Setting as context

Setting is a difficult thing for many writers. It has certainly been my Achilles heel in some of my work, though I like to think I grow with each story. I’ve been thinking about it recently, and I think that one of the best ways of thinking about setting in your novel or short story is as context. Allow me to explain.

It’s really interesting how the context of something changes depending on where and when that something has happened. A kiss, for example, can mean a lot of things depending on who is giving it to whom and where. A kiss under the mistletoe evokes holiday cheer and romance; a kiss by a lake, summer love or lasting commitment; and a kiss in the dark lust or fear.

My S.O. told me a story once about finding an unspent bullet in a bus station. He had just been told how dangerous the city he was traveling to was, and advised to be careful. The bullet made him laugh, because he is one of those rare fools halfway to Buddha-hood already. He kept it as a reminder of the absurdity of life, and it sits now on one of our altars.

The context of a bullet in a city bus station is very different from the context of a bullet in an open desert. I also have a story about finding bullets. When I was a child, my father and I would go walking through a small patch of desert in the still developing boundaries of Phoenix. In early morning, the desert is a place of fragile loveliness. Though I was only three or four, I can clearly remember watching the hot air balloons rise over what felt a vast, flat expanse, the world made of soft, washed out blue and rocky greys and reds. The hot air balloons became bright bursts of color in this near monochrome. The world was nearly silent but for us.

On one of those mornings, my father found a pack of bullets left abandoned by a hunter. They were bird shot, and I remember him explaining what that was. It is a very different kind of bullet than the smooth, metal tipped casing that my S.O. found in his bus station. The casing is usually bright red, made of some plastic polymer designed to more or less disintegrate on firing, spreading small balls of metal outward in a speckled pattern that becomes less dense the farther away the target is. I don’t recall that I had ever seen a bullet before. My father threw them into a small pond, a watering hole for desert creature the hunter had likely been waiting by.

Setting, then, makes a thing more or less frightening. The incongruity of finding a bullet on the sidewalk or in a store raises questions, worries, fears. But a bullet left by a watering hole in the desert seems natural and unthreatening. As a writer, it is important to constantly be aware not only of the context characterization can provide, but also of setting.

Characterization comes more easily than setting to me personally. I understand the implications to someone’s reaction towards a spider if they have been bitten by one before, for example. No one likes pain, so that dislike can easily transfer to spiders. Character becomes context when a person’s memories and experiences shape their reactions to an event or object.

Setting, however, can be more complicated. It shapes and informs character in the form of cultural biases and previous learned experiences.

A great example of setting’s impact on character is an interaction I had with a friend on a hike a few years ago. She is from Burma, which has a tropical, jungle climate. There are over 20 breeds of venomous snakes in Burma. In Virginia there are only three. Of such little differences is setting made. When we saw a snake on our hike, I was delighted. I knew instantly from its color that it was not dangerous and for me it was a novelty. For her, it was a potentially deadly threat, until I provided her the context of our mutual setting. Even then she was uncomfortable with the prospect of running into a snake in the wild – a character trait that was shaped in part by the setting of her youth.

Through the lens of setting as context, and by understanding how that context is related to characterization and plot, we can begin to improve our world-building. And world-building is a writer’s bread and butter, especially in speculative fiction. So the next time you’re writing away and something happens to your character, ask yourself if she would have taken it differently in a different time and place. I think it will be pretty revealing.

Paperback Publishing: KDP vs Createspace

Today I’m going to talk about my experiences publishing paperback books through KDP Select’s new paperback platform, versus my experience with Createspace.

First of all, let’s talk about the platforms.

For a long time, Createspace was the only game in town when it came to independent on-demand publishing. This made it possible for self-published authors and small presses to print paperbacks at a cost effective rate. There was an option to create an ebook as well, but it was generally acknowledged that said ebook was substandard, so most persons going for ebook distribution did so through other platforms such as KDP Select (previously only focused on ebooks) or Barnes & Noble’s ebook publishing platform. Createspace was an Amazon subsidiary, but it wasn’t Amazon as such, so the finances were somewhat separate. Therefore many bookstores, libraries, etc, would still purchase Createspace books if they had gained enough popularity.

Recently, Barnes & Noble came up with a print publishing platform. It did not guarantee access to brick and mortar stores, the major dream of most indie published authors, but did provide competition to Createspace. I wanted to mention this to provide a timeline for the diversification of the print on demand book model, but we’re not going to talk about Barnes & Noble’s publication models here. I have dabbled but I am no expert and so we’ll save that for a separate post when I have time to do more research. This is about my experiences with different mediums.

So, back to Amazon’s companies.

At some point recently Amazon decided to roll out a new option that seems to be geared primarily towards indie authors with ebooks but no print book. This is the print on demand option for KDP Select. Anyone who has taken a stab at indie publishing knows that creating a print on demand book creates one additional cost that can sometimes be prohibitive – the wraparound cover. A wraparound print cover, which needs to be of sufficient size and quality to print clearly and attractively on a print book, is much more expensive than an ebook cover. It sometimes costs as much as twice as much to get a custom cover design for a wraparound versus and ebook. Understandably, for many indiepubbed authors this is not worth it.

Createspace requires that this wraparound cover be uploaded with the book. It has some truly terrible mock-up covers that you can use to make your own wraparound if you are desperate, and also a custom cover design option – meaning you can design your covers through Createspace. I have never used the custom option, so I can’t speak to its efficacy. I have, previously, paid for my wraparound cover through Design for Writers, specifically in this case for the cover of Mother of Creation. You can see it in its native Createspace habitat here. (link)

In contrast, KDP Select’s new platform allows for a much more seamless cover design if all you have is the front cover, which is all you typically do have when you have published an ebook. You can plug this front cover graphic into their cover generator and then use the software to tweak the colors, etc, of the back to create something functional. While you still won’t have as nice of a cover as one designed specifically for you, it is at least a usable prospect. Pictured below, my book (almost a novella) Child of Brii side by side with Mother of Creation. You can see the quality contrast somewhat in these photos. Forgive that Mother of Creation is dusty, this is my proof copy and so it’s a little dog-eared.

The biggest difference is in the back covers, as might be expected. KDP Select wants an author photo and bio on the back of the book – this is more typical for nonfiction books, I think, than fiction. I am not really happy about that, but it at least breaks up the monotony of the all-black cover. With a little more tweaking, however, their design software could be pretty great.

So, KDP Select offers easy ebook conversion, saving money on your print book, though the quality is not as high necessarily. Createspace also holds an advantage in print on demand in that it offers flexible ordering options. An author can order books for the cost of printing and distribution only, and sell them at price at events. In contrast, KDP Select only allows you to order books at price, just as anyone else would.

I got around this last restriction by doing some price tweaking. I took the price of Child of Brii down as far as I could (minimum price is $5.36) and ordered several copies. Then I raised the price back so that I would get a decent royalty, to $7.99, which is the price on Amazon. The advantage of this method over Createspace, despite having to lower the price on your book, is that Amazon offers free shipping on orders over $25 from their distribution center and so this order qualified. I might actually have ended up paying more through Createspace with shipping. That said, my books ordered direct from Amazon were shipped much less carefully than the books I typically get from Createspace. Which I was lucky and didn’t get any damaged copies, that could have easily been the case with the packaging.

All in all it seems that with a few simple changes (allowing authors to order books at cost, for example) KDP Select will be a better platform. I say this only because, while Createspace offers better royalties for direct purchases, most of my sales of print books come through Amazon anyway, or are hand-sold. That said, the versatility of sales options through Createspace for a larger author (someone who has sold over a thousand copies) may outweigh that minor convenience. Being able to find your way into a brick and mortar store is a huge advantage in terms of sales.

Anyway, I will probably stick with Createspace in the future for full-length books, though I may do a few novellas or short stories through the KDP Select platform if the opportunity arises in the future.

Hope this has been helpful to all you indie authors and publishers!


For those who missed the announcement last week, Child of Brii is now available as a print book!

 

 

Child of Brii – The book that was

If you have been reading my stuff for a while, you may remember my first book.  Child of Brii was and is a new adult urban fantasy/romance book. It was my first book that I ever actually finished writing, if not the first book that I started, and it holds a special place in my heart. I took it off sale in February of 2016 and the decision was not necessarily a good one.

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There were a number of things going into that. First, Child of Brii was my first book, and you could tell. That in and of itself wasn’t a problem, but it was also the first book I self-published. Back in 2013, I really thought that self-publishing was easy. So many of my friends had talked about it that way, after all. They all made decent sales and I had it in my head that I could just toss a book up and people would buy it. Some people did.

But I didn’t do a good job with the editing and I didn’t understand the market. The book was riddled with typos and weird gaps, and while I love it, I didn’t want people to think that was my best work. It isn’t.

But Child of Brii is the work of my heart, and for all of the unexpected helicopters in it (sorry, folks, I know that’s jarring) it’s also been my best-received book. People really love these characters, probably because they’re incredibly lovable. And Amaya’s powers are still on my top list of super powers, honestly.

Writing is about being vulnerable. It’s about putting yourself out there and standing by the fact that you will grow and sometimes not be able to look at what came before the same way. I have grown as a writer, I hope. I’m not afraid of my mistakes anymore. It helps that I cleaned up some of the typos.

So Child of Brii is back online! Thank goodness. In honor of this event, there’s a Rafflecopter giveaway! This is my first time using this platform, and I’m excited.

Also good news – part of this republishing included a paperback print on demand book through the new KDP Select platform. If you’re the kind that loves paperback books, I have created a paperback which you can purchase through Amazon only. I’ll also have it available at the Roanoke Author Invasion in April! That’s a free event, so please come by, buy a book or twelve from some amazing authors, and enjoy the after party! I’ve heard there’s chocolate.

I fully intend to sweeten this situation further in the future. I’ve got a great idea for a spinoff story that will be more of the epic fantasy/romance variety – a prequel to the novel. It centers mostly around Brii and her girlhood, such as it was, as a near-deity to a lost and outcast people. I’m in the middle of another story/novelette now, and then I really need to buckle down on some Creation Saga edits, but my goal is to start on that project this year sometime. I’m super excited about it.

Thank you so much for loving this book as much as I do, and loving my work with all of its errors. Your support means more to me than you can know.

Pushing boundaries

Recently, a friend and I were discussing trends in storytelling. We were talking about how, for a while, zombies were the “it” thing to write or make shows and movies about. She argued that now, the “it” thing was exemplified by shows like Westworld. I’ll admit that I haven’t watched Westworld yet, but I’ll take her word for it that the core question of this show is about what it means to be human. She argued that that was the new hot thing to question and interrogate in story, especially in stories in science fiction/fantasy or SFF.

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I write SFF in the past few days, and about what makes a good story in this grab-bag of a genre. I think that my friend has hit on something here. To me, a good SFF story does one thing especially: it pushes boundaries. It stretches our understanding of the world. One could argue that this is what makes a good story in general, actually, but as I am a reader and writer predominantly of speculative fiction in all of its stripes, this is where I feel safest offering an opinion.

Arguably, this pushing boundaries is easiest in SFF, or at least in the science fiction half of the equation, because the genre requires you to think inventively. Take, for example, the prospect of life on new worlds – an eternal question among those who look to the stars. People will be looking for life in the cosmos until they find it or they cease to exist. You can argue we have been looking forever – angels and demons are certainly otherworldly beings, and some creatures from the heavens appear in most major mythologies across the globe in some fashion or another. Yet, the questions that arise when life is found are the most interesting, and can only be asked through speculative fiction. What will it look like? How will we respond to that life? Will we be kind?

The answers to these questions are not just important because they satisfy our curiosity. They tell us something deeply important about ourselves as human beings. The answers to these questions reveal the heart of our nature.

They are most certainly answers that we are already being provided, every day, through our interactions with other beings on our earth, including with one another. And yet, they are not always satisfying either in story or in life. Perhaps this is the other half of what draws me to SFF, that it may be possible to imagine a world that is brighter than ours on the days when it feels dark. If senselessness might make sense, if we could rise beyond ourselves and the bounds of random chance – that world is the world of story, and sometimes the world of life. Those are the stories I most like to read.

You see this clarity, this neatness to life reflected most often in the fantasy side of the SFF genre. There are dangers in the ease of those narratives, but at the same time there are comforts. These narratives offer an answer to our questions of our own nature and worth in a way that is positive, and I think that positive answer can be very important as a way to move forward as individuals and as a society.

The reason I write speculative fiction in all of its stripes is to explore human nature, the essence of what it is to be human in all of its forms. It is my greatest joy to do so. I hope that you, reader, enjoy it, too.

Some exciting news coming next week! Raffle opportunities, general good things…Tune in to check it out.

MystiCon – A recap

This was a profoundly interesting weekend.

MystiCon 2017 was my first time at a conference/convention as a panelist. I really, really enjoyed being able to talk about some of the many interests that shape my writing to a crowd. It also generated some cool thoughts and ideas that may turn into blogposts! That’s always exciting for you all.

One of the things I found most valuable about this was the ability to connect with fans. I think that as a writer it can be hard sometimes to feel that connection. Even if you have a very active following online, I find that waiting for comments or responses to things posted into the void of the internet can be heartbreaking. You put a lot of your self into your books and into your platforms, and those moments of interaction are rare for most small-time authors like myself.

Going to a convention as an author is the opposite of that. If you have been subsisting on a trickle of interaction, you are suddenly guzzling a fire hose. I have experienced such at World Fantasy Convention and Dragon*Con previously, though to a lesser extent in many respects. Because of that previous experience, I knew to shelter my fragile introvert heart with many breaks and lots of sleep and down time between events. This was especially important for me this year since I was a) required to be certain places and b) am juggling a lot right now. If you need advice on handling conventions, you can check out this post from last year.

With proper care I had a great experience! It was so great to meet people, including authors and readers, at this event! I’ve included some pictures below for your entertainment, though I didn’t take nearly as many as I would have liked.

Until next week!

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One of the Guests of Honor was a Twin Peaks cast member, so lots of Twin Peaks stuff! I really love these little rice crispie trees.
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These guys were only set up on Saturday and I didn’t wear my Vader dress until Sunday so we definitely missed a group photo opportunity. Sorry, imperials.
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Chibi-Usa!! She is so pretty, and that dress is gorgeous!
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I am never going to be able to achieve this level of perfection. So awesome!