2015/08/31

Farewell Wes Craven: The Death of a Reluctant Horror Icon

Wes Craven

"I think what, really, horror films deal with is vulnerability and inattention," director Wes Craven said in a 1996 interview promoting his meta-horror opus Scream. "They show you the penalty of...not admitting to what's really out there."

Craven succumbed to cancer on Sunday in Los Angeles. Having been raised by strict disciplinarian parents, received his bachelor's degree from a Christian college and his master's in philosophy from Johns Hopkins, Craven's background seems incongruous with his later status as a horror icon. But many of the director's own statements about his life provide a context for his body of work that owes much to his formative years.

"These are real questions that kids want to know the answers to," Craven said of the practical and philosophical dilemmas surrounding violent death. It's significant that he characterized them as questions that "...adults would just as soon not talk about."



The conflict between children and adults recurs constantly in Craven's films. "A father who beats a child is a terrifying figure," Craven said in reference to his 1986 film Deadly Friend. "That's the one person you're afraid of in the movie...the idea is along the lines that adults can be horrible, without being outside what society says is acceptable."

When asked to name his five favorite movies by Rotten Tomatoes, Craven named Red River, about which he said:
“For some reason. I think the combination of the gruff, tyrannical old man pursuing the unruly, rebellious son really appeals to me. The scenario is, in some odd way, almost as scary as Freddy Krueger, you know! The evil father is an idea that’s really fascinating to me.
The origin of Craven's fascination with paternal conflict is no mystery. He himself mentioned his father's drinking problem and violent temper. The elder Craven's sudden death at age 40 left a permanent mark on his son.

The first visible sign of Craven's internal rebellion against his upbringing may have occurred when he left his position as an English professor to direct porn flicks (it also didn't hurt that the money was better). But his entry into the genre that would make him famous was directly related to his strict Christian formation.

"A producer said, 'Make a horror movie'. I said 'I've never seen one.' He said, 'You're a fundamentalist, you must have demons rattling around."

By all accounts, Wes Craven never set out to make his name as a horror director. Even in his seminal revenge thriller The Last House on the Left and supernatural slasher breakout film A Nightmare on Elm Street, the horror is mainly a vehicle for exploring questions and themes that had haunted Craven since childhood. (Freddy Krueger's inspiration from a childhood bully and a harrowing brush with a vagrant hardly needs repeating.)

Indeed, Craven's refusal to direct the sequel to Nightmare and his initial vision for Deadly Friend, which he disowned after the studio insisted on playing up the horror element, lends credence to the idea that he didn't want to be pigeonholed in the horror genre.

Consider Music of the Heart--perhaps Craven's most accomplished film, and the only one of his that he ever let his mother see.

Though Hollywood meddling and insatiable fan demand may have decided the path of Craven's career for him, it seemed that he made peace with his strange destiny. "If I have to do the rest of the films in the [horror] genre, no problem. If I’m going to be a caged bird, I’ll sing the best song I can."

2015/08/29

Superversive SF Post-Hugo Livestream

Hugo Asterisk

Earlier today I joined Hugo nominees John C. Wright, Arlan Adrews, and Jason Rennie; plus Sad Puppies 4 organizer Kate Paulk, GamerGate morale officer Daddy Warpig, and the usual Superversive SF crew for a post-awards Livestream.

Who really won the Hugo Awards? Who made the asterisk, and what does it mean? Did #GG rig the nominations? Will Kate the Impaler run a slate next year, or does she have even more sinister plans?

Hear us attempt to answer these questions, and also hear me try to debate John C. Wright (who identifies as Vulcan) over whether some people are impervious to logic.

All of this and much more awaits in the embedded video!



2015/08/28

How to Format a Short Story Manuscript

When I first started out writing and submitting short stories, I spent a lot of time and effort learning how to format my manuscripts. Here are all of the short story formatting guidelines I use, conveniently collected in one place.

Cover Page
Short Story Cover Page

The margins should be one inch all around so the editor can make notes (less important, but still standard, for electronic subs).

The author's contact information, including (real) name, mailing address, telephone number, and e-mail address goes in the upper left-hand corner and is single-spaced.

Halfway down the page, place the center-aligned title. One double-spaced line below that, write "by" and the author's real name or pen name, if applicable. Double-space again and list the manuscript's word count. I like to use "'x number' words" notation. Don't worry about the arcane methods editors once used for tallying up the number of characters in a manuscript. Just use your word processor's word count.

First Page

Short Story First Page
Now that you're on the actual first page, create a header to be displayed in the upper right. This header should appear on every subsequent page of the manuscript and should at least include the author's last name and the current page number, separated by a forward slash. The title (if it is short), or a significant element from the title, can also be placed between the author's name and the page number, also separated by slashes, e.g.: Farmer/Big Heist/1

For short stories, reproduce your contact information on the first page of the manuscript in the same format and position as it appears on the cover page.

Place the word count in the upper right-hand corner of the first page (not in the header).

Proceed halfway down the first page and write the story's title again. Double-space down and write "by" and the author's real/pen name.

Double space down twice, indent, and begin composing the story. Make sure the body of the text is double-spaced.

I used to agonize over the proper choice of font. Courier 10 pitch used to be the standard for everything from novel manuscripts to screenplays, but some editors hate it. Honestly, your best bet is Times New Roman, but you can get away with anything except Comic Sans. Your entire manuscript, including all of the information on the cover page, should appear in the chosen font.

An optional touch that editors love is if you create customs styles to handle all of the font/spacing/indentation formatting in your manuscript. You can find a handy guide to making your own custom MS Word fonts here.

That's about it. You shouldn't write "The End" at the end of a manuscript. It's OK to just write End. In fact, it's probably best not to write anything after the last word and punctuation mark of the story--especially if you're trying to squeeze in under a word count limit.

Note: above all else, always make sure to read, understand, and follow the submission guidelines of the market you're submitting to. Flagrant violations of a magazine's--or worse, a contest's--submission rules is the best way to get your work filed directly in the trash.

2015/08/27

The World of Smog: On Her Majesty's Service

The World of Smog

Tonight I had the pleasure of playing The World of Smog: On Her Majesty's Service, a Victorian-themed board game with strong steam punk elements.

Besides the game play, which I'll get to in a moment, I'm pleased to support World of Smog because of its origins as a fan-funded Kickstarter campaign. The promotional video says more in two minutes than I could in two pages.


For those inclined to skip the video, the game is set in a magical, high-tech alternate London. The events of the game are instigated when Queen Victoria commissions a motley group of preternatural agents to recover four artifacts from the sinister Shadow Market.

World of Smog Game

The game itself is the sort of simple concept that's disproportionately hard to explain in words but is easily grasped through hands-on experience. Here's the gist of the rules.

  • Play takes place on a movable board of thirteen tiles, twelve of which also move.
  • Each player may take three (sometimes four) actions per turn, including turning tiles, moving between tiles, and buying magic and items.
  • The price of the wares available on each tile depend on the tile's orientation relative to the player.
  • Buying something causes a token to be placed on the icon of the wares purchased, which must be removed before anyone can buy the same thing again.
  • Players can move only in straight lines of 180 or 90 degrees. Diagonal movement is forbidden.
  • Each player is randomly issued two cards before play begins: a card showing that character's exit point from the Shadow Market, and a second card revealing the combination of magical elements (aka ethers) needed to open the gate and escape.
  • The first player to acquire all four artifacts, gather his specific ether combination, and move to the tile indicated on his exit card wins the game. 
Again, this sounds far more complicated than it is in practice. Even considering the Shadow Master token that grants the controlling player initiative, plus an extra action each round, and the Shadow Agents that inflict various harmful and beneficial effects, the rounds flew by.

world of smog lost boy

Most importantly, everyone had fun exploring the arcane world of the Shadow Market.

The World of Smog: On Her Majesty's Service comes highly recommended for serious and casual board gaming fans.

2015/08/25

I'm Boycotting Tor Books

I've had misgivings about Peter Grant's boycott of Tor Books. To be sure, I was sympathetic toward the targets of Tor Art Director Irene Gallo's libel against thousands of SF fans and at least three of her own publishing house's writers. But I abstained from boycotting Tor because of the innocent authors who might be hurt.

Even Associate Editor Moshe Feder's defense of Gallo's unprofessional conduct didn't exhaust my patience.

Then, this past weekend--Hugo Awards weekend--my brilliant and gentle editor L. Jagi Lamplighter extended an offer of peace to Tor Science Fiction Manager Patrick Nielsen Hayden, only to have him swat the olive branch aside while shouting obscenities at her before storming off.

Picture that. The most powerful editor at the world's leading science fiction publisher verbally assaulted one of his own authors when she tried to bury the hatchet between him and another of his authors.

This sad spectacle is one of the most brazen examples of the contempt for authors that's rampant among the Big 5 publishers. Mr. Hayden clearly labors under a sense of unearned entitlement which has him convinced that his company can take 85% of the proceeds from its author's works, all of their rights to those works, all creative control over the design and marketing of those works, and force those writers whose fleecing at Tor's hands denies a living wage to suffer his verbal abuse.

No. This doesn't stand.

This is gross abuse of power fueled by raw demonic pride. Cheating the worker out of his wages is one of the sins that cries out to heaven for vengeance. Cursing those exploited workers is the moral equivalent of running around in a thunderstorm carrying an aluminum pole.

So my apologies to other Tor authors who are doubtless also getting screwed. This is grave intrinsic evil. Anyone who can do something to stop it but doesn't is cooperating with it.

Until Tor Books, a subsidiary of Pan Macmillan applies the following remedies:

  • Officially reprimand Irene Gallo, Moshe Feder, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden
  • Issue a public apology to L. Jagi Lamplighter, John C. Wright, Mike Flynn, Kevin J. Anderson, and all of the readers whom the three Tor associates above insulted
  • Raise authors' ebook royalty rates to a more just and equitable 50%
  • Relax or remove draconian non-compete and right of first refusal clauses from their contracts
I will not buy any book published by Tor. I will encourage every regular book buyer I know--including a number of librarians--to cease buying from Tor.

I am a professional author, albeit an admittedly obscure and insignificant one. Nevertheless, I will neither submit any manuscript of mine for consideration by Tor; nor will I accept any publishing contract with them, unless and until the above conditions are met.


Despite my relative insignificance, a number of aspiring authors do approach me for help and advice with their writing careers. I will actively discourage every writer I speak to from ever submitting to or accepting a contract with Tor Books until the above conditions are met.

I admit that these last two warnings sound hollow. After all, no writer is giving up much by refusing to do business with Tor. In fact, writers stand to gain 5.6x higher royalties and full creative control by skipping the submission game altogether and going indie.

That's something I encourage current Tor authors to think about when their editors don't return their calls, when marketing denies them bookstore co-op, or when they're blamed for the failure of a book the publisher accepted; then failed to promote.

A final word to Mr. Hayden: if firsthand reports are to be believed, your outburst was occasioned by a pang of conscience over a matter of faith. This is a hopeful sign, since indifference; not hatred, signals love's total absence. In fact, love--for my editor, her husband, and you--is what motivated me to write this. As one sinner to another; this sinner being a Catholic theologian, I urge you to conduct a thorough examination of conscience and seek out a priest for sacramental confession.

I wouldn't ask you to do anything I'm not willing to do myself.

2015/08/24

Trad Publishing Has Forever Beclowned the Hugos

Hugo Award Clown

This past Saturday in Spokane, the 2015 Hugo Awards were presented to the authors of the finest sci-fi and fantasy tales of the year, based solely on the merits of their work.

OK. Sorry. Keyboard-shaking spasms of laughter are making it impossible to keep up the pretense. I'll start again.

This past Saturday in Spokane, a ceremony was staged--with surprisingly low production values considering last year's massive jump in registration--wherein Hugos were not awarded in nearly half of the eligible categories, due to a clique of trad publishing apparatchiks deciding to burn down the house rather than coexist with smaller and indie publishers.

Some folks would have you believe that No Award owes its historic victory (it won as many times on Saturday as it previously had over the Hugos' entire 60 year history) was a reaction against politically motivated slate voting.

Nope.

First, the much-maligned "Puppies" votes were widely distributed--not much of a slate. Whereas the same 3000 or so people turned up to vote "No Award" in lock step.

More importantly, the comedic spectacle of jealous literati fouling their own banquet like deranged harpies was only tangentially related to politics. Their real reason is far less noble than some kind of misdirected political principle.

About fifteen years ago, a coalition of publishing industry big shots led by senior Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden hijacked the process that used to recognize luminaries like Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and Harlan Ellison. Since then, they've mostly handed out awards to themselves. They even lobbied to create a whole new category and took turns giving it to each other.

They might have gotten away with it too, if they hadn't treated Larry Correia like an unkempt mendicant back when he was first nominated. But no, he published with Baen Books, and before that he was *shudder* self-published. So in the eyes of the New York publishing clique, he had to be made an example of.

What they didn't expect was Larry publicizing their incestuous logrolling for all and sundry to behold. Then, when they doubled down and claimed that his protests were just sour grapes because the awards were merit-based and he couldn't hack it, he called their bluff, got other out-group writers nominated, and watched as the clique freaked out just as he'd predicted.

The Hugo insiders followed up their virtuoso tantrum by descending into the realm of Streisand Effect overkill. Being in traditional publishing, they used their mainstream media contacts to run a slew of bizarre hit pieces. An abundance of contradictory fabrications made these hatchet jobs tragically hilarious, sort of like a clown funeral.

For example, Entertainment Weekly hurled accusations of white supremacy and misogyny at Larry, who besides being Latino has notably gone to great lengths helping women start writing careers, and Brad Torgersen, the Sad Puppies 3 leader who has been in a happy interracial marriage for over two decades.

The charges of racism look even more ridiculous when you consider that Sad Puppies fielded an even more diverse group of nominees than last year's winners.

Surely, the clique learned to exercise a little enlightened self-interest, let Sad Puppies have its fifteen minutes, let the matter die down, and quietly get back to business as usual?

Not remotely! They embarked upon a quixotic campaign of self-parody by directing voters to rank "No Award" first in any category with Puppy nominees. Even though their opponents predicted--and in some cases, wanted "No Award" to win.

The end result: a bunch of elitists who sought to justify snubbing their small press and self-published opposition with accusations of sexism ended up robbing at least two supremely accomplished female editors of their richly deserved awards.

As an encore, the gatekeepers cemented their growing irrelevance by no-awarding Jim F***ing Butcher.

Hugo Dilemma


The following conclusions can be drawn from this literary Dresden bombing.
  • The Hugos are not awarded based on merit.
  • The Hugos are awarded based on authors' popularity with a clique of trad publishing bigwigs.
  • A bias exists against nominees not affiliated with the Big 5, Tor in particular.
  • A bias exists against nominees involved with popular, commercially successful books.
  • In 15 years, the Hugos have degenerated from SFF's most prestigious award to a tragicomic pageant of self-immolation.
  • The root of this problem isn't a matter of left vs. right, but of legacy publishing vs. new school publishing.

Luckily, this problem is largely self-correcting. The way the Big 5 are hemorrhaging sales, their editors and pet authors won't be in a position to rig awards for much longer.

Besides, knowing for a moral certainty that the awards are meaningless gives writers one less thing to worry about--especially when the ones who never win, and don't care about, the Hugo Awards are cleaning up in the George Washington Awards.

Time to get some work done.

2015/08/21

Slaying the Amazon Monopoly Zombie Meme

Zombie Meme

Author Joe Konrath wants your help in the fight against publishing industry zombie memes--misinformation that keeps rearing its ugly head no matter how many times you bash it with a crowbar.

First on Joe and his brother in arms Barry Eisler's hit list: the "Amazon is a monopoly" zombie meme.

Here's Joe:
This meme is incoherent, mistaken, and perverse.
Incoherent, because the “evidence” of Amazon’s monopoly power is always that Amazon is hard on its suppliers, not on its customers (no one can argue with a remotely straight face that Amazon is anything other than exceptionally customer-centric). If the evidence is that a company is squeezing suppliers, it might be evidence of something called monopsony, not of monopoly.
Mistaken, because Amazon has numerous competitors, including Apple, Google, Walmart, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Kobo, Smashwords, Scribd, Oyster, and more than 2000 independent bookstores (with new indies opening all the time). 
It’s important to remember that US antitrust laws were adopted to protect not competitors but competition. Monopolies (and monopsonies) are not themselves illegal -- what is illegal is abuse or unfair acquisition of monopoly power. Ultimately, antitrust laws are intended to protect the consumer, and it’s difficult to argue that low prices, innovation, and an ever-expanding variety of products are bad for consumers (though valiant efforts are constantly made).
Perverse, because it fails to point out there actually is a monopoly in publishing -- or call it a quasi-monopoly, or oligopoly, or cartel. This is the New York Big Five (the cartel is right there in the name). The Big Five actually was prosecuted by the Justice Department for price-fixing under the Sherman Act. The Big Five settled; Apple fought and then lost. For any lawyers out there, note that price fixing is per se illegal under the Sherman Act. Meaning it is the very definition of abuse of monopoly power.
There are perfectly sensible objections to some of Amazon's business practices. What's interesting is that their publishing industry critics keep trotting out the same false accusations. The only reasons to persistently shoot blanks are: 1) you'd rather make noise than do any real damage, or 2) you don't have any real ammo.

It's almost as if legacy publishers feel threatened.

I encourage you to help Joe and Barry get the word out by linking to his article, mentioning it in reply to articles that invoke publishing zombie memes, and informing Joe of such pieces in the comments of his original post.

2015/08/20

Happy Birthday H.P. Lovecraft and Larry Correia

Lovecraft and Larry Correia

Today should be a global holiday for horror geeks. For on this day, the stars aligned not once, but twice, to gift the world with authors of singular vision whose work defined and popularized their genres.

I speak, of H.P. Lovecraft, Prince of Weird Horror, and Larry Correia, International Lord of Hate and Urban Fantasy author par excellence--both born this day almost a century apart.

Long may their works fuel our nightmares of tentacled horrors in forgotten attic rooms, and our fantasies of defenestrating evil lycanthrope accounting department managers!


2015/08/19

How to Take Criticism

criticism

Writers tend to be introverts. Most of us also crave external validation. Add in the fact that naturally shy authors seek approval by submitting deeply personal works for public consumption, and it's no mystery why many authors--and creative people of all kinds--are averse to criticism.

This aversion to criticism amounts to a fear of failure, which is a detrimental mindset for anyone; not just us creative types. Nobody likes being rejected, but unless you're putting yourself out there--and make no mistake; as an author, your product is you--and inviting rejection, you won't get anywhere.

Here's an uncomfortable fact that writers need to get realistic about if they want to improve as artists: accepting constructive criticism will teach you far more than will living in a hermetically sealed hugbox.

I understand that facing your critics can be an agonizing ordeal, but there are ways to soften the blow. Here's some advice on how to take criticism.

Know the Difference Between Criticism and Heckling
Criticism itself is a subtle and noble art. Unfortunately, the number of highly opinionated people with internet access far exceeds the number of skilled critics. As a result, most online critics are really hecklers.


In this clip, comedian Jamie Kennedy briefly discusses the difference between a critic and a heckler (he even made a movie about it). Whether you enjoy Kennedy's humor or not, he has some valid points.

  • Heckling consists of emotion-based, personal insults intended to tear the artist down; usually to inflate the heckler's ego.
  • Criticism is an honest effort to appraise the strengths and shortcomings of a work. Legitimate critics analyze books, movies, games, etc. based on accepted artistic standards. The aim of criticism is to help the artist improve, thereby improving the state of the art.

You can probably see from the definition of criticism alone how constructive critiques are invaluable resources for improvement. If you don't know something's wrong, you can't fix it. Luckily, a real critic will restrict criticism to your work. Someone making it personal is a heckler who can be safely ignored.

Find a Trusted Critic Whose Style Fits Your Disposition
If you're still not convinced that criticism is an invaluable tool for creative growth, consider The Lord of the Rings. By all accounts, the early drafts of Tolkien's beloved masterpiece sucked. Seriously, if he'd had his way, instead of the world's greatest fantasy epic we'd have gotten a thousand page account of Bilbo's 111th birthday bash. No orcs, no balrog, not even the titular Dark Lord; just a bunch of hobbits stuffing their faces and telling jokes.

C.S. Lewis single-handedly saved us from that adorable yet tedious fate. His advice to Tolkien that hobbits are only entertaining when they're doing unhobbitlike things is possibly the greatest piece of criticism ever given. Lewis deserves a Nobel Prize for that alone.

Yet Lewis' true genius didn't shine forth in the criticism he gave, but in how he delivered it. Knowing that Tolkien was among the shyest introverts of a notoriously shy and introverted breed--and since both of them were university professors--he framed his criticism of LotR by adopting Tolkien's conceit that it was a real history and critiquing the "translators" of "The Red Book of Westmarch".

Whereas Tolkien tended to flee from direct criticism, Lewis found that playing along with his friend's fantasy was the sugar coating that helped his advice go down. Brandon Rhodes gave an outstanding talk on how Lewis' mastery of wise and gentle criticism coaxed Tolkien out of his artistic shell. The whole video is well worth any artist or critic's time.


The takeaway: friends who will tell you the truth about a project you're emotionally invested in are rarer than pearls. Critics who can tell you that something you made sucks in a way that makes you glad to hear it are more precious than gold. Seek out both, and thank God if you can find one person who fits into both categories.

Sift Your Feedback
Not all critics are created equal. Not all criticism is equally useful. Learning how to sift feedback is just as important as training yourself to seek it out. Here are some reliable methods:

  • Assemble your own group of handpicked beta readers/first critics. As mentioned above, select for people who will tell it like it is without being jerks. This will take time--probably years--and will be an ongoing process.
  • Do not try to implement all feedback. Doing so will undermine your artistic voice and creative freedom. A solid rule of thumb is to take roughly 25% of the advice you get from readers--even your trusted beta readers.
  • Once is a fluke. Twice is coincidence. Three times is proof. Don't fret if a single, isolated review calls your protagonist one-dimensional. If several critics take issue with your characterization, strongly consider taking action.
  • Your target audience takes precedence over critics who aren't fans of your particular genre/themes/mood, etc. As a professional writer, pleasing your readers is your job. Treat repeated complaints from your hardcore fans much as you would critiques from your trusted beta readers. Likewise, if you write nuts & bolts hard SF, take a bad review from a self-described super squishy space opera fanboy with a grain of salt.
If They Really Bug You, Don't Read Bad Reviews
I know of several authors who just plain skip negative reviews of their work. That practice may sound detrimental based on what I've said so far, but there's sound reasoning behind it. Most of those writers already have solid beta readers--many of whom are also professional authors, and they run their work by pro editors.

Besides, someone who posts a one or two star review probably won't become a fan, even if you improve. Your fans are the folks you want to please, and they'll usually point out where there's room for improvement. So you can learn from reading bad reviews, but it's not mandatory.

I'm really grateful that my readers have given my work pretty high marks. Even those four and five star reviews can be mined for useful criticism, and I've learned a lot about my audience's tastes that way. Thanks to constructive criticism from my beta readers, editors, and fans, I've grown as an author and I look forward to improving even more.

To be sure, there've been folks who tried my writing and didn't like it. I'm thankful that they've all been super good sports and have explained their distaste in ways that made perfect sense. But even when someone's decided my work isn't for him, I've benefited when he told me why.

And if this article teaches you nothing else, I'm obligated to leave you with this one, crucial law:

Never, ever, under any circumstances, should you respond to a negative review.

As an author, defending yourself against bad reviews makes you look like an amateur, takes time away from writing you get paid for, and if the review is from a heckler, it gives him the grand prize: your attention. If you can't resist leaping to defend your precious book's honor, you should definitely stop reading negative reviews altogether.

So that's what becoming a professional author has taught me about taking criticism. If you're a working artist, I hope you'll confidently go and seek out feedback.

2015/08/18

Souldancer, Soul Cycle Book II

Souldancer
Image courtesy of Jeff Stachnik

I'm pleased to announce that Souldancer, book 2 of the Soul Cycle, has been delivered to my editor.

An unexpected phenomenon surrounding Nethereal's release was the feedback I got from readers; not just its unanimously positive nature--I didn't expect comparisons to John C. Wright and Brandon Sanderson!--but the hopes that fans have expressed for the sequel.

Souldancer has been a labor of love more than a decade in the making. I actually wrote the original version of this book first; then went back and wrote Nethereal out of a need to ground the story in a more fleshed-out universe. Suddenly having fan expectations to consider was a welcome yet awesome (in the word's original sense) surprise.

Since it's my job to stoke readers' anticipation, I'm obliged to say that no one who isn't privy to my inner counsels has figured out what the second novel has in store. Like one Nethereal reviewer said, my stories tend to follow unexpected paths, and Souldancer is no exception.

One hint I've already given publicly is that Souldancer is, at heart, a romance--albeit a romance featuring insects of unusual size, transporter accidents, and conspiracy to commit deicide.

Here's a preview.

2015/08/17

How to Make Your Self-Published Novel Reader-Friendly

How to Make Your Self-Published Novel Reader-Friendly

The twin revolutions in digital book distribution and self-publishing have forever changed how we obtain, market, read, and produce books of all kinds. Today I'm going to explain a bit about the production end, focusing on novels.

Technology, largely driven by Amazon, has overthrown the old publishing model that had gone largely unchanged for centuries. Not even the book layout familiar to most readers has been spared. Every indie author should know how to make a self-published novel reader-friendly, because the advent of ePub, mobi, etc. formats and the devices that read them has placed a powerful set of tools in authors' hands.

Grab a dead tree novel off the shelf and take a look at the first few pages. Odds are you'll see a title page, followed by a copyright notice no one reads, a dedication everybody skips, and possibly another title page.

Old Books
Old school book design favors publishers; not readers.
Compared to paper codices, eBooks are a whole other beast with their own set of dynamics. Indie authors would be wise to arrange their books' contents according to these guidelines:

Cover Image
One major difference between print books and eBooks is that the latter don't have physical covers. Since its cover is among a book's most powerful marketing assets, compensate by placing your professionally commissioned cover image on the first page of the eBook version.

Space Opera Book Cover
This is the first thing readers see when they open my eBook.
Solid covers convey the genre, mood, and tone of their books at a glance. They must also be intelligible in black and white and in thumbnail size. An effective cover will incentivize your audience to turn the page. Therefore, the next page should feature...

The Book's Description, aka the "About" Page
If you expected the copyright notice to come next, you're mired in analog thinking. Yes, protecting your authorial rights is important, but giving your audience a pleasurable reading experience is vital. Most readers load up their Kindles, tablets, and phones with eBooks, so placing the description right after the cover helps them remember which book yours is and why they bought it.

The book's description should be the same as its Amazon product description and the print version's back jacket copy. I won't rehash all of Book Marketing 101 here, but a novel's product description should introduce the main protagonist and antagonist, their goals, and the main conflict. You can also sprinkle in mentions of central themes and important secondary characters to taste.

Sci-fi Novel Description
Nethreal's "About" Page

Just as the cover should direct readers to the "About" page, the description they find there should entice them to start reading. Ebooks have an advantage over print books here, because readers don't have to flip the book over. They can just forge straight ahead.

We've got a couple more elements to introduce before getting to the story's first page, so let's make them as short and sweet as possible.

Title Page
Unlike a print book, an eBook should have one title page. It should directly follow the description and should include the book's title and the author's name. That's it.

Sci-fi Book Title Page
Here's what mine looks like.

Table of Contents
Next, make sure to include a table of contents with each item linked to the page it starts on. The table should include:

  • the body of the novel
  • a glossary if you have one
  • a preview of your next book if you have it
  • the Acknowledgements page
  • your "About the Author" page
  • and finally, the copyright notice

Sci-fi Novel Contents
Nethreal's Table of Contents. Note the hyperlinks.

I also recommend adding a separate table of contents that links to each individual chapter and section.

The Body of the Novel
Now that the cover has intrigued the reader sufficiently to check out the "About" page, the description has enticed him to start reading, and the table of contents has facilitated the process, it's time to get into the meat of the story.

I've covered my actual writing process before, so no need to reiterate here. At this stage it's critical to bear in mind that your book's opening paragraph is your third and final chance to hook readers. If they've made it this far, then the cover has piqued their curiosity, the description has caught their attention, and it's time to seal the deal.

Your first paragraph should open with action, dialogue, or character; not setting description. The main protagonist should be introduced, and the main conflict should at least be hinted at.

The first chapter of Nethereal is freely available here. Imperceptive critics might skim the first paragraph and accuse me of breaking my own rules. In fact, I'm actually using a somewhat more advanced technique where the main character is having an inner dialogue with herself about the setting in the context of her goals, so the paragraph pulls triple duty.

Glossary
Not every book needs one of these. Really, only sci-fi and fantasy novels with a lot of fantastical Proper Nouns should provide a mini-dictionary for the reader's convenience.

Sci-fi Glossary
My book has a lot of fantastical Proper Nouns.

Next Book Preview
If you're planning to follow up with another book (and you should be), it's a good idea to give readers a foretaste of what's to come. This step is nonnegotiable if you're writing a series.

Sci-fi Book Preview
The preview should have its own cover page, with the addition of a note stating that it's a preview and a subtitle giving the upcoming book's place in the series.
Sci-fi Book Preview 1st Page
Format a preview as you would a new chapter.

Acknowledgements
Yeah, it may seem crass to relegate your outpouring of gratitude for the people who stuck with you through thick and thin to the back of the book, but let's be honest. The only people who read acknowledgements are the people being thanked, and if they really support your writing they won't mind you moving the acknowledgements out of the readers' way--especially since they can skip right to them with one click.

Sci-fi Book Acknowledgements
I'm deeply grateful for all the support I've received. So much so that I'm publicly posting Nethereal's acknowledgements again.

Author's "About" Page
A major mistake that I see legacy publishers making is cramming all sorts of pointless information into author bios. An author bio should inform readers of the author's qualifications to write about the book's subject matter and reinforce his solidarity/credibility with the target audience. Readers don't care where you're from or what your day job is unless it's relevant to your writing.

Your author bio should contain the same information as all of your social media and forum profiles. My "About" page mentions my history and theology studies--which are highly relevant to my books--and reinforces my geek cred (I've been playing and running pen and paper RPGs for over twenty years).

Copyright Notice
Last, and in my considered opinion least, we come to the copyright page. I suspect that legacy publishers' habit of prominently placing notices of their IP rights at the beginning of their books says something about their mindset.

Being paranoid about copyright is considered a newbie tell among pro authors. If you go the traditional route, your publisher will register your copyright for you. If you go indie, it's easy to do it yourself.

I'm not a lawyer, and this isn't meant as legal advice, but I do know that you own all the rights to a work as soon as you create it. The copyright page is a notice stating that you reserve these rights. There is no reason I know of not to stick it in the back of the book, because once again, it's something that nobody reads.

Sci-fi Book Copyright Notice
Hey look! I own Nethereal. Did anyone here not know that yet?

So that's how you organize an eBook. This guide is far from comprehensive, and there are plenty of special circumstances that will necessitate changes. If you can think of anything that's missing/could improve upon, let us know.

2015/08/14

Do Self-Published Authors Bear a Stigma?

Self-Published Stigma

I came across this article by indie author Liz Long wherein she laments the stigma attached to self-published writers.
My local media (newspaper, TV, radio) won’t review my books because they don’t have a Big 5 publisher name attached. My own alma mater, Longwood University, told me they won’t feature my successes in their alumni magazine because I don’t have a traditional publisher. (I found this out AFTER they agreed to feature me, then retracted the offer once they realized I was self-published).
It's a shame that newspapers, TV and radio stations, and universities are shunning an author just because she's self-published. Yet this particular room plays host to a rather obvious elephant. Ask yourself: are these old media organs denying the author validation because they're mean, or might they have a cultural and financial interest in promoting traditional publishing over indie?

It's probably no coincidence that self-published authors are eating tradpubbed authors' lunch.

Liz goes on to say: "I’m not saving lives like my EMT sister or building kids’ foundations like my teacher husband. They’re the ones who should be in the limelight..."

She's absolutely right. Authors make essentially the same contribution to society as sideshow performers, magicians at kids' birthday parties, and morning rush hour radio show hosts. That doesn't mean we deserve to be jilted or insulted by cultural institutions. It does mean that, fallen human nature being what it is, legacy pub-affiliated institutions are predisposed to dismissing indie authors.

So yes, the stigma attached to indie authors by declining media organs is self-interested and unjust. How should self-published authors respond?

First, internalize the above paragraph. The old gatekeepers and the institutions that support them consider themselves the rightful arbiters of literature and artistic taste. Indie publishing arose specifically to circumvent these folks, and indie's thriving presents them with uncomfortable proof that they don't always know best.

In short, when you've made an end run around the gatekeepers, don't expect them to shower you with praise.

Second, your odds of suffering anger and frustration are minimized if, before you decide whether to go the tradpub or indie route, you carefully consider why you're seeking publication and what you want to get from it.

For those who are grappling with this decision, reasons to self-publish are: making 5.6x higher royalties than legacy published authors, not needing the gatekeepers' permission to publish, cutting out the middleman and reaching readers directly, retaining full creative control over every project, retaining all rights to your work, accepting the full responsibility for your own success or failure.

The sharp-eyed among you have noticed that "receiving accolades from old media outlets and cultural institutions" does not appear on the list. Therefore, if you want these things--and I begrudge no one who does--apply to the gatekeepers who are inclined and empowered to grant them. If you want maximum freedom and control over your work, publish it yourself.

Whichever option seems best to you, go and pursue it with my blessing.

2015/08/13

Return to Drunken Zombie


I recently made my second appearance on the Drunken Zombie podcast for the second time in three weeks! Have I finally overstayed my welcome? Find out as Bryan, Dave, Randy,Wes, and I comment on the Universal Pictures classic Bride of Frankenstein. There are also lengthy discussions of comics, anime, science fiction books (the hosts kindly let me flog Nethereal and Sci Phi Journal again), and unsolved gas attacks/mass hysteria.

Because "drunken" isn't just an empty descriptor, some of the language might be considered NSFW, so use caution and earbuds.

2015/08/12

Amazon Obviates the Gatekeepers


At this point, the second biggest reason (after Stockholm syndrome) that authors shun Amazon in favor of legacy publishing is a lack of information. Two recent articles at Mad Genius Club have helped inform authors about the risks and rewards of tradpub vs. indie; thus helping them make better decisions.

The first post, by Amanda Green, points out the logistical flaws in the old saw that authors must be anointed by legacy pub gatekeepers as proof that they're good enough to self-publish. The most obvious hole in this theory is the fact that trad publishers lack sufficient slots in their lists to publish all of the books they deem worthy. Then there's the fact that the old gatekeepers haven't had a very strong track record for picking winners.

Next up is Sarah Hoyt's expose on most publishers' archaic, convoluted, and sometimes highly suspicious accounting practices. I can't name many better arguments in favor of indie than legacy publishers' lock-step practice of basing royalties not on how many books an author actually sells, but on third party estimates extrapolated from sales reported by certain retailers in certain regions.

Oh, and those sales are reported by an automated system that's notorious for being grossly inaccurate.

In contrast, Amazon issues crystal clear royalty statements based on the exact number of ebooks sold, and unlike legacy publishers they do this monthly instead of semi-annually.

Back on the subject of gatekeepers, I respectfully took issue with some advice that Brad Torgersen gave in the comments of Amanda Green's post.
Someone I respect once gave this advice: before going indie, be sure you’ve written at least 500,000 words of fiction (lifetime) and are getting personalized rejections on a regular basis. This was how you knew you were at “entry level” professional craft.
I greatly respect Brad. He worked his ass off to get where he is (which is deservedly far above me, so weigh my objections accordingly), and he's proved his integrity a thousand times over in the course of Sad Puppies 3. On the other hand, when the context is helping authors make informed decisions, it's the information that counts.

In the interest of charity, the advice from Brad's mentor echoes what I've heard from countless pros who broke into book publishing through the short story market. That's how Brad got started, and it certainly worked for him.

However, my reading of the data says that Brad is probably among the last authors who'll be able to follow that path. If sales of major SF magazines continue their downward trend--and there's no sign of an upturn on the horizon--there simply won't be anyone to get personalized rejections from.

As for the 500,000 word benchmark, it's basically a repackaging of the 10,000 hour rule, which has been thoroughly debunked. Though it's an unpopular opinion in our hyper-egalitarian times, natural talent is real; and those without it will never have the effortless mastery needed to go pro, no matter how much they practice.

So if up-and-coming writers won't have the venerable sci-fi mag editors to act as kingmakers, who will tell them if they're any good? The answer is the only people whose opinion, in the final analysis, really matters--the readers.

If you're crazy and thick-skinned enough to try your hand at this business, by all means keep writing till you've typed END on a first draft. Assemble a team of trusted beta readers and hire a freelance editor to help polish your manuscript. Then put the results in your readers' hands. They're perfectly willing and able to tell you what they like or don't like about your work. If multiple people offer the same criticisms, you'll be wise to take the hint.

After all, it's the readers--not publishers or editors--who a writer works for.

2015/08/11

Millennials Don't Live in America


We talk about generations as if they're clearly defined categories, but in reality the gaps between generational cohorts are pretty ambiguous. Because I straddle the line between Generation X and the Millennial Generation, and my parents are Baby Boomers, my perspective on current intergenerational conflicts is as close to objective as anyone but a member of the dwindling Greatest Generation.

If you've been paying even cursory attention to mainstream and social media, you've probably heard Millennials stereotyped as spoiled, narcissistic whiners who don't know the meaning of "work ethic". One can hardly browse the comments of any current events story without seeing Boomers answer Millennial complaints of joblessness with reminders of their technological advantages (courtesy of Boomers), or reading brusque replies from Gen Xers telling them to quit sniveling and get jobs.

Is all of the criticism leveled at Millennials fair? After researching the issue, I discovered that the answer is deeply nuanced; but it can be boiled down to "no".

Generational Divide
The main source of hostility between Boomers, Xers, and Millennials is all parties' lack of objectivity. This is understandable. It's difficult to set aside one's lived experience and consider the viewpoint of someone whose life has followed a radically different course than yours did. But tackling the present crisis requires mutual understanding, which means walking a mile in the other guy's shoes. And because it's the Boomers who tend to exhibit the most ignorance of Millennials, that means walking in considerably cheaper shoes.

America vs. Bizarro America
John Edwards popularized the political slogan "Two Americas". He was invoking class divisions to justify government theft of certain people's incomes, but although the phrase is charged with rhetorical smoke, there is some fire. There are two Americas--probably many more than two--and what's relevant to the topic at hand is that Boomers live in one America, and Millennials live in another.

In fact, the differences between the America inhabited by Boomers and the place to which Millennials have been relegated is so stark and drastic, it's more accurate to say that Millennials don't live in America as most understand the term. Instead, they get to experience the backward strangeness of Bizarro America.

To any Gen Xers, and especially Boomers, reading this, it is imperative that you try to understand this concept before you proceed. Leave your formative, educational, and job experience at the door. Such conceits will not avail you to comprehend Bizarro America.

The Death of the Family
Few factors have a greater impact on one's future than one's family environment. A given Baby Boomer has a better than 90% chance of having been born to married parents. That figure plummets to less than 70% for Millennials. As if that weren't hobbling enough, the end of the Baby Boom saw a cataclysmic spike in divorce rates (affecting Gen Xers and Millennials alike).

The takeaway here is that Boomers and Millennials (and Gen Xers) had radically different upbringings. Almost all Boomers grew up in stable homes headed by married parents who stayed married. Members of the latter two generations were far more likely to be born out of wedlock or to grow up in broken homes.

Boomers: if you feel tempted to engage a Gen Xer or Millennial's firsthand account of latchkey kid-dom with a "Back in My Day" story, know that it probably isn't relevant. Save everybody some time and do your best to understand the current situation.

The Degeneration of Education
Even though Millennials have spent more time in school than prior generations, they are far more poorly served by the experience. These distressing results are probably due to the US education system's lack of focus on, well, education in favor of social indoctrination.

And here's the depressing news. Not only are Millennials and the current crop of children not being educated, they're being totally fleeced in the process.

Besides government subsidies, nothing has driven the student debt crisis like these two zombie memes: "Employers don't care what degree you have because it shows that you're trainable and self-motivated," and "Higher education is still worth it because college graduates out-earn folks without degrees."

Let's put these vicious rumors to bed. First, a bachelor's degree is no longer a feather in a job seeker's cap. It's more like a ticket that's required for admission to the factory, costs more than a Maserati, and will probably leave four in five applicants on the garbage heap (better hope it's not Tuesday).

Plus, thanks to degree inflation, Millennials have little choice but to pay tuition in excess of any consumer price index, and since those who aren't already making six figures (which would tend to obviate the need for college anyway) can't realistically work their way through school, they're forced to take on crippling amounts of debt.

Second, those colorful bar graphs (usually published by the same government departments with a vested interest in student debt) showing that college graduates earn more than people without degrees are brazen propaganda. A middle manager with a degree probably earns a higher salary than a mechanic who started working right out of high school, but contrast the manager's six-figure debt with the mechanic's greater likelihood of living debt-free, and a very different picture emerges.

And even if Millennial college graduates are making more on paper, the decline in real wages means they're actually poorer than their parents were at the same age.

Job Market Stagnation
To those who see Millennials as entitled whiners, tell them to "Get jobs", or mockingly ask if they'd "Like fries with that", the data show that there aren't jobs. And degreed Millennials are lucky to find work in the fast food industry since hiring managers shun college grads for being too expensive.

Yes, a Boomer could pay his way through school on a part-time job or two and graduate with an MBA that guaranteed entry to the middle class. At the very least, he could walk from his high school commencement to the factory down the street and start work that day in a job that offered a living wage and a pension.

THOSE DAYS ARE OVER.

The US manufacturing sector has been all but shipped overseas. The only jobs that offer a shot at the middle class are cubicle jockey gigs increasingly offered on a contract basis that make no promise of job security and force applicants who've taken on massive debt for the privilege to duke it out over a handful of positions.

Now consider that the economy never quite recovered from the 2008 crash, that almost half of the unemployed have been demoralized into giving up their job search, and that HR departments regard job seekers who've been fruitlessly searching this economic wasteland for six months--and thus need jobs most--as radioactive nonentities.

Different Priorities
It's interesting that many people who'd rightly point out that the so-called gender wage gap really means that men and women want different things don't hesitate to condemn Millennials' work ethic based on their own, differing priorities.

Millennials don't want to put in 80 hour weeks for 40 years at the same company in exchange for a big house they hardly get to live in and toys they never have time to play with. They value time over money and freedom over routine. These preferences are a rational response to a pathological corporate culture where the sociopaths in charge grossly undercompensate workers for their labor, and thus doing the bare minimum necessary to not get fired is a sound strategy.

Companies don't see prospective employees as human beings with valuable experience and skills. They see them as fungible commodities to be used and tossed out like Kleenex. Meanwhile, hiring managers insist that employees embrace corporate ethics codes that read like cult manifestos and that only bind the little fish; never the sharks.

Conclusion
Millennials' difficulties finding meaning and prosperity aren't the result of laziness or self-entitlement. Their well-meaning elders taught them to play the game that worked for them while the rules were drastically changing. The old strategies no longer work, and Millennials who try to use them are increasingly exploited, impoverished, and deprived of hope.

Why do members of older generations, especially Baby Boomers, discount Millennials' concerns or even mock them? The uncomfortable and unavoidable truth is that the Bizarro America where Millennials are forced to live was built one brick at a time by the choices and actions of their elders. It's easier for Boomers to blame Millennials than to accept their share of responsibility for this deplorable state of affairs.

To be sure, Millennials must take responsibility as well. They can't despair. They don't have that luxury. The advent of Bizarro America wasn't their fault, but now it's inescapably their problem.

The decline of faith and traditional morality in recent generations is a spiritual disease inherited from their forebears. Continuing to embrace materialism and moral relativism will only impede Millennials' ability to find the truth that can bring the freedom they deeply desire, and which offers a way out of the trap that prior generations unwittingly set for them.

2015/08/10

More Reasons to Choose Amazon over Traditional Publishing

As if Amazon's better potential for earnings and freedom from draconian contract clauses weren't enough to make authors flee traditional publishing, the disintermediation of gatekeepers should tip the scales in favor of going independent.

The power of editors and marketing departments to decide what gets published--and therefore what audiences get to read--has grown in the last century. These decisions often have less to do with the quality of the work than with the author's sex appeal, ethnic background, and politics.

For relatively recent, high profile examples, see DC Comics' shelving of a story by one of the most award-winning and best selling authors alive, Orson Scott Card. Or how the New York Times tried to keep Ted Cruz's book off their bestseller list. Whether you agree with Card or Cruz, it shouldn't be controversial to ask that works be judged on their merits; not on the beliefs or character of the artists.

Except now apparently it is.  Just last week, Hugo nominee Lou Antonelli had an editor pull a short story after he'd already signed the contract. The reason had to do with a brief dustup between Mr. Antonelli and Hugo presenter David Gerrold; not with any deficiency in the work.

Lou has been generous enough to post the full story on Facebook. It's a zombie apocalypse tale involving "canniballerinas"  (if only I'd thought of that!).

The editors of that magazine (which will remain nameless, and should be left to go their merry way since the author has absolved them) have the right to refuse publication. If they believe that association with Mr. Antonelli's comments, for which he has thoroughly apologized, might give readers of his zombie tale the vapors, it's their call not to let you read it.

You can read it here.

Don't get me wrong. There are still publishers and magazines dedicated to entertaining readers without regard to an author's creed or political affiliation. They are, sadly, a minority.

Individually, none of these controversies are really important. They'll be forgotten (are being forgotten, or largely have been forgotten) as the next crisis captivates the public consciousness. Of utmost importance to professional writers is the choice before us: deny our past, our beliefs, and ourselves to curry favor with increasingly arbitrary gatekeepers; or cut out the middlemen and let our stories be judged by the only people who should matter--our readers.

2015/08/07

Author Cleve Sylcox Praises Nethereal

While checking to make sure that Nethereal has been removed from every online retailer but Amazon so I can qualify for KDP Select, I happened upon this review by Cleve Sylcox.

The cover promises epic space opera and galaxy-bestriding conflict. The book delivers. There’s no higher praise.
Nor can I think of any praise higher than that. Entertaining readers remains job #1. I'm ecstatic to learn that I've reached one more.

Thank you, Mr. Sylcox!

Oh, and I successfully enrolled Nethereal in KDP Select. The ebook version is now exclusive to Amazon and is available through the Kindle Owners Lending Library/Kindle Unlimited.