Unclaimed Territories

16 Oct

While I’m planning for my next story project, I’m realizing that this story is really more of a mystery than just the outlandish sci-fi that I’m used to. So to plan this monster (and make sure I don’t repeat the mistakes of my last book), I have to use a mystery novel template. However, I’m facing a completely different set of rules, and it makes me a little nervous.

It reminds of the term “unclaimed territories,” which sounds more obscure than “undiscovered country” or “unknown lands.” In Maine, most of the thick mountainous, forested land is referred to as the “Unclaimed Territories,” due to the fact that under the (now repealed) Homestead Act of 1862, this land was so difficult to use that no one claimed their allotment… or few stayed on to keep it in their family. So instead of creating vast swaths of national parks (like they did here in Arizona), they just call it “public land” and do the same thing they do here – the state gets to permit logging companies to harvest trees on a cyclical basis.

So how do I claim the territory of “sci-fi mystery?” When researching this, I actually found “Frank Gruber’s Foolproof Formula” first, written by an author of the pulp era, and then I found the 12 chapter template. So let me focus on the tricks first. Well, you need a crime. Check – that’s the motivation for the hero. However, Frank pointed out that to keep the reader’s interest, it has to be unusual. This is an ongoing point – anyone can write murder on the train, but the “why” and “only your sleuth can solve it” is the important part.

So this really inspired me – Gruber goes on to make the point that the hero AND the villain need to be larger than life. They need to be colorful and powerful to keep the reader interested. So that made me realize that I should reframe my characters to touch on that. I’m already creating an ultra-tech universe in which people can be larger than life (and frequently are), why not expand on that?

It’s the term “unusual” that really attracted me. I’m not a big fan of mystery, so for me to pick it up, it HAS to be unusual. Sherlock Holmes is a high-functioning sociopath who gets into drugs when he’s bored. Cadfael is a herbalist monk in 12-century England. I’ve read other historical mystery before because I like the setting – I’m crap at figuring out the mystery. So I’m seriously adapting my story idea to embrace the unusual… which with ultra-tech, isn’t going to be hard.

I’ll get into the 12-chapter mystery plot structure next post, but what do you think? Should I embrace the “unusual” in my book structure? Was my last book TOO unusual for you? Let me know in the comments below!

Leafblowers in the Mist

15 Oct

I wake really *#@$&$* early. My job has a lot of East Coast clients, so living in Arizona means I have to start work two hours earlier than most office jobs to match. So I open my window… and am welcomed by the droning sounds of lawnmowers and leafblowers. Can you find zen in the modern annoyances?

You would think this would be a weekly problem (my complex mows our lawn on Wednesday), but in my case, it’s daily. I live next to a golf course (public – I’m not in a gated community) so they have to get that grass to a razor sheen with their Mower After GOD! ™ and drive around the 20-acre plot with that beast before the slightly less insane retirees get to the course to start their tee time.

This sound – even when not near my townhouse – is a constant drone for a good hour and a half right as I’m starting my day. During the summer, this is less of a concern, because in Arizona we can’t open our windows at 5 am because it’s still 90 degrees then. However, fresh air is a wonderful thing, and in September it was finally cool enough to open the windows for the first couple hours of the day.

Now that I have the setup, can I get in the contemplative mood to enjoy my morning work routine with the leafblowers going? Yes. It’s a simple issue of mind over matter; “if you don’t mind, it’s doesn’t matter!” 🙂

Okay, it’s a bad joke, but it’s true. When I practiced meditation, I went to the multi-faith chapel at the hospital I worked at, because it was the perfect quiet space. Only one problem – they were doing construction on the floor above. So every minute, you’d get some grinding sound. Did I give up and go back to lunch? No. I started to use the grinding sound as my meditative focus and it worked great. Since I expected – now needed – the sound, it was welcome and allowed me to focus better.

Of course it’s not like I have a choice. If it wasn’t the leafblowers, it’s the cars on the highway-pretending-to-be-an-interstate 2 miles away, which you can hear all the traffic on a clear day. Or someone will have a traffic accident within a three mile radius and you’ll hear all the emergency vehicles. So embrace your modern distractions… because honestly, you don’t have much of a choice. 😀

Am I off track here? Have you embraced the distractions to find peace? Or have you found more effective ways to block out the noise? Let me know in the comments below!

Improving Your Author Visibility

14 Oct

Today’s blog post is brought to you again by my good friend, Ed Stasheff, who has been working as a small press publisher, editor, and author for years.

In yesterday’s post I explained how editors, when faced with several excellent stories competing for one open slot, may take the author of the tale into consideration.  Specifically, we look at the author’s popularity (through number of previous publications and social media following) and their demographics.  While these criteria do tend to slant in favor of popular, established authors over talented but unknown beginning authors, there are some things new authors can do to balance things out.

Have a Social Media Presence

The more social media followers you have, the more might buy a book or magazine that published your story, and thus the more sales the publisher might make.  Editors pay attention to these things.  At the very least, have Facebook and Twitter accounts, but more platforms is always better.  If you have a separate author page on Facebook, that’s even better. Presumably all that followers that page are interested in your writing, as opposed to a personal page where a large number might be acquaintances with no interest—or even knowledge—of your writing career.

Have an Author Website

If an editor is going to research you as an author, make it quick and easy for them to find all the information about you that they need.  It doesn’t have to be fancy, detailed, or even ad-free—seriously, we don’t care about that.  There are plenty of places where you can build a simple website for free (although it’ll probably have ads).  A blog is a bonus, even if it’s not updated regularly.  If you have a common name like John Smith, make sure the landing page of your website introduces you as “John Smith, a fiction author of (genre name)” so that we can instantly tell we’ve found the right person, instead of wondering whether or not John Smith the Accountant from Wisconsin is you.

Link to your Social Media Accounts from your Author Website

Editors rarely have the time to check all social media platforms for all authors who submit manuscripts.  Personally, I check for a website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, and that’s it—so if most of your followers are on Instagram or TikTok, I’ll probably miss it.  However, if you make it easy for editors to find all of your social media accounts by having prominent (i.e., toward the top) links to them on your website, we can quickly and easily count ALL your followers.

Have a Bibliography on your Author Website

Sure, we editors may often consider an author’s number of previous publications a measure of their name recognition or popularity, but… how do we know what you’ve written?  Personally, I use Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, and the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (isfdb.org).  No one location will have a list of all your publications, though, especially since there are so many obscure magazines and e-zines out there.  So help us out and have a page on your website dedicated to your complete bibliography.  Categorize them by novels, short stories, and poetry.  Include not just the story’s title, but also the anthology/magazine it appears in, the date, and (if known) the publisher.

To conclude, all these things will help make you more competitive (or at least appear to be) compared to more establish authors.  My final bit of advice is that taking these steps does require a time commitment—possibly a major one.  If you’re serious about building up your fiction writing career, it may be worth your time.  On the other hand, if you only jot off a story every now and then and occasionally submit it here and there on a whim, it may not be the best use of your time… at least, not yet.

If you have any questions, leave them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer them quickly.

Editors Evaluating Authors

13 Oct

Today’s blog post is brought to you again by my good friend, Ed Stasheff, who has been working as a small press publisher, editor, and author for years.

I mentioned in my original guest post that when a magazine or anthology editor has read through the slush pile of submissions and eliminated the bad and mediocre stories, there will almost certainly be more excellent short stories than can possibly fit in that anthology or magazine issue. Consequently, editors have to whittle down the excellent submissions based on criteria that have little or nothing to do with the story’s quality.  I also mentioned in last week’s post how editors keep an eye out for stories that contain interesting variations on the publication’s theme.

This week, I’ll mention three other things that editors research to choose between equally excellent stories.  These criteria, however, aren’t about the story, but about the author.

1. Previous Publications

Readers are more likely to buy a book or magazine when the cover displays an author name or two they’re familiar with.  Although it’s hard to gauge an author’s popularity, one metric is the number of their previous publications.  The more stories an author has published, the more likely they are to have name recognition and a following.  So if I’ve got two excellent stories I can’t decide between where one author has three publications and the other has thirty, I’ll probably go with the more established author.

2. Social Media Following

This may not apply to big publishers like Penguin/Random House or Simon & Schuster, but for small and indie publishers (and there are thousands) this is crucial for sales.  You see, when an author gets a short story published in a magazine or anthology, they almost always post about it on social media when the book is released.  A small percentage of their followers go on to buy the book.  Therefore, the larger a social media following an author has, the more sales will be made in the first week after release (which is vital to the book moving up the search rankings on Amazon).  Consequently, if I have to decide between two equally excellent stories where one author has 500 followers and the other has 5,000, I’ll probably pick the author with the larger social media following.

3. Demographics

This is sex, gender, race, ethnic and/or religious minorities, sexual orientation, and physical and/or mental disabilities.  There has been a lot of backlash over the last several decades against genre anthologies being dominated by straight white cis men.  Consequently, many editors (not all, but a lot) these days at least try to have some degree of diversity among their authors.  So sometimes if I have to decide between two equally excellent stories by authors with a similar number of previous publications and near-equal social media followers—but one author is a woman or minority—I’ll choose that author.  It doesn’t happen very often, true, but it does occasionally come into play.  Now, keep in mind this isn’t just about politics—people with different backgrounds and experiences often bring different viewpoints and perspectives to the fiction they write (which goes back to the need for variation in an anthology’s theme).

You may have noticed a bias built into this selection process: popular published authors are more likely to get published again, while unpublished or new authors—even talented ones—are less likely to get published at all. And you are perfectly right. This is exactly why it is so hard for new authors to break into the fiction-writing field.  But the good news is that there are some things a new author can do to help level the playing field in their favor.  I’ll get into that in tomorrow’s post.

But what do you think? Do these points make sense for you? What tricks have you used to get past the gatekeepers? Let us know in the comments below!

Bad Husband, Good Father?

12 Oct

I seem to live my life in commercials (compared to my son who lives life in musical numbers), because I keep picking up nuggets of confusion and blogging about them. So in today’s online therapy, here’s the fun phrase I overheard: “Bad husband, good father.” Really?

At first blush, this is perfectly understandable. As the son of divorced parents, there is a huge difference between a father who’s there for you versus a father who’s not. To quote another commercial, “Your kids don’t need the perfect parent, they need you.” Simply being there makes a HUGE difference. My dad was in the Navy, so he physically couldn’t be there, but he tried as best as he could through letters, but there was a big difference. So I have a lot of appreciation to those divorced dads who stay in the same area, make sure to take the kids half the time, continue to be a parent even though they’re no longer married to their mom. To the kid, their relationship to your mom is less important. At first…

However, parenting is just another relationship, just like marriage – there are different needs with adults than with kids. So naturally, a relationship with your spouse is exponentially more difficult, because your needs are different and often harder to fulfill. If the kids wants junk food, and you refuse to give it to them, sure you’re got a tantrum for a few minutes and then life goes on. If your wife wants you to stop X, and you don’t want to stop X, this will continue on and on for… weeks? Months? Years? That lingering “tantrum” will poison your relationship for a long, long time.

That poisoned relationship will affect your kids, whether you like it or not. I certainly remember the day my parents divorced – it was done remotely, again because my dad was in the Navy – but it made an impact on my life. That anger can make things difficult for everyone in the family. Even when you stop that behavior, or start doing something to mend the relationship, it’s hard to forget that anger. For the one trying to change, when that anger is still directed at you… what’s the incentive to keep with the change?

Man, that was vague! I guess what I’m trying to say is that… yes, you can be a good father but a bad husband, but it’s preferable to try and be both. I’ve been married 14 years and I find it a wonder that anyone stays together. Relationships are hard work. However, being a good father is… a little easier. It’s still difficult, but it seems to be easier to keep your kids happy than to keep your wife happy.

Then again, my kids are only becoming teenagers now – I’m sure that as they become young adults, they’ll get more of those adult complexities, and they’ll hate me half the time too. Then they’ll become parents and they’ll forgive me, just like I forgave my father, because it’s only once you’re in their situation that you understand what your parents went through.

What do you think? Is there a happy medium you can make between all your family members? Or do you find relationships with children harder? Let me know in the comments below!

Fear of the Big “P”

11 Oct

I respect missionaries – their job is incredibly hard. Conveying a message to people who don’t want to hear it is a skill that is incredibly difficult and demoralizing. Even when it’s something you believe in, it’s demoralizing not to make any progress. Promoting your own book feels like preaching to the unconverted.

“Promotion” is a dirty word. No one wants to be bombarded with ads – eventually, they become part of the background. For example, there’s two ads on this page that you haven’t even noticed. What I find that works is that you want to be catered to; if you feel like you’re being courted rather than lectured, it’s far more effective.

Take elections, for example. Direct mailings – straight to garbage. Robocalls – turned off. Staffers calling you… okay, I’ll listen to you. Staffers coming to your door – I’ll be polite. The actual candidate showing up to your door? Wow!

I’ve voted for someone on my city council purely because they came to my front door and made their pitch. Wouldn’t have voted for them otherwise. I’m going to vote for my state rep, even though I voted against them in the last election, because they bothered to personalize their response to me instead of a form letter. It doesn’t take much to convince me, even though I know it’s probably just a staffer in her office. They bothered to try. I know what a form letter looks like, but you had a real person respond to me – you got my vote.

That’s why I use this blog – it’s a way of promoting my books in a way that… hopefully doesn’t annoy you. My hope is that you get a taste of my writing, you like what you see, and you want to see more. I’ve got plenty of free samples in my Stories page and I keep my Kindle prices low ($1.99) to help make it easy for you to get my books.

So again, I’m going to shill for my new book, Defending Our Sacred Honor, and ask you – what advertising seems to work for you? I can’t approach all of you in person and suggest you read my book. I can’t go to conventions at the moment so I can do that in a friendlier way. I don’t have your phone number (I don’t want your phone number), so what kind of promotions work for you? Doesn’t have to be book related. Let me know in the comments below!

Fantasy World Yelp Reviews

10 Oct

The Hissing Chef: 2 1/2 stars. Quaint, elf-run establishment, but turned off by the perpetual orc attacks.

Prancing Pony: 3 stars. Great beer, good entertainment. High pitched screaming by nazgul made it impossible to sleep.

So I woke up this morning with the weirdest thought – what if fantasy worlds had Yelp reviews?

Of course, it’s a silly idea – you don’t have the Internet in a D&D universe – but there are enough magical equivalents that could have a virtual bulletin board. However, once you leave the main cities, it’s not like the village of Broomfondle is going to have to many choices. You can go to the Boiling Leopard or you can sleep in the street. Gee.

So you only bother to have reviews when you have choices to make. The first restaurant reviews – Michelin – is a tire company. They made maps and reviews so that people would drive their fancy new cars and put more wear on their tires (so they could buy more tires). So you could drive from Paris to Caen and check out this “rustic interpretation of Norman cooking” without having to stay there.

Your intrepid band of adventurers doesn’t have this option. It took two days to get to Broomfondle. They’re hungry, they’re tired, they want a roof over their heads. So the Boiling Leopard is the place to go… the ONLY place to go.

Of course, I could extend this goofy metaphor to include dungeons, ruins, et al… but the point of these abandoned places is that “no one has journeyed there in a hundred years,” “No one ever returns from the Mines of Moria!” Well, then they’re not about to post: “Moria used to be a nice dwarven family establishment. Then they changed management. Goblins not friendly, rude service, had to run out of there. Will not go back.”

What you had instead was the wise woman of the village spreading rumors that she may have heard third hand from a passing bard. You know, what Facebook is today. 🙂 Actually, this shift in research really bit me in the butt once. One gets so used to Google searches that the time I played in a Call of Cthulhu game set in the 30’s, I forgot how to research! Thankfully, the game master took pity on me and suggested, “You remember reading something in this book…”

Have I beaten this metaphor enough? Have you been thinking we need to have more reviews or less reviews of things? Let me know in the comments below!

Missionary Chefs

9 Oct

One of the few restaurants we go to as a family is Loving Hut. It’s a chain of vegan restaurants that are spread all over the world. However, they’re not just interested in selling food – they want to convert you to follow the Supreme Master.

I did not make this up – there is a Vietnamese woman who lives in Singapore who is the leader of this religious group calling herself the Supreme Master Ching Hai. Why do I know this? Because they have their own television channel which is played constantly in each of their restaurants, which has 5 minute snippets to attract you to the wit and wisdom of the Supreme Master.

There are books available of her philosophy. There are pamphlets that talk about the joys of veganism and meditation. And that’s the real reason why they use restaurants as their outreach – to show that turning vegan does not mean having to live on kale and bean sprouts. Their menu is excellent, but I have to admit, I’m a little disturbed by the images lauding this middle-aged woman from Asia.

This technique has actually been done before. I’ve been to inner-city Atlanta and found a vegan soul food restaurant run by Black Hebrew Israelites… which is another faith that came out of the turn of the century (1900) where African Americans decided to reject Christianity and turned to new faiths where they felt more at home. This is also where the Nation of Islam and Rastafarianism emerged. This particular group believes in strict veganism and consider themselves true Jews. However, the State of Israel disagrees, and yet allows a couple thousand of them to live illegally in their country.

In Thailand, the local Chabad (missionary Jews who do outreach… to other Jews) ran a restaurant in downtown Bangkok. This is because Thailand has strict anti-missionary laws and the rabbi can’t work as a rabbi in a country that’s 96% Buddhist. So he worked as a “kosher consultant” and had someone run the restaurant that he owned. So missionary chefs are not as uncommon as you might think.

I’ve worked with missionary teachers, missionary doctors, missionary secretaries… and if you think it’s hard for regular missionaries to raise the funds to go overseas, try being a missionary secretary. India makes it difficult to be a missionary, but you can get visa to be a teacher or a doctor. The other thing my friends pretended to be tourists and just leave the country every six months to renew their visa.

What do you think? Is it more palatable to be another profession that is also a missionary? Or is it something that rubs you the wrong way? Or is it a necessary evil? Let me know in the comments below!

Blowing Up The Canon (Part III)

8 Oct

In today’s blog post, we finish our interview with Daphne, who runs a non-profit dedicated to helping students with reading difficulties. She is the author of Read or Die: A Story of Survival, Hope and How a Life Was Saved One Book at a Time. You can contact her on Twitter at @confusedconfessions.

M: So how do you approach personalizing reading for your kids?

D: Each student in my room is provided the opportunity to bring a book from home, but rarely do they. Instead, the vast majority of students choose a book from my room where every single book has been vetted by children. Typically I bring over a stack of books to their desk and they go through them until they find one with an accessible vocabulary, and then I teach them how to make connections to the words…basically I try to teach them everything good readers do: think about themselves, wonder what happens next, think what happened earlier, wonder why things are happening, think about other books with similar stories, etc…on and on and on until they start actually reading. 

I have this question I ask people, “What is your most important book?” It’s such a great question because people have the most beautiful and surprising answers, but I never meet a child who can answer this question. Unless a child comes from a house of enlightened readers (rare, rare, rare) or they are taught with a method in school involving real choice/independent reading they don’t have a most important book, and they all deserve one.

M: Hard question to answer, since I love so many books, but let me throw out a weird one – The Man Who Never Missed by Steve Perry. It’s a short sci-fi novel – hit me at around 14 years old, so when I was most impressionable – but it really changed how I like to see universes, write action, and drive the story well. He’s a cult following level author but I love Perry’s writing style.

D: Awesome important book answer! I haven’t heard of him, but I’m going to look him up. 

M: What about you? What’s your most important book?

D: The most important book for me is also a hard question, but I became who I am as a reading teacher because of reading the Book Thief. By the time I read it I had been teaching for seventeen years and writing for 8…There’s a scene where a girl lives BECAUSE of a book and you realize the author has been saying, “Books Save Lives,” the entire book and you then realize he dedicated a significant amount of time and effort to say books save lives and here I was, sitting in a room of kids that I should be teaching as if BOOKS SAVE LIVES so that’s when it happened. I changed everything I was doing and dedicated my career to repeating over and over again, books save lives and that’s how I teach, like every book matters and the more I can get inside a child, the better. Hence, my book and screenplay because I can’t say it enough. 

M: Thank you, Daphne – I have a feeling that we’re going to have more of these conversations from now on.

Did you enjoy this interview? What is your most important book? (Not your favorite, your most important.) Let me know in the comments below!

Blowing Up The Canon (Part II)

7 Oct

In today’s blog post, we continue our interview with Daphne, who runs a non-profit dedicated to helping students with reading difficulties. She is the author of Read or Die: A Story of Survival, Hope and How a Life Was Saved One Book at a Time. You can contact her on Twitter at @confusedconfessions.

M: But what’s wrong with having the whole class just read one book so they discuss it and break it down?

D: With the canon there are multiple problems that I could rant about all day so I’ll try to limit myself. First of all, I can’t even get everyone in my friend group or household to agree on a book. It’s impossible to get 30 random children who will/can read a 300 page book they care nothing about so they either are clever and use SparkNotes and engage the teacher in conversation as if they’ve read or they don’t read it and they fail. I have yet to meet anyone who read their assigned books in school and the number of readers is declining, not increasing. In addition, the book is assigned, the themes are decided by the teacher (who probably used SparkNotes to decide what the themes are), and all the questions have preconceived answers.

M: Interesting point – so simply ASSIGNING the book makes it very difficult for students to care about reading it in the first place. Using my son as an example, he has dyslexia, which has the effect that unless he’s REALLY into a book series (Harry Potter, Keepers of the Lost Cities), he doesn’t like to read. It’s physically difficult. They assigned the Hunger Games as a book, and knowing the violence would upset him, we got the teacher to accept an alternative (Ready Player One). However, he STILL didn’t finish it… he barely started it. Because he had no internal drive to want to do it.

D: It’s imperative that he feel empowered which is the opposite of what happened when he gave up on Ready Player One (which is the position teachers put their students in ALL OF THE TIME by assigning books, it’s maddening). Teaching him to use resources and allowing him to use resources to pass English is something that will carry him forever AND you might be able to still have a reader in your house. Teachers constantly destroy the love of reading and they don’t even know it.

I don’t want the canon replaced, I want the entire concept of ‘assigned’ books and ‘assigned’ reading levels to be destroyed. In fact, the way you were taught by the teacher who thought you ‘walked on water’ is exactly how every single child in America should be taught. I don’t have many kids like you were, but they all have that potential if they were just allowed to have their reading journey hand curated by a teacher who thought highly of them and wanted what is best for them.

M: So if a kid came to you and wanted to know what book he/she should read, what would you recommend?

D: My class could not function without The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, Tyrell by Coe Booth, Drive By by Lynne Ewing, Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and the Bluford High Series.

Have you heard / like these books? What books would you recommend to kids? Let me know in the comments below!

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