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Recently I talked about how the Superman movie “Man of Steel” had totally blown the the character by having Superman kill his fellow Kryptonian, Zod. (Sorry if that was a spoiler.) The main thrust is that the only thing keeping Superman from taking over the Earth (and maybe a good chunk of the universe) is his Midwestern-raised, strict moral code. Really, the only thing stopping a guy that powerful is himself. And now that he’s crossed that bridge, there isn’t any coming back to the other side.

But there is never so great an affront to a famous fictional character so great that someone cannot make it bigger. They screwed up Atticus Finch, but at least that was written by the author (if never meant to be released). They messed up Superman, but you can argue the morality of what he did, and how it was an extreme measure that he will not be forced to repeat, and that, while a betrayal of the character, it would only affect him going forward; it does not touch his past. He is still the man he was.

Alas, as I said, there is always a way to make things worse. And this latest travesty comes from a surprising source. Marvel has managed to achieve a goal that would have been unthinkable ten years ago: It has made Captain America arguably more popular than Superman. And then it made a misstep that would have been unthinkable ten days ago: It announced that everything you think you know, everything you have ever read, everything you have ever believed about Captain America (morally speaking the Superman of the Marvel universe), is wrong. Not only is Captain America not the fine, upstanding, patriotic symbol of freedom we were always told he was, he’s actually a villain.

Seriously?

It is common for long-running fictional franchises to throw in a major curveball every few years to try to keep things fresh. Usually, you “kill” the hero, or give him (or her) a new love interest, move him to a new city, etc. And it has become all-too-popular in recent years to re-boot characters or even entire universes to shake up storylines and give new fans an entry point. DC has done it so many times they’re now re-booting their re-boots.

But to take a once-second tier character, pump up  his popularity  by orders of magnitude through a series of blockbuster movies, and then tell the world that he was never the guy they thought he was, but was actually working for the other side all the time? Are you nuts? Captain America has beaten the Red Skull so many times you wonder why the Skull even bothers to show up for work. And I’m supposed to believe that they’re on the same side?

That’s like saying Superman has secretly been on Lex Luthor’s payroll since 1939. Or that Bruce Wayne has been playing Batman and the Joker for fifty years. It is more than a complete misunderstanding of the character, it is a punch in the gut to every kid who ever shelled out 10 cents or 25 cents or $1.25 to read one of his adventures–not to mention the millions who shelled out $12 or more to see his movies. This isn’t a joke; it’s a sick joke.

Now, I am more familiar than most with the idea that nothing in comics is permanent. If they can come up with a way to explain how Krypton never exploded, they will. So this, too, will pass. It may not even be real. But it could have serious long-term effects. First, if this is not some kind of undercover deal Cap is on, all of his established fans are going to leave. This isn’t what they signed on for. Second, the new fans–well, why would anyone start buying Captain America now? He’s a bad guy. And how long can they maintain that storyline? How long will people watch him not fight the Red Skull, or lie to the Avengers?

People change. Characters change. But “change” is not the same as, “Ha ha. Fooled you. Uncle Ben faked his death for the insurance money. And Aunt May was in on it.”

You can fool all of the people some of the time. That’s why mysteries are so popular. But in the end you have to play fair, not change the rules to suit your conclusion. Rewriting a 70-year-old character’s entire life to wipe out the reason why people have bought into it for so long? It’s not fair. It’s not right. All it’s going to do is make your fans say, “You know, now that I think about it, ‘Man of Steel’ wasn’t so bad…”

#SFWApro

Once upon a time, writers were known for their stories–and from their stories. In this benighted past, there was no Internet (yes, well may you shudder, children). There were no blogs, no e-books, no online magazines, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook…there wasn’t even any e-mail. And the people toiled through snail mail and telephones that did not take pictures and did not even know that they were technologically poverty-stricken. For only in comic books were their portable telephones with vliewscreens, and only in stories did men and women communicate by computer.

So how the heck did a writer ever make a name for himself? It wasn’t easy. (Not that it’s easy now. But back then it was harder to become famous just for being famous.) Ironically, like today, there were many magazines available as markets, but back then, so many people read them that you could actually become famous that way. Astonishingly, you could even make a living selling to magazines. Like much of history, it was full of inconsistencies.

Flash forward to now, when all you need to become world-famous is a blog. (Assuming that your definition of “world-famous” is that your work is available all over the world.) And every writer’s marketing plan–heck, every writer’s publisher–is in his own hands. So if fame (or notoriety) is so easy to grasp, why isn’t every writer famous? Why is true fame still as elusive as ever?

It used to be, even with the plethora of markets, that you had to have a modicum of talent to sell to a (magazine or book) publisher. That isn’t true now, because you can publish yourself. Yet self-publishing success is at least as difficult as traditional publishing success, because there is so much competition, and so much (to be honest) garbage out there. Collecting fans is a full-time job. (So in that sense, a robust social media presence is necessary. It’s the only way to stand out from the crowd. But for some, it isn’t that easy–if you’re over 50, particularly.)

Traditional publishing can accomplish the marketing for you. But look at the field now: With e-publishing, short fiction venues have exploded, but like self-publishing, it suffers from two problems: (1) the quality varies. There are markets you almost have to try not to get published in, but who’s going to read them? (2) Declining readership. More venues and fewer readers means even the top-flight markets suffer from “genre fatigue.”

It is no longer possible to make a living writing short fiction. It simply can’t be done. (The minimum professional rate established by SFWA is six cents per word. An average short story may run around 5,000 words. Do the math.) But it is possible to build a career by publishing short stories, even if you don’t have any other publicity machine. You just have to hit the biggest markets, consistently.

Can your social media profile help you climb the ladder toward fame and success? Doubtless it can, particularly if you understand that every rung is an accomplishment, and not everybody can climb high. Can simply writing great stories get you there, without the social aspect? Sure; there have been lots of reclusive writers, and I don’t see that changing. Writers are weird.

So how important is social media to a writer’s career? I don’t know–how long is a piece of string?

#SFWApro

So here I sit, on the horns of a dilemma. Not literally, of course, for this chair is much more comfortable than a bullhorn, or a French horn, or whatever kind of horn a “dilemma” has, but a bit uncomfortable nonetheless. Because I am confronted with a writing problem of the sort I have never encountered before. Well, two problems, actually, but they intersect.

Here’s the primary dilemma: I am 25,000 into my latest novel, The Cosmic City, third in The Stolen Future trilogy. I have actually mapped out a lot of what I want to have happen, and I know exactly how the story is going to end. However, I have also been given an opportunity to work on a collaborative project with several other authors, a project which holds a significant likelihood of publishing whatever piece I can write to fit into it. The problem is that, unlike many other writers, I do not work on multiple projects at once. I do not, in a word, multitask.

I also do not write quickly. To create, revise, and edit a short story for this other project could realistically take me a month. I would probably be working on that exclusively. This would mean setting aside The Cosmic City for a month (give or take), a step I am reluctant to take, because I had a timetable. However, even if I plow ahead, The Cosmic City will not be ready for months yet, and by that time the window for this other project will be closed.

To complicate matters, the second dilemma has recently surfaced, which is to say my work on The Cosmic City has been too successful. Novels are expected to reach a certain length, and I would like TCC to run around 80 – 85,000 words, as did its predecessor. However, I have now reached a point in the plot that I did not expect to reach until around 40,000 words. At this rate it looks as though it could wind up finishing somewhere in the neighborhood of 65,000 words. That’s no good. I want my readers to have a rich and immersive experience. So I am  going to have to take a serious look at the novel’s structure to make sure I can attain the preferred word count.

Is this the right time to take a break from the novel, let it lie, and return with a fresh perspective? Or should I tackle the problem directly while I have a head of steam built up? And what about the very real possibility that I could be paid for the other project simply for writing and submitting (assuming it satisfies the editor) whereas self-published novels earn nothing unless you get out and push them (and sometimes not even then)?

You see here yet another reason why sane people don’t become writers. If you have this kind of problem at the office, you go to the break room or your partner’s office and hash it out. Novelists? We don’t have a break room, and most of us don’t have partners. We’re on our own.

Except I’m not. I have you.I know a lot of you are writers, and probably all of you are readers. And you have opinions. (It’s the Internet. Of course you have opinions.) So I’m not really alone. This is your chance to tell me how to run my life.

Got any ideas?

#SFWApro

 

 

One of the coolest things about being a writer is that you can get paid for doing nothing. Well, virtually nothing, anyway.

Note that I did not say, “You will get paid for doing nothing,” or “You are paid for doing nothing.” Either of those would be wildly inaccurate–first and foremost because there is no guarantee you will ever be paid at all. But while you cannot be in two places at once, you can be paid for doing the same work twice. It’s called selling a reprint.

When you sell a story (or a novel, but let’s stick to stories), you sell what are called (in this country) First North American serial rights. (Again, we’ll stick to the basic scenario and skip ancillary rights.) And although it’s called a “sale,” really it’s more akin to a rental. You are giving the publisher the right to display your story first, but that’s all. Once he’s done that (and after an exclusivity period), you are free to license secondary serial rights (or more) to anyone who takes previously-printed fiction (“reprints”). And there are others, of course, like audio rights.

There are markets that will accept reprints, and pay for them, albeit at a lower rate than for first serial rights. But once  your story is yours again, you need do nothing but submit it. If it sells, you’re paid a second time for the same work. You can be paid again and again, as many times as someone is willing to buy that story. A popular story (like an award-winner) can be sold half-a-dozen times. I’ve been paid up to three times for the same story myself.

And I only had to write it once…

#SFWApro

It will come as no surprise to pretty much anyone that writers think of their stories as their children. I have discussed this metaphor myself; I would find it hard to believe that any writer doesn’t feel that way. (If you’re a writer and you don’t feel that way, please let me know in the comments, because I’d love to have that conversation.)

And as we all know, parents want their children to do as well in life as they can. In people terms, it means a good job, or placing your child in the best college. In writer terms, this means placing your story in the best venue. “Best” may mean most highly regarded, most visible for awards, or highest-paying. In SFF circles, these priorities overlap until they are almost the same. Whether this is a good thing is open to debate, but it is undeniably true.

Personally,  I aim for the high-paying markets that accept stories somewhere in the neighborhood of what I’ve written, which is pretty easy because most magazines have open guidelines. In other words, besides maybe only accepting SF or fantasy, they’re pretty receptive to however you interpret the genre (short of some rather horrific line-crossing exceptions that I won’t go into). I also like markets that respond relatively quickly (but then again, who doesn’t?).

Now, there are two kinds of markets I submit to (except in special circumstances), and they are defined by pay rates: “pro” and “semi-pro.” “Pro” markets are those paying $0.06/word and above (this being the minimum rate set for qualification by SFWA). “Semi-pro” markets pay $0.01 – $0.03/word.* I typically do not submit to markets paying less.

I start, of course, with the pro venues. But what happens when you can’t sell a story, and you run out of pro venues? Do you move on to the semi-pro markets? Therein lies the problem…

Writers can get very attached to their stories, and unlike with children (we hope), writers have favorites. And every writer can tell you about “my favorite story that I just can’t sell.”  I have one, but it’s in submission right now (I believe for the 46th time), so I can’t tell you which it is. I used to have a second favorite, but it sold (to a pro market) after 35 rejections. I could sell my favorite story any time I wanted, but I refuse to sell it for less than pro rates. I will not send my baby to anything but an Ivy League college.

Nowadays, new markets pop up all the time, some paying pro rates, so I can keep sending this story out with hope in my heart. But I can’t do it with all of my stories, and some I’m not that attached to. But when you’re selling to semi-pro markets, and you’re talking about one that pays 2 1/2 cents per word versus another that pays 3, you have to weigh other considerations. Is one better known in the field? Paper versus electronic? How quickly does the editor get back with rejections? (Once you’ve had a story sitting at a market for a year without a word, you get wary.)

Since I am unfortunately not in a position to sell everything to pro magazines, this is a frequent argument in my head. Depending on the story, the state of various markets (some are only open part-time), and how long it’s been since I’ve made a sale, the argument ends differently every time. Sometimes I even change my mind after a few submissions, adjusting my expectations up or down.

There are those children who will never leave the house, and you just have to put them away. (And by that I mean stories, not real children!) But even they can surprise you. I have sold stories that I thought were out of options.

And you know what? I’m proud of them too.

*When Asimov got his start in the 1940s, he was making up to $0.01/word.

#SFWApro

Duking It Out

There’ve been a lot of comparisons between Warner Bros.’ Batman v Superman and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War. (I haven’t seen either, which puts me in a great position to talk about them. No, really, it does, because I’m not biased by having seen only one.)* The main question is why the latter resonates with audiences when the former does not. Yes, I know B v S made a ton of money, but we’re going to be talking about audience engagement here.

The comparisons seem to focus on the two studios’ franchises, which may be unfair because the DC “cinematic universe” is only two movies old. (One of the glaring differences is that Marvel’s movie universe is cohesive going back years, while DC’s is fragmented going back more than a couple of films. And don’t let’s digress into TV.) As far as you can legitimately compare and contrast, however, the difference is plainly one of tone. And that’s down to the writing. (And the director, but the writing is what we see on screen, so we’ll go with that.)

Marvel has proven adept at predicting what tone the audience will want in relation to each character. From Iron Man’s origin, leavened with humor, to Captain America showing us the importance of being earnest, to the Guardians’ and Ant-Man’s serious business wrapped up in slapstick, each has managed to find its own sure footing, leading to critical (as well as financial) success. WB/DC, on the other hand, has so far resorted to making every film a Batman film, which works great…for Batman.

Superman…not so much.

Which raises the question: For whom are you writing–the author or the audience? Characters must be true to themselves, but audiences won’t read (or watch) characters they don’t like. This is doubly so when you’re dealing with already established characters. How far can you change them? Do you have the right to change them? After all, the conglomerate that employs you owns those characters, but neither of you created them. So if you turn Superman into a darker, more flawed person–how far can you go? And do you continue to follow your own vision when the audience has made it clear (verbally if not financially) that it doesn’t like where you’re going?

When it comes to that, how much are you entitled to change the character when the audience does like where you’re going? Arthur Conan Doyle did not write the same Sherlock Holmes as we’ve seen in the last two movies (and who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tony Stark), but people don’t seem to mind the new version.

In the end, the marketplace will decide, as it always does, and its decision will be seen as final. Currently, the marketplace is supporting both studios’ visions. It will probably continue to do so. But public opinion is fickle, and one glaring misstep may mean disaster. Then again, considering other iconic franchises have been butchered lately with little affect on their bottom lines, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe audiences will keep going in the hopes that this time it will be better–or maybe they really like this stuff no matter who’s making it, and they’re complaining because, like Batman and Superman, and Captain America and Iron Man, they just like to argue, and a really top-notch supervillain is hard to find.

*Yeah, I’m not buying it either.

#SFWApro

Amazon Giveaway

I have set up an Amazon Giveaway for a chance to win The Invisible City (The Stolen Future Trilogy Book 1) (Kindle Edition). https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/75430401c7f143c6 NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Ends the earlier of May 21, 2016 11:59 PM PDT, or when all prizes are claimed. See Official Rules http://amzn.to/GArules.

If you are a fan of classic SF adventures, you owe it to yourself to check this out!

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