Thursday, April 23, 2015

Xtreme Outlining Update -- Artistry

Just got the first outline -- for Covet Thy Neighbor -- to complete (if not actually done).  Of my four stage outline meter that I talked about earlier, all acts are at 3.5 or more.  Since the challenge goes to the end of the month, I'm going to top off my notes tonight and give it a little rest while I work on other outlines. 

Now, at this point, the story is more thoroughly plotted than any outline I've ever done, but I haven't gone far enough for the things I hope to do with it.

And one of those things I hope to accomplish is something I haven't mentioned yet -- mainly because it was too ironic for words:

Artistry.

Seriously, I'm writing these stories generated by random rolls of dice from a story generator which uses basic concepts from an outdated, excessively formulaic genre.

And I'm looking for artistry out of that -- I'm looking to improve my level of artistry from it?

Uh... yeah.

I happen to be very fond of irony.

There is a kind of artistry that comes from excessive planning.  It's certainly not the only kind of artistry.  And not necessarily the most effective kind of artistry -- very often it's the kind of artistry that is only noticed and appreciated by aficionados (mainly other artists). It can even actively interfere with the appreciation of others.

But as an aficionado myself, I happen to love certain flavors of artistry.  When I talk about the storytelling techniques of various movies -- characters, plot structures -- that's really what I'm talking about.  Because, compared to books, movies are excessively planned.  Even the most improvisational directors (like Robert Altman, who I'll talk about later) have to do a crap-load of planning to get to the improvisational parts.

I assumed that my love of this comes from movies, and maybe also from mystery, especially Agatha Christie, who (whether she planned or not) displayed incredible artistry of this certain type I love.

But I realized today that this also comes from the fact that I started my college career doing animation.  Animation is this very very weird thing where you have to plan out every single solitary frame -- and everything IN the frame even the incidental boring things like clouds and trees and grass -- ahead of time.  You don't have much flexibility on that.
And then, after it's all planned out, you have a very long long long long, slow, repetitious process of actually bringing your vision to life. (Even doing it the easy way, with pixelation rather than drawing, you move your object, click, move it again, click, move it again, click, move it again, click.)

The result of this strange process where you plan everything meticulously, and then get really really really bored carrying the plan out... is  a kind of mad creativity in the details. You have all this time, and you know the story inside out, and you start to come up with odd little details to enrich the story.  Just to save yourself from utter boredom.  A little mouse hanging out in the background, reacting to what the front characters are saying and doing.  Odd things to be written on the sign on the wall.

Now days, we tend to call some of this kind of thing "Easter eggs" -- because they are little treats and meta references hidden in the story.

But there's really more to it than Easter eggs and creative details.  There is also a lot of substance to the artistry that comes from looking deeply at the story.

For instance, to the mystery writer, Easter eggs are called "clues."

Clues, Themes and Foreshadowing

As mystery writers, and readers, we tend to think of clues as evidence. And it takes a lot of planning to do it right, because a mystery is more than just clues and suspense.  It's a game between the writer and the reader.  Everything is a clue to a reader -- because they don't know what is relevant and what isn't.  Furthermore, because it is a game between reader and writer, there is a whole other level of clues -- ones that have nothing to do with the game between the killer and detective.

If you are a mystery reader (or watcher) you have undoubtedly picked the killer based on non-evidence clues before.  "I know it's the gardener because he has a perfect alibi and he's the only non-obvious suspect who appeared in the first act."

If your reader can pick the killer without actually knowing the story, that's not good -- that's NOT artistry.  But taking the time to handle those things -- understanding how your reader reacts to them and using them to lead the reader further astray, that is artistry. Especially if you can make them believe they already know, but still promise them enough surprise to keep them reading.

Foreshadowing is a kind of clue too, but instead of being about "whodunnit" it's about where the story is going.  And it's, in some ways, the opposite of the hidden clue, because the purpose is to create anticipation -- to give the reader a glimpse of where the story is going, so they can rub their hands together with glee.

It is, in a sense, a promise.

I'll use for an example something from Alfred Hitchcock -- a true master of artistry.

At the beginning of North By Northwest, we meet ad-man Roger Thornhill.  His life is completely ordinary for a Manhattan advertising executive and he's in his element, and master of his universe.  What we see of him is clearly all very Usual for him.  But as he walks into a hotel lobby, on his way to an ordinary lunch meeting, what is the music played by the string quartet?

It's a Most Unusual Day.

Now, if you don't know the song, or you are paying attention to Cary Grant's incredible tan and didn't notice it... it doesn't matter. You can watch this movie with complete enjoyment without missing a thing.

But the fact that it's there is delightful.  If you notice, you get a zing of anticipation.  And if you didn't notice it the first time, it's one of MANY things in that movie that will make watching it again and again an always new and fresh experience.

And that, maybe, is my first definition of "artistry" -- it's something extra. Something the story can do without, but it raises the story to another level when it's there.

And it's not always small details. Sometimes it's how the story is put together.  Structure and plot, in and of themselves, aren't something "extra."  They are essential basics.  But how you structure various elements of a story can change the underlying meaning of it -- the theme -- and give it depth. 


The Truth Behind Zenda

Both the book and movies of The Prisoner of Zenda uses character structure to give the story more meaning. The structure behind the good guys and the bad guys are mirrored so that they contrast with one another.  There is the unworthy legitimate king and his rival, and each has a more worthy -- and romantic -- champion to do the dirty work.

This all by itself highlights part of the meaning of the story: ideals vs reality.  Those unworthy leaders are  exactly like what we're stuck with in real life.  They are what's wrong with real life -- they are dissipated or corrupt, and fuzzy on right and wrong.  Also, boring.

The sidekicks, however, who are both barred form the throne, are what we like to think of as a worthy leader.  THey are smart, and quick and skilled and competent.  And they are not wishy washy.  They act out for us what good and evil really are. 

And the women on each side of this mirror give us even more on that front. In some ways, they are tests of worthiness.  The hero loves the princess, and bows to her will.  She loves him but chooses to be responsible (as he has) and take her place as a ruler of her people, even if it means marrying king she doesn't much like.  On the other side, the woman in black loves the lead villain, but he takes her for granted (a sign of his unworthiness).  The secondary villain, on the other hand, appreciates her fully -- flirts and courts -- but he is a psychopath, and she wants nothing to do with him.  In the end, he tries to rape her (more obvious in the book than the movie). Proof he is a villain and not a gentleman, as he puts it.  He takes what he wants, while the hero respects and protects the rights of others.

Now it might seem that this is not mere artistry, bu the story has been remade a million times -- often without this character structure.  The story still works.  I means something different, and imho, often means less -- it's just a love story, and not as much about our longing for reality to change, or about what makes worthiness.

The characters, in that case, become clues to what the story is about, just as the gardener's alibi (or lack of one) is a clue to his part in the mystery, and the music playing in the background is a guidepost to your anticipation (or an Easter egg to be enjoyed).

All Writers Use This Artistry

All writers put some of this stuff in there -- even if it isn't actually necessary.  We all want our readers to feel anticipation, follow clues and for the story to have some meaning that makes it matter.  But most stories stop at "enough."  Why waste the time and effort?  Especially if the audience isn't even going to notice a lot of it?

This is a lesson learned by Levinson and Link - the creators of Columbo and the Ellery Queen tv show and Murder, She Wrote.  They put a ton of extra artistry into Ellery Queen, and it only lasted one season.  They slacked off on Murder, She Wrote and it went on for years and years.

But still... I don't have a lot of interest in rewatching Murder She Wrote, but I own the DVD of Ellery Queen.

Some kinds of stories do this sort of layering more deeply than others (just as some stories have more action or more dialog or more adverbs or more sex).

And... I love this kind of storytelling. Give me a well woven, deeply layered story of clues and deceptions, and I'll put up with a lot of other flaws.

I started this experiment in "xtreme" outlining to help me deal with certain frustrations in writing.  I realize that many of those frustrations are related to the fact that I want to go further with the weaving and layering within my stories.

Even in what otherwise is pretty formulaic fiction.

And I don't even expect that this will turn those stories into classics, either.  I'm inspired by HItchcock's virtuosity at this -- but his movies are classics for more than that: they also had his chutzpah and his amazing sense of the dramatic.  At the same time, Frances and Richard Lockridge books are less classic -- they are more dated, more formulaic -- but they still give me a great deal of pleasure to re-read, because of some of this artistry. (Maybe not the level of Hitch, but still, it's fun to watch the game played between writer and reader.)

I don't know if the outlining is going to actually make me better at this, but I can already see that it makes what I'm doing with it now much easier.  I can lay in another thread without rewriting anything.  I can push and tug and get it right.  I can lay the Easter eggs in there before I start the writing.

And... well, I'm going to cut off here, but I was thinking about Robert Altman, who, after all the planning and work -- as much as any director -- still used a ton of improvisation when the time came to film the story.  This is what I hope the writing will be like.  But I'm going to start that next month, so perhaps I'll tell you about his techniques then.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Quick Update

Things did not go well this week.  We had to euthanize an elderly cat this weekend, and that kinda took the wind out of my sails.

I did manage to get the podcast up. (Give it a listen!  I read an excerpt from Kyra Halland's Beneath the Canyons -- a mix of fantasy and western.)

Since my progress on everything else was hit or miss, I decided not to write an update. I was going to talk about a writing discovery I made.  However, it turned out to be more interesting and complex than I thought, so I'm saving it for a rewrite.

I was looking through old pulp children's books at Project Gutenberg.  Precursors and competitors to syndicated series like Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys.  I have a hate/love relationship with these books.  As a kid I really wanted to love these books (including Nancy Drew) but I found that I had to be truly bored before I could abide them at all.

And last night I realized why. It has to do with banality.  And that's a problem I have with a lot of modern books in my favorite genres as well. I happened across and opening for a book which gave me some insight into what I'm looking for, what I did right in one book, and what I might consciously want to do with some future books.

But that's for later.

For now, I'll just say farewell to Miss Rita, who waltzed into our lives about seventeen years ago, became fat and sassy and loud. (Very very loud.)  But in later years she shrunk down to a fragile pile of bones.  Let's hope she's somewhere that's like the words of a song Garrison Keillor wrote:  Where the mice are slow and the birds fly low, and cream runs in a fountain.



See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Xtreme Outlining - How do you measure it?

It's great when you have goals that involve word count, because word counts are easy. You get your software to count the words.  Voila.  Done. 

And before software, when we used typewriters, we counted words by page and by line. (This is why we used a monospaced font.)  So it was still pretty easy.

But it's a lot harder to measure progress on rewrites and outlines.  You can use time spent.  Or, I know someone who uses the concept of "antiwords" (which consume the word they come in contact with -- i.e. stuff you edit out).

Given that I have a specific rule in this challenge that I can't start writing until the Xtreme Outline is done... I really do need an explicit way of measuring when it's done.  And this week I figured it out.

The Four Stages of Story Development

My definition of an Xtreme Outline is that it's like a rough draft, so when I think about that, I do know when it's "done" -- when all the scenes and transitions are developed and beaten out.  But unlike with writing, that doesn't happen in anywhere near one pass.

So in looking at the work in progress, and all I've done so far, I came up with four stages of progression for each section of the outline.

Stage #1: Notes and Brainstorming

This stage really is just a mess of notes and lists and background and facts and ideas -- organized roughly by where you think it belongs in the story. Sort of.  It also includes backstory, and other off-screen explanations -- the sort of thing that isn't IN the outline, but until you see where you're going, you have to know. (As the story develops, those things will be cut and pasted into a "background" or "story bible" document, or maybe turned into foot notes at the end.)

Stage #2: Plot Structure

Set the ideas in general order, with a sense of story and drama flow, but still full of gaps and questions.  Identify the likely major plot turns.  If you are using a plot format, this is where you start pinning down events that fit your format.

Stage #3: The Unholy Mess

This involves pulling things apart and putting them together again multiple times to turn it from an outline to a story.  This is about dramatic flow, AND its about emotional trajectory.   A lot of this involves "dreaming" through the story -- letting it play out in my head to see if it works.  This not only finds blank spots I didn't realize I skipped over, it also finds false moments.  This character just came from this experience, why would she behave like THAT? What's she thinking?

Even though you are working on more specific things, this really is about roughly getting scenes in order and identifying what kind of things have to happen in each scene or sequence -- but not the actual moment-to-moment flow. 

Stage #4: Beating out the scenes across whole sequences

Normally you will save this for the writing.  This is the moment to moment flow.  In the previous section you might have noted that a certain scene is the best place for Bernice to tell Elliot about the dog, and also a certain fact will bring up the subject of the kumquats.  But in THIS section, you will actually think about the flow of the conversation. How are these characters going to start their conversation, how is that going to lead to the dog and how in the heck is that going to lead to the kumquats?

I think about that in Stage 3, but I find out what's wrong in Stage 4 -- I make it work in Stage 4.

But It Ain't Over Til It's Over

Even though a sequence may be "done" when it reaches Stage 4, it's not really done until the whole story has reached Stage 4, and it all works together.  The fact is, as you work on other sequences, you find that you have to make changes in finished sequences.

Which is much easier to do in an outline than in written text.  Which is why I'm trying this out.

Using This to Track Progress

I am dividing these stories into four acts, approximately, and measuring them by which stage each act is at.  Obviously, in one act, some scenes will be more complete than others.  So I'm suing the lowest level to measure the thing as a whole, and adding a "0.5" to indicate how much of the story has progressed beyond that point.  So....

Covet Thy Neighbor -- Where it was on Sunday:

Act 1 - Started at Level 3.5... now at 4 (done)
Act 2 - Started at Level 3... now at 3.5
Act 3 - Started at Level 1... now at 2
Act 4 - Started at Level 1... now at 1.5

So, four acts with four stages is a total of 16 stages to accomplish.  I have made it through 2.5 in the first half of this week, with about 5 more to go.  I think I'm on course to finish this and the partially done In Flight before the end of the month.

Maybe soon I'll talk a little more about the difference between these stages, with examples from the opening of Covet Thy Neighbor.

But for now, I need to get to bed.

See you in the funny papers.



Saturday, April 4, 2015

A Challenge to Me And You

I changed my mind about doing A Round of Words in 80 Days.  I would really like to do it, and I recommend it, but I realize that I really need to be oriented to Monthly goals, not quarterly.  And I am only vaguely following rules of ROW80, if at all. (Not really posting a measurable goal, not updating on their schedule.)
The truth is, I prefer to have less frequent "scheduled" posts.  (Call them, also, "duty" posts, which run the risk of being boring.)  I like to post other things in clumps.  And at the start of, say, a writing experiment or challenge like this, I like to post more frequently at the beginning, then back off for a while.

So, I'm going to start each month with a challenge -- what I want to accomplish that month. 

Not everything I intend to accomplish.  Just the things that I also want to talk about on the blog.  I have a bazillion projects going at once.  What I'll likely do is highlight one or another each month.

And...

This is a Challenge To You All.

Pick a project, something you want to accomplish this month.  It can be your main project, or a minor thing you are doing in the background and don't want to forget about.  It can also be a part of a larger challenge like ROW80 or that NaNoWriMo camp thing.

Write a blog or tumblr post about it, and then tweet about it with the hashtag #daringwriters. (You can also post a link in the comments here.)

Camille's April Challenge

I have several larger goals that are nibbling at me, and I think this month's project brings them together.

Goal 1: to try out my Xtreme Outlining idea and see if it works for me. (More about this below.)

Goal 2: to continue the fun of the Story Game.

Goal 3: to develop the best method for writing a novel in fits and starts.  All writers have to deal with projects that get put on the back burner sometimes.  And those who have to -- or choose to -- devote most of their time to something else (such as a day job or child rearing, or health issues) must deal with constant distraction and a low priority on their writing.

To that end, April's Goal is:

To write an outrageously detailed outline for two of my Situation Game books: Covet Thy Neighbor, and In Flight.  Also, to do strictly limited work on a third outline for a third book, Death of a Plain Girl.

That "strictly limited" work on the third book is an attempt to mimic what it's like to write when working full time and taking care of kids.  So a couple hours a week at most on that book.

Ironically, if something goes nuts in my life and I am unable to work on the first two books, I'll probably keep working on that third one, because then I won't have to mimic real life!

Now, as to what I mean by outrageously detailed outline, or what I call....


Xtreme Outlining

I am neither a pantser or a plotter -- or perhaps you could say I am both.  I move back and forth as the story needs.  I often think of outlining as like when you're swimming underwater and then you surface to take a sighting of stars or landmarks to see where you are.

I enjoy the creative process of outlining, which I treat as a sort of brainstorming activity. But I do tend to dive into the story as soon as I feel "ready" and not when the outline is done.

Many people complain about how outlining takes the fun out of writing.  It's laborious or boring.  Often the outline doesn't make sense later on, or it's completely lifeless.  And it always changes as you write anyway. Always.  So why put more effort into it than necessary?

This winter, though, I came up with the goofy idea that maybe the problem with outlines is that we don't go far enough.  That we are so eager to jump into the story, that we never actually find the true benefit.

Maybe if I didn't jump straight into writing as soon as I could -- if I resisted that urge to write -- the outline could be a kind of painless first draft.

Not just an exercise in plotting, but a vibrant, exciting storytelling session, that lets me take many paths, and try all my ideas out, and weave together the best ideas, and work out all those problems and small details that stall me later one.

Maybe if I really worked out the whole story ahead of time, every bit of it, then the writing would be like reading it.  I could focus on voice and language and stuff like that.

Hmmmmm.

This sounds like pie in the sky.  It could be a complete and utter disaster, where I waste a whole lot of time, and then get bored and abandon the story altogether.

At the same time, some small part of me says "Hey, this could be a method for those stories you keep abandoning and reviving.  Maybe it's right for part-time, hobby writing.... LET'S TRY IT!"


The Rules For Outline April

RULE 1: Absolutely no writing on the project until the Xtreme Outline is done. 

This rule is actually the only rule.  The whole experiment is founded on the idea of not jumping in and writing too soon.  And also on putting all of my storytelling energy into this outline, which is to be the whole story.  Of course, I can nail down the phrasing of a line or something that is critical to the plot.  Also, if I must, I can write on other projects not involved in the outline project.

Now, I will note that one of the stories I'm working on, In Flight, is partially written -- but stuck.  So in that story's case, this is a test of whether this method can "cure" the story.  I've also written the first quarter or so of the outline on Covet Thy Neighbor, which has already given me some insight into the process.

I'll talk about each of the projects, and why I think this might be a good idea in subsequent update posts.  In the meantime....

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Return of the Blog!

I am deeply focused on several projects and aspects of writing right now, and that means whenever I sit down to write a blog post, I blather uselessly. 

No, seriously, I sit down to write something simple, and 3000 words later I'm on a completely different topic, and I think "Ah, that's what I meant to write about..." and I blather on for another 3000 incoherent words.

I think the problem is that I have two modes when I blog: there is the chatty "update" post about what's going on in my writing life, and then there is the useful/interesting but more impersonal essay.  They require different mindsets, and I can't seem to keep them straight right now.

Because my mind is busy right now.  And I am preoccupied with things I'm learning, which means that I am not an expert in it and not qualified to write that useful/interesting essay, but it's my smart  essay-writing brain that is all wrapped up in it.

So I blather on for thousands of words trying to make a higher sense out of something I don't know yet.

Does the above make sense?  (Hey, at least I didn't go on for 3000 words to not even say it.)


What I'm Up To Right Now

*Sound

I have slowed the production on my podcast to every other week (or actually, twice a month), but I am also wrapped up in doing audiobooks, so it's still taking a lot of time.

But at last I have the microphone I need, etc.  I am getting better at reading, but I need to get better yet, because I'm still taking too much time in the editing phase.

In the meantime: check out the new episode of Reading in the Attic -- featuring "The Bet" by Anton Chekhov. A classic, and a bit of a psychological thriller.

And in two weeks, I'll be reading an excerpt from Kyra Halland's Beneath the Canyons on the podcast.  This is a mix of high fantasy and classic western -- two genres that mix really well.  Like they're made for each other.  What's up with that?


*Experiment in Xtreme Outlining

My current experiment/project is called "Xtreme Outlining," and I've decided that it is an extension of the Story Game project. I'll be talking about it a lot in the coming days -- but rather than blathering incoherently all at once about it, I've decided to rejoin ROW80 (A Round of Words in Eighty Days Challenge).

Since you have to post regular updates with that challenge, I might as well save the blather and explanations for those weekly posts. (We're supposed to post twice a week, but I'm not sure I want to fill up my blog with updates, so I'll probably post mainly on Wednesdays.)

Sunday is the day to announce ROW80 goals and intentions, and I'll go into that more then.


*A Writer in the Jury Box - a Blog Series

Meanwhile, the trial I was on was rich in information and experience for a writer.  I have a lot of little essays and stories and bits and pieces to write about -- so I will be posting them off and on, probably on Thursdays (but not every Thursday).  I'm not sure exactly which Thursday I will start with.

Plus I have a few general writing and publishing posts coming up.

AND... I'm having some interesting adventures in tracking down just who owns the rights to one of my favorite mystery series -- books which appear to be in copyright purgatory.  The authors had no children, and the bank which was the executor has merged and split and reorganized, and has no interest in helping me track down what's happened to the rights.

If it comes to anything, I'll write about my journey here.

So, I'm back more or less.  I probably won't be posting more than twice a week, unless I get too excited about something.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

I've Been On Jury Duty

I intended to post relatively slowly this year -- maybe a couple times a month.  But as you see, I haven't posted in two months.  Oops.

First I had some problems with my audio production, and I had to scramble to catch back up again... and then, just as I was about to get going....

I got called to Jury Duty.

And I was seated on a major case.

And jury duty, while you're on it, is like Fight Club -- you can't talk about it.  Not to anyone.  Not even to other jurors. (Not until they lock you into that little room to duke it out.)

Also, jury duty is a very restrictive full time job. Not an onerous job, but certainly a serious one with heavy responsibility.  A job you can't unwind by talking about after a day's work.  I was surprised how how compressed I got even in a relatively short period of time.  I gained weight and got hooked on computer games again.

The good news is, I have a whole lot of interesting material for the blog.  The bad news is that I haven't completely caught up with all the balls I dropped at the start of this.

I have decided to slow my podcast to every other week until I get caught up with other things.  I have not only an interesting series of posts about jury duty, and maybe some creative non-fiction relating to the case, but I also am continuing with my Xtreme Outlining experiment, and I want to report to you on that.  Plus a number of miscellaneous blog posts...

And yes, I haven't forgotten that I promised my thoughts on what one can do to revive a flagging genre (even if the genre is really already recovering on its own) -- I've got a draft of that post. I just don't have my head in that place any more.  I have to get back into gear before I post that one.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Murder of The Mystery Genre (And Its Rebirth)

I keep reading articles about how the Mystery genre is in trouble because it's readership is aging.  Young people aren't going for this genre like previous generations!  We're doomed!  It's the DEATH of Mystery!

These prognostications puzzle me, because this is old news. It happened back in the 1990's.  And it wasn't just a death.  It was murder.

And what we're seeing right now is actually a recovery of a sorts.

Maybe people don't realize that because few of the prognosticators are of an age to remember it all that well.  (And honestly, some who are older didn't realize what was happening at the time.)

So I thought I might explain a little about how we got here, and then maybe next time I'll propose some solutions, though I'm not sure we need any.


A History Lesson -- How Things Used To Be

This might be news to a lot of people in publishing right now, but for three quarters of the last century, the whole publishing industry and bookselling in general, worked a lot like Amazon does now. 

The point was to find and deliver the books that the audience wanted to read.  Every bookseller was thrilled to match a hard to please reader with an esoteric book.  Publishers considered their backlists to be their bread and butter -- and were perfectly happy to let an author, a series, or even an individual book take time to find an audience.

There were two things that made this possible.

One was large print runs.  Back in the day, publishers would routinely print huge numbers of a book -- even ordinary books -- and keep large quantities in a warehouse for later.  It saved a lot of money on printing to do these huge print runs.

And just as with ebooks today, it made complete sense to have backlist available every time an author published a new book -- because there would always be some new readers who haven't read the old book, and they'd buy both.  The more books a publisher had in stock from the backlist, the more they could upsell to customers.

This is, of course, how Amazon works; when a customer finds what he or she wants, be sure to show them as many related items as possible.

The other thing that helped this system work was that the distribution system was broad and varied.  An awful lot of those books, especially paperbacks, were distributed by small jobbers -- people who would maintain racks of books in all kinds of stores.  (Which was how most people bought books -- at corner stores and grocery stores and hardware stores, etc.)

These jobbers knew their audience, and it was worth their while to serve small communities and little stores.  They didn't have to worry about whether a book, or genre, or series was selling enough to pull it's weight with an international chain. They only had to worry about their own customers.

And because publishers kept all those books in print, and kept warehouses full of backlists, etc., the jobbers really had the flexibility to serve their audience the way that audience wanted to be served.

Add to this to the fact that libraries were healthy and well used, and you have the perfect environment for the mystery genre to thrive.


The Mystery Audience

Here's the thing about the mystery audience -- it was huge.  It was the biggest genre of all, and held that crown throughout most of the century. 

Mystery, for most of the century, wasn't really a genre in the sense of being only one kind of story.  It was just a set of plot types that crossed over with every other genre.  Everything had a mystery in it.  And mystery had everything else in it.

So you could say that mystery thrived not so much because the genre itself was popular, but because whatever you liked, you could find a mystery of that sort.  Serious, scary, funny, romantic, gritty, realistic, historical, comforting, disturbing.

And the mystery audience developed another peculiar habit: We loved long series.  Long long long long series.  We wanted our series to be like a genre in itself.  And though we loved it when our authors wrote four or more books  a year, we also remained loyal to series that only appeared every decade. (Tuppence and Tommy, anyone?)

As a result, mystery readers of previous generations had a peculiar habit: We often didn't start a series until there were a BUNCH of books in it. 

Because we treat our series as kind of like a genre in itself, we're reluctant to try new authors and books.  We sniff and circle, and squint, and then, as often as not, if it's a first or second book in a series, we decide to wait and see if more books will appear in the series before giving it a try.

After all, it's somewhere around five books that a mature series really hits its stride.

And in the old days, publishers and booksellers didn't mind this because they knew that, once we actually decided to buy, we would consume it madly.  We wanted it all, we wanted it now, and we wanted more.  They could count on us forever and ever.

So it was worth taking time to let a series develop.

Mystery readers still hold this attitude.  We have definitely evolved, and have normal variations in demographic -- but go to a mystery oriented group and ask them "how many books do you like to see in a series before you try it?" and they will answer in the range of 5-7.

Keep this in mind as I tell you about what happened next.


The Crime's Backstory - Thor Power Tools vs. the IRS

So... remember how I said that publishers would print these HUGE print runs and just hold them in a warehouse to sell over many years?

Well, one of the things that made this possible was that the publishers didn't have to pay taxes on the money they spent on printing.  It was an expense, not a profit.  You deduct expenses.

But in the late 1970s, the IRS went after a little tool company called Thor Power Tool Co.  They felt that this practice of buying up of supplies ahead of time was a tax dodge.  It went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the Court found for the IRS.

And that knocked a leg out from under the publishing industry.

Suddenly, it was not so profitable to print such large print runs.  And there was no longer much incentive to keep books around in the warehouses. As a matter of fact, it was the reverse: if you shred the books, you can claim them as a loss and don't have to pay taxes on them.

And because of that, there was less incentive to continue any series or author.  In terms of cost and risk, every book was now kinda like a first book.

And yet... the publishing culture was still the same.  They still saw the mystery and series fiction and backlists as their bread and butter.

Because, after all, book people are not really very good business people, and the editorial side didn't really see the ramifications.  So when new business practices hit, they fell back on their instincts and just kept doing what they always did....


The "Overbought Mystery" Crisis of the Late 1980s

It was harder to make a buck at the old publishing model now.  Furthermore, publishers had new big corporate overlords who demanded more out of their bottom line. 

So editorial staffs did what had always worked before: they started buying up new mystery series (and science fiction trilogies, I hear).  Those were their bread and butter!  If they wanted more bread and butter, they needed more series!

Right?

Except that these were new series.  And as I said above, mystery readers are slow to take up new series.  They want new series, but they want them to ripen first.

And though publishing people wanted to give it time... but their corporate overlords were not happy.  And there were a great many firings of editorial staff who bought those new mystery series.

Which meant that those who were left were not mystery-oriented, and were also afraid to commit to anything, least of all backlist books and mysteries.

And then the deathblow came.


The Weapon: Automated Buying Systems of the 1990s

The thing is, readers still loved mystery -- and series and genres and backlists.  It wasn't like those books failed in the 1980s because readers changed.  The readers still wanted what they wanted.

So publishers struggled along to provide these things. Even if it wasn't as profitable, there wasn't an alternative.

Then something terrible happened to distribution: Two things, actually, both related to big box chain stores.

First the small "jobber" distribution chain collapsed, because the big retailing chains decided that they only wanted to deal with one or two distributors.  Overnight, the small distributors -- those who supplied the jobbers for small stores, and also for independent booksellers-- disappeared.

The second one was less obvious, but in my opinion, more insidious: Borders invented an automated book distribution system that seemed at first like it would do what the small jobbers used to do.  It could track those smaller niche markets and provide those smaller retailers and customers with the books they most wanted.

Except that's not how it ended up working.  Remember the whole Corporate Overlords and the Bottom Line thing? That's still in play. That's even more in play.

So by the time Barnes and Noble started doing the same thing, it was no longer about providing niche customers with niche books.  It was about the Pareto Principle instead.

The Pareto Principle is a realistic observation, that turned into an extremely destructive practice.  The observation is this: if you look at your products or your customers, you will find that eighty percent of your profits come from twenty percent of your products or customers.

Of course, it turns out that the less profitable eighty percent is still needed for that profitable minority to work.  So you can't just cut them out.

And though the corporate overlords kinda, sorta knew that, they still put their main drive into cutting every bit of cost you could on that less profitable eighty percent.

For the big distributors, it was all about raw sales numbers.  Forget the niche thing or customer satisfaction thing.   Only raw, total sales numbers mattered.

And this resulted in a strategy called "Churn."  It worked like this:

Assume you need the eighty percent of books which are less profitable to find the twenty percent that is more profitable.  Fine, continue to offer lots of titles -- but only keep the titles that make it to the top tier.  Toss the rest and bring in new.

And because it's a numbers game, don't waste time with analyzing it.  Providing the titles -- the fodder -- is the headache of the publishers, so let them do that.  The distributors can just let the system crank and reap the profits, no matter how destructive it was to the industry.

Suddenly, it didn't matter why a book might fail.  The distributor didn't care if there was a catastrophic misprint (like the first chapter was left out), or if the book had it's launch on September 12, 2001.  Sorry, that's too bad.  The numbers do not lie, and the numbers say that the book failed.  So it's a failure and should not be reprinted.  No matter how many pre-orders or requests.

To the distributor -- who doesn't invest in the book up front -- it's more profitable to just force the customer to buy something else.  It's not like the customer had a choice in those days. If the book you wanted wasn't distributed, you were out of luck.

But it was worse than that.  Those bad sales numbers were now a permanent part of an author's record.

When the automated system decides what to buy next, it looks at how many copies the last book sold.  Not how many they ordered last time, but how many actually found their way into the customers' hands.

And this happens no matter what the buzz.  No matter the requests or how eager the audience is.  No matter what amazing extenuating circumstance has turned the author into a star in the meantime.   If the last book sold 3538 copies, then that is all that will be ordered.

Now, to sell 3538 copies, you might need 5000 copies out there in the book stores.  No matter how few you distribute, not all copies will sell.  Because even if there are 5000 customers who want the book -- or even more -- the copies are scattered around and those customers won't see them.

If you order 3500 copies, you'll probably only sell 2000, no matter how many customers want them.

So it doesn't matter if the audience is growing; that author's track record says he's on the way down hill.

The third book, if there is one, will only have 2000 copies distributed, and will only sell 1200.

And if that falls below what the distributor considers viable, the author is then blacklisted by the system.

Even when authors did manage to stay above the cut off line, it was almost impossible to have a break out -- because the system would never order more of a later book.

This is why, back in the 1990s, authors started changing their pen names every three books or so.  It was actually the publishers who started this as a desperate attempt to beat the system.


What Happened To Mysteries?

Mysteries were really vulnerable to this new system.  With the new cut off for a series or career being about three books, it was really super hard to reach that magic five to seven number that the mystery audience was looking for.  Suddenly the whole genre changed.

Or more specifically, it narrowed and split into three: 

1.) There were the well-established authors who had already gained a good audience before the crash, and they survived the distribution problems.

2.) And there were the high-powered thrillers that appealed to the general best-seller audience.

3.) And there were the "hook" books.  Series about cats, or catering, or wedding planners. (Or Vampires or Witches.)

Now, these books existed before the crash.  They weren't a change so much as they were what survived the crash. And they survived because they had a kind of immunity to the numbers games.

Lemme explain:
Before the crash, most mysteries didn't have a hook. This is why the readers circled them slowly before buying. The reader took on a new series as if it were a new member of the family.  You're really looking for a new favorite.  You were looking for a real commitment.

On the other hand, if you really love Siamese cats, you might buy a mystery about a Siamese cat even if you aren't sure you'll love it, because... Meezers!

Such a book still has to be good enough to get you to buy the next one, but because it had a lower "barrier to entry" so to speak, the first book would sell in relatively higher numbers.  Which means the second book would get a larger print run -- and because it was also about cats, it had a better chance of catching the eye of someone who didn't see the first.

This is not necessarily true of a twisty domestic crime story with a detective who has no outstanding "hook" quality, but who touches your soul.  That might be the kind of book you're looking for, but when you pick up such a book, you can't tell at a glance if you've found it.  So you're more likely to wait until there are more in the series.

So before the crash... some of the strongest series were those that couldn't easily be described, and often the very best thing about those books was that they featured a twist that you didn't want to know about.  It would spoil the book!  With those sorts of books, the audience couldn't tell what to expect.  They were taking a risk, at least until the author was famous enough so you knew what to expect.

But after the crash, the strongest series were those which could show the audience what to expect from the start, so they wouldn't hesitate in buying.

And at first that had a bad effect on the genre.  Because once the desperate publishers, who had invested in all these books Barnes and Nobel was killing off with abandon, learned that gimmicks worked, and they gamed the system like mad.

And that did two things: It gave mysteries a bad name to many new readers.  (This is why those Nielson numbers saying that the mystery audience is largely over fifty-five -- that the age that remembers what mysteries were like before the crash.)

But it also drove away a lot of the existing audience. Many of us stopped buying new mysteries. We stopped even looking at the new mystery shelves.  We went, instead for used books.  Or fled to other genres (because, remember, other genres often have mystery and suspense plots).

And, of course, this shrinking audience made mystery less important to Barnes and Noble's all important algorithms, which meant that even the best books of these narrower categories got canceled, or were forced so far to the margins, that the author gave up for lack of a decent income.

The genre almost died in the 1990s.  So many promising series (both of the older type, and of the hook type) simply disappeared just as they got interesting.

But it didn't quite die, because....

Amazon.


The White Knight

Yes, Amazon is our White Knight who actually saved publishing from those automated ordering systems.  Publishers are crazy not to realize this.  (Go ahead, fear the power of the giant, but do not forget what it did FOR us.)

First, Amazon made it possible to get a hold of those books that didn't get wide distribution. So if you were one of the 5000 customers who wanted that book that never made it to your local store, you still had a shot at finding it.

(You young whippersnappers have NO idea what it was like before Amazon.)

In some cases, that meant that publishers could keep a marginal book in print.

Second, Amazon started selling used books.

At first publishers and authors were horrified, but soon it became clear that for those authors who were being dropped, that their fans could still find their books.  And for those authors who had written, say, a trilogy, and the distributors refused to make book one and two available, customers could still find those first books used.  Which was critical, because customers won't buy book three if they can't find one and two.

That was life support to many genres, but especially to Mystery.  It kept those of us who had left the genre going, until sanity finally started returning to the publishing industry.


The Return of the Back List

The third thing that Amazon did to save the mystery genre was the Kindle, which caused ebooks to go mainstream.  eBooks removed the cost issues that came up with Thor Power Tools.  They are the equivalent of every book having an infinite print run.

But even before that, I noticed our genre slowly broadening out from those horrible years of "gimmick or die."  And we're seeing more and more series lasting more than three books.

We were in BAD shape for a while there.

Heck yeah our audience is old.  The top of our genre is mostly made up of classics, and authors who established themselves before the shake out.  The current genre is still narrow, except where it had blended with other genres.  Our newer authors are like orphans who pulled themselves up by their bootstrapes: they have grandparents -- whose experience is from another world -- but no parents to help along with anything recent.

And in spite of the fact that so many of us in the audience left the genre back in the 1990s, it's still a big genre.

A big genre with a tremendous amount of room to grow.  There's so much variety to mystery that really isn't being explored right now.  And a whole generation that isn't familiar with it.

Yes, the audience that identifies as formal mystery readers is aging.  But, you know, so is the population.  And the next generation?  They're interested in crime, and solving problems and puzzles, and in suspense and in twists and in good and evil.

Everybody is.

So it is my opinion that we aren't seeing the fading of a genre, but rather are in the first stages of a rebirth.  And no, we don't need to do anything, because what the next generation wants, it will get.

However, I DO have some ideas about what we, as authors and publishing folks, can do to nurture our own revival.

But I'll get to that next time.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Update - Podcasts and Stories and Stuff

I've been busy.  Too busy to post much.  (I've had lots of ideas to post, and have done partial drafts on some posts, but too busy to follow up.)

I figured it's time for an update at least....

The Podcast

I was well ahead of schedule before Christmas, but stuff happened.  Many of my well-laid plans went bust.  (For instance, my lovely attic recording studio was made useless by someone, somewhere in the neighborhood, having some kind of machine or furnace or something that resounds off the roof.  I'm hoping it's heating related and will go away when the weather gets nicer.)

So I spent much of the past month scrambling to keep ahead of deadlines, and rebuilding my recording space.   Here it is:



The sound quality is not as good as I'd like (too much resonance) but the frustration level is much much lower.  I have worked out all the little details to minimize the effect of manic cats and furnaces.

Sometime in the wee hours of this morning, I'll be posting a new episode of Reading in the Attic.  It'll be the second of seven parts of my light winter thriller Harsh Climate.  (It'll be the sixth actual episode of the podcast._  Check it out!  It's like free audio books!


As for Fiction

Pretty much every series on the docket is pushing and shoving to get out.  We'll see if improving my sound workflow frees up more time for getting back into writing. 

I have also been having great fun working on them with variations of Story Games, but nothing I can translate to a sane blog post yet.  This will be upcoming.

The only thing really new is in regards to the Serial.

Doing a podcast, of course, inspires me to take it up again, because it's so suitable.  I have been mulling what I want to do with the Misplaced Baroness.

I have to admit, I'm thinking of rewriting it from scratch.  Along the same general lines, but pulling out a few threads and weaving in a few new ones.  (Another alternative would be to weave it in as a part of a single story with Misplaced Hero -- creatively fun, but I have some reasons for not wanting to do that, which I may talk about later.)

The other factor -- the bigger one and also even more of a complication -- is that my recent fascination with the Orphans on a Train genre stems from a story I want to write in that universe.

It would be a different kind of story, though. Well, the same kinds of plots and things, but it would be a children's story, and it would have more of a "novel" kind of pace than the others, which intentionally have a comic book or movie serial kind of pace.

There is also the question of when it takes place.  Because Rozinshura makes an appearance, and I have to decide whether it's filling in a little socio-political backstory (I think it takes place in the country Antonio comes from) OR if the other stories provide a little background for it.

Frankly, I think that time in that universe is not 100 percent straight forward. I think it has that lovely movie and tv show facility of all stories kind of taking place in simultaneous time, and that history can reset itself or jump back into and out of various timelines.  (You know, like The Simpsons does.)

All I do know is that I have an orphan named Amelia, from the wild west of Freedonia, who for the past few years has had all of her many relatives fighting over custody of her -- all except for the ones she most likes and the one she most fears.  Now, after some disastrous financial shenanigans and other grand drama among the battling relatives, suddenly nobody wants her. They all want to dump her on that one relative -- a poor relation -- who made it clear from the start that she hates kids.

And the one family she wants to join -- lots of kids, lots of fun at all times -- is heading overseas for a year studying ruins in some dangerous foreign country.  They'd love to have her, but can't do it old chum.  You wouldn't believe the paperwork, and they're leaving tomorrow.

What is a poor orphan to do?

So, the creativity Chez LaGuire is flowing just fine.

Also, I have perfected the art of roasting spiced nuts. (And roast beef sandwiches au jus with horseradish sauce on flaky crispy stretchy home made hard rolls, and also shrimp cocktail.)  Have some nuts before you go:



See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Indie Publishing - We Live in Exciting Times

We live in exciting times.

And that's both a curse and a blessing.

I just spent three hours writing a blog post -- trying to capture what I see in the state of publishing right now -- which I then decided to pitch, because my perception had changed in the space of writing it.  This is the fourth or fifth post I've written on this subject in the past week.  Things seem to be changing really fast again in the industry.

And every single pundit I read -- every prediction for the coming year or analysis of the past year -- has a different take on it.  And, I hate to say it, but I think they are all missing something.

This really isn't a transitional year.  It's just that the last year or so was a burp.


Last Year the Indies Got Less Indie (but now they're free again)

One of the things that changed is that for the past 6-18 months, the indie publishing world had become almost synchronized.

And now suddenly it isn't.

That's not a bad thing. 

Unfortunately it has, as a side effect, done some bad things.  In particular, the crash of a number of successful careers.

There are some in traditional publishing (who should know better, as they have the longer term experience to know that success tends to rise and fall on a 5-7 year cycle -- which is about how long many of these indies have been around) who are crowing about it.  They are declaring the end of indie publishing -- or at least the end of that snotty, successful side of indie publishing.

And many indies agree with them.  They fear that now traditional publishers will retake the market, and that indie publishing will be pushed back to the margins.

Which is a mistake on both their parts.

Oh, sure, I expect traditional publishing will see some recovery from the nervous days of this past year or so.  They have got used to the new world, and have had time to adjust their own strategies.  And yes, the gold rush is over, and some people will quit self-publishing, but most who decide to ride out the negative wave will build an even stronger career.

The thing that all the pundits on both sides seem to be missing is that there's another group of indies out there.  Oh, sure, you hear lots of oblique mentions of the vast, unwashed mass of writers who will supposedly drown those indie success stories in a mass of illiterate poorly formatted manuscripts and no indie shall be heard from again.

And in some sense, they are kind of right about that.  But what they miss is that this has already happened.

That vast number of unwashed writers out there is already here.

They've actually always been here,  and they always will be here. 
And yeah, in this disintermediated age, where anybody has equal footing with everybody, and everybody really is a special snowflake, it's hard for anyone to become a star and stay one.  It is kinda scary, that these masses of people out there are our competition. There's bazillions of them.

They are the Amateurs, and they are the Next Wave

But they were also the last wave.

And, actually, the wave before that.

And they are as persistent as heck -- because they don't care about your bottom line OR their own.  Sure, they think it would be cool to make a million dollars and have best sellers and their name in lights and win an Oscar.  But it doesn't ruin their day when they don't.

And the thing about amateurs is they they just keep rolling.  They just keep on doing their thing, and nothing can stop them.  Nothing.

Now.... before you start running in fear, I have one more thing to tell you about who they are:

They are OUR AUDIENCE.

And... they are also us. We are them.

(We are they. Whatever.)

The internet did not just remove gatekeepers, it removed gates. It removed walls. It removed all kinds of barriers.  Including the barrier between amateur and pro, reader and writer.

And Amazon seems like the only one in publishing to realize that.  The KDP is just a more extreme from of self-service, where the customers supply the content to each other.

Which is what the internet is.  It's what the new paradigm is all about. Open source.  Creative commons.  Information wants to be free, and all that.  (Also, Information wants to have a small fee taken by the enabler of its freedom.)

This world is no longer about pushing a product from producer to consumer.  It's about connections.  It's about engagement.

And three or four years ago the whole indie community knew this.

We knew that this was a great new world, empty of boundaries, and full of popcorn kittens. ("Popcorn kittens" is a concept spawned by this video -- which is a metaphor for the fact that we had so many opportunities, our minds were like these kittens, bouncing and tumbling with ideas.  Heck, WE were like those kittens. Bouncing, slipping, tumbling and trying out new things all the time.)

At that time, while few of us were getting rich, most of us were actually making money.  Not a lot, but we all could see it.  We all made more money than we had made in traditional publishing: If you had made no money at all, you now made pocket change.  If you had made pocket change, you now made folding money, etc.

And that was great.

But then something changed. 

There was so much opportunity, that people started chasing success.  Speculative fever chased away the popcorn kittens.  And thus began what some people call a "gold rush."  (It was never a "bubble" btw, because it was never a scheme driven by false or inflated value.  The value was always real.)

And since excitement always draws in those looking for a short cut or a quick buck, some of the gold rush was accelerated by an influx of the get-rich-quick crowd. But it also happened naturally, because entrepreneurship is HARD, and the glitter of success, just out of reach, can be very distracting.  In any case, success begat glitter, and glitter begat more chasing of success, and the kittens ran for cover.

We stopped being creative, and started following formulas.  We started playing the odds, and applied the Pareto Principle, not realizing that, even though all of your success comes from 20 percent of your effort, you actually need to go through that other 80 percent of effort before the 20 percent can pay off.

We narrowed our focus.  And narrowed it more.

And suddenly too many people were doing exactly the same thing at the same time.  Which is exactly what causes the end of every gold rush.

It's called the Tragedy of the Commons, and what it basically means is that we stressed the system.  It's something that happens constantly in small ways.   But when it happens in big ways -- when a very large number of people are all doing the same (apparently harmless) thing -- it can be an utter disaster that destroys the whole system.  Dancers cause the collapse of a building.  The gold is panned out of the river, the field is irretrievably over-grazed. The fish population collapses.  The tree of life dies because of everyone pulling down branches.

Luckily for us, that is not at all what happened here.  We did not come anywhere near bringing and end to the system.

In our case, the system just adjusted itself -- partly in reaction to what everybody was doing, but also in reaction to things completely outside our little world.  Customers changed their habits.  Amazon changed algorithms.  Tried new things to please the customers.

Nothing actually broke.  Except the synchronicity. That broke.

But the system is going as strong as ever.  Readership is growing, and they are finding the material they want to read.

But it's not always in books.


The Return of the Popcorn Kittens

The indie community is already diversifying again.  As a group, we are more flexible than any other player in the system.  People are recalling their previous creativity, finding new lines to color outside of.  We still have the "success-driven" folks -- we always did -- but they are jumping out of lock-step and off to find the next gold strike. Because, just like the amateurs do,  they will always keep doing their thing. Bless them.

And the amateurs themselves are still chugging along, just as they always have.

They are on the rise, as they have been since the internet went wide.  And they are nothing to be afraid of, because they are the ones who enabled this.  They are the ones who drive the social media, which spreads the word on our books.  They're not afraid of unlucrative markets. They break new ground.  They develop new audiences.  They bring the joy of reading and story to those who were never interested in books before. 

They are fan-writers, and poets, and volunteers at Project Gutenberg and Librivox.  They are web comix artists.  They are bookbloggers and podcasters, and collectors of rare books.

And they are also the pros, when they're not at work: they are indies, and traditional writers, the editors and librarians.

They are lovers of story.

And for the first time in publishing, they actually do rule the universe.

Don't be afraid of the rising tide.  The tide is us.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 - The Year That Was

The bread is in the oven, and the meat for the meatballs for the New Years Eve Game Night party is thawing.

It have a very little time to look back on 2014.

On the one hand, I want to say that 2014 was a horrible year.  Health and family issues consumed it utterly.  I made very little money at writing, and my sales came to a near stand-still -- but that was entirely in proportion to the effort I did not put into it.  Same with art and pretty much everything else I might have done in a professional way.

And yet....

It was all in proportion to the work I'd done on it.  And I did make a lot of connections, and set myself up for some future moves.  And in spite of the serious stress of things going on in my personal life, taking a real break from work was... nice.

I have perfected my bread, and also the art of roasting nuts.  And these meatballs I'm making tonight... they're da bomb.  And though we recently lost our favorite Thai restaurant, a new Burmese place opened up in town, and I was introduced to a new dish -- Burmese Pickled Tea Leaf Salad. OMG!  It's magnificent.

In the way of sort-of-work, sort-of-not, we went to a major sf convention this summer -- Detcon -- and I got to see those great Diego Rivera auto industry murals real live in person.  Another magnificent thing.

(It may not seem like much, but these are Bucket List level things.)

Furthermore, this fall, life settled down and I could get back to creative things....

Which is when I rediscovered sound.

One of the things I always do when life throws everything for a loop, is see if there is something I can build on, something I've already done.  Look for new markets for old stories, or pick up writing fresh on a half-written story I abandoned long ago.

Or find a new format to release a book in.

I expected that I would be doing paper copies and illustrated versions of my books, or repackaging old blog posts into a book or something like that.

But instead I decided to look into audiobook versions.  And golly, I got swept up in that -- because performing my books as audio is like creating them again.  I am bringing them further to life.  I am completing them.

I don't know how long it will be before I get back into real writing production.  I will certainly finish and publish something in the coming year, but I can't say what or how much just now.  Certainly some short fiction.  Probably a Man Who novel or a return to the serial at least.

Oddly enough, this time off has given me a real sense of perspective what's going on in the industry.  When you're striving and striving, you get tunnel vision.  Your focus is too close.  You can only get the big picture when you step back.

I don't usually like to make predictions, but I do have a sense of a few things for publishing, and I'm going to talk about that tomorrow.  In particular, I want to take a look at the "crash" many people are talking about in the indie community, and how I think a lot of people are getting it wrong in what it means.  (And how, the next Big Thing is going to be the Rise of the Amateur.)

The other thing I hope to do this week is to rewrite my old "The Times That Try Writer's Souls" post and record it for the Daring Novelist Podcast.  I figure tomorrows post and that (the text of which will be posted here) are companion pieces.

But just now, the bread's coming out of the oven and I've got to get to those meatballs....

See you in the funny papers!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Happy Holidays!

I've been taking a bit of a break from the blog.  I expect to be back with a New Years Eve post (probably something about how resolutions and "bucket lists" are NOT the same thing).

In the meantime, I read a noir Chirstmas story, "Deadmen Don't Eat Fruitcake" on the podcast this week. AND I sang that catly Christmas carol "We Three Cats."

You can listen directly from the blog at Reading in the Attic -- or go to iTunes and download the MP3.

Have a happy holilday, and....

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Your Story's Soundtrack

While prepping the next few episodes of Reading in the Attic (one just posted, two more coming) I found myself scrambling for music.

I've got the theme music for the podcast.  I don't know why I suddenly need songs for each story, too... except I find that I do.  And I've been adding small sound effects here and there....

Maybe it's just the frustrated movie maker in me, but I find that, now that I have the chance to present the story formally to readers/listeners, I am recalling certain elements of the creative process.  You could say that it's really the frustrated writer in me.

On every writer's board out there, there will be long discussions of the music writers listen to while writing.  For some, it's just background noise and mood music that they hardly hear.

Or for those like me, I will sometimes listen to a certain playlist -- actually listen to it -- before a writing session.  The songs may evoke certain feelings or moods. They can get me into the story.  And the music will often seem wrong for the story, but is right for me.

For instance, when writing Have Gun Will Play -- which is a western -- I would listen to Herman's Hermits, "Something Tells Me I'm Into Something Good."  Which might seem strange, except that song is Mick thinking about Casey.  So in spite of the shoot outs and mysteries to be solved, and all that, THAT is the song that puts me immediately into Mick's mindset.

I have a number of songs like that.  A friend on Twitter sent out a call for songs to set the mood for herself while writing a scene with her heroine deciding/preparing to go after some bullies.  I had several (they were my theme music for work when I had a day job) -- Bob Seger's "Shakedown" and Abney Park's "Below the Radar." (Abney Park is particularly relevant to anyone writing Steampunk, as they are a steampunk band.  Airship Pirates and all that.)

Music can be great for setting any mood.  I listen to Patsy Cline when walking (even if I'm not "out after midnight"), also Nancy Sinatra (even if I'm not wearing boots made for walkin') or The Proclaimers (even if the distance I'm walking is not "500 Miles" or 500 more).

(Pause to put the playlist with The Proclaimers and Bob Seeger.....)

The thing about mood playlists, is that they can be completely you.  You don't have to explain how Herman's Hermits applies to an old west gunslinger. 

Furthermore, when you're writing fiction, you can imagine what your characters are listening to.  (It is tempting to overdo this, of course.  Your listening to it is NOT the same experience that your audience will have.  Remember that a lot of your audience may not know the songs, either.)  But it can spark a scene. 

I'm thinking of the middle of The Man Who Did Too Much, when George -- who has had a very bad day -- shows up at Karla's door, depressed.

There was music playing inside--some bouncy alternative rock classic.  He knocked again loudly, and it was only a moment before she flung the door open.

"George!  What are you doing here?" she said.  She seemed exceedingly happy, which was suddenly very annoying.  Even worse, she had a sock puppet on her left hand.  It was bouncing and singing silently to the music as if it had a life of its own.

I didn't mention what the song was, because George probably didn't know and he was in no mood to listen anyway -- even if it was a song with a message he needed to hear.  But for me, knowing George's mood and Karla's whole lifestyle, it was good to have just listened to her whole playlist.  And to know that the song she was listening to, was "Tubthumping" by Chumbawamba.  ("I get knocked down, but I get up again, you're never going to keep me down....")

It was enough to know that, and for characterization, it was enough for the audience to know for the sake of characterization that it was upbeat alternative rock.  Especially because immediately after this is a chapter break -- and a change in point of view Karla, so I DO name the next song....


He looked awful.  Hair mussed, unshaven, rumpled.  He had this stiff tight-lipped kind of expression, and a gleam in his eye that made her think that she should see that his day didn't get any worse.

She cleared some tapes from the end of the couch where she had piled them for sorting.  He looked at the spot like he didn't know that a couch was to sit on.  The music player switched to the next song, and Judy Garland broke out into "Come On, Get Happy!"  George frowned at it.

"Weren't you just listening to punk rock?"

"I have eclectic tastes," said Karla.  She turned the music down.  "Would you like some orange juice?"

"If it's got vodka in it.  And you can hold the orange juice."


 I named the Judy Garland song here for two reasons.  One is because we're in Karla's point of view, and because she knows the song in detail, and she knows how badly it conflicts with George's mood, so she will thinking in specifics. She would never think "a Judy Garland song" or anything generic like that. 

The other reason, though, is characterization.  Karla is someone who listens to Chumbawamba and Judy Garland (and Kermit the Frog, and Edith Piaf) on the same playlist.  And furthermore, all these songs belong together to her.  The message, ultimately, is "Come on, Get Happy."

And as with everything in Karla's life, George struggles to grasp that.

And... that leads to a third reason I named the song, though it's not something overt that the audience will necessarily get: Come On, Get Happy is a song about washing your sins (and troubles) away in the tide and going to the Promised Land.

George has headed for Karla's house because it's the Promised Land.  He's flailing his way across the River Styx here (and has been for pretty much all of his life).

So the song has a thematic meaning that makes it the one which, in the end, I decided to name.  It's a subtle thing, and not flag I want to wave up front. 

Which leads me to why I'm thinking about this.

Real Theme Music

I'm going to read an excerpt from The Man Who Did Too Much on an upcoming episode of the podcast.  And, as I mentioned up top, I have taken to picking a little music intro and ending for each story I read as well as for the podcast as a whole.  Just a little something to separate the chatter from the story itself, and to set the mood.

The ironic hipster in me would like to choose something like the Proclaimers as the theme music -- because that's a song about a guy who, like George, is prone to do too much (walk a thousand miles just so he can fall down at his girlfriend's door).  But that's under copyright, and I don't necessarily want to be that overt.

The song for the Mick and Casey story was easy. I looked through hundreds of royalty free clips to find one that suggests western but not either too grim or too hokey.  And I found what I think is perfect in this Irish tune: Connemara 9

It's got Mick McKee written all over it.  It's strummy and cowboy-ish -- and very laid back -- every bit as laid back as Hermans Hermits, but not anachronistic.  And, of course, Clarence Francis "Mick" McKee is of Irish ancestry.

But The Man Who Did Too Much flummoxed me.  First of all, the mood of the story is not George's mood. The story is a cozy mystery mixed with a madcap adventure.  George is a fish out of water.  But the story is also about him.  So should I choose action hero music?  No, because that's not the sort of story (I'd be doing the ironic hipster thing again - at the expense of the audience rather than for their benefit).  Also because the bit I'll be reading (the opening) is not really adventure at all.  It's kind of anti-adventure.

And I honestly could not think of any kind of music that would, just by style, evoke a quiet Michigan beach town.   So, since the excerpt does focus on George, I might as well go with him....

George is kind of an exotic guy -- an action hero who does a lot of work in Asia -- so what about a foreign theme?  Something kind of moody and Asian?  And hey, there's one of those in the same collection I bought for the Mick and Casey theme: Que Lie.  I like that one a lot, but I think that it kind of misleads or confuses the reader/listener.  Yes, it hints at some cool stuff to come, and actually has some connections with the story the reader might not expect, but that isn't in the excerpt.  So... I think maybe not.

So... back to action hero.  There's moody action hero music, isn't there?  Like, the James Bond theme would be too flash, but something reminiscent of the title songs (Goldfinger, Sky Fall, Live and Let Die)?  But maybe a little smaller and more personal? 

So I started looking at odd things, maybe more cinematic things, and I came across something that started weird and cinematic but ends up.... strangely suitable in nearly every way.

It's a tune called Point Piper 2, and after the weird opening, it breaks into ... a beach song.  Well, really just some guitar strumming which shifts from minor to major scales and is really both moody and uplifting and relaxed.  The kind of thing someone in any group on the beach might play.  Exactly the mood I'd want to evoke.  (I'll be cutting off those first few seconds and going for the beach with this.)

Phew.  Now I just have to pick something for Harsh Climate -- a story about two teenagers who have to battle freezing weather and a gang of kidnappers.....

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The Fiction Podcast is Up

All right....

The fiction podcast is live -- though not yet listed in the iTunes store.  You CAN, however, subscribe to it through iTunes even before it is listed (instructions below.)

Here's the blog: Reading in the Attic

I've got a whole lot of "business" to do -- updating links and archive pages, etc.  Just the stuff that makes it easy for people to find things, without having to explain and link things in every post.  It's amazing how much time and work these "passive marketing" things take.

(UPDATE: both podcasts are now available in the iTunes store: Reading in the Attic, and The Daring Novelist Podcast.)

In the meantime...Damon Runyon

I've been discovering some cool things in old magazines.  I was browsing for things for my mother to read. She is very picky and easily turned off. (So browsing is a problem for her -- because if something turns her off, she turns away from a whole genre.)  She liked some Damon Runyon stories I had. But it's hard to find more these days.

So I was browsing the internet for similar things, books and authors I could at least find used, and discovered that A) Ring Lardner wasn't just a sports writer -- he wrote fiction.  And B) Damon Runyon, before he wrote his famous Broadway gang books, wrote some amazing poetry. And also was a sports writer.

I have discovered at least one early Runyon poem that doesn't seem to have been collected.  (Most of his collected poetry is about army life. Miscellaneous other subjects appear to have been neglected.)  That poem is really quite wonderful.  I will definitely be reading some of his poems (collected and uncollected) in Reading in the Attic.

And I'm even thinking of doing some special editions of some "lost" Ring Lardner work, and offering an audiobook of it.

Back to Audio....

For those of you already interested in audio, you can subscribe to podcasts in iTunes, even if it isn't in the iTunes store.  All you need is the feed address.  You just open iTunes, and look for "subscribe to podcast" under the File menu.  Paste in the feed address, and voila -- you're subscribed.  (Once it is in the iTunes store, of course, you can just go and click "subscribe.")

(And please note: The feed address is actually an RSS address.  If you subscribe to them through a regular RSS reader, you'll get the blog posts.  If though a podcast reader -- like iTunes or Stitcher, or a podcast app on your phone -- you'll get the audio.  But to do that, you have to copy and paste the link - which is why I didn't make them hot links.)

My two podcast feeds are:

Reading in the Attic: http://feeds.feedburner.com/ReadingInTheAtticPodcast

The Daring Novelist Podcast: http://feeds.feedburner.com/Daring-Novelist-Podcast

For those of you think you might be interested in listening -- either for authorial research or for pleasure -- I'm going to post something about how to listen and how to find podcasts that interest you, etc. later this week.  (Personally, just as I'd like to turn listeners into readers, I'd also like to turn non-listeners onto the joys of podcasts.)

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

DNP Ep 01 -Why Audio (Post and Podcast)

Finally, at last, the first episode of my Daring Novelist Podcast.  The text of the post is below, for those who would rather read than be read to.

NOTE: The podcast isn't subscribe-able on iTunes and other podcast directories yet, but soon will be, and you can subscribe manually via this link - Daring Novelist Podcast Feed. Or you can directly download the podcast with the link just below this, or just listen right here on the blog! (How convenient!)

Daring Novelist Podcast - Episode 1 - Why Audio? 10:00 min




Why Audio?

Readers of my blog know that I have been getting really interested in audio lately.  I'm really throwing all caution to the wind on it with the idea of a weekly fiction podcast.  Just... giving away most of my work for free.

Although, honestly, I don't know where this audio bug is taking me.  I just find that I feel the same way about it as I did about indie publishing when I first realized it was a realistic option.

Until a few weeks ago, I never actually considered doing audio.

For one thing, I went to film school, so I know a little about audio production -- enough to know that it would be a pain in the tuchis.  If you think finding a time and place to write is a problem, forget it.  Even in really bad conditions, you can still physically write.  The right time and place is more mental than physical.

Finding a place and time to record sound?  Nightmare. 

When the cats come yelling into the room (or worse, just outside the locked door) it doesn't just break your concentration. The cat is collaborating with you.  It's in the recording. Along with the furnace, the firetrucks, the midnight train to Georgia, crickets, night birds, and the electrical box. 

(The electrical box, at least, has a constant hum, and can be filtered out.  The neighbor kid's graduation party, not so much..) 

And if you get the kind of mic that doesn't pick up all this extraneous noise, that's the kind that will pick up pops and sibilance from your voice.

And don't talk to me about levels and pre-amps.

Besides, audio is old tech, isn't it?  Other than slickly packaged audiobooks, the kids these days aren't interested in simple audio.  And what does it have to do with indie publishing anyway?  I mean other than the aforementioned audiobooks, which are freaking expensive.  They're really kinda for the elites.  It's rich people and libraries, isn't it? And msot libraries only stock a limited selection of best sellers.

So, no, I didn't consider taking up audio.

Not much.

It's not like I listen to the radio or anything like that.

So the other day, I was sitting my car, listening to the radio.  As I always do.  I don't think I listen to radio, but I do, constantly. I just don't listen to Top 40 or satellite radio.  I listen to news and talk -- mostly public radio, local sporting events and podcasts.

And that day my public radio station was having a fund drive.

While begging for cash, they pointed out how much bang for your buck you get with radio.  They were, of course, correct.  Radio is famously cheap to produce and broadcast.

And I had this epiphany.  You know how they talk about the "Wave of the Future"?  Well, I saw the wave of the past crashing through the future.

It was this image of the old days of bootstrap radio -- tiny stations broadcasting out of a little shack.  Pirate radio and propaganda.  A guy with a mic and a transmitter, playing music and telling stories and giving the farm report.

Before networks and multinational media companies got a hold of it, radio was a lot like the internet.  Heck , even afterward, radio has always been a tool of the little guy.  But in the early days, it was like blogging.  And like the indie publishing revolution.

But it was still kind of expensive, because even though it's cheaper than running a TV transmitter, even a low power radio transmitter is beyond the budget of most individuals.

Ah, but digital audio, which doesn't need a transmitter, and reaches way farther, that's just like indie publishing.  It's just like the entire web.

And... when I look into it, I find it's booming.  It's easy to overlook, because it's everywhere in the background.  People like me don't think we listen at all, when actually we're subscribed to 400 podcasts and listen to all sorts of things on the web and our phone and the radio.  All the time.

People listen as much as they ever did.  It's just that what they listen to comes from many different sources.

A few years ago, all you heard was that the podcasting boom was over.  But now, everybody says audio is the wave of the future.  People who don't have time to read, still like to listen.  In their cars, in the kitchen while cooking or doing housework.  While jogging or walking the dog.  Video is cool, but you can't do anything else while watching, really.

A lot of people in publishing are talking about creating "enhanced books" to build stronger engagement with their audience.  Something cool to compete with all the noise on the internet. 

But these efforts often fail, or succeed only in finding a niche audience.  I keep telling people that it's because the audience isn't looking for deeper engagement or for more complicated books.

They are looking for simpler things that integrate with the noise. They like that a pure text ebook can be read on their e-reader, phone, computer, tablet -- anything that can handle text.

Sound is just like text.  It's everywhere, and can be accessed from every kind of device.  It's not demanding.  It only requires one sense (the ears rather than the eyes).

And even though there is nothing new about audio to the listeners.  It's not something everyone in publishing does, including the indie community.  Sure, everyone wants to make an audiobook of their novel, but that's kind of a luxury.  It's a niche -- like getting a hardback edition printed.

And podcasting or radio? It's not actually a part of publishing. It's a totally separate venue -- a place to promote your book.

Because, after all, the vast listening audience -- the audience way bigger than the reading audience -- doesn't pay for what it gets.  And when it does pay, it wants it cheap.  The radio/podcast audience is the pulp audience. They are the equivalent of those who buy cheap and used paperbacks, and comic books. Who can't often afford hardbacks.

Amazon, always the leader in business, is working to crack that general audio market by offering cheap Whispersync deals on audiobooks.  Which is incredibly cool, although even there, it doesn't touch  major parts of that audience.  It doesn't touch the huge audience of people who don't habitually buy books, even if they would like audiobooks (because after all, audiobooks are expensive as a rule. You only get that Whispersync deal if you are a READER first.)

And from the publishing side, even the indies, all I hear is whining about how the discount cuts into royalties.  Publishers, including indies, are just not interested in that huge audience, because they don't pay.

But here is the thing: people are used to watching television without paying -- but they still buy DVDs of their favorite TV shows.  They buy a whole lot of other stuff realted to those shows, too.

They do this because free TV, and before that radio, created a generation of people who want TV.  People are willing to pay for something they want.  Even though they can get it free.  People are weird that way.

They pay ten times as much for coffee which they could easily make at home, too.  Cheaper, hotter, better.

And when people in publishing think about that, they whine about how that coffee money isn't being spent on them.

But here is the other thing: It's free and cheap coffee at home and at work that habituates people to coffee. It's the ubiquity of coffee that makes people appreciate great coffee.

And it's growing up with TV available all the time that makes people love TV enough to collect their favorite shows on DVD.

This is another subject which has been on my mind for months -- and maybe I'll post about that next week.  

So much of today's publishing landscape depends on things given for free or very cheap earlier on. And I'm not talking about free samples or the sort of things indie publishers do as a marketing gimmick.

I'm talking about things that are free or cheap as a class:  Pulp fiction.  Children provided with books by their parents and schools and libraries for years before they have money to buy their own, soldiers in WWII given books by all the major publishers.

And more recently, the early indie publishing pioneers who provided a disenchanted audience with ultra-cheap or free books.

In my opinion, writers like Amanda Hocking and Joe Konrath didn't just capture an audience.

They created an audience.

But more about that another time.

Suffice it to say that I think podcasting is an opportunity to make a difference in the world.

Also, for all that recording is a pain, I am a production geek.  I actually do enjoy the editing and technical part of the process. 

And I'm really surprised to find out how much I enjoy the performance part of the process.  My skills are still pretty rudimentary, but it's really cool when I bring the story to life.   Maybe not as well as I'd like, yet often way better than I imagined I could.

As a result, I think I will start recording some of my old blog posts -- the best of the Daring Novelist, if you will -- for a monthly writer podcast. This post will be the start.

If I can carve out the quiet time when the furnace isn't going, and the cats aren't yowling (or purring), and the firetrucks aren't roaring....

See you in the funny papers.