Wednesday, February 29, 2012

ROW80 Update -- And a Little Carol Burnett

Progress report for February 29:

Not good for this segment of the week. The assault on my free time by crazy issues continues. But I'm still keeping a hand in. Next week is Spring Break already. I was hoping to have this freaking book done by the end of that, but I guess I won't. Bleh.

Sunday Day 56 - 0 minutes. Inauspicious start to the week. Still a little dopey and migraine-y. But I did have an active day (in which I managed to do nearly nothing). I do have a vague memory of sitting down to work and thinking about a particular Carol Burnett Show movie parody which sent me to YouTube.... and I came up a couple of hours later, chuckling and feeling silly.

Monday Day 57 - 35 minutes. So, after I updated Sunday night, I thought "Gee, I've actually been doing pretty well on the mini writing sprints. No matter how late it is, you ought to do just 15 or 20 minutes before bed. After all you don't have to get up tomorr.... oh shit."

I did have to get up Monday morning, and much earlier than usual. I had to give a printing presentation to a digital illustration class. So today was sleep deprived and busy. But I did manage to do a couple of good (albeit short) sessions today. A lot of ROW80-ers do "writing sprints" and they really are a miracle when nothing is is happening. Plus for me, I find that the prep work is really coming in handy for this.

Tuesday Day 58 - 39 minutes. I decided to work on a short story today. I spent about 20 minutes, hacking in the meat of a flash story. Not sure how long it is because it's still on my netbook. However I think it's going to be a great first Max Speckler story. It might be a little too light weight for the major markets, but we'll have to see when it's done.

In the meantime, I don't know if I'm cooking a cold, or if it's allergies or just my usual nonallergic sinusitis kicking in, but my sinuses have been swelling closed on me this afternoon, which affects my inner ear, which in turn leaves me staggering around like a drunken sailor.

Which reminds me of this silly video....

I had to share this sketch from the Carol Burnett Show with you folks out there. I sometimes feel this is how our writing process must feel for our characters....

I'm feeling pretty tired, in the meantime, so I'm going to go to bed and maybe read a little. I might do fiction rather than art in the next couple of days (or a mix) depending on how I feel.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Seven Reasons Writers Are A Lousy Audience (And Two Reasons They're Good)

You may have heard some wise writing gurus say it:

"Writers don't buy books."

That's one of those "common knowledge" statements that aren't literally true, but are very much true in spirit.

Sure, writers do acquire a lot of books. We even read some of them. We may even pay a premium price for them. And because writing is a lonely profession, we tend to hang out together a lot... and that's where the problem is.

See, as writers, we're all told that we're supposed to be building a "platform" -- an audience, fanbase or following. This is true of traditionally published writers as well as indies. We need lots of blog followers and Twitter followers and Facebook "friends" and people who comment on our blogs.

And it's really really easy to pump those numbers up with writers. All you have to do is talk about the writing business. Write about book pricing or how to edit or how NOT to edit, or how to get followers for you blog, and how to market, and also about successful indie writers, and how they paid their mortgage last year with just one short story.

Writers are vitally interested in that stuff, so they are really easy to get them to subscribe and follow and comment. They will give you lots of satisfaction as you see your hit counts and follower numbers and other such things rise and rise.

The problem is that these things are not of much interest to people who aren't writers -- to your general readership. Sure they like to hear about the creative process and rags-to-riches success stories here and there, but they are not driven to see it out, and very often too much of it bores them and drives them away.

Now it's true that many writers are not trying to build a platform when they blog or post on Twitter -- they just enjoy the company of other writers. And that's good.

However, if you are blogging and tweeting and all that in order to market or promote your work -- to gain a readership -- you're making a mistake if you focus on writers. Writers are extremely easy to catch, but as a demographic, we leave a lot to be desired.

Why Writers Are A Lousy Audience For Writers

7.) We don't have the time to read like we used to. We all have huge TBR piles because our eyes are always bigger than our schedules. We've got a lot of work to do, and very often we are using our reading time to write.

6.) We don't have the mind space to read. Our imaginations are busy making up our own stories, and often quite satisfied with them. So finding a good book is not as urgent as it is for readers who don't write.

5.) What reading time we have is partly committed to professional needs. To be a real pro, you need to read authors who are better than you are to learn from them. You also need to read for research, and to keep up with the industry. You read critique partners' raw manuscripts. Not much time left for pleasure reading.

4.) We read hyper-critically. We're used to proofing and editing and critiquing. And being on the lookout for things we know we do wrong ourselves. We have pet peeves which are blown all out of proportion.

3.) We buy for the wrong reasons. We like to be supportive of our fellow writers, and we'll buy our friends' books, even if we aren't really interested. Which is fine if you have a lot of "real" readers too. But if most of the people who are buying your book don't normally read your kind of book it throws off the algorithms and "also bought" lists -- making it harder for Amazon to recommend your books to the right people.

2.) We're cheap. Writers are used to being exploited, and not knowing if their next paycheck will come at all, so we are reluctant to part with cash. Other than those "friendship buys" we tend to squeeze a nickel until Jefferson screams.

But the big reason is:

1.) Most of us are not anywhere near your target audience. We gather together because we all like to write. We like each other as people and respect each other's talents. But we don't all like the same or even similar things. In any writer's group, you will find people's tastes are scattered all over the place.

Remember this when you get caught up in all those promotional activities which you hear about in writer groups. Most of the time, those activities work with writers, but not so much with readers. If someone starts a blog or discussion group to promote indie books, you'll find LOTS of writers hanging out there, but almost no regular readers.

The bad thing is that regular readers are much much harder to find and recruit. Readers only become vitally interested in what you have to say after they buy and read your work. Before that it's an idle interest. You can only get those people the old fashioned way -- writing and waiting and writing and waiting. And that's so slow, and so quiet, it seems like it doesn't work, not when you compare it to how easy it is to snag a writer's interest.

Why Writers Are A Good Audience

1.) Writers ARE readers, and love books. Writers are more likely to be open to new writers -- we are the "early adopters." We're most likely to hear about a new writer before anybody else, if only because we read each other's rough drafts. That can bump sales numbers and make you feel good.

Just remember that for most of us, that bump is artificial. Because it was so easy to get that sales bump from fellow writers, it can be like a drug, and you keep trying the same methods to get more sales... to less and less effect.


2.) Sometimes writers actually are your main reading demographic. This is particularly true for literary and "artisan" writers -- who may write things which are a little more experimental, or a little more about the process itself. If your voice and subject matter is new and different, writers may be the only ones who really appreciate what you are doing, at least at first.

In the end, don't measure your success by followers and hit counts. Instead, keep in mind that you may have multiple audiences: one for your writing interests, and a different group for your writing itself.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

ROW80 - Playing With Prejudice, Playing With Fire?

This is the segment of the week that I work mostly on art and layout. I stretched the issue this week by also working on formatting a PD magazine from And I put more energy into blogging than I meant to.

One of the reasons I spent time blogging, though, was because Friday's post about The Scarlet Pimpernel reminded me of a specific issue with a politically incorrect scene. See my thoughts below the update.

A Round Of Words In 80 Days Sunday Update

Wednesday Day 52 - 61 minutes. Working on a conversion of a 1915 copy of The Strand. I think I might publish a story or two on the Daring Adventures blog. The copies they have available at are horribly horribly unedited -- just raw OCR completely uncleaned up. I might start with the story whence came the illustration in my header, just for fun.

Thursday Day 53 - 60 minutes. Finishing up the drawing, for use in Friday's post about Leslie Howard and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Friday Day 54 - 80 minutes. Joan Crawford's eyes. They came out looking a little more like Gloria Swanson's eyes, though.

Saturday Day 55 - 34 minutes. Today was migraine day. It took a while to get going, so I wrote in the journal, and also did a little writing on today's post. I realized the subject was a little big for a quick post. May do more work on similar subjects later. I had more energy once the aspirin and tylenol kicked in, but I was still kind of groggy and non-verbal, so I spend most of the afternoon, after errands, sorting through hundreds of my paperbacks. My basement office is a major catastrophe, and I think I need to spend an hour or so a day dealing with it.

It was only late evening when I sat down to start writing again. Though I only did a half hour or so, I did get 750 words done. So preparation can double your writing speed. (We'll see if it holds.)

Stereotypes as Red Herrings

There is one scene in The Scarlet Pimpernel that offends everybody. It involves a dirty old sniveling cowardly Jew. Orczy was annoyed that people were offended, because the character in question turned out to be only playing on the prejudice of the viewpoint character -- the villain, Chauvelin. So that made it okay, right?

The problem is that it wasn't just one character playing on another character's prejudice: it was treated as a twist. Which would work if you don't expect the audience to believe in the reality of the scene. And that implies that the offensive stereotype must be considered ordinary and believable.

It reminds me a little bit of the previews for the movie Shallow Hal. That movie sounded like one with good intentions: it was about a shallow man who judged people by appearances (particularly women) and who was cursed to see only inner beauty. Except he didn't realize what he was seeing, so when he meets a plain, overweight woman, he sees a beautiful thin woman.

The problem was that they didn't cast a plain overweight woman in the part, or treat her with respect. No, they cast Cameron Diaz (correction, make that Gwenyth Paltrow) and then used that as an excuse to dump every rotten offensive "fat girl" pratfall in the book on her. Because, hey, it was okay to make fun of a thin, beautiful woman, right?

If they had cast an overweight actress in the part, it would not have been funny. It would have been cruel. So the result was, even though they supposedly had good intentions, it came off as an excuse to be worse than you could get away with normally.

Playing with expectations is one of the best things we do as writers. We draw the readers in with what they believe, and then delight them with surprises. When you add something which might offend to the mix, it confuses the issue: are you playing with what you think they believe (i.e. playing down to the audience)? Or are you raising tension by making them fear that what they don't believe is true?

It might help uncloud the issue by taking offensiveness out of the picture and just going with unpleasantness:

I'm re-reading a book right now (I shall not tell you the title for fear of spoilers) which has a murderer as one of the main viewpoint characters. Actually, a pair of murderers. And they are sweet and fluffy and you'd like to like them. But the fact that they've plotted this cold blooded murder could be enough to make this book not appeal to cozy readers. I mean, that's a very dark element in an otherwise rather light story, and it makes their likeability seem a little creepy... until the big reveal later on: they hadn't been able to go through with the murder. They were as nice and likeable as one thought.

It's a wonderful source of tension for the story, but I know people who read the first couple of chapters and say "No, I don't like that kind of story." You can tell them it's not that kind of story, but unless you reveal a spoiler, they don't believe you -- because they don't like stories about cold-blooded killers.

Here are two things that a writer should think about, if you want to use something disagreeable as a red herring so you can spring a pleasant surprise on the reader:

1.) Consider letting the reader in on it. That way it doesn't feel creepy, like you expect the audience to like what you're doing. The surprise can be in how you pull it off, it can be on another character. You can even have the effort backfire on the character in the story.

2.) If you feel you must keep your audience in the dark, imagine the scene were real, and there was no twist waiting behind it. Imagine handing just that scene, by itself, to a Jewish actor, or to an overweight actress - no explanation, no context - and imagine how they would react to being asked to play that part.

In the case of The Scarlet Pimpernel, the filmmakers cut that scene altogether, and inserted another scene where Sir Percy is cheering on a boxer with a Jewish name.

Attitudes of a century or more ago were often offensive, especially in popular fiction. I'm reading a lot of works of the era at the moment. Often they seem quaint or silly -- especially with some elements of the sexism -- but sometimes it's downright shocking. And it's hard to tell if you're getting the same read on a story; was it meant to be shocking? If a character uses the N-word, is it meant to say something about the character, or does it just say something about the author?

I'll talk about this more in a later post. (Haven't got it written, so I don't know when.) In the meantime....

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday Favorites - Leslie Howard and The Scarlet Pimpernel

The first time I "saw" The Scarlet Pimpernel, it was one o'clock in the morning. I was standing next to our Sony Trinitron, one hand on the rabbit-ear antenna, looking at the screen sideways so I could make minute adjustments to the position of the antenna, and to the several yards of tinfoil I had added to the antenna to improve reception. The flick was being broadcast from a station in Detroit which was too far away to receive, but it was a clear night and sometimes you got lucky.

The picture was all fuzzy -- too much snow to see anything but the vague movement of shadows -- but you could hear it. Sort of.

"We fzzzt him here. We fzzz zzzt there. Those Frzz-ies fzzz him every-zzzz...."

Stap me! But it was a demmed difficult time to be a movie buff! (For the Pimpernel-impaired: that's how the Pimpernel's alter ego, Sir Percy, talked.)

There was no cable, no DVDs, even Betamax was still a ways away. All we had were battered 16mm prints which bounced around the country from TV-station to TV-station, and also to libraries and schools. You could wait years to see a particular famous flick. You might never see most of the movies on your "stay up late with the tinfoil antenna" list.

And I was in love with Leslie Howard. I had fallen in love with him not long earlier, when our local PBS station had run Pygmalion during a fund raiser. (They only had them once a year, back then, and our station would run 24-hour classic movies for one segment.) He was an ideal Henry Higgins.

Howard was an even more ideal Sir Percy Blakeney, though. (More on that below.)

Baroness Orczy (pronounced "Ort-zy") was the author of The Scarlet Pimpernel. She wrote mystery, adventure and romance stories at the turn of the last century. She was an Hungarian noblewoman who had come to live in England (in middle-class splendor) as a child. One day she found out her maid was making a lot of money writing short stories for magazines. She figured that if maids and shop girls could do it, so could she.

And by golly she could. An how. She wrote a number of contemporary mystery stories, featuring Lady Molly of Scotland Yard (one of the early feminist detectives) and The Old Man In The Corner (who was the inspiration for my Happy Diner detective in Waiter, There's a Clue In My Soup!). The old man sat in the corner of a tea shop, and chatted with the Lady Journalist (who was the narrator). They would would go over the facts of famous insoluble crimes, as reported in the newspaper, and he would solve them as they talked.

Fun as those were, her real calling was historical romance and adventure, and even those usually had some sort of suspense and mystery involved. The most famous of these was The Scarlet Pimpernel, and the 15 other books she wrote in the series. (Some featured ancestors or descendants of Sir Percy, some were collections of short stories.)

The Scarlet Pimpernel was a secret hero -- like Zorro. He rescued people from the guillotine during the French Revolution. (He was not against the revolution itself, and refused to assist those who wished to violently restore the monarchy.) It was a terribly involved and difficult process - involving not only a jail break, but a long escape run to the English channel and a boat to get across, but also a lot of work keeping his identity a secret. Because he himself was hunted by the French government.

He pretended, in his real life as Sir Perceval Blakeney, Baronet, to be an utter idiot; a fellow whose highest achievement was tying his cravat (and he was exceedingly proud of it).

And the first book was structured as a suspense mystery. Who is this man, this Scarlet Pimpernel? And Orczy made use of a number of tropes which became famous (and annoying) in later romances, but she did them well. They made sense.

Margueritte Blakeney, Sir Percy's wife, is the protagonist. She has no idea that her idiot husband is anything but an idiot -- but that's not because she is an idiot, but rather because Sir Percy's charade is first and foremost designed to fool her. Because he can't trust her. She's a French woman, and she herself denounced some nobles who were sent to the guillotine.

And Margueritte is being blackmailed to find out who the Pimpernel is. So there is a lovely game of cat and mouse, spy stuff, adventures, kidnappings, hair-raising escapes. Et cetera.

Here's an interesting thing about Leslie Howard: he was a little like a Baroness Orczy character himself. He was always playing the role of the perfect Englishman, always conforming to the mode pushed on him by his mother's family who didn't approve of his Hungarian Jewish father, or the accent he had as a small child, after living in Europe. Always the effete, sensitive, intellectual, who seemed a little helpless, but as David Niven said of him, always with a "busy little mind."

Howard, like the Pimpernel, loved England with a passion that lurked underneath. After Gone With The Wind (in a role he never felt right for -- though he was too lazy to read the book and see for sure) he quit making commercial movies, and went completely over to working for the war effort. He made propaganda movies (including one called Pimpernel Smith, and updated version for the war). He flew around a warring Europe, visiting neutral countries, lobbying for them to join the allies. He was very popular, and Goebbels considered him to be the most dangerous propagandist working for the allies.

And he died when his commercial airline flight was shot down on one of those propaganda missions. The official story was that it was an accidental shooting, but there is also evidence that he was targeted. (And also wild rumors that the plane was shot down because the Luftwaffe thought that Churchill was on the plane -- however, Churchill would have had an escort, so it was unlikely that anyone would think that unescorted plane was his.)

We also can thank Leslie Howard for one more thing -- the career of Humphrey Bogart. Bogart was considered a lightweight. His roles were generally limited to being the juvenile lead -- the guy who walks in and says "Tennis anyone?" Nobody wanted him for meatier roles, until he played in The Petrified Forest on stage with Howard. Howard was a big headliner at the time, and when they went to make the movie, Hollywood wanted him to star, but they didn't want Bogart. Howard insisted. He wouldn't play without Bogie.

(Mini-factiod: Leslie Howard features very slightly in The Man Who Did Too Much, when Karla needs to explain the concept of "Six-Degrees" and she connects Kevin Bacon to Leslie Howard -- who died before Bacon was born -- to show how everybody connects to everybody if you just know how.)

In the meantime: Sunday I'll do another update post, and I'm going to talk a little about handling political incorrectness. See, the book of The Scarlet Pimpernel is one flaw, a politically incorrect scene. Orczy felt she was playing on prejudice, rather than expressing it, but uh, it didn't work. They removed it for the movie version.

The reason the scene failed (and the reason it was used in the first place) is instructional for writers even today. And I'll bring up a couple of other examples.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

ROW80 Update - Brainstorming and Writing

An interesting factoid about moi:

When I was in film school, my dreams all took place in 4 x 3 aspect ratio, and when the dream lost its narrative track, I'd wind it back on the Moviola and try again.

This is relevant to my thoughts on brainstorming and plotting, below the update.

ROW80 Update For The Day After Mardi Gras

Sunday Day 49 - 60 minutes. Had some great dim sum, went to see Arrietty, played with a desperately bored cat. Uh. Not much else. Got more brainstorming in.

Monday Day 50 - 141 minutes. A little short, but not bad. I did only brainstorming today. An hour on The Man Who Stepped Up, in which I got myself a killer motive, and then an hour and some on Devil in a Blue Bustle, where I have wrestled with the various clue and knowledge threads and have finally woven them together. Casey is unhappy with me because there's not enough shootin'. Not sure how I can please her. I guess I'll just have to work some major shoot outs into A Dark and Dusty Night (a graveyard should be a good place for that). And I may also combine Big Gun for a Little Lady with Girl Gunslinger (the series back story) to give her a shot at some real outlawing. That's a ways off, though.

I also did an hour or so of drawing, on a picture of Leslie Howard. So I may talk about The Scarlet Pimpernel (and possibly The Petrified Forest) for Friday Favorites this week.

Tuesday Day 51 - 62 minutes. I had a disrupted morning, and I have to get up very very early tomorrow (and stay really late at work) so I ended up mostly catching up with some blogging, and eating the wrong food. I did finally finish up the new outline that I started last night for Devil in a Blue Bustle. Lots of tasty morsels ready and waiting for me to get to them.

Brainstorming, Plotting, Pantsing and Writing

A lightbulb might have gone on over my head today. I think I'm using the wrong parts of my brain to do the wrong tasks. And as a result, I may (after 35 years of writing) have figured out something important about the writing/brainstorming mix, and how to manage it.

I'm using the term "brainstorming" loosely here. When you use that word, most people imagine a high-energy think-fest -- with lists and charts and post it notes, or maybe those kinds of exercises where you come up with 100 euphemisms for the word "mouse" before the clock runs out. And yes, I do some of that sometimes. (It can be fun, like a game.)

But the meat and potatoes (or fish and rice, depending on your culture) of my brainstorming is something else: I run the story in my head. As on the above mentioned Moviola, sprockets rattling, images flickering, sound wa-ing and row-ing as the speed changes.... Well, okay, the Moviola and 16mm has faded away, and I'm seeing, feeling and hearing things more in a 3-D VR dream universe. But there are jump cuts and things can go back and forth and repeat.

This happens very very fast. And no, the characters don't talk like chipmunks, because it is almost entirely pre-verbal. Dialog is made up of sounds and body language, not letters, or necessarily even words. In order to write it down, it has to be translated into a verbal realm. At a much higher speed than I can even talk, let alone type.

Trying to write as this is happening would be rather like trying to capture a huge fast-moving battle, as it happens, without warning... in French.

And I tell you frankly that my French is not that good.

The saving grace here is that my brain is wired like a camera/moviola combo, and I can capture and replay this with some reasonable control. I can send back the cast of thousands to their mark, un-part the Red Sea and cue the Egyptian army one more time, and have everybody take a slightly different route so the camera can see them better next time. Maybe focus in on a different part of the crowd. (Eat your heart out Cecil B.)

Even then, it's really hard to write while doing it. It requires a lot of processing power, and still goes fast, and the verbal part of my brain is only allowed sufficient processing power to take some notes. Maybe.

So, when I'm actually writing, I'm only doing a modified version of this, with a story that has to stop and wait for me. The result is that the prose becomes wooden (from trying to keep up with the ideas) and the story is uninspired (because of reining in the process). And I get bored.

At the same time....

Like everyone else, I can't always tell where the big sweep of things should really go, even what the characters should do next, until I've nailed some things down and tasted the prose (i.e. written something in final form).

That Moviola in my head is way too flexible, and the non-verbal story is too nebulous. So if I don't fix something in place, the story is more prone to wander and lose its purpose and form. The way dreams do. (You know, you're on a staircase and you're climbing and climbing and then all of a sudden you're just not? You're in a parking garage and you have no shoes and you can't find your car. And a second ago you were Sherlock Holmes but now you're a ballerina. It's like that.)

So, because of that, it doesn't work so well to do all the plotting and dreaming first, and then do the writing. And it doesn't work at all to try to do them both at the same time, because of what I mentioned above. But when I look back at what I actually do, I wonder if what I have considered to be a lack of self-discipline is really the answer to everything.

Binge and Purge

When I get ready to write a new story, I let it simmer in the back of my head. I do the moviola thing, I also do exercises where I come up with 100 euphemisms for "mouse" - and there comes this point where the idea is ripe. It's not finished, but it is very well developed and there is energy behind it, and then I can start writing.

I know this works well to launch a story, but it never occurred to me to cycle through this repeatedly. To not just build time for brainstorming at the beginning of writing, and maybe do it again after a layoff, but to build it right into the schedule itself. Don't just take a few days off to get back on track, jump right in there and BINGE on it.

This current non-verbal binge is lasting longer than I expected. I'm going to take a gamble and let it run this time. When I fell the need to nail something down, I'll switch into writing mode. I have a feeling that I will soon see a tipping point in this process, and then I'll be writing like a demon. (And then, when I've purged all the story out of my brain, I'll go back to plotting.)

So here's the big epiphany:

Because everybody claims that plotting and planning is so logical and orderly, I'm always doing it when I'm in a verbal/rational state of mind. And because actual writing is supposed to be so "creative" I try to do it when I'm in my mad artistic mode. Silly me. Plotting is irrational, and writing (working with words and grammar) is rational. D'oh!

So from now on (or until I change my mind) I'm going to work on doing the right thing at the right time. Let Og the Artist do the planning and plotting, and Miss Smartypants do the writing.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Dear Aunt Una - I Want an Assistant

In previous weeks posts about money, I mentioned the "Aunt Una Exercise" (in which you figure out what you need by asking your rich Aunt Una for stuff), and also the concept of the $40 Sandwich (in which you come to realize that your time may be more valuable than your money).

So this week, I'm thinking about the thing I would most like from my wealthy aunt:

Dear Aunt Una,

I need a personal assistant. I don't know if it should be one person who works for me, or several people who do freelance jobs. But there are people out there who need money, and I need time. It seems like a natural solution.

1.) Collecting statistics and analytics info and processing it into a spreadsheet to my specs. There is a lot of information that you can't capture if you aren't a little obsessive, and I really can't let myself do that. It would be nice if I had someone else to be able to track things like daily fluctuatiosn in sales, and then just give me final reports which I could sort.

2.) Proofing. While formal copyediting is useful for stuff you publish, nearly every job (letters, blog posts) needs some kind of informal "second eyes" proofing. It would be nice to have a noticing type person who could be called upon at any time to just glance over stuff.

3.) Formatting and processing files. I'd really like someone with graphic design training who could also do layout to my specs, and process image files, as well as do ebook conversions.

4.) Making and tracking appointments and reminding me of them. (Seriously, this would probably be the biggest help of all.)

5.) Human calendar. I hate using electronic calendars as if they were personal organizers. To me a calendar is a REFERENCE and PLANNING tool. They are time atlases. I need someone who is keeper of a separate calendar, who could then keep me alert to events.

6.) Paperwork Wrangler. You know how you can get a copy of your credit report every year for free? And there are three different credit reporting companies who you can get it from? That means if you are on top of it, you monitor your credit for fraud and such pretty closely... if you remember to send the fricken paperwork to a different company every four months. But you have to print out the form, check who you sent to last, fill out the form, etc. If the only thing I had to do was fill in the sensitive info and sign it, I would do this so much often. There's a lot of stuff like that I'd like to have someone keep track of.

7.) Research librarian. Browser and finder of links and sources and interesting stuff. Google Alerts does a pretty poor job. I want a human version. Also, someone I can give a problem to (like finding a pair of sunglasses which fold flat, like the ones I have now) and they can waste time looking for a source.

8.) Picture scanner and general archivist (i.e Paper Wrangler). I am a pack rat, but at least half the junk I have is there because I haven't had time to go through it and sort the stuff I want to keep from what I don't. Also, I have large amounts of unfiled stuff I know I want to keep. Aside from wanting to have backups of all our oldest and most treasured photos, it would be nice to just have everything at my digital fingertips.

9.) Tech support. Yeah, I'm a tech myself, and I do my own support just fine. But it sure would be nice when Firefox acts up to let somebody else run through troubleshooting tasks to figure out whether it was a corrupted plugin or the network or what. (Which reminds me, Aunt Una, I could always use a back up computer or two.)

10.) Webmaster. Yeah, I do this myself just fine. Or I _mean_ to do it myself. Time gets away from me, and there are a bunch of tasks which someone else could do to keep my websites up to date.

11.) House Elves and Yard Elves and General Concierge Services. I already have some of this, but I mention it because if the elves quit, there would probably be a very long list of items in this category.

Thank you every so much Auntie. I await your gifts with breath abated.

Your Ever Lovin' Niece.

Here is an irony about outsourcing: When you quit the day job, you may not be able to afford a passel of assistants, but before then? WHILE you have to the day job? You should consider spreading the manna around a bit and save yourself some time.

A lot of those jobs listed above are easily outsourced. There are freelance house cleaners and yard workers and mother's helpers, and proofreaders and students who could use a couple of hours now and then doing a little file conversion, or even picture scanning, etc.

And heck, as I mentioned in the Forty Dollar Sandwich post: if you can find the right places to get takeout, you can reasonably outsource some of your cooking and shopping.

Of course, few of us can actually afford to outsource everything on our list, or have an assistant on staff. But it's good to break down those tasks into smaller bits, because you might be surprised to see have you can do now. For instance #4 -- if you don't hate calendaring systems like I do, you can often use free online tools to send you reminders of things. (I happen to hate those with a irrational passion, but that doesn't mean you can't use them.)

Another thing to consider is barter. Writers swap manuscripts all the time for beta reading and such. What might be especially fruitful, though, is to trade things you are good at with someone who is better than you at something else. For instance, I am a very very slow proofreader. I mean painfully slow. But I'm a pretty swift typographer. I am thinking about offering to do simple covers for limited proofreading.

It doesn't hurt to write your own letter to Aunt Una about this. The tasks you don't want to do, or don't have time to do, or are not very good at are opportunities. If you break them down properly, you may find that there is a solution out there.

See you in the funny papers

Sunday, February 19, 2012

ROW80 Update

My A Round of Words In 80 Days Update:

Wednesday Day 45 - 70 minutes. I did more things I wasn't as good at. Sketchy, cartoony characters. They look awkward to me and I give up too soon, so I just kept pushing at it. Don't have any I want to post right now though.

Thursday Day 46 - 0 minutes. I was really tired, and just had dinner, watched House and went to bed. I think I read a little.

Friday Day 47 - 60 minutes. I listened to the Beatles and and worked on a picture of Raymond Burr. I wanted to work on details and shading, so I cheated the overall proportions -- I copied the picture I was working on and used the "cutout" filter to reduce the image to a blobby version of itself. The eyes, nose and mouth ended up as four unformed slashes, but it kept the shape of the face. I then worked detail in an out with a one pixel pen and eraser. I am going to work it a little more and maybe use it in a discussion of the Perry Mason TV show.

Burr makes me want to work on eyes more. (And noses and mouths and ears.)

Saturday Day 48 - 90 minutes. Half what I wanted to spend. I had trouble concentrating today, and I wonder if it's a silent migraine. I did notice that that I have music playing in my head too persistently, so I am using the A-bomb of concentration cures: I am playing The Third Man Theme in a continuous loop rather loud. It is the most famous earbug of them all, but I've heard it so much, I'm semi-immune to it, and I find it drives other tunes out of my head. (That and The Muppet's Ma-nah Ma-nah -- but Third Man is more neutral. It's spritely enough to wake you up (especially at full volume) but even.)

Most of the progress I made was a new approach to The Serial. I am playing with the idea of Lily -- Lady Pauline's anarchist sidekick -- telling the whole series first person. She isn't there for most of it (especially not the first stories) but she's a writer and journalist, so it might make sense for her to set down these stories second hand. The other thing I could potentially do is use her as a framing device -- she sets up the story, and then a break goes into the story directly in third person (perhaps even contrasting with the opening narration, showing what Lily knows and doesn't know).

I like it, though, because it allows me to throw in information VERY efficiently.

In the meantime, here's a bit of The Third Man Theme. (My recording is a little slower than this is -- but it still comes from the movie track, I think. The interesting thing about The Third Man, which is a mystery and Cold War thriller, is that the only music is this constant, spritely zither music. Even the action scenes. It's one of the reasons the movie is so amazing.)

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Why I Don't Start With First Books

I don't have a Friday Favorite this week.

I was going to review J. J. Murphy's Murder Your Darlings, but it turned out to have first book disease. (I'll get back to that book in a minute.) So it isn't a favorite - not yet anyway.

A couple of weeks ago I surprised someone when I said I like to start a series with the fifth book or so. And from what I've seen in surveys, I am not alone -- especially in the mystery field, where readers like to start a series when there are six or seven books. (Although they will often start with the first book -- but they wait until there are six or seven books until starting that first one.)

There are a lot of reasons readers like to wait for a writer to mature.

The first reason applies to most readers -- whether they like to read books in order or not, and whether they like series fiction or not:

1.) Readers make an emotional commitment to books and authors. And with fans of series fiction, they commit to the characters and the world and the mindset of a series. They want more than a single book, and they want to be sure you'll follow through. So often, even if they are eager to read the first book, they'll wait to start until there are several books they can read in a row.

2.) While there are a very few great one-book wonders out there, for the most part, how many books you have out is a very good indicator as to how serious you are about writing and whether you can follow through or not. In other words, it's an indicator of quality. (A much much better indication than a bazillion 5-star Amazon reviews -- which tend to be the result of how well the author solicited reviewers.)

Not all readers consider the above to be that important, but when they browse, and they see a stack of books by an author, the number of books still sends the subliminal message "established author." And some readers use number of books as a more conscious ruler. (My mother, when she goes to the library, looks for the length of the shelf the writer takes up.)

Readers who like series tend to have lots of more complicated and conscious rules -- often based on the way series are published in their genre.

3.) Readers want to know if you're going to finish the darned story, and if they are going to be able to get their hands on all the "episodes." In sf and fantasy, many series are written as trilogies and serialized larger stories. It's a bunch of books all telling one big story, and you need to read them all in a row. Readers of this type of fiction want to read it in the right order -- but they want to be guaranteed that they will be ABLE to read through the whole series.

Traditional publishing, unfortunately, treated these readers badly by letting books go out of print, so that reading such books becomes incredibly frustrating. But readers have also been burned by Indie Authors who start a series and then don't finish it. (This is particularly bad when the author writes a serialized novel and abandons it before even getting to the end of one story.) Because of this, a lot of readers won't start a series until they see that the end has been written.

Mystery series, however don't tend to have closed plot arcs. They may have some sort of character arc over the long term, but it tends to move forward like life, or like a soap opera, and the stories inside each book are complete in themselves. Which means that you can read them out of order, and if one is out-of-print it doesn't doom the rest of the series.

HOWEVER... mystery readers tend to be the most demanding of a series being long, and therefore we want writers with stamina. (And this is also something that traditional publishing has screwed up over the past twenty years -- by canceling series before they're ripe. It's frustrating, but it mostly drove readers to old classics.)

So my main reason is the fourth reason:

4.) First books tend to suck, and when they don't, they're different enough from the mature series that you can't judge the series by sampling the first book.

So my personal practice all my life, in discovering a new series, is to look for a shelf of books, determine which is the fifth book, and start there. If I find myself investing deeply enough in that story, I'll go back and read from the first if I can. Because even if there are flaws in the first, or something odd going on, I already know I like where it's going, so I don't mind.

Sometimes you find a series where the first books are the best -- not necessarily the best written, but the most interesting in terms of subject and favor. One series in particular where I found this was Charlotte MacLeod's series about Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn. The first book was a great romantic suspense -- a very personal story about something which changed the characters lives forever -- the second was good enough... and then they settled into a completely different tone. One full of screechy, nasty, annoying, bullying characters: which is the one thing I really really cannot abide in a cozy mystery. So even though I like MacLeod's other series, I was bitterly disappointed in that one. (I started those other series with later books.)

Now, to this week's book, Murder Your Darlings (which just got nominated for an Agatha, I hear):

There's a lot to love about this book. It's about the Algonquin Round Table (aka "The Vicious Circle") -- a sparkling group of literati (and others - Harpo Marx, who was practically illiterate, was a great pal of Alexander Woollcott) who met for lunch each day at the Algonquin Hotel. They were a bunch of witty but immature smart-asses, who possessed egos too big for the room. But they were also incredibly talented and and interestingly flawed people.

And any story about the round table runs the risk of being yet another story about screechy nasty bullying people I don't want to hang out with. Or it could be shiny madcap comedy, reminiscent of the 20s and 30s, where the characters are like verbal Wiley Coyotes, as often being zinged themselves as zinging others.

J. J. Murphy pulls off the latter, for the most part. She presents us with something remeninscent of the 30's madcap movies (though it takes place in the early 20's -- she plays liberally with the timeline, though, so it all feels coherent anyway). The sleuths in this series are Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley. Parker was known for her particularly sharp zingers, but she was also never comfortable with that image of herself, or the constant one-upsmanship of the group, and though this is a young Dorothy Parker who is only starting on her career, Murphy gives us the feeling of someone a little uncomfortable in the role she's playing so well. Part of this is that her life IS a role, in particular her relationship with Benchley, who is married with two children.

Parker and Benchley have this sort of "bromance" relationship going. Always together (when he's in New York) sleeping on each other's couches, out until 5am -- but though Parker pines for Benchley, all sexual tension remains unspoken and under the radar.

The mystery plot is not very good. It'll do, but it's shoved off in a corner -- like one of the later Thin Man movies, where it's all about Nick and Nora and Asta doing their schtick and you forget there IS a mystery. It's got to be that limited, though, because most of the characters are historical characters and therefore aren't really suspects in the mystery.

And that's probably where the biggest flaw here lies: as a first book with a very colorful milieu, melding the history and the story just doesn't go smoothly. There's just too much stuff here. Secondary characters have a way of stopping to speechify in ways that don't advance the story at all. A lot of the book feels like research and world building.

And that leads to the moment which very nearly caused me to throw my Kindle across the room: in the midst of a madcap, keystone cops car chase, they run over and kill a horse. Actually, they don't kill the horse, the horse is lying there screaming and one of the cops shoots it. And then it's off to the races again.

This is not a spoiler... because there is no purpose to this scene at all. Murphy makes no use of this whatsoever. It doesn't affect anyone really, it leaves the characters a little uncomfortable with the blase way they treat the world -- but they were already uncomfortable with that. (Maybe if it had happened earlier, and incited the discomfort, that would have at least had some purpose in the story.)

What it feels like is research rearing its ugly head. Horses undoubtedly got killed in traffic accidents at the time, and there was all sorts of collateral damage in gangster/police car chases. But not in madcap comedies. And this story plays fast and loose with history and sets up a madcap comedy, not a gritty realistic drama.

And that's what I mean by first book-itis. This is not necessarily the fault of the writer. (Well, I do hold her responsible for that imaginary horse -- its blood is on her soul -- but creatively speaking it's more excusable.) The series, the world she is creating, is finding its legs. It's a hard world to write, and very often the only way to find the voice of the series is to write it. So the speechifying and the dead horse are a part of that process.

As a reader, I would have been better off to start with a later book, but I'm stuck in a Catch-22. See, it's a commercially published book, so if readers don't buy this one now, the fifth book will never happen. That's not a problem for indie writers. (Not unless they're easily discouraged.)

In this case, the book has an Agatha nomination, so the series has a better chance of sticking around for a while, so I can dip in again later and see if I like what happens with the tone. But with series which don't have nominations? I can't afford to go buying every first book on spec. And I really don't want to invest the time and soul into it either. Sure I'll try some of them, but they're more likely to sit in my TBR pile for a long time.

So it will have to be up to the author's guts and determination -- can they keep it going long enough to capture the reader like me? Another Agatha nominee this year is one I'll probably try again. Jacqueline Winspear's series was one which I hated the first book so badly I couldn't get through more than a couple of chapters -- I found the main character manipulative and creepy -- but which may have matured into something I like better.

Here's the great thing about sampling once authors have enough books: With samples, I can quickly dip into several books across a series and tell pretty quickly if I'm interested in the character and voice, even if I still have to get the whole book to find out how the endings are and if there are going to be dead horses.

Okay, enough blathering. Later I'll dig up some first books and singletons that did get my interest and are worth it, and let you know about them.

(For perspective on my own first book-itis, you could check out my own thoughts about the writing of a first book in the Man Who series "A Look Back At The Book" post from December.)

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

ROW80 - Brainstorming Mostly

My mind has switched to brainstorming mode this week. I don't know why, it just did. It might be a side effect of the artwork. It might just be that I've been neglecting that part of my head for a while.

Sunday Day 42 - 90 minutes. I bought some Story Cubes (after seeing a tweet by Tracy McClusker) and played with them on some brainstorming. Instead of working on the WIP, I worked on a new short story for my Max series (which has yet to see a competed story, but I think this will be the right one to be first, since Maude will be the client). Max is a young P.I. (inspired by my cat) who seems to have delusions of grandeur, but he's smarter than your average bear.

I also had some thoughts about another Mick and Casey idea, and so I think the one I'll be writing this fall will be A Dark And Dusty Night - where Mick and Casey are hired to guard a fresh grave against resurrectionists, and find that the graveyard is strangely busy at night.

Monday Day 43 - 75 minutes. I've been overeating and under-exercising, and I kind of over-corrected that today. Which means I wore out early. I got some very good prep work done on The Man Who Stepped Up. I've got a good sense of where the main characters start at the beginning. I have some sense of the overall form of the story behind the mystery, but there are too many fuzzy blank spots as yet. I also did Mondays blog post.

I was going to go to a movie tomorrow, but I think instead, I knock of early tonight and try to make up for it tomorrow. I am just too tired to make decisions about ANYTHING.

Tuesday Day 44 - 90 minutes. I sat down and intensively sorted out the tangles in Devil in a Blue Bustle. There are some some threads to weave in, but they are doing nicely. I did NOT make up for the lack of work yesterday, but I did do a lot of lateral tasks, so I'm not too upset with myself. The question is only whether I will lose momentum over the next couple days of non-writing. I might put in a little more brainstorming effort just to keep my hand in the game.

I also had some very very nice thoughts about the major plot arcs of "The Serial." I moved an event which I thought would be part of a later story, and it fits very well in this arc. I think this story will be made up of four long novelettes. I am also now sure that the illustration in my header would be great inspiration for a scene in the first story.

* * *

I finally brought the progress bar in my sidebar up to date. I'd been neglecting it for two weeks. And with good reason. For the past two weeks I've been slack. I mentioned the enthusiasm gap, but I think there is something else here at work:

I think I set my goals too low and my standards too high.

When I say "standards" I'm not talking about quality of writing. I go with Dean's motto "Dare to be bad!" all the time. No, I think the problem is that I am holding myself to too narrow of a definition of what I consider to be "writing."

I did it for good reason -- in the last dare I was drawing to the end of the book which I had to finish and I didn't need to do any more thinking on it. While I might want to do a little brainstorming and work on other projects, those were distractions, so I had to do them on my own time.

So I only counted what I call "Nose in Book" time. That is, the manuscript is open, in front of me and I'm either writing new words or I'm reading and working on old ones.

And that was a great way to go, except....

I've discovered that when I'm not on the clock, I'm on my own time (psychologically speaking), and when I'm on my own time I waste it. It's like the clock is a switch I can flip in my brain. Working. Not Working. And when I use that clock for a very narrow range of activities, that means it's mostly off.

Still, the very concept of having a "WORK" switch that I flip is really useful. What I think I really need to do is broaden the footprint of "working" so I'm doing more of it. I can push the "nose in book" goal later on if I need to. Or add a word count, depending on what I need.

In the meantime, I am adding two things to my goal: working on upcoming stories, and doing brainstorming or outlining. My mind seems to be in great brainstorming mode right now anyway. The work will have to be done on it's own "nose in book" sort of time. That is, no drifting around. I'm working or not working.

I also need to raise the goal on number of hours I work each day if I do that -- but because I'm behind, the overall goal will stay the same. I'm going to try to use brainstorming to push up to three hours on Sat-Tues in future. We'll see how that goes.

(Check out the other ROW80 participant updates.)

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Times That Try Writer's Souls

There are two questions writers seem to ask in dark times. I addressed the first one, "Am I Good Enough?" in my Hatchlings and Neo-Pros post.

But lately I've been hearing a note of desperation in the voices of some indie writers that brings us to the other question of Eternal Writer Depression. It's an old note, one that we heard a lot in traditional publishing.

Is it worth it?

Traditional writers eternally thought about this as they chased publication: Is it worth the amount of effort I'm going to have to go through -- the years of blood, sweat and tears -- only to find out ten years from now that I'm never going to make it? Or if I do make it, will I have to compromise and write stuff I don't really like because that's what my editor wants? Is the pay going to be enough? Will the glory make up for lack of pay?

These were valid questions in traditional publishing, but lately I've been hearing similar sentiments among indies. Oh, not nearly as much as I heard it from traditional writers, but indies are still in their first wave of, shall we call it illusionment? Or maybe we'll call it the honeymoon period. And now disillusionment is just beginning to press in.

Right now, sales are slow. Books are maintaining ranking at half the sales as before. And those who have just started in the last year or so may never have had a chance to experience great sales, because their books are just coming "of age" now, during a slump. And we were all told that this should be the best time to sell books -- what with all those people who got new Nooks and Kindles for Christmas.

And writing is hard. No matter how hard you try, you may find that you can't follow Heinlein's advice and refrain from rewriting because you really don't like the way your prose turned out. So it's slow going. And your enthusiasm is dropping because sales are slow and all that social networking is getting you down.

And the marketing! Everybody was so enthusiastic last year as they compared notes and looked for new places to promote their books, or make connections, and now they're burning out. They flogged and flogged, and there was some success, so they jumped in and flogged harder, but the harder they market, the less effect they get for the extra effort. It's exhausting.

(And if you aren't suffering it now, you will a little later, or you already have. It's in every writing career, multiple times.)

So, these are the times that try writer's souls.

And this is the time that the winter soldiers sort themselves out from the summer soldiers. (If you didn't catch the reference in "the times that try men's souls" -- Thomas Paine, written during the bleak first winter of the American Revolution, to remind folks that revolution ain't easy. And hard as that winter seemed, there were harder winters ahead.)

Writing is easier than revolution, but it's no cakewalk.

The thing that got me fretting over this was the subtext of something a young writer said to me the other day. I was advocating the idea of devoting a couple of years to just writing -- no marketing, no business, just getting books done -- so that you'd have 5 or 10 books in hand to launch your career.

The response, to me, was shocking and a little heart-breaking: But what if that first book is a failure? Why waste several years of hard writing work before you even know if the market will like your stories?

The implication -- within context -- was that writing is a waste of time if you're not successful at it NOW. Write one book, then if if flies, write more later. If it doesn't fly, then it's a waste of time to do this writing thing.

If you wanted to be a doctor, would you start out by setting up a clinic during your first year of medical school, and base your decision on whether to become a doctor on how successful your clinic was? Shouldn't you be more interested in finding out whether you enjoy the work, or whether you can handle the workload? Shouldn't you be looking at grades and feedback from instructors to judge whether you're any good at it -- not the dollars you make at it?

Look, if you want to be a writer, you've got to love to write. That's what you will be doing, day in and day out. Writing writing writing. If you want to know if you can weather the hard times in a writing career, and if it's "worth it" you don't start with whether you can reach a bestseller list or win a Pulitzer.

You start with whether you can walk the walk.

The question to ask in these dark times is not "Can I make a living at this?" but rather:

What if I never sell a single book?

That is a terrifying, horrifying, heart-breaking question, but you have to face it. Would you keep writing if you knew you would utterly fail at the publishing end? Would you at least write in your journal? Would you find some sort of satisfaction by blogging stories? Would you close your eyes and keep trying anyway, even though you knew you were doomed?

Every writer has to look into that abyss. It's out there, and there are times when you utterly fail at everything you do no matter how hard you try. And the only thing you can do is give up. And don't be afraid to do that. Just go ahead and quit. Maybe you'll come back and maybe you won't, but whatever you do, you have to face that fear. Those who make it are those who become immune to it.

Your first books will be your worst books. You probably won't sell many of them. But I will guarantee you this:

The only way to never sell a single copy of a book is to never write it and put it on the market in the first place. The only way to kill a career is to stop writing.

You can market if you want to. You can offer your books free, if you want to. If you enjoy following rankings and playing tagging games, that's up to you. You can even sacrifice writing time for them -- we all have other things we like to do.

But when someone says that the secret to writing success is to spend more time writing, and your reaction is not sheer joy ... You should think hard about that reaction.

This ain't a revolution. There is nothing wrong with being a summer soldier.

You want to write one book every few years and spend most of your time marketing that book? That's fine. As a matter of fact it's great. Indie publishing gives people who do that an opportunity they never had before, and because of that we'll see books in circulation which we never would have seen.

But that kind of writing is avocational -- it's for fun, for a hobby, as a personal calling. Business-wise, it's like playing the daily lottery. You're going to have some nice wins once in a while. Celebrate them. But don't expect to make a living at a hobby.

I'll admit something to you: I have one foot in the hobbyist camp. As I mentioned last week, I have set up my life so I never have to have any success to maintain my writing career. That allows me to concentrate on my writing above all else.

You know what I would do if I were serious about making a full living at this? I would stop writing this freaking blog and get down to writing those novels.

I don't whine about the fact that I don't have the success of writers like, say, Dean Wesley Smith or Joe Konrath, because I know what they have put in to writing. They've earned their place. If you want to get where they are, you have to do like they do (or nearest approximation that fits your skills and talents). If you want to act like a hobbyist, you won't get where they are.

Let's say you don't want to be like DWS or Konrath, let's say you want to be like Margaret Mitchell or Harper Lee: it's still the same thing. They were both hard working writers. They didn't just pull those books out of their hats. They were successful because of what they wrote, not because they marketed their books or followed a 12-Step Plan For Success. They wrote.

And how many single-book authors out there have reached the point of making a living? Compare that to how many super lotto winners are out there. Seriously. Emulating Harper Lee may be a great artistic goal, but it is not a career plan. Your odds are better at the lottery.

Think about this:

If you spend the next two years marketing what you've already written, all you will have given the world is more spam, and all you'll gain is a little more money -- quickly spent -- and maybe the memory of some nice rankings.

If you spend the next two years concentrating on your writing, focusing on your books, you will have something of substance to show for your efforts. You'll have contributed to the culture. You will have brought stories into existence that weren't there before.

So stop counting your sales and analytics and rankings and "likes" and start counting your words. They are the only thing that really means anything.

(NOTE: Angie did a very nice response to this post at Angie's Desk: "Is The Writing Enough?")

See you in the funny papers.

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Here's a link to a list of my books.  And ... hey, look at that!  There's a donation link right below this sentence. (Donations via Paypal)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whoo Hoo! Cover Design Award!

Book designer Joel Friedlander just released his ebook cover design awards for January, and The Man Who Did Too Much won for fiction!

Whoo hoo!

There are a lot of pros (and talented amateurs) who enter each month. I am really jazzed to see mine get the prize. One of the advantages I have is that I design with thumbnail size in mind. A lot of pros have to design for paper.

Now if people will just start buying the book....

(You can see more about The Man Who Did Too Much right here.)

See you in the funny papers.

ROW80 Update - new logo, drawings

For anybody new to the blog, I've joined with the ongoing novel dare group "A Round of Words In Eighty Days." It's a quarterly dare, and for this quarter, I have arranged my day job schedule to be three days a week -- Wednesday to Friday. During that time I don't write, I only work on art and design for fun. From Saturday through Tuesday, I am supposed to be writing a lot. (Find a list of today's updates of all the writers in this Challenge here.)

Sunday updates, therefore, are mainly about the art end of the challenge.

I didn't like my earlier color version of the ROW80 logo, so I decided to do different ones for different genres. I decided to give this one a western feel. And since I'm working on dingbats, I decided to make it smaller. I hope the ROW80 folks don't mind. (Folks who like it should feel free to steal it.) I'd still like to do a little more work on the typography.

Wednesday Day 38 - 70 minutes. Actually I probably did more, but I forgot to keep track. I had fun, but I didn't get far. Because I was doing fun little dingbats, I relied too much on memory and imagination. Which is always a mistake when you are out of practice. Always use a reference -- something you can look at -- when you want to push your skills. At least half the skill of art is SEEING.

I have created a little template for these drawings -- six frames, with hand drawn boxes around them, in the background. I can do dozens of sketches by just creating new layers, and hiding old ones. I think I'm going to use it like a workbook. Get a reference, sketch it six times. If I'm satisfied with any of them, get a different reference. If I'm not, hide the layer and create a new one, and sketch it six more times.

Thursday Day 39 - 72 minutes. I did the new ROW80 logo, then I started filling in those templates. Still not happy with what I'm doing, but I think it's doing me good. I did come up with a couple that I liked well enough to show.

Friday Day 40 - 73 minutes. I'm still playing around with things that I don't want to show anybody. It takes a lot of sketching to get good at quick sketches. However, I find that if you spend more time on it, they tend to look better and better. (See the eye below.)

Saturday Day 41 - 88 minutes. I intended to have a good writing session early in the day, but I ended up writing a blog post -- an extra one, for Monday. I've been coming across signs of discouragement in a lot of indie authors lately. Not in their writing, but in their success.

I also had a really great idea for how I think I'll end The Man Who Stepped Up. (Well, not the mystery, but the personal arc of the characters. It might be better for the third book, however.) I worked on that a little, but I lost the thread of it by the time I was able to get to it -- I still got the dialog down, though, and that was the important part. Then I did the rudiments of a scene for the WIP. I hope to pick up and run on that tomorrow. I think I might have to leave that super rough and fragmentary and maybe jump ahead and continue to rough it all in.

I forget sometimes. I know I have to do a separate pass for Casey and her subtle reactions in a lot of scenes, but I can also do a separate pass for Mick. I don't have to have his voice and attitude and narrative reactions right while I rough in what happened. His narrative voice, after all, is what he says AFTER the fact, when he's telling the story to us. I can just let him react and the scene play for now.

UPDATE: I just found out I won this months eBook Cover Design Awards for Fiction! Check it out!

So this week on the blog, I'll be talking about this being the Times That Try Writer's Souls on Monday, and write a letter to Aunt Una, asking for a personal assistant on Tuesday. Friday I'll be writing about J.J. Murphy's "Murder Your Darlings," a mystery set around the Algonquin Round Table.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday Favorites - The Labors Of Hercule Poirot

This past week I had a great time reading a collection of Hercule Poirot short stories, The Labors of Hercules. I don't know how I missed those. I always liked mythology, and so it seems it should have been a natural for me to read. Maybe it simply never made it to my local library or bookstores. (We didn't have anything like Amazon back when I was first reading Christie.)

It's collection of twelve short stories and novelettes, which are connected by the introduction: Poirot is about to retire, and wants to go out in a blaze of glory. He hears about his namesake, Hercules, and his 12 labors. This inspires Poirot to seek 12 cases, each on the theme of one of the mythical labors.

While the stories vary in interest and quality, they make up a story that is a whole lot of fun. Poirot is small and precise, and yet with a grandiose ego. He always lives up to his claims, but Christie also has fun lightly skewering him. (For instance, the first labor is to slay the Nemean Lion -- something Poirot expects will be a grand case about the affairs of state... but it turns out to be about kidnapped Pekinese.)

But for the most part, this is the heroic Poirot. There is something swashbuckling about Poirot -- who sometimes reminds me of Reepicheep, frankly -- in that he has a higher purpose than simply the law. He admires an imaginative and intelligent opponent and is not always on the side of catching the culprit. He is delighted to take on impossible tasks -- and some of the cases here are not actually mysteries. He is not above being a bit of a con man, to see that the right outcome is assured.

The Labours of Hercules is available for Kindle, (and Kindle UK) as well as many other paper editions. It's also available for Nook, and probably on other vendor sites, but I don't feel like hunting down links.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

So-Called Writing Rules - a great post from Pat Wrede

Back about a month ago, Patricia C. Wrede wrote an excellent post which began with the following:

"Once again, I have been driven to frothing at the mouth by a would-be writer-and-critiquer’s thick-headedness in regard to both the construction of the English language and the so-called rules he’s trying to apply, and you folks are going to have to put up with the resulting rant."

I just came across the link again, and I thought I should pass it on, belated though it may be.

Misunderstanding Grammar

The problem here is that the attitude which drives poor Ms. Wrede to frothing is inevitable, I think. People don't notice how much they use the verb "to be" or how much they use passive voice. Then, once it has been drawn to their attention, they become hyper-attentive to it. (Note to anybody learning anything: become aware, not fixated.)

The other thing that makes people misunderstand the rules about passive voice is that passive voice is the bane of institutional memo writing. At work, you feel the pressure not to offend or blame anyone, so you use passive voice. "The ball was dropped," we say. "The decision was made to do this harebrained thing."

And so the first rule of business writing is to break this cowardly habit. Hunt down passive voice and kill it! Find some other way to be diplomatic! And one short cut to hunting down passive voice is to search for all instances of "was" or "is."

When we write fiction, we do not have that prime directive "do not blame the boss" hanging over our heads. So when we use passive voice it's for a different reason. It is no different than any other wordy or indirect construction. There is no reason to single it out for special treatment.

Anyway, for those who are getting hung up on arbitrary writing rules, read Ms. Wrede's post. Here it is again:

Misunderstanding Grammar

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

ROW80 Check in - Enthusiasm (and lack there of)

The Enthusiasm Gap

One of the three legs of Rachel Aaron's method of increasing productivity is enthusiasm. And I think that's the thing that's lacking for me right now. Well, not lacking exactly, just playing hide and seek.

I'll have a big wave of enthusiasm, and then it'll go away, and then come back, and then go away. So I stopped on Sunday night and tried to figure out what is really going on.

Two things: one is simply that there are a lot more things vieing for my attention than I think there is. The other is more about writing and writing methods.

To whit: I do not think in chronological order. So if I want to keep my enthusiasm going, I need to let my writing flit back and forth as fast as my imagination does. However....

That leads to having 29 versions of the same scene (or incompatable versions of different scenes). And worse yet, Mick's voice is really dependent on his thought processes and state of mind -- one scene sets him up with a certain point of view, and what he thinks of everything in that scene depends on what happened just before.

I've got to find some way to compromise between these two issues.

A Round of Words in 80 Days check in:

Sunday Day 35 - 22 minutes. Decided to stop and wrestle with the enthusiasm gap. One thing I need to do is sleep. But the other, I think, is to find the joy of the moment. That is, maybe clues are biting me in the rear a little too much. Maybe I need to sit down and think something more trivial at the start of a scene. Go ahead and write it in chronological order (mostly), just so I can say "what's going on in Mick's head? What screwy thing can happen? How can Mick or Casey respond to what is happening ina surprising and interesting way?" and to heck with it dragging the story off course. It's a novella that wants to be a novel. Let 'er go.

I do think, though, that maybe I need to develop a couple more minor characters. Also, Mick and Casey have too many job offers. How can I get more job offers into this story?

Monday Day 36 - 70 minutes. Had a really good session early in the day and that made me complacent. (The enthusiasm thing worked.) I got about 1000 words, and then made my own version of Mussamun Curry, and watched Margaret Rutherford in "Murder Ahoy!" And then spent too much time on Both Monday's and Tuesday's blog posts. (This is Monday, isn't it? Yeah, it is.) And suddenly it's late, and I need to go to bed. Whoops.

Tuesday Day 37 - 61 minutes. I wore myself out somehow. Got a chill. I recovered, and did a little work. I like the way the ending of the book is shaping up, and I'm moving back into the middle. Not much momentum, but I'll take it.

I also did a little thinking on some other stories. I have a clue detail I want to play with for The Man Who Stepped Up -- and the movie reference for it. (They're trying to find a clue in stacks of old junk and magazines. George expects they are dealing with a case of The Purloined Letter, but Karla informs him that, no, it's more a case of Alan Arkin's Torah. And if you get that reference you get mondo extra points.)

I don't want to drop the dribble of momentum I have right now for the three days of not-writing, but I think what I'll do is maybe play with little 100 pixel square dingbats -- like the ones I mentioned in the Adventure Magazine post -- for this story. Or, since it would be more appropriate to ebooks, maybe change the format to a mini-banner to use as chapter heads. The squares would be for the web, really, and probably all I'll ever use. (If I do chapter headers, I'll have to do headers for ALL the chapters.)

If you want to check out the other participants you'll find the mid-week update list here.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Forty Dollar Sandwich - Making a Living

I'm going to take a different approach to these money posts from here on in. I think they've suffered from being too general. So from here on in, I'm going to make them about me and my plans -- just like I do with everything else on this blog.

So here goes:

Let's Start With A Reality Check

Most aspiring writers are never going to be able to quit the day job and write full time just from their writing income. I'll even go so far as to say that I suspect that most aspiring writers won't make all that much side income from their writing either. I say this not because I think those writers aren't good enough (at writing or business) or out of any social or creative judgement. I'm just pointing out what, in fact, happens.

Here's the thing: there are too many factors which aren't in your control. Persistence will eventually get you past all those things. However, we have no way of knowing how long you'll have to persist. A year? Ten years? Will you become famous and successful posthumously?

My philosophy is that you don't chase the things you can't control.

So, a long time ago, when I did the "Aunt Una Exercise" my focus was finding a sustainable lifestyle that I could have right now. Not a year from now, not if I sold a book or a series. The reason I decided this was because I got two glimpses into What It Takes: one was the internet came along and allowed me to talk to writers who had the career I thought I wanted, and they were barely making it.

The other was a book I read called Your Money Or Your Life. The basic thesis of that book is that if you want to reclaim your life, you have to build up assets and retire early. It's not a great financial book really -- more of a philosophy thing. What that book did for me was give me a different perspective on things I already knew about finance. Although it doesn't have good investment advice, it gave me an investor's perspective, and a sense of how to measure the task of becoming financially independent.

And what I saw was that neither path would work for a writer. You could throw yourself into writing, to the detriment of everything else in your life, and even if you made it, you'd still have to sell your soul to the company store -- and for ten cents on the dollar.

Or you could sacrifice everything to get your financial independence -- stop writing and commit your efforts to minimizing expenses and maximizing income and grow that nest egg big enough to retire really early. But to do that effectively, there would be no time or energy left to write.

I couldn't do that. I have to write.

So I was stuck with Option 1, but I could use the principles of Option 2 to create a life which would allow me to write, and to keep me happy even if I never sold a single book. A life which would allow me to turn down any offer I didn't like. A lifestyle I could maintain for the rest of my life.

So for me the Aunt Una Exercise is all about finding what I need to be happy - what do I need with my job? What do I really need financially? You could say it was luck that I have a part-time job that covers my needs, but I didn't fall into it by luck -- I've had lots of other jobs which did not suit me. I kept the one that did, and I have fought for the aspects of that job which make it work for me.

I have a flexible schedule, enough responsibility to keep me engaged, good people two work with, a sense of making the world a better place, and sufficient cash flow to sustain me. But we've also (off and on) had hostile leadership, internecine warfare, and we're located in a very depressed state, where education is a popular thing to cut....

So the day job is not secure. And that's true of any day job these days. Nothing is guaranteed.

You know what the day job actually is? I mean looking at it from the investor's standpoint? It's a way to convert my most valuable asset -- my work skills -- into cash.

You can't sell work skills for cash value -- not like you can, say, a house -- but you can set a price on them as an asset based on the cash flow they give you. And when you take the wages and benefits and all that together, my work skills come to about a million dollars in equivalent capital assets.

That's my "number" by the way. One Million Dollars. (It used to be 600,000, but interest rates have gone so low that you need more assets to have the same amount of cash flow.)

What's Your Number?

The point of the Aunt Una exercise was to figure out what you need in life, and then figure out how much it will cost. That will tell you how much cash flow you need. A good way to get a ballpark estimate of that figure is to just figure out what you want to change in your life, and add or subtract that form how much you're making right now. (It is a good idea, though, to actually sit down and do a budget once in a while.)

My first target is $30,000 a year of cash flow. This would maintain my current lifestyle, and allow me to pay for the benefits I would lose if I quit the day job.

So, to put a value on the assets I need to get that, I calculate it in terms of 30-year treasury bonds. There are assets which produce better returns, but they are riskier, and this is a good baseline. Currently the rate of return on those is 3 percent, therefore my main number right now is:

$1,000,000 in income producing assets.

Because I know that number, I don't get excited when I hear people say "what if a publisher were to offer you $150,000?!?" Sure it's a lot of money, but it's not enough to change my life. (Especially since you won't get all of it, and payments will be spread out over a long time.)

When I hear that, my thought is "Hmmm, 90k take home, probably paid in chunks of 30k, I might be able to buy two to three bonds a year, for a cash flow of $600-900 bucks building up to maybe $2500 a year later on. And they wouldn't offer that much on a book that wasn't making a thousand or more a month, so that's ten cents on the dollar.... No thanks."

A lot of people measure a windfall in terms of cash flow -- that is the immediate power of the money to buy stuff. You have to have a certain amount of cash flow to survive, and golly, $150k will support you for almost five years! (Except that if you think of it as cash flow, do you really think it will last that long?) Still you'll note that in the calculations I made above, I considered that, I wouldn't necessarily put it all into the bonds. With 30k I might buy three, or I might only buy two -- because I might need some of that money.

But as long as my day job covers my cash flow needs, I don't need to fritter away any extra cash that comes my way. I can invest it all in my Roth IRA. Or I can put it into the business (buying Adobe Design Suite Premium, for instance).

Or I can do something else with the money, something more akin to quitting that day job (even though I just said that even $150k is not enough for me to quit the day job).

I can buy back time.

The Forty Dollar Sandwich

The only reason I would turn down a publishing contract for $150k is because they wouldn't offer that much if the asset wasn't already worth at least $500k. Publishers have a lot of overhead. It will cost them too much to convert that asset if they don't pay me a fraction of what it's worth as an asset.

I want you to keep that in mind while I explain this:

Generally, in most personal finance circles, they'll tell you not to just spend a windfall on your day-to-day expenses. It'll disappear that way and you'll have nothing to show for it. For most people, that money is the only way you can acquire assets. For a convenience store manager or a nurse, a penny saved really is a penny earned. Most people are better off scrimping and doing things like packing a sandwich to save a buck on lunch, and investing every penny they can save.

But writers are in the business of creating assets.

We don't have to buy them with money. We can buy them with time.

Therefore the time and effort involved in brown-bagging it to save a few bucks on lunch could cost you in terms of your ability to write a book. I did a calculation once that the time and effort that goes into making a bagged lunch -- shopping, fixing and cleaning up -- costs me about 500 finished words of writing time, and if I valued that book at $5000 in bonds (5k being an average advance I could expect to get for the book) the darned bagged lunch cost me $40.

I have opted, for the past few years, to "invest" some of my income by not acquiring income in the first place: that is, I have the option of cutting back my hours over summer. I have less money to put into investment, but I figure that I lose about $3000 a year, and if I can convert that to an additional book, it's a great investment.

If I can convert it.

Spending money wildly to buy yourself some time won't do you any good if you don't then spend the time on creating assets. And let's face it, you can't always write in the time you'd make a sandwich. If not, that may be money you save to put in your emergency funds. However, in my opinion, time is where to look for the real value is in terms of getting ready to quit the day job.

(And just a reminder: $5000 in bonds would give me a yield of $150 a year -- which is only a few sales a month. So that's a low value to put on a book.)

A Quick Review-Overview

So, for me the plan goes thusly:

  • Get myself into the life I want NOW -- where I don't have to have a penny of success at writing ever (because I never know when it's going to happen).
  • Day Job provides cashflow. Cashflow includes minimum investment in safety net -- ROTH IRA, emergency funds. (Because even a good day job is never guaranteed.)
  • Put all resources above that into creating assets. ( I.e. - books.)

I am not worried about return right now. I have sufficient cash flow. If a book doesn't turn out the way I like? Oh well, neither did my investment in that real estate investment trust. I'm still getting dividends from both, though. And I think both have a good shot at turning around a few years down the road. But more importantly, the next book could turn out like Chipotle stock and make up for everything else in a down market.

Next week I'm going to write about Outsourcing, in a letter to Aunt Una. (And though we can't all afford a personal assistant, we all do have small opportunities for outsourcing.)

See you in the funny papers.