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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

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Friday, February 29, 2008

Friday Challenge: And the winner is...

Holy Moly, talk about having an embarrassment of riches! We had some really great entries in the 2/22/08 Friday Challenge, and I'm somewhere between impressed and stunned by the quality of the work you folks have produced. Addressing the entries in no particular order:

WaterBoy - (link) What can I say but, Dude, it's like, whoa, and then like, whoa!, and then it's like —

Sorry, I'll settle down now. Very nice; very creative. I especially like the idea that it's evil actions in our world that open the portal to that Other World where the Nasties live. Very cool.

Claymore - (link 1 | link 2 | link 3) Very nice setup in parts 1 and 2, but then you take that dizzying shift into part 3 — which by itself would be a good idea, but I feel cheated. I still want to know what happened to the old guy with the metal detector and the old lady with the leaf broach.

Al - The New Guy (link) Very well-written; very inventive. You've got some good skills and great ideas, and while this one isn't a winner, I definitely want to see more from you.

rycamor - (link) It would need some de-Tolkienization and you're right, the ending is rushed and needs work, but you actually have a really good pitch for a contemporary fantasy / magical realism novel here. I'd like to see you develop it further.

Vidad - (link) A giant, invisible, evil sea turtle? Nazgul riding black Segways? I love it. Much like rycamor's entry, I think yours is about one rewrite away from being sellable to a paying market, and I think you should go for it.

Henry Vogel - (link) You really need to get together with Vidad. This one is note-for-note perfect, except that it needs to be a YouTube video, not a print piece. (Hmm? I wonder where we can find a Peter Jackson lookalike? And a really good wide-angle lens...)

Sean - (link) Utterly daft; terrifically creative; insanely original. This would have been the winner, except that —

KTown - (link) — I then read KTown's entry, and just lost it. So, wanting a sanity check on my judgment, I printed out all the entries, taking care to hide the writer's names, and ran them by Karen.

When she hit the part where the hobbits sneak into Paris Hilton's post-Oscar party by waylaying an all-midget Kiss tribute band and taking their places, she lost it, too.

Ergo, the winner of this week's Friday Challenge, and the highly coveted whatever the heck it is behind Door #2, is KTown. After some discussion we also decided to award an Honorable Mention to Sean, so KTown and Sean, come on down and claim your prizes!

Now, as for the 2/29/08 Friday Challenge

Actually, the idea I had in mind seems pretty lame in light of the quality of this week's entries, so I'm going to go back, rethink it some more, and post it tomorrow.


Thursday, February 28, 2008

Friday Challenge Update

UPDATE, AT A QUARTER TO MIDNIGHT: Sorry, but this turned into an intensively First Rule day. (For those of you who haven't run into the term before: The First Rule of Being a Professional Writer is, "Paying work on deadline always takes precedence.")

More bloggerel tomorrow, then.

Meant to continue discoursing on "The Pollyanna Principle" this morning and answer some questions that were posted yesterday, but instead spent the time figuring how and why my latest firewall update clobbered my ability to log into my own fargin' blog, and then how to fix it. Out of time now; must dash, will post more later.

In the meantime, don't forget this week's Friday Challenge. You'll find most of the entries posted here, except for Vidad, who oddly enough hasn't submitted an entry this week, and Henry Vogel's entry, which was too large to fit into Haloscan and consequently is posted as this PDF file.


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Pollyanna Principle

This one's running a bit long and chaotic, which is why I started writing it Sunday night and still haven't finished it. Here's what I've got so far.

In response to last week's In Praise of Brilliant Amateurs, BC asks:
While nothing lasts forever, why so optimistic about the business side? While there are great aspects to the internet/long tail phenomenon for the consumer, I am not as optimistic for the creators.

As long as legions of would be "pro creatives" vie for the same dollars it will be a buyers market. This is true in almost all creative fields: writing, acting, music, art, video games, etc. The economics are bleak for all but the few anointed ones.

On the other hand: So what?

Opportunities for creative expression are everywhere. You don't get paid for Sunday school lessons, playing guitar with your friends, journaling, telling stories to your children and their friends or writing Christmas letters, but that is not to say that you are not compensated.

Bruce admits that success is often it's own worst punishment. On one side lies the sophomore curse, on the other Michael Jackson. Why then break your back pursuing professional creative success? If you want to feed yourself -- plant potatoes. If you want to express yourself -- pull out your fiddle. Combining the two is risky.
First off, I have to agree completely with the latter three paragraphs. If you don't need to make money off your art, great! More power to you. Have fun, and go wild!

But as for the initial question: why so optimistic about the business side? Partly it's out of pure Pollyanna positivism. I've tried despair; it didn't get me anywhere. I've tried bleak — and maybe I didn't try hard enough, because this year's Booker Prize winner was praised by the critics as being "exhiliratingly bleak," a concept I still have trouble wrapping my mind around. I'm impatient with nihilism; I've been known to laugh out loud at Goths. So why not be optimistic? At least you'll have a better time of it as you stagger along on your weary journey through the Wastelands of Misery to your final destination in The Black Pits of Despair. Me, I'll probably go there singing:
"Since my baby left me,
I've found a new place to dwell.
It's down on the end of Lonely Street
at Heartbreak Hotel..."
It's not pure cockeyed optimism, though. I'm sustained by a few bits of actual, if perhaps useless, knowledge. One is that the novel is a fairly recent invention; the mass-market novel even more so; and the idea of actually making a living solely by writing mass-market novels is scarcely older than I am. As a living author, Twain made most of his income from his travel writing and lecture tours. Dickens wrote most of his great novels as weekly serials, frequently changing the direction the stories were going in mid-stream in reaction to reader comments and fan mail.

Another thing that sustains me is that I have the good fortune to be old enough to remember the days when there was such thing as a mid-list, and it was possible for a writer to have a career and make a living — not an extravagant living, but a living nonetheless — writing novels that sold only 10,000 copies in hardcover or 50,000 in paperback. Of course, that was back in the old days, before the dark times; before the rise of the Publishing Empires, when publishing houses were often idiosyncratic and idealistic operations run by colorful personalities, without proper guidance and hobbling from marketing consultants, focus groups, and certified MBAs. These days, while the names of those old verbal crusaders linger on, they most commonly do so as imprints or wholly owned subsidiaries of vast multinational media conglomerates, and the battle cry of "L'art pour l'art!" has been replaced by "NY Times bestseller list or die!"

So I have to believe it's possible for smaller, nimbler, and more creative publishers — operating with far less corporate overhead and waste — to carve out adequate livings in the market spaces that the Imperial Elephants have abandoned.

I have more sympathy than you might think for problems of the vast multinational media conglomerates (hereinafter referred to as "VMMCs"). After all, we've all seen the examples of the Danish cartoonists, Salman Rushdie, and Theo van Gogh. In this long-tailed, flat-world age, why take the risk of publishing a book in the U.S. that might cause angry mobs to loot your local TV affiliate in East Whackistan or burn down all your theme restaurants in Greater Nutjobia? Why do that when your marketing consultants will tell you your best R.O.I. comes from publishing more books exactly like last year's bestsellers, and by sticking to offending and alienating those whom it is safe to offend and alienate: Christians, conservatives, patriots, and the petit bourgeoisie?

No, far better to publish more novels about crusading lawyers, oversexed doctors, child-abusing serial-killer priests, and the social problems of young lesbian vampire career women living in Manhattan. Do that, and at the end of the day everyone goes home happy, and no one ends up dead on the sidewalk with a five-page letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali stabbed to his chest with a butcher knife. be continued, maybe...

Monday, February 25, 2008

A Close Miss

For a few days there I thought I was going to have to move and change my name again, because Joel Rosenberg had betrayed my secret identity:
My daughter Rachel, unfortunately, inherited her father's (that's me) sense of direction; it sucks. (The only direction I'm really good at -- and, pinky swear, I'm terrific at it -- is downrange. Fairly frustrating when say, I get driving directions to somewhere, and it drives Bethke to distraction when we go deer hunting, as he's got a built-in compass and GPS that works more like a mutant power than anything else. But I digress.)
At first I was nervous, but then I decided it was time to stop living in the shadows. Yes, it's true; I have a mutant power. And back in the 1970s, as "The Navigator," I did wage an unending battle against — against, uh —


Seriously, I do have an innate sense of direction that amounts to what Heinlein in Glory Road called, "a bump of direction." I never get lost, and very rarely get disoriented for more than a few minutes. It drives my wife nuts, as she is, as she puts it, "directionally challenged."

The interesting part is, I never considered it unusual. From my point of view, it was everybody else who just wasn't paying attention to their surroundings and didn't know where the heck they were going. I've noticed this often, as I've had the good fortune to deal with people blessed with exceptional talents or unusual abilities. They rarely think of themselves as gifted. Rather, they tend to wonder why other people can't do what they do as if by reflex, and this puzzlement often expresses itself as impatience.

So those are today's questions: what's your mutant power? And what innate talents have you observed in others that you just can't emulate, no matter how hard you try?

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 2/22/08

Okay folks, breaking with recent semi-tradition, I'm actually going to update the Friday Challenge on Friday this time. Crazy, huh?

First off, as for last week's challenge, you'll find all the entries but Vidad's posted here. Comments follow.

Passin Through, in just 100 brief words you drew an absolutely unforgettable image and set a new standard for jobs I'm glad I've never had. Thanks. Or, maybe GAAAH! I'm not sure which.

WaterBoy, you've got a great beginning for a really creepy movie script there. Now turn your imagination loose and run with it. When you're finished with the first pass at the treatment, I want a piece of that movie deal.

KTown, you really threw me because I had no idea where you were going with that one. That's good, actually, as it doesn't happen often, and it's one of the reasons why I keep doing the Friday Challenge. I'm always surprised and impressed when someone takes what I think are a fairly simple set of parameters and comes up with something I'd never thought of. Good work.

rycamor, we have got to get together and talk about boats sometime. I could spend hours talking about boats, provided there's an adequate supply of beer. What's your preferred brand?

Sean, been there, done that, you have my deepest sympathies. And yes, we're satisfied with our current vendor.

Rachel, your story had "K" laughing out loud, again based on the "been there, done that" principle, and Vidad, your story had me laughing so hard I just about fell out of my chair. That comment at the end was just the perfect touch; I wish I'd thought of that.

But in the final analysis, humor did not carry the day this time. Instead, the prize this week goes to Henry Vogel, for a story that really hit me where I live. Henry, it's darn tough to hang onto control and express yourself eloquently while relating a story that engages powerful emotions, but you managed to pull it off. Congratulations.

You know what to do to claim your prize.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge: a few days ago, in a post over on Vox's blog responding to In Praise of Brilliant Amateurs, Vidad wrote—
It was tough to read Bethke's post, because it shattered some of the mythology for me. I've wanted to be a great writer. But... boy, what a trial it seems to be. Not any better than my ad work. And sometimes worse. But... hey, I love it, so I'll keep doing it.
In reply, I wrote—
Vidad, by all means, keep trying. I've read your work. You can write great fiction. Just, do yourself a favor and don't turn "pro," okay? Amateurs can take more risks and generally end up doing better work than all but the creme de la tutti creme of pros.

When you're a "pro," and you really need to make that next novel a commercial success because the kid needs braces, the siren call of hackdom crap can become irresistably strong. Just imagine if Tolkien had been a "pro" and needed to sell those novels to make a living.
And then, in a moment of pure inspiration (presented here with some corrections), I began channeling for Tolkien's agent, upon reading The Return of the King
"J.R.R., baby, loved the new book, but what the heck were you thinking? You killed Sauron! You killed Saurumon! You destroyed the magic dingus! And then all that crap with everybody getting old and all your heroes getting on boats at the Grey Havens and sailing off into the sunset and all that. How are you ever going to start your next trilogy, that's what I want to know.

"Look, I know that after ten years you're getting a little tired of the series, but you just can't end Return of the King with so much utter finality. So while you're thinking it over and figuring out how you're going to rewrite the ending to get yourself out of that mess, I've got another idea for you. How about if you bash out a bunch of cheap, fast books about some hobbits, elves, dwarves and wizards who go wandering around Middle Earth, exploring old barrows and tombs and dwarvish mines and all that stuff and battling orcs, trolls, and the occasional dragon? You could call it — oh, the Dragonlance series..."
Thus, like a dragonet hatching out of its shell, was born this week's Friday Challenge!
In one of those horrible, hideous, tragic twists of fate that can only happen when a gigantic multinational media conglomerate gets its grubby mitts on a well-loved literary property, The Lord of The Rings II has just been given the greenlight. Tolkien's ending was too darn final to be overcome — but wait, here's a new idea! How about if the One Ring was not destroyed, but merely encased in lava for a few millennia, while the seas rose, and the land fell, and the slopes of Mount Doom became a peaceful tropical island known for its papayas and black-sand beaches. And there, at the edge of the sea, the One Ring waits...
That's this week's challenge. Three sections: beginning, middle, and end; I want you to sketch out a rough outline for the screenplay of The Lord of The Rings II: The Return of The One Ring.

As always, we're playing for what's behind Door #2, and we're playing by a penumbra of emanations from the frequently reinterpreted rules of the Friday Challenge. You can post your entry in the Comments thread for this blogbit, post it on your own site and post a link here, or send me a file and I'll PDF it and post it for all to see. Even if you're not entering, you're encouraged to read and comment on the other entries and vote for your favorites.

So, ready? Then... Avant!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

In Praise of Brilliant Amateurs

Note: At 2,750 words, this one turned out to be considerably longer than originally planned. If you find this difficult to read as a blog post, let me know, and I'll repost it as a PDF'd Word file.

Forget writing for a minute. Let's talk about — oh, figure skating. Let's say you love figure skating. You love to watch it, love to do it, have some actual talent at it, and deep-down, you have a secret dream: that some day, it will be you up on the podium, with tears of pride in your eyes as the national anthem plays over the P.A. system and the judges hang the Olympic gold medal around your neck.

But you also know The Dream doesn't happen without dedication and hard work, and so you go for it. The early mornings, the late nights; giving short shrift to everything and everyone else in your life and spending every spare dime you can scrape up on ice time, equipment, and professional coaching. And let's say you get good at it; you get really good at it. In fact, you get so good at it that you finally make it to The Big Time.

And that's where you finally realize that, for every one who makes it to the podium, there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of others who are every bit as talented, but who for one reason or another didn't find exactly the right combination of luck, style, timing, execution, and catching the Belorussian judge in a good mood. But still, you've put so much time and energy into chasing The Dream that you've got to do something with all that talent. So you turn professional.

And then one day you come to your senses, and realize you're the third angelfish from the left in the chorus line in "Disney's Finding Nemo On Ice," and suddenly you just want to stop in your tracks, look up at the audience, and scream out at the top of your lungs: "What the Hell happened?"

Some questions have shown up in my inbox in the past few days. If I'm so burned out and embittered by my experience, why do I still do it? (This blog, you mean.) Why didn't Vidad's brilliant entry in last week's Friday Challenge win? What was it really like to work with Vox on Rebel Moon?

I've been thinking a lot about the answers. This is going to be long.

Why Vidad didn't win is easy. Unable to decide, I called for professional help, and the Consulting Judges all came in with roughly the same response. They split the difference between WaterBoy and Henry Vogel, then listened to Vidad's masterpiece and said something like, "You know, you really shouldn't let pros compete head-to-head with amateurs. It's too discouraging."

But Vidad isn't a pro.

"Yeah. Right."

So why do I still do it? This blog, I mean? I may be burned out and embittered by nearly three decades of publishing, but I still love good writing. I really, truly, deeply enjoy a good story, well-told; a good song, well-sung; a good script; well-acted; a good picture, well-drawn. By extension, I’m predisposed to like creative people in general and writers in particular. I may dislike a particular piece of work from time to time, but a creative person really has to work at making me dislike him or her personally.

It can be done. I don't recommend doing it. I have been known to show up for funerals with a mallet and a wooden stake, "just to be sure." I am not making this up.

I like creative people. I hate what the creative arts marketing business does to them. If I won the Powerball lottery, I'd quit my job tomorrow and start a multimedia publishing company, based in part on the seemingly radical principle of treating the creative talent decently and honestly. There must be a better business model than the "buy 'em and burn 'em out" approach.

This blog, then, is largely an expression of my ongoing quest to find that business model.

Strange thing about creative types. You see it most readily with songwriters, but it also happens to screenwriters, fiction writers, and pretty much everyone else. They do all their best work while they're still young, struggling, and on-fire with ideas and passion. Then, if they stick with it and the Fates have a sense of humor, they make it to The Big Time.

Where they get smacked right in the face with The Sophomore Curse. All of those years of struggling go into that brilliant first album, or first novel, or first movie. And it truly is brilliant.

Then they look at that blank canvas, blank sheet of paper, empty viewfinder, or blank computer screen, and say, "Okay, now what?"

And pretty soon they're writing songs about how tough it is to be a rock star living on the road, or scripts about how crazy it is to be a screenwriter living in Hollywood, or novels about how depressing it is to be a novelist living in upstate New York and suffering from writer's block. There is a vast sub-genre of science fiction filled with stories about sci-fi writers making deals with devils, or aliens, or whatever, in exchange for a great new story idea.

Except that the Devil actually appears in the form of an agent, an editor, or a book packager, who says, "C'mon, Bruce. It's just one Star Trek novel. Just a little something to do to tide you over while we're waiting to sell your next real novel."

Peggy Noonan often writes like this. A short paragraph, consisting of two or three sentences, or more likely sentence fragments, at least one of which begins with a conjunction and ends with an ellipsis. And then a line break, and she's off on an entirely disjunctive thought...

As a professional writer, I've made some terrible strategic mistakes in my career, but in many respects agreeing to do Rebel Moon was the worst. Sorry, Vox.

I did RM because it was a fun story, and because Vox is a friend, and because he needed the help, and because I felt I owed him a favor, and because I had something to prove about not being merely a "funny" writer. I also did RM because I was suffering from a raging case of hubris.

Headcrash came out in 1995, and it was an instant hit. Three months on the bestseller list, (mostly) great reviews, strong "legs" (meaning ongoing sales were still strong even after it dropped off the Top 10), multiple nominations for the Nebula Award, San Francisco Chronicle Recommended Book of the Year, etc., etc., etc., etc. My U.S. publisher immediately asked for a sequel. My U.K. publisher actually contracted for it. So I got to work, cleared my schedule, quit my day job, and turned "pro."

Without a U.S. contract. Bad move.

Strangest thing. My U.S. publisher kept asking how the book was coming along and kept telling me how much they were looking forward to reading Headcrash 2.0, but also kept producing excuses in lieu of a contract. Meaning there was no advance money. Meanwhile, Inland Revenue had impounded all my U.K. earnings, until I could prove to their satisfaction that I was not a U.K. citizen and therefore not subject to U.K. income taxes, which process ultimately took me about three years. In the meantime, I still needed to eat. And make the house payments. And while "K" had a good job, it wasn't good enough for us to live on her income alone. The credit cards were running up; the savings were bleeding out fast.

And then one blessed day, my U.S. publisher finally came through with the contract for Headcrash 2.0, and it was for slightly over half what they'd paid for Headcrash. And when I, dumbfounded, demanded to know why the sequel to an award-winning, critically acclaimed, and (briefly) best-selling book was worth only half of what they'd paid for the first book, someone on the publisher's side of the negotiations made the mistake of saying:

"Well, duh. It's a sequel. Where else are you gonna sell it?"

I know. I should have just sucked it up, swallowed my pride, taken the offer and finished writing the #@(*&$ book. But by that time I was involved with Vox and Fenris Wolf, and there was talk of Rebel Moon being the first book in a trilogy, and most of all, I was pissed off.

So, determined to prove that I was not solely at the mercy of my U.S. publisher, I took the RM deal. And finishing that book took far more work and far more time than originally planned, and by the time it was finished, the first in a series of tectonic disasters had struck my personal life, making it simply impossible for me to write humor for the next few years.

Writing Rebel Moon was fun. Working with Vox was... fascinating. It was far more work than I'd bargained for, and I was deeply disappointed when the publisher saw the final manuscript, said, "It's too long!," and made us cut it down to 90,000 words. But on the whole, I enjoyed doing it.

What I hadn't reckoned on is that everyone else in the publishing industry would look at that book, see the words, "Based on the Computer Game from Fenris Wolf" on the cover, and say, "Whoops. The Sophomore Curse has struck again. Bethke is reduced to doing books based on computer games." And thereafter, the assumption was that I'd do anything, because I must have been out of ideas and desperate for money. So I got offers for book projects galore, and all of them for properties that I wouldn't have touched with a ten-meter electric cattle prod.

Thank God the deal for Duke Nukem: Balls of Steel, fell through. They really wanted me to sign up to do that one.

Which brings us, in a long and roundabout way, back to Vidad, and his desire to quit his job as a self-proclaimed "hack" advertising writer and become a professional novelist, despite his seeming inability to get past Chapter One and his brilliant entry in last week's Friday Challenge.

The problem with turning pro, Vidad, is that the business is structured so as to guarantee that the vast majority of writers remain hungry and are always dependent on the advance money for their next book. Publishers love to have dependent writers who really need to write whatever book the publisher might imagine it wants next. (I use the pronoun intentionally. Publishers are neither male nor female, nor for that matter, human. They are things. With tentacles.)

Vidad, you may think your job is nothing but mind-numbing, soul-crushing hackwork. You haven't seen soul-crushing until you've done a novelization of a movie script. As I've said many times before, this is my house. See the new roof?

illo: my house

This is how I paid for the roof.

illo: WWWest cover

Any more questions?

On the other hand, if you do succeed at becoming one of the blessed one in a thousand whose novels make money, the pressure is always on to forget new ideas and simply reiterate your success. Mystery and fantasy writers seem to thrive on writing the same novel over and over again and merely working out melismatic variations on a theme. Science fiction is different in that it’s supposed to be the literature of new ideas, but if we're all so crazy about new ideas, why do the publishers keeps recycling the same old tropes?

I just finished reading Ringworld's Children, by Larry Niven. What a waste of innocent trees. His original 1970 Ringworld was brilliant. The Ringworld Engineers was even better. Now, thirty-plus years later, this series has turned into Niven's Dune. What's next? Real Estate Agents of Ringworld?

Ian Fleming tried to retire James Bond. Edgar Rice Burroughs got tired of writing about Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle even went so far as to kill Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the Final Problem," only to cave in to fan and publisher demand and resurrect him a decade later. If you go pro, and if you're lucky, you become a thrall to your success.

John Sladek had a wonderful bit of business in Roderick about a famous bestselling writer whose personal computer is tied directly into all the bookstore chain sales computers. Every word he types is instantly analyzed for commercial value at the moment he types it, with the result being that he is condemned to spend the rest of his life constantly retyping his one great commercial hit. And he was one of the lucky ones.

If you're unlucky, there are always movie novelizations and TV series tie-ins.

This can't last. The publishing industry as it's currently structured is based on economic insanities and prodigious waste — of materials, logistics, but most of all, of people and talent. It can't last.

But what's going to succeed it? I don't know, just yet. I only know that it will be something that's not so good for the John Grishams and Danielle Steeles of this world, but much better for the talented amateurs: the putterers, the people doing it for the sheer love of doing it; the ones willing to put years into their craft without worrying too much about the return.

But all the same, they need some return. Because even writers need to eat.

On a business trip, I once had the very peculiar luck to get booked into a hotel that was hosting a standup comedians' convention. You would think this would be wonderful, no? Every time you step into an elevator, or go to the hotel restaurant, or walk through the lobby, it'd be nothing but terrific comedy 24x7, right?

Wrong. When they were offstage and together with their peers, all those comedians did was kvetch ceaselessly about money, contracts, clubs, and agents. It was three days in Business-Class Hell.

I had the good fortune to have a long phone conversation last weekend with Chris Muir, the terrific author/artist who writes and draws the always entertaining and intermittently brilliant comic strip, "Day by Day" ( As always happens when pro writers get together, did we talk about truth, beauty, and creativity?

Nah. We kvetched about money, contracts, publishers, and agents.

Chris isn't making much, not yet. He has a daily audience of 30,000 readers. Between the banner ads, the Café Press tschottskes, and the P.O.D. books, he's making enough to keep the strip above water, but only just barely.

Still, he soldiers on, because like me, he is convinced that we're almost there. He believes with a passion that the Internet has almost evolved to the point where it's possible for a creative talent to make a living — not a great living, but a living — peddling and publishing his creative work on the web. All it will require is just one more breakthrough.

What that breakthrough is, Chris doesn't know yet. But he's working on it. As am I. As are tens of thousands of other talented amateurs and semi-pros, out there laboring away in dorm rooms, spare bedrooms, basements, and coffee shops. Someone is bound to figure it out soon, and more likely it will be a small army of someones, and a multiplicity of methods.

For example, my medium is the written word. But Vidad, based on what you did last week, you should stop worrying about getting past Chapter One and forget that novel. Your forté is clearly the performed word, in the context of the five-minute comedy sketch. Ever hear of the Firesign Theater? I don't know about anyone else, but I would gladly pay a modest fee to hear a new one like "New Science Now Today" every week — as my sizable collection of old Firesign Theater records attests.

Yeah, I know: "modest" doesn't put shoes on the kids' feet. But put together ten thousand modests, and pretty soon we're talking useful income. Not enough to buy that private tropical island you've always dreamed of, true, but maybe, if you’re lucky, enough to make you not quite so dependent on that day job.

So now is as good a time as any to ask yourself: why am I doing this? Is it for love, or the money? Am I going for the gold medal, or "Finding Nemo On Ice"? Am I a proud and talented amateur, or a filthy stinkin' shameless pro?

Because actually, when you think about it, it is a lot like figure skating.

Or sex.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Friday Challenge - 2/15/08

We were unable to reach a decision last night, so we called in some expert help. Between that delay, and the protracted and heated debate that followed, and of course the traditional Saturday afternoon spent fixing my daughter's car while lying on my back on snow-covered pavement — it just wouldn't be a proper February without it — we have finally come to a decision.

The 2/8/08 Friday Challenge was presented as follows.
It's a few years in the future; you're a freelance writer working for some publication whose nature you're free to define; and you are writing a review of the controversial new children's book: Heather Has Two Mommies, Three Daddies, A Pig's Spleen and a Baboon's Heart. What do you want to tell your readers about this book?

If you haven't read the written entries yet, you'll find them right here. If you haven't listened to Vidad MaGoodn's entry via YouTube, go no further until you have clicked the Play button and heard the entire thing.

And now, the judges' decision. kremben, you scored big with:
The photos are garish, glaring and much too gory for this writer's taste, though my four year old nephew was quite enthralled with the monkey heart lying on the bright, silver pan before installation.

And installation is the right word. The child that Heather becomes is nothing more than a showpiece, paraded like Mozart before the kings and queens of science. Showing off her silk purse of an ear and her small but efficient four chambered heart she combines the worst elements of a carny's wildest fantasies, sideshow freakishness in the darling outfit of childhood.
Keep up the good work; very promising. You have good ideas. Don't be afraid to stretch out and go longer.

Henry Vogel, this line had us cackling:
Finally, it brought tears to her eyes when PETA surgeons, working from a mobile hospital, removed the pig spleen and baboon heart from “Jeanie” and quickly transplanted them into a pig whose spleen had failed and a baboon who had a weak heart.
What a wonderful condensation of animal rightist misanthropy down to a single thought. The image of the younger female person in the PETA Scout uniform was also unforgettable.

WaterBoy, by our count you introduced not one but two new terms: "genofacture" and "faith-born," as used in these terrific lines.
Why Dr. Hie chose to include this particular information is bewildering, as it would seem to undo any goodwill toward the genofactured that he may have engendered in the preceding chapter by reintroducing the idea of differentness. Perhaps he was trying to forestall animosity by explaining in advance the anomalous behaviors such as feces-flinging and mud-wallowing that faith-born youngsters might encounter in their assembled peers.
"Faith-born." I can definitely see that one entering the common lexicon in the not too distant future.

As I said, it took us a long time and a lot of debate to come to a decision, but now that we've reviewed the top entries, here are the results. WaterBoy, you are declared this week's winner, so please select your prize from what's behind Door #2. Henry Vogel, it was a very close miss, so while we don't normally do it, we'd like to offer you a consolation prize, which is your choice of a book from the We're Doomed! collection.

Vidad MaGoodn, if you're wondering why your entry wasn't picked as the winner, it's because you've taken things to a whole new level, and I'll be talking about it at length in tomorrow's post. (Which was supposed to be today's post, but, you know, snow and socket wrenches and all that got in the way...)

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge: like many writers, I had a long string of lousy, miserable, stupid, and sometimes dangerous jobs while I was getting my writing career off the ground, and I have this great story I can sometimes be persuaded to tell about the absolutely worst of those jobs and the day I quit it. Unfortunately, this story involves a piece of machine shop equipment called a "butt welder," and every time I try to tell the story, the audience seems to get hung up at the point where that machine enters the tale and I rarely get to finish the story.

So today, I'm not even going to try to tell that story. I'm just going to say, "butt welder." BUTT WELDER!

OK, got it out of your system now? Good. Because what we're looking for this week is your best story about the worst job you ever had, and what, if anything, you learned from the experience.

As always, we're playing for what's behind Door #2, playing by the completely unenforceable rules of the Friday Challenge, and even if you don't enter, you're encouraged to comment on the other entries.

Ready? Then hey, people, the whistle blew already! You're on company time now, so let's look busy!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Of Obsession and Method

WaterBoy posts:
...But it still seems like the differentiator between a successful writer and the rest of the world is in determining which ideas/stories can be used successfully -- does the world really need yet another take on Gattaca?
I think the more accurate differentiator between the rest of the world and the successful or potentially successful writer is that the writer is too stubborn to give up when someone points out, "It's been done already." The Real Writer responds with, "So? My take is going to be better!" Genuinely new and original ideas are very few and far between. Most writers I know are constantly looking at other writers' work, or works in other media, and some little voice in the back of their heads is keeping up the running commentary, "See? That's where Crichton got it wrong. And that's where Heinlein had the right idea, but he didn't take it far enough." Many famous writers began their careers with The Kitchen Table Epiphany: that glorious moment when the Future Famous Writer threw a book or magazine down in disgust, said, "Geez, even I can write better than that!," and his or her long-suffering wife or husband answered, "Oh yeah? Prove it."

After all, that's how Edgar Rice Burroughs started.

That said, the reaction and obsession by itself proves only that you have a short temper and a potential case of OCD. The potential Future Writer also has a desire to keep at it, practice, and improve, even if they know at the outset that the particular idea they're working on has kinda sorta been done before. There is no magical insight that tells which idea will be successful once executed. Most successful writers I know have a bin full of old stories that they haven't been able to sell to anyone, and at least one novel manuscript that they keep buried lest anyone see it but can't quite bring themselves to throw away.

Which segues into Claymore's questions:
What kind of technical thought process do you go through to transfer the story outline into the written word?

How concerned are you with correct punctuation and grammar when you begin writing a story? Is it a concern at all - in other words do you know grammar so well that it isn't an issue? Are you mindful of such things verb forms and shifts in tense, aspect, and mood while you write?
There's a reason why the author photo on this blog shows my much-abused old Smith-Corona Electric portable. I was fortunate enough to grow up in The Age of Typewriters, so that's how I developed my method. I'm always carrying around a small spiral notebook and a pen, or a legal pad and a pencil, or some such throwback analog device. My process is, whenever I get a few spare minutes, I sit down, give a sharp tug on whatever bit of the story is protruding from my tangled ball of thoughts, and write down whatever unravels.

I must work on paper, first. I find it very difficult to compose more than a few paragraphs on a computer. The computer is a great aid to microwriting — getting spelling, sentences, and paragraphs right — but I have to get the story out on paper before I can start seeing it as a gestalt, and start spotting things like, "Oh, this paragraph here on page 5 really would work better on page 3. And this whole scene here on pages 7 and 8, while it's very clever, actually slows the story down and contributes nothing, so it's got to go."

So, generally speaking, my process is to get the rough gist of it down on paper first, then rewrite on the fly as I enter it into the computer, and then print it out and attack the printout with a red pen, editing mercilessly, which provides the grist for a rematch with the computer.

That's the product of having learned to compose on a typewriter, I guess. With a typewriter, once it's down on paper, it's there, and you know from the outset you're going to have to edit it later and rewrite the whole thing at least once. Ergo, during the composition phase, there is a definite emphasis on just getting the dang thing out of your head and onto paper, where you can work with it, and all those concerns about grammar and punctuation, et al., fall into the "worry about it later" bucket. Whereas with a computer — even now, for something as ephemeral as a blog post — I find myself constantly re-reading, second-guessing, and tweaking what I've already written, as I'm writing.

Which, I've noticed, really slows down my rate of production, and also leads to the curious effect of the beginning paragraphs of a piece being written much better than the ending paragraphs. After all, I've looked at them more, and by the end I just want to get the thing finished and hit the "Publish Post" button.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Friday Challenge: 2/8/08

Once again, it was really tough to pick a clear winner from among the entries posted in last week's Friday Challenge. Vidad, in case you didn't know it, David Hasselhoff is rebooting the "Knight Rider" TV series again and you really should get in touch with his people. WaterBoy, a good start, but I wish you'd spun it out longer. You've got good ideas; don't be afraid to stretch them a little further.

In the end we were down to choosing between Rachel and Giraffe again, and while Giraffe's entry definitely had the edge in creepiness, Rachel's was just ever so slightly better a story. After debating it back and forth for half an hour: Rachel, you're this week's winner, so come on down.

Now, as for this week's Friday Challenge, I'm going to redirect your attention to this article, which was posted a few days ago on the BBC World News website: Three-parent Embryo Formed in Lab. In the article, it describes how scientists at Newcastle University were able to create apparently viable human embryos using genetic material from a man and two different women.

In other words: in this case, Heather really does have two mommies.

And thus we have this week's challenge. It's a few years in the future; you're a freelance writer working for some publication whose nature you're free to define; and you are writing a review of the controversial new children's book: Heather Has Two Mommies, Three Daddies, A Pig's Spleen and a Baboon's Heart. What do you want to tell your readers about this book?

As always, we're playing by the somewhat informal rules of the Friday Challenge and playing for what's behind Door #2. You can enter by either posting your entry in Comments for this blogbit, posting it on your own site and then posting a link here, or sending me a file that I can PDF and post for all to see. If you don't feel like entering, you're still encouraged to comment on and vote for the other entries. Remember, the key concept here is to relax and have fun in a spirit of friendly competition.

And with that said; writers, take your mark. And... GO!

Sunday, February 03, 2008


It's a calm and quiet morning. The Mrs. and The Kid are still asleep. Pyro Puppy has had her morning constitutional and is now back on her doggy bed, licking her frozen feet. In the kitchen, the coffee maker emits the occasional gurgle, pop, or hiss.

Outside, it's overcast and foggy. Looking out across the cow pasture, it's hard to tell where the snow ends and the sky begins. The trees are lightly sugar-frosted with ice; the dead brown leaves still clinging to the red oak in the garden stir from time to time, as a vagrant puff of a breeze wanders through. We could use a few inches of cosmetic snowfall. After a winter of letting the dog have the run of the back yard, it looks like we've been keeping a quarter horse out there.

I savor the sacred morning stillness.

Today is Super Bowl Sunday, and —

Pyro Puppy interrupts. She comes over and thrusts her head under my hand. Rosenberg complains that his cats won't let him write. He should try ignoring a 60-lb. Labrador mix who's insistent on getting attention. I put down my notebook and respond. "What do you want, girl? Outside?" No, can't be, she was just out there. "Food?" No, not that either, I just fed her and rinsed and refilled her water bowl. "Play?" No, strangely enough, not that either. She continues to be urgently insistent that I get up and follow her, so I do, with her stopping and turning around every few feet to make sure that I'm still following. "Milk bone?"

No, she leads me down the hallway, and it turns out that the Doggie Crisis is that the bedroom door is shut. Not having opposable thumbs, she needs someone to turn the doorknob.

I do, and she pushes the door open and bounds into the bedroom, to leap up on the bed and thrust her cold, wet, doggy nose into my wife's face. It's morning! the dog communicates in a wiggle and a whine. Time for Mommy to get up!

Mommy seems none too happy about it. Me, I've already been up for an hour and a half and outside twice, so I can only laugh about it.

I laugh very, very quietly.


Meanwhile, out in the backyard, the world is coming alive. The chickadees and dark-eyed juncos are flocking to the feeders. I hear a blue jay call, but can't spot it. We've had three different species of woodpeckers on the suet blocks this week, but none have showed up yet this morning, and the gray squirrels are terribly busy, scooping up cheekfuls of feed corn and then scampering off, to bury their treasures in the snow. I guess they think they're saving the corn for later, although they never seem to find it again before it either rots or sprouts.

That reminds me. I need to clean the refrigerator today...

Friday, February 01, 2008

The Friday Challenge: 2/1/08

After reading (and laughing!) our way through all the entries, the winner of last week's Friday Challenge has got to be Kelly, for the hilarious Riding in Bangkok. Kelly, come on down to claim your prize!

This week's Friday Challenge owes its existence to an old professor of mine, who used to love to shake his students up by stating that Americans owe their high standard of living to having a slavery-based economy. He didn't mean it in any racial context, of course, and these days would probably be drawn and quartered for making such an insensitive assertion in public, but he would make that statement just to rattle his students — and then, when they started to protest, he'd point out that the typical modern home is full of "tiny electric slaves," which do work that previous generations would either have had to have servants or slaves do or else would have left undone.

I dunno. "Slaves" seems like kind of harsh word. I mean, me and Mr. Coffee, I think we have more of a "partnership," or maybe even a symbiotic relationship. I know that I certainly would have a hard time living without him, and without me, his life would be devoid of meaning.

But anyway, there's your challenge for this week. I want you to think of your favorite household appliance (or conversely, the appliance you find most aggravating), and then imagine it's another 20 years in the future and your most favorite/most hated appliance is now equipped with some kind of suitably articulate artificial personality. Give us a few paragraphs describing your relationship, or perhaps a dialog.

As always, we're playing for what's behind Door #2, and playing by the rather aleatoric rules of the Friday Challenge. If you don't feel like entering, you're still encouraged to comment on and vote for the other entries.

Ready? Then go!