Tuesday, September 16, 2014

New Short Story Out

I have a noes short story out called, "He Dreads The Cold."

You can find it right here.

And it's even got a pretty cover!

Monday, September 15, 2014

And the Survey Says...

Ugly trends: The survey says…
I’m going to touch on a few subjects here. As always, I’d ask you to remember that what I say is my opinion based on my experience and should never, ever be taken as the gospel.

The Cop Out:
How many times have you read a horror novel where our hero author comes back to his home town and looks into his roots, only to meet up with an unspeakable horror, or a ghost or demon from his past that he had been haunted by since he was a child?

Let’s not kid ourselves here, folks, it’s the basic start for at least two dozen or so novels in the horror genre to date. It was only original the first time. These days, it’s that deadliest of pitfalls (well, okay, plagiarism is the deadliest, but it’s still up there) the cliché.

It’s easy to do, you know. Hell, it’s exceedingly easy. You read a book and it leaves a mark on you and sometime later, five years or fifteen, you decide to write a book of your own and the set up that you were so enthralled with comes around again, only this time, you’re the one playing with that set up. The odds are good that it’s not even a conscious decision in a lot of cases.

It’s happened to me on several occasions, and most recently, it happened on a novel of mine that’s coming out later this year called DEEPER. I was so fascinated with the main narrator of Lee Thomas’s excellent PARISH DAMNED, that I took the occupation of the character and used it in part for the main character of a novel I was getting ready to write. That simple change in vocation opened up the book for me, and allowed me to put together all the jumbled pieces that I had floating around in my head. Aside from their job similarities, there’s nothing else the two have in common, just for the record, but it also isn’t the sort of job you normally run across in a horror novel, or at least I haven’t. Of course, being that I wanted to make sure I didn’t rip off Lee, I then sent him the manuscript when it was done and let him know that I had just finished ripping him off. The two characters/narrators are very different when it’s all said and done, but damn, I just HAD to write that novel at that time and truth be told, if Lee had screamed foul, the novel would likely never have been sold. Just because I feel the need to write it, that doesn’t mean I ever intend to tread on someone else’s territory deliberately.

I mention the above simply to explain that I can understand the temptation. Hell, I’ve even given into it once or twice. It’s not a sin, but it’s a great way to force comparisons to another writer, and sometimes that doesn’t work in your benefit. In the aforementioned case, it’s almost a running gag between Lee Thomas and me by the way: We seem to run into similar ideas a lot on our writing. Weird how that works, isn’t it?

I recently posted on a couple of bulletin boards and asked the locals there what they considered the top five most clichéd aspects of the horror novel. The answers were definitely diverse. I’ll get to some of them a little later, but for now, what I want to focus on is originality. Now, don’t go into a panic. I don’t mean the amazingly innovative new plot line that has never been done. According to some sources, there are only seventeen or so plotlines available, and they’ve all been done to death. Personally, I’ve never bothered to count them, so I’ll have to trust the statistics and keep writing anyway.

No, what I’m talking about is the clichés that pop up during the establishing shot of your novel. You know, all that introductory stuff, where we learn a little something about the characters, the town, the world that you have created for our amusement. Before you can properly destroy any and all of that, you have to let us know what they are all about, right? The establishing shot.

There are a lot of clichés that run through the establishing shots. Some of them are inevitable, and some of them, well, some of them just seem like cop outs to me. That opinion does not make me right, mind you, but I felt it was something I should point out.

That first paragraph up above? Well, the first time I ran across that particular scenario was in Stephen King’s ‘SALEM’S LOT. It was a great concept and to me at least, completely original. The novel, by the way, remains one of my favorites and the development of writer Ben Mears and all of the other characters is exemplary. I could probably dig through my collection of novels and find an even twenty or so more examples of other writers who liked Mr. King’s set up so much that they couldn’t resist using it themselves.

Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? Well, it shouldn’t. I’d guess a lot of them weren’t even consciously aware that they were imitating someone else. Some of them might have been, I mean, let’s be honest here, it happens all the time and imitation is allegedly the purest form of flattery, but not all of them. Here’s the thing: Every one of those novels will likely be compared by every reader who comes across it, to ‘SALEM’S LOT and unless the writer is AMAZING, the comparison will not go favorably. It won’t matter if the story involves Space Newts from Swamp Planet Alpha, the set up of the writer coming home to revisit old nightmares is going to work as a reminder of the novel by Mr. King. What’s that? The reader might not have ever read the book in question? True enough. But the odds are they’ve read the book or at least seen one of the two movies based off of the same.

So really, why not take a chance and come up with something different. Sure, you can still go with the writer if you must, but instead of flattering the hell out of an author who’s been flattered almost as many times as he’s sold a copy of a book, change things up and give your main character a different motivation. If you want to be a writer, and you want to be considered an original writer, you’re going to have to stretch your muscles sooner of later. Go for sooner.

Not just with ‘SALEM’S LOT, either. Go out on a limb and try to come up with something completely original.

That’s really the gist of this particular article. Whatever you’re going to do, make it something that is yours and yours alone if at all possible. There are a lot of rehashes going on out there and really, there shouldn’t be.

There are certain aspects of the genre novels in particular that are overused and there’s even good reason for a lot of them, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the best choices. They aren’t exactly cheats, but they’re easier ways to introduce characters.

Moving to a new town (as opposed to coming back to your old home town). It works because, frankly, moving to a new place means a great chance to introduce the town and allow forward motion of both the story and your main character(s) simultaneously. There’s also the added bonus of putting someone into a strange new environment.

It has also been done approximately five million times, give or take. It’s okay as a subplot, but there should be more to the tale in most cases. The same is true with starting a new job, going to a new school, etc. They all amount to simple fear of the unknown, which is perfectly suitable for a horror novel especially, but if every novel revolves around that fear as it applies to moving, you might lose a little of the impact.

Burnt out cops seem to be another one. Not just in horror novels, but in crime novels, detective stories, and I’m sure a few romances that have popped up along the way. Well, it’s a high stress job, I have no doubt, and the level of people who burn out is probably massive. But does EVERY cop have to be burnt out? Couldn’t we run across a few who were at least moderately enthusiastic about their lives? Another one that seems to tick people off: The cop who’s stuck with the case is about to retire and then Monster X shows up. Same goes with cops on the take, by the way. In several books, it seemed that every police officer in the precinct was guilty of taking street level bonuses, except, of course, for Our Hero.

Yes, I’m rambling. I do that a lot. That’s because I often want to cover a lot of territory. Let’s get back to the establishing shots, shall we? There’s probably a lot to be said for writing what you know. I seldom follow that rule, because what I know is often painfully boring. Unless my main character lives his daily life as a customer service specialist, food services manager, construction worker, house painter or salesperson, I’m winging a lot of it. To date, none of my main characters have been writers. A few of them wanted to be and maybe a secondary character or two, but none of them have been writers. Why? Because it’s a cheat as far as I’m concerned, and because, statistically speaking, I figure the average fictitious writer is already screwed beyond all repair.

I have not, to date, become the screamingly successful megastar writer who lives a life of ease and uses writer’s block as a subplot for a part of his life. First, I don’t get writer’s block (I can’t afford that particular luxury, thanks) and second, I still have a day job. If I’m going to imagine a life beyond what I already know, I’m not going to waste my time with a writer as a main character. I don’t want to live my life as a writer vicariously; I’d rather just live it. I may as well have fun with it and have characters that actually have lives and the occasional interaction with the rest of the world.

But that’s not why it’s a cop out to me. No, the problem is that writers can dictate their own lives in a lot of ways, and that means they don’t have to go to a wage earning job while they hunt for the monsters or try to avoid being hunted. It’s far more interesting to me to see how a college kid with finals on the horizon is going to handle the shambling nightmare than it is to consider how a writer will take care of it. It’s more fun to experiment with a local politician’s take on the fourteen unsolved murders than it is to contemplate the novelist who thinks he might have written this very scenario in a previous novel. I like, in other words, to put a little more reality and stress on the characters. Why make their lives too easy before I start the mangling? If I do, I’ve lost out on a chance to explore a part of the characters’ potential depth.

The other cop out given in the original scenario offered in this article is simply this: While there’s certainly nothing wrong with having your character explore something that went wrong in the past, it’s seldom enough to actually make a full novel that is worth noticing. You don’t agree? That’s fine. But let me point out to you that Ben Mears of ‘Salem’s Lot fame did a lot more than merely examine the home of Hubie Marsh. That was just an excuse (and an original one back then) for having him show up in town. The secrets of Hubie and his house were secondary or even tertiary to everything else going on in the novel.

Don’t misunderstand me. I have no actual problem with the same ideas being used in the establishing shots. As I have said about stereotypes, I can also say about clichés: they exist for a reason. A haunted house novel as a general rule must have a house in it and probably a few ghosts. That’s the way these things work. But while the monsters might often be the same or similar, the characters and settings shouldn’t be interchangeable. The idea is to make a story your own, not to borrow so heavily from someone else that you are basically telling their story.

There are writers who have done the same basic story a hundred times and become extremely successful with it and there are writers who have stretched their writing wings and tried to do new things regularly. I try not to write the same novel twice. Why? Because I find the notion boring. Oh, I’ve slipped a few times, but not as much as a few others I could name (but won’t). It’s not that one way or the other makes you a better writer. It’s a matter of preference. I would rather challenge myself to come up with new concepts than fall back on something I remember reading when I was just starting up.

Let me put it another way: How many fantasy novels are out there where the main character is an orphan who lives in a war torn land and is destined to be the future champion and/or king of said land as soon as he fulfils the vague prophecy uttered about him and finds the sacred relic that will seal the deal? Well, I don’t read much fantasy these days, but a while back it was every other novel I ran across. Change the name of the land, the name of the character and the Object of Power in question and easily half of the fantasy novels I read growing up fall into the same category. Seemed like everyone set their sites on knocking THE LORD OF THE RINGS/The story of King Arthur and Camelot down a few pegs by telling the exact same story. As a rule, they all failed, too.
And now, the complaint department. A few of these are actually quoted and some are just general complaints that were listed multiple times. You want to know what seems to be bothering a lot of the readers out there according to the bulletin boards I went to? Here ya go.

There are certain aspects of the genre novels in particular that are overused and there’s even good reason for a lot of them, but that doesn’t necessarily make them the best choices. They aren’t exactly cheats, but they’re…easier.

The Great Ancient Evil Resurfaces is another tried and true cliché and one that was referred to several times in the course of my queries. Now, frankly, I can never get enough of the evil resurfacing, but when said evil is a mindless thing that comes around every hundred years or so and does nothing new, it gets boring. If you must bring back an historical evil to a town or city or family, please at least come up with interesting reasons for why it keeps coming back. That’s just me, of course.

One of the more recent trends that several expressed disgust with is the army of zombies surrounding the structure of your choice. Really, I think it’s the zombies in this case. It’s not that zombies haven’t been around for a while, so much as a lack of good reasons for said flesh eating corpses to a) come back from the dead and b) follow all of the rules as established by George Romero. I mean, there’s something more than a little creepy about the idea of the dead rising from their graves, but in most cases, they immediately run off to eat the flesh of the living and to leave bits and pieces of themselves all over the place. While I haven’t read nearly all of the new wave of zombie novels, or even seen all of the movies, I’ve only seen a few cases where the authors tried to add something new to the old scenario. Brian Keene did it with THE RISING and Mark Justice and David T. Wilbanks did it with DEAD EARTH: THE GREEN DAWN, but aside from that a lot of what I’ve encountered and heard about was more shambling messes that don’t do anything more than munch on the living. Again, not a bad thing in and of itself, but also not the best way to dazzle people with your originality. (You can add Jonathan Maberry to the list, by the way. Rot & Ruin was amazing and the things he’s doing are just deliciously wrong.

When Anne Rice wrote THE INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE, it was new and fresh. That was back when I was in junior high school. These days the romantic vampires have become their own subgenre, and while that’s not a bad thing (frankly, anything that increases awareness of the horror genre in a positive light is a good thing to me) it’s not original anymore. I point this out because that, too, is one of the clichés a lot of people were tired of. Vampires as heroes, detectives, eternally beautiful and ever-so-depressed-about-it creatures of the night…they are likely all here to stay, but apparently a lot of die hard monster lovers prefer the vampires that actually drink blood and kill things more than they lament their perfection.

And now, a sampling of the answers to my query. Believe me, there were a lot more, but the ones listed below (and credited when I knew a real name to give credit) all struck me as interesting responses and good indicators of the general feelings shown. Consider these a primer in what you might want to avoid. a break. They’re supposed to be blood-sucking monsters for crying out loud!1. The “tragically lonely” Euro trash vampire. Give me a break. They’re supposed to be blood-sucking monsters for crying out loud!2. The search for the magic talisman only to find out that the “talisman” is in fact either the main character or a supporting character in the story.3. Any time a character discovers that the bad guy is his/her brother/sister who is evil to take revenge.4. Any character who actually says “because I’m evil.” Evil people don’t know they’re evil. They function from their own moral universe and point of view that makes everything seem like the right thing to do. 5. Convenient knowledge. A person is in the midst of terrible danger when they miraculously escape because of some convenient knowledge. “Fortunately, when he was in high-school, Bob studied Karate and advanced chemistry, allowing him to defuse the bomb and kick the bad guys in the head.” If he has that knowledge, great. Set it up from the beginning. Don’t just throw it down like you wrote yourself into a corner and figured this was the only way to get out. –Scott Johnson

1) The couple who lost a child and starts experiencing paranormal phenomenon.2) The psychic who refuses to do readings anymore because it is too draining and painful.3) The car that won’t start when the characters need to escape.—“Sharkguy”
1)The heroes are bailed out in the final chapter/reel by an act of God because they’ve spent the book or film demonstrating that they’re in the right and so are entitled to a deus ex machina if their fat needs pulling out of the fire.2)Anybody with a rationalistic viewpoint is likely to turn out to be evil because they’re divorced from the true wonder and mystery of life. They will almost certainly end up working for the bad guys, even if no real reason is ever given for this.3)Histrionic of sentimental displays of hysterical false emotion are inarguable proof that somebody is a real human being, rather than (as many would suspect) proof that the tantrum thrower stopped maturing emotionally and intellectually somewhere around the age of six.4)Archaic and obsolete methodology (of whatever type) proving superior to decadent modern approaches. (I doubt that most of the writers who come out with this crap write longhand with a quill pen or would fancy having an arm amputated without anaesthetic, somehow.)5) Rare elements that cannot (for reasons that are rarely made clear) be created or transmuted by replication technologies that exist in defiance of most of the laws of physics, and which would seem to exist purely so that the author can offer some sort of flimsy pretext for why they haven’t created a post scarcity society. –“DogPoet”
      a different group of heroes band together for a quest. Usually, they bring along a Boris Vallejo wet dream and no one nails her. I hate when that happens. 2. Characters that are supposed to be savages and never drink nor do they get laid. 3. Dumb rednecks. They are all inbred of course…4. Serial killers (heard it all before)5. bad priests (there really are good men of the cloth out there)—Steve Shrewsbury

I’ve only got one driving me crazy lately: The cop who’s on his last night of duty before retirement.—Lisa Morton

1. Female vampire slayer types who fall in love with a vampire (we are talking beyond Buffy here)2. Vampires who are altruistic and have found an alternative way to get their blood fix.3. Characters(PIs, Mercs, etc.) that are supposedly in it for the money but tend to go on quixotic crusades.4. Supernaturally gifted children5. The person who sacrifices himself/herself so that the hero can escape the evil so that he can defeat it later.—Dylan: MonsterLibrarian.com

1. Writer as protag. Writers are boring. Except for Hemingway, and we all know what happened to him.2. Chicks in dark fantasy vampire novels who resist the vampire, but who really don’t want to resist the vampire (but we need the tension or it’s just a pornfest). Let’s have the chick tell the buster to drop undead for once.3. Vampire as romantic hero. Not.4. Haunted house, created by act of violence. Been there, seen that, got the T-shirt. Next!5. Psychic investigators who never fuck up, make a bad prediction, etc.6. Happy, happy ending where protag falls in love with hot chick who’s been spurring his advances all along, while hot chick discovers it truly is better to be a dowdy housewife with no life than be out there kicking monster-butt. Because, y’know, a woman isn’t really a woman unless she’s married and has procreated. That’s six, so sue me. –Karen Koehler

Super Rain Man Syndrome: Mentally challenged character who is Divine and has all the answers, but is vastly misunderstood. It was cute for 10 minutes in the 80s. Now let’s get back to reality. — Also Karen Koehler

1. The Magic Trinket- that talisman from a character’s youth (often given to them by a departed parent/grandparent/sibling) which is the ONLY thing in the world that can defeat the evil.2. “I know you’re still in there, Bobby. Fight him!”3. Characters who are referenced only in dialogue, or in flashbacks, or telephone calls, who show up in the last scene to play a pivotal role.4. Characters who ponder how everything is just like a bad horror movie. They’re right, but I immediately put the book down at that point.5. The word “suddenly” used for some kind of jump scare- uh, it just doesn’t work that way. Suddenly, a decayed hand broke through the door.—Lorne Dixon

1) Autistic kids who mumble strings of numbers that hold the solution to the mystery at hand. –Bev Vincent

1) Any instance where an innocent person walks in and finds a corpse…then immediately picks up the knife/gun/other murder weapon as a witness/police officer/security guard enters. 2) The other four clichés I hate include the above happening in any other four genres. –William A. Veselik

1) The last three small press horror books I’ve read opened with rape scenes. Not only am I sick of that particular cliché, but I’ll expand it even further to say I’m sick of the general cliché of using violence against women in horror, especially when these scenes go on for pages and become positively dull in their over-description. –Lisa Morton

1) It certainly seems that people tend to imitate the obvious aspects of someone’s writing, rather than the underlying, more difficult, and more important underpinnings.–John Goodrich

1)The Protagonist is a writer2) Ex-military heroes3) Women are weak or uber-powerful4) Going home again [stop!! just move out of town and stay out!!]5) Hauntings in obvious places [old house, graveyard, etc.--let's have a haunted school or police station or abortion clinic or something...ok, sorry, that last one was just wrong] –Kelli Dunlap.

Cops/Priests/Any authority figure that rolls over everything they believe in when confronted with just a hint of the ‘woogie-woogie’.2) The weak girl that suddenly discovers her inner strength, while losing her bra, panties and moral ethics.3) Sex between survivors when they’ve only know each other for less than 24 hours. (excluding any character based on Jay and Silent Bob – that would just be funny)—Kelly Perry

See? Lots and lots of things at least a small sampling of the readers out there would like to see avoided for a while. There were more, many, many more…
James A. Moore

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Another Blast from the Past

A Well Traveled Road
So I was planning on doing a piece on the careful construction of a novel. Then I decided I’d change subjects from writing for a few minutes and discuss the logistics of handling business.

Oh, I know it’s been done before, and right here on Storytellers Unplugged, too. But as the header suggests, it’s a well-traveled road and one that should be examined regularly. The fact that a lot of authors have been down this particular stretch of pavement doesn’t mean it’s been well mapped out, or that there aren’t a few areas where things can go wrong.

I figured we should look at a few of the aspects of the business side of writing. Not nearly all of them, not by any stretch of the imagination. Just a few of them. Let’s start with the basics, shall we?
Be professional: This one is self-explanatory, or at least it should be. The editor didn’t like your story? TOUGH! Send it to another one. Send a thank you note if you’re so inclined, or just wait a few weeks and send another submission. If you piss off that editor, you will be remembered, but not as someone said editor wants to deal with in the future. Be professional means, in this case, put your fractured ego aside and get on with the business you want to be a part of. Don’t start throwing slanderous accusations and don’t tell ten friends what a rectal orifice that editor is. Failure to follow this rule enough times will make it very, very difficult to get a writing gig.
Getting paid: There are, of course, numerous methods of payment in this business. There is the satisfaction of having your name in print. There’s the beauty of free books with your name in them. There’s the ever-popular free ad in an issue of a magazine you’ve sold a story to. There’s the legendary “exposure,” and then there’s cold, hard cash.
Raise your hand if you can guess which one will help you pay your bills. Pick only one. Got it? If you said “cash,” you’re on the right track.
Yes, that’s right. Cash. Or a check will do, if you can trust your publisher. Some people probably prefer money orders. Exposure works, but only to a very limited degree and most of the places that only pay you in exposure, frankly, aren’t going to get you a lot of bang for your buck unless a lot of people suddenly decide they can’t live without going to that site or paying for that magazine no one has ever heard of. There are exceptions, to be sure, but they are few and far between. Frankly, in most cases, you’re better off putting the story up on your website. But be smart and have somebody edit your story for you first. Somebody mean, brutal and honest, who will do what an editor is supposed to do. Go check my website. I’ve still got a few stories up there where I forgot my own advice. Your name in print and a contributor’s copy: Wonderful! You now have your name in print and if you’re lucky as many as three copies of the fanzine with your name in it. You can keep one for yourself and SELL the other two to anyone who will buy them. Now you’ve got something to show for your efforts. Free advertisement in the magazine? Sweet! Check the distribution and see if it’s worth your troubles. If they have a national distribution deal and you recognize a few of the names in the magazine with you, it might be a decent investment. Oh, and make sure you have something else to advertise, okay? If you haven’t already sold a novel, or a short story collection or even a chapbook of your poetry, the free ad won’t do you a lot of good. That brings us back to cash or the equivalent thereof. That will buy you copies of the magazine if you need them desperately. It will also cover the cost of an ad in the magazine of your choice. It will also cover the cost of postage, office supplies and the occasional power bill or phone bill. You’ll need it if you want to keep your writing business in business.
Snarky comments aside, I really do recommend going for cash. I still throw an occasional story out for free when it strikes my fancy; if it’s for a charity or for a starting magazine that has promise. Otherwise I expect to get paid. My philosophy from day one in this gig was that if I expected to make a living, I had to get paid for what I do. Same as any business and this IS a business.
Oh, and you’ll notice that none of my examples above mentioned novels. If you’ve invested the time and effort into a novel length work and you give it away for free, then you are, in my heartfelt opinion, beyond hope. Maybe you can give away an occasional short story or poem, but never, ever a novel.
One more little piece on this, and I suspect I’ll offend a few fledgling publishers and contest holders along the way. I’ll go ahead and apologize in advance for any hurt feelings. I don’t give my stories to contests that charge money. I can’t afford it for one thing and for another, it just chaps my hide. I worked hard on the story. It might not sell to all markets, it might even suck wind. Whatever the case, I worked on it. I don’t then pay somebody to read it in the hopes that out of thousands of possible entries mine will be one of a small handful, usually a maximum of three, who will then get a portion of those entry fees back as the winner of said contest. But wait! Some of those contests get you published! Yes, yes they do. And if the magazine or collection it goes into was worth a wad of chewed gum, they’d pay from the earnings they’re making from their publications, not from a large flow of money that comes in as a result of potentially thousands of submissions, each paying ten dollars or more a pop for the privilege of being read. Yes, the old adage may well be true and you might, in fact, have to spend money to make money, but no one said you had to be stupid about it. Trust me; you’ll spend money along the way without lining anyone’s pockets.
Now, just because I’m in a negative mood and being opinionated, that doesn’t mean I’m right. I’ve hardly researched the contests except to decide they aren’t right for me. The following link goes to a site that has researched them more than I have and can give you far more detailed information including links to several other sites and possibly even a contest or two.

The same rule applies (for me at least) to handing agents money for reading your novel. There are plenty of people out there who will disagree with me, I suspect. That’s fair. I never said I had all the answers. Just as I believe writing is a learning process, so too is the business of writing. I have several issues with agents in general and the way that they handle affairs, but one that stands out for me is a reading fee. If they’re looking for the next big name and I want to be the next big name, we might be able to do business, but no, I’m not handing them any amount of money to have them decide if we’re going to do business together. Once again, I simply don’t have that sort of cash flow. Even if I did, I wouldn’t keep it long if I had to hand every editor and agent out there a wad of my cash for looking over what I’ve written.
On the subject of agents: Do you need one? Maybe. I’ve had a few. Both of them did their work well enough. Neither of them ever sold a solitary piece of work for me and neither of them ever increased the value of my works. Both got fifteen percent of what I made, and both of them got paid before I did. If either of them had ever managed to increase my cash flow or managed to sell even one of my novels for me, we could have stayed together.

Here’s one of those cold, hard facts of life for you. And I warn you in advance, this one is ugly. Agents serve a valuable purpose in a lot of cases. They can A) Sell your novel. B) Help improve your novel. C) Negotiate a better contract for you. How? They can increase the value of your sale. They can maneuver to help retain your rights for sales to other companies (you know, movie rights, TV rights, reprint and foreign rights, rights in other languages, hell, maybe even the rights to the exciting action figure collection based on your work. Stranger things have happened). They can then resell those rights to other publishers or companies fro an increase in your profit margin. They can and often are the pit-bull that gets you your money when it’s due. They can and often do generally deal with aspects of the business that are uncomfortable.

They CAN do all of those things and more. A lot of them WON’T do that for YOU, unless you are a name. Why? Because you aren’t the only client that they have in most cases and if you ARE their only client, you can bet they’re going to spend a lot of time looking for more clients or they’re not going to be in business for long.

There are a thousand successful stories of writers and agents working together in perfect harmony. There are a thousand times as many writers who felt, justifiably or not, that they got the shaft somewhere along the way. That doesn’t mean they had bad agents. That means they had expectations that were not met. There is a difference.

Let’s say you get amazingly lucky and managed to get in with an agent at a prestigious agency. Congratulations! Fabulous news! Now you are one of that prestigious agent’s fifty or so clients. You have a book and you’d like said agent to sell it for you. Perfect, marvelous, wonderful. Said agent will get right on that, just as soon as authors 7-49 have been handled. How did you get stuck at number fifty? Well, hell, that’s easy. You’re new to the agent and numbers 1-49 are proven moneymakers. Clients 1-6 are the ones who are earning 6 figure advances, and also getting movies deals. They will consume the lion’s share of the agent’s time, because if said agent sells your novel for $3,000.00, the agent’s share will be $450.00. If he sells the movie rights for client number 2—the anorexic sex symbol slut daughter of a once massive name in the music industry who continues to be seen at all the right parties and makes the cover of People Magazine at least once a month—his take will be $42,500.00. It’s not just your career the agent is dealing with: there are 49 other careers to consider and, oh yeah, the ones that make the biggest cash put money on the agent’s dinner table. Agents need to eat too.

I have spoken with many authors about their agents, especially during those times when I’ve been thinking about getting one myself. A frightening percentage of those authors have explained to me that the agent didn’t sell their books but merely negotiated the contracts for them. Some of them were happy with that arrangement and others were not. I don’t point fingers here. If the agent is worth the money and can double the original offers, I think that’s wonderful. If, on the other hand, the agent is only looking over the contract and not really making any noticeable changes, why is the author giving away 15-20 percent of their earnings?

So is an agent worth it? Ask twelve different writers and you’ll get twelve different answers. What do I think? At this particular moment, no, not for me. A month or a year from now? (Note: This is an OLD article. My answer has changed. I have an amazing agent and will gladly sing his praises in person should we meet.)  Maybe. There are no solid answers on this one. I and one of my agents parted on equitable terms. The other agent? Well, said agent couldn’t remember my name when I called, but had certainly been willing to take 15% of my previous novel. If the agent couldn’t remember my name, how was the agent doing me the least bit of good? If the agent thinks of me as a number and one that is low on the list of priorities, the agent sure as hell hasn’t been pitching my book to all the right people. Pitching it in the trashcan, maybe, but not to the editors and the publishing houses. I’m perfectly able to get my manuscripts thrown away all by myself, thanks just the same.

Not mentioning names, because that’s not what I’m here for. I know of one author who was doing media tie-in novels and getting handsomely rewarded for each one. The author’s agent was glad to work those deals. Said agent was getting a nice chunk of change for each and every media tie-in. Unfortunately when it came to trying to sell original fiction, the agent didn’t seem to want to bother. Agent and author parted company when said author realized the score. The agent never minded getting money for nothing, but didn’t want to be bothered to further the author’s career if there was actual work involved.

Oh and a bit of advice for you. If your agent is also handling your short stories, they’ll get 15% of that money too. A lot of agents won’t bother, of course, but you might run across a few who will handle short stories. My advice? Sell them yourself unless your agent has managed to sell a few to Playboy or The New Yorker, who pay very handsomely for the tales they publish.

Next on the list of things to seriously consider avoiding: Book doctors. Now, don’t misunderstand me here, I believe that having someone look over your work is a wonderful thing under the right circumstances. I have someone who edits my works for me from time to time and I also use several of my peers as sounding boards. I also have several of the same peers use me, because frankly, we trust each other to be honest. I have never, however, paid anyone to write me a critique of my work and tell me where I need to improve. Here’s a little tidbit for you to consider. There are several companies who will gladly look over your work and even go so far as to do a full redline edit of your work for you, for a fee. That fee can range from a small fee for the critique (Small fee in this case is a few hundred dollars) of the entire work all the way up to thousands of dollars for critique, red lines, and a few suggestions on how to make your manuscript more marketable. They’ll give a general critique, do a red line edit, or even do both together, with fees that vary greatly depending on the level of work you’re requesting. The lowest fee I’ve heard of for a full line edit was two dollars a page. I’ve heard of upwards to seven dollars a page in some cases. So, looking at the lower end of that, on my most recent manuscript, which is 281 pages, I’d be looking at $562.00 just to check for misspellings and coma splices. Then fro a critique, we’ll go low end again and say $200.00. So now, for having a book doctor study my latest manuscript, I’d be talking $762.00. Remember, that’s on the very low end of what a book doctor could charge. Using the same manuscript with some of the higher numbers I’ve run across; you could be looking at a $1,905.00 (or even higher) for a redline edit and a full critique. Here’s a rub to consider: Most first novels don’t sell for big money. Some of the book doctors out there actually charge more than the average writer is going to be offered as an advance for a first novel. How is that good business sense? “Hey, look, ma! I sold a novel for $3,500.00 and it only cost me $5,000.00 to do it!” Yeah. Do the math.
Are they any good? I have no idea. I’ve never used one. Why? Because the ones I’ve seen listed in various writer’s magazines are either rip off artists or delusional. Let’s just go with a simple example based on a site that I will not mention. I bet you could find them if you searched the web.

Friday, September 12, 2014

A few suggestions on starting a novel

Note: I was rereading some old articles I did a while back (read: seven plus years ago) and decided I'd repost a few of them here. Their relevance is for you to decide. 

Okay, so let’s get started.
So, you have a plot idea do you? Good! Excellent! 
You have a concept and an idea. Now, what are you going to do with it?
Well, as Sephera pointed out in her essay for this month, what you SHOULDN’T do with it is tell it to me or any other writer in the hopes that we will write it for you and give you half of the profits. Unless, of course, you are incredibly wealthy and intend to pay one of us writer types a ridiculous amount of money to write it for you, in which case, please have your lawyer contact my lawyer and we can start hammering out the details. I’m a professional writer, which means I am always glad to talk money and publication.
Now, by this point, you’re probably thinking I’ve already covered this subject in the past and here at Storytellers Unplugged no less. You’d be both right and wrong. Same subject, different approach. I’ve talked about getting started before and now it’s time to actually give a few, hopefully, useful pointers.
Yes, I’m aware of the book by the same name, by Strunk and White. According to a few of my critics, I should read it again. Maybe, when I have the time. Currently I’m rather busy with three different novels and a monthly article right here.
What I’m talking about in this case is what style YOU intend to use. By style, I mean, what are you aiming for in the writing department? First person past? Third person present? Omniscient narrative or limited narrative?
How exactly do you want to tell the tale you’ve decided to write?
Yeah, now we’re getting into complications, aren’t we? There are strengths to each form, I suppose. I normally write third person, past tense with an omniscient narrative. Not long ago I decided to try the first person narrative in a novel length for the first time. It was challenging but fun and the end results will be announced later this year, but that is neither here nor there.
What I do isn’t what this is about. What are you going to do when it comes to writing your first novel, or your next novel if you already have a few of them done?
Let’s look at a few of the aspects we need to cover again, shall we?
How are you going to handle the prose? Think carefully about it, because how you write the tale is at least half of the end result. By that, I mean the voice that you use to tell the story. When you get down to it, there are only so many plots out there, right? So what is going to make your plot stand out if it isn’t the voice you use?
Once again, I’ve changed my voice on several occasions to fit the story. A lot of that is (or should be) intuitive in you, at least for the first draft. But when the time comes to edit your work, I can almost guarantee that the style changes a few times. Be prepared to kill your words in order to make the story you really want to tell.
And there are limitations that you will discover, ways of writing that simply don’t work for you. Be prepared for that and understand that sometimes the words just aren’t willing to do what you want them to.
Each writer is different. If we weren’t, we’d all be universally screwed.
I’m going to quote a sentence from Tom Piccirilli’s HEADSTONE CITY. The prose is so uniquely Tom that it’s like a fingerprint. I can’t think of another writer who is so lyrical with his words, so meticulous in what he says.
“His myths were quiet ones without heroes, where the storms broke quiet and heavy across the lawns of churches and neighbors hid in their homes full of small tragedies.”
That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about voice. Tom’s style is unique. Each of us should have out own voice, and I can almost guarantee you it will change from tale to tale.
What’s your novel going to be about? That’s an important aspect that, frankly, I’ve seen ignored a few times. For me, it the plot isn’t coherent, I’m not going to enjoy your work. I suspect I’m in the majority there. No guarantees, but a powerful suspicion.
Where is your novel going to take place, and for that matter, when? I’ve often stuck with smaller towns for a setting. Not necessarily because I prefer a smaller town as a place to live, but because I have more control over the setting if it’s a smaller town instead of a massive, sprawling city. Let me give you an example: Let’s say there’s a killer running around town and doing his business. Ten bodies cut into pieces and left scattered over a couple of acres each time. In a small town, you have a couple of cops and detectives to take care of the situation. In a major city, like New York, the odds are remarkably good that you’ll be dealing with several precincts and the political red tape associated with the same. While I might like certain aspects of the police procedural novel, I would rather focus on different points in most of my writing. So, small towns or controlled environments work better for me.
Hell, in some cases a single building might work for your entire novel and if that’s the case, great! Run with it. But you need to figure it out in advance, just like those guys in Hollywood have to scope out the places where the are going to film. Setting is definitely an important aspect to writing your tale.
Yes, I’ve discussed it before, but it’s still pertinent. Just how fast do you want this book to go? I’ve had novels that spanned a three hundred year town history and I’ve done tales where over half of the novel took place in an hour, or a day. But it’s more than just chronological pacing. You have to consider how frantic the activity is going to be when the time comes. Erik Tomblin’s amazing RIVERSIDE BLUES takes place at a slow, leisurely pace that works perfectly for the story. If it was faster, the tale would fall apart. Chris Golden has done a few novels, like THE MYTH HUNTERS where the action starts fast and only gets faster as the story progresses. And, again, the tale wouldn’t work as well at a different speed.
Once again, we’ve discussed this before. Atmosphere is a part of your prose, really. It’s the subliminal setting. Is it a dark and stormy night? Is it a cold winter’s day? How you use the setting and the character’s emotions to make the atmosphere of your novel is important. It’s an aspect that I feel a lot of writers miss, and others overdo. There’s no right or wrong, just guesswork. Be careful with how you approach it and make remember that like perfume, atmosphere should normally be subtle.
I’ll never stop saying it: for me, if the characters fail to keep my interest, the rest of the book is guaranteed to fail. No matter what, YOU need to know YOUR characters and you need to make sure that the reader gets to know them, too.
That means everything about them, from how they like to dress to how they’re going to react when they meet other characters. One of the worst mistakes I’ve seen in a hundred books comes down to characters who are too much alike or too far removed from the norm. Yes, some people are weird, but if I can’t like or dislike them before you’re done explaining them, I have no use for them.
Here are the two points that keep ruining writers. Patience and Control.
Patience is that ability to not beat on yourself each time you don’t make your writing goal. It WILL happen, believe me. Be patient with yourself, just like you would be if you were starting a jogging regimen. Writing takes time and energy and sometimes life will get in the way.
Control is the mental fortitude to stop yourself from editing your first th
ree chapters to death before you’ve even started the fourth chapter. It’s tempting. It’s ALWAYS tempting, to look over what you’ve just written and make changes. That temptation has killed more short stories and books than anything else I’ve run across with the possible exception of heavy drinking and drugs. Finish what you start and edit it to death later. If you think something you’ve written in the last two days has drastically altered something you wrote two weeks ago, the odds are damned decent that the earlier part of the story needs to be fixed. Let it wait. Write a note to yourself and fix it later. Failure to follow this simple bit of advice will inevitably mire you down in the changes you feel you need to make and will often lead to apathy regarding the forward progression of your story.
Translated: It’ll slow down your momentum and leave you wanting to work on something else instead.
Yes, time. You plan on writing a novel? Set aside the time. It’s not easy and it’s never fast. Set aside the time you need to write and do your very best to stick to it.
I’ve never entered, and likely never will, the NaNoWriMo (National Write a Novel In a Month, I believe) contest. I think it’s a great concept and a wonderful way to get the creative juices flowing. I’ve also topped the goals for the contest on three separate occasions. How? Because I set aside the time to do it. Novels do not write themselves. If they did, there’d be a lot more novelists out there. Make the time.
So, there you have it. A moderate list of prerequisites for finally starting that novel. Computers are nice, but not necessary. Got a pencil and paper? excellent. Get started.
Well? What are you waiting for? Seriously! Get started!

James A. Moore

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Together again for the first time in paperback.....

And I am very pleased. Charles R. Rutledge and I decided to self-publish CONGREGATIONS OF THE DEAD because, frankly, we were getting a lot of requests and the publisher who did such  great job with both of the limited editions is moving away from e-books and trade paperbacks. Decidedly a no harm, no foul scenario for us, but the requests kept coming. So this is sort of an experiment.

We discussed covers and decided that while absolutely love Alex McVey's original cover for CONGREGATIONS we wanted to try something a bit different.

What all of this means, actually is two different publishers. So while both books are available, and they are both Griffin & Price novels, they have very different looks and little to connect them aside from a little crossover information. Either should be fully capable of being read as a stand alone novel.

Here, by the way, is an encore of the gorgeous cover Alex did originally.