Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Traditional Vs. Self Publishing

Recently, I stepped into a mire of goo the likes of which I haven't seen since I owned an 80lb dog.  I since deleted the post, but it got me thinking.  For the longest time (well, since I got into writing and got my first book published), I've been a staunch proponent of traditional publishing.  I've always been the guy out there yelling about how traditional is the way to go, that they are the gate-keepers of our craft and profession, and a thousand other arguments that fill message boards and professional organizations with vitriol and bile.  But it got me wondering.   Why is self-publishing so reviled?

I was born in 1971 and my childhood was spent in the 70's.  There were no "indie" bands that I knew of around that time, and when I was in Junior and High School  (1980's), it was cool for everyone to have a demo.  Indie bands were the thing.  I still have a demo of the Beastie Boys, and I can recall when Metallica was an unsigned act that was killing it in the local clubs.  And I recall, back then, the big question was "who are they signed with?" in regards to music.  If the answer was "no one," the retort was usually "then they can't be any good."

It was bullshit then.

Pictured:  That opinion

When I graduated High School and went off to college (I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena, California for a couple of years), indie-music was still huge, and growing.  But there was a new phenomenon on the horizon:  Indie comics.  The big two (Marvel and DC) got too big for their collective britches, and a whole world of creative independent artists and writers got together and said "screw them, we'll do it ourselves!"  And they did.  And again, there was a stigma about whether their work was any good because it didn't go through the big houses.

It, too, was bullshit.

Not quite the easy button...

Which brings us to today.  I went and soul-searched a little and realized something:  I can be a bit of a snob at times.  Today, the big publishers are running scared because of indie (notice, I didn't say "self") publishing.  They're being more selective (meaning they're not buying as many manuscripts), circling their wagons (which means many are going out of business and being bought up by others of their kind), and branching out (which means creating a "pay for publish" branch… I'm looking at you, Penguin) in an attempt to stop the arterial bleeding that is coming from the publishing industry today.  And you get dinosaurs like me, who seem to have become what we used to revile.  But that's not entirely true.   I'll get to that in a moment.

Why is it that indie music and indie comics and indie films get love and are heralded as fierce and creative and brave, while indie publishing is not?  As a good friend, and someone I respect (Joe "The Pope" Borrelli) said, let the public decide.  What is it that separates musicians, artists, film makers, and such from writers?  In all honesty, nothing.  It's art.  It's their interpretation of art.  And there are truly shitty examples in every category.  There also lurks brilliance.

Many years ago, I was a critic for a newspaper, so I was inundated with indie music on cassette (yes, I'm that old), and I found that 80% of it was crap.  The folks making said music needed to go back and learn to play their instruments, needed to learn a modicum of music theory.  Needed to actually listen to music to see where they were going wrong.  But the other 20%?  I still listen to them.  When I did film and book reviews for Dread Central, I was greeted with a similar percentage of garbage.  But then, every now and again, brilliance.   Some of the books I got were offensive, not from their content, but by the sheer gall of the writers involved calling themselves authors.  Does that sound elitist?  Maybe it is.  Maybe it offends me that I've spent years making serious study and effort to hone my craft, and yet anyone can plug in a computer, jump on Createspace, and publish anything they want.  Seriously.  But the big question is, should it offend me?  Probably not.  The public will decide, Mr. Borrelli.  The public will decide.  And while certain titles exist that cast the whole independent publishing movement in a bad light, hasn't that always been the case with indie music, film, and comics?

But wait, you say.  What about the old arguments about the publishers and labels and big dogs of the creative world being the gatekeepers?  Yeah… That's also bullshit.  Many of them are run by bean-counters now.  And while there are many micro and indie presses, they are no guarantee either.  Many of them (like Raw Dog Screaming Press and Permuted) take great pains to come off as professional and hire good editors and put forth an excellent product.  Lots more don't, and, no, I'm not going to name names.  Let's face it, there are no guarantees today.

So now it comes down to it…  I still prefer to be traditionally published.  Everything I've ever written has been traditionally published (except for one book that was done for charitable reasons).  But does that mean I won't eventually be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century and indie publish something?  Probably not.  There may come a point when I decide to indie publish, and it will be on my terms.  But if anything, I'd like to offer the following advice for folks who do, or who intend to indie publish.

  • Do yourself a favor and hire an editor.  Not your buddy from down the street, but someone who actually knows what they're doing.  Yes, it's expensive, but then, so is publishing.  And it's worth it to present yourself in the most professional and polished manner possible.  Book reviewers (who drive your sales) are unforgiving when it comes to books full of typos.  
  • Invest in good cover art.  A good cover can sell a truckload of books.  Bad cover art can make your stuff come off as amateur and childish.  
  • Either hire someone to do your layout for you, or really learn how to do it.  InDesign is an expensive program, and so is Quark, but you're talking about your chosen career.  It's an investment.  
  • Learn the basics of promotion.  Network and market your ass off, learn how to book signings, and figure out how to get the most reach for your dollar.  
  • Surround yourself with a good team.  Beta readers, editors, artists, layout… Everything.  They can make or break you.  
  • Be ready to smile and avoid coming off as angry. *ahem*

So maybe I am a dinosaur.  But, unlike big lizards of old, I prefer to change and adapt, and I reserve the right to change my point of view.  I'd also like to note that I know several (not lots, but a few) independent published authors who have gone on to great things (Rhiannon Frater leaps immediately to mind), and I respect them and their work.  I'm not going to change my opinion when I see a book that I think is crap, and I think most folks reading this have known me long enough to know that I don't ever apologize for my opinion.  If I think it's crap, I say it's crap.  But to those offended by my (unintentionally) controversial remarks, I have one thing to say:

Mea culpa. 

Signed your Gentleman Dinosaur


Monday, February 24, 2014

On the Subject of Primary Research...

I've written about this before, and it's a hot-button topic for me, so you'll probably see me write about it again.  It's also widely debated, but this is something I feel very strongly about.  Feel free to disagree if you want, but follow my train of thought.  As writers, we strive for accuracy.  We strive to blur the worlds of fact and fiction (at least, in my genre) to give our readers a better experience.  But moreover, there are certain universal truths by which all things must abide.  Physics, for example.  The feeling of wind rushing through one's hair, for another.  Try to describe a steak dinner to someone who has never had one.  Now picture that person (who has never had one) trying to describe it to someone else who has never had one.  See the problem?  To that end, I'm of the opinion that writers need to go out and conduct "primary research" in the name of their art.  What do I mean?  Well…

Let's say you write fantasy.  You have a character that swings a broadsword around for an epic battle of several hours long (let's say from sun down to sun up).  You wrote a beautiful descriptive scene that sends shivers up the spine.  Yet there are still folk who cry foul over it.  Why?  Do me a favor… Pick up a broom (you have one of those, right?) and go out in your back yard and swing it around for as long as you can.  I'll wait.

(five minutes passes)

Back so soon?  But that was just a little broom!  Barely five pounds the thing is!  Yet, you're exhausted after swinging it around for five minutes?  Well… Yeah.  Now picture doing the same with 15+ pound broadsword.  How long do you think you could swing that thing around?  About ten seconds, I imagine.  I don't particularly care how big or strong or "war hardened" you are, you need to know the fatigue one suffers, what it takes to swing that sword.

Another example:  A pair of cops (partners, natch) are in an apartment shooting at a third guy.  When one fires two or three shots, he whispers to his partner (so not to be heard by the bad guy) to go around back.  Problem?  You betcha.  Go to a shooting range and squeeze off a few rounds.  Not only are you not allowed to do so without hearing protection, but even with earmuffs on, you come away with noise damage to your ears.  Translated, it's really freaking loud.  So your cop B wouldn't be able to hear cop A if he fired in an enclosed apartment.  In fact, it would probably be a while before cop B forgave cop A for making so he couldn't hear his favorite Tori Amos CD for a while.

My point is this:  KNOW WHAT YOU WRITE.  Don't rely on movies or even other writers.  You have the responsibility to write about things accurately, and movies and television often get it wrong through lack of research.

But wait, you say.  My character is a (insert highly illegal and unethical profession here).  What then?  Surely you don't suggest I go out and murder/rape/drugs/politician…  No.  Of course not.  But your research can still be done.  How?  How about call the police station and ask to talk to a cop?  They actually have a position dedicated to doing stuff like this, and will sometimes welcome the request of a ride-along.  Explain what you're doing and why, and most of the time, they'll be happy for you to observe them.  Schedule an appointment to talk to a doctor about medical issues your characters have.  Make sure you're not wasting their time, but it can't hurt to ask, can it?

Below is a list of some of my favorite things that I've done in the name of "research" for books:

  • Horseback Riding
  • Pistol shooting
  • Motorcycle Riding
  • Police Ride-Along
  • Skinned Human Bodies (yes, you read that correctly)
  • Painting
  • Sculpting
  • Cliff-diving
  • Beat up a (junker) car with a sledge hammer
  • Choreograph fight scenes with my Karate students
  • Eaten really nasty food
  • Visited other cities
  • Camped
  • Played in snow
And there's a metric ton more stuff I intend to do to get the experiences right.  

Oh…And since you're doing it in the name of "research," it's tax deductible.  No really. 

Okay, so, yeah, I do lots of interesting things just so I'll have the experiences and I claim I do them all in the name of research.  But the truth is, I just do them because they're really cool, right?  Well… Yeah.  But that's not the real reason.  Honestly, I do them so I can be a better writer.  The fact that it helps me to become a more experienced and well-rounded human being is a happy bonus.  Eventually, if I keep going at this rate, I might wind up giving that "most interesting man in the world" guy a run for his money.  

Think about it.  If you write horror, you don't have to kill folks, but it would be nice to get the physics right, find out how a real body would react, or even get the mythology correct.  Sci-Fi?  It's just technology that hasn't happened yet.  Physics don't change.  We've gotten so many of our advancements from Sci-Fi that it's not even a joke anymore.  And the last thing you want to do is come across as a know-nothing in front of a bunch of science nit-pickers.  Fantasy?  Get out there and swing your sword.  Find out what it's like to walk around in leather body armor all day.  You're an artist!  Who gives a flying bag of fetid dingo's kidneys what people think?  If you write romance, talk to your target audience!  Find out what they like.  Go to the types of places your characters go.  Do the kinds of things they like to do.  If you write erotica, call me.  I mean… Nevermind.  

You get my point.  Create some great stories by going out there and having a few of your own. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

Using Magic in Fiction

Part three of the course I taught in on use of Magic, Rituals, and Religion in popular fiction.  This one, of course, is magic.  Magic, by definition, is the ability to influence a course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.  Magic includes sorcery, wands, swords, or a thousand other little tricks.  But too often, we see stories in which magic is used as a catch-all.  Characters stuck in a jam?  Magic!  Need a bit of the old flimflam?  Magic!  No way to have it rain exactly when you need to have it rain?  Magic!

But that makes for boring and lazy storytelling.  While this blog post will not go as in-depth as I do during my classes, I'd like to put forth, for your consideration, my rules of using magic in popular fiction.  Really, there are only three rules that I employ (with a few sub sets), which I hope you'll find useful.

  • Magic, by definition, cannot be commonplace.  If everyone in your world has some type of "magic" that they use to perform everyday tasks, then it's not magic.  It becomes more science or biology than magic.  Magic must be special to a few people or objects.  To that end, there are several types of magic.  
    • Natural Magic - Magic that exists in nature.
    • Talismanic Magic - Magic that is confined to a specific object.
    • Ceremonial Magic - Magic that comes from a set of performed tasks with an intended result.
    • Invocative Magic - Magic that is used to compel or entreat other entities.
    • Sympathetic Magic - Magic in which one thing symbolizes another (think voodoo doll or Lord's Supper)
    • Illusionary Magic - The art of seeing what isn't there.
    • Divinatory Magic - Knowing by mystical means. 
  • Magic must have consequence.  Magic is the expulsion of energy.  When you break it down to its smallest components, that's what it is.  So, since we are bound by the laws of physics, we must ask where that energy comes from.  There are two categories of magic:  Internal and External.  Internal, the energy comes from within the practitioner.  External, it comes from an outside source.  If the character is using energy from within his or her own body, well, where does that energy come from?  For my characters, I go with strict biology in that, if a person wants energy, that person has to eat.  If it comes from an outside source, which one?  A god?  What does he or she want in return (you didn't really think they'd just help out of the goodness of their hearts, did you?)?  If it comes from other sources, what's the effect of having that energy pulled out and used?  And what effect does this energy manipulation have on the conductor (your character, the wand, etc)?  Think of a wire that only can push nine volts through it.  What happens when you hook it up to a car battery?  
  • Magic cannot be a catch-all.  Your characters are only as interesting as their manipulations.  If they can solve everything using magic, then what's the point of reading the story?  There's no risk, no chance the character can lose.  Which makes the story pointless.  Years ago, when Superman first came to be, sales of his comics slumped because there was no chance anyone could beat him.  But then…KRYPTONITE!  Suddenly there was risk, there was drama!  And the sales picked up.  Same holds true with your characters.  If they can solve any problem with magic, there's no reason to read about them.  

So those are they, my three rules of using magic in popular fiction.  Of course, I go into much greater detail when I teach the class, but when you break it all down, this is what it boils down to.  Three rules.  They work for me.  Find what method works for you and stick to it.  Above all, remember my golden rule of writing:  If it is right for the character and right for the story, it is good.  

Like it?  Dislike it?  Agree or disagree?  Leave me a comment.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Using Religion in Writing

And now, for part two of my module, a bit about using religion.  We all know what religion is.  Broken down to its most fundamental levels, religion is a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects.  Whether you are Christian, Muslim, Pagan, Jewish, Pastafarian, or Subgenius, your religion (or lack thereof) makes up a large part of who you are and how you behave in any given situation.  Don't believe me?  Think about it for a moment.  Most people were brought up in a belief system of some type.  Those tenants were designed to teach you right from wrong, good from bad.  When you grow up hearing anything, it becomes your personal truth.

Here's an example:  Vodun, or what we commonly call "voodoo."  From birth, many practitioners of Hatian Vodun are taught that death is similar to life, and that the human soul is a tangible thing that can be possessed or captured.  It is taught that when a person dies, an evil shaman (a Bokor, BTW) can capture that soul, raise your body, and you will be his slave forever.  Sound familiar?  That's where we get the legend of zombies from.  So when someone figured out that they could use the neurotoxin in a fugu fish to poison someone into a death-like trance, they used it to enslave people by waving a jar over their faces when they awoken and yelled "I've got your soul!  You're mine now!"  They were brought up believing it as truth, and so, to them, it is truth.  Does it sound ridiculous?  Does it sound any more ridiculous than what anyone else believes?

There are hundreds of religions in the world, with thousands of little off-shoots to choose from.  It is my opinion that, as writers, we have the responsibility to pot ray existing religions accurately in narration.  We have the responsibility to show the world through a clear lens.  We can use characters to show attitudes about religions, but in narration, I feel we must be fair.

So how do you go about using religion?  Well, you have two choices.  Either go with an existing religion, or create your own.  Both methods require exhaustive research, and the readers will get the attitude of the religions from the way the characters speak about them.  But there are advantages and pitfalls to using both methods.

If you're working with a pre-existing religion, you'd better do your homework.  Even if you are a practicing member of that religion, you need to make sure you've got it right.  Why?  Because people feel very strongly about their beliefs.  Think about the things you care about.  Think about the one thing that, if someone got it wrong, it would make you kitten-punching angry.  Now multiply that level of fanaticism by about 1,000,000, and that's how much people care about their religions.  More to the point, you, as the writer, want to come across as a competent, intelligent individual.  So study up.  Get it right.  How?  Research.  Go to a place of worship.  I don't care if it's a coven meeting or a temple or a synagogue, go there and observe.  Talk to the people of that religion.  Seriously.  Have you ever known a religion authority figure (priest, monk, preacher) who didn't want to talk about his religion?  If all else fails, Google is your friend.  Just make sure you do your research and get it right.  Remember that you, as the writer and narrator, need to be respectful.  The characters can be just as crazy as they want, but make sure to differentiate between the normal practitioners and the extremists.  Remember, you only hear about the crazy ones on the news.  You never hear about normal folks.

On the other hand, you could build your own religion.  Careful, though.  It's not as easy as it seems.  Your religion needs to have tenants, followers, faithful and zealots.  What's the central message?  What's the point?  Is it similar to an existing religion?  Is it totally new?  What type of religion is it?  See, religions were, for the most part, borne out of the societies they were a part of due to circumstance.  For example, many pagan and heathen (meaning "from the heath") religions were agriculture based because the original practitioners of them were farmers.  So what type are you building?  Is it monotheistic or polytheistic?  Is it ancestor worship, like in Japan?  Is it agriculture based, or rooted in the so-called "secret histories?"  Is it a "secret" (occult) religion?

To answer those questions, you need to ask yourself a few more.

  • What role does the religion play in your society?
  • What rolls ors the religion play for your character?
  • How devout is your character?
  • How many other characters follow this religion? 
  • How many oppose it?

Using religion as a literary device is an imposing task.  If you need to include one as a key plot point, don't half-ass it.  Dig in, get up to your elbows, and do the work.  In the end, what you'll get is a richer character and a more complete world for your reader.  And you don't need to dedicate chapter after chapter, page after page of defining every minute detail about the religion.  Keep it in your head and give the reader just enough that he or she can smell what you're cooking. 

As always, these are just my personal methods.  They're not the end-all-be-all way of doing things.  The bottom line is that if it's right for the story and right for the character, it's good.  That's really all you need to know. 

Write on!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Using Ritual in Writing

I recently taught a module (which is an intensive four-hour class) for SHU about using magic, ritual, and religion in popular fiction.  I felt such a module was important because lots of aspiring (and a few established) authors seem to have difficulty with these three concepts.  So I'd like to share my perspective about these things, starting with the concept of "ritual."

The dictionary definition of "ritual" is as follows:  A)  a formal ceremony or series of acts that is always performed in the same way
B)  an act or series of acts done in a particular situation and in the same way each time.

When we think of "ritual," we usually think of hooded cloaks, candles, swords, and a bunch of people standing around beating drums.  And that's okay.  That's certainly one type of ritual.  The characteristics of a ritual do seem to confirm that image.  They're repeated, they take time, intended to have an outcome, might be symbolic, etc.  And while we think of them as religious ceremonies, that's not always the case. 

See, everyone uses ritual.  Everyone.  Including you.  Religious people, yeah we already covered that. But so do law officials.  What else do you call it when you're told "All Rise" when the judge walks in? Even the reading of the Miranda rights can be considered a ritual.  Serial killers, both real and fictional, are well known for their rituals.  Students engage in their rituals on a daily basis, and increase them around final exam time.

Athletes also engage in ritual.  MMA fighter and all-around bad-ass Chuck Liddel used to paint his toenails black before every fight.  Why?  Because it was a way to focus his energies.  It was something he did before a fight, otherwise he just didn't feel right.  Think about that for a moment and ask yourself about your own rituals.  

When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do is make my bed, then I turn on the shower, brush my teeth, then take a shower.  Then I go for coffee.  If I don't do all those things in that order, my morning feels off.  I'm not fully awake without both my coffee and shower.  So that's my morning ritual.  I have others…For everything from going on a date or writing to going for a ride or getting to the ring for a match.  

So what are your rituals?  When you're preparing for school or work?  Preparing for a night out?  Getting into your car?  Do you have any special habits with your friends?  

Most important:  How does this relate to your writing?  Since every real person in the world has ritual, so, too, should your characters.  Every character creates their own rituals for their own reasons, and creation of characters includes the creation of their tiny rituals that allow that character to function in real life.  I don't mean you need to fill page upon page with detailed description of rituals.  But you do need to at least have them in your head.  They allow you to add little things to your characters that make them come more to life.  Ask yourself:  Why did this ritual start?  What is the purpose?  How can I pull from my own experiences to make rituals for my character?  

Write On!