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.