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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Common Wisdom?

Sunday, it rained. Monday, the rain turned to snow. Tuesday, my morning commute was fifteen miles of slow 'n' go on greasy glass, all the while fighting my Jeep Cherokee's tendancy to break the rear wheels loose and spin out. Near the junction with Highway 52, the lady in the shiny new Jeep Liberty on my port quarter failed to learn from my example and spun out across three lanes, narrowly missing both me in the right lane and the semi in the far left lane, but getting t-boned on the rebound by the Taurus in the center lane.

For some reason, this got me thinking: what are the things that we all know must be true, because we've seen 'em a zillion times in books and movies, and yet clearly aren't? The first one seemed strangely obvious to me: Jeeps get good traction. Only on dirt or mud, I'm afraid. On snow and ice, they're worse than my old Bonneville.

Okay, that's a start. But what else comes to mind? I thought of some books I've read and movies I've watched recently, and came up with:

Hookers often have hearts of gold. No, the correct answer is "chlamydia and crack habits."

If your situation seems hopeless and you're out of ideas, a brilliant inspiration will come to you if you get falling-down drunk. I can see how that one would seem credible to a Hollywood screenwriter, but...

It was a slow commute; I came up with lots more. But what's your favorite example of common wisdom that just ain't so?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Star Wars III: The Final Comments

Okay, so we rented Revenge of the Stiffs on DVD and watched it again last night. I still think my version was better.

Yes, the movie is gorgeous. Yes, every frame is perfect and looks like the best of 60 years of fantastic art come to life. Yes, the action sequences are spectacular. Yes, I have never before seen and heard such a marvelously perfect and sustained blended composition of light and sound.

No, the story is still something out of a Marvel comic book -- and we're not talking X-Men here, we're talking Starjammers. No, Hayden Christensen is still a whining snot and Natalie Portman couldn't act her way out of a wet paper bag. No, every line of dialog still hits the floor with a soggy plop and immediately starts to stink up the place. The one thing this movie has really done for me is given me a whole new appreciation for the vastly underrated acting skills of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fischer, and Harrison Ford. They could actually deliver George Lucas's dialog and make it sound good.

No, wait, there's a second thing this movie has done for me: it's made me wonder. If Jedi abilities are inherited, and if the Jedi Order identifies those with Jedi abilities at a pre-school age and packs them off to Coruscant for training, and if Jedi are apparently required to take a vow of chastity and forbidden to marry (if not, then why is Annakin and Padme's romance and marriage such a terrible secret that must be concealed at all costs?) --

Well, if all that is true, then how could it possibly be true that, as Alec Guinness says in the original movie, "For over a thousand generations, the Jedi were the guardians of peace and justice in the old Republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire."

I mean, consider rudimentary genetics. It doesn't take anywhere near a thousand generations of celibacy to take an unusual trait out of the gene pool. I would think that if Jedi powers were so darned important to the stability of the Republic, they wouldn't want celibacy, they'd want to establish a Jedi dating service. Give 'em tax breaks for having more kids. Maybe even start up a covert long-term breeding program, to produce a Kwisatz Haderach...

Oops. Sorry, wrong story.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Help Needed

Zarlox Hargman writes:
hey dude, i read ur story "Cyberpunk" in the PDF format. I was stuck with reading the shorter 10-page one 'till i foudn ur full story. Your story is one of the few i was willing to read, im not really up to many books, and i prefer movies
The beginning was great, but then i was disappoitned as most of your story tells about the stupid military academy, i was hoping the story would be about Mike's gang and how everything turns out later. But then i realize your story wasnt "Cyberpunk science fiction" as Will Gibson is the one who invented that.
I dont know what was up with all the military crap 0_o, we know how assholes officials are to turn all those cool kids who finally say "F.U pal" to authority, into lil robots and send em into war to get shot. And ur Mikey Harris character is a good example.
Is there a sequel or a continuing to your story? I heard you say "if you think this is good and would like to continue the plot, u can buy it here." So ur sequel that I buy is a SEQUEL to the cyb3punk.pdf, right? If so, i might buy it.
Also, did u draw any pics of ur characters?
What does Rayno look like?
What do the other characters look like?
Is Payne black? *snicker*
I have a picture that someone suggested to me perfectly portrays ur characters. A profile shot of the Androids from 'Dragon Ball Z' with the blondie lookin like Lisa, Android#17 as Mike, Android#16 as Rayno and Dr.Gero as Mr.Hansen.
P.S. u kept sayin in ur story how they used "Microportables" to do their crackin. Microportables as in Laptops? You wrote the book in 1980 right? Ur tellin me that shit existed way back then? lol I dont even trust they work nowadays without malfunctioning.
Aaand.. Mike jacked his Dads bank account with a laptop... WIRELESS?! Tell me these were just wild ideas back in 1980 that came true now.

Why, yes, of course, that's absolutely right.

(Bethke turns, beckons to translator. "Psst! Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!")

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Stalking the elusive movie deal (updated)

Annie Wilder asks a question that goes right to the heart of the Writer's Dream:
Thanks for your willingness to answer some questions about selling film rights. My book, House of Spirits and Whispers, came out in September 05. My publisher has the film rights (I'll get a portion of any money they receive) but said I could try to help sell the rights. I have done some research and it seems like the best way to go about it is to get an agent. Could you tell me about your experience[s]?

There appear to be two questions here: a.) how do I get an agent?, and b.) how do I sell the film rights?

As for a.), the best time to talk to an agent is after the publisher expresses interest in your book, but BEFORE you sign the publisher's contract. This is the point when a good agent can best help you avoid expensive mistakes. The happy news here is that if you've got another book in you, this is a good time to be looking for an agent to represent your future work.

The less-than-happy news is that it's probably too late to find an agent interested in representing House of Spirits and Whispers.

You see, an agent is a commissioned salesperson. An ethical agent makes his or her living by selling your work, and makes money only when you make money. Ergo, since the book contract is a done deal and your publisher already owns a chunk of the film rights, this immediately complicates the situation and reduces whatever potential income your prospective agent might earn. I've met very few ethical agents who were eager to participate in fee-splitting deals or represent properties that were in some way already encumbered.

[Digression]: At this point, I want to inject a strong cautionary note. While you may have trouble drawing interest from an ethical agent, there are plenty of unethical so-called agents out there actively seeking you. For example, we've already encountered these scum-sucking bottom-feeders. If nothing else, remember this principle: the money always flows to the writer. Anyone who wants a "reading fee," a "listing fee", or any other sort of payment from you in order to promote your work is a scam artist and should be treated with the same regard you accord any common intestinal parasite. [/Digression]

As for b.): your best bet at this point is probably to contact anyone you know who works in the film or TV business, or anyone you know who knows someone who knows someone who used to work in the film business, try to get your book into their hands, and hope that someone reads it and decides to option it. At this point you will again be in the state of having moneyed-party interest in your property, and it will become much easier to attract a reputable agent. And whatever you do, don't sign anything until you've had your new agent look at it.

(There again, this is always this alternate strategy...)

Anybody else have any good suggestions for Annie?

As it happens, Secret Agent #6 does:

Actually, you have written an fine response. I can add little, other than to note that the author should relax and walk the dog. The deal is done and she is powerless to do anything. On the other hand, things may work out OK.

Movie people have lots of scouts and are well aware of what books are published. Each time a client's book is announced in Publisher's Weekly I get calls from "producers" or "story/development people" wanting to know "if rights are available?" Heaven forbid that any Hollywood type should stoop to reading a book to see what it is about before wanting to pursue rights. Actually, the publisher's catalog description and PW reviews are enough to create movie interest. So the author should spend no money on fee-based catalogs or websites. Real producers and studios pay no attention to these listings.

The author should change the paper in the birdcage and spend no time trying to get an agent to sell this property. No legitimate agent will try to sell a project actually controlled by the publisher. The problem is not just reduced commissions, it is lack of control and inability to negotiate the sale if there is a legitimate buyer. No one in Hollywood will waste their credibility talking up a property they can't control. It's like telling your bachelor brother, "You should date my friend, she has a great personality." The publisher should have an agent already who will get promotional copies direct from the publisher and send them around -- business as usual.

Unless the author's contract with the publisher specifically gives "approval" of a sub-rights sale or the publisher involves her in the deal (fat chance), she can't even afford to hire a lawyer to review the film-tv contract.

The publisher's statement: "... I could try to help sell the rights..." is a simple publisher's ploy to get the author to spend her own money promoting a book that the publisher will profit from. Unless the author is really connected in Hollywood, this is a waste of money. Consider, if the author has a 10% royalty on a $20 hardcover, she will earn $2 on each book sold. The book may cost $2 to manufacture, giving the publisher about $6-8 in income after the 50%-60% retail discounts. If the publisher cons the author into buying 100 copies of her book to mail to Hollywood types and reviewers, the author will pay whatever the author's discount is for books and earn no royalty on author's copies purchased for promotion. Suppose that is $12 per copy. Now the Publisher has $10 for each book the author bought, no returns and no royalty to pay and the author is out $1,200 plus the cost of mailing. Authors can spend more than they got for an advance, doing the publisher's job.

The author has a "real" publisher, so while she shouldn't sign anything else without representation, she can be confident that things will happen or they won't. She would be better off pursuing speaker fees for presentations based on the book. One of our clients speaks frequently and buys his copies (to sell in the back of the room) from Ingram because they are cheaper than the "author's discount," they earn royalties, and they are counted as copies sold at retail when computing the book's net sales figures.

I recently spoke to an author who was published by a subsidy publisher for a fee of $800. The publisher "was adamant" that he do a promotional mailing of his new book. He bought the books and paid for the mailing spending $5,000 for which he received no response and gained no notice. However, the publisher paid for its print run.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Little Tin God of Character Development

I'm about halfway through Michael Crichton's State of Fear, and I've got to admit that I'm enjoying the heck out of it. The story is engaging, the pacing is relentless, the plotting is as tight as a drumhead, and all of this makes the book a fun read -- despite the fact that it doesn't seem to contain any characters.

I mean, the sigma character, Peter Evans, is a nullity. His entire backstory could be fit on a 3x5 card with room for doodling:
Corporate lawyer, Century City office, works with environmental organizations (business side), drives a gray Prius, nice apartment, casual girlfriend (aerobics instructor), naive mouthpiece often babbling "green" platitudes

Crichton's writing is even more spartan than Clancy's, if that's possible. Setting the scene? A short paragraph, if absolutely necessary. Describing someone's appearance? A sentence, if what they're wearing will become important. Getting inside someone's head? Only if it's absolutely critical to the plot and they'd look stupid talking to themselves. Interior life? We don't need no steenking interior life!

In short, everything that's usually regarded as essential to character definition and development is tossed overboard in order to keep the plot moving, and the story is revealed entirely by dialog and action. The characters don't have emotional crises; they don't spend pages wondering what someone else is thinking; they don't stop to talk about their troubled childhoods or relationship issues. They never pause for a moment to turn introspective and examine their feelings or ponder their real motivations, and it certainly doesn't appear as if any of them is going to experience profound emotional growth or change before the end of the book.

Hence my question. Crichton doesn't waste time on character development; neither does Tom Clancy and neither did Isaac Asimov. Is it possible that character development is vastly overrated, and that it's one of those things that's only necessary when you don't have an actual plot?

Or is it an either/or proposition, and are plot and character development are equally valid alternate paths to a complete story?

Or is it, as I'm increasingly coming to think, a gender issue? E.g., books written for male readers can survive perfectly well on plot alone, while books written for female readers (and men who secretly wish they were women, such as college creative writing instructors) don't rquire plot but will starve and die without lots of emotional sturm und drang?

What's your theory?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

It's deer season in Minnesota. I was walking in the woods last weekend -- yes, wearing blaze orange -- when I heard a gunshot distressingly close by. The fellow I was walking with hit the dirt, but I didn't, because I know one of those nasty truths that seems to have eluded most fiction writers and apparently all Hollywood screenwriters.

A high-powered rifle bullet is supersonic. That means it travels faster than the speed of sound. That means, by the time you hear the sound of the gun being fired, the bullet has already either missed or hit you.

I learned this lesson when I worked as a target-setter during high-powered long range matches. (It's kind of like being a pinsetter in a bowling alley, except that people are shooting at you.) I can assure you that when a high-powered rifle is being fired in your direction and you're somewhere near the target, you hear the whap! of the bullet hitting home well before you hear the bang! of the gun going off. Further, even a small-caliber high-velocity bullet makes an ear-splitting crack! as it goes by; it's a tiny sonic boom, you see. So don't bother giving your fictional assassin a "silenced" high-powered rifle. It won't do him any good.

Anything that exceeds the speed of sound in air generates a shockwave that causes a sonic boom. It's unavoidable. When I was a kid the Air Force was still flying B-58 Hustlers on training missions a few miles off the coast, and I can still remember the way the house shook, the windows rattled, and pictures fell off the walls whenever one of those babies went supersonic.

All of which means: Superman may indeed be faster than a speeding bullet, but if he exceeds 1,100 feet per second in the skies over Metropolis, he's going to seriously piss off a lot of people.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Name Blame: Authors Take Aliases To Cover Up Flops

Secret Agent #6 notes that the Wall Street Journal has spilled the beans:

Reed Farrel Coleman had six mystery books under his belt but sales were steadily weakening. His then-agent made a startling suggestion, he says: Take a new name.

Mr. Coleman, or as he's now known, Tony Spinosa, says he's just "doing what the market expects me to do: Play the game." The first book in his new series, "Hose Monkey," will be out next October, published by Bleak House Books. "Do I have some bitterness?" he asks. "Yes. But what good will it do me?"

Now that retailers can track books sales speedily and efficiently with point-of-sale technology, the entire publishing world knows when an author's commercial performance takes a dive. For these unfortunate scribblers, such a sales record makes it hard to get good advances and big orders from bookstores. So some are adopting an unusual strategy: adopting an alias -- even one of the opposite sex.

Two decades ago, the book industry largely relied on guesswork as it decided what to publish and sell. Editors could keep promoting promising authors, even if sales were weak. When they finally wrote a "breakout" title, their catalog of older books would become valuable.

These days, publishing veterans talk about "the death spiral" of authors' careers. A first novel generates terrific reviews and good sales, but with each succeeding book, sales get weaker and the chains cut their orders until they don't stock any at all.

"You're only as good as your last book's sales to much of the retail market," says New York literary agent Richard Pine, a principal in Inkwell Management LLC...

As usual, being the trendsetters we are we discussed this idea nine months ago, but now that everyone's doing it, it may be time to revisit the topic.

Venue Revisited

Back in March, I wrote a brief blogbit on the pleasure of writing while sitting at my dining room table, watching the sun rise over the pasture and enjoying Nature in all her glory. This morning I got another one of those rare treats you can only get in such a situation: the buckthorn tree outside my west window is full of noisy, squabbling robins, gorging themselves on black buckthorn berries in preparation for the long flight south.

Did I mention that the berries have started to ferment?

And now my writing is being punctuated by the occasional soggy thump of a drunken robin trying to fly through the window. None have managed to kill themselves yet, but it's only a matter of time as they keep getting up, shaking it off, then flying back up into the tree to pig out on more berries.

Nature in all her staggering drunk frat house kegger glory, indeed.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Gratuitous BritSpeak

Mark asks:
I read a very interesting piece you wrote that convinced me that you are the person who can answer a burning question I have. What in the world has recently occurred where the word "the" is dropped when speaking of hospitals? ex. "My grandmother is ill and has been in hospital for weeks."

There are others like this and they escape me at present. What's your theory?

Mark, what we have here is a fine example of a gratuitous britishism. Americans use the word hospital as a noun, and thus speak of that big building where you go to have expensive and painful life-changing experiences as "the hospital." The British drop the article and always speak of being "in hospital," as if they're midway through the process of transforming the noun into a verb and will someday speak of going hospitaling or having been hospitaled.

(I've often wondered: if you get into a bad car accident on the A590, might you wind up in traction in hospital in Barrow-in-Furness?)

Americans who use the expression "in hospital," on the other hand, are probably doing so because they feel it makes them seem more cultured, worldly, and frankly, less American. If you observe such a person closely, you will eventually catch them spelling the monochrome shade between black and white as "grey," inserting extraneous u's into "neighbor" and "color," and talking of giving some stubborn mechanism "a good bash with a spanner."

A Fun Game to Play: if you catch someone using the expression "in hospital," note the date, and see how long it takes them to use the expression "put the Wellie on it" when they want someone to move faster!


Thursday, November 03, 2005

Dept. of Shameless Self-Promotion

SFRevu takes a look at King Kong is Back! and finds:

"One of the delightful things about the upcoming King Kong remake is we get a treat such as David Brin has worked up in King Kong is Back!. More than just a collection of short stories, we have reminisences by James Gunn in "King Kong and 1930s Science Fiction", a very funny essay by Bruce Bethke on why KK must always be a period piece, an extremely informative piece by Bob Eggleton on how the film was animated..."

Okay. I can take praise. I can handle it.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Used Book Stores: Threat or Menace?

Boz asks:
In my previous comment I mentioned buying from a used book store and I had never really considered it from an author's perspective. How do authors feel about used book stores?

As usual, the answer is: ask six authors how they feel about the subject and you'll get at least eight opinions.

Speaking strictly for myself, I have to say that I like used-book stores and visit them often. True, the author only makes money off the original sale of the book, so the sale of a used book does the author no direct material good, but used-book stores perform two vital services in that they keep out-of-print books available (better in a used-book store than in a landfill) and they do so at the sorts of prices that appeal to people on a starving student's budget. I can think of quite a few authors that I quite like that I never would have discovered if my only choice had been to buy their books when they were new releases and at full retail price.

On the other hand, it is disconcerting to find a copy of one of your own books in a used-book store, open it, and find it's one you personalized and gave to a friend.

What's your favorite story of something great that you found in a used-book store?