Category Archives: Jo Schneider

Google Can Take You Anywhere

A few years ago I heard a successful author say that you should have unique setting for most of your novel. Don’t use the same setting too much, especially in a fantasy or sci-fi story where you want to create a continuous sense of wonder for the reader.

As I wrote the first novel I wanted to publish, I took this to heart. Each time I had a new scene, it would be in a different place. It worked for the story, because the characters were on the run much of the time.

The story, New Sight, takes place in the western United States in modern times. Easy for setting, because I didn’t have to make up a bunch of world building rules and such. I remember pulling up Google Maps and charting where I wanted my characters to go. I needed a place of some mystical value, and I Googled that as well. When I had a basic roadmap, I started looking for interesting things in or near the places I wanted to use.

I found a hotel in Colorado that is an old drive-in movie theater. They’ve built it so that you can watch a movie through a huge window in your room while you’re lounging on your bed. I used this in one version of my story, but it didn’t make the final cut. Still, I may use it later for something else. Curiosity piqued? Check it out here.

I found out that Las Vegas has a hidden society of poor people living in the storm drains under the city. Yes please, totally used this. Sort of. Here is the article that my sister sent me after we’d been talking about it.

I found out that a little-known hike in Canyonlands leads to a place called Druid Arch. Some people think it is of mystical importance. Score!

That’s just a few examples. I’d been to Las Vegas, and didn’t end up using the hotel, but I wanted to go to Druid Arch. It took me a few months of getting into better shape, and one failed attempt due to stupid snow in April, but I finally got there.

I’d searched for info on the hike, and had found pictures and descriptions of it. Which gave me a good idea of what to expect. I dragged a few friends along with me. We only got lost once or twice for a few minutes, but in the end made it.

It was so fun seeing the place for myself. Feeling it. Smelling it. Hearing it. I added a few new details to the scenes I’d written there before my final manuscript went out. And, after I got my rights back from my original publisher, I used my own photos on the new cover. With help from an actual artist, of course.

It’s not always practical to visit the places you use in your stories, but at least take the time to Google them. You’ll be amazed at what you find from interesting landmarks to urban legends to people in the sewers.

Mis-Adventures with a Small Press

I started my writing career with the glassy eyed hope of being traditionally published by a New York Publishing House. My books would be in book stores (this was a while ago, back when Borders was still in business and Barnes and Noble was going strong), people would line up out the door for my signings, I’d have options for movies and I’d get fan mail asking when my next book would be out. Or death threats for killing a character.

Well, it’s pretty hard to break into that world, which I found out the slow and painful way. I decided I would write a book with the purpose of getting it published. A year later it was “ready.” I queried every agent I’d ever met, and some I hadn’t. I did my research and sent my manuscript off to about forty agents and a couple of publishers that took open submissions. Then I waited.

I knew it was a good story, but I didn’t realize that it wasn’t up to snuff for major publishing. After about six months of rejections, I was with my writing group and one of them had heard of a new press in our area. They were small, but after some quick research I felt that they would be innovative enough to keep up with the quickly changing publishing world. Almost on a whim, I submitted the first three chapters and a synopsis of my novel. And waited again.

A couple of months after that, I met this publisher at a conference. They were all really young, and I was a little afraid, but they remembered my story and asked for the rest of it. I obliged. A couple of weeks later, I had a publishing contract with them. I was on cloud nine!

Then, of course, reality set in. The original publishing date for my manuscript got pushed back not once, but twice. It only took me forty-five minutes to go through the “heavy editing” pass for my book. Trust me, it wasn’t that good. I never got a finalized copy edit from the publisher, and never received an e-copy of my book.

The biggest surprise was how much marketing they expected me to do. The only real direction I got was to be on as many social media platforms as possible and become the queen of them. Interact. Reach out. Be cool. Which isn’t terrible advice, but social media is not my forte. Which left me stressing about getting 30+ Tweets out a week and as many comments on other people’s stuff along with Facebook. And whatever else I could get involved in.

The only marketing my small press did for me was setting up book signings around my home, which was nice, and providing bookmarks and ARC copies of my book. After that, I was totally on my own. A rock tossed into a lake that had one trajectory—down.

I did see my book in Barnes and Noble (Sorry the picture is fuzzy, but my book is there), which was awesome. What wasn’t awesome was that they put it in the adult fantasy section. Right next to Brandon Sanderson. Hello, I write YA, not adult stuff. Brandon Sanderson readers would likely not dig my book. Which is fine, they’re not my audience. I talked to every B&N I went to and finally found out that the B&N hierarchy had somehow put my book into the category they thought it “Fit best” in. Uh, no. Nothing I did could change their minds. Which was frustrating.

Paralleling my experience with a small press, I had a friend who went Indie. She was building an audience and having a great deal of success as she figured out how to utilize Amazon to do her bidding.

One day I sat in a room full of authors doing book signings. Brandon Sanderson was in one corner, with his line out the door. Next to me sat a woman who had made six figures the year before Indie publishing. Not going to lie, I checked out her books and they weren’t that great, but they were in the “all the rage” category at the time. My brain went into action.

I had a long conversation with myself about what I really wanted. Did I want that line, or did I want to make money? Which you can do with a New York Press, but it’s very difficult with a small press. It’s not picnic with a large press either, especially since more and more of the marketing responsibility is being laid at the author’s feet. And without control over your categories and price point on-line it makes marketing more difficult.

After my book had basically tanked after two months, and my small press said they wouldn’t publish the second one unless I somehow sold a bunch of copies of the first, I decided to get out. I’d put a clause in my contract that they only had 60 days for their first rights of refusal. They went beyond that, and I got out. No fuss. No hard feelings. It just didn’t work out for me.

As I look back, I see that this small press wasn’t prepared for their own ambitious publishing schedule. Almost everyone there were interns (not actually paid) so you never knew if you were getting a good edit or even good advice. No one was trying to screw anyone else, but a company can only break so many promises before things go south.

Was it worth it to see my book in a bookstore? Yes. Would I do it again? Not sure. I needed that experience. It was my dream, and it came true. But like so many dreams, it wasn’t quite what I had pictured.

Well, that was Unexpected

 

I have a confession to make-I didn’t start watching Doctor Who until after my husband and I started dating.

I know, I know, most self-respecting geeks are at least familiar with the Doctor. Me? Nope. As a matter of fact, two friends and I went to England a few years back. Naturally we went to watch the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace. I’d seen it before, but the others hadn’t, so we went.

During the rather dull ceremony (sorry, it’s the truth) the band played some great sci-fi music, including Star Trek. A number I didn’t recognize received thunderous applause from the crowd. Lucky for me, the friend standing next to me at least knew that it was the Doctor Who theme song.

While we were dating, my soon to be husband finally talked me into watching. The first season of the reboot is rough, and I didn’t particularly love Rose as the companion, but once I’d made it through a handful of episodes, I started to get it.

Then The Empty Child happened.

If you’re a fan, you know what I’m talking about.

The entire two-part story is based in World War II London, and through the whole thing a little boy in a gas mask keeps appearing asking if anyone and everyone is his mummy.

Seriously creepy.

I spent the entire episode trying to figure out what sort of wretched creature would do such a thing. Then the reveal at the end blew my proverbial socks off. It went so contrary to where I thought it would, that I probably sat with my mouth hanging open for a good fifteen seconds.

While my boyfriend pointed and laughed at me. (He’d seen it two or three times.)

The writers of Doctor Who have pulled this off a number of times. My personal favorite is Gridlock:

The Doctor takes Martha to New Earth, where she is kidnapped by two carjackers and taken to an underground Motorway, where the remainder of humanity on the planet live in perpetual gridlock.

What is left of humanity has been circling on the futuristic freeway full of flying cars/motor homes for who knows how long (years? Decades? Centuries?) trying to find an exit open. About half way through the episode we, the audience, figure out that they’re never getting off the freeway. It’s some sort of sick trap.

Well, the Doctor won’t stand for it (he’s got a very insistent need to protect humanity) and he and Martha set out to figure out what’s going on.

Adventure ensues.

But once again, when we expect to find a creature that is both parts cheesy and foul, we find something totally different. A friend of the Doctor’s who moves through time at a different rate than most. And he didn’t trap humanity underground on the freeway because he was mean, but because he wanted to keep them safe from whatever catastrophe happened on the surface of the planet..

It’s brilliant. In so many places the writers allude to something, and then allow the watchers to come to their own conclusions, which are totally wrong.

For me, this is one of the best thinks a story can do. Not so much trick the reader, but provide an insight that can truly delight them at the end.

Tension

If you pull on an object with a rope, the rope will stretch slightly (often imperceptibly). This stretch in the rope will cause the rope to be taut (e.g. under tension) which allows the rope to transfer a force from one side of the rope to the other.

We’ve all seen movies or read books that had us either figuratively or literally sitting on the edges of our seats. Those crazy action sequences where you can’t see a way out for the hero, or the moment when the love interest has to come clean about lying to the heroin in order to win her heart, or that breathless heartbeat right before the couple’s first kiss.

As a writer, your reader’s emotions become ropes, and your story the force pulling on them. Not pushing, but pulling. Drawing them in, keeping them wondering how the guy can date two women on the same night and get away with it, or watching as the characters step farther and farther into the haunted mansion.

I remember reading Fellowship of the Rings for the first time. It was early in the morning and I was in my creepy basement on the treadmill. I only turned one light on so I could read while I walked. This particular morning I found myself in the section of the book where the fellowship enters the Mines of Moria. The prose is of course beautiful, the language masterfully chosen to set the air of fear, suspicion, and abandonment.

By the time the party reaches the room where Balin made his last stand, I was on the edge of my seat. They find the book and begin to read about how the dwarves were overwhelmed by the orcs. Then the drums begin.

Boom.

Doom.

My heart was pounding far faster than it should have been, and I kept turning the speed up on the treadmill.

Seriously, I was practically running. It was at that moment I understood what an author could make a reader feel with tension. How Tolkien slowly pulled on that rope, tightening it with each page while at the same time giving the characters just enough hope to keep them going.

This month we’ll be sharing some of the ways to put tension into stories. From romantic to action. There will be something for everyone. Stick around, it’s going to be good.