Monday, January 26, 2009

Finding Your Character's Achilles' Heel, CRAFT

According to Greek myth, Achilles' goddess mother dipped him into the River Styx to make him invulnerable to injury, but the heel she held him by wasn't dipped. As fate and story would have it, he died when someone shot him in that heel.

Most people and the most interesting fictional characters always have an Achilles heel, that one weakness which will defeat them unless they overcome it.

As a writer, you must figure out what your main character's weakness is and attack it through plot.

That weakness can be fear of a physical danger. If like Indiana Jones, your character is afraid of snakes, then snakes he must face to achieve victory.

A better weakness is an inner one. If your character prides himself on his dignity and fears ridicule, he must find the strength, at his high school reunion, to race across the room in his bunny underwear to protect his girlfriend from the same bullies who just stripped him.

If he fears death, he must find the strength to risk dying for something or someone who is more important than life.

Minor weaknesses and disasters can add conflict to a scene, but that one Achilles' heel of your character and his attempts to overcome it are the heart and soul of a good story.


CHRISTMAS BOOK SALES NUMBERS If you consider a smaller decline of buyers a victory, indie bookstores did better than the chains during the holidays. Campaigns urging people to "buy local" were especially successful.

QUERY LETTERS HOW TO: Agent Jessica Faust of Bookends has a series of blog posts on query letters that got her attention. The letters are included, and she tells about why the letter worked. The letter posts start here:

NON-ADULT MARKETS FOR NOVELS Agent Kristin Nelson is at the American Library Association meeting, and she's meeting with various editors of childrens, Middle Grades, YA, etc., children's lines, and she's talking about what she's hearing. So far, she's spoken with an editor at Tor and Disney-Hyperion.

The blogs start here:

THE BOOK BUSINESS Agent Assistant, The Rejecter, has several interesting blog entries on second book clauses, how long it takes for an agent to do queries and partials, and book contests for unpublished novels. The blogs start here


Announcing the third annual Jim Baen Memorial Writing Contest

Baen Books and The National Space Society applaud the role that science fiction plays in advancing real science and have teamed up to sponsor a short fiction contest in honor of Jim Baen and focusing on the near future of manned space exploration. Winners will be intelligent and entertaining stories about topics including Moon bases, Mars colonies, orbital habitats, space elevators, asteroid mining, artificial intelligence, nano-technology, realistic spacecraft, heroics, danger, sacrifice and adventure. Please don't send stories that show technology or space travel as evil or bad, or stories about Star Wars type galactic empires, UFO abductions or that contain paranormal elements.

The submission window is from January 1 to April 1 and will be judged by Baen Books senior editor Hank Davis and Jim Baen's Universe editors Eric Flint and Mike Resnick.

The GRAND PRIZE winner will be published in a future issue of Jim Baen's Universe, will receive a specially designed award, free entry into the 2009 International Space Development Conference and a year's membership in the National Space Society.

For full submission requirements and guidelines please visit our website at:

Monday, January 19, 2009

Killing Off Characters

QUESTION: Is it okay to kill a good guy character in a novel?

If a character needs to die for reasons of plot, sure kill him.

But remember that there are reader expectations according to the genre you write.

Readers of standard happily-ever-after romance are much less tolerant of death than readers of fantasy and science fiction.

SF/fantasy prides itself, in fact, on characters dying because dying is "real." That's why the editor in charge of the STAR WARS book franchise insisted that Chewie die some years back.

And, in romance, the only circumstances that allows the death of the hero or heroine is if one or both of them is a ghost or some other supernatural being so that death unites rather than separates.

Children, pets, and horses are also dangerous to kill in romance, and their death can mean the loss of a reader in other genres, as well.

I won't kill an established character without a solid reason to do so, and the character must die nobly to save others, or his death must bring about change so it has meaning.

In life and fiction, such an ending is much stronger emotionally. As one of my professors once said, "The primary difference between fiction and real life is that fiction must make sense."


If you have a writing question, contact me via this blog or at marilynn byerly at

Monday, January 12, 2009

US Authors and Taxes

Did you know that you don't have to make a profit to write off your writing expenses? You don't even have to be published or contracted to publish.

All you have to do is prove that you are a working writer. This can be as simple as having copies of your rejection letters.

An excellent book for writers about taxes is IT'S TAXING: 2008 FEDERAL INCOME TAX FOR AUTHORS. It's available at  for $3.75 as a PDF download.


THE BOOK PROPOSAL, FICTION Agent Jessica Faust explains the book proposal, a.k.a. the partial, used to sell your book to an agent or publisher.

THE BOOK PROPOSAL, NON-FICTION Jessica Faust explains the book proposal for non-fiction.

URBAN FANTASY Carrie Vaughn who writes the KITTY the werewolf series has an insightful series of four blogs about female-based urban fantasy that are a must read for anyone who writes or wants to write urban fantasy. The first blog entry starts here



<<The report, “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy,” being released Monday, is based on data from “The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts” conducted by the United States Census Bureau in 2008. Among its chief findings is that for the first time since 1982, when the bureau began collecting such data, the proportion of adults 18 and older who said they had read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the previous 12 months has risen. >>

Unfortunately, reading for fun has declined.

To read the rest of the story. Go here

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Year End Update on the State of Publishing

Publishing like all business has been hurt by the failing economy and cautious buyers. No major publisher has failed, but many are downsizing.

The final numbers aren't in for the Christmas book buying season, but many authors and publishers ran a word-of-mouth campaign to remind people that books make good presents. Most booksellers reported poor sales but not so poor as expected. The only winners appear to be Amazon and Walmart.


Ebooks continue to be the growth sector of the publishing industry. The figure many conglomerate publishers quote is a 400% growth.

Ebook hardware, software, and publisher translation into formats and ebook sites continue to expand. The incredible increase in the use of the Apple iPhone and iTouch as ebook readers is the big surprise.

Amazon's failure to add a new version of the Kindle as well as their failure to have enough manufactured after Oprah touted its reader has made it falter as the front-runner in the ebook hardware race.

Sony's ereader and Apple ereader software companies like Stanza and ScrollMotion have taken advantage of this weakness by going after readers and publishers. Sony advertised widely during the Christmas season, and its reader is now available at Target, Sam's Clubs, and Borders.

Apple iPhones sales have increased almost 29% in the last three months.

Fictionwise, the ebook distributor, has also moved into the Apple ebook arena by offering books for the iPhone.

Some pundits believe we are now at the "tipping point" where ebooks will finally gain a decent reader percentage.

A number of different hardware readers are slated to be unveiled next year.


The final word isn't out about the survival of many indie bookstores after a slow Christmas season.

Borders' stock, in the meantime, has fallen so far in price that the book chain is ripe for a take over or a take over and liquidation. Bankruptcy and/or liquidation would cause massive collateral damage among publishers who wouldn't be paid for books in Borders supply chain.


In genre fiction, the book sale numbers are still good, particularly in romance and urban fantasy

The rest of the industry has flat or falling numbers with the exception of some megabestsellers.


Houghton Mifflin seems to be imploding from within. They announced that they were no longer buying books, then a number of major players in the company were fired or quit.

Other major publishers have been downsizing staff. Several have reorganized.

Agents who have blogged on the subject believe that there is still a market for new books, but that publishers will go for the tried-and-true in subject and authors.


When things get rough in the book business, fingers are pointed at used books. Already, we've seen the subject covered in the "NY Times" and trade blogs of various sorts.

Essentially what we have now is a system feeding on itself like the calico cat and the gingham dog. Few who provide content (publishers and writers) will win, and the reader will lose in the long term because of the loss of writers and books.


So far, my guesses for the future of publishing remain accurate. Ebooks are slowly moving to center stage in the publishing world while brick and mortar stores are in deep trouble. Amazon remains healthy.

In the coming months, we'll see if bookstores, indie and chain, can survive for another year, or if this Christmas season was their death knell.


I will report publishing news on this blog to keep you up to date on what is happening in the world of publishing so stay tuned, and I hope to do another "State of Publishing" report in June.

Fasten your seatbelt because publishing is heading into major turbulence.



I'm returning to my once or twice a week blog schedule now.

If you'd like to have the blog delivered to you through email, send a blank email to .

I am always open to writing or publishing questions. Send them to me at marilynnbyerly @

Monday, January 5, 2009

Part Eight of Eight


Here's my forecast on the future of publishing.

Essentially, most publishing professionals are worried about the wrong things and not paying attention to the real dangers as the publishing world changes.

It's not about too many titles, it's not about the change from paper to ebook, it's not about what bookstores are doing.

It's about the fight for the conduits of media, both paper and digital, to the consumer, and it's a fight that may already be lost to Amazon.

Amazon is doing everything right. They are bleeding publishing through used books and pricing control while doing almost everything better than brick and mortar stores, and now they are making a dramatic move to take over a major chunk of the digital arena with the Kindle.

Big publishing, meanwhile, is looking the other way as small publishers are fighting Amazon about POD and even greater price controls because the big guys don't think Amazon will go after them next.

Paper, ink, and bookstores are still here and will be here for some time, but they can't survive long term because digital books are simply too dang efficient in every sense.

The bookstores will go first because people are more stressed for time than for money, and online is easier. Before the bookstores go, they will effectively kill what is left of midlist fiction in their ongoing effort to stock bestsellers and list leaders to the exclusion of midlist.

Meanwhile, the used book industry will suck away even more of the profit from paper publishing until it collapses in a sea of red ink.

Books will move into digital format, but new books and new writers will continue to be buried under a sea of backlist moving into digital format.

Platforms will continue to be the means of success for most authors, and other authors will be relegated to niche markets and scrambling for readers.

A long story short. Sell all your stock in bookstores and publishers, and buy Amazon stock. It's probably the only way any of us will make much money in the coming climate of change.


It's been many years since most authors have supported themselves through their words, and this will not improve.

Publishing in its usual heedless manner will use the authors' profits as a means to bolster its own bottom line as the distributors suck the publisher dry.

As history has proven, most readers will be more concerned with their own time and money than the future of writers and publishing so they will continue to frequent Amazon, one stop online digital providers, and the box stores for their reading.


Write if it's a joy, work hard toward whatever goal you have for success in your writing career, educate yourself on the business, and plan for your future as if you won't see much income coming from that writing.

Don't trade your life for writing dreams. It will be a bitter and uneven trade even if you succeed beyond your wildest dreams.

And do dream. It's what makes you the unique writer and person you are.


Tomorrow, I will update you on current trends in publishing in the last six months.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Part Seven of Eight


The reader is the writer's best friend. If the writer educates her readers about the publishing business, the reader will help the writer fight back.

Here is the "Book Biz 101" fact sheet, I share with readers.

•Thank the bookstore manager for carrying the kinds of books you like.

•If you can't find a book, ask the bookstore to special order it for you. If enough people do this, they'll order the author's next book.

•Don't pass around new books to friends. A bookstore and the publisher can only tell how popular a book is by the number of copies sold. If you share your one book with six friends, the publisher and the bookstore won't know this. Get those six friends to buy the book themselves. And give good books good word of mouth so others will buy it!

•Buy the book new, not used. If you buy the book used, you won't be counted as a reader. It costs more money, but you will insure that more books like it will be printed.

In the days before the paranormal romance became popular, a used bookstore owner told me that the average paranormal romance was traded at least 10 times before it disintegrated. It rarely stayed in the store more than a few hours because readers were on waiting lists for these books. The readers said they couldn't find the books anywhere but at the used bookstore, and the regular bookstore said no one wanted to buy these books so fewer books were sold new, and fewer books were published. A very vicious cycle.

•Don't take a book to the used bookstore until it is no longer on the bookstore shelves. Two to three months from the time you buy it is a good rule of thumb.

•Paperback books without their covers are stolen books. Tell the person at the flea market or used bookstore that it's illegal to sell and show them the legal note to this effect at the front of the book. If you continue to see books like this sold, send a letter to the publisher and tell them.

•If you absolutely must choose two books, one new and one used, buy the "name" author used and the unknown author new. The name author can survive a few used books, the new author may never sell another story because her first book sold poorly.

•If you see an electronic version of a copyrighted novel available for free at some website or on a newsgroup, contact the publisher or author immediately and tell them. Not only is this illegal, but it is the financial murder of your favorite authors and the end of the kind of books you love.

•If you like a book or a publisher's line, write the publisher and tell them. (The publisher's address is in the front of the book.) The people who usually write are the ones who don't like that kind of book. In your letter, tell the publisher how many books a month you buy. If you are a younger reader, tell the publisher that you'll want to read these books for a long time, and you recommend them to your friends.

A fan letter to the author also works.

Authors remember to send copies of these letters to your editor and agent!

•If you hear a line is closing, write the publisher and complain. Don't let that vampire or sf romance go gently into the good night without a hardy complaint or indignant werewolf howl of unhappiness.

•Buy books from the small presses and e-publishers who are publishing the kinds of books you like. Continue to buy from these small publishers when the major publishers move into this market to keep the small publisher alive. Major publishers are notoriously fickle about remaining in certain markets.

•It may be simpler to buy all your books at Amazon or Fictionwise, but you can often save money by buying directly from the publisher's site. At most epublisher sites, the author makes a higher percentage of the sale.

Amazon is trashing the publishing industry and its authors because the buyers have given them that power. Take it away by spending your money elsewhere.

•Buy from local independent bookstores.


Tomorrow, I'll finish this series with some educated guesses about what the near and far future will bring to publishing and bookselling.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Part Six


Right now, few authors can make a living at epublishing. Even erotica, the growth industry of epublishing, no longer pays the bills as it once did.

The market has become glutted with books from other small publishers, and the major publishers have moved into the market in ebook and paper formats.

Venues for ebooks like Fictionwise are currently being glutted with backlist from major publishers so that unknown authors can sink in a sea of books quite fast. Romance is particularly prone to this.

The authors who are successful in epublishing are prolific, produce quality books of one kind so they build their sales through backlist and loyal readers, and they market constantly to sell that first book to new readers.

Of course, this is the primary survival means in paper book publishing for most authors right now.


Tomorrow, I'll suggest ways that readers and writers can fight to save the books they love.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Part Five


For authors, in the short term, all the news is bad unless you are already a "name" author. Midlist paper books are disappearing in bookstores and box stores.

According to my writing friends, a novel at Walmart accounted for almost thirty percent of all their books sold. Now, their books aren't available there. Their publishers are also losing out on those extra sales.

With bookstores also taking fewer titles in a publisher's line each month, some titles are available nowhere but a few independent booksellers and online.

If already established bestselling authors are the only ones sold at the major venues, where and how can an author build an audience big enough to join this exclusive club?

With most of the time and expense of promotion falling on the author's shoulders, how will the author manage financially? How will the author be able to produce the number of books needed yearly to grow their audience?

For publishers, if they can't find many places to sell that month's entire line of books, what can they do?

Do they drop most of their authors and only print "names?"

Where do they grow their talent to add to that list of names?

Do they start a farm system similar to major league baseball where new authors rise up through the ranks via ebooks?

Do they only recruit authors already building a name with small publishers?

I imagine we'll see a number of different "solutions" to these questions as authors and publishers try to survive this new hostile environment to selling books.


Any solution to this problem depends on what the readers will do.

Will readers be willing to only buy the name authors they see at Walmart and other places where they usually shop, or will they start depending on physical bookstores?

Will they be willing to buy online?

If they can't get paper books, will they move to ebooks?

If history is any indication, a majority will stop buying paper books. When science fiction disappeared from those dimestore racks years ago, the market plummeted, and the market has been rebuilding ever since.

On the other hand, when readers discovered erotica which was almost exclusively available as ebooks, the market expanded to the point that publishers like Ellora's Cave became multimillion dollar companies, and authors made money envied by their paper-published contemporaries.

Readers of erotica and romance are voracious readers, though, and smaller markets like science fiction haven't had the same online success even proportional to the number of readers of paper books.

Those of us who love to read and write can hope others will follow us online and into digital format, and I imagine some will, but will the numbers be enough to support the publishers and the authors?


In Part Six of this series, I'll discuss the role of epublishing in publishing.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Part Four, The State of Publishing


Some writers see Amazon as the writer's and reader's friend, but, increasingly, Amazon is showing its ugly profit-is-everything nature.

The used book shown with the new book in search results is one example of this. Amazon makes more profit by acting as middleman for used booksellers than it does by selling new books.

Amazon's current attempt to force publishers to use their POD provider is an even more frightening example of its methods.

In recent years, as bookstores have carried fewer books from big publishers and almost none of the small publishers, Amazon has been seen as the even playing field by many writers and publishers. If you had a book to sell, Amazon was there to sell it.

A few years back, Amazon made it much harder for small press to sell on Amazon, and some publishers went out of business.

Now, Amazon is tightening their grip on the smaller publishers by telling them they have to use Amazon-owned Booksurge for POD.

Amazon's contract says that Amazon will control the price of the book sold, its price cannot be lowered at any other venue including the publisher's site, and it will control the look of the book and its quality.

For the right to have a "buy now" on their books, publishers will be at the whim of Amazon in most aspects of their product.

With Amazon moving aggressively into epublishing with the Kindle, publishers may lose all control of their product if they knuckle under to these tactics.

Amazon justifies all this as a means to make it simpler for them to ship books all at once, but they don't say that POD books printed through Ingram's Lightning Source and other POD providers are shipped the same day with the Amazon label attached so the buyer can't tell who has printed it or shipped it.

For complete details on this situation and the class action lawsuit by some small publishers against Amazon, go here

Only small press is the victim of this current Amazon contract stipulation right now, but, if the publishing industry doesn't stand firm against it, the Amazon gorilla will squash the rest of the publishing industry.


Now, on to my guesses on what all this means.