Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Fifteen minutes

“It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it.”- Oscar Wilde

I have committed to reading for 15 minutes every day.  No, really.  I would love to read more, but life just doesn't seem to support that right now.  So, 15 minutes it is.  That I'm actually multi-tasking during that time is beside the point....

So, that said--knowing I have only 15 minutes to read changes things a bit.  I've always been a tough sell on books, but now I'm even tougher.  If I'm not enjoying a work, I drop it to find one I will enjoy.

Take, ferinstance, my recent experience.  Somebody recommended Hominids, by Robert Sawyer, to me as a good read.  The book won the Hugo in 2003, so it couldn't be bad, right?  And it wasn't.  It just--well, it wasn't good.  I know, it's sacrilege to say that a Hugo Award winner isn't good, but it really didn't trip my triggers.  No zing for me.  I stuck with it to about 1/4 of the way in, hoping I'd learn something about the characters that would endear them to me, but by then I figured I'd given Sawyer long enough.

It's tough, incidentally, for a reader--me, specifically--to get into characters emotionally when the characters are foreign.  That's why I haven't even tried with Matt and Sorscha in my books.  They're there, certainly, but they're treated as the cement blocks upon which the more engaging characters' stories are based.  Sawyer runs into this problem.  His main character is a Neanderthal guy from a--well, a different place.  He talks different.  He thinks different.  He's a physicist, but none of that really comes out.  I can't even remember his name; the only reason I remember that he's a physicist is that it's a major plot point that he's constructing a quantum computer.  I vaguely recall something about him losing a loved one, but it was so foreign that I didn't get it.  I didn't care enough to continue.

Don't get me wrong--there's nothing I see all that bad about the book.  In fact, I even feel strange saying I didn't like a Hugo winner.  On the other hand, I looked over the Amazon reviews before posting this commentary, and it seems I'm not the only one.  While every book ever published gets some 1-star and 2-star reviews, Hominids has 15-20% of its reviews in each category.  Some of the comments: "two-dimensional characters" *ahem* and even "embarrassment to the Hugo" *ouch*.  I guess there were, in fact, people who liked it even less than did I.

It does have an interesting overarching sociological commentary running through it, I saw in the short part of the book I read and through the reviews on Amazon.com.  In fact, that seems to be what turned off many of the readers.  It's one thing--and an important thing, at that--for a sci fi novel to leave you questioning life, the universe, and perhaps even everything.  It's quite another for it to bludgeon the reader over the head with a statement.  Some people apparently felt that Hominids was guilty of the second activity.  I dunno; I didn't get far enough into it.

Bottom line--characterization is important.  If a reader doesn't find a reason to care about the characters you've written, there's a chance he won't find a reason to finish your book either.     


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Crafting Conflict

"Conflict is the beginning of consciousness." - M. Esther Harding

Six published authors, a couple of them quite well-known, all in one place, and all agreeing with one another.

No, that's not fiction.  Yes, I'm a fiction writer, but I didn't make that last bit up.  It really happened, once upon a midnight dreary--er, rather, at SheVaCon Saturday afternoon.  The session was called Crafting Conflict, and the momentous event occurred at 2:00 pm in the Wilson room of the hotel.

The authors were David Bartell, Jim Bernheimer, Elaine Corvidae, Katherine Kurtz, Janine Spendlove, and Allen Wold.  The topic, as the title suggests, was writing conflict into fiction.  I thought it might get a little wild at first because as the authors on the panel were introducing themselves they had a short-lived but strong disagreement.  Specifically, one of them said that it's difficult to have a story without conflict, and the next one put his foot right down and said that no, it's impossible to have a story without conflict!  Soon a third voice was added to the fray as another panelist ventured that you can have a story without conflict, you just can't have a good story without it. 

Woo hoo!  Talk about excitement. 

Hey, we were all writers.  A writer's normal idea of an exciting event is getting the Shift key stuck on the keyboard.

In any event, once that disagreement played through, it turned out that pretty much everybody agreed with pretty much everything else.  Conflict is a MUST in fiction, and it has to feel real, and it has to be resolved.  At least, there has to be a resolution somewhere.  Usually it's in the story arc, though several people pointed out that not all conflict is resolved in each book--take, for example, the Lord of the Rings series, where the overarching conflict (think Sauron) wasn't resolved till the end of the series.  But in each one of the books, there was a self-contained arc that lays inside of the series story arc, and each of the individual story arcs brought conflict and resolution. 

The panel also discussed what happens when conflict isn't resolved--sometimes it can make the reader angry.  The resolution of conflict is, psychologically, one of the main reasons people read fiction in the first place.  Of course, there are several types of conflict, and some are better resolved explicitly while sometimes it's best to let the reader use some imagination in the process.  Just--don't leave the reader hanging, one way or another.  Eragon's fourth book was brought up--Paolini resolved every conflict but one, and since it was the chief romantic conflict that got left open the book ending caused a great deal of gnashing of teeth.  I've written a blog post about that, in fact; I'm just still waiting to cool off enough to edit it well before I post it.

Mr. Wold brought up an author he considered a master (and I wasn't taking thorough notes; I apologize for losing the name) at the non-ending ending.  As he described it, this author's stories go right up to the resolution of the conflict, right to where the reader knows resolution is going to happen, and then stop a few pages before the resolution is actually spelled out.  This usually leaves the reader knowing that the story was resolved in one of a couple possible ways, and it's up to the reader to decide which happened.  It's a very effective technique of storytelling, but one that is difficult to pull off well. 

One of the most interesting discussions of the panel was how to create conflict.  Some members of the panel were the outlining type, and they specifically write conflicts into their book plans.  Others, including Mr. Wold, describe conflict creation as more of an organic process.  Put interesting and realistic characters into tough situations, he explained, and you're going to get conflict.  Also important, he pointed out, is that conflict created organically like this is likely to be something the reader will care about--it'll seem "real." 

People, then, differ on whether to plan the characters and situations and let the conflict come out of that, or to plan the conflict(s) of the book along with the rest of the outlining, but all agree that having interesting, believable conflict that the reader can be emotionally invested in is a vital part of crafting a story. 


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Color me skeptical

"Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance." - Bertrand Russell

Before I get going--nobody took a stab at my question yesterday. That made me sad. Maybe math is indeed a dead language.

Okay, so for today: I'm pretty skeptical. Not to the point of what might annoy Mr. Russell in today's quote, mind you, but I do tend to play hard-to-convince. Take religion, for example. Yes, I'm perfectly willing to believe in a higher power. I don't see how anybody who's ever studied human anatomy & physiology could NOT believe in a guiding hand making decisions regarding what goes where, frankly. But tell me that higher power has long brown hair, wears white robes, hates sexual activity except as it pertains to propagation of the species, prefers the screech of an electronic Wurlitzer repeating the same three chords of a hymn through all 97 verses to the rockin' sound of Petra or Stryper, or is going to be perfectly happy to send several billion Hindus, Buddhists, et al to eternal screaming damnation just 'cause they believed He went by a different name and wore different clothes, and I'm gonna give you one of *those* looks.

Similarly (I say quickly to steer away from a philosophical religious discussion), I believe in ghosts. Who wouldn't? I know some people believe that when we die our bodies, our spirits, our everything just cease to exist, and others believe that every part of us that's not our bodies sprint away toward a celestial bright light to enter the loving embrace of the aforementioned Higher Power in his white robes and long brown hair, rockin' the e-Wurlitzer, but I have a hard time conceding that either one of those groups have the requisite knowledge to support either belief.

I'm...well, I'm skeptical.

Besides, I've had my own strange experiences. I grew up in a house that had been built within a year or two after the Civil War, right on top of one of the lines of breastworks the Confederates used in their defense of Corinth. I felt things. I heard things. There were 17 stairs in that house, and most nights I heard something ascend each of them in turn. I got really, really good at counting to 17 at an early age, by the way.

Thus, when somebody says "ghosts exist," I nod and give them a thumbs-up. When somebody says, "I talked to a ghost yesterday and his name was Sam, and he likes moonlit walks on a winter night," though, I give him one of *those* looks.

You know where this is leading, don't you? At least, you do if you saw my Tweets this weekend.

Some of the more interesting events at SheVaCon (which is saying a lot--there was a great deal at SheVaCon that was interesting) were the paranormal activity sessions. During the day, the three paranormal investigation groups in attendance gave talks about where they had been, what they had seen, and the investigations they'd done. Lectures, if you must call them that, sometimes supported by actual pictures and EVPs. Fascinating stuff, that.

Now, my lovely bride is addicted to Ghost Hunters et al--those wildly popular TV shows that have groups such as TAPS going into historical sites and investigating claims of hauntings. I've watched them with her, but my skepticism has always somewhat destroyed my enjoyment of the shows.

It was tremendously interesting, then, to listen to groups who are less well-known and a skosh less well-financed talk to us about their experiences. Very interesting, in fact. Whether you're a true believer or not, I'd highly recommend the experience.

I walked away from several lectures with some knowledge in the factual realities of the efforts. For example, I learned that these ghost-hunting groups have to pay to spend the night at these sites, and frequently that expense is higher per person than it costs to spend the night at a posh hotel. That was a shock; I'd sort of assumed that they'd be allowed on vacant sites for free, if they weren't actually being paid to do the work they do. I'm not sure why, but that little bit of knowledge stuck in my head as, if nothing else, a significant reason to take their results more seriously. I mean, it'd be different if they were being paid to go in and find ghosts, right?

In any event, there were several other items I learned, mostly of a technical variety. There are things, high-tech things, that they use sometimes that aren't used a lot on the TV shows. But many of them also place more stock in the visceral sensations--they just, often as not, spend a while sitting, observing and feeling. They don't show that stuff on TV because--well, because who wants to watch a bunch of guys (and sometimes girls) sitting quietly in the dark?

Turns out there are several really intense sites close by that the groups had been to, including St. Albans Sanitarium and the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. (You can't really say that last without a shudder, can you? I couldn't.) I guess that wherever there were crazy people kept in quantities, you can now find significant paranormal activity. Or, as some disbelievers might suggest, on those sites you can still find crazy people in quantities, only now they're paying to be there. Just depends on your point of view, I guess.

So. The lectures done, we signed up for an actual experience. Yay! I mean, it's one thing to watch ghost hunters on TV, tromping into the Dark&Scary seeking paranormal activity (also known as ghosts that might have the capability to eat you); it's another thing entirely to follow them into the Dark&Scary to seek such activity alongside them. Here, ghostie ghostie ghostie....

The hotel we were in, the Roanoke Hotel and Convention Center, is pretty old and has been through at least three fires that we know of, apparently. Some of them even caused people-death. Perfect place to find phantasmic paranormality, right?

Not so much, it turned out. Many types of conventions may slow down and even stop in the evening hours, but a sci fi and fantasy conference does not. Thus, once we were able to finally get the emergency lights in the room turned down, we were still able to hear substantial ruckus in the halls. Have you ever watched the shows where you see people in night vision asking questions out loud? That was mostly what happened, but without the night vision. "Is there anyone here with us?" Silence, punctuated by outside ruckus. "Can you tell us your name?" More silence, more ruckus. "Can you touch the green light at the front?" Silence, and nothing on the EVP meter that was represented by the green light in front. "Do you want us to leave?" Silence; I bet others were thinking the same as I was--I sure wanted the kids in the hall to leave.

Hell, if I'd been a ghost there, I'd've wanted the kids in the hall to leave. Those folks, many of whom were dressed up as zombies and post-apocalyptic or Star Wars warriors, would've scared me enough to ignore the normal-looking folks in the dark conference room with the funky gadgets. Honestly, that event didn't prove that ghosts don't exists. At best, it proved that ghosts can't be called at will to perform in a noisy environment. Maybe I'm a ghost, by that proof.

Later, once we finally got the guitar guy out of the larger room, we moved to the auditorium in which they'd experienced more activity the night before. We also gained some people, including Perfume Lady who caused all of us with allergies to entertain the ghost-recording devices with loud sneezes. Plus there was Cold Guy who kept announcing to the group that "I feel cold air to my right." Maybe there was a cold spot there; maybe not. There was, however, a HVAC vent there.

None of this did much good for my skepticism. Till, that is, they brought out....

Yes, I'm hearing a cymbal crescendo in my head. Really.

They brought out--The Ghost Box. This is a device that is designed to scan a certain AM or FM radio band looking for signals from local phantasms who wish to use such signals to speak with the living. The theory, as I understood it, is that ghosts who can't make a sound in reality can affect the radio energy surrounding them in order to make their voices heard. And vocally-challenged ghosts everywhere applaud the invention, I suppose. So do ghost hunters, who can now listen for the clicks the device emits as it scans to vanish, followed inevitably by the e-voice of a paranormal apparition.

Anyway, and all funning aside--make their voices heard, they did. Suddenly the night became talkative in the form of some ghost-guy named Dave. And Jill. Well, a ghost-girl named Jill, I guess, but in the eerie radio-voice it all sounded the same.

Apparently the investigators already knew about Dave; they'd done the same thing the night before and had gotten Dave to be pretty talkative. In fact, one of the investigators had gotten Dave quite ticked off at him, to the point where Dave had shown he was possessed of (*giggle*--sorry, couldn't help it) a more or less healthy repertoire of curse-words and insults.

That night we weren't as lucky; Dave seemed a bit tired and uninterested in engaging us in meaningful conversation. He knew of one of the fires, apparently, but never told us which one. Jill may or may not have been his daughter; he had either three or five of them. And so on it went.

Dave was difficult to understand, especially so because he apparently enjoyed flipping the Ghost Box over to an actual AM station. Which, I add, must've been quite the challenge since I hadn't been able to get a signal on my cell phone in that room all day.

After an hour of this, they turned the lights back on to allow everyone, including presumably Dave and Jill, an opportunity for a pee break. Since it was now 1:00 am, and we had friends expecting us to arrive sometime before dawn at their farmhouse (see the post yesterday), we decided it was time to leave.

I left with a humorously snarky story to tell, of course, but I also left with a lot more appreciation for what the ghost hunters are and do. It's not hard to believe in ghosts, really, no matter how you believe they come into being. It's a little harder to believe that they're at all interested in interacting with the still-living, in the way that we desire for them to, and at the time that we desire for them to, and using the channels we require them to use. That said, there was clearly a great deal of true conviction in that room that evening. The guys doing the investigation are sincere in their efforts and professional in their knowledge and approach, and the claims they make regarding evidence they have accumulated I have no problem at this point believing are real. Is it possible to explain away the Ghost Box entertainment for the evening in a scientific manner? Well, AM signals do penetrate farther into structures than cell signals do, and when you're frequency hopping you never know what you'll get, so--sure it is, and so I'm not completely convinced that I witnessed any true paranormal activity. I did, however, have a great deal of fun, and I learned quite a bit at the same time.

Honestly, all that said, I'm not convinced that I didn't hear a ghost, either.

There's a lot we don't know about what is or isn't out there. My hat is off to those who try to make sense of any part of it.
Links of interest:  
SheVaCon:  www.shevacon.org
Blackwater Paranormal: http://www.blackwaterparanormal.com/
Eastern States Paranormal: http://easternstatesparanormal.com/
Southwest Virginia Ghost Hunters: http://southwestvirginiaghosthunters.tumblr.com/
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum: http://trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com/
St. Albans Sanitorium: http://stalbans-virginia.com/


Monday, February 20, 2012

A long, mostly fun weekend

Question: two cars are traveling exactly 1,000 feet apart, at exactly the speed limit of 55 mph.  They come upon a town where the posted speed limit is 45 mph.  The town is 2 miles long and, at the other end, the speed limit increases again to 55 mph.  Assuming near-perfect braking and acceleration (in other words, the time/distance for each car to drop to 45 mph and raise again to 55 mph is negligible), if both cars followed the law precisely, do they exit the town closer together, farther apart, or with the same separation as they had when they entered? 

What's all that got to do with writing?  Not much, I guess, on the surface.  Hang on, though--those of you who know me know that I'll probably find a way to tie it in eventually.

I haven't blogged in a week, and boy, have I missed it.  It was a busy week, though, with my dissertation still hanging over my head, looming accreditation visits at work, a book to re-publish, and the trip to Roanoke, for SheVaCon, over the long weekend.  I got some of all that done.  Still working on cleaning up the files at work; those of you who haven't managed a college's preparation for an accreditor's visit don't know what you're missing.  It's not enough to be doing everything right according to their published criteria--and boy, is there a lot to be doing right--you also have to be able to prove it.  It's not enough, then, to have regular faculty meetings; you have to prove it with documentation including minutes and sign-in sheets.  It's not enough to have curriculum that's designed according to input from professionals in the community; you have to prove it with documentation including minutes of advisory meetings.  That's just two of the hundreds of criteria.  When the accreditors visit, they expect all this documentation to be organized and laid out in binders on the conference room table, in both tabulated and cross-tabulated format.  All that, and coffee service on a pretty little cart complete with a fruit bowl to nibble on.  "Normal" colleges *ahem*--universities and large community colleges and such--have compliance departments that do that pretty-pretty sort of thing on a more or less full-time basis.  Small career colleges have overworked deans and the incredible (yet also overworked) faculty and program directors who support them to do the same thing while still attending to the classes we teach. 

Oh!  Oh!  I republished my book, Cataclysm.  I took Friday off in order to drive to Roanoke (a 3-hour drive, when it's not snowing), but Jessa didn't get out of school till after noon, which left me with a chunk of time to sit down and redesign the cover.  Here it is:

What do you think?  I'm proud of it, personally.  Granted, most of the prettiness of it was done by Tom Gehrke, but I'm proud of my own formatting of it into a book cover.

Republishing it wasn't hard; it's now available from Smashwords and Amazon.com.  Haven't updated my web site yet with links, but I will get to that today.  It's not available on B&N yet, and probably won't be for the foreseeably-near future.  Frankly, the work required to publish over at B&N is about twice the amount required for both Smashwords and Amazon put together.  I just have too many other things on my plate.

The next step is to get printed copies done.  That doesn't seem too hard, except that I have to re-do the cover art to submit an entire book jacket--front, spine, and back--and though that in itself isn't too hard it is another significant chunk of goal for me.  Soon, then, but not now.

I loved SheVaCon, by the way!  SheVaCon is short for Shenandoah Valley Convention, and it's held in Roanoke, which despite not technically being in the Shenandoah Valley is a great town to hold a Con in, and I'm glad I took the family.  It was our first real sci fi convention, and we came away with several things to do for next year.  Including, unfortunately, staying at the hotel.  Some wonderful friends, Raschid and Leslie (thanks, Leslie!) offered some bunk space at their house, and I gratefully took them up on it.  I wasn't thinking clearly, though.  What you lose when you stay with friends who aren't going to the convention is the ability to truly enjoy either one.  Leslie and Rash live in an old Virginia farmhouse on the outskirts of a town that's on the outskirts of Roanoke, and their place and their hospitality deserve--well, an actual weekend--to be enjoyed.  When you're leaving in the morning and coming back late at night, that ain't it.  Conversely, some of the more interesting convention-ish things happen at the hotel in the wee hours.  And I'll say more on that later. 

Suffice it to say that I'm hoping to spend time in the future with Leslie and Rash without any conventions to go to.  That, and time in the future at conventions without any friends to take advantage of.  And both on their own, separate, weekends. 

All that said, Leslie is a fellow science major, as well as a fellow sci fi and fantasy geek.  She's also a role-playing genius, and has racked up more PC (player character) kills than any other DM (dungeon master) I know.  She went to school with my brother, and I met her back when online gaming meant play-by-email.  Back then, Leslie's DM'ing was legendary.  Once, she took out a King and all his retainers and guards as well as the ENTIRE party of gamers in what turned out to be the shortest game I ever played in.  But that's beside the point....

She's a chemistry major, just like my bro.  She's taught chemistry to engineering students, too, which is apparently as much of a challenge as is teaching algebra to nursing students.  She outright said that she hopes she never has to drive across any bridges designed by some of the future civil engineers who graced her classroom, a concern that has been mirrored in my own comments at times.

Then again, my own broader experience teaches me that it's normal for any student in any genre to complain about any general education class that provides a challenge, since students these days are focused on their own discipline so completely.  The "these days" wasn't particularly fair, either, since I suspect we whined about general education classes just as much way back in "the good ole' days" as they do now.  But hey, math and physics are my thing (when there aren't any good Microsoft or Cisco classes to teach, anyway), so that's where I'm going to feel the sting of the focus on core curricular content.  

That, by the way, is where the question at the front of this came from.  I was racing the snow storm across Virginia as we returned from Roanoke to Richmond, and while not dodging snowflakes I thought a great deal on the apparent and somewhat-mystifying grave challenges presented by mathematics to students of all genres.  Only, sometimes the challenges aren't really mathematical in their nature.  I once had business and accounting students work a set of multiplication problems in a college math class, the core realization of the exercise being that the Moon doesn't really, technically, revolve around the Earth, and the students complained to my boss that I was making them do physics in a math class.  Such nerve I had!

The deal is, though, that the question at the top doesn't require math to solve.  I made the numbers up in a way that didn't risk trivialization of the problem (e.g., "the cars run into each other") but you can substitute just about any speed and distance combo in there.  You can even substitute metric numbers in there, if you're not from the United States, or if you are but you're one of the few Americans who's not scared of multiplication by .62 or 1.6.  You should, in fact, be able to work it out without doing a single equation.  It's a thought problem, which requires, by definition, thought, which is in turn one of those things I wish we all had more time for.

And on that note--I think I'll end this (hopefully before I make any other bad puns).  I'll talk more about the various aspects of SheVaCon later this week.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Possibilities in the present

"Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities.  Truth isn't." - Mark Twain

Reading is a lot of fun; I've always enjoyed doing it solely for the sake of the story.  But since I've begun writing, reading has taken on a whole new level of meaning.  Not only do I get to enjoy either a well-told story or a ballistics experiment, but now I also learn something about the craft.  Even the books that end up denting my wall typically have something to teach me, albeit on the "don't do this" side of the edumacational process.  Sometimes it's something small, while sometimes it's an eye-opening revelation instead.

Somewhere in the middle of that is my current experience.  JJ McMoon (www.jjmcmoon.com) has been a friend of mine on Facebook for a while; we share several similarities.  One of those is that we're both members of the James River Writers group, which is where we recently ran into each other.  I was sitting at the bar talking to a couple of folks at the last Writers Wednesday event (held at the Capital Ale House because the beer is simply incredible there).  Up walked somebody who looked familiar, except that he was tall.  No, I mean really tall.  Maybe it was the shortness of the stool that created my perspective, but--well, trust me, JJ is a tall, tall man.

He handed me a book.  As, like, a gift, which doesn't happen all the time.  I thanked him, he left, and I took my new copy of Lives home. 

I have to say, here and now, that I very much like the book.  I don't write reviews as a rule, but I'll be writing a review on this one once I get done reading it, just because I'm loving it so much.  There's so much to like about it--it's engaging, with great character development.  And--it's in first person and flips between present and past tense.

Now, I didn't think you could do that.  At least, I didn't think it could be done well.  First person is all well and good--it's a powerful mode of storytelling, in fact, and it's the POV I've chosen for my next set of stories.  But present tense?  Nah, I was pretty certain before this read, it's too easy to get bogged down in minutia, to lose focus on the story, when you tell it in present tense.  As in, "I return from my haircut just in time to post my blog.  I sit at my desk and hit the space bar to wake my computer up--there, there's the desktop.  I start typing.  Next I blah blah blah blah with blah blah for a blah blah...."

Sorry, that crap bores me too much to continue even pretending to write it.  And I thought all first person present was like that.

I was wrong.  At least, I was wrong that it couldn't be done.  JJ does it quite effectively. 

Back to reading, then.  And learning.  And, um, dissertationing, too.  But only after I finish blogging.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

An Apology, some angst and--stuff

"I think people appreciate a songwriter who has different sides.  The whole angst thing is cool, but if that's all you've got, it's just boring.  Everything I write, whether it's happy or sad, has a sense of humor to it." -Katy Perry

Wow, did I touch off a firestorm with my last post.  Part of me enjoyed the heck out of it, since I was in a fighting mood after working myself up to deal for the last time with Trestle Press.  But I was bothered by the fact that it caught unintended people in its flare, so let me address some of that, and then--well, other stuff.  The bottom line is that I want to take one last stab at communicating what's in my head. 

First, though, I must admit that I bought a bottle of Arrogant Bastard Ale on the way home after that first day.  The irony in it was delish.

Second, I must also admit that, naive though it was, I put a lot of hopes and dreams into my publication with Trestle.  Watching those crumble wasn't easy, and it made me hurt and angry and all those other mental states that make us open our mouths (real or virtual) and say things we wouldn't normally say in ways we wouldn't normally say them. 

So on to the real message.  If you're a former Trestle Press author, let me apologize.  My comments really were NOT meant to indicate that any of you busted a contract unrighteously or had done the wrong thing.  I'd been attacked over on a blog that means nothing to me, and I'd made the mistake of wading in because they'd insulted my name--and, hence, my father's name--and then I was attacked over my own still (at the time) being with Trestle Press.  It made me a bit defensive, and that was what came out. 

I didn't leave at the beginning of the scandal solely because I had an agreement with TP.  It was a weak, indefensible contract, granted.  I do contracts in my day job all the time, and I saw the flaws when I signed it.  Regardless, I did sign it, and I don't take that kind of thing lightly.  And no, I'm not publishing my contract; to put a private contract up for public consumption is an act of extreme unprofessionalism.  You'll have to take my word, or not, and if you're not going to take my word as good, then by all means click on that little X at the top right-hand corner of your screen. 

People have brought up, repeatedly, that in their opinion I was a fool or worse to not believe other authors' covers were copied.  Truth was, I did believe it.  But it's not cool to breach your own contract based on observation of third parties.  There was no question in my mind that many other authors' contracts (which I assumed they had) were clearly breached, but I stayed put until I managed to contact the actual artist and get the word first-hand.  I felt it was the right thing to do at the time, and I still believe it was the appropriate way to proceed.  For me.  No judgment in that, I promise, toward other authors with other contracts in other situations.  I did.  What was appropriate.  For me.

Anyway, I apologize to my fellow Trestle Press authors.  My intent was never to offend y'all.  I think the world of y'all.  We're on the same team.  None of us lied to any of the rest of us or used illegal artwork purposely, right?

By the way, to answer another question I've been repeatedly asked since this ruckus started: my real name is, in fact, Stephen H. King.  Technically, Stephen H. King, Jr., though I dropped the suffix because I thought it might make somebody think I was the Maine author's son, and because I haven't used it publicly since my father passed away.  And no, I'm not making my birth certificate public.  That's neither a professionalism nor an integrity thing.  It's just that I don't wish to reveal private information so publicly. 

Now, to the kids who attacked me on the blog, who didn't slog through being a TP author with us: y'all can all just bite me.  I did what I did because I believed it was the right thing to do, and whether you anonymous folks believe me or not is way outside of the set of things I care about any longer.  I'm a little bit sorry that I waded in when my name was insulted, but you know what?  I did, and it's over, and I'm done with it.

You guys have pretty much failed, anyway.  Many of us former TP authors are away from Trestle now, true.  But TP hasn't "gone into hiding" as somebody suggested on that other blog.  He was still adding other authors when I left, in fact.  And he will continue doing so, using a legal, if cheap, source for artwork going forward.  And people who know nothing about you or your cause will continue buying their books.

Like I said earlier, you ("you" being defined for the word munchkins out there as the kids described two paragraphs above) acted like children in your little campaign of angst.  What you should have done was quietly gathered some artists whose work had been used without permission and, once you had over $5000 in arguable losses, gone as a group to the federal agency who investigates criminal infringement of copyright.  If you don't know who that is, then Google is your friend.  That agency would've investigated, quietly, and then if justified TP would have been shut down, fined, and possibly even had its owner imprisoned.  You would've succeeded on a grand scale, but more importantly, the writing world would've been saved your petty little sniping bullshit that followed. The guy who really did the crime would pay, and the rest of us could have gone about our lives without any dark clouds. 

As it was, you just created angst, and gave the bad guy time to duck and cover.  Great job!

In the meantime, some of the insults I've received on this and other blogs, in the Twitterverse, et al, have been everything from demeaning to downright comical.  I had somebody use the British term for a male-only body part, like I wasn't going to be able to figure that one out and then delete it from my blog-space.  Then there's a British crime novel author living in Sweden who argued with me about American contract law, which was pretty silly, and then he closed the conversation with "I'll never buy your book."  That last actually made me laugh with its extreme level of self-importance.  If I had his address, and could legally mail alcoholic beverages, I'd send him a bottle of Arrogant Bastard, too.  Reality is, if I only have a couple hundred million Americans who don't buy my book, I'll be quite happy. I don't know how many people in Sweden will eventually have not bought my book, but I'll bet it's a bunch. 

In any event--lookit, fellow former Trestle Press authors--I didn't mean to insult you.  No, seriously.  If anything I said came off as an insult, then I apologize.  Now, please put down the pitchforks and let's get along like the professionals we are supposed to be.

To my long-time followers and readers, I very much appreciate your patience through this.  I hope to push through and have my work back out and available soon with legitimate artwork on the cover and much better organization of contents, in addition to multiple formats of availability.  All that, and an acknowledgments page to boot.

To those who are still convinced I'm--well, a walking male body part, or whatever creative epithet you wish to apply--or are otherwise antagonistically inclined toward me, I'll save you the trouble of hauling your soapbox out.  Please, please, please, don't buy my book.  Ever.  Don't bookmark my author web site, either, or Follow me on Twitter.  If you must, though it pains me more than it would to drink a good Belgian trippel to say this, go ahead and unfriend me on Facebook. 

And to all, a good night.


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A new chapter

EDIT:  Well, that was embarrassing.  In giving Tom credit for the picture, I gave links to somebody else.  Read his comment below for the irony there.  Links are corrected now. 

EDIT #2: Removed a phrase that several of my peers were misinterpreting to be an attack on them.  Maybe they'll be happy now.

When God closes a door, He usually gives you lemons.  It's up to you to find tequila and salt.

It's a kick in the gut for me to have to announce that Trestle Press and I are no longer working together.  That means several things, some good and some challenging.  First, and most practical, the three works that have been available on Amazon.com and BN.com are no longer available for purchase.  Second, it means my new release party for Ascension, scheduled for Friday, is canceled.  Third, it means that I get to stretch and try my hand at self-publishing, at least for the Return of the Gods series.  The prospect scares me a little but excites me a lot more, thanks to the knowledge that I'll have control over the cover, the contents, and the release dates.

A lot has gone into my decision to break away from Trestle.  Part of it, certainly, relates to the scandal on the matter of Intellectual Property rights.  It took me several days longer to come to my decision than some thought it should, mostly because I refused to make such an important decision based solely on the allegations of relatively anonymous Internet postings.  After some research, though, I found there is most likely something to the allegations, and, damningly, in regards to my own works.    

I'll not badmouth Trestle Press on the matter; to do so would be, in my opinion, rather unprofessional.  There is some debate over whether the alleged violations were due to ignorance or malicious intent; I'll leave that matter to be debated by people with stronger opinions than I.  To me, it doesn't matter; ultimately I'm only responsible for my own name and integrity. 

I do wish it had come to pass a little differently.  The kids who discovered the matter first, in my opinion, could have and should have handled it with much more professionalism and diplomacy than they did.  Instead of acting in a manner which allowed those of us involved on the periphery to maintain a degree of dignity, they blasted the Internet with an ounce of righteous indignation and a pound of malicious retribution.  Their names deserve no mention here, but I hope for all our sakes that the matter can be put to rest quickly so it doesn't continue to add its weight to the already-held perception of unprofessional buffoonery that currently afflicts Indies and small pubs. 

The positives in this matter are twofold.  First, I'm looking forward to proceeding on my own as a true Indie author, at least with the RotG series.  It's an exciting opportunity, one that I was already strongly considering when the offer to be published through Trestle first came about.  I plan on making my books available via both e-book and paperback formats, and I think I have enough training and motivation in entrepreneurial matters to make an honest go of it.

They'll have different covers, though.

Second, I've met a wonderful artist through these dealings.  Turns out Tom Gehrke, an IT guy by day (yay!) and artist/photographer otherwise, is responsible for creating the picture of Ares that graced the original cover of Cataclysm.  He and I have corresponded a little bit.  He's a great guy, and a wonderful artist, and someday soon I hope he grants me an interview for this blog.

Here's a link to Tom's gallery on DeviantArt:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomgehrke/

Here's his blog showing his skills in photography:  http://blog.thomasgehrke.com/

Here's Ares in his full original glory:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/tomgehrke/2683536669/in/set-72157606340202727

He seems quite a reasonable guy.  If you're interested in using his art for something, and your name isn't Trestle Press, he'll probably be quite wonderful to work with.  Just--get his permission first.  You know, 'cause it's the right thing to do.  And 'cause it's the legal thing to do.  And 'cause you don't want TOSK punting kittens at you in frustration over anybody else's actions.


Well, that's enough news for today.  I'll probably come out of my funk in time to write more in a few days.  Till then, then....  Unfortunately, I can't update my web site till I get home this evening, but keep an eye out there for new publication information.


Friday, February 3, 2012


"Some day I hope to write a book where the royalties will pay for the copies I give away." - Clarence Darrow

The difference between writing books and blogs is, for the most part, a matter of maturity.  With book-writing, the author puts his ideas down on paper, most likely going back over them at least once during the writing phase, and then he sets the prose aside for a time to let those ideas sit, mellow, and mature.  At a point in the future, then, the author picks the ideas back up, considers them with a fresh eye, and either keeps or modifies them appropriately. That, or he introduces them to Mr. Delete Key. 

With a blog, on the other hand, you write stuff and sling it out onto the web.  Usually it's the same day, though I've taken to writing some of my blog posts over the weekend.  Still, a few days isn't really enough time for the thoughts to mull around in the linguistic stew.

All this, of course, is my roundabout way of acknowledging that yesterday's post was pretty much garbage.  I ended up where I wanted to with what I think is a fairly salient point, but all the winding around I did was just weird. I'm tempted to go back and delete about half of it, but then I wouldn't have a standing reminder of the reality that sometimes what I write needs to be fed to Mr. Delete Key rather than published.

But on to the point suggested in the title. 

Yesterday, right at a year after I started the writing process, marked another milestone for me: I received my very first-ever royalty payment!  I bragged about it all day.  I mean, it's hard not to.  It wasn't quite a million dollars, granted.  Come to think of it, it wasn't even quite enough to cover a car payment.  As many in the business have said: new authors, don't quit your day jobs.

It was, though, plenty sufficient to pay for what will be a nice dinner out tonight with my co-creator, the lovely and talented Heide, also known as Mrs. TOSK.  That, and a comedy club after.  With, like, real drinks, even, not the "Oh, I'll just have water" act where you try to make everybody believe you really do prefer the taste of iced tap water to anything else. 

So to those who've bought a copy of my work--thank you.  It means more than I have the writing skills to express to me that people are reading my stories, and I do hope I haven't caused any Kindle-sized dents in anybody's walls.


Thursday, February 2, 2012

Men are from Mars. There's no shopping on Mars. Ergo....

"I always say shopping is cheaper than a psychiatrist." - Tammy Faye Baker

Part 3 of 3

Disclaimer:  I draw on some generalizations for this post that are based on my own observations and are not based on one shred of scientific proof.  

Let's talk about shopping.  At the risk of over-generalizing, that one word seems to describe a heavenly activity to women and a hellish activity to men.

We all know the stereotypes, right?  I saw the stereotypes played out in real life in my altogether-too-long career working in a mall Radio Shack.  With their compensation plan (at the time--I don't know what it's like now) an "associate" had two choices: sell electronics, or learn to love the flavor choices and nutritional value involved with ramen noodles packed in plastic pouches.  I'm not even talking about the fancy brands--I mean the white plastic pouches with "ramen" stenciled on the side.  Sometimes the quality control is so bad that the white plastic is cut wrong, so you are actually getting a pack of stuff labeled "men   ra".  Yum!  Of course, smart associates (the ones who aren't restricted fiscally to fine ramen dining) know that they sell by engaging with the customer, of whom there were often several in the store at the same time, and the two or three of us working in the store were in competition with each other for those sales, which meant the trick to eating real food for a living was to quickly judge which customers were buying customers (versus just-shopping customers) and engage with them before the other associates could.

Generally speaking, then, if I had two people walk into the store and one was a man and the other a woman, all else being equal, I'd engage the man first.  Why?  Well, what experience taught me is that a guy was there for one of two reasons.  Most likely, he was there to buy something.  If he wasn't there specifically to buy something, then he was there because his significant other was shopping somewhere else and he just wanted to come look at the cool electronics.  If the latter were the case, though, he often told me so immediately so that I could move to other customers who'd help put food on my table.  Granted, some didn't come clean, but they were pretty obvious because they wanted to look at walkie-talkies and computers and calculators and watches, things no human being has ever gone out to purchase at the same time. 

Note: it wasn't that I didn't like talking to customers, buying or shopping, about electronics.  I always did, and I still do.  But you know that Hierarchy of  Needs thing?  The theory in which Maslow said things like food, water, sleep, and sex needed to be met before I could have a meaningful conversation (ish)?  Yeah, that kind of made some decisions for me, which was why I ended up enjoying that job a whole lot less than I thought I would. 

The girl, on the other hand, had one of three reasons for being there.  The first two are the same as the guy's.  The third, though, is that girls like to shop, which is a different activity from buying.  Sometimes it involves buying, but the purchase isn't the main goal.  Since the purchase, rather than the shopping experience, is what put not-ramen on my table, guess which one I put the most effort into engaging with?

Now, before anybody gets huffy--I did disclaim that I'm generalizing here.  I'll go one step further and say that, based on my fumfinty-four years on the planet, I don't think there's any biological or psychological difference between men and women that causes the shopping factor.  Frankly, I think some women like to shop for the same reason I like to watch baseball games.  I really don't like to watch baseball games.  But I'm a guy, and society tells me that guys like to watch baseball games, so every time the TV flips past one I'm obliged to at least hover there till the next pitch.

Anyway, all that said, and adding whatever other interjection you wish for me to add to remain more or less politically correct, women in general like to shop rather than buy, and men in general like to buy rather than shop.

Until, that is, they get to a bookstore (see, I did get to the point).

Hey, at least women are consistent.  Maybe most men are, too, but I'm certainly not.  Walking into a bookstore of any stripe brings out the big bad shopper in me in a big bad way.

Why is that?  Here's where I go way off the deep end, because I really have no authority to talk on the topic.

I'm'a gonna do it anyway.

I surmise that men who would never dream of shopping in, say, a hardware store or an electronics store will shop for hours in a bookstore due to the nature of the product.  I mean, there's really no questioning the utility of a hammer.  If you're looking to buy something to use to hit stuff, you buy a hammer.  Conversely, if you get a hammer, you can hit stuff.  If you get a higher quality hammer, you can hit stuff for longer, most likely, statistical nature of MTBF considered and all.  If you get a 4# sledge hammer, you can hit stuff really hard.  If you get an 8# sledge hammer, you can hit stuff twice as hard as you could with the 4# one.  And so on--there's no mystery.  Nobody--well, no guy, anyway--ever asked a guy why he bought a hammer.  Or a nifty LED-based pocket-sized mega-lumen flashlight.  Or a radio-based walkie-talkie.  Or a GPS (well, maybe the GPS, if one guy's into geocaching and wants to know if his fellow is).

Buying a book, though, is all about risk.  I paid $20 for the paperback set of Game of Thrones and am kind of sad that I did.  I paid $2 for the pre-fondled paperback version of the first Dresden Files book and would've been pleased with it even if I'd paid much more.  That's the thing--I don't *know* the utility of buying a particular book before I buy it.  It might bring me dozens of hours of being lost in imagination-land with interesting characters and an exciting plot arc, or it might bring me twenty minutes of annoyance and a dent in my wall.

Think back to my own recent purchase, if you will (see yesterday's post if you don't recall).  I bought the book not because it was a book I was looking for, or because of the way it was packaged.  I didn't even intend to buy a book, period.  No, I bought the book because somebody I'd never met named Steve recommended it.  I don't know Steve, but I do know Heather now, and she knows Steve, and that's good enough.

That big box store with the initials B and N tries it, and in my opinion they miss the point.  Every one of 'em I've seen has a shelf labeled something like "staff picks."  But the problem with their attempt is that I don't know Ed.  I don't know Marie.  Not knowing Ed or Marie (despite the fact that I probably walked past both of 'em already while shopping), I really don't care what they think of the books in the Staff Pick shelf.  It's the connection, not the label, that matters. 

That's what smart bookstores understand, I believe, and it's also what the other bookstores are missing.  Connect with the customer, find out what he's looking for, get him into a conversation, and you'll sell books.  Present pristine long aisles with stack after stack of impersonal choices and let him wander around, and he'll shop.  You may sell a book, or you may sell a book for Amaz--er, a major online retailer--or you may sell nothing at all.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

To buy a book

"There is no mistaking a real book when one meets it. It is like falling in love." - Christopher Morley

Note: This is Part 2 of a 3-part series.

Yesterday's post described a strange transaction.  Short version: I went into a book store intending to buy nothing.  I bought a book before I left.

Question: Why did I buy a book when my intent was to buy nothing?

a.  The lady behind the counter held a gun to my head.
b.  The book store owner had said she wouldn't carry any of my books if I didn't buy any books from her.
c.  The cover was orange.
d.  The reviews on Amazon.com, which I surreptitiously checked on my smart phone while standing there, were overwhelmingly positive.
e.  Somebody named Steve said it was good.

Answer:  Nah, not gonna make it that quick & easy.  Instead, I'll ask you to bear with me for a bit.

So, the "lady" has a name, and as I recall it's Heather.  Actually, that's a stretch of the truth--as I look it up on their Facebook page is more accurate.  Hey, I can barely remember my own name much of the time, and I'm horrible with others' names.  Regardless, she held no gun that I could see, nor did she threaten in any other way.  Nor was there any bribery or extortion involved in the talk done by Kelly, the owner.  I mean, in her talk she did suggest that we as authors just might wanna consider supporting local bookstores, but there's a big jump from there to an evil requirement for mutual back-scratching.

So no, a and b are incorrect.

What about option c?  Nope, I don't like orange that much.  In truth, I don't like it at all.  The bright day-glow cover did cause me to notice the book, certainly, but I sure as hell didn't pull money out of my pocket to purchase the book based on a brightly-colored cover bathed in a color I dislike. 

As for d, it's interesting.  Last December I posted about an article based on a study that found a lot of people doing the opposite, shopping in a physical bookstore and making the purchase online.  Frankly, either method, shopping physical and buying online or shopping online and buying physical, sounds like smart consumerism as both allow the buyer to take all available information into account.  I can see where that would tick bookstore owners off, though.  It's got to be no fun paying for shelf space to display products that are just going to be purchased elsewhere.

All that said, no, I didn't even touch my cell phone, smart though it may be, during the transaction.  Come to think of it, I didn't even read the back of the darn book.  That's a huge change from how I buy books at one of those big block stores with initials like B and N, by the way.  But I wasn't shopping at B, or N, or any other big block store.  Instead, I was at a store where the person was doing it right.  I was engaged in conversation.  While I glanced down at the book in my hands several times, I was more interested in talking about local books and authors with Heather than I was in focusing my attention on reading the text on the back.  I certainly wasn't about to pull out my cell phone and start researching.

Retailers of all stripes, take this into account.  Now that all the Interweb's tubes go all over the place as well as through the air into your shop, your customers have too many other ways to research and make purchases for you to avoid engaging them in the manner that they want to be engaged.  You can't stop them short of putting up cell jammers (don't laugh--I've heard it mentioned) but all that will do is cause your customers to not come to your store in the first place. 

How do you know how they want to be engaged?  Well, you could ask.  Come to think of it, I don't recall the folks at Borders ever asking me what I was looking for in a book store experience.  Or you could do it like the report I read in the NYT yesterday (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/business/barnes-noble-taking-on-amazon-in-the-fight-of-its-life.html?_r=1) said Barnes & Noble is doing it:

Last year, the company expanded sections for toys and games and added shiny new display space for its Nook devices. In another sign of the digital revolution, Mr. Lynch expects to eliminate the dedicated sections for music and DVD’s within two years — while still selling some of them elsewhere in the stores. He also plans to experiment with slightly smaller stores.

Yeah, I think toys and games and shiny display space to see the Nooks is exactly what a book-purchasing customer wants.

Okay, I admit, that last sentence was a skosh sarcastic. But do you agree that maybe it's silly to give the customer what you think he wants rather than what he thinks he wants?  Oh, and--smaller stores.  There's an idea.  Let's make B&N look more like the small stores they've put out of business over the past couple of decades.  I'm sure people will buy more books then.

(Sarcasm switch is now securely in the OFF position)

Anyway, back to the question at hand: if you said e, Somebody named Steve said it was good, then I reply ding!  Ding ding ding!  Yes, Heather doesn't read that genre much, but the bookstore employee named Steve who does, apparently raves about how good that book is, and Heather pays attention.  No, I don't know Steve.  He's got a name which suggests a high level of intelligence, character, and discernment (*ahem*) but I really don't know him.  On the other hand, now that I've had the conversation at the counter, I know Heather, and Heather knows him, and that's enough to take a chance on buying the book. 

I bought it.  And I'm glad I did.  More on that, tomorrow.