed copy of The Ghost Bride by Yangtze Choo, so stay tuned for more details....

Here's a short blurb about Poison Dance:

James is skilled, efficient, and deadly, a hired blade navigating the shifting alliances of a deteriorating Assassin’s Guild. Then he meets Thalia, an alluring but troubled dancing girl who offers him a way out—if he’ll help her kill a powerful nobleman. With the Guild falling apart, it just might be worth the risk. But when you live, breathe, and love in a world that’s forever flirting with death, the slightest misstep can be poison. Poison Dance is approximately 14,000 words long, or 54 printed pages.

And here is the opening scene:

To Name, or Not to Name?

Note: MIDNIGHT THIEF now has a cover!  Check out the cover reveal at Iceybooks, and enter to win an Advance Review Copy while you’re there.

I've been thinking about names lately. I've blogged before about how the sound of your name affects how people view you. But today I'm thinking about what it means for character to even have a name. It's a signal to the reader that this character is worth paying attention to, and the decision to name a character can affect the reading experience.

Increasing Suspense by Playing with Structure

We make plenty of choices about the way we structure a story. Do we tell the story in linear order? How much do we give away? How does that affect the reading experience? A recent study had some interesting things to say about this.

Four Writing Tips from Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

I recently read Wired for Story by writing instructor and former literary agent Lisa Cron. Cron makes the good point that our brains are wired to be attracted to stories and offers insights about how to make stories more naturally appealing.

Here are some of my favorite tips from the book:

1. Internal vs. External

The interplay between external action and a character’s internal reactions are very important for driving the plot forward. In most scenes, something will happen to the character (external), but it is the character’s emotional reaction and interpretation of the event (internal) that provides the necessary firepower to keep the story moving.

On a larger scale, characters will have both an external concrete goal as well as an internal goal that drives it. For example, Laura might have an external goal of creating a successful startup. Her internal goal, on the other hand, might be that she has always felt a need to win the approval of those around her. Note that the internal goal and external goal aren’t always compatible – perhaps Laura’s struggle to make her company successful ends up alienating those around her. A conflict between external and internal goals can make for great tension.

Editing MIDNIGHT THIEF: More Tips I Learned From My Editors

(Note 1:   I used Grammerly to grammar check this post because I welcome our robot overlords.  FTC Disclaimer – Grammarly offered me a $200 gift card to try out their service and post about it. The website found 1 punctuation error, 12 grammar issues, and gave the post an overall score of 69 (weak, needs revision), but I couldn’t actually see the mistakes they flagged because you need to give your credit card number to see the rest.)

(Note 2: Thank you to everybody who voted for the POISON DANCE cover. You can see the winning design here. And also, POISON DANCE is now on Goodreads. In my review, I confess my secret crush on the main character.)

A few months ago, I wrote about critiquing tips I learned from my editors Abby Ranger and Rotem Moscovich at Disney-Hyperion. Today, I thought I'd talk specifically about actual changes that I made to MIDNIGHT THIEF in the editorial process.  When possible, I've tried to abstract my changes to larger principles that might help you with your writing as well.

1.    Juicing up the world building.  Midnight Thief is an alternate world fantasy novel, and much of my first revision focused on making the world more real and vivid. This included:
  • Inserting small details that illustrate how this new world is different from ours. This included setting details such as paintings, to personal interactions, to myths and folklore.
  • Language.  My editors encouraged me to come up with terms specific to the world.  For example, Palace guards are now referred to as Red Shields. I also came up with different speech patterns for the nobility vs. the poor.
  • World building as foreshadowing - without going into spoilers, there is a big reveal in MIDNIGHT THIEF.  Some initial test readers found the plot twist unbelievable, and I’ve since shaped the worldbuilding to make it more natural.

Announcing POISON DANCE, my self publishing debut. And please help me choose a cover!

Hi everyone! For those of you who follow my blog and twitter feed, you know that I've long been interested in both traditional and self-publishing models. So I'm happy to announce that I will soon be releasing my first self published work: a novelette titled POISON DANCE.

Here's the blurb:

James is skilled, efficient, and deadly, a hired blade navigating the shifting alliances of a deteriorating Assassin’s Guild.  Then he meets Thalia, an alluring but troubled dancing girl who offers him a way out–if he’ll help her kill a powerful nobleman.  With the Guild falling apart, it just might be worth the risk. But when you live, breathe, and love in a world that’s forever flirting with death, the slightest misstep can be poison.

POISON DANCE takes place about six years before the events of MIDNIGHT THIEF (my novel coming out next year with Disney-Hyperion) and the two works share several characters. Because of its subject matter, POISON DANCE is darker and grittier than MIDNIGHT THIEF, and I personally would classify it as adult fantasy, though some people might still slot it into YA.

I'm hoping to release it in a month or two, and after that, I’ll have lots of observations about my self-publishing experience that I'm looking forward to share. If you have any specific questions, let me know, and I'll do my best to address them.

In the meantime, I would love to have your help choosing a cover. I ran a cover design contest on 99 designs and have narrowed down the entries to six finalists. You can weigh in on your favorite designs using this poll. Also, if you are able to sign your name or some other identifying marker on your survey responses, I find that more helpful than an anonymous response. I am the only one who can see comments submitted with the results, though the average rating for each picture is viewable to everyone.

Anyways, thanks everyone, and I'll be back soon with an actual blog entry!

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JK Rowling, The Cuckoo's Calling, and Regression to the Mean

You've probably heard by now that JK Rowling published a crime novel in April 2013 under the secret pen name Robert Galbraith. There's been a huge amount of buzz about the novel, titled The Cuckoo’s Calling, since the news was broken. The press has focused mainly on two details. First, the novel came out to a very good critical reception, including a starred review from Publisher's Weekly. And second, the book sold quite poorly in its first three months -- 1500 copies in Britain. (Since Galbraith’s real identity was revealed, of course, the book has rocketed up the bestseller charts.)  (Edit:  Shad has pointed out a source saying that the book sold  comparably to similar debuts, and sales numbers were actually similar to Harry Potter in its first few months.  So "poorly" might be too strong of a word.)

I was really excited to hear the news. I loved the Harry Potter series. Though I didn't read The Casual Vacancy since it seemed too literary for my tastes, The Cuckoo’s Calling is definitely something I'll be adding to my to-read list.

I've also enjoyed reading online reactions as the news broke. In some ways, they’ve been a litmus test of peoples’ underlying views on the publishing industry. Some people, like author Nathan Bransford, have written about how the book's poor sales illustrate the fleeting nature of publishing success. Others commentators took this as more evidence that publishers no longer have anything to offer writers.

And what’s my reaction to the Rowling story? It’s to recall a statistical principle known as regression to the mean.

Barry Eisler on Discounting His Entire Backlist to 99 Cents

Hi everyone!  Today I’m happy to welcome Barry Eisler back to the blog.  If you’ve been paying any attention at all to publishing news lately, you already know about his fascinating publishing journey.  Barry started out traditionally published with his bestselling John Rain series.  Then, in 2011 he turned down a $500,000 deal from St. Martin’s press --  first to self publish, but then he then accepted a deal to publish the series with Amazon.  Since then, he’s continued be a leader and innovator in the digital transition.

About a week ago, Barry ran a special promotion where he offered his entire backlist for 99 cents.  As a fan, I thought it was awesome (and may or may not have dropped everything right then and there to run to Amazon).  As a writer,  I thought it was a really interesting strategy, and Barry graciously agreed to chat about the goals behind that promotion and how it went for him.

Great to have you back, Barry!  The last time you visited the blog, you’d just released The Detachment with Amazon Publishing.  Since then, quite a lot has happened.  Would you mind quickly catching us up?

Hi Livia, good to chat with you again and thanks for the invitation.  Let’s see, catching up... well, The Detachment earned out in less than two months, which was nice, and has sold a healthy six-figures worth of units since then.  I managed to get the rights reverted to my entire Putnam and Ballantine backlists, and have since repackaged and self-published those eight titles.  I’ve published a short story and a novella with Thomas & Mercer -- The Khmer Kill and London Twist -- and they’ve both been doing well.  And I’ll be turning in the new novel, a Rain prequel, this summer, to be published by T&M later this year.

So this past weekend, your entire backlist was available for 99 cents.  Can you tell us about the goals and reasoning behind this promotion?

Don't Let Your Words Obstruct Your Meaning

"You probably know that understanding your audience is essential if you want a document to work. But this means understanding not just their level of knowledge of the subject at hand, but also their history, their cultural references and associations and their past experiences, argues Livia Blackburne."

I guest posted at  this week on the psychological idea of schemas and how writers can use them to inform their word choices.  Check out my  post here.

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Beyond the Sandwich Method: What I Learned About Critiquing From My Editors

A while ago, before Midnight Thief went out on submission, I had tea with a veteran writer friend. Amongst discussion of all things publishing, the topic turned to editing. My friend mentioned that early on in his career, he wouldn't have been able to judge good editorial advice. It was only after writing several books and growing in his craft that he had the experience to do so.

I distinctly remember wondering what he meant by good editing and whether it really was that hard to identify. After all, I’d put my novel through several rounds with beta readers and felt like I had a good instinct for sorting through feedback.

Fast forward ten months later, when I got my first editorial letter from Abby Ranger. That was when I realized that I’d had NO idea what a good editor was capable of. The difference between the manuscript I submitted and my story now is the difference between a pencil sketch and a full-fledged oil painting.

And not only have I improved my book, I've also gleaned tips on how to be a better critique partner. Here are some of the things I've learned, both from my first editor Abby and my current editor Rotem.

Operation Chest Hair Part II: Grief

Btoteva fitness

Spoiler warning: Major spoilers for The Sword Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe, The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons, Rain Fall by Barry Eisler, Lioness Rampant by Tamora Pierce, Plain Kate by Erin Bow, and The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson.

Wow, time flies. It's been over six months since the last installment of Operation Chest Hair.

Operation Chest Hair started when I had a story idea with a male point-of-view (POV) character. And not just any any old guy -- a manly man. The rugged, tough type that wrestles grizzly bears and uses undiluted tabasco sauce for mouthwash. A far cry from my teenage girls I usually write. To train my voice to write such a paragon of masculinity, I’ve been studying books with manly characters.

My previous article focused on how these man characters respond to the introduction of a love interest. In this article, I want to look at how they deal with grief, and how their reaction to loss compares to YA heroines in similar situations.

My Top Five Book Picks for 2012

Happy new year everyone! I hope you're all having a restful holiday season. I usually don't review books on this blog, but every New Year's I like to recommend my five favorite books from the  year before (I read these books in 2012, but these books were not necessarily published in the past year). You can see my five picks from 2011 here.

And these are my five picks for this year, in the order that I read them.