Thursday, February 26, 2015

Likably Amibiguous?

In the middle of writing my new novel, I've encountered a challenge.  My main character is responsible for saving the human race from extinction and relocating them to a new world to start over after Earth is ravaged by a mindless alien race.  Sounds like the stuff of an epic hero, right?

Um, not quite.

The main character is going to have to do some unsavory things in the name of saving people, and that will include actions and decisions that not everyone will agree with.  The reason for this is that it's necessary in order to maintain as much realism in his decisions and the consequences as possible.  It also provides drama in making people wonder at the cost to our soul of survival in the worst of circumstances.

These things may be great to read about in history books, but details often make people cringe.  Just as many people laugh about a character like Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory but would be horrified to have to deal with him in real life, knowing what's done for results can make folks uncomfortable.  It's one of the reasons the American people rapidly lose the stomach for wars fought in their name - the gory details of reality have a way of making us sick.

The issue, of course, is that I don't want people to root against my character.  His arc is central to the story, so I can't have people so repulsed by him that they want him to fail.  I want them to understand the difficult situation he is in and that there are not always straight right and wrong answers.

Threading this needle means showing his human side, as well as him losing some of his humanity, while striving towards a greater goal that will keep us alive.  I began by introducing his family and their death, as well as the effect that had on him.  He is very young, and God knows how losing a wife and young child would affect any of us.  This loss drives him from essentially being a coward - another aspect I hope doesn't drive people from him - to a single-minded vengeance machine, and then to a man who accepts responsibility for saving as many as he can.  Will readers sympathize, or will they see what he is doing as equivocation that is beyond the pale?

Characters drive our stories, and a slip up that turns people against what you're trying to do can be fatal to the narrative.  I hope I've hit the right spot.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A Piece Of Me

I think the biggest thing we writers struggle with is writing characters that are so different than we are.  Although extraneous characters can be challenging at times, the hardest ones to write are our main characters, especially if they're so different.

I hate admitting this, but most of my main characters have at least large elements of my own personality.  I can write them so easily because I can relate.

But when I try to stray outside of this motif, I run into trouble.  As an example, I'd originally intended for the main character from Wrongful Death to be a high school girl.  Unfortunately, no matter how hard I wrestled with it, I couldn't pull it off in any way that didn't sound cliché.  In order to get the story on paper, I changed the main character to a high school boy.  I could simply fall back on my own mindset when I was 17, thus making the task much easier.

This challenge applies across the board as I admit I'd be unfamiliar with writing a main character who is a jock, gay, a woman, or Japanese.  Sure, I could do it, but I know that it would come across as fake and full of every stereotype imaginable.  In short, it would be bad writing.

I wonder how much this problem affects other writers.  Does anyone out there encounter this issue?  I'm not talking about secondary characters or villains, since I have little difficulty writing them, but their point of view isn't the driving force behind the narrative.  That's what makes this such a challenge - when we write the main character's point of view, we inevitably view things through his lens.  We hear his thoughts and experience things the way he would experience them.  If we don't know the personality, how are we to make him sound convincing?

Differentiation is something I've strived for in my work - one character is a scientist, one is a historian, one is a high school senior, and so forth - but I feel my own personality coming through most of them.  Is it laziness?  A lack of talent?  Is it really so hard to get out of the box?

What this has done is make me read things a little differently.  I've noticed similarities in the main voices of many authors, so this problem of mine isn't unique.  Can we break away, or are we doomed to tell the same person's story through only a slightly different scenario until the end of time?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Tax Man Cometh

We're entering tax season, and I urge all writers to remember that taxes apply to everyone.  I've often said that writing is a business, and one of the reasons I feel writers choose the traditional publishing path is because they want other people to look after that nasty business stuff.  As an indie writer, it's your business and therefore your responsibility.

Most businesses pay their estimated taxes quarterly.  This avoids an enormous bill at the end of the year, and it's required by law to be within 10% of your end of the year rate.  I get that this all sounds about as exciting as a knitting session, but it's vital if you want to run a successful business as an indie writer rather than a hack job that muddles through a hobby.

The majority of indie writers sell less than 500 copies annually, so it's not as if their tax bill is large.  However, if you have plans of making a living at this, understanding the tax bill is kind of a big deal.  Separate your business accounts from your personal accounts so it makes deductions and write offs easier to explain to the IRS, and spend some time figuring out how to best estimate your taxes(based on your income selling books).  I strongly recommend filing as an S-Corp since it will simplify your taxes(you have to set up an S-Corp in advance), and you file it on your personal returns(although quarterly).

I cannot stress enough not to forget this.  Most writers just want to tell grandiose stories, but you'll be telling those stories from jail if you ignore the IRS.  Anything you sell is subject to their jurisdiction, so as unsexy as it might be, know it and abide by it.

Some will tell me that this post has nothing to do with writing, and those people are what we call "fools."  This is as much a part of what you do as editing.  None of this is easy, and it certainly isn't why we sat down at a computer to tell our stories, but nitnoid things like this are why many writers fail.  If you have at least a working knowledge of this before you begin, you start out ahead of 90% of your peers, and that can mean the world when trying to get off the ground.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Muse - Starts and Stops

She has relapsed.  My Muse, which had been gaining strength in recent weeks, has taken a step backwards.

"Can't you put forth a greater effort?" I implored.

"Can't you?" she replied.  "I was doing well and ready to make a full recovery during your trip, but you got lazy."

That stung...mostly because it had the ring of truth.  I was averaging over a thousand words a day and made plans to write 10,000 over a three day period during a business trip when I slipped up.

Anxious to deflect blame, I stammered, "Y-yeah, well you should been louder in my ear."

"I don't have that strength yet.  Two years ago, I'd have been right there with you, but after being forgotten for so long, I need you to make the effort.  Instead, you felt like you had to see the same Big Bang Theory episodes you've already watched seven times."

I wanted to argue more, but she was right.  My plane ride was six hours of boredom that I broke with the plane's inflight entertainment player.  And all the while, my laptop sat in the overhead bin.  Sure, I could've pointed out that I was in the middle seat on the way to Arizona, but that was just another excuse...the latest in a long line I've used for the last 18 month.

So I pulled up to my computer, adjusting the tightness of the seat as I sat, and hunched over the screen.  "David is starting to build momentum for his resistance group.  Are the people at the farm going to follow him to Ouachitta Lake?"

"Why do they need to go there?" she asked.

"I don't follow," I replied, genuinely perplexed.  "If he's going to create a worldwide movement capable of challenging the aliens' dominance over the planet, he needs people to follow him."

"True, but following doesn't always mean to a new location."  When she saw I still didn't understand, she continued, "He's at a farm that has shelter and food.  It's isolated, and the enemy isn't going to find him there for a while.  Why not build that as an initial base of support?"

I hadn't thought of that.  My plan had always been for him to get into the mountains and start hit and run attacks against Little Rock.

As if reading my thoughts, she said, "The mountains will make it harder for him to get to where he needs to go.  The farm, while off the main road, provides enough for him to get in and out.  Plus, the people at the farm are more likely to participate if they don't have to leave their home."

That made sense, so I belched out another 500 words about David convincing them to take in him and his three companions.  David brought weapons, and Danny provided shelter.  The enemy wasn't as aggressive now that they'd leveled everything around, so they had breathing room.  I wrestled with what to do with the next counterattack, but I knew the farm would provide intriguing possibilities for the rest of the story.

My Muse got up from her bed and brushed back my hair before whispering the next bit of dialogue in my ear.  It was good to have her back, but she still required care.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fixing Awful Writing

As many of us have, I've written some stuff that is truly terrible.  I think that's just a part of being a writer - we can't put out a masterpiece every time.  Many beginning writers are still growing into their craft, but even Stephen King lays an egg every once in a while.  Still, how many of us have gone back and really rewritten bad stuff?

One would think this is easier to do than what we wrestle with.  After all, how many of us have read a book or watched a movie and thought about how we could've improved on it?  That's the very essence of fan fiction.  If we can do it with someone else's work, why can't we do it with our own?

Maybe we're too close to what we've written.  I know that when I've puked out some horrible piece of writing, I want to put it away and forget about it.  However, perhaps all we need is distance.  The distance of time can give us perspective on how to fix an idea that once so enthralled us that we just had to write about it.

I've spoken many times about how I abandoned my first novelOn Freedom's Wings seemed like a bad Star Trek parody, complete with a Scot being the ship's Chief Engineer.  However, the overall idea - Earth isolating itself from the galaxy in the wake of victory in a centuries long war - still intrigues me.  Since I'm looking for a way to get back into Short Story Friday, maybe rewriting this piece of crap is the way to do it.  I can go back into it and post the results online.  I plan to start doing this beginning in April.

Bad work can be saved.  Many times I've read or watched something that had potential, only to be crushed by poor writing.  If nothing else, it'll give me an opportunity to grow as a writer by taking on this daunting task.  Hopefully y'all will provide me some feedback along the way.  The results should at least be entertaining.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Blog Hit Slowdown

Last year, my blog started hitting its stride.  I was getting, on average, about 500 hits per week beginning in late June, and I arrogantly thought it was only a matter of time before that became a daily occurrence.  Well, my hits and expectations have recently come back to Earth.

Don't get me wrong - I still average about 150-200 hits per week, but it's disappointing given the momentum I once had.  Therefore, I've spent considerable time thinking about what drove the traffic down, and I've come up with a few explanations.  These aren't lessons only for me, but I hope my fellow bloggers can take these observations to heart and find ways to apply them to their own blog.

First, I stopped writing short stories every week.  Looking back through the traffic, these stories were among the most widely viewed posts.  Even my bad short stories garnered hits.  In late November, I decided to abandon Short Story Friday.  Trying to produce quality work was throwing off my schedule, and I felt that much of what I put out was just plain awful.  I thought that readers would appreciate no longer seeing such drivel online.

That turned out to be a mistake.  Traffic dropped off immediately.  I should have known that folks like going to a writing blog to read stories, but the exhausting pace led me down the primrose path.  I don't know when I will be able to change this, but I'm going to find a way to reintroduce that aspect of the blog.

Second, I'm not commenting as much on other blogs.  Linking in my blog address to those comments brought at least some traffic as people who read what I said grew a little curious and dropped by.  The folks who did that were never going to be regular visitors, but they did increase traffic.  My hectic life has led to less time on the computer, and, thus, to less time on other blogs.  I wish I could find a way to reverse this, but that likely won't happen for several more months.

Speaking of events in several more months, a change in employment this coming summer caused me to delay the release of my first book by a year.  I think this may have given the impression I'm not serious about writing.  Nothing could be further from the truth - I delayed the release precisely because I wanted to give it the time necessary to do it right - but the casual observer could look at this and decide I'm all talk.  That in itself could lead to others seeking satisfaction elsewhere.

Finally, as an addendum to the blog commenting part, I'm not visiting online writing message boards as frequently.  I used to go at least once a week, and I always saw an uptick in traffic when I did.  By not going, I haven't been able to draw in potential readers.

All of this may seem like one big bitch session, but it's really more analysis than anything.  There are some aspects - like short stories and visiting message boards - that I have to find ways to fix.  Other  aspects will be more challenging.  I hope others will look at these things and remember that changes in the face of momentum can have negative affects on your work.  If only one person sees that, my work is successful.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Trademark Name Reminder

Going along with another recent post, I wanted to remind everyone about a reminder on trademarked names.  We all have a tendency to use specific brand names as generic names in our work, and until you go back through what you've written, you can easily overlook such.

I rediscovered this as I was going through Akeldama for what I thought were final edits.  I was already aware that I'd put in a few names, like a restaurant called Philippe The Original and the gun manufacturer Glock, but I didn't catch that I'd included a whole bunch of other brand names that I might've used in everyday conversation without realizing it.

(Incidentally, I received permission from both Philippe's and Glock to use their names)

You can use brand names under the Fair Use Doctrine if they refer to specific things and don't defame the company, but you can't use them generically.  For example, you can say that the cola you ordered is a Coke, but you can't say your characters are drinking coke when it's obviously a substitute term for soda(I'm from the South, and we do that all the time - "What kind of coke would you like?"  "Mountain Dew!").  Also, don't talk about a particular type of car blowing up due to faulty gas tanks or something since that would be seen as defamation, and it could come back to haunt you in court.

In short, get permission for everything - it's the safest approach.

That means you must be prepared for them to deny you permission.  The second chapter of Akeldama originally took place on a large Midwestern college campus, and the school gave me long as it didn't involve violence.  Well, Chapter 2 is the opening of the first big vampire attack, so I wrote them back to let them know, and they subsequently said I couldn't use the name.  It sucked, but I changed it to a more generic school so that I couldn't be sued for trademark infringement.  Additionally, there's a scene where the main character uses a common household disinfectant to spray on wounds of his torture subject in order to gain information, but the name, although nearly synonymous with this type of spray, was too specific, and a direct link would be seen as defamatory(even though everyone knows this is how it works).

There are a lot of gray areas where you might be able to get away with using a brand name, but it's best not to risk it.  If the name is that vital to your story, get permission first, but be prepared to find a way to use another.  Better to re-write a story than write a legal brief in court.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Making Stuff Up

As writers, we should want our stuff to be as realistic as possible within the worlds we create.  If your book is set in some place contemporary, it only makes sense that you base it in something easily verifiable.  In other words, you'll lose credibility if you write a novel set in New York and talked about how the Smithsonian is there.

However, there comes a point at which you have to ask just how much your commitment to reality needs to be.  I do a decent amount of research into the places my characters run around in, but sometimes the terrain doesn't match the plot, or the technology doesn't quite do what I need it to do.  That's when I take a stab and try to sound smarter than I am.

Let's say your novel is set in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Most folks might know that Bank Of America Stadium, home to the NFL's Carolina Panthers, is there.  However, does anyone know, or even care, that Sardis Road turns into Fairview somewhere near the old Calvary Church?  How many people really give a shit what the correct thrust to weight ratio for the Space Shuttle to achieve liftoff is?

The point is that there are times you might have to bend things a little...and that's okay.  As long as you don't go wildly overboard, no one will care.  I remember when I read Tom Clancy's book Executive Orders, he went into some detail about the terrain at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, and he got some of it wrong.  I've been to that god-awful desert, and some of what he wrote isn't at all accurate, but who cares?  Does anyone outside of myself and a small group of friends know that?  Will they ever know that?  Does it damage the book in an irreparable way?

Harry Turtledove wrote in the afterword of Guns of the South that sometimes geography has to bend to an author's narrative.  Remember, it's your task to shape this world.  Don't fret over the small stuff.  If you have to change a minor detail, no one but a very few are even going to notice, mostly because most folks are more involved with their own lives.  The majority are never going to go to Lincoln, Nebraska or work on the engine of a Lamborghini, so if there needs to be some level of fudging so that the story is better served, go for it.  Realism is important, but so is the story.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

First Ten Pages?

I subscribe to a number of writing sites.  Some promote indie publishing, while others simply promote writing in general.  As such, many of them send out notices regarding upcoming material or special offers.

It's in this vein that I often get emails telling me that I can submit the first ten pages of a book I've written and a REAL LIVE AGENT(!!!!) will read them and give me feedback.  I'm as into getting feedback as anyone, probably more so, but this strikes me as hubris beyond the pale.  Yes, many wannabe writers will give in to this charade, but it strikes me as that kid in class who raised his hand and danced around so much so he would be called on.

Let's start with a major hole in most of these "offers" - who's to say that the agent reading your first ten pages even specializes in the genre you're writing?  Some people - we'll call them idiots - try to tell you that a well written story is easy to glean no matter what the subject matter.  Sorry, but that's bullshit.  Science fiction has a completely different tone than a romance novel, and a murder mystery starts differently than a horror book.  A person who specializes in something different than what you want feedback on is going to give you feedback that'll take you in the wrong direction.

Next, have you seen who most of these wonderful agents are that are offering these critiques?  The more established agents, the ones with so many clients they don't know what to do with themselves, aren't getting involved.  In fact, most of these gracious people are newbies looking for clients, and, like newly published writers, are trying desperately to get their names out there.  The only thing is that they're disguising it as altruism rather than branding.  Those I've seen look like they've been out of college all of six months, and they know about as much about life experience as any kid who just moved out of mom and dad's and now wants to look cool to his or her friends.  Sorry - not buying it.

Finally, there's the arrogance of it all.  It's no secret that I've come to despise the elitist clique of agents since I first delved into this world, and solicitation emails like this simply reinforce that impression.  The general gist seems to be, "Little peon, I'll do you the honor of glancing at your first ten pages and giving you feedback, and if you do a good enough job, maybe I'll let you hire me."  It, once again, shows that most agents don't get that they work for the writer, not the publisher.  If you haven't personally published and/or done well in sales to the public, why would I care what your so-called professional opinion is?  Let me give my first ten pages to someone like Hugh Howey or JA Konrath for feedback, and then you'd have my interest.  Soliciting for Joe Nobody or Jane Iveneverheardofher just shows how little you understand what makes good writing or good business.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Picture Reminder

I wanted to offer a reminder to all that simply downloading pictures you like from the internet and posting them on your blog is not a good idea.  I did a post on this a couple of years ago, but some of what I've seen recently makes me think a reminder is in order.

Unless you've taken the picture yourself, or you've obtained written permission, that photo doesn't belong to you, and it can cost you money.  Whether you intended to use it for profit or not, the original artist can demand payment on your usage, and they'll win.  Courts have consistently sided with original artists.  Most of us don't have several thousand dollars sitting around to pay off judgments, so best not to risk it.

I fell into this trap when this blog first started, but since becoming aware of the pitfalls, I promptly removed every photo I didn't take or didn't get permission for(I got that permission for the authors I've interviewed).  I still use photos, but they're ones I've taken, and,  quite frankly, I'm lazy(another reason it's easy to steal from the internet sometimes).

Better to go without than risk a judgment against you.  The monetary losses aren't worth the chuckle you'd get over some snarky picture about babies in cowboy outfits.
(She's got an ego that will easily grow into that hat)

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Perpetual Blog Deadlines

I have a confession to make - I came within a hair's breadth of not posting tonight.  A mild headache and a late day at work made me wonder if I should just let it go.  Not only would it delay bedtime, but it would also be a crappy product.  After all, it's not like anyone pays for this, and the world would keep turning if I missed one night.

As you can tell, I pushed past that, but it got me thinking about the blogging deadlines I impose on myself.  I usually write the week's posts in advance, on Sunday, but I occasionally can only get in one post and have to get to the rest later in the week(like now).  Perhaps it's because it's too late and the girls are keeping me occupied, but whatever the reason, it leads me to a perpetual deadline panic as the week moves along.  I try to tell myself on Sunday that I'll do the rest the next day, but it never seems to work out.

It also got me thinking about my Sunday posts.  Doing them the day before they begin makes timing crucial.  If something comes up, I'm certain to miss one.  I've got to find a way to give myself at least one more day of cushion.

Ideally, I'd do a month or so in advance.  Come this summer, I'm going to have to do that if I want to keep up the three-times-a-week schedule I've been putting in since my transit to another nation, as well as the uncertainty of instant internet connection, makes the posting schedule fuzzy at best.  I've got no choice but to get ahead or the blog might go dark, as it did in April of 2012, and I really don't want that to happen.

I'm hopeful that once I get ahead, I can stay ahead.  Sure, breaking news, like Mike Shatzin giving a full throated defense of the cartel-like behavior of traditional publishers, will merit immediate posts, but most of my stuff is less related to the news.

No matter what the flow of the blog, I've got to find a way out of this deadline panic.

Sunday, February 1, 2015


Author Barry Eisler has been in the forefront of promoting indie publishing.  As such, he was recently at a conference contending that the Big Five traditional publishers were, in fact, a cartel.  Mike Shatzin over at Idealog took objection to this in a long winded post where he did everything but refute Eisler's basic premise.

Let's first look at the definition of a cartel. defines as cartel as "an international syndicate, combine, or trust formed especially to regulate prices and output in some field of business."  By this definition, Shatzin is correct...but only technically so.

Let's get out of the way that the Big Five traditional publishers are not a cartel.  First, they are technically domestic firms and not international ones, although they operate in an international sphere.  Since they're based in the US, I suppose one could say they're not international by the most pure definition of the word.  Second, they haven't contractually obligated themselves to each other in any formal manner.  So yes, by that legal definition, they're not a cartel.

In practice, however, they're a cartel in every practical application of the word.

To start with, there has indeed been collusion between them.  They were taken to court by the DOJ - all of them - when it was discovered that they were conspiring with Apple to artificially inflate the price of ebooks.  They colluded.  They broke the law by fixing the market so that no one could or would offer lower ebook prices.  The reasons for this are manifold, but the end result is the same - they unfairly came together to hamper market competition.

Additionally, there are the stark and nearly uniform royalty rates, as well as payment rates.  Royalties are paid every six months by the Big Five, and this is almost without exception.  Standard royalty rates are fixed for new entrants in hardcover editions rarely exceed 15%.  Then there are the non-compete clauses that every publisher tries to use so that writers cannot put food on the table publish too many books at the same time.  These features are standard for every major publisher.

Let that sink in for a moment.  Every.  One.

The defense is that they don't collude over this.  There's a reason they don't collude - they don't need to.  There's an unspoken agreement over this amongst the publishers.  The supposed standards of the industry serve to regulate prices and output in publishing, and no one violates these for fear of backlash and sparking a publishing war...or as we who've studied business like to call it, that whole "market economy" thing.

The consolidation of the major publishing houses has created a de facto cartel.  Thirty years ago, there were dozens of houses.  There are now five that matter.  Sure, some smaller presses are out there, but they're mostly niche creations that can't compete on the larger stage with folks like Hachette and Simon & Schuster.

Much like OPEC, what the Big Five fear is real competition, which is why Amazon gives them the willies.  The Big Five have a nice cozy relationship, and essentially an oligarchy that they control, so anyone horning in on their market threatens their market share.  This causes collusion over ebook prices, mostly to prop up hardcover novels, analogous to OPEC flooding the market with oil to prevent alternate methods of extraction which are, at present, too pricey at lower market value.

The only way presently to overcome this is the indie market.  Hopefully, someday, a new major house will come along that can truly threaten this cartel-like hold on the market the Big Five hold, but that will take both time and luck.  The Big Five have the resources to squeeze out any new competition that is organized, which is why the chaotic approach of indie is the best way at the moment.  They can't pick off a million smaller pieces of competition.

It's up to us to change the market, and the only way to break the power of the cartel is to refuse to do business with them.  One writer makes no difference; thousands of us can bring them down and free the market, putting more profits in the hands of writers and less in the hands of publishers who use our work to enrich themselves.