Saturday, March 31, 2012

Second Quarter Goals for 2012

For newcomers: my blog is an ongoing writing dare, but lately I've been giving it shape via the group writing challenge A Round Of Words in 80 Days. This round will run from April 2 to June 21.

This next quarter I'm continuing with the experiments in writing habits. A writing dare is a good way to do this, because you can emphasize just one thing (or two) and see what difference it makes by measuring just that.

I've done word counts, and I've counted minutes. This quarter I'll be counting writing sessions. (I've done something like it less formally, and it has been good. It's a variation on the "just start" method.)

  • Three "microburst" writing sessions per day.
  • Total of 4800 minutes of writing for the whole effort.
  • For project goals, I'll be splitting the effort into three. (more below)

Microburst Writing

This is related to Writing Sprints -- where people challenge each other to sit down and write at a certain time of day, for a certain short period. They usually start and stop via Twitter or online chat. A Microburst is different in that it's not organized, not a group effort. Basically, it's about building up energy in the background, and then releasing it in a sudden burst. Like a sudden wind storm, or like releasing the hounds. Or getting a static shock.

And when the energy is done it's done. It may take five minutes, it make take an hour. (Lately, I've noticed it seems to average at 20 minutes.)

I had some very good results from these writing bursts this past quarter. However, the down side is that they require a lot of staring at the wall time. You have to build up a lot of creative energy. Now, last quarter, that brainstorming/thinking effort was the thing I was counting (at least for part of the dare).

But I do the thinking thing naturally, so I don't know if I need to make it part of my goal. I'm not sure if measuring it helped or maybe hindered by putting my focus on the wrong thing. Given past performance, though, I think it's better to measure the bursts, and let the thinking take care of itself.


My attention span is too short to do the same thing for 80 days. I'm really much better off dividing what I'm doing by month. Plus I really have three tasks to do this quarter.

  • April: Finish Devil In A Blue Bustle
  • May: Brainstorming and exploratory writing on The Man Who Stepped Up
  • June: Start serious draft of Stepped Up.

This schedule won't be hard and fast. I expect to finish Bustle before the end of April, but the end of the semester will be on me. I will probably take a break from Stepped Up by working on the rewrite of Bustle in late May as well. However, I am setting a firm "Prime Directive" for each month. I like to have a single prize to keep my eyes on at any one time, even if I might play around with other things.

One goal I set, even before I got behind, is to not publish Devil in a Blue Bustle until July. I want to slow down the finishing process on a book. I think it will help my writing to be more deeply into the next project before I publish the previous one. Publishing is a distraction, and a place to lose momentum.

(And also, most books need some drawer time before final polish and edit. I like, in a way, to have the ability to settle in an enjoy a book on last edit and format check.)

And On Monday.... expect a story. I realize that Easter is coming up, so I decided to post my story from the Pink Snowbunnies In Hell anthology. Just a little bit of fluff with George and Karla called "Revenge of the Peeps."

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Creative Limits, Hitchcock, and Me

Continuing on the subject of Alfred Hitchcock, I'd like to talk about how he spurred his own creativity by putting limits on himself. (And I'll end up by talking a little about how this kind of thinking helped me out with a scene in one of my own books.)

Hitch liked to work with physical constraints, especially if they created a contrast. Within a story, he often used scenes where the hero or heroine was in grave danger in the middle of a public place, with lots of people -- but people they could not talk to. Perhaps the hero couldn't speak because he was accused of a crime, such as in The 39 Steps, or North By Northwest, or Sabotage. Or it might be a mother who knows an assassination will happen at a concert... but her child will die if she speaks, as in the second The Man Who Knew Too Much. (Actually a variation happened in both, now that I think about it.)

But he didn't just put constraints on his characters. He put constraints on himself, sometimes.

I mentioned Lifeboat, where he constrained himself to telling a full story that stays entirely inside a small lifeboat. And in Dial M For Murder he filmed a popular stage play, and as with the play itself, stayed mainly to one location -- the interior of an apartment. (A couple small scenes are in the hall or street outside, and one at a dinner which is happening parallel to the action in the apartment.)

The danger of working within such limitations is that they can become boring. You have the same backdrop throughout, not much space for your characters to do anything exciting, and so the only thing that moves is the dialog. And that can be visually very boring.

So what did Hitchcock do?

In Dial M For Murder, he didn't just jump in with weird angles and strange lighting -- like an amateur might do. He first leveraged the tools given to him by the material.

It was a stage play, and a play is always founded on the actors. The "action" is first of all dramatic action -- social and interpersonal rather than physical. (Physical comes into it, but in support of the interpersonal stuff.) For a play to work, it has to start with the characters pushing for something. They might be subtle, or they might be overt, but whatever they do, it's like a sport, and they are trying to score.

So he first kept it interesting by supporting the subtle but powerful pushing of the characters. And as with a stage play, he gave them a set which was interesting to move around in. This gives us body language and ways to demonstrate the tension going on underneath the words. So the set was designed to make movement more interesting, and give opportunities for contrast. One person could sit and the other be active. An area at the back where characters could move unimpeded across the whole stage, other areas which would force them to maneuver.

And when one character is talking, he might move around behind another, forcing the other to twist around uncomfortably -- a visual representation of manipulation, power and weakness.

This is largely how Hitchcock turned Lifeboat into a fine story too. Even though there wasn't much room, he made that small amount of space physically interesting for the actors to move about in. Climbing over junk and each other. Trying to find private space where there was no space at all. And even in close ups, when two characters talk, we can often see the reactions of others nearby.

This is very much something fiction writers can do too. Let your characters block out their moves like actors.

Hitch also did make some interesting camera moves in Dial M, of course, but he used them in support of the conflicts mentioned above. We might see a character from below or from above, in way to make them feel powerful or isolated or weak or creepy -- but not all the time. Only as the mood of the scene moved in that direction.

And in Both Dial M and Lifeboat, Hitch used other tools to change the location without going anywhere -- night and day, different kinds of lighting from one sequence to another. In Lifeboat he was able to use weather, especially wind and rain, to completely change the nature of the location, even if the location itself was always the same.

But there was one more really BIG way Hitchcock kept everything moving and everything interesting -- a method he used in all his pictures:


With Dial M For Murder, some elements were built right into the play: earlier in the first act, the villain asks his wife's lover (who is a mystery writer) about committing the perfect crime. The writer tells him that, though he could think up great crimes, he would never try to commit one: Because something will always go wrong.

Now we're primed. We're put on notice: We know that the bad guy has something murderous on his mind, and we know that it must go wrong. But we also know that he's warned.

Then when we get the killer's plan, in great detail, has he coolly lays it out for his cohort, in a wonderful climatic scene of the first act: all shot from above so the set is like a diagram. This part of the scene is brilliant, partly because it contrasts with the first part of the scene, which was more interpersonal, more about that ping pong game the villain was playing with his cohort. Suddenly the ping pong game is over the real game is afoot.

But the key reason that scene is so important and successful is because it's full of information.

This is something Hitchcock understood that so few others do: the thing that causes the greatest tension is not what we don't know, but what we DO know.

We know all the tiny lynchpins of the plan, and so throughout the next sequence, Hitchcock reminds us of those tiny details, keeping them in our mind, forcing us to tense up when something trivial happens that puts the plan in jeopardy. It's not that we want the killer to succeed, but that we're anticipating everything that happens. We are truly focused on the unfolding story. We're waiting for it.

There's a wonderful scene in another Hitchcock movie, The Lady Vanishes, where we know the villain has drugged a brandy glass. The good guys don't know it, but they're too stirred up to drink as they talk with the villain. The villain, however, doesn't have to push the glass on the heroes. Hitch does it for us. Those glasses are in every single shot of that scene. Often just in the corner, often out of focus, but always there. Teasing us.

That is something that's hard to do in prose. Words draw even more attention to thing than images, we run the risk of overdoing it. Still, fiction writers should keep that psychological effect in mind. And foreshadowing itself is something writers already do, but we may want to consider being more open about it -- like Hitchcock, just outright telling the audience what to expect, and then endanger that outcome.

In the meantime...

Talking about this made me think a little about how one of these techniques -- stage direction -- helped me with my own work.

It always surprises me when people tell me their favorite scene in The Man Who Did Too Much is the one where Karla and George first start conspiring together.

That is basically just one long conversation. Totally dialog driven, and all about analyzing the facts of the case, and speculating. They aren't in conflict. There is no grand drama. But when I look at it in terms of movement, I realize that there's a lot of coordinated stage direction, and actually, it's not just one scene. It's a sequence of mini-scenes, where the action (or non-action) moves from the kitchen table, to the living room, back to the kitchen, and then to the fridge and counter. The characters are doing a whole lot of stuff while they talk. Bandaging injuries, making a snack, examining evidence.

When I look back on that now, I realize that I was using a technique I learned from the movies. Specifically from Woody Allen, actually -- the roving conversation -- but also from Hitchcock. Hitch was less dialog oriented so it doesn't "feel" like Hitch, but he certainly used this. Woody Allen, of course, has always worked within the limitations of a lower budget, and as a student of film (such as Hitchcock) and as an actor, he uses those limitations in creative ways to spark and keep interest.

Did I do it intentionally, just to make a static scene more interesting. Well, yes. I was trained to do that in film school. But I also had another reason. I wanted to show that these two very different people are very much on the same wavelength. By packing the scene with business and clutter, I could show how well their timing just naturally works together. They complement each other admirably. They fit.

I think, if you look at any successful scene -- in a movie, in a book -- you'll find that behind a practical technique there is also a storytelling purpose. Find that purpose and the scene works.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Intermission: Makin' Ragout and Coding HTML

In spite of an insane beginning to a long and busy work day (which involved a printer which had started to smoke, but instead of turning it off, people were still printing to it, and simply opened the classroom doors and turned on a high powered fan) I am a happy camper today.

This week I indulged in some cooking. I enjoy doing fussy by-hand tasks while watching TV or listening to things. This week I made my favorite and most fruitful "fussy" dish:


It is my own ragout -- inspired not by any recipe I ever read, but by the Frugal Gourmet's description of how ragout used to be made. As he described it, ragout is a meat sauce. That is a sauce made primarily of meat. While you add tons of saucy ingredients, you simmer and stir until they are reduced and absorbed, on and on, until the sauce is incredibly rich and flavorful.

I make a version that's mostly veggies, however. I chop up a pack of mushrooms, a couple zucchini, a roasted sweet red pepper, and some onion, into very tiny bits. Like chunks of ground meat. Then I fry a half-pound of meat, and add the veggies a cup at a time, slowly so that the liquid they release doesn't build up too much. I also add garlic and herbs too.

And as juices evaporate, I add in large gloops of Prego spaghetti sauce and dry sherry and keep stirring and simmering and absorbing, until I've put in about 32 oz of spaghetti sauce and maybe a cup and a half of sherry. (The picture shows the ragout just before I start to put sauce in.)

This makes quite a bit of very rich sauce, and I usually freeze it in one cup containers. (It makes 6-8 cups.)

I also made cheese ravioli the next day out of wonton wrappers. These are fun, but fussy, and fun to do while watching Castle. These are high work to small amounts of food though, and I only had a small bag to freeze when I was done eating.

Making The Perfect eBook

In the meantime, today I finally settled down and played around with Dreamweaver until I got very clean code from scratch for an ebook. I've still got a few things to do to make it perfect, but I am very happy with how my new template handles paragraphing.

I've still got some playing around for poetry and inset quotes, but I have it set so that the first paragraph in a section is block style, and it has one "em" of space above it to separate the section.

I like ems as measurement because they are relative. If you specify the space before a paragraph in inches or points or pixels, that will stay the same no matter what size font your reader chooses. But if you define your spaces and indents in ems, then it is relative to the font size. (An "em" is the width of an m in that particular font.)

And where I couldn't use ems, I use percentages. Me happy.

As a matter of fact, it pleases me enough, that I may very well give up my war on curly quotes. And em-dashes. I can code those in html with less worry about what happens to them across platforms.

But that's for later. For right now, you can check out the formatting on a short story from 10 Story Detective in 1945. "Cyanide And Old Lace" is the story of a sailor who gets out of the navy, and stops by to visit his old spinster aunt in her creepy old house. Murder and action ensue.

Check out the epub version or the mobi version. (If you don't have an ereader, you can find this story at PulpGen. Here is a direct link the pdf file. And here's a link to PulpGen's main download page.)

Once I get this template done, my workflow for creating an ebook will be much quicker. (And I'll start posting monthly collections of the stories I put up at Daring Adventure Stories so that people can read more easily on their ereaders.

In the meantime....

We'll see if I get that Hitchcock post done tomorrow, and later on Saturday, I'll post my goals for ROW80. I know we're supposed to post them Sunday, but that's April Fools Day, and I wouldn't want anybody to think my goals are a joke....

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Blogger's April Fools Joke Is Not Funny

Anybody who has a Blogger blog (or six or eight Blogger blogs) has noticed the "Try the updated Blogger interface" button at the top of the dashboard for the past couple months.

They now tell us that, like it or not, we will be upgraded in April.

I myself have not upgraded because all reports have said that the feature I use most extensively -- the html editing tab -- was disabled. The other reason I hate to do this is that I hate to test things on a current blog, and Google has a way of insisting on changing your whole account on you.

But now, since it's clear we're being forced to move to a new interface, I went and revived an old account, and created a blog specifically for testing when Blogger tries something whacky.

It's called, oddly enough Testing New Blogger Stuff, and it literally is just a test bed. It might be of interest to those who have a Blogger blog who are wondering about the same sorts of things I am.

On my first test....

The new interface is mostly just different. So far, I have been able to accomplish what I did before, but some things are harder and some easier, and some just a little freaky because I get unexpected results.

New Picture Handler

One thing I like is that when you upload a picture, you merely upload the picture. You aren't required to choose whether it's in the center or on the left or right. You aren't required to name the size. After you get it in place, if you click on the picture, you get a little menubar at the top or bottom which allows you do do all the settings for the picture -- and better yet, you get to CHANGE all the settings for the picture, on the fly, after the fact.

Furthermore, it finally has an option to post the picture at original size. It used to be that if you wanted to put a picture up which was more than 400 pixels in any dimension, it would shrink it down. You had to hack into the code to make it fit.

Now, you can just choose "original size" no muss, no fuss. Also, you can type in an edit a caption on the fly.

YouTube Video Embedding

So far that seems to work, however, YouTube's code does not match the new Blogger way of doing things, so if you click back and forth from compose to html view, it will change the code. Actually, the first time I pasted it in, I pasted it in as part of a larger post, with additional text. I appeared to paste properly, but when I clicked to compose, then back to html, the embeded video disappeared. I was able to paste just that code back in and it was happy.

Paragraphs and Breaking Spaces

If you copy plain text from a word processor into the html view, everything will run together into a single paragraph in compose view. This is probably not something most people will notice, but it annoys me, because I liked the way the previous blogger worked with code: I didn't have to type in paragraph breaks, but I could type in italics tags -- which made it easier to compose my posts.

I'll be experimenting over there with other options, and won't be posting again here about this, except perhaps if I discover something really important. (Then I'll probably post it there, and just let folks here know about that post.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, March 26, 2012

New Story at Daring Adventure Stories

This week's story on Daring Adventure Stories is from Top-Notch Magazine, from February of 1912:

"Out of the Smash Up" by Phil Ashford.

A chance meeting on a train going west is maybe not quite as coincidental as it seems, as a trainwreck messes up the plans of a thief, two young lovers and a detective....

I didn't find a credit for the illustrator, but if I find it I'll add it in later. I have a couple of stories lined up for the next couple of weeks that don't have illustrations. I might have to do something for them, though I don't know if I have time. (I'll probably go for another dingbat, like the Adventure Magazine ones.)

This week I hope to get together a process so I can quickly convert the month's stories to mobi and epub formats, so people can enjoy these on their e-readers. These will be free downloads.

Some of these stories have some interesting story-telling techniques, and I'm thinking of writing some blog posts on that. The posts will, of necessity, include spoilers. However, since the stories are short and available, I think that will be okay. It mostly depends on my time.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

What I'm Working On - A Writer's Blather

I wrote a long post about this blog today (which I'll have to read through it to see if it's actually worth posting). But I know it was worth writing, at least, because it was on the purpose of this blog: which is to help my writing. And that made me stop and think about how a blog helps my writing.

One of the things I realized is that sometimes you just need to talk about your writing.

So here it is: some blather about what I'm working on and where I am with it right now.

Devil In A Blue Bustle, a Mick and Casey Mystery

This is my work-in-progress. It should be the second Mick and Casey novel, but it still remains to be seen if it's a long novella or a short novel. And it got kinda stalled at the end of this past quarter, even though I have a lot of enthusiasm for it, etc.

I think a part of the problem is that Mick needs to get into more trouble. I need to dump him in mud puddles and get him bopped on the head. Some of this sort of thing happen early and late in the story, but there hasn't been enough of that in the middle.

This puzzle here is more intellectual than in Have Gun, Will Play -- it's not exactly a locked room situation, but it involves a hunt for evidence of what happened in the murder room. Two people are dead, and the person found standing over them with a smoking gun has an unlikely story -- but a story which isn't proven wrong by the evidence any more than it's proven right.

And this hunt for evidence has left the middle of the plot kind of linear. I realize, though, that is just the first part of the second act. I need a wow for the middle of the act, which turns the question and gets things moving again. I wasn't picturing the next sequence as being very long, but I realize it's a whole other act -- and that something I thought would happen toward the end of that has to happen at the beginning. (But it may happen off screen.)

The Man Who Stepped Up, A Starling and Marquette Mystery

This is the next WIP -- which I want to work on over summer. The first book took a LONG time to write, but I hope this one will be more straight forward. Part of the problem for the first book was that I was exploring the nature of the series, I think. Setting it up. I hope that this one will go faster.

I just came up with a kicker of a Chapter 2, which brought this book to life for me. It's a perfect new entrance for George, and imho, gives me a handle on the series pattern I'm looking for.

A good series has a certain magic in how they introduce a character's key element. How they establish what the essence of the character is.

For instance, in The Moving Finger, the third Miss Marple novel, she doesn't enter until almost two thirds of the way through, and she plays a rather small part, really. But it's still satisfying as a Miss Marple book because someone, a few chapters before she enters, tells the protagonist that it's time to bring in an expert. The hero objects that the police have already brought in an expert from Scotland Yard. The woman answers, "No, I don't mean that kind of expert. We need an expert in evil."

That's the essence of Miss Marple. It isn't really that she's a "noticing type person," it's that she's an expert in evil. She is Nemesis, the unflinching goddess of justice. She has a very bad opinion of the human race, and she can spot evil even in its most pleasant disguise. She is also not misled by the red herrings of lesser weaknesses of human nature.

In my series, the essence of Karla is relatively easy: she's a lateral thinker. And she is very much a "what you see is what you get" sort of person. She lives in the moment. (And yes, one of her prime traits is that she is a "noticing type person".) Her brain moves too fast, but it's pretty clear what's going on.

George is much harder because he has trained himself to mask his basic nature. He's a little dishonest and slick, but that's just a coping mechanism to cover the fact that he's compulsively earnest. His need to Make Things All Right just makes him seem, most of the time, like he's nice. (And sometimes it doesn't show at all, because he's learned to protect himself from parasites.) So his compulsive behavior shows in little ways, but it's not clear what's going on until something triggers him in a big way.

And then, even if he still seems under control on the surface, he'll do something way out of proportion -- which reveals the truth: He isn't just a nice guy, or too good to be true, he's got a problem.

"The Serial"

"The Serial" for those who haven't been following, has quotes around it, because I don't know if it will be a a serial -- it's just inspired by serials of the silent movie era. (But not just movie serials, also written ones.)

I'm a long way from really writing this. I have characters and a world, and an idea of the character arcs. Right now I'm doing research, and I'm working on the overall plot structure for the stories. Something that will allow me to develop the stories with some fun and freedom, but also have a good idea of where things are going, and what nefarious plots are going on underneath.

At the moment, one of the central figures of the story is Lady Pauline (a la The Perils of Pauline), who is a smart young flapper who is a baroness in her own right. She is the original inspiration for the series (something I had an idea for back when I was in high school), but it seems to be the other characters who are developing around her.

I am thinking, though, that she may enter the story in a scene which was inspired by the illustration in the header of this blog. That comes from a story which appeared in The Strand in 1915 -- a story which, sadly, was not quite as much fun as the illustration. Pauline will fix that with a much more fun scene, in what may be merely a cameo appearance in the first story.

You'll be hearing more about that, and about the period serials I'm reading and watching to prep.

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Friday Favorites: Hitchcock's Lifeboat

I was going to do a bigger Hitchcock post on his use of limited locations and stage drama, but it's been a hectic week, and I am both too tired, and I also am reluctant to see one of the movies involved (Rope). So I'm giving myself another week on the overall subject.

But I want to talk to you about Lifeboat.

Lifeboat was made in 1944, from a novella by John Steinbeck, which he wrote specifically so it could be adapted for this picture. In spite of the fact that Steinbeck wasn't happy with the result, I really think this picture should get more attention in Hitchcock's body of work.

The action takes place entirely within a lifeboat, adrift in the Atlantic ocean after a German U-boat sinks a freighter -- and the freighter also sinks the U-boat.

This kind of scenario runs the risk of being a moody, personality play where nothing happens (except short punctuations of horror or excitement). Something you might tolerate for a bit in a bigger movie, because it gives you a breather. OR, it could be a gruelling, tense horror flick where people are being stalked by sharks.

But this is a story that moves. I'll talk more about the techniques that Hitchcock used next week, but first and foremost, Steinbeck gave him the tools of story. Characters with goals, and points of view, and an overall "big idea" for the story. Hitchcock, of course, was much more interested in emotions and weaknesses, and in this aspect, the Steinbeck touch and the Hitchcock touch add a lot of vibrancy to this story.

Steinbeck was not happy with this picture. In particular, he had written the Black seaman as a more rounded character, but his character was flattened and diluted to make him fit more with the prejudices of the times. There are subtle hints of what Steinbeck wrote, as we watch Joe maintain neutrality, and the hint that he does it out of self-preservation, not cowardice or obedience. But as you may notice that he isn't in the poster. (And there is at least on person who has way less screen time than he does in it.)

For the most part, though, I suspect that part of Steinbeck's objection was that he writes morality plays. Not that I'm criticizing this. He does excellent stories of the reality of existence. But they are external existence. But Hitchcock doesn't do morality. And the reality he latches onto is not only internal, but visceral. You can write about the choices people make in war time. What should be do with an enemy, and evil criminal? And you can explore the battle of virtue and selfishness and honor....

But Hitchcock goes after a completely irrational part of the brain. What happens when you've decided to be heroic or selfish, but in a blink, your "lizard" brain overrules you? What happens when you are driven to mob behavior, or you fall in love? What happens when evil is small and ordinary?

What resulted from these very different points of view is something that enhanced both. If the Big Issue of this story is War, Hitchcock gives us more of an answer to what war is about than Steinbeck. (And he did it at a time when war was supposed to be all about defeating the bad guys, not looking at your own weaknesses.)

Which isn't to say that this is a big intellectual story with A Message: it isn't. It's a dramatic, often funny, sometimes suspenseful, sometimes thought provoking, tale of a bunch of people with a very big problem on their hands. They are not helpless. They act. They do. Even when there is nothing they can do, they find something. (This is, I think, where Steinbeck and Hitchcock meet and meet well.)

This is also the movie with one of the most clever cameos Hitchcock has ever made.

Go seek this picture out. Give it a watch. Next week I'll talk more about the storytelling technique, along with that of other flicks.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

ROW80 End Update

Okay, time to stick a fork in it!

(To be honest, I not only stuck a fork in it, but already ate it and washed the dishes and put the fork away.)

This first round of writing in 2012 has been more of an exploration for me. Poking around, trying things out, finding the right balance. And this is true for everything in my life right now.

Therefore, the results of this round were good, even though I stopped counting quite a while ago.

I got changes I want to make: To my life, to my professional focus. I've got things I put on hold that I want to bring back into my life, and I think I actually have the mindspace/lifespace to do it now.

For instance, aside from writing:

Daring Novelist Blog: this has already been evolving back into the kind of personal blog it started out as. I'm going to continue that way. This blog is for reporting on progress and my lifelong on-going writing dare. Sure I'll continue commentary and thoughts on writing and publishing and story -- but I'm tired of making this my "platform." I'm tired of the endless discussion of "issues" in the writing community. (I can't stay away from them, but I'm tired of them. They're like potato chips.)

Daring Adventure Stories: Although it has a smaller more specialized audience, Daring Adventure Stories is something I'd really like to build on. I plan to post once a week (eventually twice; one story post, one post about the art and ads and times of the issue). I also plan to make downloadable mobi and epub files of the stories. However, I will work this plan very slowly. Let it develop.

Reading Chinese Menus: You may not know that I have other blogs. Lots of them. Mostly dormant. Reading Chinese Menus is a passion of mine. I like good food, and the best food in a Chinese restaurant is often listed only in Chinese. So I have been teaching myself to read Chinese characters well enough to decipher a menu. The Reading Chinese Menus blog is a character-by-character guide to help others who want to do the same. I have not updated it in a very very long time, but it still gets good traffic, so I think I'll revive it. I'd like to post once a week. And I might do quarterly or biannual ebooks of the collected posts, which I can offer for sale. (Or I might just sign up for the Amazon Kindle blog subscription platform. Or both.)

Get Up, Stand Up: I need to get back into my community. I saw this week just how much disdain the college leadership has for our city and for our students. Students in particular are considered liabilities, and the city is considered a cash cow to be looted at will. It's one thing to diss my union, but it's another thing sneer at my town and mistreat my students. And it's a deeper problem across the community. Time to organize - and I'm not talking union here. Time to build a viral infrastructure.

(I also need to get up and stand up to, uh, lose some weight.)

For the Next ROW80 challenge: I will post concrete goals when the time comes in April, but I'll be focusing on those "microburst" writing sessions this time. I hate to pile on multiple goals, but I think I'll count minutes as well. Since I'm restricting what counts to intensive writing sessions, I'll be setting it at an hour a day, broken up among at least three sessions.

For the Interim period before the next challenge:

I'll focus on two things -- 1.) prepping posts for those other blogs. (I'd like to have drafts in place for nearly the whole quarter.) 2.) writing flash and microfiction. Maybe some full short stories.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Apple And The Magic Of Compounding

I don't know what lesson (of many) to derive from this, but....

Apple Inc. announced that it would be paying a dividend this next quarter. I think it's one of those one-time dividends, but if it isn't, and will be paid quarterly, it will still only be a fraction of one percent in annual interest.


That yearly amount ($320) would be approximately the same as what I paid for those shares originally ($330). That is, nearly 100 percent return on original investment. Per year. Yowza!

The lesson of that one is "invest in solid companies with lots of cash, and then hold 'em no matter how the market fluctuates."

HOWEVER (again)....

My initial investment in Apple was actually $2000. It shrank to $330, because Apple is such a heavy duty growth stock, I would sell off small amounts of it whenever it hit a record high, and diversify my portfolio. While the rest of my portfolio did pretty well, if I had just left it in Apple, I'd have nearly twice as much in my IRA as I do now.

The lesson here is, "Don't bet against Apple."

However, I still believe in hedging your bets.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Sales Report: B&N Beating Amazon?

Smashwords just updated their sales reports. They are getting better at doing them more often, and B&N seems to be updating them more promptly as well.

I now have figures for the first half of March, and....

I'm selling more books at B&N than I am at Amazon. (Which isn't saying much -- the Amazonian sales slump continues...) I also have a nice trickle of sales from Sony and Apple, but they haven't been updated to include much of March yet.

Why is this happening?

I suspect it's due to my making an effort to push more links to other vendors. I've only done much of that at Daring Adventure Stories, and that coincides with a mini-sales-bump. I suspect Nook users get tired of everyone pushing only Amazon.

I'm going to start working on creating a "landing page" for each of my books with all links on them. Then in future, I'll link adds to those pages. (Also the sidebar here.) More info, more options, bigger cover picture. I'm curious as to whether doing more of that will make more difference.

See you in the funny papers.

The Future of Publishing, As Seen In A Fuzzy Crystal Ball

I was walking in the mall this week, noticing how strange the world of retail has become (they were selling salon hair care products out of a vending machine) and thinking about disintermediation and the overall point of the market place in human culture, when a vision hit me.....

I think I have something to say about the Future of Publishing.

First a Few Words About Intermediation

Once upon a time a farmer grew a strawberry, and a hungry person bought that strawberry and ate it. End of story.

The problem was that much of the time the farmer and the person who most wanted that strawberry were not in the same location. Especially if it's, like, December and strawberries are in season in South America and people in Michigan are really hungering for a nice fresh strawberry dipped in chocolate for a Christmas party.

To get that strawberry (or toy or book or widget) from South America, you need a whole lot of people in the middle: intermediates. Retailers, wholesalers, distributors, packagers, transportation companies of multiple kinds. There's a whole lot of planning and studying and coordinating, making sure that strawberry is in the right place at the right time.

And everybody gets a cut. Which bloats the heck out of the transaction.

The term "Disintermediation" refers to the trend of cutting out more and more of the middleman, and making the whole process more efficient. Getting back to that point where you buy you fruit directly from the farmer.

But even today we don't cut out all of the middlemen. We still need some -- but those middlemen who survive in this kind of environment are the ones who don't see their job as coming between the farmer and the foodie, but rather those who see their purpose as bringing them together. They enable that direct transaction.

Some examples: the farmer's market where the farmer can sell goods in the city, the internet provider where the farmer can let people know where he's going to be and what is fresh. The transport company which can deal with small orders over long distances -- without the need for the planning of wholesalers.

This is the key to Amazon's success. They're an enabler of disintermediation.

Publishing has a way of looking only at itself for models, and that's where they're missing the boat because the whole publishing system is built on heavy intermediation. They can't understand what Amazon is doing because their goals are different. They think it's a trick to compete with others, and not a basic (and lucrative) way of doing business.

It doesn't occur to them that they should be doing the same thing.

But it will. Eventually. If not to the existing publishers, then to small publishers or people in other industries who see an opportunity. Because it's the only way for an intermediate to survive in the coming wave.

So given all that, here are my predictions of the future of publishing.

Publishers Will Go In Two Directions

Direction One - The Entertainment Industry

I predict that most of the major publishers -- that is, the big corporate ones -- will be largely absorbed into their parent companies. They may keep their names, but their main business will be acquiring subsidiary rights. That is, they'll acquire already successful properties to make movies, games and other products out of. (Including, quite possibly, those rare and exotic paper editions people collect as mementos, like posters and action figures.)

This group will also be hiring writers to do work-for-hire media books. This may be where a lot of non-fiction is too. (I don't know enough about non-fiction to predict this part, I admit.)

They'll look something like they do now, but they won't really be in the book business. They'll be in "media."

Direction Two - Aggregation

This is where I think most of the book business will go. It will take many forms, and may be the hardest to get our heads around until after we see it, but we are already seeing the start of it, and there are some older models to help us see it too.

The key thing to remember about this part of the industry, though, is that they won't actually be publishers any more. Their business won't be about producing, or even distributing: it will be all about acquiring a platform. The thing that makes Amazon so important in the industry is not that it has power, but because they have a HUGE audience. Their customers are their asset.

Same with Huffington Post -- some writers may grumble that they don't pay for their content, but many would kill to be aggregated on the Huffpo site, because it gives access to Huffpo's vast audience.

Though Baen Books is still very much a traditional publisher, they have long been working on their position as an aggregator too -- a place with an enthusiastic audience. They take their job of putting writer together with reader very seriously.

The thing that makes aggregation work is partnerships. It's about cooperation, not competition. And many of the masters of the aggregation industry are people who grew up with Game Theory, and other newer ideas where they understand that the best way to compete may well be to cooperate. This is where publishers have the hardest time, because they are afraid to cooperate and therefore companies like Amazon find them of less value.

The thing about aggregation is that you need content -- but only as far as it keeps your customers happy. It's better if someone else provides the content... but if you can't find a partner smart enough to cooperate, you do it yourself.

And some aggregators are built on a do-it-yourself model anyway. Consider syndication -- that is, work-for-hire franchise books. They may be spin offs of movies and TV or they may be an in-house brand, like the Stratemeyer group (Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys). Or heck, James Patterson. Old time book clubs.

These kinds of publishers don't consider their customers to be booksellers. They don't think in terms of best sellers or shelf space. They think much more like a magazine, and they have an ongoing relationship with their customers. They're almost like a subscriber base.

Such publishers/syndicators already exist, but in the coming world they will thrive. They will undoubtedly hire writers to churn out branded pulp. Some on a work-for-hire basis, some with royalties, but I would not be surprised if some of them didn't hire staff writers to work like a newspaper reporter.

Like a newspaper or magazine -- or a TV network -- they have an audience and they need a steady supply of direct content to give to that audience.

There are many many other aggregation models out there, and I expect more to arise out of book-related non-publishing areas. Colleges and research institutions, professional organizations all have a need for "approved" work -- so it would be natural for them to become a gateway between the academic reader and the material the institution approves of.

And then, of course, there are booksellers....

Booksellers -- Two Directions Here Too.

Some booksellers will just drift into general retail. Book and story-oriented gift shops. Or they will be smaller parts of larger stores.

But the bigger force will be in aggregation as well. Like publishers, their main stock in trade will be an audience. They will be bloggers, and book forum operators. They too may move into something approximating a magazine -- where they buy content to make their audience happy. Though, like Huffpo, they may be able to get their content free, since it will provide an audience to the writers.


I think writers are the clearest of the group: writers will write.

I expect most will have to deal with being an indie writer -- even if they hope to be picked up by a major publisher. I expect they will be doing less marketing, because they will use the aggregators to get more access to an audience. But it will mostly be similar to what it's like now.

And yes, some will hire on to a syndicate to write for a salary, or write freelance for them (as with magazines). That will actually be a great way to build your skills and perhaps an audience.


The thing to remember about agents is that it really isn't the writers who need them -- it's the publishers who need them. Publishers use agents as freelance acquisitions editors.

What agents do now is useless in the new paradigm. (Except for that leap to the major entertainment industries, as I mentioned at the top -- but that requires a specialized type of agent which already exists.) Aggregators don't need them.

But successful authors will always need support services: a concierge, a Jeeves, a Smithers, a Mary Poppins. A handyman. A kerfuffle wrangler.

And I don't just mean hiring a freelance editor and a cover artist and a publicist, I mean an assistant. Not every author will need all that much help. Some will be able to make use of a full time staff, and some will just need a little outsourcing. Businesses and individuals which provide a concierge service for authors will do well.

Existing agents generally do not hold those skills. It will be a very different job; the job of a servant. Some agents will retrain and take to it, but I suspect that this job is more likely to be filled by people who already have the skills to do the job, or skill and experience at coordinating a team of others to do it. Art directors. Editors. Maybe some smart publicists.

And yeah, some of these businesses and individuals will deceive the writer: they'll pretend to be aggregators -- people who give the writer access to a great audience. But that's a separate job, and the writer will need to beware.

The key for the smart writer will be to hire someone as a salaried assistant, or hire a company which presents itself as a concierge service, and not a ticket to the stars, or a business partner.

That's all my crystal ball tells me, and I have no idea if it's a delusional crystal ball which has hallucinations or if it's a bright eyed and clear view into the future.

But I suspect that's where it's all headed.

See you in the funny papers.

Monday, March 19, 2012

New Story at Daring Adventure Stories

I posted a new story up on Daring Adventure Stories --

"The Girl From Nowhere" is from The Popular Magazine, July 23, 1915. (Yet another Smith and Street "Twice-a-Month" pulp.)

Popular had no illustrations, so I created my own little dingbat to go along with the story.

It's a drawing room mystery -- or perhaps better called a "Dining Room" mystery, as it takes place entirely at dinner. The lights go out, a precious ruby is stolen from the neck of the hostess, no one wants to embarrass the guests, but everyone is suspicious of the mysterious Girl From Nowhere....

Sunday, March 18, 2012

ROW80 Update (March 18)

It's a tough last week for the A Round of Words in 80 Days Challenge this time.

This past Wed-Sat stretch, of course, was full of work issues and kerfuffle. And the next few days will also be packed full. At the day job, we still don't have a contract, because the administration simply won't come to the table. The weather is good. We might as well occupy us some picket lines and board meetings.

As a result, I'm sort of drifting through this last week of the dare. I didn't even keep track of what I did. (Mostly thinking -- which was fruitful. I figured out that since this is a Mick and Casey story, I really need to come up more ways to dump Mick in a mud puddle or get him bopped on the head, or both.)

But it's spring, and aside from getting politically and occupationally active, it's also time for spring cleaning. It's time to make changes, gear up, get out. Time to plant the peas already.

So even though I'll be doing some writing, I already know I will not be achieving my goals -- so my energy will really be going into gearing up for the next challenge in April.

I'll be posting some interesting stuff on plans and goals and writing philosophy (as well as getting back to posts about writing as a craft) during the last week of March.

For this coming week,

  • Tuesday: The Future of Publishing, As Seen In A Fuzzy Crystal Ball
  • Thursday: Last ROW80 Update for this round
  • Friday Favorites: Hitchcock Not Unbound (i.e. a look at Hitchcock's limited location flicks -- Lifeboat, Dial M for Murder, and Rope.)

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday Favorites: Bob Cummings in Sleep, My Love, 1948

Robert Cummings had a long and interesting career, most famous in his time as a TV comedy star ("Love that Bob!") but probably better remembered now for things like Dial 'M' For Murder -- where he played Grace Kelly's lover and supporter, as her dastardly husband plots to kill her.

A scruffier Bob, in Hitchcock's Saboteur
That was a familiar role for him -- loyal and solid good friend turned hero in women's pot-boilers. Often an easygoing playboy on the surface, who relies on charm and playfulness to get by, willing to be the "also ran" buddy to the woman if she spurns him for someone else. (Or if she's too busy with the, you know, being "in jeopardy" part of the story.)

The flick that inspired me to write about him was an old 1940's pot-boiler called Sleep, My Love. Claudette Colbert is a woman with amnesia issues, which turn out to be due to folks who are trying to drive her mad. And Bob Cummings is the fellow who tempts her into an affair -- and then has to step up and be a hero for her when he realizes that she is in danger.

While I tend to like a good pot-boiler anyway, I find that this one is particularly good. It's not an art house classic. But it's also not as angst driven as so many of the "women's pictures" of the time: more a good mystery/crime/pot-boiler. It also makes great use of a deep cast of excellent character actors. Don Ameche, as the husband, does a great job with a character who is always holding back, reacting, uncertain, and who covers what he is thinking well (all the while revealing a lot to us). George Coulouris mild and frightening all at once. Keye Luke as the long suffering buddy of Cummings. Raymond Burr as the cop who is more suspicious than he seems, but not quite suspicious enough.

It is not available in the U.S. as far as I can tell. (Might be old copies around, but I've never seen and then crops up illegally on YouTube. NOTE: it's currently available on Prime Instant Video.)   Sleep My Love (1948, Triangle/UA).

A couple other Cummings flicks to keep in mind:

Saboteur, 1942, Universal. This was one of Hitchcock's early American films, which brings together his earlier style and themes. It's a story of an ordinary, innocent man on the run after he is accused of a crime he did not commit. It's more like his earlier The 39 Steps than like the more sophisticated North By Northwest. Robert Cummings plays a slightly rougher, more masculine hero than usual. (The image above is from this flick.) He's an aeronautics plant worker who is accused of causing the fire which killed his best friend and destroyed the factory. Priscilla Lane (known today mainly for her part in Arsenic and Old Lace) plays the spunky blond who hinders then helps him. (She is not at all the kind of cool femme fatale which Hitchcock later became famous for.)

Saboteur is full of cliches and speechifying, and all of the well-known Hitchcock tricks. (Gunshots in theaters, characters in danger at a public event, fights on top of monuments of great height -- in this case, the Statue of Liberty -- and evil masterminds who are important solid citizens.) Some of the dialog was written by Dorothy Parker.

This was made just as America entered WWII, and so it is probably Hitchcock's most political flick, but somehow the propaganda aspects add to the charm of the picture, even if they don't add much to the suspense. (Except maybe the speech of the villain toward the end of Act 2 - which has a slow dramatic tension to it.)

Dial 'M' For Murder, 1954, Warner Brothers. Based on a play by Frederick Knott. This is, of course, a real classic. Maybe not as cinematic as some of Hitch's other classics, because it was based on a play, but Hitch was always fascinated by the limitations of the stage, and telling a story in a small, enclosed sort of way. Robert Cummings, as with Sleep, My Love, plays the lover of a woman in jeopardy. This time the woman is the cool Hitchcock queen, Grace Kelly. (And he doesn't have to do any physical rescuing, because Ms. Kelly has a pair of scissors and knows how to use them, in one of THE great "climb-up-on-the-couch-in-anxiety" scenes of movie history.)

I didn't get a chance to rewatch this this week, but I think I might watch this, and maybe Lifeboat, for next Friday, and talk more about Hitchcock and his fun with telling stories in limited settings.

The final Robert Cummings picture I saw this week was The Accused, (1949, Paramount). In this, Cummings' character was still the charming supportive sort of character which did so well in other women's picture... but this time he's also a bit of an antagonist: Loretta Young is attacked by a sociopathic student, and she kills him in self-defense -- but instead of reporting it, she covers it up. The drama that ensues is a "crime and punishment" story, as she has to play cat-and-mouse with Cummings and Wendell Corey, as they zero in on the crime. The psychology in this one is a little extra hokey. (Especially when Ms. Young -- who is a psych professor -- is trumped in her knowledge by non-academic men. Sheesh. But it does seem to be because the filmmakers don't know much about that psychiatric mumbo jumbo at least as much as simple sexism.)

The Accused is also not available on video right now.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Forgive me, I HAD to post this

Darth Vader. In a Kilt. On a unicycle. With bagpipes....

Although, let's be honest, to make this even a fairly ordinary con event, I suppose you'd have to add a giant Tesla coil or something.

ROW80 Update And Preview of Coming Attractions

Huh, what? It's time to update my progress again? Oh, crap....

I guess it kind of sneaked up on me. I forgot I was supposed to post tonight.

ROW80 Update for March 14:

Sunday Day 70 - 0 minutes.

Monday Day 71 - 57 minutes. I have instituted a new goal -- which is probably what I'll do for the next quarter. Three "Microbursts" -- or small intensive writing sessions -- a day. I find that I write much more rapidly in that way. So today I had three sessions -- one only 5 minutes long. Fruitful.

Tuesday Day 72 - 25 minutes. More planning than anything. (I think I got in four lines of prose.) I did a lot of other work -- bigger plan thinking.

I hate to say, but I'm just about ready to shift gears again, and that makes me wishy washy. I was going to set a different set of goals for the rest of this dare: something closer to what I'm going to do for the next round, but I don't even have my notes here. Oops.

So we'll just look forward to coming posts:

On Friday Favorites I'll be talking about Robert Cummings, the charming "everyman" of a couple of Hitchcock movies, among other things. I came across another flick of his which predates Dial 'M' For Murder, which has a similar theme, and he has a similar role. Plus his early Hitchcock role in Saboteur where he comes across more like a classic Hitchcock hero than like Bob Cummings. (My mom didn't recognize him.)

Then next Tuesday, I'll be looking into my crystal ball, and guessing where the future of publishing is going.

I also might do a post on Head-Hopping, that dizzying point of view where the author lets you hear what everyone is thinking? A best-selling author did a bad job of one head-hopping scene a few years back, and it made me stop reading the book -- not because of the head-hopping, but because she so badly missed the opportunity it gave her to do something fun. I'd like to post it next week too, but I don't know when.

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Publishers, DOJ, Agency Pricing, and Maturity

Among the many jobs I've held in my long and weary life, I have been a Playground Supervisor. We were also called Lunch Ladies, though we didn't serve lunch -- we just made sure they cleaned up their trash and went outside. The ratio of kids to us was 100 to 1, but only if all the lunch ladies showed up for work. If one or two didn't, the ratio could get a lot steeper.

It was a fun job.

One of the things that happened nearly every single day on the playground: a pair of first graders would come running up; one crying, one looking flustered and upset.

Crying Kid: He pushed me down!
Flustered Kid: I did not! It was an accident.
Crying Kid: It wasn't an accident because it hurt!
Flustered Kid: It does not hurt, because it was an accident!

With first graders, this is what passes for logic: "whatever I feel is the final arbiter of reality." Somewhere around second grade they figured out that their feelings aren't the only thing in the universe. Some of them actually figure out that they aren't even the center of the universe.

I think the entire publishing industry -- including a lot of writers -- skipped second grade.

That's really all I've got to say about all of this hullabaloo about the Department of Justice investigating the Agency Pricing issue, and especially the irrational reaction of the Authors Guild.

(Here are a couple of good posts by people who have more to say: Joe Konrath's discussion with Barry Eisler, and James Scott Bell's advice to authors on the matter.)

Okay, maybe I'll add one more thing: the publishing industry AND the bookselling industry, even combined, are not "keeping Amazon in check." Their success or failure has nothing to do whatsoever with Amazon's success, or power, or ability to act like a monopoly. Nothing.

Amazon's natural rival (or as close to it as there is) is Google, and the internet itself.

Amazon is not the enemy of publishing. The publishing establishment is the enemy of publishing.

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

ROW80 Update - Spring Ahead? Seriously?

Holy Moly, it's Daylight Savings Time again. The day when the number heart attacks are on the rise, and productivity drops for at least a week. (And unfortunately, this goes for Fall Back too.)

For this reason, I'm calling it a day a little early, even though I think I'm probably not done for the day.

A Round of Words in 80 Days Update

Wed-thurs Day 66-67 - I took a vacation. I didn't really mean to, but I had to work and do things and I am tired.

However, I can't say it was completely a vacation, because my busy little mind has been working on the opening for the next book, and I really really like where it's going.

Friday Day 68 - 40 minutes. I did more brainstorming on the next book, and also organized the bits of what I have on this one. I have about 24k words. I was hoping for close to 50k, but I can't tell at the moment whether I'll get there. I'll be reasonably happy with a long novella -- whatever length it wants to be.

Saturday Day 69 - 82 minutes. Did some nice work on The Serial early today. I was thinking about the convenience of Alex' magic ring, and decided to let it get stolen (and worse, accidentally exchanged for the real MacGuffin of the series -- so that neither Alex nor the thief know just what they each have in their hands). This brings everything back to non-magic, which I want. AND it gave me a lot of thoughts about back story-- who Alex really is, for instance. AND it gave me a good idea for a nice introduction to Commander Zuzo which will set up later developments.

Then I got some really good sessions in on the work-in-progress. They were short, but productive, and set me up for some fun writing sessions tomorrow. Mick and Casey take on yet another job, which Mick likes even less than the several jobs they've taken on up to this point.

Sprints and 'Ventures

I did the math and I think, for the first time in my life it almost works. My problem has always been that I have way too much on my plate all the time. Too many stories clamoring to be written. Too much work to be done on each of them.

Lately I've been doing a lot more brainstorming, and then only writing in little, enthusiastic sprints. These have been fruitful. Very fruitful. I figured out that if I do three of these sessions a day, I can get more done than in a day of working normally. This works because I'm actually spending a lot of time getting ready for the sprint, and so when I do sprint, it's incredibly productive. 600+ words in a 20 minute session.

So three of those a day covers my real productivity needs.

In the meantime, I've been doing more stories for the Daring Adventure Stories blog. I've got a fun one which is scheduled to post Sunday night. In The King Row is a story of a robbery at an isolated railroad junction station, and a critical game of checkers played by telegraph. It was written by Lovell Coombs, but I don't know who the illustrator was. It was published in Top-Notch Magazine, March 1, 1913.

See you in the funny papers.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Hundred Dollar Blog Post - Revisiting the Forty Dollar Sandwich

On the subject of Home Economics, everybody has strong opinions. And those who are interested in such things, are obsessive about it, they focus in on it with laser vision to the exclusion of all else, sometimes.

So when I mentioned that I calculated the time (including planning, shopping, washing up, etc) it would take me to pack a sandwich for lunch, and that came out to about $40 in value in writing time -- people objected. My point was about value of the writing time, but they focused in on the sandwich. It couldn't possibly really cost $40. No, never, no way, no how. I must have done the math wrong. I must have ignored some other cost or something.


I did not tell you how I calculated it because that wasn't the point. It didn't have to be a sandwich. It could be a blog post. A game of checkers. The point was valuing your work. To whit:

1.) If you set your success bar at $150 per year average per 60-65k novel as a baseline. That's a very low bar. Depending on your price, that's 4-6 sales a month. You may not make that much (especially not at first) but it's a fair gauge.

2.) If you see your book as investment capital, rather than the source of a quick buck, then, using the figures above, that novel is worth the equivalent of $5000 in conservative investment properties.

And that means 500 finished words is worth $40.

Your mileage may vary. Strike that: your mileage WILL vary. Duh. That's the nature of the game. However, it's not like we're talking major variables here. The length of your own average book, the price you charge for it. But the value numbers there are the key ones. For an indie published book to make $150 a year really is a nice low goal -- and that's really what all the math depends on.

So... if 500 finished words is worth $40, then anything you do in place of writing and editing those 500 finished words is taking at least $40 (or whatever number you came up with) of your time. It doesn't matter if you are a slow writer or a fast writer -- you have to do your math from this point. It might take you five hours to produce 500 finished words, or it might take you a half hour.

It also doesn't matter what that other thing you choose to do with that time: You might be making a sandwich, you might be playing Angry Birds. You might be writing a blog post, like this one.

Whatever you do instead of writing 500 words of polished prose, whatever it is, is worth $40 of writing time.

This is just a measure of how much it costs you, that's all. It's not a value judgment on your lifestyle. We took a day trip to Zingerman's today and had what could be considered (by this math) a $171 sandwich. And it all only matters if you want to make a living at writing. If you don't want to make a living at writing, then nothing about any of this applies to you. Don't worry about it.

There are other ways of looking at the value of your time, and of your writing. I'm just trying to give you one more tool to help you figure it out. But you have to do your own math.

In the meantime.....

There are some of you still itching about the sandwich -- so the rest of this post isn't about relative value of business or anything. It's just about lunch, culture and time, and time. I'm hoping to answer the question:

How Can It Take An Hour To Make a Freaking Sandwich?

Sandwiches have contexts. Every person has different needs and resources. I told you that packing a lunch costs me an hour or so of my time, and it's much more cost effective to buy a lunch most of the time.

What I didn't say is that this is true regardless of whether I bother with the writing time thing. Honestly, I wasn't lying, exaggerating or overlooking things. I was just giving you the reality of my life.

Look, if you have to make lunch for four kids and a husband every morning, then, sure, economy of scale will make one more packed lunch virtually free. It simply would not take enough more time to worry about. And I'm sure it's such an ingrained part of your life, that you really honestly can't understand how it could possibly be any trouble at all for anybody. You just throw some fillings between two slices of bread and toss it in a baggie. How hard is that?

But if you don't have the filling, the bread or the baggie on hand, it's a whole different ball game.  It's like Japanese housewife telling it's really quick and easy -- "Not trouble at all!" -- to make a fancy "charaben" bento box lunch for your kids every day.

Just look how quick and easy it is!  Here listen to Francis, the Talking Japanese Poodle, narrate how to do it, in a 6 minute segment from his wonderful YouTube cooking show "Cooking With Dog."

Okay, big irony/confession time: the lunch made here would actually be EASIER for me to make than your average American sandwich lunch. I have the ingredients, skills, tools and experience to throw together something like this pretty fast.

Listen, I'm single. I don't eat catfood, so shopping for my "kids" doesn't give me any economy of scale with shopping for myself. The household humans each take care of their own food issues.

And I'm not a sandwich person.

(Which may sound funny coming from a person who once tried to arrange for a helicopter to fly down to Zingerman's to pick up a pastrami on rye once. But that's a Zingerman's sandwich.)

And I don't eat sandwiches at home. I don't particularly like them, and I don't have those ingredients in my pantry. When I do eat sandwiches, I like really good bread (which I seldom eat, so I don't have it in the house -- I have to buy it specially for that meal.) I don't keep chips or deli pickles around.

So I might make a bento box or Chinese bao or something -- but that's going to take a long time too, and I'd rather do it for dinner.

And besides.....

I live in a depressed, working class city with a diverse ethnic population. Why should I make something at an inconvenient time, when it may even cost me less to get somebody else to do it for me? Seriously. Bao at the Chinese grocery? Two bucks. Three if I call ahead to the dim sum place and get a whole order of them. And I don't have to plan ahead, or worry about whether I'll feel like a stale refrigerated one the next day. I can say, "hey, I think I feel like bao today."

Falafel sandwich for two bucks. A burrito for one. A dog and chips from the vendor. Arby's. MacDonalds. A $5 gyro meal. Heck, if I really don't want to think about it when I'm too brain-dead in the morning, I can splurge by calling Jimmy Johns. They'll deliver lunch right to the office for the whole crew in freakishly fast time, for only $7 each or so.

I may not want to do that every day, but if it allows me the mindspace to write even 50 more finished words, it's definitely worth it financially.

Now, not everybody has the options I do.

I'm not telling YOU to drive out of your way to find some falafel house which may or may not be overpriced or any good ( and may not even be open during your morning commute). I'm saying that I've got a falafel house that isn't out of my way, and it's super good, super cheap and really filling. And yes, because I work afternoons and evenings, they're open.

I didn't overlook anything, I didn't calculate wrong. I've been doing this for half a century. Trust me, I've tried all the options, and my stunningly wonderful day job income is blow 20k, and for most of my life much lower, so I have had to manage. It's not that I'm rich, or careless.

It's just that I'm not you.

And you're not me. You've got to find your own falafel sandwich equivalents in life.

The whole point was not to tell you whether a balogna sandwich (or a bunny-shaped apple slice) is worth it or not. The point is to give you one more tool with which you can measure the relative value of your writing time.

This may come off a little annoyed and snarky -- so I want to add: please, feel free to discuss the relative merits of all of this in the comments. Just keep in mind that we're all different. Nobody's wrong about their own life.

See you in the funny papers.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

ROW80 Update - March 7

Here is my A Round of Words in 80 Days update:
(Find a list of today's other ROW80 updates here.)

Sunday Day 63 - 24 minutes. But they were a really GOOD 24 minutes. Very productive. I had dim sum, and went to see The Lorax today, as well as worked a little more on some future stories for the Daring Adventure Stories blog. I also did some off-the-clock work on some fiction ideas.

But the big time sink right now will be that it's Derringer Award voting time! For members of The Short Mystery Fiction society, March is the month to read through the finalists in each category and vote. I like to read them all the same way, out of fairness, and so I convert them to text and put the finalists in each category into a single doc and stick it on my Kindle. Converting differently formatted rtf files can be a pain.

However, I discovered a very cool shortcut in prepping ebook files -- a way to keep italics and such when you use the "nuclear option" of putting the text through a text editor to strip the junk out of it. I will probably do a post on that sometime soon. (Sometimes I really like Word, in spite of itself.)

Monday Day 64 - 21 minutes. Not such a productive session, but my mind was elsewhere. I had stuff to deal with on Monday.

I'm sort of between stools right now, and I'm already thinking ahead to the next Round on RWO80. I think I'll go back to my older strategy next month. I might even dial back further on the goals -- but I feel like I'm positioning myself for a very productive time. These little short bursts of work are way more productive (generally) than before. I think I may be ready to move to another level and harness those.

I find it's very very good to put my emphasis on prep work... but I was right in the first place about not counting it. It's too nebulous to make a dare goal. I need to go back to just nose-in-book as counting for the goal.

But as I said, that nose-in-book time is becoming much more fruitful. And much more fun. It's really helping the enthusiasm. It seems particularly suited for Mick and Casey stories, which are relatively simple. It's easy to pile in complications with their stories without throwing myself too far off track. With Starling and Marquette? I'm not so sure. I think I'll get there, but I also might find I just have to do more prep work.

Tuesday Day 65 - 45 minutes. Back to outlining. I had a sudden flash of realization on the opening for The Man Who Stepped Up. I was lacking an opening. I had a murder plot, not a story. And I was thinking about another story idea -- just a scene starter idea without a plot -- and I realized it would really really really suit the story arc. That is, the sequence I had in mind would be the perfect next thing to happen after the end of the previous book. At first it didn't seem to fit with the existing idea, and I thought I'd have to come up with a whole new plot, title and cover....

But then I realized it not only fit, but it made a really good way to rev up the plot I had.

More Pulp Ficiton

Daring Adventure Stories will have a new story up on Monday. I'll do an announcement post here when it goes live.

I am currently debating whether to post stories every Monday, or just twice a month. (Some of the original pulp magazines I'm getting these stories from had the headline "Twice-A-Month" on their masthead.) I seem to be doing well with once a week, but The Popular Magazine did not have illustrations. If I post less often, I might have time to work up some dingbats or something to do a little illustrating myself.

On the other hand, I could just not post stories from The Popular Magazine very often....

See you in the funny papers.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Opportunity vs Subsistence - A Preface to Revisiting The Sandwich

A lot of people missed the point of the Forty Dollar Sandwich post, so I'm going to revisit it. I think that post was unclear because I tried to get at too much in one go. So I'm going to break out one of the points as kind of an introduction to the rest. Because if you don't get this, you won't get the rest.

The Investment Mindset: Opportunity vs. Subsistence

One thing some people seemed to miss was the difference between what I called cash flow money and investment money. Another way of putting it would be subsistence money and opportunity money. (Or if you want to get all business-y: operational budget and capital investment budget.)

Subsistence money is worth less than investment money, because all you do with it is spend it. It doesn't work for you, like investment money. It just disappears into the gaping maw that is your daily living budget. And anything you do to make that money is also ephemeral -- your wages you earn are one-shot deals:

You work an hour, you get a specific amount of money, and you spend that money on food, and eat it, and you burn up those calories in living, and that's it. I hope you have some nice memories of it or learned something from it, because that's all she wrote. You want to eat more, you have to work more.

And you work a little extra to save money for retirement, but that isn't investing, that's just flexible subsisting.

Subsistence money is devoted to expenses, and we want to keep our expenses low. You won't survive if you don't, so we think stingy when we think about subsistence money.

That makes us think like people who are on a fixed income: we are willing to spend any amount of time and effort to squeeze our expenses to save just one more buck. We'll spend hours clipping coupons to save fifty cents. And that is not a bad thing to do, financially speaking. If you're on a fixed income. That is....

If that time can't be used to make more money, it's wise to use time to save money.

This is Where Investment Comes In

This is critical. And it seems to me that this is what the critics of the $40 Sandwich missed:

You pack a lunch, you save a buck.

We're going to assume that that buck is over and above what you need to subsist on. That is, we're assuming that the buck is not required to pay for gas to get to work, or to pay rent. You saved a buck that you're free to do whatever you want with.

What do you do with it?

You could by a candy bar, or put it away for a vacation, or you could put it in a savings account for a rainy day. These are all variations on subsistence. The interest rate right now is practically nothing, so even saving it is simply like deferred subsistence. You still did that cycle: work, consume, gone. You just put off the "consume, gone" part until later.

(NOTE: I'm not saying you don't need a rainy day fund: it's a necessary part of your subsistence, like gas money or rent.)

The other thing you could do with it is invest it.

Investment money worth more than subsistence money, because once you've earned it, the transaction isn't done. An investment keeps working for you -- it brings you more money. If you have enough investment property, it earns your subsistence money for you.

If you live on a fixed income -- any lifestyle where you can't convert your time into additional income -- then your only way of acquiring investment property is to save money. Which means your opportunities are pretty narrow.

But writers are not on a fixed income.

Writers have an opportunity that nobody else has: We are magical beings. We don't have to buy our investment properties with money. We create them. Out of thin air and time.

Which means if you have a spare dollar, you can invest it by buying more time to write.

If you want to make a living -- or at least an income -- from writing, you have to seriously stop and consider the value of your writing time. You have to know how much that dollar cost you in time, and you have to know how much it means in terms of writing time.

I can't tell you this. You've got to that for yourself. All I can do it tell you more about how I arrived at my figure on what my time is worth -- and I'll do that on Thursday with The $100 Blog Post. (Some of you got it the first time, so I hope you won't be bored. I am throwing in a fun video about making a Bento Box lunch to liven things up.)

See you in the funny papers.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

ROW80 Update and Pen Names, Etc.

It's Read An eBook Week!

In honor of Read and eBook Week, Smashwords is offering two of my books free! free! free! The Man Who Did Too Much, and Have Gun, Will Play will be free with the coupon code RE100 this week only. (The code is right on the page, so you don't have to write it down.)

A Round of words in 80 Days update for March 4:

Wednesday Day 59 - 0 minutes. Long long day. Instead of drawing OR doing any writing, I did some work formatting/correcting one of the short stories from a 1915 copy of The Strand.

Thursday Day 60 - 120 minutes. I did some formal work on that short story from The Strand, which I think I will post on another blog. (More about that when I do it.) I have ZERO energy, so I'm not too unhappy with doing that, so I counted it.

But as a result, I decided to skip Friday Favorites this week. And though next week is Spring Break, I notice that I have every freaking day booked up with stuff again. Even so they are relatively short/light commitments, so I should be okay.

Friday Day 61 - .... Crap. I didn't record what I did Friday. Maybe it was nothing? Oh, wait. I ended up doing Friday Favorites after all. I re-launched Daring Adventure Stories. I've got some good stuff in line for it coming up too.

Saturday Day 62 - 74 minutes. Mostly brainstorming. One of my favorite business/productivity books has a little essay about not forgetting to look at what is going right, and why. We tend to focus on what is wrong, and that can be a mistake. (But we're hard-wired to do it anyway. That's why politicians and snake-oil salesmen focus on things that are WRONG to get your attention.)

The things that are going well right now are the brainstorming session -- a lot of really good work there. And the other thing is writing sprints. I'm not a social writer, and I don't like taking part in group efforts, but I've taken to doing short, hot writing sessions -- just five minutes here, twenty minutes there. When I do them (and I don't do them often enough) they really work.

I need to find a way to enable these more.

Pen Names

I'm thinking about taking on a pen name. I'm mostly against the idea, because my name is my brand, and my stuff is scattered around, and I'm kind of creating my own genre out of my style/voice.

However, I do feel that if I have one thing that could be split off, it would be Noir. I don't write long Noir stories -- just short fiction. The thing about Noir is that it takes place in a pessimistic world. It isn't just that bad things happen, it's that things don't end well. The gods are not friendly in the world of Noir. They don't relent. If they do, it's in a twisted and ironic way.

That's is something that goes to the audience knowing what they can expect. They should be able to know whether they can trust you to save them from the horrible consequences, or if they should guard their feelings a little more.

And that seems to me to be a good reason to have a pen name for darker fiction.

The next question is: what should the name be? I feel like it needs to be like an old fashioned thug nick name. For some reason the name Vinky Black comes to mind. (Or I could go with Maude Katt.) I'll be thinking....

The Forty Dollar Sandwich Will Be Revisited

I got a whole lot of guff about how I must have calculated the $40 sandwich wrong. Folks: I didn't tell you how I calculated it. And the reason I didn't tell you is because the calculations relate only to me and my life. They don't relate to your life. Your'e not supposed to think they relate to you. You've got to find your own time/money ratios and go by your own goals to figure that out.

The point of that post was not about whether you should pack a lunch or not. But it appears that was what people wanted it to be about. (Both pro and con.) So I'm going to revisit that post -- maybe this week, maybe next -- and do what people seemed to want me to do and explain how a sandwich which might be worth a buck to you is worth $40 to me (sometimes). And we'll see if maybe I can bring that post around to my point, which was about the value of your work.

But I'm not sure if I will do that this week or next. You'll just have to wait and see what my Tuesday Post will be.

In the meantime, it is Spring Break... which appears to mean I am more booked up than ever for my time!

See you in the funny papers.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Friday Favorites - Daring Adventure Stories

A long time ago, I started a blog which I intended to use for serialized fiction. I serialized one of my novels -- the odd ball "The Wife of Freedom" there -- and then just let it vegetate.

In the meantime, I have been doing a lot of research on old pulp magazines of about the WWI era. There's a lot of material out there on the web, but a lot of it is in very bad shape, at least in terms of readability.

For instance, The Internet Archive has every single public domain issue of The Strand. You know, that's the magazine where all of the Sherlock Holmes stories were published. Unfortunately, the copies they have are image scans and very raw OCR text. The text is downright unreadable.

Unlike Project Gutenberg, the Archive hasn't organized legions of proofers, nor developed an editing process. You get what you get.

I have decided that, even though I don't have time to do whole issues or anything like that, I will make some of the stories in these archives readable and post them over on the Daring Adventure Stories blog. It's very very time consuming, and so I won't do it much. I'll probably "sponsor" each post with an ad for one of my books at the bottom of the post each time.

I may even put in a donate button.

But I don't really expect anything from it. I just think it's fun.

So here, for the first story of the new blog, I will give you "The Tramp And The Tiger" a comic story of adventure on the high seas, in which the crew of a tramp steamer faces off, not so bravely, with a three-quarters grown clouded Manchurian tiger whose tail is in doubt.

This was the lead story in the July 1915 issue of The Strand. It's about 8500 words. I have only put in three of the illustrations.

See you in the funny papers.