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Don’t Bury that Turkey!

September 13th, 2010 4,210 comments

We’ve all written them—the turkey of a story or novel that ain’t gonna get published nowhere.  Whatever the reasons, it’s just not the kind of thing that any self-respecting editor or publisher will buy.  Maybe it deals with an unpleasant subject, represents an experiment that folks tell you went horribly wrong, or is the equivalent of performing “Springtime for Hitler” at a Zionist convention.  Whatever the case, it’s a creative turkey, a misconceived, misbegotten miscarriage that you foolishly pulled from the realm of ideas where it richly deserved to stay, and committed to paper or your computer screen.  Now it’s become every writer’s worst nightmare, the TRUNK STORY FROM HELL that should be sealed in that trunk forever and sunk to the deepest level of the Mariana Trench. 

Well, maybe.  And then again, maybe not. 

The thing is, ultimately, you, not your critics, have to decide if your story has any merit.  Then, too, you have to decide if it’s worth continuing to pursue the matter and trying to publish the damned thing.  When does stubbornness become stupidity, especially when it becomes clear that if you do finally manage to sell that piece of unwanted and despised dreck, you won’t even get paid enough to buy a cheap martini?  Isn’t it far wiser to focus your creative endeavors on something that’s worthy, on something that’s not only good but which will sell to a decent, professional market? 

Still, you have to decide.  Money and critical and popular recognition are important, but most of us have a story or two in our trunk that against all reason, we feel a perverted love for, an insane suspicion that despite what everyone says, it actually contains some merit, perhaps even more merit than popular, commercial stories because it dares to be different and take chances, because it doesn’t run with the pack.  Hell, maybe that story or novel not only marches to the tune of a different drummer, but it sings a song that no one else can hear, yet which is beautiful in its own way. 

During my writing career, I have ultimately sold stories that not only no one seemed to want, but which they treated like leprosy.  One story I wrote a few years ago, “The Dark at the Bottom of the Stairs,” sprang (if that’s the word) from a personal visit to have my prostate and bladder tested.  It wasn’t a pleasant experience, folks, but I adapted the experience so it became a story.  One of my friends who critiqued the tale, said it “failed on every level.”  Ouch. 

Yet last week I finally sold it.  Not for big bucks, mind you, but to a trade paperback collection focusing on unpleasant experiences.  It’s called . . . now get this . . . WRETCHED MOMENTS.   Snort if you want, but haven’t we all had such moments?  I bet if you think a while, you can remember some wretched moments you’ve had and perhaps stories you’ve written that were inspired by them.

Ultimately, the question is: how much do you believe in that story?  If you’ve considered all the negative criticism and still believe your story’s good, do you have the strength and determination to continue shopping it around, even if it doesn’t find a prestigious or profitable home? 

The purpose of this blog, as astute readers may have guessed, is to urge you not to quit.  Persist, Persist, Persist.  Persevere.   Persevere.  Persevere.  Even if you face seemingly insurmountable odds, the long fight is worth it if you succeed in bringing a good but extremely unconventional story to readers’ attention.

Who knows, they may even thank you for it.

The Death of Print Publishing

August 13th, 2010 3,866 comments

We’ve all heard the news and predictions.  It’s the beginning—or well past the beginning—of the end.  In three years, or five, or seven, e-books will be the norm, and mass market paperbacks will slouch off to die with the other dinosaurs.  As for traditional books in general, I believe they were recently outsold by e-books on Amazon.

News bulletin: Dorchester Publishing just announced it’s cutting its mass market paperback line to focus on e-books and POD.

Second news bulletin: They’re not the first publisher to do this.  For example, Medallion announced the same thing just a few months ago.

Third news bulletin: Some agents are focusing on selling e-books.

Fourth news bulletin: Some writers make far more $$$ from their e-books or from self-publishing than from traditional, more acceptable kinds of publishing.

I could go on and on, friends, but clearly, it’s a Brave New World.  Kindle, Kobo, and other e-book readers will soon rule the day, and the schools of the future will little resemble the ones we remember.  Heck, they often little resemble them now. 

My purpose here is not to predict where precisely all this electronic publishing is going to shake out, how dominant it’s going to be, whether an even newer form of publishing is going to emerge after all the constant updates have occurred, or any of that stuff.  To be honest, there are folks who are far more knowledgeable about the subject.  What I would like to do is share with you one experience I had. To me, it shows just how much writing has changed, at least when it comes to publishing.

About six weeks ago, I saw my doctor.  Since an old used bookstore is located just thirty yards down the street, I decided to drop in for old times.  I had done so fairly often in the past, and I loved the place.  To me, musty, dimly-lit, used bookstores are magical.  You never know what priceless treasure lurks in the stacks halfway down the next aisle.  Perhaps it’s bound in leather with engravings by Gustave Dore, or is a SF paperback you could never find as a kid.  To say that I have a fetish for books, and especially old, well-preserved, beautifully constructed books, is not going too far.  I can remember that as early as the second grade or so, the smell of the books in the school library was clean and wondrous to me.  To this day I love the look and feel of well-bound, brilliantly illustrated books, love to smell their pages.

In addition, there are two other reasons this used bookstore is the one I’ve loved the most.  One is that every January 1, they used to have a free champagne and cheese open house to welcome in the New Year.  The second is that I wrote a short story that takes place in the bookstore, and sold it to Brutarian for pro rates.  You can find “Down from Oz” as my Oct. 2006 posting to this site at http://storytellersunplugged.com/johnrosenman/2006/10/

Anyway, I went to the bookstore, but the magic had faded.  The musty, dimly-lit aisles and towering stacks were still there with their hidden treasures, but the place had a deserted, corpse-like aura to it, as if the party had long since moved elsewhere.  On the way out, I stopped at the counter and struck up a conversation with the owner, who I knew casually from previous visits.

“How’s everything?” I asked.

“Fine.”

“And . . . business?”

A long look, as if I should know the answer. 

“E-books?” I asked.

Yes, it was e-books and readers, plus their constant updating and improvements, including the opportunity to download books quickly from a vast library online.  The owner told me that at one time, he used to sell fifteen print books a day online.  Now he averaged one print book every three weeks.

Not only that, he told me about a New York City bookstore owner who came to this area hoping to find a buyer for his much bigger traditional store.  You can imagine how he’s doing.

I was dying to ask the bookstore owner how much longer he could hold out, but felt it wouldn’t be appropriate.  He volunteered the information.  Two months, he said.  He was finished.

Yesterday I went to see my doctor again and paused outside the bookstore.  Closed for good.  Gone the way of the buffalo.  How sad, especially since I wanted to suggest to him that he try to keep up with the times a little and have a multiple author book signing for e-books, plus a demonstration of e-book readers, downloading, and all the bells and whistles and futuristic features that today’s Kindles and other brands offer.

Maybe, though, it’s for the best.  The present moves on and like it or not, you have to keep pace.  When I talked to the owner, he did seem to assume that traditional books were the only legitimate or worthwhile ones, and everything else was like a bastard cousin.  However, there are plenty of people, especially young people, who can’t imagine getting through the day without their readers, especially since they’re capable of storing a decent sized library in the palm of their hand.

In the last three weeks, I’ve noticed an ad for Kindle on local television, a watershed event if I ever saw one.  The ad shows a couple at the beach reading from their Kindles, thereby refuting the smug belief of some critics that because of sand, water, and other problems, people can’t read electronically at the beach.  Apparently they can, and if one swimmer stays onshore while the others swim (as you would do for any valuable items), there should be little risk of theft.

Perhaps print publishing isn’t doomed, but I suspect that in five, ten, or twenty years, it will be a mere shadow of its former self.  The digital age is here, folks, and our children are its prophets.

Do Your Lovers Live HEA?

July 13th, 2010 4,026 comments

If you’re a romance reader or writer, you’re likely to know what HEA means.  Otherwise, probably not.  HEA stands for Happily Ever After.  In other words, if you write or read romance, you probably expect your lovers to live HEA with no serious problems.   Otherwise, it’s not really “romance.”

This came to my attention recently when Heather Massey wrote a review blog on my SF adventure-romance novel, Beyond Those Distant Stars.  You can find it as the July 6 post on The Galaxy Express at http://www.thegalaxyexpress.netHeather is very positive and supportive concerning the novel, but my non-HEA ending is a bit of a problem for her.  At the end of the novel, Jason and Stella do not ride (or fly) off into the sunset together, and the reader knows there will be no more romantic or erotic scenes between them.

For readers wanting a traditional romantic ending, it’s a downer.  It also commits the unpardonable sin of being UNPREDICTABLE.  One romance reader said online that when she reads romance, she wants “to turn her brain off.”  That means she settles into a romance knowing that the course of romance may be rocky, but that all will work out beautifully in the end.  HEA will reign. 

This may be the main reason readers like romance.  It guarantees a predictable, happy product, a storybook ending with the metaphoric equivalent of violins playing in the background.  It’s escapist fiction, a recess from the pains and disappointments of the real world.

Now, I admit I don’t read traditional romances, but I think the HEA requirement is too simple.  Worse, it encourages sameness, comformity, mediocrity, and predictability.  I suspect a lot of folks share a similar negative view of romance, but we shouldn’t forget that some romances are darn good.  My point is that romances need to be less restrictive and more open to possibilities in order to explore more fully the often painful and difficult realities of life.  Romances can be complex.  They can be literature.

The Galaxy Express is devoted to SFR [Science Fiction Romance].  Beyond Those Distant Stars is a science-fiction romance.  ONLY, there’s no HEA and while the romance is important, it’s not the main thing.  I like this because (1) It’s less predictable and I have a real problem reading a book whose ending I already know in advance, and (2), it contains more verisimilitude, which means it’s truer to life.  C’mon: How many HEA couples do you know?  For that matter, how many successful, loving couples who have shared a long life together have done so HEA?  Answer: practically none.  We’re talking about human beings here, folks, and human beings are the most contrary, cantankerous critters in the universe, inclined by their flaws to keep divorce lawyers and day time drama watchers happy.

So when I write science fiction adventure-romance, my lovers will seldom live HEA.  Usually they will split up and move on for various reasons, or continue together with some problems and uncertainties.  In many ways, I think that’s more interesting and true to life.  In addition, when I do write science fiction romance, romance is not the main thing as it is in romances.  Always, I’m more concerned with ideas, adventure, and characterization.  Always, there are romantic elements rather than a story focusing only on a romance.  On top of that, one sex or erotic scene is usually enough.  I can make my point with that.  

While I know there are readers who want simply to turn off their brains and curl up with a book whose happy ending they’re assured of, I see romance as a continuum of possibilities rather than a fixed standard.  IMHO, that’s what romance should be.  And if do have a happy couple, they will live HFN  (Happy for Now), which to me is more plausible and realistic.

Some Folks Don’t Like Shakespeare

June 13th, 2010 2,726 comments

Some folks don’t like Shakespeare.

Some folks hate Beethoven.

Some folks despise Rembrandt.

I’ve always felt that there was an absolute standard for art.  Do it right, take care, use your craft and knowledge and experience, and everyone should agree that what you did was mighty fine.   But a recent incident with a friend reminded me of what I already knew: that such a view is naive.  No matter how brilliant and flawless a work of art is, somebody somewhere won’t like it because tastes and perceptions and backgrounds differ.  Indeed, there will always be people—bright, intelligent, well-read, cultured people—who don’t like Shakespeare or think he’s greatly overrated.

The moral?  It’s simple: whether you’re a writer, painter, musician, composer or whatever, you should be prepared for bad reviews and negative critiques no matter how hard you strive to make it perfect. 

I recall one of my stories, “Only a Stone,” which two editors disagreed on.  One editor gave cogent reasons why the ending was too subtle.  Another editor gave cogent reasons why it was too obvious.  What do you do with that?  Well, what you do is weigh both their opinions and judge for yourself what to do.  My point is, that intelligent folks will often disagree and you alone must decide who is right.  Just remember that writing a flawless masterpiece does not always mean others will see it your way or give you rave reviews.  Or even one rave review, for that matter.

Be prepared to be slammed.

Recently I saw a 2007 science-fiction movie, MAN FROM EARTH, which is based on a Jerome Bixby short story.  I dug the guts out of the movie.  I loved it.  The Providential Journal said that the movie “Quietly Restores Dignity to Science Fiction Of The Mind.”  The movie won the Grand Prize for Best Screenplay and First Place for Best Feature at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.  It was also an Official Selection of the San Diego Comic-Con International Film Festival.  Okay, these aren’t Academy Awards, but the movie has received some critical acclaim. 

Having seen the movie three times, I decided that it was one of my four favorite movies of all time.  (The other three are the 1939 The Wizard of Oz, the 1953 The War of the Worlds, and the 1950 Cyrano de Bergerac.)   I realized that for those who like action and scenery, Man from Earth is static and probably won’t fly.  It involves “talking heads” – that is, people basically just talking to each other, and it takes place almost exclusively in the main character’s house.  There’s no eye candy; nothing blows up; there’s no X-rated bump and tickle.  But I loved it.  For perhaps the first time I could remember, there was a prolonged and intelligent exchange of ideas and concepts, which is what the best science fiction is often primarily about.  According to the DVD, Professor John Oldman informs his incredulous colleagues that he “has migrated through 140 centuries of evolution [which means he is 14,000 years old] and must move on.”  Is he Real or Memorex?  Sane or nuts?  The movie builds and rebuilds on its premise, discusses historical patterns and events intelligently, presents interesting, well-drawn characters, and builds “to a final” and shocking “revelation” and a satisfying conclusion.  Plus, it is so rich and dense, that you can watch it multiple times and continue to find something new.  What more could you want?

And all this in just 87 minutes.

I lent this movie to my good friend and fellow writer, Richard Rowand.  We don’t always agree on things creative, but often we do.  I thought he might be put off by the static, talking heads, dialogue-heavy quality of the movie, but to my mild surprise, he offered a more critical, all-encompassing critique, which he had posted online at www.recipedujour.com.  I offer it in toto, with his permission, for your consideration.

 Rich’s Note:   “Try it. You’ll Like It.”

Ever see or hear or experience something you liked so much that you urged everyone you know to see or hear or experience the same thing because you were just positive they would love it as much as you did? You raved, maybe?  Went on and on until you became a bit of a bore on the subject? Urged and cajoled until you finally wore them down and they just weren’t as impressed as you had been? It’s happened to me a million times. Sometimes we build something up so much it can’t possibly live up to the expectations we’ve planted. Sometimes others just have different tastes. Sometimes their minds just weren’t as ripe as yours was. No one quite likes the film The Legend Of 1900 as much as I do. It’s okay. I’ve come to accept that. Susan [Rich’s wife] doesn’t share my fascination with Cool Hand Luke or The Godfather. I’ve come to accept that too.

Tim kept a film recorded on his DVR for over a year, waiting for Walt and me to visit so he could share the movie with us. Walt and I didn’t like it at all.

Recently, my friend John leant me a DVD of the film Jerome Bixby’s Man From Earth. He explained that it was a thinking person’s film with very little action: just a bunch of characters sitting around having a discussion. Most people, he claimed, wouldn’t like the movie, would be bored. 

Now I have to tell you that Jerome Bixby wrote the most frightening story I have ever read, which was “It’s A Good Life.” There have been a couple of attempts to translate that story to television and they have not worked for me. It wasn’t the commercial interruptions so much as the fact that sometimes the printed word, and the way the words are used, can convey so much more than a director and actors can portray.

Such, I’m sad to say, is what I thought as I watched Jerome Bixby’s Man From Earth. I have to tell my friend John that the direction and acting ruined what might have been a pretty good story. . . had I read the story first. Though made in 2007, it seemed like they were presenting something as it would have been shown on television in the late 50’s or early 60’s. Even some of the characters were more caricature than fleshed out, almost as if they were lifted from a street corner in a frame from an old comic book, their clothes more props than costumes, their make-up more masks than reflections of their inner thoughts. For me, the director (with, I’m sure, others) just didn’t have the vision needed to captivate me.

I wanted to like this film. I wanted to share John’s enthusiasm, but I just couldn’t.

There you have it: two (supposedly intelligent) people sharply disagreeing.  It happens all the time.  In the end, whether as creators or consumers of art and literature, we have to be prepared for the reality that we are human beings who have different tastes and perceptions.  Also, we come to our experiences with different backgrounds, experiences, and histories.  Wouldn’t it be a boring world if we all agreed and felt the same way about things?  Yes, it would, and I tell my students that frequently.  Different strokes for different folks.  Vive la difference!  No matter how good you are, or think you are, somebody’s gonna disagree or cut you down.  Accept it.

So how do I feel after reading Rich’s intelligent review?  Well, I’m a little more disposed to accept the possibility that Man from Earth is flawed and imperfect and isn’t The Movie of the Century.

But I still like it . . . a lot!

  

 

VIRTUAL CONS—THE CONS OF THE FUTURE?

May 13th, 2010 2,275 comments

You don’t have to buy a ticket.

You don’t have to pack your bags.

You don’t have to drive a car or buy a plane ticket.

You don’t have to reserve a room in a fancy hotel, arrange for meals, or deal with packed and smelly crowds of people.

In fact, you don’t even have to brush your teeth, comb your hair, or make sure that everything is zipped, buttoned down, and neatly in place.

Why don’t you have to do any of these things?  Because you’re going to a Virtual Con, which just may be the wave of the future.

Let me tell you about one Virtual Con.  It’s called Coyote Con, and it’s hosted by Drollerie Press, one of my publishers.  Coyote Con is located at http://coyotecon.com.  It’s a 31 day digital author conference which takes place on weekends throughout the month of May, and its topics are all geared toward authors and readers.  If you’re a Guest and just want to attend General sessions, all you have to do is register and choose your sessions.  If you want to attend a Special Session (for which space is more limited), you’ll need to obtain a ticket.  Either way, you just go to the appropriate chat room and participate in the activity.  All these sessions involve Guests, Featured Speakers, and Moderators.  The Moderators determine the order of questions that Guests ask Speakers at the ends of sessions.

To  quote Coyote Con’s website: “Our guests are authors, editors, publishers and other industry professionals who love to talk about, and be involved in, the making of books: cross-genre, historical, romance, horror, fantasy, and science fiction, and all the related media they generate.”  The site adds, “If there is a place where discussions of humanity, inclusion, exclusion, diversity, ability, disability, othering, religion, irreligion, patriarchy, sexuality, colonialism and post-colonial ideas also belong, it is with us.  We should always be able to see what’s possible.”  

When you go to Coyote Con’s site, check out the menu on the right.  Want to know how the Conference works?  Click on “How To Guides” and “FAQ” and all your questions will be answered.  Want to know the schedule?  Select “Schedule by Date” and “Schedule by Topic.”  For a weekly summary, click on “This Week’s Events.”  Want to see what books are for sale?  As for any con, go to the “Dealer Room.”  Interested in pitching a novel or book to an editor or publisher?  Click on “Pitch Sessions” and see what the schedule is. 

If you decide to register for the con, just use the form to the bottom right.  A password will be emailed to you.  Oh, and don’t forget to click on “Introduce Yourself” so fellow attendees will know something about you.  There’s more in the site’s menu, but I don’t want to give everything away.

In the end, what makes Coyote Con work for me are the sessions.  Man, the chat rooms are jumpin’, and there should be enough variety for everybody.  Coyote Con’s got everything from “Mythic Fiction” and “Envelope Pushing Concepts”  to “Brainstorming the Future of the Novel” and “Transformative Sex.”  There’s “Rayguns! Writing Steampunk,” “Accurate Historical Research,” “Cheap Thrills—Crime and Mystery Fiction,” and “Writing to Scare the Reader.”  Then there’s “Comics and Graphic Novels” and “‘Zine Evolution,” plus “Faery Creatures” and “Fairy Tales in Fiction.”   How can writers survive in the 21st Century?  Well, one Special Session deals with just that subject.  Want to write but need a motivational jump-start?  Perhaps “MayWriMo Writing Challenge” is your key to that bestseller sleeping inside you.  Are you sanguine or skeptical about E-Publishing?  If so, “The Perils and Pitfalls of E-Publishing” may answer your questions.

I could go on and on.  Coyote Con’s schedule features all these sessions and many more, some as spiky and controversial as you can get.  From taking part in several of them, both as a Guest and a Speaker, I can tell you that they are frequently exhilarating, mind-blowing, and revelatory.  And . . . you can do it all from the comfort of your own home, in your underwear if you wish.

This is truly a rapidly changing period in our history.  Technology and the Internet are transforming the way we live and think so quickly, it’s hard to keep up.  But if you are a writer or a reader, a magazine editor or a publisher, then keep up you must.  Newsweek is dead, one-hundred year-old newspapers are dying, Blockbuster and other video stores are an endangered species because of Netflix and online buying, and the traditional convention in brick and mortar or metal and glass buildings may also be on the evolutionary hit list.  Don’t you be too.

Folks, if you haven’t attended a virtual con yet, now may be the time.  Just click on the link above, start navigating, and you may find your life changed in unexpected ways, all of them for the better.

PLEASE HELP ME – I’M STUMPED!

March 13th, 2010 110 comments

Yes, I’m serious.  I need your help.  Let me tell you why.

It happens to most writers sooner or later.  They hit a snag, run headfirst into a problem they don’t know how to solve or are even sure is a problem.  In my case, it’s a chapter in my novel that those in my writers’ group say doesn’t work.  I have two basic choices: Eliminate the chapter (it’s short), or try to fix it.  But . . . can it be fixed?

As writers, don’t we all find ourselves excessively enamored of something we’ve written?  Maybe it’s a succulent paragraph or page of description that would be better off jettisoned.  Or it’s the first fifty pages of a novel that slows it down.  In my case, it’s this chapter, which is only about ten pages long.

Let me (finally) tell you about it.

Turtan, the hero of  Inspector of the Cross, is captured by the alien enemy at their headquarters, a colossal station in space.  As he’s taken under heavy guard to their Emperor (accompanied by a human female who loves but betrayed him), he decides to escape.  Better to die fighting, he feels, and perhaps take some of the enemy with him, then meekly submit and do nothing.  After all, he’s a warrior, right?  Escorted by the guards, Turtan uses his special training to feign sickness.  Blood gushes from his nose and he staggers about.  The Bad Guys are surprised by this unexpected development, and Turtan seizes the moment by throwing a pilot aside and climbing into an alien jet.  He’s such a bright guy that he discovers how to lift off within seconds.  In the air, he learns quickly and overcomes his unfamiliarity with the craft (much like Will Smith in Independence Day).  Because he’s so darn good, Turtan manages to blast pursuing aircraft like they’re ducks in a shooting gallery.  Ultimately he kills seventeen of the enemy, destroys nine aircraft, and after he himself crashes, is recaptured by the enemy.

I thought this made a darn good action chapter, especially since it showed the hero’s toughness, resourcefulness, and added to his mythic stature.  However, there are at least two major problems (and some minor ones):

  1. Turtan’s seizing the alien aircraft and taking wing is just too damned easy.  We’re talking a gargantuan logic hole here, one that strains credibility to the breaking point.  Surely, the enemy can’t be that dumb and incompetent.  If so, the war in the novel between the two empires would never have lasted over 3,000 years.  It would have been over in 3 years.

     2.   Turtan’s shooting the Bad Guys down doesn’t make much sense either.  After all, they are in a giant space station, and any artillery fire would run the risk of breaching the surface of the station and exposing it to the vacuum of space.  A gigantic explosion could result, crippling the facility.  Why, for that matter, would the enemy keep aircraft with such dangerous firepower neatly lined up in the first place?

 Okay, here’s the deal.  Those who propose the best three solutions to either or both of these two problems will get a free e-book of their choice.  Just visit my website at www.johnrosenman.com.   The e-book can be a short story, a novelette, or a novel.  Just give me your e-mail address, and it’ll be on its way.

Please note: Your solutions ultimately may not be practical, or simply will not work for one reason or another.  That’s okay.   The most ingenious, witty, inspired, and off-the-cosmic-wall suggestions are eligible, too, as long as they have some seriousness and desire to help behind them and don’t suggest that I simply eliminate the chapter (which I may still do).  You see, I want to cast as wide a net as possible so nothing slips through.

You never know, readers and fellow scribblers.  Even a nutcase idea may be the key.

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Hey, My Book Just Won an Award!

February 13th, 2010 233 comments

 

My SF action-adventure novel, Beyond Those Distant Stars, published by Mundania Press, recently won AllBooks Review Editor’s Choice Award.  In their judgment, the book was one of the eight best they reviewed in 2009, and while there’s no $$$ prize involved, they plan to promote and advertise the novel in dozens of places.  If you’re interested in checking the book out, visit Amazon and other links, or click on http://www.mundania.com/book.php?title=Beyond+Those+Distant+Stars/

Winning the award has made me think lately of awards in general.  Specifically, what do they mean?  Okay, an award might mean more sales, especially if you promote the book actively and intelligently.  Also, some folks are impressed by awards, even if they don’t understand the details.  The word “Award” carries a certain luster, and I will try to use this modest honor to enlarge my reading audience, which certainly needs to grow.

Despite winning an award, my main point here is that in general, awards don’t mean that much intrinsically.  I think that usually, though not always, fiction awards reflect something else than just merit alone.  Sometimes it’s taste.  People just like the book more, perhaps because of its subject matter, its sexual explicitness, or some trend or quirk it embodies.  Then again, sometimes a book or story wins because the author has more friends and acquaintances who will vote for it, or because he promotes it more energetically and effectively, sometimes dipping into his wallet to do so.  Also, sometimes a book has a bigger, better known publisher, or a story appears in a slick, popular magazine.  You could have one hell of a tale in a small rag and never get noticed.

I’m sure there are other reasons too why merit often gets overlooked or only partly considered.  Whatever the case, it’s not a level playing field out there, folks.  Rarely is the process completely fair.  And when it is—well, I think it’s the exception rather than the rule.

I recall Dustin Hoffman winning an Academy Award and saying in his acceptance speech, that he “refuse[d] to believe” that the other nominees were less worthy.  When we talk about movie awards, other factors are involved in the Awards process.  If the actor has never won before and is a venerable fixture on the Silver Screen, then hey, his time has come.  Younger actors can wait a while to hoist a trophy.  After all, they have a lot more time.  The same occasionally applies to older directors, who may win Best Director or Best Picture awards because of their seniority, and because they have more friends who are qualified to vote.

This year I saw Avatar on a huge IMAX screen in 3D.  I loved it.  It’s a great experience.  But Inglourious Basterds may be an even better picture.  However, I bet that Avatar will carry off more Oscars, including the one for best picture, because of its novelty, hype, and the X or Wow factor.  If Avatar doesn’t win, then other factors that have nothing to do with the movie’s greatness may be at work, such as ingrained prejudice against genre flicks or even the 3D process, which some may see as a cheap gimmick.

So these are my latest thoughts on Awards, which are wonderful to get but which we writers probably care about too much.  On occasion, they may even be a distraction that lures us away from our writing.  Folks, the next time you see a work of fiction or nonfiction that has won an award, whether it be a Stoker, a Hugo, a Nebula, a National Book Award, or even the Nobel Prize itself, stand back a bit, out of the glare of glory, and ask yourself if the award was truly deserved and if it should matter to you at all.

The Most Dangerous Thing I’ve Written

January 13th, 2010 54 comments

 

Actually, there are two that come to mind.

First, McPherson & Co. (then Treacle Press) published my novel, The Best Laugh Last in hardback in 1982 and then as a trade paperback in 1983.  For over twenty-five years it has haunted me.  By that I mean it has been an albatross around my neck, a skeleton in my closet, a secret I have concealed during job interviews.  And yes, it is also a book that cost me two jobs.

Why?  Back then, I was a professor at a small black college, and I decided to write a novel about some of the conditions there as seen by a teacher named David Newman.  My wife said I was crazy, but I wrote it anyway and told the truth as I saw it.  Thanks to a long tradition of racism, the students were poorly equipped to pursue a higher education.  Also, the campus was run-down and poorly maintained (I called the building where I had my office, “The House of Usher.”)  Most important, though, the administration, as I saw it, didn’t care enough about educating the students.  My impression was intensified by a public scandal at another, nearby black college where several of the chief administrative officers, including the President, stole money intended for students’ education and put it in their own pockets.

Can you blame me?  Writers write, right?  They take chances.  Of course, I had a small family (a wife and a daughter), and it was conceivable that one or more of us could get hurt.  Fortunately, we all survived, but from job to job, that book followed me like a foul odor.  No matter what I did, it was always in the room.

Be aware, authors.  If you ever decide to be a whistleblower, be prepared to pay the price.

The second most dangerous, chancy thing I’ve done as a writer involves my Drollerie Press novel, Alien Dreams.  Eric Latimore leads an expedition to the planet Lagos to discover what happened to the first crew, which never reported back.  While there, he discovers huge aliens in his dreams that resemble angels and finds the only way he can save the lives of his crew is to undergo a startling transformation.

Usually it’s not a good idea to tinker and tamper with your heroes too much, at least in certain ways.  In Alien Dreams, Latimore leaves his Apache lover, Gouyen and is transformed into an eight-foot-tall alien Angel, complete with feathers.  Next, he meets and mates with their bewitchingly beautiful queen, Aleia for ten thousand subjective years.  Would the readers stand for that?  Would they still identify with my protagonist?  Occasionally, over the centuries, Latimore (whose name is now Ragar) changes bodies and sexual identities with his mate, experiencing and enjoying alien lovemaking through multiple orifices from her perspective.  Talk about gender-bending.

I was tempted to leave this unconventional love—or rather, lust—story as it was.  But Alien Dreams is the most cosmic of my novels, so I had Ragar fly in a ship clear across the universe to confront God in a battle of brains and brawn that rivals Armageddon.  Okay, it isn’t God exactly, merely a Gatekeeper who rules this particular universe.  The question is, at this point in the narrative, would readers still be able and willing to identify and sympathize with my hero?

Fortunately, Deena Fisher did not consider my tale preposterous and accepted Alien Dreams, largely because she recognizes that science fiction allows and even welcomes outlandish conceptual freedom.  Still, I feel my hero represents an experimental departure from my others, and challenges the reader to keep an open mind.

So, there are my two most daring fictional experiments, cases where I pushed the envelope in one way or another.  I could offer more examples, but I’ll save them for another time and another blog.

 

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But You’ve Never Been There!

December 13th, 2009 40 comments

I like to write about places I’ve never been to.  It’s liberating, and it’s an experience that I recommend to other writers. 

But wait a minute, you ask.  Don’t you have to visit places you write about?  Don’t you have to step on another country’s soil, smell the air, mingle with the inhabitants and interact with their culture in a thousand different ways in order to write about it authentically?  Otherwise, isn’t the process no better than a well-crafted, well-research lie no matter how believable it seems to be?

Well, maybe.

And then again, maybe not.

The fact is, research, imagination and empathy can carry you a long way.  Also, while it’s nice to visit another place, it’s sometimes expensive, time-consuming, and may not always be practical.  One does have to make a living, after all.  Besides that, some countries may not let you in, for political or other reasons.

I teach at a historically black university.  I sometimes ask my students, “I’m an old white guy.  Could I write about life in the hood if I did a lot of research?”

Some of my students say no.  Others say yes.  I say, if I can make it believable to those who know firsthand about life in the hood and pull them completely into my fictional dream, why not?  As Samuel Taylor Coleridge said, what’s primarily necessary is to create “that willing suspension of disbelief . . . which constitutes poetic faith.”

Okay, here’s a couple of examples from my own writing experience.

One day years ago I started to read Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, which is about the often destructive influence of English colonialism on Nigeria.  That book, plus its sequel, No Longer at Ease, and other research inspired my longest novel, A Senseless Act of Beauty, which is available at Blade Publishing (http://www.bladepublishing.org/).  A Senseless Act of Beauty focuses on a beautiful African-type of planet that more civilized worlds seek to conquer and exploit in a brutal, oppressive fashion.  History repeats itself, in other words.

One of the stories in the novel, “Eyes of the Leopard,” stems from an idea that I found personally intriguing.  What if a radical, impressionist painter or artist were born into a Nigerian village circa 1900 and fell in love with the chief’s daughter?  Here is the way I began it:

            One day, Ekwefi, the proud daughter of the tribal chief, decided she wanted to be especially beautiful for the Feast of the New Yam.  She thought and thought, and then she smiled.  Perhaps Amadi, the odd boy who drew such strange pictures, could help her.

            So she told her doting father, and a servant went to summon the boy.  Now the name of Amadi’s father is not important, for he was an efulefu, a lazy, worthless man who neglected his crops and preferred to drink palm wine and fashion flutes from bamboo stems.  Of all the huts in the Nigerian village, his was the meanest and poorest kept.  Indeed, it was considered a disgrace by others even to visit it.  So when the servant, a tall man of aristocratic bearing and many airs, announced himself and entered the cramped hut, he looked about in distaste, his nose crinkling at the dust and odors. 

I hope I’ve captured the flavor of such a place and time, and discouraged the reader from wondering how a Jewish boy from Ohio could write such a thing.  The tribal story-telling style (e.g., “Now the name of Amadi’s father is not important”), and the local dialect (efulefu) contribute, I trust, to the local color and verisimilitude of the story. 

Here’s one more example: several years back, I became fascinated by Nauru, an island in the southwestern Pacific.  Again, research was key, as well as imagination.  I wrote and published three stories that take place in that area, and last week, one of those stories, “Bagonoun’s Wonderful Songbird,” was republished by Gypsy Shadow Publishing (http://www.gypsyshadow.com/).  The improbable love story involves a fifteen-year-old girl and a man who is nearly seventy.  Emet wakes Bagonoun up and asks him to tell her a story.  Annoyed, Bagonoun finally has an inspiration, one involving local lore and tribal astronomy.

            Ah, he remembered!  “Once there was a young girl,” he said, “who lived in the sky.  She—” 

            “What was her name?  You must say it!”                   

             Bagonoun made a face.  “Eyount.”

             “Pretty!”  She made a pleased sound and moved closer so her arm grazed his.

             “Anyway,” he went on, “Eyount’s parents decided to gather together some young boys so their daughter might choose a husband.  And when they came, there were many.  They all stood in a row so she could see them.  Being young, they were mischievous and liked to play games, especially the one in which they switched magic headbands made of stardust.  When they did this, they switched faces and bodies as well and tricked their friends into thinking each was the other.  Now two of these boys decided to play a prank on her.  One of them was named Demagomogom and the other . . . ”

So that’s how I write about places I’ve never been: I do research, use my imagination, and try to feel sympathy and even empathy for my characters, try to see the world through their eyes.  Granted, being born in a place or visiting it is better, but being creative and willing to take chances can accomplish miracles.  Fellow scribblers, I urge you to take chances and to be willing to fail.  Don’t reject that fictional idea just because it occurs in a place you’ve never been.  Go there in your imagination and make it real to your readers.

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How Sweet It Is!

October 13th, 2009 66 comments

Thank you, thank you, and I’d especially like to express my appreciation to the following people:

      *  Deena Fisher of Drollerie Press for editing my novel, Alien Dreams, and also doing the cover art and design on the book; 

      * Jody Wallace of NovelBooks, Inc. and Michele Dowdey of Mundania Press for editing successive editions of my novel, Beyond Those Distant Stars;  

      * Antonia Pearce of Blade Publishing for editing my novel, A Senseless Act of Beauty.  

Before I go any further, perhaps I should explain what this is all about.  No, I’m not accepting any coveted awards.  What I’d like to do this month is recognize an unofficial holiday that is growing in popularity.  The Sweetest Day falls on the third Saturday of October and “is described by Retail Confectioners International as an ‘occasion which offers all of us an opportunity to remember not only the sick, aged, and orphaned, but also friends, relatives and associates whose helpfulness and kindness we have enjoyed.’”  

            This year, I’d like to focus on those who have generously devoted time and effort to helping me improve and in some cases, market my writing.  Since much of my fiction, in keeping with the Halloween season, is not only speculative but creepy and scary, perhaps extra thanks and appreciation are called for.  Cosmic monsters, vicious aliens, and yes, your darkest, most soul-shriveling fears are all found in my fiction, which one normal friend of mine has described as just plain “weird.”  When it comes to erotic romance, most of us may be receptive even (or especially) if it is more than a little bit kinky.  But Deena Fisher of Drollerie Press had the patience to take Alien Dreams through more than three complete edits even though its main character changes into a giant alien and makes love to their queen for thousands of subjective years, occasionally exchanging bodies so he can experience the sex from another point of view. 

            Here’s some more editors I’d like to thank: 

            *Lauren Gilbert of Eternal Press for Here Be Dragons

            *Heather Bollinger of Mundania Press for Speaker of the Shakk

            *Lea Schizas of Damnation Books for Green in our Souls

            *The anonymous editor of Blue Leaf Publications for The Voice of Many Waters

Alas, I can’t thank them all.  There are the cover artists, too, you see, and the editors of the nearly five hundred short stories and poems I have published in my writing career.  Yes, I know that some of the editors may have done little, simply corrected spelling, but the meaning of the Sweetest Day is that we acknowledge and remember those whose kindness and assistance have benefited us.  For me, that means in particular those whose editorial eye and judgment have helped me sharpen characterization, improve phrasing, avoid inconsistencies, and see creative possibilities I hadn’t noticed before.  The grisly ghouls and evil creatures that inhabit my fiction, both on this Earth and elsewhere owe a profound debt to their guidance and suggestions.  

In closing, I’d also like to thank all those in my writers group, which I have been a member of for twenty years.  Their astute ability to see the flaws, contradictions, and limitations in my work are much appreciated.  To mention just a few: 

* Dave Wilson, the czar of Storytellersunplugged.com. 

* Richard Rowand, the former editor of Starshore, who once volunteered to read Beyond Those Distant Stars and threw the manuscript across the room when he noticed some egregious weakness; 

* Dr. Ingrid Parker, the eagle-eyed, award-winning author of the Akitada mystery series;

  * And Allen Bryden, Jean Klein, John Bushore, Jackie Bushore, Jacqueline and Jeff  Falkenhan, Bob Stein, and anyone else I’m forgetting. 

Thank you all, my partners in creation.  I couldn’t have done it without you!

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