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 know...it 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 satisfied...it 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.