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I was discussing modern art with someone the other day, and she mentioned that she felt the problem with modern art was that, “There are no standards.” In previous times, when there were recognized art academies, they “regulated” art by their favor or disapproval. While this equated to a definite conservative approach, it also maintained a level of quality (insofar as the members could agree on what that meant). They acted as gatekeepers. (Eventually, the academies fell out of favor, and the laissez-faire “whatever moves you” concept took over. Hence, we have “art installations” which stretch the concept of Art. There are far too many to number, but we all know of examples.*)

I, of course, immediately said: “Like self-publishing.” Because the same argument exists there: While traditional publishers had a chokehold on the industry (and you can argue about their taste, political leanings, economic policies, etc.), they did act as gatekeepers to ensure (in most cases) that a certain minimum level of quality was maintained. Now that gate has been torn open.

No one knows how this is going to play out; self-publishing as a popular phenomenon is only about 10 years old. But some trends are already evident, primarily the flood of new works, many of which would never have appeared anywhere under the old, gatekeeper-controlled system.

Like modern art, many embrace these new works. Others still distrust this open system, and with some support. It is more difficult to judge whether a new author is worth your time because no one has done the grunt work of weeding out the incompetent and unreadable. There are new gatekeepers in place, the rating and review systems available on Amazon and Goodreads, for example, but these depend on volunteer labor and are vulnerable to tampering. (Ask 20 of your friends to review your book favorably and suddenly you look like a star.)

So again we are left without standards. Anyone can now publish a book. And while if fiction is bad, you can toss a novel away and no one is harmed, if you get bad advice from a self-published non-fiction “expert,” you could be hurt.

There are arguments on both sides: free expression versus limited outlets. The ability to seek one’s entertainment widely rather than from a limited set of corporate-approved (but likely more professional) options. I like the self-publishing revolution; I’ve taken advantage of it. But that doesn’t mean that all self-published novels are good; it doesn’t even mean that my self-published novels are as good as they could be. What it does mean is that there are no longer any standards…and whether we ever again agree on what constitutes Art remains to be seen.

*Discussing the relative artistic merits of these efforts, or whether such merits even exist, would occupy far more time than I have to spend.

#SFWApro

 

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If you know anything about me by now, it’s that I’m all about the work. If you’re going to do it, do it right. Respect the reader. You aren’t Amazon or Facebook or a cable company (unless you are), with a near-monopoly and the assurance that people will use your product regardless, because they have little choice. You are one creator among thousands, and a button-push away from oblivion (at least as far as any individual consumer is concerned).

Which is why is makes me so angry that concern with craft is going the way of the dinosaur. I’m not talking about self-publishing; that’s an easy target. True, the attention to details varies wildly, but it’s the Wild West, and anyone venturing therein knows that he’s taking his chances. I’m talking about people who not only know better, they have lines of defense against such things: editors and proofreaders and continuity-checkers.

More and more, the big players are getting away with throwing whatever garbage they want on the page or screen and calling it “art,” whether it’s re-making a classic movie with new characters (The Force Awakens), or re-booting an old series with a “new timeline” and forgetting everything that made the old series worth re-booting (Star Trek), or just the awful writing in a best-selling series of thrillers (where do I start?). And the reason they get away with it is because people will buy into a big, splashy franchise simply because it is big and splashy.

Now, such franchises aren’t invulnerable–unlike some of their stars. The DCU has suffered badly (by its standards) for its treatment of Batman, Superman, and the Justice League. (This year, it is appropriately ironic that Wonder Woman saved the day for the boys.) And maybe enough losses at the box office will effect change, although it will be slow, if it comes.

I’m not asking that every book, TV show, and movie be a classic, or even good for that matter. All I’m asking is that if you want my money, you respect me for more than my wallet. I have a brain. I appreciate entertainment created by someone who cared enough to do it right (e.g., the scrolling prologue of Star Wars).

And if it’s big and splashy as well as smart, I’ll gladly be your fan.

#SFWApro

 

 

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I am fond of saying that one of the reasons I’m a writer is because I have absolutely no talent for higher math. I’m pretty good at straight arithmetic, I managed to hold my own in algebra (with a great deal of struggle), and geometry was relatively easy–but when I try to advance beyond that, forget it. Many of my friends can read complicated equations like I read the newspaper (yes, some of us still do read the newspaper, and not on our phones), but to me they don’t even form a language, let alone a readable narrative.

Words, on the other hand, have always been my bread and butter. I was always the best speller in my elementary classes (among the boys, anyway), and I was a top English student in high school. Now I’m a writer. My friends with physics degrees can build models of quarks, but I can build models of worlds.

It is ironic, then, that so much of what I do is defined by numbers. There are sales numbers, obviously, and numbers of reviews (never enough), and ranking numbers at Amazon (although I realize as well as anyone how arbitrary they are, it doesn’t stop me from looking). And there are other numbers, as well–first among them is word count.

When you’re writing a short story, word count defines what kind of story you’re writing: flash, short, novella, etc., and where you can sell it, because magazines have parameters, based on their page counts and budgets. Some are firm, some have a little elasticity, but they all have the limits. You have to know this if you’re going to have any success at all, because your 17,000-word novelette may be brilliant, but its potential markets are few.

Word count also defines something quite different: It defines how difficult this job is. Think about it. A commercial short novel these days runs no less than 65,000 words, and you’ll find damn few of those. Most are at least 80,000 words. My longest novel so far ran 122,000 words. The novels I’m writing now are designed to come in at 60,000. And these words are not random; every one of them is specially selected. How hard is that?

Let me give you some context: The average person speaks about 16,000 words per day. That means that my typical novel is the equivalent of everything you say for four days. And it all has to be entertaining, suitably paced, and come to a point. You think you could talk that way for four days straight?

I do. Granted, I plan some of it out ahead of time, and it may take me ten weeks, but in the end it’s the same thing. The next time you’re reading a book, take a look at its page count, and multiply by 300. That will give you a rough idea how many words it is (depending on the book, of course, but bear with me). Then ask yourself, “Could I write that many words in a fashion so entertaining that people would pay money to read it?”

If the answer is “yes,” then close this window and get to writing. But if the answer is “no,” then the next time you finish a book, take a few moments to rate or review it on Amazon or Goodreads.

After all, in writing, it’s the numbers that count.

#SFWApro

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Bottom line: After two (four-day) weeks of 2000 words/day as my goal, I have written 16,147 words. So far, so good! I will not say it’s been easy (hence the four-day work week), because it takes up all of what I would otherwise refer to as “my free time,” but oddly, it’s finding the time that’s difficult; the writing has been surprisingly easy.

Oh, I do it in fits and starts, and (real) Internet research has led to some (unnecessary) Internet “research,” and there are points every evening when I think, “Maybe I’ll cut myself some slack tonight. I have a few extra words banked from last night,” but so far I’ve managed to get past that (except last night. Last night I stopped at 1400. I was wiped.)

I don’t know how I can do this on some projects and not others. It definitely has to do with outlining. The one time I tried something like this on the fly, I wrote 6000 words in two days and burned myself out for a week. But the one time I’ve worked for hire (and thus using an outline someone else imposed on me), I cranked out 2000 words a night without any trouble (which is what inspired me to try it this time).

Obviously, then, it’s not a matter of typing too much (although with this and my day job, I worry about that). It’s more a matter of mental exhaustion. (So, yeah, four days on, three days off.) If I do this again, I will throttle it back to 1500 wds/day. It’s less about the daily word count and more about avoiding those long stretches of writer’s block that come from not knowing where you’re going.

So that’s where I am, and I wouldn’t be doing my duty if I didn’t remind you that this is a sequel to The Choking Rain, available on Smashwords and Amazon.* While you’re there, check out my other books as well, and if you’re one of those sainted people who’s already bought one, please consider giving me a review on Amazon. You have no idea how important those are (to any author).

So in two weeks, will I be at the half-way mark, or will I be a gibbering mass of dangling participles huddling in a corner?

Beats me, I haven’t outlined that far yet.

 

*Current leader in the title race is The Scent of Death. I’m still taking suggestions.

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Netgalley is a site to join where readers who review can go to find new books and recommend them to their friends, followers, and the world at large through Amazon reviews, blogs, Twitter, and whatever the new app-of-the-day is today. It is free and easy to join. And among its thousands of offerings by traditional and independent publishers, you can find The Invisible City.

Reviews are the lifeblood of book-selling. The way things are today, it’s not enough to go down to Barnes & Noble or your local independent bookseller (yeah, right) and scan the shelves. This is particularly true of independent publishers whose works aren’t on the shelves. Nowadays, many people find the best way to choose books is to hunt down reviews on Amazon. And without reviews, authors (especially new ones) can’t get traction.

So if you didn’t know about Netgalley, give it a try. You don’t have to look at my book (although you can at least vote on the new cover), but there are thousands of authors in dozens of categories who are begging for your attention.

Read and review. It’s the thing to do!

#SFWApro

 

 

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I was wandering the halls of the internet a while back, and came upon a discussion of some of the classic (as in old) novels that formed the foundation of the “planetary romance” genre, the genre my Stolen Future trilogy belongs to. Some I’d heard of, some I hadn’t, but it was fun to see just how far back the antecedents of what I’ve been working on go. Turns out they go back to at least 1905, in the person of Edwin L Arnold‘s Lieut. Gulliver Jones (later reprinted as Gulliver of Mars), published in England seven years before Edgar Rice BurroughsA Princess of Mars, which is usually considered the seminal work in the field.

Well, that’s nice, right? In one eye and out the other. Nothing special about it–until the other day when I wandered into Fahrenheit 451 Books in Carlsbad, California, reached the SF section, and there, staring at me from its own little shelf on the wall was… Gulliver of Mars. Hey! went my brain. That’s that book! So of course I had to buy it and now I’m reading it. So far, it’s…quaint.

The point of this rumination, however, is that you don’t make these kinds of serendipitous discoveries on Amazon. You don’t sit down in front of your computer, type in a URL, and inhale the subtle aroma of old paper. You don’t wander past high wooden shelves and glance through their offerings, and come away with a book you didn’t even know existed, in a genre you weren’t looking for. (As I did. In fact, the book was so obscure the owner didn’t remember having stocked it.) Only in a bookstore can this happen.

I am a book person. Not an e-book person. Amazon is for readers, but bookstores are for book people. And for book people to survive, there must be bookstores. Only in a bookstore can book people know true love. Amazon has its uses, such as when you know exactly what you want and you can’t find it locally but you have to have it now because someone’s birthday is coming. Amazon is like the 7-11 of books; it’s okay in an emergency, but you really shouldn’t do your weekly grocery shopping there.*

Many will disagree with me. Many will espouse convenience, and choice, and price. And for them, they may be right. But I’ve shopped Amazon, and I’ve shopped bookstores, and you readers who only want convenience?

You’ll never know true love.

*Yes, my books are only available on-line. I appreciate the irony.

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I get a lot of pitches for ways to get your self-published book noticed. Paid reviewers, unpaid reviewers, virtual libraries, PR companies, Amazon, Smashwords…everybody is out to help the poor writer get readers. What I can’t figure out is, with so many writers out there now, why do we need help? If all the indie writers simply read all the other indie writers, everybody would get rich (or at least sell respectably).

I do not claim not to be part of the problem: I don’t read my fellow indies, either. The problem is, I have little time to read anyone, and the few authors I like pretty much fill it. Now this, of course, is my problem. And it is most certainly a problem, since writers need to “feed their heads” more than most. I write better when I’ve been reading; I suspect most of us do. I should do a lot more of it.  (Of both, actually.)

So if writers aren’t reading, who is? And is that why indie writers can’t get readers, because nowadays so many people are busy self-publishing that no one has time to read?

We had dinner at a fish restaurant tonight. I am not terribly fond of fish, but I’ll eat some, and there’s always something else available. (After a detailed examination of the menu, and consultation with my wife and the very patient waitress, I chose the shrimp pasta. The waitress was very enthusiastic about the cheeseburger. I am nothing if not transparent.) But in talking of the choices afterward, my wife said, “You have to take some chances.” (To me, shrimp pasta with a spicy red sauce is taking a chance.)

It is not my intention to encourage reading more independent writers; I can hardly do that if I don’t know what I’m recommending. (I could recommend myself, but that would hardly be helpful, let alone objective.) But I would encourage people (myself included) to read more broadly, to branch out, take a chance.

If we can take chances with what we put into our mouths, why not with what we take in with our eyes? After all, a paperback (let alone an e-book) is a lot cheaper than a good fish dinner, and if you quit when you’re half-way finished, no one can see the leftovers on your plate and blame you for wasting food. (“There are illiterate children in China who would love to read that book!”)

A lot of people would choose the cheeseburger book. Others would go for the hazelnut-encrusted halibut novel. It doesn’t matter; they both go well with a glass of wine, and we all have to eat.

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