Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Always Room at the Top

How many vampire novels does it take to saturate the genre-market? For that matter, how do writers even know when a market is reaching its limit?

Back in the 60’s, I began college as a physics major. Wanted to be a nuclear physicist in the power generation industry. My college counselor told me I should change my major to something “with a future”, something like electronics engineering. When I asked why, he said there are too many physics majors and the nuclear industry job market would be saturated by the time I got my degree. I was disappointed.

That night, I spoke with my dad about changing my major. He said my counselor was wrong. Dad’s comment surprised me, because he knew nothing about nuclear energy.

“Dad, how can you say that? My counselor has all the data to back up his advice.”

“I don’t doubt the statistics,” he said, “but your advisor is reaching the wrong conclusion.”

“If there are too many graduates in my field, wouldn’t he be right?”

“Nope.” Dad smiled a coy little upturn at the corners of his mouth that let me know there was a catch in his reasoning. “Son, there will always be people in life telling you why you cannot accomplish your dream. Some make compelling arguments. If you buy into their reasoning, then they are right. But, what happens if you ignore the naysayers and charge ahead?”

“In this case,” I joked halfheartedly, “I’ll be highly educated and unemployed.”

Dad shook his head. I wasn’t arriving at the right conclusion.

“Dean, there is always room at the top. If you want to be a nuclear physicist, all you have to do is be the best one available. You will be hired and some poor slob who is hanging on near the bottom of his field will fall off.”

There is always room at the top.”  Those words stayed with me for a lifetime. And, the theme applies equally to the publishing industry.

Back to my opening question. How do you know when a genre is becoming saturated? Simple. Major publishing companies buy fewer manuscripts. Senior editors know what the market will bear. By the same token, they live and die by the same principle my father taught me over forty years ago. There is always room at the top! As a market becomes saturated with cookie-cutter zombie or vampire-romance novels, acquisition editors look for gems--the one story that stands out, that belongs at the top. The others? Most become e-books and never earn a substantial income for the authors.

So, how do we break through the glut of writers to achieve the dream? By being the best! Writers must stand out from the pack and offer readers a compelling difference. Every facet of writing must excel from plot to character development to quality of writing to the extra time needed to polish a manuscript. And, it takes humility to accept criticism from qualified professionals, but those tidbits of advice can make all the difference. Most of all, it takes guts to brush aside negativity and reach for the stars. In the end, there is always room at the top! (Thanks, Dad. I miss you.)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

An Atheist in Heaven

An atheist died at an old age and discovered, to his surprise, that there is a God. Now, it was time for an accounting.

“During my life, God, you were never there for me. I prayed. I begged. I demanded. Yet, you did not respond.”

“What would you have me do?” God asked.

“When I struggled to feed children in the orphanage in Vietnam, you could have helped. I begged you for help.”

“Go on,” God replied patiently.

“Do you remember the time when I shot one of my own men for raping that little girl in the village? Every time we raided a VC village, he raped one of the young girls. I reported him to HQ, but they didn’t punish him; said it was his word against mine. Where were you then?”

“I was there,” God said.

The old man continued venting.

“I gave up on you after Vietnam. Decided the only justice in the world would be whatever I could create. I tutored friends in college for free. When I met that family with no father, I made sure the kids had Christmas presents. It wasn’t much, but it was all I could afford during college. I lived my whole life that way, because you didn’t care.”

“Do you really think I didn’t care?”

“You never answered my prayers. What else could I think? I gave up on you and tried to do all the things I could to help people. I donated time in kid’s sports programs and made sure old people in my neighborhood were okay during heat waves. One time, I saw two men trying to entice a little boy into their truck. Do you remember that?”

God nodded.

“I stopped them and escorted the boy home. Where were you? Where were you when that fishing boat capsized and the grandfather could not rescue both his grandkids at the same time? Froze my ass off swimming out to that boat, but somebody had to do it. You would have let the little girl drown. Some loving God you are!”

With a wave of his hand, God brushed aside the fog of life and there stood angels that the old man recognized. They smiled and nodded at him, people whose lives had been touched by the old man’s generosity or willingness to get involved. With another hand gesture, images formed of young people, none of whom the old man recognized.

“They,” God said, “benefit now from the trust fund you left on Earth. Some receive warm food when they would have had none. Others are poor students who manage to get a college education through the scholarships your trust provides.”

God wasn’t through. He stood, uplifted his arms, and thousands of people appeared in images among the clouds. “These are your people. You touched all their lives through others you helped.”

The old man was astonished to see the results of his lifetime, but his anger remained.

“If one small man like me can make such a difference, then why didn’t you do something for humanity?”

God waved and all the angels and people vanished. He descended the stairs from his heavenly throne and placed his hand on the old man’s shoulder.

A tear perched on the old man’s eyelid. “I tried, I tried my entire life to help people. I did the best I could, but it never seemed enough. Why didn’t you do something?”

“I did,” God said. “I sent you.”

Monday, October 3, 2011

Marine Corps Advice for Writers

One thing you learn in the military is to fight through adversity. Every branch of service has their version of the Marine Recon slogan “Adapt and Overcome.” I’m here to tell you, that theme of never quitting applies to all of life. For writers, it should read, “Adapt and Never Stop Writing.”

A couple months ago, my literary agent warned me that my manuscript faced possible resistance from publishers because of a movie, Contagion, that could saturate the public market for any book using a similar theme—that being—a deadly virus. I went from the doorstep of final submission to dead-in-the-water after a year of working up through the system.

I was momentarily blind-sided by this obstacle. I admit, there was a temptation to quit and move on to the next manuscript, but I just don’t work that way. Yes, I might fail in this publishing chase, but not until my lifeless body becomes carrion for the publishing vultures.

Here’s what happened since.

My literary agent did not bail out on me. Instead, she emailed my manuscript to me with copious notes throughout. She compared my writing to Dan Brown (I felt very upbeat about that) and she felt the story could be saved if I re-wrote it to change the core threat from a virus to something else. “Yeah, right,” I thought sarcastically. “Let’s see, rabid pigmies, or maybe, pigeons with acid poop. Seriously, some of her suggestions excited me, so I rolled up my literary sleeves and got down to business.

Holy moly, Robin! The story almost wrote itself and came out better than the original. It went from 22 long chapters to 78 short chapters with lots of cliffhangers (classic Dan Brown technique). Two characters got a face lift, fleshing out their personalities better. In addition, I added substance to a minor character who will become a main character in the sequel. The changes worked! Delivery of the story became more compelling. I also made a tough decision and decided not to worry about the movie. If it becomes a success, more people will want a “virus” story. Look at what happened with vampire books after the success of Twilight. A successful "virus movie" could be a selling point. If the movie fails, then my book will stand on its own two feet as a high-powered, fast-paced, terrorist attack with a lethal virus as the weapon. Either way, it WILL stand out because it scares the hell out of the reader! I’m thrilled!

Thank you Marisa Corvisiero for the good suggestions that helped me with the re-write. More importantly, thank you for your confidence in my ability to “fix” the situation. It means the world to me.

In Vietnam, I was part of a team. In publishing, it’s no different. Marisa’s on my team, and together, we will adapt and overcome. If your agent does not respect you as part of a team, then find a new agent! For anyone struggling with the publishing process, I am proof that persistence pays off. It would have been easy for me to abandon this story and move on, that is, if I was inclined to quit. And that, my friend, is the moral of this blog. I did not quit. And, neither should you!