Meet the Inmates

Chris Naron
Vidad MaGoodn
Vidad's Flaming Drones of Death
Rigel Kent
Henry the V
Al, The New Guy
Michael Maier
Flicka Spumoni
Passin Through
Sean, the Were-seal
Water Buffalo
Frau im Mond
Ian McLeod
Captain Slack
J. Max Wilson
Carl V.
Damaged Justice

Recent Posts


Powered by Blogger

Weblog Commenting and Trackback by

Friday, March 31, 2006

Assignment: Save the Guinea Worm!

The Guinea Worm is an African parasite that can in all fairness be called hideous. Spaghetti-thin and ranging up to three feet in length, it spends its life tunneling slowly through its human hosts, mostly just under the skin. Then, when it's ready to spawn, it secretes an acid that causes an excruciatingly painful blister, which in turn causes its host to plunge the afflicted body part into water, whereupon the worm erupts from the blister and spews forth its larvae.

(For a more detailed description, as well as photos that are most definitely not for the squeamish, see this New York Times article.)

The one bright thing about the Guinea Worm is that it has no other animal vector or host. The adult worm lives only in humans, and it is spread only by drinking water contaminated with larvae. The larvae can be killed with a simple, safe, and common pesticide, or barring that, they can readily be filtered out. It should be fairly easy to eradicate this pest, and in fact, thanks in part to the efforts of former president Jimmy Carter, there were fewer than 12,000 cases reported last year.


But what if the truth really is a matter of your point of view? What if Ingrid Newkirk of PETA is right when she says "A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy," and the Guinea Worm has every bit as much right to life and the pursuit of happiness as those heartless monsters who are conducting genocidal war against it? What if we should be thinking, not of 12,000 human cases of a loathesome and disfiguring disease, but of just 12,000 breeding areas still left for this potentially valuable and definitely endangered rain forest species?

That's your assignment for this weekend: write a one-paragraph synopsis of your story that looks at the potential extinction of the Guinea Worm from the perspective of an animal rights activist. And remember; it's from the rain forest, so it's got to be good!

Catch you Monday,

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Assorted SF News

Just a couple of random items here from the SFWA news page (, which I should probably add to my watchlist. The ballot for the 2006 Hugo Awards has been announced, as has the ballot for the 2006 RITA Award for Best Paranormal, Science Fiction, or Fantasy Romance. (Ask Vox Day about that latter one -- and be prepared to duck.)

Amazing Stories has finally and officially ceased publication again; hardly surprising as it's been "on hiatus" for over a year.

And Stanislaw Lem has died, which doesn't bother me much, but so has David Feintuch, which makes me sad. Dave was a nice guy. There aren't enough of them in the business.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Whether 'tis better to avoid or embrace blatant stupidity

Michael Maier poses a challenge regarding:
Avoiding contrived BS situations in writing? I'm on a critical kick lately and while I loved the Firefly series, Joss Whedon's writing crews try to be cute at the expense of the story too damn often.

My brother makes amateur films and he gets mad if I analyze stuff he likes. But if you ignore blatant stupidity just because you like the overall product, does that help you become a better artist/writer/director/whatever?

Johnny the Screenwriter and I argue about this one all the time. He's forever saying, "Hey, did you see [insert title here]? Wasn't it great?" And way too often my response is, "It was a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." To which his rebuttal is, "Yeah, but tell me, didn't it look great?!" And then, as if in a casual afterthought, he'll add: "By the way: it grossed 37 mill on opening weekend."

When you're working in the realm of the fantastic, a certain amount of blatant stupidity is an occupational hazard. We even have a name for it: willing suspension of disbelief. We know that dead people can't really rise from the grave, transform themselves into bats, and feed on the blood of the living, but we'll accept it for the sake of a safe scare. We know that fighting spacecraft if they ever really come to exist won't really need to engage in swirling dogfights like Fokkers and Sopwith Camels, but we accept it for the sake of the thrilling adventure. We know that starships won't really be able to accelerate instantly to Warp 5 without also turning everyone inside the ships into sticky red goo on the aft bulkheads, but we accept it because otherwise it's a damned short story.

The trick, I think, is to get the audience to suspend disbelief without rubbing their noses in the fact that they're doing it, and while I manage it all the time, I have no clear idea of how I do it. Anyone else want to take a swing at this one?

Monday, March 27, 2006


Chris Naron asks:
How about exposition? Nothing distracts me more than two idiots telling each other what they already know. I think you wrote on this last year, but I don't remember any tips on how to hide it.

What you're describing is the classic "Don and Rob" lecture, in which both characters are merely sock-puppets for the author and exist only to exposit background information, and I think the bit of old bloggerel you're seeking is this one. If not, part of the answer here depends on the effect you're trying to achieve. In comedy, for example, you can get great mileage out of dialog between two flaming idiots who do know exactly the same information and absolutely agree with each other on every point. Alternately, you can make the exposition entertaining by setting it up as a dialog in which one character is really trying to explain something to a third party, but another character is constantly interrupting with non sequiturs and quibbles over utterly unimportant details.

If you're not doing comedy, here are some suggestions for how to disguise a lump of exposition:

1. If both characters know the information: does it really need to be said out loud? Try omitting the exposition completely. Chances are your readers will be able to pick up all they really need to know from context.

2. If the information is deemed essential to the story: do Don and Rob really need to say it? The Don & Rob act is usually a result of overapplying the Show, Not Tell rule, whereas sometimes it's better to just Tell And Get It Over With. If the form of the story doesn't allow for a narrative voice delivering exposition ex cathedra, try slipping in a quote from a fictional reference source, e.g. The Encyclopedia Omniscientia or The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. For example, in Rebel Moon, huge chunks of exposition and background were disguised as quotes from an imaginary history book written a century and a half after the events in question.

3. Try wrapping it in a piece of lunchmeat or a glob of mashed potato -- no, wait, that's how I get pills into the dog.

4. Give your characters something to do during the exposition. Keep their hands busy. It breaks up the lump if your narrator has to stop speaking for a moment and fiddle with or react to something.

5. I think the biggest problem with Don & Rob is that when you write two characters discussing a point, whether they're agreeing or arguing, they're both aspects of your writer's voice, so they both fundamentally understand each other. I've gotten good results by putting this sort of exposition into the mouths of characters who not only do not understand each other, they don't even inhabit the same world. For example, here's how I explained the time travel gimmick that was central to a story I sold about 20 years ago. The story begins...
The drugs were taking effect by the time Tyson was wheeled into the projection room, so he had to strain to make sense of Professor Neibelung's words. First the man thanked him, in an oddly evasive way, for 'volunteering' for the experiment. Then the buzzing in Tyson's head let up for a moment and he caught, "--positive by-product of the Berquist Stardrive Disaster was the opening of a region of multi-ply periodic space-time.

"This apparatus," Neibelung continued, as he gently patted the muzzle of the projector, "taps the sensory feeds to your brain and re-routes them through the Berquist Anomaly, where they are reflected off a resonant human nervous system on the other side. In effect, you will experience life as another person in another time." Neibelung walked around the gurney, making sure the straps that held Tyson were good and tight. "You will hear what that person hears, see what he sees, feel what he feels. With careful alignment of the beam, we can select the general place and time. In this test, we will attempt to project you to Renaissance Italy, around 1500 A.D.

"It will be a marvelous time," Neibelung said wistfully. "You may find yourself walking with the greatest men of a millennium." He found a loose strap and snugged it down. "You will, of course, have no free will, nor will you be able to communicate with your host. But on the other hand, always remember that no matter what happens, your body and brain remain safely here. There is absolutely no risk."

Thickly, groggily, Tyson said, "Sounds like bullshit to me."

"It is," Neibelung said with a smile. "If I knew what was going to happen, I'd try it myself." He threw a switch.

...and from that point on, it's pure action to the end of the story.

There, those are some of the standard tools in my kit. Have you found anything that works particularly well for you?

Sunday, March 26, 2006

The First Rule of Acquisition

I'm trying something different this week. I generally feel I do my best scribbling first thing in the morning, but since Feedblitz seems to generate the subscription feed at around midnight EST, I'm going to try blogging late at night in hopes of getting the feed in sync with the blog. So much for the idea that technology should adapt to people, huh?

In the meantime, Gir writes -- oh, the details of the pitch don't matter, what matters is the final question:
Does this seem like a good deal?

At the risk of seeming hasty and judgmental: no, it does not.

Look, folks, let's all say this together this time, so we all remember it: The money always flows to the writer. Yes, it's okay to sell work for chump change in hopes of breaking into a market (although it usually doesn't pay off). Yes, it's even okay to give work away for free to get attention. Yes, in a trade where success is a direct result of mindshare, a good agent can really make your career.

But anyone who wants money from you in advance is not an agent; he or she is a parasite feeding on the hopes and dreams of aspiring writers. A legitimate agent:

1. Makes his or her living by earning a commission on the sales he or she helps you make to publishers.

2. Does not get paid until after you close the sale.

3. Takes his or her payment as a percentage of the money you receive from the publisher, when you receive it from the publisher.

Anyone who wants to get money from you and before you make a sale -- and especially anyone who will only promise in return to "expose your work" to "leading industry decision makers" -- well, let's just say that you should examine the offer very, very, very carefully. And yes, I know there are such things as professional publicists, and they can do wonderful things for some people. But unless you're already famous in another field, or at least Jenna Bush's ex-lover and have the pornographic home videos to prove it, you have to ask yourself: are you really the sort of person who would attract the unsolicited attention of such an agent/publicist?

And would they really be likely to contact you by email? And for that matter, would they be likely to contact you by what appears to be a spam email, addressed to "undisclosed recipients?"

Friday, March 24, 2006

Firefly Redux

I meant to post a review of Serenity (3 stars: very well made, but the story will make sense to Firefly fans only), but it got cross-pollinated. In another discussion I was talking about Wild Wild West and got asked why, if I'd already outlined the follow-on novel, I didn't just take that outline, change the clearly identifiable WWWest bits, and write a post-Civil War steampunk novel. I was in the midst of explaining how that book would be a tough sell right now, and that if I really wanted to have a chance of selling such a novel I'd have to reset it in the 25th century, relocate it to the planet Quoxnarg VI, change The Wanderer from a private train to a starshi---


Let's see. Hooker with a heart of gold? Check. Salt-of-the-earth preacher with hints of a violent past? Check. Surly ex-Confederate officer whose gruff and cynical exterior hides a hero's heart? Check. Selflessly loyal second banana who "served with the cap'n in the war" and sticks with him now for no readily apparent reason? Check. Somewhat untrustworthy "doctor" whose little black bag contains magic snake oils that can cure anything? Check.

Inarticulate trigger-happy hombre who's awkward and embarassing in social situations but worth his weight in gold in a fight? Check. He's even named Jayne. Jayne? What the heck kind of name is Jayne? Yeah, Jayne. As in, John Wayne.

Oh, my goodness. I was wrong. Firefly isn't an anti-Federation take on the world of Star Trek. It's Stagecoach in Space: The Series. Which means that Serenity is Stagecoach in Space: The Series: The Motion Picture.

There's more. There's lots more. For example, we've also got the 95-lb. girl who, at the utterance of a magic word (Sha-ZAM!), turns into a martial arts killing machine who can toss around villains three times her weight. But rather than go into that now, I'd like to open the floor for discussion.

Anyone here up for a rousing Friday morning game of Spot the Cliche?

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Fame and Fortune (Conclusion)

Today's magic word is "focus." One of my larger problems is my inability to maintain a consistent focus. There are just so blasted many things that fascinate me, and nowhere near time and energy enough to pursue them all.

For example, is some quantum alternate universe I stuck it out in radio, and am now co-hosting a daily public radio program with my fellow UW-RF alum, Cathy Wurzer. In another, I stayed in the serious music business and am still out in Hollywood, doing film scores with my old friend and sometime collaborator, D.J. Olsen. In yet another I got really serious about rock 'n' roll, and like Tom the Bass Player, died of liver failure in my mid-30s.

Some paths are less-traveled for good reason. God Speed, old friend.

I'm a fair hand with a camera; one of my alternate selves is still out there somewhere, trying to eke out a living as a freelance photojournalist. I'm a lousy cartoonist but a good technician; maybe in some parallel world, Pete Wagner and I finally managed to launch that little animation and video production house we often talked about. And in some really distant alternate universe, I actually figured out how to make a living out of sailing around the world...

I did not intend to become a sci-fi writer. In point of fact, at the same time as I was writing the short stories that would become my first professional sales, I was also chasing grants and commissions as a composer, and working for Passport Designs as part of the team that wrote the MIDI 1.0 spec. All my musician friends were amazed when I showed up with my first magazine publication -- and then irritated, as I insisted on explaining that the great thing about writing fiction was that you didn't have to recruit players, book a hall, rehearse, or perform a story.

Perhaps this long discourse would make more sense if you could see my office. It's half office, half multitrack recording studio. And there are camera bodies and lenses everywhere.

My point is: while I've done many things, and had some measure of success in nearly all of them, I can't help but wonder where I'd be now if I'd really concentrated on one of them. So as the discussion here turns to the idea of putting out fiction in audio form, I can't help but think that once again, here is a great opportunity to lose focus.

Oh, I'd start out with the best of intentions, of course, but I know how my process works. Five minutes into reading the story, that frustrated little studio producer in the back of my head would pipe up with the observation that the scene would work better with some sound effects. And this next scene really needs a little ambient music. And the action scene that starts on page 5; that really needs some nice wet reverb and a stereo pan to the right. And my God, in chapter 2, you just cannot read that part, you need to find a middle-aged woman to be the voice of that character...

And pretty soon, we're back to needing to recruit players, book a hall, rehearse, and perform the story. And we're not getting any new fiction written.

Your final thoughts and comments?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Fame and Fortune (Part 3)

There's no denying that the electronic media are the 800-lb gorillas of the infotainment world. The "Oprah Effect" on book sales is well-documented, and while Rush Limbaugh didn't make Vince Flynn's career, his free plugs for Flynn's novels certainly don't hurt. But how do we as writers --pardon the expression -- plug in to these electronic juggernauts?

The good news is that the electronic media are vast, gaping, bottomless gullets that must be filled afresh daily, so they're always looking for new material to pour in. The bad news is that every other publisher and professional publicist in the world knows this, so the media folks are already inundated with press releases, free books, and every manner of weird promotional knick-knack you can possibly imagine. (Among other things, I worked in radio for awhile. Oh, the stories I could tell...) If your publisher's marketing people are even remotely close to having their act together, they should be carpet-bombing media outlets with advance reading copies of your book in the months before it's released.

But that's assuming you have a publisher, and anyway, this is a blog, so we should be talking about alternative ways to use electronic media to promote your literary career. Which brings us to today's questions:

Does anyone here actually listen to podcasts? Streaming audio? Anything other than music on either their mp3 player or their computer? If you had the capacity to download, say, a dramatic reading of Theodore Sturgeon's It, would you actually bother to do so? And having done so once for novelty's sake, would you be likely to do so again?

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Fame and Fortune (Part 2)

Mark Twain started out -- well, if you read Roughing It, you'll learn that he started out as a lot of things. But as a writer, he started out working for a local newspaper that I gather was a lot like a modern metro weekly tabloid: one-half advertising, one-eighth news, and the rest a spicy melange of rumor, gossip, scandal, and opinion. From there he graduated to travel writing and foreign correspondence (Innocents Abroad), and while he was writing and selling short stories, which was great for his reputation, the place he was really making his living was on the lecture circuit. If you were to make an algorithm of Twain's life, it would be:

1. make some money on a book
2. blow it all on a bad investment
3. go back out on the lecture circuit, make gobs of money to cover his losses, and buy the time to write the next book
4. repeat

It's an interesting synergism. The lectures drove sales of the books; the books in turn expanded the audience for the lectures. Sadly, the lecture tour was a 19th century phenomenon and I doubt we will ever see its likes again. As far as I can tell a Twain lecture was a combination of one-man stage show (if you haven't seen Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight!, you really should find a copy and watch it), two-hour standup comedy routine, and socio/political monologue.

I keep casting about for a contemporary analogue, and the closest I can come is talk radio. But even Twain didn't have to come up with a different two-hour show five days a week! And somehow, I find it hard to believe that 60 years from now, some well-respected actor is going to be touring with "Rush Limbaugh Tonight!"

So here's today's question. I've read, or at least attempted to read, books by many of our better-known radio talk shows hosts, and my current theory is that the ability to host a successful radio talk show requires a certain je ne sais quoi that is incompatible with good writing. Does anyone here know of a good book written by someone who is first and foremost a radio personality?

Monday, March 20, 2006

The Whole Fame and Fortune Thing (Part 1)

Chris Naron makes the unhappy observation:
You have to be a personality to attract buyers. Being a celebrity helps, but making your face known and loved is a lock. I held a contest once as a youth pastor where the kid who won a month long Bible Study trivia tournament got a $50 gift certificate to Barnes and Nobles. What did the kid who won buy? Some freaking pro wrestler's autobiography.

If the public knows and likes your face, it will buy your book even if it's [expletive deleted].

If it's any consolation, musicians who actually know how to play their instruments frequently make the same observation about pop stars like Brittany Spears, actors who've actually studied their craft uncork the same fine whine about movie stars like Lindsay Lohan, and artists who've spent years learning to paint the human figure say the same about that guy who wraps national parks in pink plastic.

So? Just as it's easier to become richer than it is to become rich, it's easier to become more famous than it is to become famous, and it's entirely possible to be famous simply for being famous. Yes, it's unfair, but what's the alternative? A National Arts Nobbling Council that decides who's allowed to become famous and has the power to ban all public discussion of anyone else? An attractive thought, admittedly, but...

Look, the truth is in the numbers. A huge, phenomenal, shout-it-from-the-rooftops bestselling book sells maybe 3 million copies in the span of a year. A major-studio movie that only sells 3 million tickets on opening weekend is a flop. A TV series that only draws 3 million viewers weekly is cancelled, except on UPN or WB. A major league team that only sells 3 million tickets annually needs a new taxpayer-funded stadium or else they're moving to Atlanta.

The grim truth of the matter is that we live in a largely non-literate culture, and we as writers can only hope to reach a very small percentage of the population. As long as we're talking in terms of raw, unwashed, lowest common denominator numbers, no fiction author will ever be as temporarily famous as the starting forward for the L.A. Lakers.

So there's no point in worrying about it. Think of the people you can reach, not those you can never reach because they haven't touched a book since their sophomore year of high school. (Well, okay, you may think about them once in a while, but only to shudder when you realize that they're still allowed to vote.) Unless you have a foolproof plan for becoming famous in some other way and then using that fame to draw attention to your writing, there is only one way to build an audience for your writing, and ever since I was forced to give up my dream of becoming the first affirmative action hire in the NBA I've been more impressed by the truth of this every day.

The one proven way to become famous as a writer is by writing. Write lots. Write lots more. And put your stuff out there, where other people can read it. And maybe, if you're lucky, and you write the right thing at the right time and it clicks with the right audience --

"But surely," you say, "there must be an easier way?"

To be continued...

Friday, March 17, 2006


It's Friday morning and too late to write any serious bloggerel this week, so I'd like to take this opportunity to introduce a new parlor game. It's called WWJBD, and it goes like this:

On April 14, 1943, U.S. naval intelligence intercepted and decrypted a message giving the exact whereabouts and travel plans of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese navy's supreme commander and architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Now, as it happened, U.S. Navy Admiral William "Bull" Halsey Jr. was tasked with doing something useful with this information, and he dealt with it in his usual somewhat unimaginative but highly effective way. Scratch one Japanese admiral.

But what if history had taken a different turn? What if instead the British Royal Navy had intercepted and decrypted the message? What if the task of doing something useful with this information had been turned over to the Secret Intelligence Service's Special Operations Executive? In this situation:

What would James Bond do?

The floor is now open. Who wants to go first?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Missing Paragraph

Apologies for the light blogging this week. One kid's home on spring break, another is having car troubles, and the third is very disappointed that he's not getting yet another snow day today. In between working, shoveling, and chasing all over town on various errands I've also been trying to wrap up an essay for BenBella Books, so the blogging hasn't just taken a back seat; it's been back in the cargo space with a couple of wet dogs.

I'm rather pleased with the way the essay turned out, but as always I'm disappointed that I wrote something in the first draft and then had to scrap it in the final. Try as I might, though, I just could not make this bit fit in:

James Bond lives in a world where governments recognize that oligarchies and fabulously wealthy megalomaniacs are a danger to democracy and the rule of law, not important sources of campaign contributions. In our world the president would be more likely to schedule a lunch and photo op with Ernst Stavro Blofeld than to send a secret agent after him, and state governments would compete by offering tax incentives to be selected as the site of the new SPECTRE lair. The business pages of our local newspapers would carry quarter-page photos of smiling men with shovels over captions reading: "Groundbreaking ceremonies for SPECTRE's new secret lair were held today in rural Chanhassen. The multinational evil organization's new corporate hideout, which is expected to take 3 years to construct at a cost of $3.6 billion dollars, will when fully complete provide jobs and housing for more than 2,000 henchmen, minions, and nameless drones and contribute an estimated $500 million annually to the local economy."

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Publishing in the 21st Century (Part 4)

It's beyond question that the Internet has radically transformed this writing trade. As recently as 12 years ago it was the rare reader who took the time and trouble to write and mail an actual letter to an author, and the even rarer editor who used email for business purposes. (And at 1200 baud, who in their right mind would want to send a 100,000-word manuscript by modem, anyway?) Now, thanks to the Internet, writers can have almost overwhelming contact with their fans (as witnessed by the "My Blog Ate My Writing Career!" phenomenon), and immediate and nearly constant contact with their editors, which as far as I can tell only means that instead of waiting weeks or months to begin the "The Check Is In The Mail" dance, you can begin it almost instantly. No publisher I know of pays their authors using PayPal.

More importantly, thanks to the Internet, no book ever really goes out of print, at least in the sense of being utterly unavailable for the sufficiently motivated and fiscally empowered buyer. Want to find a copy of any one of the more than three million books currently or recently in print in the U.S.? Search's practically infinite backlist. Need a copy right now of Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class? While there are plenty of used copies for sale on Amazon, you'll get it faster by downloading it for free from Project Gutenberg. Looking for a book that was only published once, in Italian, in the early 17th century? At this exact moment there are 151 such items matching that description on the Italian ebay site.

If the Necronomicon ex Mortis actually existed, it would no longer be necessary to brave the unearthly terrors of the Forbidden Forest and fight your way through the Army of the Dead in order to get it. You'd just have to wait long enough and sooner or later it would show up on ebay.

Better|worse, the whole idea of "North American" and "Foreign" rights is becoming close to irrelevant. In the good old days buying a book that was available only in a foreign edition meant going to your local bookstore, asking them to order it, plunking down a lot of money in advance, waiting months for the book to arrive, and hoping it was still in readable condition when it finally did. Now, if you want to read Tom Holt's latest, You Don't Have To Be Evil To Work Here, But It Helps, you can just pop over to and have it in your hot little hands by this time next week. Ditto for the latest hot manga at (Although I cannot for the life of me explain why "Lizzie McGuire: Fashionably Lizzie," is the hottest selling foreign video in Japan right now, so don't even ask me to try.)

What makes this "worse" is that I used to derive a significant portion of my writing income from selling foreign publication and translation rights to fiction first published in North America. What makes this "better" is that my next book will probably be published in the U.K. only, and it's nice to know my American readers will still be able to obtain it.


But all of the foregoing commentary applies only to motivated buyers who know which book they're looking for! According to a Borders marketing study, roughly two-thirds of the people who walk into their bookstores don't know what book they're going to buy, they're just in the mood to buy a book that day. (And half of them are looking to buy a book, not to read, but to give to someone else.)

So we're back to the fundamental question: how do you motivate book buyers?

To be continued...

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Publishing in the 21st Century (Part 3)

Blogging is fun. It's very gratifying, as well. You get to see your words go out into the world right now; you get feedback on what you've written right now. Haloscan sends you a little tickler every time someone posts a comment, and your email inbox is kept fat and happy. Almost every writer I know has a blog these days, and it certainly is a great way to keep in touch with your fans. (Or in my case, fan. Hi, Christy!)

The trouble is, blogging is so much fun and so immediately gratifying that it's quite easy to turn your blog into your fulltime job and forget that you need to write for paying publication. I know some good writers who have done this. Their writing careers have been completely consumed by their blogs, and now they just sit at their computer all day long, nattering away online and imagining they're accomplishing something. I know others who have managed to keep the two in some sort balance, but most of these will admit they can't credit their blogs with any positive change in their book sales. I know yet a few more who get some pocket change income from Google ad-sense and click-throughs, but nothing to brag about.

What I don't know are any writers who are making serious incomes from their blogs alone, or any good writers who started with a blog and then made the transition to successful print author. Blogging demands a punchy, pointillistic, nearly epigrammatic style, and it's very hard to make the transition from doing that to writing the next 2,000 words of your novel in progress. I know. I try it every day.

The foregoing assertion seems to need some qualification. Yes, there are writers who are paid to write blogs, but that's better described as PR flack work, no different from having a day job writing advertising copy. Yes, Wonkette did parlay her blog into a quarter-million dollar book advance, but her novel, The Washingtonienne, was released to damning reviews and is languishing in the mid-20,000s sales rank. (This may change now that Sarah Jessica Parker has optioned the book for a made-for-HBO movie.) Yes, I am watching the career of Diablo Cody with interest, but only because I'm curious to see whether she actually makes it as a writer or is simply this year's Xaviera Hollander. These latter two are both living proof that with the right combination of luck and chutzpah, anyone can get a huge book advance once. Even Pia Zadora got to make one big-budget movie.

I could write more. I could write lots more. But right now, it's time to get back to paying work.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Publishing in the 21st Century (Part 2)

Sweeping generalizations time. We writers are a reclusive lot. After all, if we actually enjoyed performing live in front of large groups of people, we'd be performance artists of some sort. Actor/writers, singer/songwriters, standup comedians; all of these people tap into the same creative wellspring that writer/writers do, but frankly, the number of good novels or even good short stories written by these people is vanishingly small. This is for one simple reason. Good writers would rather stay home and write something new than go out and perform the same old shtick over and over again in front of an audience.

No, when you look at writers as a class, you'll find a lot more Emily Dickinsons than -- y'know, I can't even think of one good example of a writer who gives good talkshow. Most good writers I know find it a chore to do even something as mild as a friendly interview for a fanzine or a panel at a sci-fi con, but accept doing these things as necessary evils. On the other hand, those extroverts who are exceptionally good at self-promotion are most often no great shakes as writers, which begs the question: is it their fascinating personality that sells their books, or is the American book-buying public really that lacking in taste and intelligence? (Don't answer that.)

So here's the writer's dilemma: given the basic writer's introverted personality, in a world where 25,000 new novels are published each year, how do you rise about the background noise without squandering all the time and energy it takes to write new work?

To be continued...

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Publishing in the 21st Century (Part 1)

From time to time I go spelunking through the Publisher's Weekly web site. I can't do this often, as it's bad for my mental health; when faced with so many blunt reminders of my utter insignificance in the world of contemporary letters, I develop a sudden and inexplicable urge to adopt a female pen name and bash out a series of trashy chick-lit vampire novels. Fortunately this urge passes quickly and my sanity always returned.

So far.

Still, PW makes very interesting reading for those of us who work in the fiction trade. When you ignore the fluff pieces and press releases and start to dig into the business news and numbers, you begin to develop a sense that there is something profoundly wrong with the entire industry. Case in point: in 2004 (the last year for which audited numbers are available), American publishers book released 195,000 new titles. Of these, 25,184 were new works of fiction aimed at adult readers. Looking at the trends over time, there was a 64-percent increase in the number of books produced annually between 1999 and 2004.

The problem is that during that same period, total industry-wide sales increased by barely 10-percent. Now, anyone here who's ever taken an Intro to Econ course: what happens when you have a rapidly increasing amount of product chasing a slowly increasing number of dollars?

On top of the deflationary pressure, then, the American book industry as it exists today is also mind-bogglingly wasteful. Industry-wide, returns are running slightly over 30-percent -- that is, for every three books shipped to bookstores, one is returned unsold. In the mass market fiction category things are worse, with returns currently running at about 45% of gross. At close to two books shipped for every one sold, that's a lot of innocent trees that have died in vain, and that doesn't even begin to count the number of books that are printed and just end up mouldering in some warehouse somewhere.

Nor does the situation look like it's going to improve any time soon. In 2004 alone, 11,458 new publishers -- each presumably with a list of books they intend to publish -- registered their businesses with the U.S. ISBN agency.

Clearly, technology has dramatically lowered the cost of entry into the publishing business. The challenge for the writer in the 21st century is no longer one of finding a publisher; you can hardly turn around without tripping over half a dozen, most of whom seem to be operating on the Rooney & Garland "Let's put on a show!" business model. No, the challenge now is: how do you find readers? The lackluster sales figures being posted by the industry-leading publishers would seem to indicate that even they, with their enormous advertising budgets, don't know the answer.

Or as our friend Mark M puts it rather neatly: "Information is no longer a scarce resource - attention is."

To be continued...

Friday, March 03, 2006

Friday Challenge - 3/3/06

We took a day trip in early February, and I finally got around to getting the film developed last week. The contrast between being in Chattanooga in late January, where people were complaining about the weather because it was raining, versus being in Garrison, Minnesota, on a sunny, clear, and bright 20-below-zero afternoon in early February --

Well, here. Check out the pictures yourself.

That's right. It gets so cold in Minnesota, we can plow racetracks on the surfaces of frozen lakes and have stock car races on the ice. People build fishing cabins on the lakes, not just near them, and camp in them for weeks at a time and call it "fun." It gets so cold in Minnesota, when you inhale, your nostril hairs actually freeze, and the snow "squeaks" when you walk on it.

So here's today's challenge. As you go about your business today, keep your eyes, ears, and if at all possible, nose, open. Try to look at your locale as if you were a stranger in it. Find at least one sensory cue about the place where you are that only someone who is actually there now would notice, and share it with the rest of us.

Have fun!

P.S. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. Weekends belong to my family, so see you Monday!

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Recommended Reading - 3/2/06

Today I'd like to introduce you to some other sites that you may find interesting. First up is Steve Hannaford's Oligopoly Watch. If you don't normally spend a lot of time reading the financial pages, this is an interesting place to start. If you really don't want to spend any time reading articles about mergers and acquisitions, you should at least read Steve's three-part series on "The Shelf Life of Books", as it will give you a pretty good overview of the current state of the American book publishing industry.

Next up, Ranting Room regular Guy Stewart has an article, "A Matter of Time," in the latest issue of The Writer magazine. The site requires registration, which is a major pain in the tuchus, but there are some other interesting and free things to be found on their site, so it's worth checking out.

Finally, if you haven't received enough abuse lately, check out the blog of Miss Snark, Literary Agent. There are days I think that, based on the sheer volume of venomous bitchiness involved, "she" must actually be a drag queen masquerading as a female literary agent. If she actually is who she claims to be then I don't know how she manages to get any work done, what with all the time she must spend on her blog, but what she writes is fascinating, funny, and at times, quite insightful. If nothing else, you might use her as the template for that female character you've been itching to write but never could pull off: you know, the unrestrained id who makes people desperate to escape her presence in a matter of mere minutes...

Happy reading!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006


In my nonexistent spare time, I'm webmaster for a section 501(c) non-profit organization. Now, many years ago, when this whole "internet" thing was just starting to take off, one of the members of the then-Board of Directors had the foresight to think that the organization should stake out a little virtual turf in cyberspace, just in case this "web" thing might someday prove to be useful. This they did, but because they were a non-profit organization, and because at the time domain name registration was a moderately expensive and somewhat difficult proposition, after a few weeks they proudly launched their one and only web site: [organizationname].org. And there was much rejoicing.

Times change. InterNIC is no longer the sole arbiter of domain names. The rules for registering domains have become quite relaxed, and the cost of doing so is nearly insignificant. Outfits like are even in the business of encouraging people to register large blocks of domain names, so that they might speculate in the domain name market by locking up the rights to names that other people might someday want. Imagine the horror that struck my little non-profit, then, when last week a newly elected Board member accidentally entered [organizationname].com into her browser, and was redirected to -- well, it wasn't a porn site, but it sure wasn't good.

Her first reaction was predictable: she called the President of the organization in a panic and demanded that I appear at the Board of Directors meeting, to explain just what the Hell I was doing with their web site. I did so, and the Board's reaction was equally predictable: when I explained the true nature of the problem, they said, "Can they legally do that?" The answer, unfortunately, was yes: given that some years before the Board had voted not to spend the money to register the .com and .net variants on their site name, those names were now up for grabs. The Board's next question, of course, was, "Well, what can we do about it now?," and someone began singing that old Warren Zevon song about lawyers, guns, and money...

Google is my good friend. (Google is also my worst enemy, but that's a topic for another time.) When I got home from the Board meeting that night I got online, and in about twenty minutes I learned the name of the current domain name owner, which was in fact a nested set of shell companies that bounced ownership back and forth across the U.S. - Canadian border just to muddy the trail. Further, I learned that the ultimate owner was listed on several nations' consumer fraud watch-lists -- he'd been a busy little beaver -- and in a wonderful stroke of luck I found the full text of the decision in the case of a certain famous NFL player vs. this company, which ruled that this company had engaged in bad-faith cybersquatting and awarded the domain name in question to the famous person whose name it actually was. Armed with this information, the corporation's legal counsel --

Actually, I don't know what they've done or are going to do. It's not my concern.

But the moral here, folks, is this: they could have avoided the whole problem years ago, if they'd just been willing to spend a few bucks to register their .com domain name.

As writers, our names (or our pen names) are our commercial brands. Domain name registration is cheap, and outfits like and others make it easy. If there is any possibility at all that you will someday want to create a website to promote yourself or your work, you owe it to your future self to invest a little time and money now in order to secure the rights to your own writer's name.

After all: it's always cheaper to buy something outright, than it is to buy it back after someone else has got some idea of just how much you want it.