Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Book stats…

Thursday, May 25th, 2017

Book stats are hard to come by, harder to organize in a meaningful way so we don’t compare apples and oranges, and even harder to use to predict where the industry is going. Online retailers like Amazon and the Big Five publishers covet their data. Professionals in the industry pretend to know what they’re talking about, but making sense out of the current status of the publishing industry is a nearly impossible task, especially for a single writer trying to understand it and what goes on with her or his books.

Part of the problem is that there are many books published now. More than 700,000 indie books were self-published in 2015; more than 300,000 traditional books were traditionally published in 2013 (Bowker Report). There are so many on the market that the average reader can’t keep up with what’s available, let alone try to read some. There are many good books and good authors; there are many authors who shouldn’t have bothered to write their books. The average reader is faced with a sea of books, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and has neither the tools nor the time to select those that rise above the average sea level.

Some readers rely on friends and family, but they can mislead you as much as a stranger. Others choose books that have won awards, but they can be boring tomes of literary fiction that go nowhere. In fact, books receiving prestigious awards often don’t sell many copies. Man Booker winner Anne Enright, sold only 9000 copies in the U.K. of a recent book. (Maybe a few others like me don’t like literary fiction and think it’s the trash can of all the genres?) The old saw that winning an award leads to more book sales could be wrong.

Writers, agents, and editors aren’t often forthcoming about these stats, or, if they are, it’s to discourage new writers because there is an oversupply of good ones. Incompetent agents pretend they know what will become a bestseller—if a ball player had the low batting average they have, though, he’d be in the minor leagues. That takes us to a topic that is so uncomfortable to some writers that a group banned me because I had the audacity to say it: no one likes to admit that there’s luck involved, and too many propagate the myth that a writer without a successful book is NOT a good writer. The afore-mentioned prizes show that’s not true. Having a successful book is like winning the lottery, and it doesn’t matter whether you are indie or traditionally published—just ask Mark Weir (The Martian) and Hugh Howey (Wool).

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Characters, actors, and minimalist writing…

Thursday, May 18th, 2017

By the first, I mean literary characters: Hercule Poirot, James Bond, or Jack Reacher, for example. By the second, I mean actors who portray them: David Suchet, Sean Connery, and Tom Cruise, for example. Same goes for female characters: Eliza Doolittle and Queen Elizabeth, for example, and the actors Julie Andrews and Hellen Mirren. Note that I am listing those actors I identify with the characters, the ones that stick in my mind.

Having read both Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming before seeing movies made or inspired from their books, it’s a wee bit unusual that when I saw Suchet as Poirot or Connery as Bond on the silver screen, they matched my mental images of the characters. Same for Hellen Mirren as the Queen, although the latter, already larger-than-life and still quite a character, was never a main character in any book I ever read. The movie version of Doolittle was Audrey Hepburn—she never matched my image of Eliza because I developed that by reading Pygmalion, much more a commentary about British aristocracy than My Fair Lady. Cruise as Reacher didn’t match my mental image at all, and probably represents the worst error in casting ever made (Cruise could play a pilot in Top Gun because he’s short; why did they choose him to act the part of the six-six Jack Reacher?).

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Rembrandt’s Angel…

Thursday, May 11th, 2017

I have fun writing…and that goes far beyond making money at it (which I don’t). I also have fun reading. By the time I finished junior high (7th and 8th grade in California, part of middle school in the Northeast), I’d read all the sci-fi, mystery, and adventure novels in our public library (for the most part, “adventure novels” later became “thrillers”). But I soon had an immodest epiphany: I could write this stuff too, which would be doubly entertaining (“immodest” because a lot of people determine the quality of a novel by how well it sells—I don’t; I’ve read many excellent and entertaining books that don’t sell well, and find many of them better than what the Big Five, B&N book barns, and the NY Times have to offer).

Thus began a lifetime of collecting story ideas, possible settings, themes to weave in and around plots, and character descriptions. Anyone reading this post has ample evidence of that. I’ve never had writer’s block, all my ideas are original ones, and still find writing a great deal of fun.

My most recent novel, Rembrandt’s Angel, to be released this spring by Penmore Press, isn’t just the next book, though. So far it’s the one where I’ve had the most fun writing it.  Before I go into why, let me describe the book a bit more. (Note: You won’t find a pre-release excerpt in the corresponding blog category; that’s up to Penmore Press. But I want to tell you a bit of confidential stuff about the book. You’ll only see it here.)

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Complexity and story forms…

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

Fiction writers have their comfort zones. Some love to write long novels; at the other extreme, others prefer short stories. A return to oral tradition like in the Moth Movement emphasizes the latter, but normal fiction that communicates via the written word comes in all sizes. There are constraints imposed by all story forms too, but authors’ comfort zones are just as often evident as they are hidden.

One reason that I refuse to use Twitter is that I can rarely communicate anything without thinking about it and almost invariably that process leads to more than 140 characters. (Many Twitter users’ tweets are knee-jerk reactions without much thought added—our president’s tweets are good examples.) I find a 3K word limit for a short story constraining, but a 10K limit not so much.

The key to my preferences is complexity, and I bet that’s true with many authors. I never start a story with its length pre-determined—it could turn out to be a short story, novella, or novel. And the final choice is easy: complexity leads to more words, even if I’m a minimalist writer. Short stories cannot be complex, although they can contain a complex theme—gun control or spousal abuse, for example. Novels are usually complex and contain a number of complex themes…or they should if they’re worth much.

Damon Knight, like many sci-fi writers, published a lot of short stories. His short, “To Serve Man,” was a famous Twilight Zone episode (you can catch those classic b&w half-hour episodes on several cable channels). He also wrote Creating Short Fiction (the third edition is on my reference shelf), a particularly good guide on how to write short stories. Phillip K. Dick was another master of the sci-fi short story form. His shorts and novellas were discovered by Hollywood and turned into movies.

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Old v. new mysteries…

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

I’m finishing another P. D. James’ mystery, A Certain Justice (Adam Dalgliesh #10); some Big Five subsidiary has decided to make more money by (finally!) releasing the James’ mysteries in inexpensive ebook editions. I’m not proud—if I missed it, I’ll buy it, if it meets my less-than-$5 criterion for ebooks!

The first part was tedious enough that it set me thinking: there’s a big difference between the “classic” and modern mystery writers—at least in what I’ve read. James’ book spends the entire first part in what today would be called back story—tediously describing both the victim and the suspects. Dalgliesh doesn’t appear until Part Two, and I’m now enjoying the novel as he and his squad do their sleuthing.

There are several differences between old and new mysteries. The first is general and can be described as reflecting the difference between American and British writers: the old novelists weren’t minimalists. Hammett, Chandler, and other American writers were minimalist writers—often called “hard-boiled” in the mystery literature. The idea is to get the reader involved early on, keeping descriptive narrative to a minimum by letting the reader participate in the creative process, letting him or her form their own mental images with only a few prompts from the writer. Dialogue is kept to a minimum too, becoming brisk and to the point.

Both Christie and James are almost the antithesis of minimalist, James more so than Christie. The old minimalists wrote “pulp fiction,” a derogatory term; the non-minimalists wrote “literary fiction” that happened to be mystery stories (of course, I consider literary fiction to be an absurd genre, if we can even call it that). Minimalists aren’t verbose; non-minimalists often are. I’m not saying the latter’s stories aren’t good—I just find myself skipping over pages and pages of verbose description when reading them. Minimalists are more journalistic; non-minimalists are the pride and joy of MFA writing programs. I don’t want a lot of description and ancillary background when I read fiction—it gets in the way of the story. Of course, that makes my reading of the classics a bit inefficient and stressful, becomes sometimes I miss a key clue in all that background verbosity and have to return to it—definitely not a good thing for speed readers! (A minimalist author could be defined as one who’s nice to speed readers.)

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A writing life…

Thursday, April 20th, 2017

I love to write. I love being entertained by a good fiction story; I love to write them. I read non-fiction as well, although I don’t write it (exceptions considered below). I can’t say I’m a successful author—that’s like winning the lottery, in spite of what marketing gurus and many successful authors say—but that doesn’t stop me from writing. I always wanted to do it, collected story ideas for years, and now am producing many stories that I hope entertain some people. My father was of Irish descent, so maybe it’s just the blarney in me, but spinning a good yarn is about the most rewarding thing I do these days.

Success with one book often leads to other successes, of course. Nowadays, with so many good books and good authors, the likelihood of winning the lottery with a successful book is small. Add to that the declining readership—there are too many distractions for the internet generations like social media, computer games, and streaming video—and I have to wonder whether any of my books will “take off” and become popular. I don’t particularly care because I love to write. Perhaps immodestly, I believe my short stories and novels are just as good as anyone’s, but a lack of success won’t stop me.

In these posts on writing, I have written about plots and themes. Themes can weave around and through a good plot and make it into a great one by adding to the entertainment readers derive from a novel material that informs and makes them think. Again, because there exist other distractions which are largely passive, I recognize that some readers will rebel against meaningful themes. But does good entertainment imply no serious themes? The novels I like to read the most have themes; my own also have them. Because I can’t write a story without some ancillary theme, maybe that keeps my books from being successful. I don’t know, and I repeat: I don’t much care.

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Colons, commas, and all that…

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

In these days of acronymic texting and tweets, good praxis for spelling and grammar seems nonexistent. If my old teachers could see what’s going on, though, they’d be aghast or bewildered and think it was all some kind of code. They knew the rules, and even those who weren’t directly involved in teaching their students how to write and speak English would knock off points on a term paper if you didn’t obey them.

Many authors rebelled against this straitjacket of arcane rules, bending them for “literary effect” and perhaps a bit of revenge. That process still continues today. Punctuation has become one of the many victims on the literary crime scene, most of the time only criminal because arcane rules aren’t followed.

Before I do forensics on the punctuation crime scene, let me begin by stating up front there never was just one set of rules. Chaos reigned because there are many “manuals of style,” so many that professors would often announce that the term paper for the class must follow X manual of style. I can even imagine pedantic organizers of a new MFA program debating which one to use and how to enforce it.

Trying to control the evolution and use of language is like trying to juggle globs of oatmeal mixed with gelatin. Good luck! The French invented l’Academie to keep their language pure, for example, but I once knew a very educated Frenchman who insisted that “le weekend” was French and Americans had stolen the word. (The Spanish are more purist, using “el fin de semana,” which works in French too, of course, but is a wee bit longer—now wonder the French use the American word.) Changes creep into languages all the time “On the level” is ubiquitously used in English to mean something is correct, but it came into the language from the Freemason, who weren’t just masons, of course (Mozart was a Freemason).

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Free and responsible journalism…

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

I’ve always admired journalists. The good ones far outnumber those paparazzi and in-your-face reporters. They are maligned and persecuted even in democracies, and we all know what can befall them in regions of the world where despots and fanatics know the power of a free press and try to stop it at all costs. Many journalists, real or fiction, were childhood heroes of mine, and in my books the reader will find journalists of all kinds as principal characters (in my first book, Full Medical, ezine reporter Jay Sandoval helps bring down a government conspiracy; in the “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series,” Pam Stuart, Castilblanco’s wife, is a TV reporter often involved in her husband’s adventures; and in The Golden Years of Virginia Morgan, an investigative reporter plays a major role in toppling another conspiracy).

A free press is absolutely essential if a country wants to call itself democratic. “Free” means independent of government control. The concept is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Along with the independent executive, legislative, and judicial sections of government (with X systems, some of the first two overlap), one has four strong legs that lift up and provide a solid foundation. The first signs of a democracy coming apart, no matter how the despots spin it, can be found when any of these legs begin to crack. For example, Venezuela no longer has an independent press, legislature, or judiciary—the “president” is becoming yet another South American strong man. We have watched the process in Russia progressively worsen as the despot Putin consolidated his power. Many of Putin’s victims are, in fact, journalists.

It’s therefore no surprise that a despotic-minded Trump is attacking the press. As in 1930’s Germany, Bannon, Conway, Miller, and Spicer help engineer this attack—a formidable and evil quartet. Because a free press is involved with the control and flow of information in order to maintain an informed citizenry, also essential for a democracy, distortion of information and attacks on the free press are par for the course. Narcissus le Grand and his minions spend lots of time battling the press, spinning and manipulating information, and creating false information. As Goebbels well knew, and Putin and other modern despots know, tyrants can often win their despotic battles against the citizenry without guns or violence. A psychological coup d’etat can be just as effective if the citizenry accepts the version of news propagated by the government. This was a major theme in Orwell’s 1984, but that book was fiction—Putin and Trump are real despots, not fictional ones, and their techniques have been considerably by the march of technology, which despots can use as well as anyone else, if not more so.

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Pseudo-science and science in science fiction…

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

I loved those original Star Trek episodes because the best were based on sci-fi stories written by seasoned sci-fi writers, ones like Theodore Sturgeon and Harlan Ellison. They were often morality plays too, that is, good stories with some important themes mixed in. (Who could forget the message that racial prejudice is just plain stupid in the classic episode about the two black-and-white guys fighting on and on, one black on the left and white on the right, the other just the opposite?) These episodes often contained some sound scientific extrapolation too—your smart phone is a version of the Starfleet’s communicator, for example.

Episodes in the spinoff series, often written by screenwriters who had little training in science and often promoted pseudo-science, were much less entertaining if not downright distasteful. Generally speaking, of course, Hollywood fails at putting believable science into sci-fi and often creates pseudo-science in its screenplays. While maybe everyone knows Wiley Coyote can’t go over the cliff in an inverse-L-shaped path and finds it hilarious when he does so, is that any different than the Enterprise coming to a full-stop, thus violating Newton’s First Law? And Next Generation’s Counselor Cleavage reading minds is pretty farfetched and bordering on fantasy. Of course, the Star Wars tales are just fantasy episodes too—they even have princes, princesses, and knights who fight with sabers (making them neon-colored with sizzles doesn’t make them more sci-fi-like—it just makes them silly).

So let’s forget about Hollywood and move on to literature.  As a continuation of last week’s article, “Does Fiction Have to Seem Real?” let me ask, “Does the science in sci-fi have to seem real?” I’m talking about hard sci-fi. That’s still a broad sub-genre. But consider the sub-sub-genres of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic. While I enjoyed Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Howey’s Wool, and Redling’s Flowertown, my kneejerk reaction to these books was that there was no real explanation of cause, only the effect. I’ve changed my mind a bit, though. The story in these books is found in the effect—hence the post in post-apocalyptic. My own post-apocalyptic efforts—Survivors of the Chaos and Full Medical are examples—discussed the causes much more than the three books named, but that was a personal choice because I put as much emphasis on the causes as the effects. In my upcoming Oasis Redux (see the last pre-publication excerpt in my blog archive), I focus on the effect, and I’m satisfied with the result.

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Does fiction have to seem real?

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

One of the quotes on my website is from Tom Clancy. He’d answer the title question in the affirmative. He’s probably referring to thrillers in that quote, but most good fiction has to seem real. A few genres—horror and fantasy, for example—are exceptions, but even hard sci-fi and historical romance novels should seem real enough—the more believable, the better. I often see events from the latest tweet from our president to NYC crime scenes (they’ve become eerily similar in some ways) and say, “I couldn’t write anything like that because readers wouldn’t find it believable.” But maybe I’m limiting myself because readers don’t want believable?

Consider my arch-villain Vladimir Kalinin, first introduced in The Midas Bomb (he appears in many books). He’s a bit of a narcissist and psychotic, but I gave him a human side in No Amber Waves of Grain. Mr. Trump has no human side, yet Trump is real and Kalinin isn’t, although he seems more real to me than Trump because the latter seems to live in a fantasy world. When you consider real people like Charles Manson, Kalinin actually seems pretty tame.

Also consider Mary Jo Melendez of Muddlin’ Through. She represents what’s great about immigration in America (unless you’re Native American, you’re an immigrant or descended from immigrants). So do many of my characters. Bill Franklin, a gay man, and Kalidas Metropolis, a lesbian, play important roles in The Midas Bomb and Full Medical, respectively. None of these characters is real, but they also represent groups that many people don’t want to be real and would rather not have in fiction either.

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