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Posts Tagged ‘authors’

Last weekend was Los Angeles’ annual “Who Says We Don’t Read?” gathering. Every year 150,000 people gather at the USC campus over a weekend to “celebrate the written word.” And this year, despite an unseasonably warm Saturday and the March for Science, they did it again. If you care at all about books and you’re anywhere within 500 miles, you should come to this.

My wife and I volunteered (both days!) as author escorts, leading groups of authors (and entourages) to their panel discussions, and signing areas for autographs. This involves, naturally, a certain sense of longing, since for once I’d rather be led than leading, but it’s satisfying nonetheless. We’re performing a service for the speakers and the attendees, we get a reserved front-row seat, and it’s not arduous work–except…

Hmm. How do I say this? I’m an author, and I’d like to be on one of those panels some day, so I don’t want to speak ill of the team…I guess it’s just that authors are not used to being the center of attention. I’m not saying they’re treated like rock stars at this thing, but they do get a lot of attention. And sometimes when we need them to do one thing, they’re busy doing another, which is Being Admired. That’s when we have to find a diplomatic way to separate author from fan without offending either and get the author to where he needs to be because fifty other fans are waiting for him. (Yes, him. It’s usually the men, for some reason.)

Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at this, and as far as I know, I’ve never caused offense. But every time it happens, I have to ask myself: Is that Me? Will that, if the opportunity ever arises, be Me? I certainly hope not.

But then again, if the opportunity ever does arise, I’m not going to waste it either. So to that hypothetical author escort at that hypothetical Festival of Books where I’m a guest author, I’m sorry. I’m sorry if I’m making your life difficult. Believe me, I’ve been there.

But I’ve never been here before. And damned if it doesn’t feel good.

#SFWApro

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So a few days ago I announced the paperback, print on demand, edition of my novel, The Invisible City. I made the obligatory pitch for everyone to buy it, reminding you that Christmas is coming and you need to buy presents anyway, so why not buy my book so I can afford some presents, too?

Well, that’s all fine, and the results have been gratifying, but sales are not the only result of this little operation. Folks, I have published a paperback book. Yes, it’s self-published, and no, it will likely never be on the shelf at your local Barnes & Noble (in fact, there may not be any local Barnes & Nobles soon), but it is a physical book, it has my name on it, and there’s a copy at hand in my office as I write this.

Is that cool or what?

True story: I had the first set delivered to my office, so I could be there when they arrived. That afternoon, I took one home (they’re kind of big, and I didn’t want to carry them all on the bus), and I took the opportunity to read the first chapter to myself. (Writer’s marketing trick: read your own book in a public place. Works like a charm.*) After the first chapter, I put the book down and pulled out my iPod. I put in the earbuds, turned it on, and the very first song that played was–I kid you not–the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer.”

Now I have been listening to this song since the 70s, and it never fails to give me chills. It is about a guy who wants to be what I always wanted to be: a paperback writer. (Okay, a hardcover writer, too, but first things first.) And now that I was one, that was the first song I heard. Too freaky. As if I could be any more excited.

I recently bought a car. It was on order and took some time to come in. When it did, people asked me, “Are you excited?” What, about a car? I just published a novel, folks. In paperback. That’s exciting.

I can’t honestly say I’m living the dream, but I don’t have to say I’m just dreaming any more, either. Damned right that’s exciting.

*No it doesn’t.

#SFWApro

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As authors age, and pass away, sometimes they leave behind a body of work that their families and publishers and fans want to see continue. The most famous example is probably Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, who is as busy now as he was a hundred years ago. (Ironic, of course, since Doyle “killed” Holmes and only reluctantly brought him back.) Star Trek, originally the brainchild of Gene Roddenberry, has continued and evolved well after his death.

Which brings us to today’s topic: the evolution of characters and concepts by other authors subsequent to the author’s passing. Who safeguards the author’s intent (if anyone)? How important is that intent? Does anyone have the right to make fundamental changes to an iconic character other than the author?

Some authors, like J.K. Rowling, take steps to make sure their intent is not thwarted; she purposely added a coda to her last book so that it would be harder for others to take her characters into unwanted directions. And some media, such as TV and film, assume that control will never lie with one creator. But let’s stick to books where the author has simply “left off,” for whatever reason.

Getting back to Holmes, because besides being famous, he allows for an obvious example. There have been spoofs and homages postulating different ideas on Holmes and Watson, but none of those were intended to be canonical, and no one took them for such. But what if an “official” continuation were undertaken under the authority of his estate? (Ignoring the fact that some of the earlier works have passed out of copyright.) What if (taking the obvious example and making no value judgements), a new, canonical, novel set forth the idea that Holmes and Watson were lovers? Does the new author (or the estate) have the right to make such a drastic change?

Yes, social mores have evolved (even Victorians were certainly aware of homosexuality (see Oscar Wilde)), and our understanding of such a relationship would be far different from the understanding of Doyle’s original reader. But would it be right? It’s unlikely that Doyle intended it, but Watson’s notebooks were sufficiently incomplete that you could probably interpolate practically anything you liked. Still, left to his own devices, the author (we can safely assume) never would have gone down that road. And you can extend this idea to most any famous book or series. (Jane Austen: “You tell them, sir!”)

It’s natural to want to continue profitable and popular series. And it’s natural to want them to evolve to fit current tastes. But as Victor Frankenstein’s example posits: Just because we can do something, does that make it a good idea?

#SFWApro

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If you are an SF “fan,” in the con-going sense, you are likely familiar with the Sad Puppies/Hugo Award controversy. If you are not, Google it. I’ll wait. I also gave an opinion here.

Now that Hugo nominations are in, we are all wondering who will be included, who excluded–or, to be honest, we’re all dying to know if anyone on the Sad Puppies list will make the ballot again this year. (Last year a few did, only to be clobbered in the voting.) But to occupy my time while waiting, I would like to consider: Why are the Sad Puppies limited to the Hugo Awards?

As near as I can tell, the S.P.s have not taken any stand on the Nebulas (or any other award), even though cross-over between the Hugos and Nebulas is pretty common. It is exciting, but not rare, for a work to receive both nominations. So why have the Sad Puppies concentrated on the Hugos and ignored the Nebulas? (Disclaimer: I do not know any of these people, nor have I ever spoken to them. What follows is entirely my speculation.)

I can think of two reasons: First, the S.P.s think they have a better chance of swaying fandom than the pro ranks; or second, it’s all for the PR and attacking the Hugos gets you more bang for your buck.

If it’s the first, then the S.P.s may be barking up the wrong tree. Although Nebula nominating and voting is solely the prerogative of SFWA members, the Nebula voting pool is far smaller than the Hugo population. And whether your beef is with political correctness, or the types of “literary” stories that get nominated, there is as wide a political/literary spectrum in SFWA as in the greater fannish universe. You could easily get such a conversation started in SFWA (assuming you’re a member, which these guys are/could be–except for one, but I’m not going there). And it would take far fewer votes on your side to accomplish your aim. It looks like a good idea…

So why not the Nebulas? Well, there’s reason no. 2: it’s all for the PR. Not necessarily for the founders of the movement, but for the type of fiction they want to see more widely read. There is some proof of this, since they recently pushed a series of “book bombs” for their slate, and profess to be happy with the results. There’s nothing wrong with that; Lord knows pushing your book or story–even when traditionally published–is a constant slog, so these guys are just paying it forward. But that’s not what they tell us this is all about. In their own terms, it’s supposed to be about pushing the kind of books and stories the “elites” don’t want read, or at least don’t want to read.

And yet, by some meaningful standard, SFWA members are the “elite.” Certainly many (if not most) fans want to be part of the group. So why not to try to sway them? Because doesn’t serve their agenda.

SFWA members are a much more compact set of voters. They know each other, hang out at special meetings. And if you think fans react poorly to perceived manipulation, you haven’t talked to writers. Taking on the Hugos creates buzz among readers; “Sad Puppies for the Nebulas” would start a huge kerfuffle amongst writers.

And maybe they just don’t want that kind of publicity.

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The secret to being a writer is simple. It’s just not easy. One of the ways you know you are a writer is when someone (usually someone close to you) comes up and says, “I have this great idea for a story. Why don’t you write it and we’ll split the profits?” I don’t know of a single writer who has ever said, “Sure, let’s do that,” and I doubt I ever will. Why? Because ideas are a dime a dozen. We all have notebooks full of them. (I have at least three.) How do you think we got to be writers in the first place–by not having ideas? Believe me, this gig doesn’t pay as it is; if we had to split every check with a co-writer, the cemeteries would be full of authors who starved to death.

The reason this model doesn’t work is because non-writers do not understand the difference between “ideas” and “inspiration.” Writing is like dating. There are millions of potential dates out there, only a fraction of which are available to you. You put these few down in your little black book. These are ideas. You might date a few of these; you might date a lot of them. But only a select number will suit you at all, and only one (typically) will be right at any given time. This is the girl you keep going back to, the one you call at odd hours of the morning just to hear her voice. (And with luck, this is the girl who doesn’t scream, “It’s 3AM! Are you insane? I have to work tomorrow!”) This is inspiration.

It’s possible to be inspired by someone else’s idea, but it’s rare, and usually results in an equal collaboration. In general, however, you are only inspired by your own ideas. This is where fledgling writers can get it wrong: they are so enamored with the idea, they think it’s inspiration. But it’s like being infatuated as opposed to being in love. You need to go deeper. An idea is a start. An inspiration is what speaks to you so much that you take that idea and develop it into a story, a tale about people and how that idea affects them. This is what readers want, to see that other people have the same feelings they do, to be validated because the people in your story act the way they do, or the way they want to act. Readers want to be inspired.

And how can you inspire readers if you’re not inspired yourself? That’s why other people’s ideas won’t work for me. They don’t inspire me. And that’s why, if you have that idea that inspires you so much that you think someone could make a story out of it? That’s why that someone should be you.

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Self-publishing is spreading. And it’s a bad thing. Here’s why:

1. It doesn’t allow you to blame anyone else for your mistakes. Self-publishing (“self-pubbing”) requires you to be creator, editor, art director, publicist, accountant, and publisher, unlike regular publishing which only requires you to be creator, editor, publicist, accountant, and Chief Submissions Officer. So there’s, hmm, one more thing that you have to be responsible for. Still, it’s a lot, because you have to bemoan the responsibility of cover approval instead of bemoaning your lack of authority over cover approval.

2. It doesn’t allow you to blame anyone else if the book doesn’t sell. Writers have hard shells but fragile egos. Look at every article that tells you not to read reviews if you don’t believe me. We can handle rejection before a sale, but not after. If a traditionally-published (“trad-published”) book doesn’t sell, we blame the cover art, the marketing, the shelf placement. If a self-pubbed book doesn’t sell, well, you chose the art, you did the marketing, and there are no shelves. So you can feel rejected even without a review–or, ironically, if you don’t get any reviews.

3. It takes the job of reading out of the hands of professionals. A trad-published book in the store is the end result of slushers, editors, copy-writers, and salesmen all working together to make sure that your book is the book they want to sell (regardless of whether it’s the book you naively wanted to write). These professionals work long hours for inadequate pay to ensure that the reading public sees only the cream of the crop of all submitted novels (and Dan Brown and Nicholas Sparks, because they sell really well). Self-pubbing allows anyone to be a published author. How are you supposed to be able to read the best books if no one tells you what they are?

4. It overloads the reviewers. There are a lot of reviewers out there. In fact, the same Internet that allows self-pubbed authors also allows self-pubbed reviewers. But still there are not enough of these selfless and dedicated public servants to cover all the books that are published. This results in overworked reviewers, who then have no time to write their own books. Can you believe that there are reviewers out there who have never had the time to write a single book? And yet they bravely attempt to criticize others who have the time to do what they can only dream about accomplishing. I tell you, the word “hero” is tossed around pretty casually these days, but…

5. It threatens to create a permanent, mentally-skewed underclass. As I have repeatedly described, writers are insane. We are, in fact, completely nuts and should never be allowed around sharp objects like, say, pens, for example. (The only exceptions are those scribes who have recognized their affliction and attempt to minimize their own capacity for harm by submitting manuscripts in crayon. Editors should applaud these highly-disciplined individuals.) The only factor that has limited this plague of lunacy (or, if you will, this Confederacy of Dunces), is that getting published has been so difficult. Now that safety valve is gone. I fear for the future.

Given more time, I certainly could elaborate, but I hope this essay will serve a public service, much as the editors and reviewers have done until now, in educating the world as to the true costs of self-publishing. And if you, dear reader, need any further proof, I have three self-published books. Read them, and learn how dangerous it is to allow just anyone to express himself.

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Recently, I talked about how writers are forever doubting themselves, always comparing themselves to their own future potential successes rather than concrete accomplishments, creating a permanent class of (neurotic) fantasists, in more ways than one.* Just to prove my point, I also want to talk a little about how writers can believe in their work (if not themselves) to a degree that normal human beings would see as highly narcissistic, but which we know as a mere survival skill. Everyone knows that to make it as a writer you have to develop a thick skin; fewer know that you further need to develop the patience of Job at the end of a really bad week.

After you write a story, you submit it to a magazine (or a novel to a publisher). And then you wait. Nowadays, there are sites (like the Submission Grinder) which allow you to see average response times, so you have something to fret about when your story out is an hour past that point. (Kind of like teenagers.) This is a vast improvement over pre-email times, when you didn’t even know if your sub had been received, let alone when it might come back. But 95% of the time, you do get a response (which may well be much later than statistics would indicate, but that’s another topic). And 95% of the time, that response will be a “No, thanks.”

As you progress, that number improves, but we’re talking about stories that come back. And go out. And come back. What do you do with those? After a few “no’s” you re-read it. You tinker. You re-sub. It comes back.

Eventually, you have a choice: Keep subbing, or “trunk” it. Every writer has a “trunk” where stories go into deep storage. (Occasionally, one is brought out again years later and re-tooled.) If you truly believe in the story, you keep subbing. And this is where you need patience, because if you love your story that much, and no one else does, then you need to find it in yourself to keep pushing it. And you may keep pushing that story for years. Or decades. I have one story that sold only after collecting 35 rejections over 25 years. But I loved it, and I believed in it, and in the end I was right.

How can someone whose professional self-worth is built on tomorrow’s successes keep so much faith with yesterday’s (let’s be honest) failures? Beats the hell out of me. Maybe we’re just so obsessed with a better tomorrow that we’re willing to change yesterday to get it.

Or maybe we’re just that into ourselves.

*I also talked about how I had carved an additional 12% off a story that I had previously cut, I thought, to the bone. That story came back a few days later with a polite note expressing to me the reader’s belief that the story was too long. You can’t please everyone.

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