Thursday, December 16, 2010

Zack, the Epileptic Dachshund

One of my writing buddies is a mini-Dachshund named Zack. No matter how long I spend immersed in my writing obsession, he stays close by, waiting patiently for a random scratch of his head or pat on his rump. It’s astounding how little attention it takes to make his tail wag in unconditional love. I probably take him and his little companion, Dinky, for granted.
Couple nights ago at 2:00 AM, Zack slept next to me on the couch where I had fallen asleep while watching late night poker. He suddenly leaped from my side, ran down the hall to the kitchen and back to me, his chest bouncing off the ground as his body twisted in violent contortions. This is the third grand mal seizure he’s suffered in his 5 years of life, so I knew what to do.

I dropped to the floor, wrapped him tightly in my arms and began stroking his chest and head so he felt secure. He responded, as he always does, by pressing his head against my chest. I called out to my wife for a towel because the little guy loses bowel and bladder control during these episodes. After wrapping him in a towel, his anxiety level seems to drop and his body begins to relax. It only takes about two to three minutes for his rock hard muscles to return to normal and for him to “let down” from the crisis. Then, he throws up and falls into a deep sleep for an hour or so. It’s really tough on the little guy, but two hours later, he’s perfectly normal again. I can’t even get help from the vet because she just points out how “healthy” he looks an hour after the terrible seizure.

Today, I’m back writing. Zack and Dink are snuggled together in one doggy bed, spooning to stay warm. My poor wife was exhausted after the early morning emergency because she could not get back to sleep. She went to work short on rest. As for Zack, he’s just fine . . . but I’m not. The crisis got me to thinking how much I really love that stupid little critter. I know other men who have similar affection for their dogs, especially my friends with hunting dogs. Their animals become more than property. They become friends. Zack has grown on me.

As I sit here, expanding on my sci-fi sequel, Rotaga’s Revenge, I wonder about my characters. How would they “feel” about a pet? Would their relationship with a pet be a good tool for defining or illustrating their character? Do the relationships between people and pets make a good analogy for sentient beings—perhaps one is more advanced than another? I know I would run into a burning building to save Zack or Dink. Can a strong pet relationship be used in a story for more than character development . . . maybe even to drive a sub-plot? Then, I remembered Old Yeller and Black Beauty, both stories centered on human-animal relationships. Turns out, real life has always provided rich material for those writers who observed nature around them. Okay, okay, so I was slow to get the message...LOL.

Let’s see, what would an epileptic Dachshund look like in a space suit?

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

On the Right Track

Will Rogers once said, “You can be on the right track, but if you just sit there, you’re gonna get run over.”

I have that quote taped to the wall above my computer. The simple truth of Mr. Rogers’ wisdom applies to everything in my life. You see, I like to “just sit there.” Listen to the birds. Feel the cold steel of the track while basking in warm sunshine. In the distance, a freight train blasts its warning as it approaches some street crossing. Am I alarmed? Nope. Like most procrastinators, I figure I’ve still got plenty of time.

My current manuscript rests somewhere in a literary slush pile in New York. It’s also being ripped apart by a screenplay writer in hope of becoming a movie. It’s been six months since I decided to get this story into the mainstream book media. The process resembles Chinese water torture . . . tic, tic, tic . . . days drag into weeks. Months pass without any constructive feedback. Then, it dawned on me, I’m sitting on the writing “track”, waiting for something to happen, and there’s a train a’coming. If I don’t keep moving, my writing aspirations could end up splat across a literary cow catcher. Without more stories in the hopper, each rejection slip takes on artificially greater importance. What a wake-up!

The sequel to my sci-fi story, The Last Human War, had been calling to me from the deepest recesses of my imagination, but I wasn't listening. My main characters from the first book fell in love, got married and Kelly is about to have a baby as the sequel opens. In the first chapter, her premature baby is kidnapped by an alien cult and her husband, Simon, begins a quest to find his child. Unfortunately, the evil Heptari Empire chooses this terrible time to enact Rotaga’s Revenge against the Tanarac Empire and its human allies. While I was sitting on that metaphorical track, all this galactic angst was begging for expression. Well, I followed the advice of Will Rogers and got to work helping Simon find his baby. Unfortunately, Prime Skah Rotaga beats him to the child, bringing this sequel to life with unexpected complications that I have yet to solve. More importantly, the water-torture of the publishing process vanished in a cloud of creativity as I discover the fate of Simon's child, humanity and the Tanarac Empire.

In addition to the sci-fi sequel, I dusted off an old cookbook that I wrote back in 1978. It’s called Kids, Pancakes & Sunday Mornings. Well, it’s not so much a “cook” book as it is a pancake design manual for kids. I can’t believe how long I let that book languish in my file cabinet.

So, while my current manuscript, Jihad: The Breath of God, languishes in slush piles and screen play development, I left that comfortable place on the train track. Yes, I look back longingly, because I do enjoy procrastination, but I’m not ready to watch the author-train go roaring past. I’d rather be the guy who’s way up front, laying new track for life’s train. So, thank you (yet again) Mr. Will Rogers, for the reminder. “You can be on the right track, but if you just sit there, you’re gonna get run over.”

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

My Get-it-Published List

Here are the Top 10 areas that new writers, writing for publication, should know. I compiled this list as a guideline for my own efforts after reviewing hundreds of “writing” advice sites. It helps me keep my priorities in line. I hope it will help you too.

10. Understand the industry distribution system. How much of the cover price of a book goes to a bookstore? 45%. Also, book wholesalers charge 10 % for their distribution services. That leaves 45% of the cover price of each book for the publishers to print, bind,  advertise, ship to wholesalers, reimburse book stores for unsold returns and finally, to pay royalties to authors and literary agents. Your job, as a writer, does not end with the selling of a book to the publisher...quite the contrary. You participate in promotional activities like book signings, radio interviews, internet blogs, responding to reader questions (email) and attending book shows. Writing is the creative part. All the rest is “work” associated with building a fan base. Writers should be the #1 fan of their own stories.

9. Patience...rejection during the query process is not personal. Learn from it. Learn what? Persistence and open-minded consideration of suggested improvements. Many great writers suffered dozens of rejection slips before being “discovered”. You will too.

8. Know your market and your target readers. When you look for a literary agent, you need to have a clear understanding of your potential market. Literary agents will be more receptive if you articulate why your writing “fits” with the agent’s writer-client list. Also, your initial query letter can make or break your chances for getting your entire manuscript read. It is the ONLY chance to make a good first impression, so invest time in researching the art of writing a compelling query letter and synopsis.

7. Avoid blending genres. Think of it from a literary agent’s point of view. How is the agent going to “sell” your lovely manuscript to a publisher? “Star Whores is very much like the romance genre you specialize in, but it’s also a compelling sci-fi story.” Then your agent calls a sci-fi publisher, “I’ve got this fabulous sci-fi writer who blends romance genre with subatomic particle decay in a wing-ding of a sci-fi tale. It’s called Star Whores.” Tough sale! Both publishers already have plenty of genre-specific manuscripts competing for publication.

6. Understand the editing process. Editors are not your enemy. They know markets and can help shape your story for the best possible reception from critics and readers. It’s okay to resist changes you feel fundamentally flaw your story, but be prepared to “listen” more than “tell” the editor.

5. Kill your darlings when necessary. “Darlings” are favorite bits of your writing that you love, and to which, you become emotionally attached. However, if that scene, paragraph or bit of inspired trivia is not essential to the plot, then you should be prepared to “kill” it.

4. Research your story thoroughly. Make it as plausible as possible...even in fantasy get your “facts” straight. I don't think a handsome vampire with a suntan would pass muster.

3. Impose good standards from the beginning when writing. Self-editing will be the biggest time investment in producing a finished product. Why make it more tedious by writing sloppy prose in the first place?

2. Study other best-selling authors in your target genre. Success breeds success. If you become familiar with the writing styles, general content and format of leading books in a genre, then you are well on your way to joining the “club”.

1. Work ethic/goals. Daily, weekly and monthly goals lead to finished projects. Many new writers lack self-discipline. They become discouraged and frustrated. Good work ethic is the only solution. Develop it...or get a government job.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Science Fiction and Don’t Touch My Junk!

As you probably know, the TSA stepped up their airport security efforts last week. Travelers receive unwanted x-ray exposure, and those who reject the radiation, suffer violation of their privacy with intrusive full-body pat-downs. The good news is that we have not been attacked by a single 72-year-old grandmother or 7-year-old child since then. Good job TSA!

As a writer, things like this TSA nonsense offer me ample grist for my writing mill. I used the real life example of the TSA’s moronic logic in a situation for one of my main characters in the sequel to The Last Human War. In my story, an ancient alien myth predicts the birth of a transformational child, one who will merge the Tanarac race into the next evolutionary step. Simon’s newborn daughter contains DNA from both the human and Tanarac species. As the only mixed breed in existence, Tanarac authorities kidnap this special child for “her own protection”. Thank you TSA. Your mindless abuse of personal rights provided me with the perfect government role model for my story.

X-ray vision is no longer a myth. The TSA looks right through our clothes using x-ray scanners. I didn’t know we had that technology. Did you? I bought a pair of Superman x-ray glasses when I a boy. Got them for $1.00 and three Cheerios box tops. Alas, when I sneaked a peek at MaryBeth, they didn’t work. What other secret stuff is our government hiding? Laser beam weapons, Mach-3 stealth aircraft . . . how bout flying saucers? I remember when Dick Tracy had a telephone hidden in his wrist watch. Seems the “super” spy gadgets of the past are becoming real technology of today.

Science fiction stories fall into two categories. First, there are tales using known science or logical progressions about the future of current knowledge. For example, the speed of light is currently viewed as an impassable barrier limiting deep space travel to multi-generational journeys. A story built around this limitation allows the reader to enjoy a sci-fi tale without suspending reality. On the other hand, the second kind of sci-fi tale ignores limitations of present day scientific knowledge. It’s a trade off. The reader suspends reality while the author constructs a story without limit. Time travel allows complex stories with characters trapped in intriguing plots. Spacecraft capable of exceeding light-speed open the entire galaxy, or even the universe, for exploration.

My point is simple. Modern writers enjoy plot possibilities today that could not be imagined a century ago. From desktop computers to genetic engineering to airport x-ray vision, today's technology proves that fantasy can become reality. I might even book a short airline flight just to go see one of those x-ray vision machines in action. Hey, I have an idea . . . what if the airlines offered a copy of the x-ray vision to each passenger, say for a buck or two. I’ll bet a lot of people would buy a copy just out of curiosity. Of course, if I got selected for one of those pat-down searches, there’d be trouble. First guy who tried to reach down my pants would get decked. I am fascinated by the X-ray vision stuff, but, beyond that, John Tyner said it best . . . “Don’t touch my junk!”

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans' Day. What does it mean to me, as a Vietnam vet?

I am conflicted about this day...not about my buddies in war. They will always be my blood brothers, and I would stand with them, even now, in any life-threatening situation. But, there is more to Veterans' Day than a bunch of grunts being "honored" by an empty government decree and a few parades.

If the government truly wants to "honor" all vets, then why don't they take good care of our wounded warriors? Did you know, it is very difficult for a Vietnam vet to get medical coverage for the effects of Agent Orange? Desert Storm vets are still struggling to get care for Gulf War Illness and persistent skin diseases of “unknown” origin. Only three years ago, Walter Reed Army Hospital gained national attention for black mold, cockroaches, decaying walls and many other unacceptable conditions faced by recuperating soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. Is this the government’s idea of caring for veterans? Even now, disabled vets receive treatment in some substandard VA hospitals. Don’t get me wrong, most staff are competent and doing all they can, but many of the the facilities are inferior and the bureaucratic policies for obtaining care just plain suck.

It is time for our self-serving politicians to stop making hot-air speeches on “Veteran’s” Day, and instead, invest in the young soldiers who are paying a lifetime price for their country’s decisions. In the current climate of cutting expenses, the VA is the only government organization that deserves and needs increased funding. Maybe we can pay for it by cutting Congressional support staff for each politician by 50%...hell, let’s go for 80%! We can sell Pelosi’s expensive personal/government jet and defund Obamacare. Hey, I’ve got it...let’s sell the government’s stock in General Motors and upgrade all the VA hospitals!

God bless the soldiers, my comrades for life.

So, what does this have to do with writing? Damned if I just needed to be said.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Puppy Pads and Bare Feet

Have you ever paper-trained a puppy?

Do you remember placing the young dog on an area widely covered in yesterday’s sport’s section of the paper, especially if your favorite team has lost yet again? Darn Raiders. Of course, the puppy walks off the papers and you promptly return it to the task at hand. This process repeats until you get lucky and little Sparky finally uses the papers. With praise and repetition of the process twice a day for weeks, the little beast gets it right. That was the way we did it when I was young and newspapers were three inches thick.

Times have changed. Most newspapers are going out of business and some genius invented puppy pads. But, puppies remain the same, so the kitchen floor now sports a neat row of plastic backed, super absorbent puppy pads. Life is good.

What does this have to do with writing? I can’t speak for others, but I love to write without wearing shoes. Sometimes I have background music, and I write best during rainstorms. The awning on my back patio is aluminum, and when rain beats its welcome cacophony, I find the random noise oddly stimulating to both creativity and energy. Alas, rain is great, but I live in sunny Sacramento where you can plan an outdoor picnic or barbeque three years in advance. In other words, we don’t get much rain, which brings me back to the one writing habit that provides the most consistent impact on my productivity . . . bare feet.

I was recently deep in thought, pondering time travel as a means of spanning inter-galactic distances. That’s a theory in my latest sci-fi book. It works like this:  most astrophysicists believe the speed of light is the limiting factor for deep space travel. As a result, inter-galactic travel is virtually impossible and even intra-galactic travel within our own Milky Way would require generations for simple travel to the nearest stars. Suspension of reality must take place by readers if sci-fi stories that span such distances are to be believable. Ah, but, recent theories by credible astrophysicists claim the speed of light may not be fixed . . . that in the earliest moments of the universe the speed of light was vastly greater than it is now. So, I wondered, what if we could go back in time, waaay back in time, to a period when the speed of light was far greater and the universe much smaller than today. It would dramatically reduce distances between galaxies and increase the speed of light so intergalactic travel might be accomplished . . . or so the story goes.

As you can see, I was preoccupied and not thinking about where my bare footsteps fell when I walked through the kitchen to get another soda. Argh . . . puppy pad! Yep, those pads do a great job absorbing stuff, but they also act like a saturated sponge when you step in the wrong place. And talk about a mood altering experience! After standing in the downstairs shower for a couple minutes to wash my foot, I replaced the used puppy pad with a new one. That was twenty minutes of inspiration and writing I’ll never get back. I guess the real moral of the blog is writers are constantly having to manage distractions and interruptions. Damn puppy pads!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Writing vs the “to-do” List.

I love "to-do" lists.  I hope at the end of my life, my family finds a very long "to-do" list on my desk.  Imagine how terrible life would be if you had nothing left to achieve.  It’s a blessing to look forward to new adventures and obstacles in life.

Here are notes from the top of today’s “to-do” list:

1. Change dressing on my surgical incision.  (Had surgery this week...fortunately, benign.)  DONE
2. Download and print proof-of-insurance document for a Suburban I just bought.  DONE
3. Mow lawn. Oh good, it’s raining! I have a legitimate excuse to procrastinate.   POSTPONED
4. Review chapter I wrote last night.  DONE (Not goes to the top of the next list.)
5. Get caught up on blog.  (IN PROCESS)
6. Inspect new travel trailer I bought along with the Suburban.
7. Call mom.  See if she still remembers who I am...LOL.
8. Write another chapter in the sequel to The Last Human War.

My list would have been shorter if I wasn’t such a sucker.  One of my neighbors died recently...nice old guy.  His daughter is trying to liquidate his estate, but the poor lady is also trying to take care of her husband who had a major stroke last month.  She tells me they didn’t have insurance, so they are faced with a $260,000 hospital bill.  (Life lesson reminder:  there's always someone who has worse problems than me.)

The old man owned a 1989 Chevy Suburban and a 28-foot travel trailer...they were his pride and joy. His eyesight failed about a year ago so the SUV and trailer sat dormant for quite a while.  The truck wouldn’t even run.  His daughter needs to get these vehicles off the property so she can sell the house and I offered to help her sell the truck-trailer combo.  When I asked how much she wanted, she said $1,000.  I’m a decent shade-tree mechanic and I could afford to take a risk, so I bought them.

That was last weekend. This week, the truck’s running...$700 for new fuel pump, smog certificate and a couple other “fix-its”.  The trailer is next. I figure it will cost less than $1000 to get it operational and then I can sell both vehicles and, hopefully, recover my total cost of $2700.  I didn’t mind spending a few bucks to help someone in a bad situation, but I’ll admit frustration with the time demands this act is costing me.  I keep thinking I could have written another chapter with the time I invested in this misadventure...which brings me back to the “to-do” list.

As I worked through my list this morning, it occurred to me that all the demands associated with the Suburban and travel trailer have been fun...yes, time demanding...but fun, too.   Seeing this old, dead Suburban come back to life gave me a little twinkle of past glories in hotrodding.  It runs great now and I’m certain it will make someone happy...probably some fisherman or outdoors enthusiast who needs a strong tow vehicle at a low price.  But, when I talked with my wife about the travel trailer, she shocked me.  I expected a shrill “What the hell were you thinking?”  Instead, she said it might be fun to keep the trailer and take a few trips in it.  Wow!  I really didn’t expect that.  I suddenly have a bit more grist for my life experience mill that also feeds my writing.  A simple act of compassion turned into another chapter in my “to-do” list.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

My Dog Hunts Grubs – (Thoughts About Creativity)

Okay, so I’m writing feverishly on a sci-fi story. The main character, Art Starhopper, finds himself trapped, without his weapon, backed up against a sheer cliff wall when a giant apex predator appears. With his pants still down around his knees, he studies the nearby jungle, hoping to discover an avenue of escape, but the aggressive beast with eons of evolution in hunting, leaves no opening for Art to take. Foul stench of the carnivore’s breath reaches my MC. Its blood-stained claws extend from paws at the end of two heavily-muscled forearms. The creature crouches for its killing lunge.

Crap! My MC is trapped. I forgot to figure an escape for him before I started writing this scene. I’ve got Art into deep trouble, and I don’t have the faintest idea how to save least in a way that would be credible to my readers.

A cold, wet, puppy nose, slides across my bare foot, interrupting my writer-panic.

“Okay, okay,” I find myself talking to the stupid dog as if he really understands English. “You want outside? C’mon.”

My annoying little Dachshund bounces off my leg a time or two on the way to the back door. His partner wiener-dog joins us and we go out back so they can do their “thing”. As I sit in a patio chair, waiting impatiently, I ponder my scene. How do I get my main character out of this impossible situation? Subconsciously, I watch the dogs without really paying much attention. Then, Zack shoves his nose into the ground and begins digging franticly. The curious scene breaks through my mind-fog, and I go look in the shallow hole he just dug. Nothing there but a couple of small grubs, which, to my disgust, Zack eats alive. Note to self:  increase protein in dog food so they will not feel the need to eat raw grubs. Yuck!

Minutes later, I’m back at my computer with two empty-bladder dogs sleeping at my feet while I re-read my main character’s dilemma. The first adjustment is obvious. I have him pull up his pants at the first sight of the nasty predator. After all, how can my MC make a run for it with pants around his ankles? I feel good. Just fixed a minor plot flaw. Still, he’s about to get crunched by a five-hundred pound, flesh-eating beast that leaves no way out. Then, the epiphany hits!

I type feverishly:  “Ground bumps up and down behind the great beast as some burrowing jungle animal moves toward Art. Its small black nose with odd-looking feelers pokes out of decaying mulch right between the carnivore’s feet. The little beast wiggles its nose, sniffs the air and snorts a couple times. The master predator also notices the creature. With lightning speed, a set of long claws scoops the small animal from its shallow trail, creating a burst of leaves, roots and topsoil. The Okah sniffs the little brown furball in its clutch and opens its mouth to devour the morsel. Art could only watch in horror as one of the jungle’s most gentle creatures succumbs to the jungle’s most deadly denizen. To his surprise, the subterranean animal uncurls at the last moment and lunges directly into the mouth of its enemy. It bites deeply into the Okah’s tongue and wildly sprays a fluid from a gland near its rectum. The big animal screams in pain. It spits the mole to the ground before running into the jungle in search of water to cleanse away a potent acid-based discharge. The mole quickly burrows into the soft jungle floor, vanishing from sight. Art seizes the moment to escape. Back in his camp, he grabs his particle beam sidearm and changes the setting from stun to maximum.”

My little dachshund, digging for grubs, triggered the invention of a story-enabling jungle creature, one that lives underground and defends itself by rolling into a tight ball until just the right instant when it can spray an acid-based deterrent into a vulnerable area of soft tissue. I like this little creature. I like it a lot, and I'll probably use it again in some other part of the story. Thank you, Zack, for digging up those grubs.

Where do writers get creative ideas? We steal them from reality. That’s right, creative ideas are all around us as long as we keep our eyes open and our minds free of manmade limitations. How did Edison come up with 1093 patents? Creativity. Who figured out that crude oil seeping from the ground could be refined into gas, jet fuel, synthetic fibers and a host of life saving inventions? Some creative person, or persons, thought outside the proverbial box.

Creativity, in my opinion, has two parts. First, observation. Being a good observer of people and nature provides the raw ingredients for creativity. Second, the creative process, and it IS a process, releases those observations from the limitations of preconception. A fiction writer must cultivate the ability to imagine the unimaginable, to take the mundane and turn it into the extraordinary, to go from a puppy eating grubs to a plot-saving subterranean mole with an acid-washed butthole. Ain’t creative writing fun?!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

To Self-Publish or Not to Self-Publish; That is the Question

“Self-publishing is for amateurs.” I’ve heard this bias repeated frequently, mostly by people who use mindless mantras to express derision. Contempt for self-publishing flourishes with many in the traditional publishing industry. Here are some comments I’ve heard, or read, and my thoughts.

Industry:  “Readers can’t trust self-published books to meet the same high standards of quality writing that are assured by rigorous competition for literary agents and limited publishing openings for authors.”

Me:  Let me clearly express my opinion...bullshit! Have you read some of the crap that makes the New York Times “best sellers” list? A lot are cookie-cutter drivel from authors forced by their publisher to engage in formulaic writing. I call it fishing. The publisher “catches” a reader with an author’s initial creativity and extracts maximum profits out of that reader by “fishing with the same bait”...several more nearly identical novels extracted from that same author. Is that the traditional publishing industry’s idea of high standards?

Last year, I read numerous novels by new authors. My favorites were Flank Hawk by Terry Ervin II published by a small press and Dereliction of Duty, a self-published novel by an Irish writer named Daniel McKeown. I also read three NYT “Best Sellers” that all left me disappointed.

Industry: “Since any writer can self-publish without the benefit of professional editing, the reader never knows what he or she is going to get.”

Me:  Fear the unknown. This industry caution reminds me of politicians who cannot stand on their own voting record. During campaigns, their message is “If you think I’m bad, wait until you see my opponent...she’s even worse! Vote for me.”

Okay, even I have to admit, there is some truth to the hype. Yes, anyone can self-publish without meeting writing standards of any kind. There’s no oversight provided by copy-Nazis (these are the obsessive-compulsive English majors paid by publishing companies to dot every “i”, notice when “to” should be spelled “too” or they remove those nasty extra commas). Of course, the publishing industry’s answer is to offer readers properly edited, cookie-cutter crap. What’s a reader to do? Take a chance on a self-published nobody, or invest time reading the same old storyline by the same old author with a few small changes in sequel after sequel. By the way, there is a simple fix to this problem in self-publishing...I’ll cover it at the end of this blog.

Industry:  “Self-publishing almost guarantees failure because it cannot compete with traditional publishing marketing and distribution.”

Me:  Uhhh...yeah...isn’t that obvious? The deck is stacked against self-publishers. Brick’n mortar bookstores won’t accept self-published books. Big name critics won’t “waste their time” reviewing self-published books. By the way, did you ever notice that big name critics always find something to like about the books they publicly review? I wonder if that has something to do with the publisher paying them for the critique? Hmmm?

I’m a Vietnam vet. I was there in ’69-70 and the war seemed to be going in our favor. Nightly body counts showed huge losses by our enemy with “minimal” losses by my good guys. So, how did we lose the stinking war? Simple. The Viet Cong and NVA refused to play by our rules. They took a lesson from our own American Revolutionary War where US soldiers quickly realized it was stupid to fight the British using their rules of war. We became guerillas, just like the VC did against us. What does guerilla warfare have to do with self-publishing?

Self-publishers (SPs) should not attempt to compete with traditional publishers, using the latter’s “rules of war.” Hell, self-published authors should not even measure success by the same standards. SPs have no access to the NYT Best Seller list. No big name reviewers are going to promote SP stories. Even internet marketing outlets like Amazon are a joke because SP books simply vanish in the vastness of Amazon book offerings. So, how do self-published authors compete?

Sounds pretty discouraging, huh? Okay, here’s the good news for self-publishers. Never in the history of mankind have authors had direct access to so many potential readers. The internet. This amazing “cyber world” bypasses bookstores, ignores the NYT Best Seller list and many internet users could not care less about opinions of stuffy critics. They draw their own conclusions based on whatever information you provide. The “job” of a self-published author is to spread the word about the story. He or she acts as the literary agent, reviewer, bookstore and infrastructure. The book’s target audience will spend about thirty seconds looking at the site of a self-published book before they “click” away to their next cyber stop. Thirty seconds...that’s how much time the self-published author has to capture someone’s imagination and interest.

Business is pretty simple. One of the fundamental truths about business is the single most powerful marketing tool is word of mouth...satisfied customers. The second most powerful marketing tool is price. If the traditional publishing industry sells a trade paperback for $10, you need to sell the self-published story for $8. Problem! They can manufacture a book for $2 due to mass production. There’s no way for a small-production run to beat those prices...but that would be fighting the war on their turf. Don’t do that. Instead, challenge them where YOU have the advantage. If they offer a Kindle book for $4.75, you sell your Kindle formatted book for $3.75. Remember, they have big overhead and will always have to price their cyber product a lot higher than yours.

Now, let’s get back to that “satisfied customer” thingy. Traditional publishers will always claim their product to be superior because of the rigorous process of editing and competition between authors. They assert that this process brings the cream to the top. How do you overcome that? Simple. If you own a restaurant and you want to gain new patrons, give potential customers a free taste of your best dish. That is the oldest trick in marketing and it works great for self-published authors. Let the potential readers have a taste of your book...give them a free chapter. They will draw their own conclusions about the quality of your writing.

By the way, self-publishing is NOT a writing decision; it is a business decision. Treat it like a business. Invest a little money with the expectation of profits. Without further discussion, here is my formula for successful self-publishing:

1. Write a great story...not a “good” story...good stories are a dime a dozen. Great stories generate word-of-mouth buzz and draw lots of readers. Good stories get you lots of acclaim from your best fan, mommy.

2. Invest in professional editing. Why? There are no objective writers. It’s nearly impossible to spot errors in a manuscript you’ve reviewed dozens of times. It's worth every dollar and can make the difference between a "good" story that mommy likes and that "great" story that everyone buys.

3. Home page:  Thirty seconds...that’s all you get when someone drops in on your website to see what all the “hype” is about. Thirty seconds! If your home page captures a potential reader’s interest, then you get another thirty seconds on each additional page. Spend a little money for graphics to support your story. As the old saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression. Don’t screw it up!

4. Free Chapter:  The traditional publishing industry warns that readers should not buy self-published books because readers have no way to know if the writer offers good writing. It’s a fair caution, but easily countered. How? Give your prospective readers a free chapter. This is your chance to turn a curious browser into a customer. If someone enjoys the chapter, it’s a pretty good bet the sale will follow.

5. Back Story:  Why is it useful to provide back-story in a website? Depending on your story, information leading into the current book may increase curiosity about your plot or foster an initial affinity for a character.

6. Marketing:  Format your story for sense in competing with traditional book publishers in their world. Price it to be a bargain...people love bargains...say $3-4 for a download. It doesn’t take many downloads to cover all your monthly expenses for a website and turn a profit. Then, insert links to your story in every email or forum post you make. Talk about your story every chance you get and encourage all your friends to help you “spread the word” about your story.

7. Finally...God Bless America!  Where else in the business world can you start a “business” for $30 a month with potential to earn thousands.  Self-publishing through the internet makes this possible.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Remember and Honor - My Thoughts on the Anniversary of 9/11

Where were you on September 11, 2001? How did you hear about the terrorist attack of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and downed United Flight 93 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania?

I was shaving before work, the television set to my usual early morning stock market reports. I listened casually, mentally planning my day's work demands, when clips of the immediate aftermath of the first impact began scrolling across the screen. I never made it into the office that day...just sat in front of the television taking in news as it became available.

Thus began, a nine-year tragedy. Nine years, you ask? The attacks against our country on 9/11 were not an isolated event. They defined the starting point for a period of death and destruction that continues today. How will it end...or will it? It will end when hatred ends. That includes hatred for the proposed mosque in Manhattan and hatred that motivates a Preacher in Florida to burn Qu’rans.

On this day, let us remember the victims of this 9-year period of violence. My heart goes out to those killed in the terrorist attacks and to their families. In addition, I offer my deepest respect and appreciation to the warriors who have sacrificed their lives, health and family welfare in the ongoing war against terrorism. To everyone else, please resist the temptation to grow bitter and add to the hatred that fuels terrorism.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lookout, there’s a comet coming!

Here’s a look at the future.

“Jimmy, why didn’t you complete your English homework?” the fifth grade teacher asks.

A small boy, intentionally sitting at the back of the class, looks up from the iPod game hidden by his desktop. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Fermi. My dog, Sparky, ate my Kindle. I can’t complete the reading.”

Refusing to be bested by a crafty eleven-year-old, the teacher opens a rarely used cupboard. Dust puffs in her face and she waves a hand to fend off the musty cloud. She lifts a heavy book, the Complete Works of William Shakespeare, from its dark repository. Curious students strain to get a glimpse of something their grandparents talked about, but most kids had never seen. She removes a protective plastic bag.

“Jimmy, come here. I am loaning you my hard copy until you have your Kindle repaired. Carry this book home from school and back, every day, until our Shakespeare studies are done.”

The boy lifts the heavy book with a pronounced grunt. “Umm, Mrs. Fermi, I’m pretty sure Sparky only hurt the batteries. I’ll get new ones after school.” He gingerly pushes the four-inch thick hardback across the desk toward his teacher, having lost his gambit to get out of homework.

Will there come a time when virtual books replace physical books?

Capitalism teaches that people make buying decisions based on value, whether perceived or real. Why purchase Harry Potter and His Grandkids Meet Godzilla for $10.99 when you can buy the same story for $4.99 as an eBook? How many college students would rather pay for inexpensive e-texts than shell out $500 to $800 per semester for dead-tree books? Let’s face it, digital books are the future. Physical books are dinosaurs looking up at the approaching comet and wondering what that bright light means. Unlike dinosaurs of the Late Cretaceous Period, publishers have a choice. They can choose to passively endure the cataclysm...and become fossils...or they can embrace evolution and survive inevitable changes.

Who wins, who loses in the battle between compressed-pulp books and their digital equivalent?

In the traditional book market, 55% of the cost of a book goes to the distribution system. Brick’n mortar bookstores take 45% and wholesale book distributors get 10%. That leaves 45% for publishers. Out of their paltry cut, they pay for everything...printing, layout, graphics, shipping, storage, editing, marketing and royalties. The traditional book model also forces publishers to hold back a certain amount of money from initial book sales to cover potential unsold returns from bookstores. After all this, publishers hope to make a profit around 8% to 10% of the cover price. The important point for writers is that, on an $11 book, we should make a profit of around $.80 to a dollar.

In the eBook market, there is almost no cost for the distribution system. Printing, shipping and storage costs vanish. There is no “return” policy, so reserves against non-sale returns don’t exist. Editing, the one expense that remains constant, can mean the difference between successful or mediocre sales. In the end, an eBook selling for $4.99 can generate a profit for the author and publisher of . . . are you ready? Authors and publishers can earn the SAME amount of hard cash per e-book as they can for the physical book. That’s right! For a five-dollar downloaded story, the publisher and author can both make around $.80 to a dollar per “book”.

Who wins in the evolution of e-book publishing?

First, the reader wins--big time. Electronic books tell the same story for half the cost.

Second, authors win. No more reserves against returns. No more waiting six months for a check as e-books generate immediate financial results and automated payments. The author’s market instantly encompasses worldwide exposure, that is, to the extent of the English-speaking community. Of course, a couple translations could expand the market even more. Do Chinese like sci-fi? Hmmm...I wonder if Mandarin has a symbol for trans-warp drive.

Third, publishers win. No more hard costs for printing, distribution or hold-backs for returns. In addition, access to critics, promotional outlets and buzz-producing news releases fuel greater electronic sales than would be possible for traditional books. Nobody has better access to those resources than traditional publishers so they should still attract the very best authors.

Fourth, literary agents win. Not old style literary agents, clinging to the dinosaur model. No. The new breed who display excitement for the electronic evolution...they win, because they develop access for authors to the best eBook publishers that understand and embrace the coming digital era.

Those are the big winners in the coming Age of Digital Enlightenment, but evolution also produces fossils. The biggest losers are printers, wholesale distributors, brick’n mortar bookstores and any other dinosaurs who stare at the comet and ignore the implications.

What about me? My kids say I’m already a fossil. I tell them to be nice, because I can’t take it all with me, but I can sure as hell spend everything before I go! Seriously, how is this writer going to deal with the change? Storytelling will always be important to humanity. Simple lessons of the Three Little Pigs, or deep cultural lessons illustrated in To Kill a Mockingbird will always be valued by society. Stories are forever. While there is still water in the swamp, my fellow dinosaurs tend to graze quietly, breathing clear air of traditional publishing...but the comet is coming! And the outcome is inevitable. Fortunately, the cataclysm will happen slowly over a few decades, giving time enough to make changes. To that end, I seek only literary agents who share my vision of the future. I say, embrace the change, rather than cower from it. How about you? Now, where’d I put my Kindle?

Monday, September 6, 2010

Can Schizophrenics drive in the carpool lane? (dealing with rejection slips)

“But officer, Gertrude is right there. Can’t you see her?”

Many years ago, I worked in the mental health field. I will never forget one time when I was running a group therapy for schizophrenics. A patient proclaimed that he was Jesus and he promised to save everyone in the room. Another patient with the same delusion objected, insisting that HE was the only true savior. I braced for a Jesus fight. Instead, the first patient sat down passively and listened to the other man’s rant for most of the session.

After the group session ended, I took the first guy aside and told him how proud I was of him for letting go of his delusion, for allowing the other guy to make that claim. He replied, “It’s okay. He’s mentally ill, and I’m not going to tell him that he can’t be me.”

It occurred to me in later years that perhaps we are all a bit schizophrenic. We cling to little fictions that we come to believe as truth. This seems especially common with writers as we delude ourselves about the quality of our stories, or we attempt to assuage the sting of rejection slips.

“I can’t believe I’ve gotten thirty-eight rejections on America’s next great Fantasy story. What’s wrong with those agents?”

Maybe, just maybe, writers are like the hallucinating woman telling the carpool lane cop to say hello to her imaginary friend. She believes with all her heart that Gertrude exists, but the cop makes the final decision about driving in the carpool lane. Are we writers guilty of similar self-deception? When others fail to see attributes in our story that we believe are present, are we denying reality? What conclusions should aspiring authors derive from dozens of rejection slips by literary agents?

Here are some of my delusions associated with rejection slips.

- The agent’s fault: The greedy agent only cares about money and rejects first-time authors in favor of proven successes. Shame on them for seeking profit. Of course, there is always the crowning delusion--how could any agent fail to recognize the next Tom Clancy or JK Rowling?

- My fault: Is my manuscript really so rotten that two dozen agents saw no potential? Maybe my query letter or synopsis sucks big time. I’ll bet if I re-write the first three chapters to create a better hook, they’ll bite. Or, another favorite, I can’t believe that agent specializes in sci-fi and won’t read my romance novel.

- Publishing industry fault: Major publishing houses must have all the authors they need. They are just not looking for any more. Or, how about this one, my story of vampires falling in love with Vestal Virgins comes at a time when the industry is saturated with vampire tales. Maybe I should swap gay cowboys for the vampires and replace the Virgins with love-starved trolls. Yeah, that’s it, I haven’t seen any gay cowboy/loving troll books. I think I’m onto something!

While delusions might protect writers from depression and feelings of failure that inevitably accompany rejection slips, they also deflect attention from the more important truth. Writing is subjective. One person’s page-turner is another person’s outhouse paper supply. Authors should write stories they love, submit them to agents who share a love for that genre and treat the submission process as a business. The rest will take care of itself.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Why do writers write?

You wake up one morning, excited by a dream. You recall brief glimpses into a strange underwater world where you can breathe water, and some oddly beautiful, non-human creature communicates with you telepathically.

Responding to psychic pleas, she entices you through an opening into a vast cavern. Water current builds around you, pulling you deeper into the sea cave, until you suddenly realize it is not a cave at all. You grab for weeds rooted to side walls but they tear free, quickly vanishing in a vortex of debris racing past into blackness beyond. With your last bit of strength, you manage to wrap your arms around an ancient rock protruding from the wall. Algae threatens your grip on the slick surface and your fingernails tear into your own flesh as you cling to that last anchor. Then, you wake up, heart pounding and bed sheets soaked in sweat.

What does a writer do? Grab a pen and pad.

Is this a mental illness? Surely normal people don't engage in such weird response to a nightmare. Sane people don’t grab a pen and begin expanding on bits and pieces of their underwater nightmare. They don't turn the sleep drama into an elaborate fantasy world where extraordinary things happen to ordinary people. What motivates fiction writers to create word images to strike fear, or build anxiety, or generate thrills for unknown future readers?

I confess. My imagination has always been extreme. I was four years old, living with my parents in family student housing at the University of Florida, when I woke up in a panic from a nap. Mother must have been out back hanging clothes, so I ran to the nearest neighbor’s house. “Jimmy fell in the gator pond and got grabbed!”

Running from neighbor to neighbor, I screamed about what I had just seen. My little playmate, Jimmy, had climbed over the fence around an old sinkhole, one where we often threw rocks at alligators and turtles basking in slimy green water. The banks of the sinkhole were particularly steep and Jimmy tumbled down until he splashed into the edge of the water. Ole One Eye, the biggest gator in the pond, lunged from the green depths, grabbing my friend and dragging him under.

Police, fire rescue and university officials rushed to the scene. Nobody could find Jimmy. His mother cried while strong men tore down a section of fence and prepared to slide an aluminum boat down the steep bank to start looking for Jimmy’s body. About this time, Jimmy and his daddy drove up having completed his father’s book search at the school library. Despite the proof of my own eyes, I never did accept that my vision of Jimmy being dragged under water was just a dream. I was destined to be a writer!