Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Fake news and misleading stats…

Thursday, February 23rd, 2017

Hmm…LinkedIn? Now that Microsoft owns them, you have to wonder what they’re using that website for beyond ads. They’re certainly discouraging discussion groups, my favorite feature, but for what reason? Maybe they realize they can’t compete with Google or Facebook—the former makes a major portion of its profit from ads, although Google+ is weak compared to both in discussions, and the latter is trying to catch up with the ads but lights up with discussions.

They all have fake news. Should we also call misleading stats that appear on all of these fake news? Stats are rarely “clean.” First, authors of articles using them often leave out the hypotheses and description of how the dataset was collected and processed. Second, they often jump to conclusions based on biased sampling techniques. Third, the author of the article can choose, and often does, only those stats that support her or his opinion. It’s all a bit like the Bible: you can find stuff there that will support any position if you look for it.

Yep, many articles quoting stats are fake news if not downright lies. Here’s a recent example that occurred on LinkedIn. The author of a post was probably an innocent victim, but she provided a link to an article about a Nielsen report that gives stats showing ebooks are in decline. Do you follow links like this? It can be dangerous because the link might allow a virus or other malware to invade your laptop or smart phone. Your best bet is to go to the original site if it looks OK and read the article. That said, I read the entire Nielsen report.

But more on Microsoft’s LinkedIn for a moment. I’ve never found much use for it. I have a lot of connections. A lot of them are good people who seem to think I’m someone useful to connect with. Me, the introverted fiction writer? The shy fellow who will never do blog radio and is uncomfortable at any event where I have to appear in person and participate in one-on-one conversations? (I taught large lecture classes at one time, but there is a certain anonymity in that situation that made them easier for me. First days were scary in any class, though—and I was the professor!)


The missing romance?

Tuesday, February 14th, 2017

Valentine’s Day is here. For the last month I’ve been receiving emails from 1-800-FLOWERS, book offers for romance and erotica books, restaurants with special prix fixe menus for a romantic dinner, and so forth. Romance sells in the commercial world—or businesses think it does, at least. I continuously reevaluate my writing career, so maybe it’s time to ask myself, am I doing a disservice to readers? Should I include more romance?

I’ll have to admit that I’ve never used the genre label romance or erotica for any of my stories and never used those labels as keywords either (genres are just keywords, of course). Such labels should help the reader decide what’s emphasized in a story, so I’d be misleading readers by saying a story is a romance. My stories are about human beings, though, so romance is included—it’s a part of being human, either by participating in it, lacking it, or choosing to avoid it. In the wide spectrum of human behavior, romance plays an important role. I include it; I just don’t emphasize it. That’s a choice I’ve made. I won’t apologize for it.

One reviewer of Teeter-Totter between Lust and Murder (#3 in the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series”) complained that the title was deceiving—he was looking for more lust! Sexual lust is related to romance, of course, and Detective Chen felt both for her senator-lover in that story. “Sex games” was the SWAT team leader’s description of the murder scene where they found her with the senator’s body. What happens from thereon doesn’t have much lust or romance, so the reviewer was correct in a sense, but Chen’s lack of romance in her life and her search for it is still about romance—and that was a theme.

I generally put romance into my stories only if it fits—I’ve never sat down at my laptop saying, “I’m going to write a romantic tale today.” I don’t write romances, and I rarely read a story if that’s all it’s about. It’s not that I don’t think romance is important to human beings; it is. I’m just more interested in the rest of the plot and how it leads to romance…or destroys it. Somehow we’ve evolved to be the extreme sexual activists of the animal world. We’ve even tried to sanctify that sexuality to move beyond the obvious evidence that human beings are a randy bunch. We also sanitize it by calling it romance.


Pride in our writing…

Thursday, February 9th, 2017

It’s often interesting to do some soul-searching. Why do we write? We all take pride in what we write. Or just call it satisfaction after spinning a good yarn. (I’m obviously talking about fiction, but you can extrapolate to your circumstances.) Some people, even readers, might think that our pride or satisfaction makes us narcissists. Admittedly some writers carry that pride a wee bit too far.

I can see it in some blurbs or descriptions of books. Here’s a recent one: “Compelling! Provacative! Informative!” There are worse: “Sure to be a bestseller!” Or “Author Hits a Home Run!” The rest of the blurb might actually provide some information, and maybe they were written by PR personnel with an acute case of superlativitis, but if they were written by an author, narcissism might be indicated.

I’ve seen it in book fairs. Authors full of themselves extolling the virtues of their writing. Authors reading from their magnum opus in a boring monotone, offering a cure for insomnia instead of perceptions about their book, including its important themes. Worst case: authors reading for their own audiobooks! Next worse case: authors in love with the pronouns I, me, and mine in book trailers (at least Patterson seems to avoid that). I’ve also seen great humility. Being humble is a virtue. Nowadays there are many good books and good writers. I feel lucky some reader chooses to read one of mine.

Some creative people want to put themselves on a pedestal so that other mere mortals can worship them and bask in the light of their self-defined genius. Of course, non-creative people do that too (we even have a president who’s a narcissist—if that were his only sin!). It’s all about ego. While some feeling of self-worth is better than depression and suicidal tendencies, a balance must be struck. Relating to other people is a skill many of us lack now (including the U.S. president), but huge ego trips don’t help.

If you’re writing for self-aggrandizement, don’t. In fact, if you’re writing for any other reason than love of writing, your motivation is ill-conceived. Odds are you won’t have a bestseller, but you’ll maybe have a few readers who are fans. Odds are you won’t hit a home run in Yankee Stadium with your book either, but you might with your after-work softball team. (I’m guessing it has to be a print version if you swat at the ball with a book—hey, baseball season is almost upon us!)


Zero-content fiction…

Thursday, February 2nd, 2017

Some readers think I’m too “political” in my fiction. This often needs a translation. What many of them mean is that I treat uncomfortable themes. Whether mystery, thriller, sci-fi, or some combination, there’s usually one or two themes, from spousal abuse to sexual perversion (child porn, etc), from corporate excesses to the ravages produced by inadequate medical coverage. I’ll go out on a limb here and state this is why subgenres like cozy mysteries, bodice rippers, historical fiction, and fantasy are so popular. Readers can read about good v. evil without really confronting the evil in their everyday lives while extolling cardboard Dudley Dorights (hmm, that really dates me) who surpass all odds and save the day.

In other words, some readers want zero-content fiction—murders committed with no rhyme or reason by murderers who are simply bad, neo-Victorian visions of sexual relationships, twisted and romantic versions of past history, and princes and princesses jousting with their enemies with swords or blasters. A good time is had by all, as they say. Some authors, realizing this is the market they’re faced with, pamper and addict such readers to this fluff.

I’m not saying there isn’t strife in the fluff. I’m saying that the reader can distance herself from it because it seems far from her everyday reality. (I’m not implying that these readers are necessarily female, by the way. There’s no gender-neutral version of herself and himself in English, so I use the former to avoid repetition.)


Biographies, histories, and memoirs…

Thursday, January 26th, 2017

All good ones avoid the spoiler-alert phenomenon when the reader already knows the real-world facts about what went on. That they are non-fiction doesn’t matter—they still have to be an interesting story to maintain my attention. Pages and pages of droll facts cause me to skip just as much as excess world-building in a sci-fi novel or excess narrative in a mystery (those are often the same thing). And I really don’t want a freak show like famous person X having a two-headed cousin who married an orangutan.

As a fiction writer, you might think I just read fiction in the genres I write—mystery, thriller, and sci-fi, and their combinations. Or, you might think I just read any genere fiction. You’d be wrong. For example, because I once was a scientist, I can read technical books—I still peek inside them occasionally. They’re often filled with history too. I once owned a three-volume work on spread spectrum techniques (advanced communications theory). As a reference, I’d skip around in it—funny how technical writers think they’re organized when they’re not. But I thoroughly enjoyed the introductory part that considered the history where I was reminded that the idea first appeared in a Theodore Sturgeon sci-fi short story (yes, the same guy who coined Sturgeon’s Law) and that Hedy Lamarr, the actress, did research on it during the war.

OK, I don’t read technical books for fun per se, and never did, although I’m quick to say some are more fun than others. But I’ll read a good biography, history, and memoir for fun…and maybe never finish it if it isn’t entertaining in some way. A good biography gets into a person’s mind and ferrets out the reasons for her or his actions. That’s especially true of an autobiography. I avoid Hollywood and other celebs’ like a plague, though. Most don’t say anything of interest compared to Churchill and Eisenhower (two bios I read last year) or propose anything that will better people’s lives (like Bernie Sander’s Our Revolution). Scientists are particularly bad at autobiographies—your best bet is to read their biographies (I just finished one about Fermi).


Book reading and literacy…

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

There are plenty of stats out there that show readership—do I dare say literacy?—is down. Many people don’t read a book after high school. Many don’t read one after college. While online material keeps increasing, Facebook posts and Twitter tweets are now read more than blog posts, and the latter, like this one, can’t be called literature by any stretch and Facebook and Twitter might as well be mutterings from prehistoric shamans. What’s going on?

As might be expected, I tend to communicate, especially online, with literate people. OK, maybe they suck at spelling, or they allow auto-correct to change things to something they never intended, but they can put thoughts together intelligently on the printed page and make sense of mine. And we tend to talk about books a lot—reading, writing, reviewing, marketing, whatever. All this activity tends to bias my perspective, so I had to base the opinions in that first paragraph on real stats (that happens with a lot of my posts, by the way, although many of them are op-ed and therefore my opinions). Those stats confirm that we’re becoming a nation of non-readers no matter the anecdotal experiences people tell me about.

Computer games, streaming video, mind-numbing jobs, a flawed educational system that makes students hate reading, music downloads, sporting events, liquor and drugs—you can probably add to this list other distractions that can all be summarized by saying that literacy is attacked on many fronts. Moreover, the substitutes are often passive pastimes, not active and certainly not creative. Even the reading genres have become trivialized—mysteries have become cozies, romantic adventures have become plotless bodice rippers, sci-fi has become fantastic and unscientific space opera, and serious historical and political tomes have become celeb books written by ghostwriters.

The number of books and authors is increasing in the digital age, but is quality decreasing? I don’t think so, but, because there are fewer readers, even good books and authors go unread. There has always been chaff that an erstwhile reader had to separate from the good wheat, of course. Before it was just created by traditional publishing; now it’s also created by indie authors and indie publishers. But does it matter? If there are so few real readers, people who read more than N books per year (you pick N) and read quality material, literacy in America and the rest of the world will suffer. That seems to be the path we’re going down.


Zines and short stories…

Thursday, January 12th, 2017

Whether traditional ones (Ellory Queen and Fantasy and Science Fiction are examples) or online ezines (eFiction is an example), have become as bad as many Big Five book publishers. The “good ones” that remain (many have died or will die) have editorial boards who waste authors’ time by requesting contributions they reject (for many reasons, but usually summarized by observing the zine is in a incestuous rut or simply a club of writers publishing their own stuff) and pay peanuts for royalties when they don’t (no one can live on what they pay). The bad ones are just bad. No wonder the grand tradition of short story writing is going the way of the dinosaurs.

Generally small presses that are more open than the Big Five to new voices and original stories at the novel level rarely risk publishing anthologies or short story collections. There are authors who prefer the short story form and there are authors like me who start a story without knowing whether it will be a short story, novella, or novel. While it’s an interesting question whether readers still enjoy short stories (readers are a disappearing species too), zines, anthologies, and collections have fewer readers with every year that passes. Add to that the fact that fewer authors want to waste their time with the editorial circus for a short story and you have a vicious circle that’s closing in and will disappear into a singularity of nothingness.


2017 challenges…

Thursday, December 29th, 2016

New Year’s resolutions never work for me. I have the same problem most people have: making them impossible to keep. This is the time everyone reassesses their goals and priorities, though, so I’ll jump on that bandwagon. Although I do that continuously, and make choices I often follow to completion, sometimes to my detriment, call this my writing plan for 2017. (Don’t writing gurus tell you to always have one, and that will guarantee you a bestseller?)

First, I want to do a bit more socializing on the internet. I’ll confess I get lost in my writing and forget about Goodreads (GR), my favorite social media site, and Facebook (FB), where I mostly post small things on my author page, hopefully of universal appeal to readers and writers. I’ve adapted to the censorship on LinkedIn (LI) a bit more and hope to start participating in their writing business-related discussion groups again, even though I get spammed with everything from writing job offers to guarantees from some geek that s/he can make this blog the most read on the internet! I don’t socialize much anymore, so social media seems the way to go in order to meet interesting people.

You might have noticed that I’ve been writing a lot more short stories recently. I went through a period where most story ideas turned into novels. I like the short story and novella format, though, so, instead of leaving them hidden (and often unfinished) on my hard drives, the second part of my 2017 plan is to either post them to this blog or send them off to ezines (where they might languish too, but that’s fate). The few remaining magazines (Ellory Queen, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and so forth) just aren’t worth my time or trouble (and the editors have always seemed like clones of Robert Goodell).


From 2016 to 2017…

Thursday, December 22nd, 2016

First of all, to all readers, thank you for reading! A love of books is one of the foundations of freedom; access to books is another. (Read Fahrenheit 451 for the proof.) If you’ve had occasion to read some of my works, a double thank you. I am honored and humbled that you’ve done so because I know you have many books to choose from. It’s a readers’ world! If you ever have questions for me, use the contact page—I’ll answer them to the best of my ability. For a quick summary, I can’t say 2016 was a resounding success, but there were more pluses than minuses, so I’m hopeful for 2017. Here’s a longer summary:

If it seems I’ve slowed down in 2016, you’ve missed some material, and a lot of it is free! I have three novels waiting in the wings off-stage left for 2017, but while we (my publishers and I) wait I’ve been busy with short stories and novellas, all free, either in my blog category “Steve’s Shorts” or as PDFs free for the asking. I’m currently working on a YA sci-fi mystery. I’ve also been busy with older books in my catalog.

Rogue Planet was the only new novel in 2016; it was published at the beginning of the year. But the second edition of The Midas Bomb was published about this time last year (2015). Both of these books have paper editions that sold like hotcakes at a recent holiday crafts show. The three novels waiting in the wings are Gaia and the Goliaths, Rembrandt’s Angel, and Oasis Redux.  You can read the blurbs for the first two already published books on Amazon or Smashwords. Let me give you teasers for the last three.


Futuristic technology…

Thursday, December 15th, 2016

As a sometimes sci-fi writer, I’m always at a quandary about how many gadgets and technologies I should add to my stories. (The “sometimes” is an admission—sci-fi aficionados probably wouldn’t consider me a “purist” because I write mystery, suspense, and thriller novels too, sometimes combining the sci-fi with those genres. Genres are just keywords to describe storytelling, after all.) When author friend John Hohn (he wrote the entertaining novels Deadly Portfolio and Breached) posted on Facebook about his struggle with fixing up things around the house (one of many frustrations we share), the comment suggested this post about futuristic technology.

Ever watch an old Star Trek episode recently? That sixties show tried to make things futuristic with flashing lights and other gimmickry (some flunky would slide open or shut an Enterprise door and a whooshing side would be played, for example). The usual quality of the episodes aside (real sci-fi stories for the most part, not like episodes in the sequel-series written by screenwriters with no sci-fi credits and generally poor writing skills), the Star Trek gimmickry seems laughable today. But there were a few prescient ones, like the communicator, today’s smartphone, essentially a handheld computer that just happens to be a com device too. That said, the laughable part shows the danger of being too futuristic about your imagined devices.