Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ego Is A Two Way Street

Last week I ranted on in a post about how a lot of indie writers may be getting too big of a head about the rapid rise of their market.  I pointed out the pitfalls and tried to warn people that the traditional publisher and large book store still rule the roost with the majority of the reading public, most of whom are unaware that there is even a battle underway.

That said, this works in both directions.  Roughly a generation ago, big chain stores like Barnes & Nobel and Books-A-Million came in and completely changed the market for books.  They had cheap prices and a large enough stock that the average reader could find whatever they desired.  This WalMart approach to book selling devastated the mom-and-pop bookstore that had been on top for most of the previous 50 years.  Borders joined them, and a new era was upon us.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to this glorious new world order - the chains got overconfident, even cocky.  Having crushed their competitors, they were now unwilling to adapt when Amazon came on the scene.  Why would they?  After all, people still liked to look at books before buying them, and you couldn't hold a computer screen.  They tied themselves to traditional publishing and snubbed their noses at everyone else...because they could.

Then things started to change.  Sales began to drop, even during peak times.  Revenue was no longer guaranteed, even though books were still being written.  There was this new ebook thing, but they were just an extension of books, so obviously everyone would follow their habits to the bookstore.  And since traditional publishing and large chains were inexorably intertwined, there was nothing to worry about, right?

The indie scene changed that.  Rather than embrace the change and recognize they were in the business of selling stories, not selling just what some people said were stories, the big chains let the market pass them by.  The funny thing is that they continue to snub them and make placement ridiculously difficult.  Some standards are good, or else big chains would be overwhelmed.  However, unless you're either a traditional author whose publishing house is in their good-boy list, or you've sold enough that you are unable to be ignored(by like, say, making the NYT Bestseller List), the larger chains won't even acknowledge you exist.  This is a mistake of catastrophic proportions.

The traditional market is hurting as more writers are opting for indie.  This has created a self-licking ice cream cone whereby the chains think they have to charge more for a dwindling supply, making even more likely for writers to leave and customers to go elsewhere.  In the face of this, larger chains continue to refuse to change.  Like the horse and buggy industry of the 1890s, they've been the only game in town for so long that they forgot that it's not horses and buggies people want, but rather a mode of transportation.  Similarly, it's not the hardcover that readers want, but the story.

Unless they change, I think these larger chains will be gone by 2030.  While they're disappearing, they'll stubbornly insist it's the economy or that the public has eschewed books in these dark times or some other piddling excuse that lets them ignore reality.  All the while they'll look down their noses at the indie scene and just know that such a route is for losers.

I mean, why not?  It worked so well for the recording industry.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Dear Me

Dear Russell,

I'm writing to you from 30 years in the future.  I call you Russell because that's what more than half the folks of your time still call you.  That won't last.  In a very short time, you will become Russ, a name change spawned by one person's stubborn insistence on calling you by a name your parents told you to say wasn't yours since the day you were born.  Don't worry - the name change will be a good thing, and by the time you reach my age, only your parents will still call you Russell.  You have since morphed into Russ, and things have gone better than you dared hope.

I know that things seem a bit depressing now.  You're 13, scrawny, short, and a tremendous nerd.  You know what?  THAT'S OKAY!  I want you to embrace your inner nerd, for it's who you truly are.  You're that weirdo who enjoys playing chess, reading encyclopedias, and discussing philosophy while most folks are caught up in why the junior high school football team can't make the playoffs or how cool their high top sneakers are.  I know you wonder how you became such a dork and why God cursed you as such, but I'm here to let you in on a secret.  Shhh...don't tell anyone...

...but we nerds rule the world.

That's right.  That line you thought sounded so haughty but in your mind sounded so desperate is actually true.  You see, the things that seemed important when you were 13 don't matter much when you're an adult.  Early maturity gave you an incredible advantage over most of your peers.  You saw the value of setting goals and saving money.  You've achieved most of what you set out to do, and while most of the folks you know are wallowing in debt, you and your wife have your heads well above water.

Yup, I said wife.  You have an amazing, beautiful, charming, caring, and compassionate wife.  It may take you a long time to find her, but believe me when I say it's worth the wait.  Forget the travails of the teenage girls that mock you for having the audacity to be smart(and the arrogance to tell everyone).  You'll watch most of them float through life from person to person, as will most of the teenage guys who seem to have all the luck right now.  I know you wonder why you're watching Perfect Strangers on Friday night when others are out partying, but let's be honest - partying isn't your thing anyway.  You feel awkward around crowds and prefer a few good friends as opposed to many you barely know.  That won't change.  And those guys having all the luck look cool now, but they don't look cool with a rap sheet, no money, and a beer gut.

You think one of the reasons you get scorned is your looks.  You have stringy hair you never comb, and in addition to being the size of a hobbit, you might weigh 80 pounds soaking wet.  Get past that.  Everyone grows at their own speed, and it's only down the line that you can accept this.  Believe me when I say that you'll come into your own - it just takes time, and it might take more time than you'd like, but the end result is great.

And you get to keep it great as part of your job.  Yes, you - the chess club geek who likes cats and has trouble holding a ladder still - will grow in ways you can't imagine possible now.  You know all those World War Two movies you watch with awe?  You get to live them.  You get to be the one who demonstrates paths to courage that many can't fathom.  Sure, you're going to wonder if you have it in you, but I can assure you that after several trips into hell, you have the fortitude.  Trust yourself and your instincts.  Look out for your buddies.  And know that the biggest take away when it's over is that since you faced it once, if, God forbid, you ever have to face it again, you can.

Let me tell you some things you're working on now that you won't need:
1.  Calculus and trigonometry.  Neat math things that have no application to you in real life.  You're not going to be an engineer, and there are miniaturized computer programs that will do any calculation you need beyond basic arithmetic and geometry.  Some people will scream and cry that these things matter.  They don't.

2.  Knowing that the reason nitrogen nodules cling to the roots of plants is symbiosis will become meaningless the moment you're not in school anymore.  No one cares.  It doesn't matter in your profession.  In fact, it matters in almost no one's profession.

3.  White Out.  You know...that stuff you cover typing mistakes over with?  No one uses typewriters anymore.  No.  One.  White Out was a great thing for its time, but I doubt anyone could even find a typewriter any longer.  They've become outdated.

4.  That collection of cassette tapes you recorded off of the radio.  Yes, it's cool that you have the entire Thriller album by recording off of WROQ, but tapes are gone too.  Even if your tape collection survives the decades, you won't be able to find a tape player - or "boom box" as the cool kids like to call them - anywhere in my time.  Music is mix and match, and unlike yesteryear, where bigger speakers were cool, the smaller the speaker, the more desirable it is.

5.  High top sneakers.  They're dumb.  They mean nothing to anyone over the age of 16.  Shoes are shoes - wear what's comfortable.

You're going to go on lots of adventures, and those adventures are going to take you places both exciting and unexpected.  Stop worrying what other people think; when you do, you'll be amazed how freeing it is.  Live life by your own rules, and realize that if others don't want to join you on that journey, the loss is theirs, not yours.  You will lose some friends along the way, but you'll make incredible new ones that are more closely aligned with you personality.  And the ones that do stay with you are the best you'll ever have.  Treasure them and never lose sight that you're all at nearly the same point in this journey, no matter what each projects now to protect him or her psychologically.

Last note - appreciate your time with your own children.  Yes, you have children, and they grow up fast.  Guide them as much as you can through their own rough spots, even if they won't listen to you.  After all, are you really listening to me now?  Of course not, for the things I'm trying to teach you must be learned by you on your own.  That's the only way the lessons will stick.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Risking A Point of View

A good story is at the heart of drawing in readers, but the way that story is told can go a long way.  As writers, we need to find a way to communicate our stories in ways that are enjoyable to the public.  However, I wonder if we aren't sometimes too smart or creative for our own good.

A few of my novels are relayed in a different way than the rest.  Schism is done in a format that uses news stories and blogs throughout the book to tell the story in a way that hopefully appeals to its target demographic since most political junkies get their news from those sources.  Homecoming is told in the format of a journal where most of the action has already happened, and we're learning about it afterwards.

These methods have their appeal, and when done sparingly, they give a jolt to the public, further enticing them to try something different.  However, these storytelling techniques only work when they're a rare swerve from the norm and not the norm itself.  I think we risk pissing off or annoying our readers if we try to do something overly creative or hoity-toity with every foray, or even with most of them.  Sure, such things may make waves among those "in the know," but most of the public - you know...the folks that plop down money to buy our work and keep food on our table - finds this grating.  Remember, people have little patience or tolerance for arrogance, and doing something different too often comes off as if we're trying to prove we're smarter than everyone else.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't occasionally experiment with your storytelling, but rather to say that you need to find the right time and number of times to try it.  Look for the right story that requires that little extra oomph to get it to the next level.  Remember, readers also value the familiar, so usual storytelling techniques have great value.  And make sure that when you do something different, it's for both you and the reader, not just for you.  Otherwise your stuff will get passed around that authors' circle with approving nods...and no interest from the public.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Too Big Of An Ego?

I don't think it's any secret my belief in the indie publishing movement.  Several writers - from Hugh Howey to JA Konrath to Sarah Hoyt - have shown that it's not only possible to make a living on the indie scene, but it's possible to make a damn fine that can be better than most traditionally published writers.  Therefore it may seem odd that I issue this word of caution...

...don't get cocky.

Cocky is what is resonating off of a lot of indie writers right now, and with their recent successes, coupled with the arrogance of those in the traditional world who said indie/self publishing was a desperate route for the untalented, it's hard to blame them.  Indie writers feel themselves to be that underdog sports team that knows it's more talented than everyone but can't seem to get any respect.  They swagger and brag about how they're "coming to get" those on the other side of the fence, and nothing will stop them.

Whoa there boy - slow down a bit.

As much success as the indie movement has had in recent years, the traditional publishing world still rules the roost.  Some of it may be the mentality prevalent among a lot of writers that still need validation from that world, but the actual dominance is hard to dispute.  Traditional writers dominate the bestseller lists, as well as the market share.  That's not to say that a lot of traditionally published writers are doing anything more than scraping by, but the method of publishing and distribution is still on top, and indie writers are fooling ourselves if we think we've prevailed.

One day, perhaps, that will change, but indie must work several angles to overcome the advantages inherent in the traditional world with regards to the market.  Obviously, traditionally published books still dominate placement in bookstores, aided by a number of them who won't even stock indie works.  Perception among the general public - those who might buy a book or two a year - is also with the traditionally published world.  Ebooks are on the rise, and the success of authors like Amanda Hocking will help, but let's be honest - until an indie writer has the success of someone like Stephen King or John Grisham, and stays in the indie world instead of grabbing a traditional deal as soon as the dollar signs get large enough, indie will always be seen by most as second tier, no matter how much we may scream about it.  That might be unfair, but it's still the truth.

I know I seem like a downer, and I believe the trend is in indie's favor, but the indie movement doesn't need to exaggerate its position.  We need a breakthrough, a major breakthrough, in order to truly claim a spot on top of the mountain.  Indie writers will continue to make a good living - most of them better than in the traditional world due to profit margins and royalty rates - and we should always believe in ourselves, but that doesn't mean we should descend into self-delusion, and, by extension, arrogance.

After all, it's always been our scrappy nature that has gotten us this far.  If we can hold onto that drive, it can take us further.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Anatomy Of A Short Story

I usually post a new short story on Fridays, and this one was to be no different.  For the first time in a long time, I had a clear idea of what I was going to write well in advance of writing it.  There was a central character(based on current events) and a theme.  I even wrote about 90% of it and was within minutes of posting it when something happened that normally doesn't with me.

I hesitated.

Those who know me know I'm not normally one who shies away from controversy.  I always figure that it's better to get topics into the open so that they can get aired out rather than hide behind a tired morass of denial.  However, even I have limits, and I hit one in writing the story.

You see, my story was going to be about Robin Williams and the hell he must've been going through.  I wanted to use the post as a way to work through my feelings about him and his life, and as a way to try and understand what he felt.

Unfortunately, the more I wrote, the more I started to see that the post, regardless of intention, would be taken wrong by so many.  Courting some level of controversy is fine for writers since it can create a buzz, but too much can alienate readers, even if you never meant to do so.  I wanted readers to try and get what might've been in the mind of this tragic genius, but I realized that most would be unable to get beyond the initial shallow reading of the story and into the sincere and serious message I wanted to impart.

Therefore, I've shelved the story.  It's too soon, and the emotion is just too raw right now.  Perhaps I can take this as a lesson on timing and audience understanding.  Maybe one day the world will be ready for the story I envisioned, but I don't know when that might be.

A new story will come next week(I promise).  For now, I'll just contemplate what might've been.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Muse - Creating Suspense

Her breathing remained shallow.  I felt her pulse, and it was faint and erratic.  Yes, my office had none of the amenities of a modern day hospital, but it would share one feature that many hospitals had if I couldn't turn this around.

It would become a morgue.

I typed another word on my laptop, and she flickered again.  The words didn't mean much - they were little more than random characters on a page - but they caused a stir of life.  Or at least I thought they did.

"Come here," she rasped.  "You need to hear this."

I leaned in close but was met with nothing except silence.  Putting my ear to her lips, I strained for sound, yet there was nothing there.  She'd done this a few times since I found her - she would stir, act like she was ready to impart some knowledge, and then she'd fade.  I started to lean back...

...another rasp.

I leaned in again and finally heard a few words.  "It's not enough.  The dark is trying to get in."

Her words puzzled me.  Looking out of the window, I thought, Of course it's dark.  Always is at night.

As if on cue, dry leaves attacked the glass.  The sound was both flat and profound.  Did it seep inside, and was it choking out my muse?  Or was it all in my imagination?

"Yes," she mumbled in response to my thought.

My hands reached for the keyboard of their own accord.  They typed out a few random words in this latest sci-fi novel, but I retched in disgust before I could even look at the screen.  As I typed them, my muse exhaled like her spirit was trying to leave.  So I did the only thing I could think of when staring at such failure.

I hit the backspace.  Delete...delete...delete...



So focused was I on ridding the world of my drivel that I almost failed to notice that her eyes opened.  When I finally looked at her, it was hard to tell if her eyes were wide with wonder or terror.

"The dark!" she cried.

I wheeled my head around, but it was no more dark outside than it was just a few minutes before.  While trying to see if it was spreading even further across the window, a new sound made its way upstairs.

"Honey, the baby needs to be changed."

Out of habit as much as anything else, I got up and headed for the office door.  At that point, I saw my muse's hands fall limp to the floor.

"I have to," I pleaded.  "My family needs me."

As if it took all her effort, she choked out, "I understand."

My feet rooted themselves to the spot.  If I left, the muse's condition was likely to deteriorate.  If I didn't leave, my marriage's condition might follow.  Thinking quickly, I finally said, "I'll be right there.  Let me finish this paragraph."

The sigh, as much felt as heard, wafted its way upstairs.  "Okay, but hurry up."

With all the permission I needed, I sat back down and charged ahead.  My muse's eyelids fluttered, but that was all the activity I could see.  Would my energy be enough?  Or would she fade away forever?  And even if I could bring her back, could I devote enough energy to do so?

She flirted with the brink, and so did I.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

What Are You Worth?

A point seemingly lost in the whole Amazon/Hachette kerfuffle is that, at its base, it comes down to the price of ebooks.  We all know that most people simply aren't going to pay $14.99 for a download.  There might be a few, very rare exceptions to this - a long anticipated Stephen King novel, or if JK Rowling were to ever write another book set in the Harry Potter universe - but it's not a viable economic prospect to most folks outside of the publishing houses in New York.

That said, writing is still a business, and as such, it has to make money.  Fantasies are great, but I can't feed my family on fantasies, no matter how rich.  That means that we have to be able to make money and adapt to the market.  My new worry is that while we all know that no one in their right mind will pay the outrageous prices traditional houses want to charge, a lot of indie writers are undervaluing their work.

When indie was a new phenomenon, the $0.99 novel was all the rage.  Buyers would gobble them up like candy, secure in the knowledge that if it sucked, they wasted little.  However, the market has moved past this testing phase, and those that price their work at such prices are now likely to be ignored.

Why is that, you might ask?  Well, quite simply, the public has come to associate the $0.99 novel as a trash piece.  Yes, that might be harsh, but most people now believe that any book trying to pawn itself off for $0.99 must have something wrong with it.  It's akin to looking for a house in a certain neighborhood and finding out it's priced about $100,000 below everyone else.  The natural response is to wonder what's wrong with it.

This price point is creeping further north.  It won't reach the stratospheric numbers of $14.99 and higher anytime soon - although the reality of inflation dictates that such things will eventually happen - but it is heading higher.  People are becoming more and more acquainted with the indie market and are starting to believe in its worth.  And with expectations of quality come expectations of price.  An ebook price of between $3.99 and $7.99 is now expected for something that is worth a damn.  Novels priced higher are still viable, but not by much(depending on their price point), and novels priced lower are beginning to be looked at the same way you might look at a steak priced $1 per pound.

None of this is to say you shouldn't take advantage of marketing gimmicks like free giveaways every now and then, or that you shouldn't try to undercut your competition so that readers are drawn more to your work.  However, it does mean that you have to be cognizant of the market and how being too cheap can actually turn readers away.  Yes, it's perverse, but it's also reality, and it should be taken as a sign of success - readers are willing to pay for indie work, and they disdain overly cheap stuff.  Make sure you know what you're worth, for if you don't, then surely no one else will.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Zoo - A Short Story

Walna glided to the front of the cage with her mother.  This was her first visit to the zoo, and she'd never seen such a varying mix of animals that people said were from the same species.  The first exhibit contained about 30 of the creatures, and several of them were bloody.

"Do they always fight like that, mama?"

"Most of them do.  They're only dangerous under two circumstances - when they can organize their levels of violence, and when they combine that organization with a small measure of technical civilization."

One of the animals threw itself at the cage and started pounding on the window, but a sharp electric shock was sufficient to cause it to retreat.  Still, Walna recoiled at the sight of so much ferocity.

"The ones in this cage look to be organized," she observed.

"Only a little bit.  Notice that it was a sole individual who tried to attack us, not the entire party.  And when they fight each other, it is usually on an individual basis.  However, there are small collectives that will fight for a common cause, such as the protection of a family unit or over food for a community."

Walna peered back into the habitat in awe.  Small groups were pushing each other here and there, but most of them just sat around in their filth.  One of them was beating another with a large stick, but the engagement was ignored by most of the community.

She just shook her head as they walked to another exhibit containing the same animals.  This one looked to be much more civilized - there were rudimentary amenities like plumbing and roads - but they also looked much more docile.  Most just wandered to and fro, barely acknowledging each other.

"These ones look nice," Walna said.

"They are, but they could've potentially been the most dangerous.  They possess a higher level of technology and skill, but our initial forays to their world removed any threat they could've posed."

"How?" asked Walna, genuinely curious.

"There is a chemical called 'testosterone' that the males of this species possess in great quantity.  That is, they possess it in great quantity if left alone, and this chemical can create heightened levels of violence, as well as stir greater rates of reproduction.  That had to be altered before we could properly bring them here for our enjoyment."

"What did we do?"

"We shamed their violent instincts through infiltration," her mother said as one of the beasts could be seen trailing what looked to be a female, its head downcast and its eyes on the ground.  "They once participated in violent games and acted in ways that would be dangerous if coupled with higher technology.  Through our infiltration, we softened these games and made them feel as if they could not showcase such things.  Yes, some resisted, but most were shamed into accepting our softening.  It only took a few males to go along before a cascade effect took place and the rest fell into line.

"Let's remember just how powerful the pull of reproduction is in this species.  When we convinced the female of the species to withhold reproductive activities from most of the males unless they altered their tendencies, it didn't take long for most males to fall into line.  We convinced them that instead of altering the perception of those entering into viewing contests or making social arrangements, the events themselves should be altered to accommodate the new participants."

Walna blinked at her mother.  "And they just went along with that?!?!  Such a disruption eats at the very fabric of society.  How could they not understand this?"

"Because of a trait inherent in the species - they want others to change rather than change themselves when entering a new environment.  And we helped, which aided our taking the species captive."

"How dangerous could they have been?  What if this group kept their tendencies, or the other group gained higher technology?"

"Very.  We may have still been able to count on the fact that many of them do not work well with those unfamiliar to them - a trait that recedes with greater levels of interaction - but it could've been a close call.  This species, bonded together and with access to greater technology and the ability to wield it violently, might not only have staved us off, but they could've eventually come after us as we did them.  Fortunately for us, we mellowed this group and denied the other."

Walna looked to see a group of males sitting around and crying over...something.  She couldn't imagine her own father crying unless her mother passed or his pet died, but this group simply sat and wept for no visible reason.  She nodded approvingly as she understood emotional outbursts of sadness tempered violent tendencies.  Possibly a good thing in a sterile environment, but they never counted on her people showing up.

"Any chance they revert?" Walna asked.

Her mother stroked her face with the end of her tail.  "No, my child.  The other group doesn't have access to anything to threaten us with, and if they get too bad, we'll just exterminate them.  This group is now so passive that I think they'd recoil at the mere inkling of trying to take control again.  Since they thought even channeled violence was a bad thing - akin to the explosive violence that marred their past - they cannot understand the split and will be unable to focus in any way in taking us on to free themselves."

Walna was glad for such things.  These pesky...what did her mother call them...humans(?)...were nothing to fear any more.  That the Frathiana took their world and their freedom didn't matter - the Frathiana were superior and deserved to be on top.  Humanity growing so weak that it couldn't stop them was proof enough.

"Can we look at another cage, mama?  These things are boring me now."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reviving the Muse

I found her in a ditch.  Her hair was raddy and her skin pale, but none of that stopped me from rushing to her side.  I felt her pulse, and it was faint.  Her skin was cold and clammy, and my heart sank at her prospects for survival.

Fearing anything above a whisper would cause any remaining life to flitter away, I breathed, "Are you still with me?"

Much to my surprise, her eyes opened, if only just.  She favored me with a weak smile before saying, "So long as you search for me, I can never truly die."

I knew the truth of those words, but a sense of shame washed over me.  Had I searched recently?  You know, really searched?  My Muse had been missing for months, and most days I barely noticed.  There were other things to tend to, and the less I looked, the less I noticed her absence.  She used to be a constant presence in my life, but she'd lately been little more than an afterthought.  As such, it was hard to blame her for leaving.

Scooping her up, I gently cradled her head before stumbling home.  Only the occasional twitch said I was carrying more than a sack of potatoes.  Guilt came anew to me as I made my way upstairs and laid her on the bed.

"You found me," she rasped.  "Now I can grow strong again."

"Shh, don't talk,  You need your rest."

"Rest is something I've had too much of, and it nearly killed me.  I need to get back to work so I can get revitalized."

"In the morning," I assured her.

"Okay then," she replied.  "I'll just close my eyes for a bit."

She placed her hands on her chest and shut her eyes, but none of that was comforting.  Her breath still came in short, shallow bursts, and her eyes appeared sunken,  My neglect was readily apparent, and I wanted to hang my head.

I wanted to, but I didn't.  I had a child to feed and a proposal for work to get to.  I could pay her more attention tomorrow, but there were other tasks to get to before then.  A little longer, and I could give my Muse my full attention.  At that point, she'd pop back up with the vigor she'd always had.

Wouldn't she?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Fisking James Patterson

Let me start by saying James Patterson is a great author, as evidenced by the success he has had.  He is far and away one of the most prolific writers in the world, and I'd be happy to have a tenth the level of monetary success he has experienced.  That said, his writing talent doesn't translate to business sense, or understanding of writers not named Patterson, King, or Baldacci.

He wrote an op-ed on recently where he weighed in on the Hachette/Amazon dispute.  He gets space on CNN because he's...well...he's James Patterson.  His cache is greater than most writers, and those who have higher stock would be able to do the same thing.  However, if you put yourself out there, you also open yourself up to being disputed, and Patterson has done that here in spades.

The piece starts off with this:
I spend way too much time daydreaming about being Jeff Bezos. It's not that he's thinner than me. Or younger. It's not the superhuman confidence of his laugh. It's not the legacy of stunning innovations or his off-the-charts business intuition. It's not even his mind-boggling revenue stream. (I'm frankly boggled at my own revenue stream -- though it is just a stream next to his mighty rain forest river.)

It's that I keep thinking about what a hero I could be, were I he.

For as much as I admire Patterson's writing talent, I don't daydream about being him, Harry Turtledove, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, or anyone else besides RD Meyer.  Time is far too valuable to worry about being someone else, no matter what that person does or how much success that person comes by.  I've never understood athletes who say they want to be the next Michael Jordan, politicians who say they want to be the next Abraham Lincoln, and I don't understand it with writers.  I don't want to imitate anyone - I want to carve my own niche out in history, and wondering what it'd be like if I was somebody else distracts from that goal.  Be your own man, James Patterson, and let others be theirs.

Sure, I have ushered in the age of Internet commerce, but, no, I am not now hanging around just to collect my financial reward, or even to bask in the public recognition.

You see, I, Jeff Bezos, am actually trying to make this a better world.
First, it must be nice to be so well off that you don't worry about your financial reward, even though it's not really a reward(it's called profit, something Bezos worked his ass off to earn, not something that was handed to him, as Patterson implies).  Second, disregarding this, Bezos has indeed made this a better world.  Amazon has not only revolutionized basic commerce, especially in regards to books, it has also provided a platform for writers to earn a living outside of the traditional publishing model.  Some make it, and some suck, but it's the market that decides rather than a group of elites at the right cocktail party.
Here is where I will make clear that Amazon has already been responsible -- directly responsible -- for getting millions of books into the hands and minds of millions and millions of people, and that this is nothing short of holy work.
Actually, Amazon has already made that clear - they don't need James Patterson to point it out.  The readers who get books from Amazon know this as well.  It's also not "holy work," but rather a business.  One earns a living from business, and great innovators change the way business is done(as Bezos has).  The high flying philosophical bullshit sounds great when talking to a crowd, but it's near meaningless in a world governed by the rules of the market.
Obviously these publishers -- however inefficient and old-fashioned (did you know many of them quaintly still let their employees do half-day Fridays in the summer?) -- remain the best way to find, nurture, and invest in up-and-coming authors.
So many things wrong with this paragraph that it's hard to know where to begin.  Let's start with the notion that publishers are doing us all a favor by patting their employees on the head, and, gosh darn it, giving people a half a day off in the summer, as if that has any bearing on their dealings with Amazon...or whether people who buy books even care.
Next, he freely acknowledges that traditional publishing is "inefficient and old fashioned" while simultaneously acting as if that's a good thing.  Sorry, but taking over a year to go from submitted work to a novel on the shelves, or giving out royalties to authors only twice a year(and often hiding so many debits that it's hard to know the accounting) is not quaint; it's insane.  These are practices that have failed to adapt to the modern world, and most other enterprises would have gone belly up long ago were they not the near-monopolies with gatekeepers that traditional publishing is.
And let's talk about those gatekeepers - for Patterson to claim, with a straight face, that traditional publishing nurtures or invests in up and coming authors is asinine.  Not only are the terms ridiculously one-sided(unless your name is Patterson), they've begun to shift from out-of-the-blue phenoms to scouring indie pages for the next big thing(as if indie is some kind of farm league for them).  From Hugh Howie to Amanda Hocking, the newest "big things" are in the indie realm.  Even Fifty Shades of Grey started out as indie fan fiction.  So please spare us the whimsical notion that publishers are finding talent and nurturing it along.  They are nurturing established talent and not giving newbies a chance to rise - newbies either prove themselves fast or they're gone.
Today I am going to stop leaning on book publishers. I am going to stop brandishing Amazon's market share as a corrective cudgel. They needed a little remonstrative pressure, but now it's gone too far and they are doing what all embattled higher organisms do: They are joining forces against a common (though, as they will soon see, inaccurately perceived) enemy. Random House buys Penguin. Hachette absorbs Perseus.
Basically, Amazon is acting mean and needs to stop.  No logic in the paragraph beyond "those poor publishers really just want to survive and help out the masses."  Even after admitting that these entities are absorbing others and becoming near-monopolies(check out this link about how they're also price-colluding, turning them from near monopolies into one gigantic entity), he doesn't seem to grasp the once-monolithic stranglehold they have, yet they want more.
But I, Jeff Bezos, also clearly see that we are going to have fewer great books and writers discovered in the coming years if there are fewer curators with the financial wherewithal to nurture them. And, no way around it, fewer publishing houses equals fewer curators. It's not a money thing, it's a diversity-of-perspective thing. One company -- no matter how high-minded and cleverly structured it is -- will offer fewer perspectives than many companies will.
This guy has somehow missed the boom in new writers coming through the indie forums the last few years and thinks that only traditional can create new voices.  How arrogant...and wrong.
I am going to deal with publishers fairly and openly. No more punishing them with delayed shipments of books we could have ordered. No more taking down of buy and pre-order buttons, knowing that Amazon can withstand the revenue dip far better than they can.
Several inaccuracies of note here, beginning with the absurd notion that Amazon is just doing this for shits and giggles, or maybe because they're eeeeeevvvvvvviiiiiiiilllllllll.  Sorry, but this is a business tactic, and one used to negotiate a new deal with a company, Hachette, whose contract has run out(and whose contract Amazon unilaterally extended once already).  If the tactic wasn't promising, Amazon wouldn't use it, and you wouldn't be crying like a school girl because the mean guys down the block won't let you sell your stuff through them.
I also note that Patterson never once mentions the intermediate remedy Amazon proposed - to give 100% of book revenues sold during this time to the authors who wrote the novels in question while a deal continues to be worked.  My guess is that many Hachette authors whose name isn't Patterson, and who might have some difficulty putting food on the table in lean times, would jump at this, but Hachette hasn't exactly publicized it.  Maybe because they know their writers would revolt at knowing how Hachette treated the proposal.
Patterson also fails to note the underlying issue, which is the discounting of e-books.  I have no idea why he thinks readers will pay the same for a download as they would for a physical product.  I can only assume he is so out of touch that he thinks most people have money to burn, or that most people are so stupid that they think it costs the same to produce an e-book as it does to create a paper one.
Believe it or not, I've held back on many of the things I wanted to say about Patterson's views, which are, to say the least, lacking.  No matter how much talent in writing novels the man has, his business sense needs work.  Either that, or he is so out of touch that he is incapable of understanding the market he sells in - it works great for him, but not so much for the rest of the peons.
James Patterson, you said you imagined Jeff Bezos could be a hero.  Imagine the hero you could be were you to use your clout to get Hachette to treat its other writers better.  However, that might require you to think of others besides yourself, and from this article, I don't know if that's possible.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Moving Day - A Short Story

I looked around on final time, but the house was empty.  Actually, that's wasn't true - it may have ben empty of "stuff," but the memories were still here.  In the family room, there was that slightly cracked electrical socket where Winnie had spun around and gotten so dizzy she fell and hit her head.  It wasn't a hard hit, but it was enough to split the plastic where her head struck.

We'd painted over that scrap mark on the wall from where Harriet and I pulled the crib upstairs and into our new daughter's room.  We loved Winnie and thought for a while that she would be it, but then Amy made an unexpected appearance in our lives, so we uncovered the old crib from the garage and got it to where it needed to be.  That day had been such a pain in the ass, but some paint and a little spackle had taken care of any physical evidence of the hassle.

Staring out of the window, I wondered if the new owners would be able to repair the discolored spot in the grass.  It wasn't a big spot, but it was ample evidence that our dog Rocky liked to use it as a bathroom.  Rocky passed on last year, and we weren't yet at a place where we could get a new member of the family, but physical memories of that crazy German Shepherd still lingered.  He'd been a great animal, if a bit rambunctious, yet now that discolored spot was all we had left of him.

A new job meant new adventures, but mostly it meant a new town and a new house.  We were lucky to find such a great place in Atlanta, but leaving Richmond was harder than I thought.  So much of our lives had occurred here.  Winnie wasn't yet two when we got here, and now she was a budding girl of 9 going on 16.  It was at her insistence that we hung that new swing on the oak tree, just as it was at our insistence she stop using it three months ago because the branch was starting to sag under her weight.

Our first house out of college.  Apartments were all we knew prior, and while they were nice, nothing made you feel "home" like a house, a house you could repaint and alter to fit the way you wanted to live.  This one had its quirks - nowhere was absolutely perfect, and anyone who says otherwise is either naïve or delusional - but it was ours.  Funny how a physical structure of bricks and mortar could hold such a place in your heart.

Now circumstances dictated we move our heart elsewhere.  It reminded me a little of my first breakup.  Her name was Nikki, and we were both 15.  We swore we'd be together forever, as many 15 year olds do, but things changed.  There was little bitterness at moving on, but it still felt sad, for a piece of my innocence was leaving me.

And innocence was what I'd come to associate with this house.  We'd never owned anything as grand before; we'd only looked, much the way a teenage boy looks at girls and wonders what having a girlfriend would be like.  Now that Harriet and I owned this place, we discovered everything, good and bad, that went with it.  We'd put in so much effort, and now it felt like someone else would benefit from that effort.

Sure, our new house was bigger, and there'd be new stories to be written there, but it wouldn't be the same.  Amy was nearly past pulling things from the cabinets, so that memory would stay here.  The night the power was out due to the electrical storm would stay here as well(our new house had solar power and a backup generator).  Simply pretending so we could have a dinner of Peanut Butter Sandwiches wouldn't be the same.

The horn blared from the EZ Move rental truck.  "Hey, goofy!"  Harriet called.  "You coming?"

Looking over my shoulder, I smiled at her.  "Yeah, I'm coming."

I turned without another glance and walked down the front walkway to the truck.  The memories would remain.  I hoped that we could build new ones just as strong, but they'd be different memories.  In my heart, it felt like I was leaving a piece of myself in this old house.  Part of me feels like that's a silly way to look at a physical structure, but the rest of me knows that memories build our lives, and memories is what this place gave us in spades.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Art Versus Science

We've all heard the axioms before:
- Show, don't tell.
- Remove the adjectives and adverbs.
- Get straight into the action.
- Limit extraneous characters.
- Avoid clichés.
- And many, many more...

These are the laws of writing associated with making what you say more efficient and easier for the reader to understand.  They seek to cut through the dense undergrowth so that we can get into a great novel.

The problem is that things aren't always so cut and dried.

The industry has been trying for years to reduce the guesswork in writing and make it to a science, ie - here's a formula that will work for you if you use it.  However, writing is more than a rote series of rules that makes what we do a science.  It isn't exact - it's also an art.

Of course, that doesn't mean to completely ignore the advice above.  Always check what you write for the superfluous.  A runner doesn't quickly sprint, just as a drunkard doesn't stumble awkwardly.  And yes, you should get to the point of your work as soon as possible.  Still, there's something to be said for flouting these rules on occasion.

Sometimes you need to build a character into a person the audience will care about, and that can't be done if you put him or her in an extraordinary situation off the bat.  Sure, it might make for great action, but why would a reader care if George Farrington is fighting an epic sword battle if they don't know who he is?  The character must do interesting things that sometimes advance the character rather than the plot.

Also, telling is sometimes a necessary evil, for background is important.  You needn't show the lineage of the kings of France in order to let everyone know why Napoleon is important, only that such kings once existed and created the conditions that allowed for his rise.  Telling an audience that the Mark I tank was first used at the Battle of the Somme can provide context for your war story without the need to follow it from the assembly line.  In short, telling provides crucial background that allows our imaginations to grow with the story, so long as one doesn't go into a full dissertation.

I've run into folks at both ends of the spectrum.  There are those automatons out there who will tell you that there is a set formula for a successful novel, and any deviation will push away your reader.  These people are known as "idiots."  Yet others will rap episodic about how you should let everything flow in a deluge of creativity.  These people are known as "delusional."

You must learn to strike a balance in your writing, and this only happens with practice.  The very first thing you write is likely to be awful, but you'll only know that by giving it to someone heartless enough to give you honest feedback.  You have to press through that and find which end of the spectrum you live on, and then find a way to creep back to balance.  You've got to be both creative and logical if you're going to write a story that interests people.  So tell those that say it must be one way or the other to stay away from you, for they haven't got it all figured out, no matter how many equations they show you or how much imagery they can vomit on a page.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

What's The Plan?

I've written before about how writing is a business.  Yes, the writing part can be fun, but unless your stories are for only friends and family, you still need to understand the business side of things if you're to be successful.  That said, any good businessman knows that in order to build a good business, you have to have a plan.

My plan may appear lowbrow for the times, but it's on paper and almost ready to go.  I keep it in a green notebook, and I refer to it often.  On the inside, I maintain all kinds of things:
- a list of artists for covers
- a list of websites for potential blog tours
- a cost analysis of what I need to put away in order to break even, as well as what my cost point must be in order to make a sustainable profit
- the names of copy editors I'm interested in contacting
- a distribution plan, including who gets free copies
- and much, much more.

Perhaps I'm old school by writing all of this down longhand, but a strategy must still be mapped out.  One of the reason some still choose traditional publishing is because they feel all that nasty and boring business stuff will be taken care of by someone else, leaving the writer alone to write.  Sorry, but unless your name is Rowling, King, or Koontz, you're still going to have to figure out a great deal on your own, for no publisher will feel you're self-sustaining, and, therefore, worthy of everything they'll invest in that regard.

Even granting for a second that someone in the traditional world, be it your editor or your agent, will do most of the work, those that go into the indie world absolutely must get business.  What's your overhead?  Will you file as a corporation, and who will do your quarterly taxes?  Trust me when I say that the IRS doesn't care if you're an arteest - they just want their money.

Just as you research elements of your book, you have to research how to bring your stuff to market.  Do yourself a favor and start now, before you've finished writing.  As soon as your book is done, you're going to want to sell it, so it's important to do the hard stuff ahead of time so that you don't skip over some of it in your excitement over being done with your masterpiece.

If you aren't a business major, find one.  Ask indie authors you know and trust.  Put in the time, for it'll help you make the money you so desire.  Remember, writing is fun, but business is a bitch.  However, it's a tamable one if you do a little bit in advance.