Thursday, August 31, 2006

Tiny Planets, Big Egos, and Unintended Consequences

Last week the International Astronomical Union (IAU) passed a resolution that stripped Pluto of its traditional (at least since its discovery in 1930) designation as one of the planets of the solar system.

This was a knee-jerk (and in my opinion, wrong-headed, mean-spirited, ill-conceived, and premature) reaction to an earlier and more elegant proposal that would not only have reaffirmed Pluto's status, but immediately added the largest of the asteroids orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, Pluto's "satellite" Charon (due to a minor technicality they would have been designated as a twin-planet) and the unofficially designated "Xena," a recently discovered Pluto-like body located in the distant suburbs of the solar system. Not nine planets. Twelve.

But apparently what really frosted the astronomers was the almost certainty that we'll be discovering many more bodies like Pluto and Xena in the coming years. Dozens, possibly hundreds wait to be discovered out in the dark fringes of our celestial neighborhood.

This, according to the arbitrary will of the astronomers, is just too darned many. And with this vote, the truth about planetary astronomers is finally revealed. They are the under-achievers of science.

Not only can't they remember more than nine planets, nine is apparently too many so they've cut back to eight. We're talking Science for Dummies here. (And I don't mean to paint stellar astronomers with the same brush, as, according to one well-known source, they keep track of "billions and billions" of stars. Impressive.)

Compare this to chemists, who seemed to have no trouble with a periodic table that had more than 90 elements, even before the physicists started making more. Given the current 116 confirmed elements, we can only assume that they are, on average, about 14.5 times as smart as a typical planetary astronomer (up from about 12.888 times just days earlier).

One can only imagine if planetary astronomers were in charge of the periodic table. Certainly they'd have eliminated all the radioactive elements ("...anything unstable enough to have a 'half-life' just shouldn't be considered an element...").

Probably there are other places they would have cut back. Noble gases? "Don't interact with anything enough to be worth mentioning." Hydrogen? "Too darned light." Actually, they could have gone for four, well within the established mental capacity of a planetary astronomer: earth, fire, water and air. "If it was good enough for the Greeks..."

Or compare that to that most garden-variety version of the scientific mind, the family physician. They seem to have little trouble dealing with the more than 200 bones in the adult, human, skeleton, or even the 270 or so bones in a newborn (many fuse together as the baby grows).

Certainly, planetary astronomers would have long-ago cut loose the bones of the inner ear (too small, too different, and not connected to anything), or the thyroid bone that anchors your tongue muscles (also not connected to the rest of the skeleton). Heck, ribs, vertebra, those little things inside your fingers and toes? All similar members of a large class of objects, not worth calling bones. Heck, with a couple voting meetings of it IAU, I think they could get it down to the skull and pelvis, and we're really not so sure about the pelvis.

For that matter, as I recall from when I was a child and my mother was studying for her cosmetology license, even they were required to learn basic anatomy, including the bones of the body. So when you get right down to it, planetary astronomers aren't even smart enough to be hair-dressers. (It also means that my mother is, statistically speaking, many times smarter than any planetary astronomer on -- well -- the planet. Hi mom!)

Okay, okay, I'm having some good-natured fun here at the expense of my astronomer friends. (Well, I'll admit, that most of my science friends are physicists, mathematicians, or chemists, but you shouldn't read too much into that.) But I'm also making a point. My astronomer friends seems to be suspiciously eager to keep the planetary club small and exclusive. In turn, their reasons and reasoning seem, at least, questionable.

The original proposal for a definition of planet seemed simple and elegant enough. A planet would have been any body that has achieved a spherical shape through the action of its own gravity, and which follows an independent path around the sun. The new proposal reads more like an excerpt from the tax code, and in requiring that a planet have cleared its orbit of other bodies, may mean that we'd end up with no planets! (Pluto's orbit crosses that of Neptune, for instance, and many asteroids cross the orbits of the inner planets, including Earth.) Advocates of the new system complain about possible ambiguities of the earlier proposal (define "spherical," for instance), but ignore the big glass of muddy water they've served up in its place.

And though they rationalize their objections to the first proposal, it all seems to come down to "too many planets." I don't seriously think that objection is because they can't keep track of them all, which leaves me to wonder what their concern is. Could it possibly be that discovering a new planet was once one of the greatest achievements in astronomy? Maybe the idea that dozens, perhaps hundreds of such discoveries could be made in a single generation, just plain sucks all the special out of it. Or maybe its that those few astronomers positioned to make those discoveries could get just a little too famous too fast for some people's tastes.

Okay, I don't know that much about astronomy, but as a writer, I do know a thing or two about the importance of words. Even under the new system, Pluto and its icy kin would still be known as "minor planets," so what's the big deal?

It's just this: Defining terms are important. None of the definitions proposed for a planet seems to have much scientific value. Mercury isn't much like Jupiter, and never will be. There are many satellites in the solar system that we'd probably be happy to call planets, if they weren't already orbiting something else. All that's really being proposed is an arbitrary line in the sand that satisfies somebody's inflated sense of order. Over here the important bodies of the solar system. Over here, the other stuff.

Defining something as a planet gives it importance that has real-world (no pun intended) consequences. The most obvious example is NASA's New Horizons probe currently on its way to explore Pluto. Sending probes to study the outer solar system is incredibly expensive and technically challenging, so much so that New Horizons almost didn't fly. Would it have even been considered if Pluto had not, at the time, still been commonly designated a planet? I think not.

Then consider the thousands of smaller consequences. Will new astronomers be as interested in devoting their careers to the study of "minor planets," as opposed to the possibility of actually discovering a planet (even if it is only one of many)? Will as much grant money be devoted to "minor planets?" Will papers be as readily published? Will telescope time be allocated? Awards given out? Will studying "minor planets" get you tenure as fast as study of "real" ones? Will school-children even find them worth learning about?

The unintended consequence here is that the IAU has slammed the door shut on the newest (to our eyes) and potentially most exciting part of the solar system. We're just learning that the solar system is a much bigger and more complex place than we'd ever imagined. This is something worth of our attention and study. It is not "minor," it is "major" by any reasonable definition.

It would be ironic if we turned our back on the distant reaches of our solar system simply to salve a few swollen egos back on Earth. Yet according to the IAU, the final frontier should be very final indeed.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

More dangerous things

The times we live in. I soon expect you'll only be able to make a transatlantic flight naked, handcuffed, and sedated. You just don't know if you should laugh or cry. But personally, I prefer laughter.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Universal Untruth (Yet another writing post)

They say that anyone who attempts to defend his or her self in court has a fool for a client. Well, let's translate that to writing perspective. The writer who tries to critique their own work has a fool for a judge.

Let me illustrate my point with a little slice from my writing life:

A few weeks ago, my wife heard that Denise Little, an anthology editor she's worked with, had come up short on an upcoming anthology. Several of the people on her invited list of writers had come in much shorter than usual, so she needed 10K words, and she needed them fast, so the book could be turned in. Chris immediately wrote her and said that one or both of us would come up with stories for her.

Mind you, "fast" in this case meant we heard about it on Friday, and she needed stories by the middle of the following week. Mind you, this was a theme anthology, the working title being "Front Lines," and so not just any story would do.

Sub-lesson #1 here for the aspiring and new writers in our midst: this is the sort of situation that separates the writers from the neos. The ability to produce work quickly, on time, to specification, and to market, is a highly valued skill in the marketplace. When these sorts of opportunities come along, and they will from time to time, the ability to follow-through will get you far.

So, kudos to Chris here. She very quickly came up with a fantasy idea, wrote it, mailed it over the weekend, and had a sale by Monday. That's professionalism for you.

I, on the other hand, was struggling. I had a seed of an idea, derived from my hobby of collecting GI Joes (and similar 12" action figures) and my childhood love of GI Joe, Major Matt Mason, and their kin. It also played on the sad fact that childhood is an endangered institution. These days, kids seem to go straight from diapers to video games, computers, cell-phones, and I-pods loaded with gangsta-rap. They're giving up traditional toys younger and younger, and simply never take to them with the enthusiasm that earlier generations did. It's my feeling that with the loss of that imaginative and unstructured play, we're losing something important from our culture, something that may come back to bite us in the ass later.

So, okay, I had a subject, and a theme, but I didn't have a story. I decided my protagonist would be "Backyard Joe," a tired old action figure who was still holding down the trenches in an overgrown back yard, long after the kids have gone on to other things. Valiantly, he guards his post against an unseen enemy that seems to lurk just beyond the high grass. His only companion is the "Limey" (a character in fact inspired by Action Man, GI Joe's counterpart in the UK) an action figure who seems even more broken down and dispirited than he is.

All this is good, but this gives us a character, in a situation, with a somewhat loosely defined problem. That's an opening, but it isn't a story, and that's where I struggled. I had a vague idea of where it might end, but I wasn't at all sure how to get there. The bridging events, the dark moment, the turning point of the story; these things were all missing. Even if I can make it work, there didn't seem to be enough meat there. The story needed to be at least 2000 words long, and I didn't see how I was going to make that with what I had.

So I write a little. I stare at the screen. I write a little more. I stare. I'm stuck. I hate most of what I've written. I hate the whole idea. Several times I'm tempted to throw it away and try to come up with a new idea, but I've got nothing, and I know that I'm probably just trading the devil I know for one I don't.

For me, the darkest moment was probably when Chris got word of her sale. I still was no closer to finishing, and I was starting to feel like a total fraud. (This is the kind of place where jealousy can rear its ugly head, and that's why I'm very wedded to the idea that other people's success is their own, and has nothing to do with you. You succeed or fail based on your own work. Other people's success can't hurt you professionally. It can bang your ego around, though, if you're busy having self-doubts.)

To put this in perspective, I've got a stack of novels under my belt, plus scripts, computer games, and other things. I've sold a fair number of short stories, including to major sf/f markets like Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and to anthologies as well. But most of these sales were years ago, before I got distracted writing tie-in novels. More recently I've written stories under contract for tie-in anthologies, but not much original short fiction. Yeah, I can write a novel, but short-stories are a much different skill set.

So this is the part where the highly-trained writer brain starts making things up, starting with, "you're a fraud." Followed by "you can't do this," and "you never even knew how to do this, the other sales were flukes." That's what the writer brain does. It makes things up, and in that, it is often not your friend.

So this is also the part where many, maybe most, would-be writers give up. The difference with a pro is that (most days, anyway) they bull their way through. Maybe you justify it on the thought that, "maybe the editor will be so desperate for words they'll buy even this crap," if that's what it takes. But the professional thing to do is to keep going.

And I did. I figured out an approach, and by Tuesday evening I was over the considerable hump and headed for the ending. I'd managed to flesh out my story a bit, so that it easily went past 2000 words. I even got a good emotional hit while writing the ending, which I normally take as a very good sign.

In this case though, I was still a doubter. I was writing about something very personal to me. I got it, but would anyone else? Were my action-figure references too obscure, too "inside-joke" for the average reader? Had I written a "guy story" that my female editor just wouldn't get, or worse, just wouldn't like? Was it too sentimental? Was the ending too abstract?

The tragedy is, even at this point, some people still give up. The story goes in a drawer (literal or digital) never to emerge again, because the writer isn't sure that it will sell. Well, let me tell you, there's no certainty in this business, but if you don't submit it, you'll never know, and if you don't submit it, it can't sell.

By the time I'd gotten to my computer in the morning, there was a note from Denise saying that she was buying the story. I replied, thanking her, and saying "glad you liked the story."

To my surprise, I immediately got back a note starting, "Liked it, hah! I loved it!" It then went on to further praise the story's virtues. (Normally I wouldn't share the contents of such correspondence in public, and I hope Denise doesn't mind, as I do so only because it's necessary to the point I'm making.)

My first major point is, the writer is almost always the poorest judge of their own work. That doesn't mean that you can't look at your drafts and say, "this and this would make it better." You make this kinds of judgments with every word you choose to type.

What it means is that, when it comes to making critical judgments as to the over-all value or quality of the work, the writer's perspective is hopelessly skewed. This is a vital lesson for every aspiring writer to learn. You can have a first reader, of course, but any reader you know well enough to be worth trusting on other merits is probably too close to you to be entirely unbiased. Ultimately, the only test, imprecise though it is, of the merits of your work is to put it out in the marketplace, and see what happens.

Mind you, just because you think its crap, doesn't mean it isn't. In the beginning, especially, it quite possibly is. Don't worry about it. Mail it. Nobody is going to hold it against you for trying.

But as time goes on, and you've made some sales, it will be less and less likely that it's crap, no matter what the little critical-voice in your head says. Odds are it's at least competent. On good days, it may be far better than that. Maybe surprisingly better.

My second major point is that it isn't unusual to hit a point in the process where you're unhappy with what you're writing and lose confidence in yourself. Maybe some writers skip past that (and I envy them), but in my experience talking with many, many writers is that (for novels at least) it happens to a lot of writers at some point in every project. Knowing that it's usual, that others suffer from it, and that your critical-voice is entirely untrustworthy at this point; is a starting point in fighting your way over the barriers.

If you write, or want to write, and this hasn't happened to you, it probably will. How you respond to this challenge will be a major hurdle in your journey to professional success.

Keep writing.

I'm well behind in my posting here, and I've read a number of interesting things recently that I'd like to talk with you about, several of them writing related. Hopefully you'll be seeing some more major postings here from me in the next few days.

Meanwhile, remember that I post a new Minons at Work cartoon panel every Monday. Check it out, check back, and share it with your friends.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Kudos for Chris

The upcoming anthology Fantasy Gone Wrong features a story by my wife, Chris, and it's just been singled out for praise in a Publisher's Weekly review.

Yahoo, Chris!

Friday, July 14, 2006

Another year gone

For me anyway. It's my birthday today. I'm looking forward to tonight's dinner (a bunch of the local writers at a local Chinese/Sushi place that's pretty good). There will be gifts, but I don't have huge expectations. I'm the hardest person on Earth to shop for, and if I want it and it doesn't cost a mint, there's a fair chance I already own it, or if I don't own it, I don't have any place to put it!

Which isn't to say gifts aren't fun and there might be some happy surprises, but they aren't what this is about any more. It's about friendship (not family this time, unfortunately, as most of the family is too far away to attend), and there aren't many things more important, or that I value more highly.

Overall, it's a pretty good life at the moment. I've got a wife I love. I live at the beach. I'm not rich, but I'm far from broke. I had four novels come out in the last birth-year (the Age of Conan trilogy in late 2005, plus my Mechwarrior book Trial by Chaos last month). The kids seem to be doing great.

Out there on the horizon, the world is going to hell, but here at Hangar 18, for the moment, knock on wood, things are good.

Monday, July 10, 2006

New Minions Warning -- er -- Alert

A fresh Minions toon can be seen tonight on the WB!

No, wait, the WB is toast. Maybe you'll find right now at Minions at Work instead.

MechWarrior Dark Age Q&A

This post is aimed for my MechWarrior readers. The rest of you can read or skip as you wish. Even MechWarrior readers should be warned that it contains some minor but important spoilers for Trial by Chaos (though I'm not sure how much sense they'll make out of context anyway, if you haven't read the book). If you intend to read it, you probably will want to do so first, then check back.

Now, on with the program.

I love fan mail (the polite and sane kind, anyway!), and try to reply when I can. A few days back, a comment here asked some questions that may have some wider interest, so I'm answering them in the form of a blog post.

I really loved Trial By Chaos, and I will be watching (hopefully reading :) ) the direction the Ghost Bears are headed for, but one thing has me chomping at the bit to find out more about... The Final Codex.. I know i am not the only MW junkie jonesing for it, any chance we will see it soon?

Thank you,
John Ingram

Thanks for your kind words, John. I'm very glad you enjoyed the book.

I can understand your curiosity about The Final Codex. I'm curious too!

Fact is, I was intentionally vague about The Final Codex, in part because I didn't want to reveal too much about it if it wasn't necessary to the plot, and in part because I wasn't sure when I proposed it how Wiz Kids was going to respond to the idea. In fact, my proposal for the book is careful to point out that we could end the book with the Codex being an obvious fraud, or leave it ambiguous.

To my surprise, they were very open to the idea, and I think you can take it as official canon that The Final Codex exists, or at least, it existed, and that the version the Ghost Bears see will have at least some of that text. But it's likely that they won't see all of it, and that some of what they see will be modified, and that there will be some creative additions made to support the agenda of the Freeminders and the U-Khan.

Of course, the question you're asking is, will the fans ever get to see the contents of The Final Codex?

I think the answer is a definite, "maybe."

The only copy we know for sure that still exists is with the Freeminders, but it suggests that the Ghost Bear Loremasters may have an copy somewhere. It seems probable that at one time all the clans had a copy. Now, it also seems likely that the Crusader clans might have had reason to "lose" their copies at some point, but perhaps some copies still exist among the Warden Clans, or even the Unnamed. These could well surface at some point. So maybe some more of the text will be revealed over time.

The problem being, the odds are slim that I will get to be the one to do it.

You see, one of the frustrations of writing the Dark Age books is that MechWarrior Dark Age is the ADD kid of book lines. Because the books chase along after the ongoing game releases, tournaments, and campaigns, I keep getting bounced from faction to faction, and books and characters that I'd love to follow up on get left behind.

For example, when I was writing "Fortress of Lies," I was setting up Duke Sandoval for his downfall, which did happen, in a book written by my pal Loren Coleman. I don't mind that, since Erik is really Loren's character anyway. But as I was writing the book, the story I really wanted to write was about Aaron in exile. I want to tell the story of what happens to him after he's had his butt kicked and almost everything he considers important stripped of him. From my point of view, he was already a fascinating character, but in exile, he just gets cranked up to 11.

But instead, I got to write about the Ghost Bears. Not that this wasn't, once again, a nifty book to write, but again, we've got a really interesting bunch of characters, and a situation that didn't resolve with the end of that story. I'd love to revisit them. But alas, I'm off to some other factions for the next book (I'm plotting to find a way to bring Aaron back, but I have no idea if that's going to happen).

So, if I get back to my little splinter of the Ghost Bears, it will be a while. Maybe some other writer will get to do it first, which would be disappointing for me, but par for the course.

None of this should be taken as a criticism of Wiz Kids or the wonderful people I work with there. It's just business, and I fully understand why they do things the way they do.

So, what can you do about the situation? Well, I have some suggestions that might at least help.

First of all, write Wiz Kids and Roc (the publishers) and let them know that you liked the book, and that you'd like a follow-up (and hopefully, that you'd like me to write it, but that's your choice).

Second, you can support the book. If it's successful beyond the norm for a MechWarrior book, then they'll have more incentive to publish a follow-up. Encourage your friends to buy it. Talk it up on the various MechWarrior, Battletech, and other forums where you hang out. Post positive reviews on Amazon and other on-line bookstores. Plug it on your blog, MySpace, or web page.

Now, I'll admit this is a steep hill to climb, but if you're like me, you like a desperate battle against overwhelming odds. So wipe that blood off your chin, slam the throttle against the stops, and tell them, "bring it!"

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Writers along the highway

Well, we're back from vacation. Obviously I didn't find time to post from the road, so I'll be backfilling here at some point. We had a good (if tiring trip). One enjoyable aspect was the opportunity to visit with writer friends, old and new, up and down the west coast.

Our first stop was on the way down, where we stopped in the Bay Area long enough to have an enjoyable Chinese dinner with our friends Mark Budz and Marina Fitch. Both are novelists, and Mark gave me an advance-reading copy of his upcoming novel Idolon. This is Mark's third novel. His previous books, Clade and Crache were released to great critical acclaim (Publishers Weekly compares him to William Gibson) but just haven't gotten the reader attention they deserve. You should really check out Idolon when it's released this month, and see what you've been missing.

Then we trekked down to my old high-school stomping-grounds of North San Diego County and had a three-hour lunch (cue Gilligan's Island theme)with my old friend Gordon McComb and his wife Jennifer. Gordon and I used to collaborate back in my high-school and college days, and we did a number of student films together back in the day. My first professional publication (see a bit of it here and here) was an article in the old Science & Mechanics magazine written with Gordon.

Gordon went on to become a computer journalist and writer of technology books (everything from word processing software, to home robotics, to how to program your VCR so the number stops blinking). He was very successful, and even occasionally threw some work my way when I was still doing that kind of stuff. I knew he'd cut back on the writing lately, but I didn't know why.

Seems Gordon had people come up to thank him for his books, and then go on to describe the huge sums they were making as consultants based entirely on his work, far more than he was making on the books themselves! So these days, he's focused on his own consulting firm serving corporate clients and leaving the sucker-work -- er -- books, to somebody else. Gordon also continues indulging his long-standing interest in robotics, and has started his own small company to manufacture and market robot components, Budget Robotics.

Anyway, I haven't seen Gordon in years, and it was great to have a chance to catch up. Maybe I can convince he and Jennifer to bail out of Southern California before the Big One hits and move to the northwest (probably just in time for a volcano to erupt, but...).

Finally, on the way home, we stopped off in Eugene, Oregon for dinner with our friends Sean and Rose Prescott, and Adrian Phoenix. It's the first time we've seen Adrian since she sold her first novel, a vampire book, on a two-book deal to Pocket. Her novel will be used to launch an entirely new book line for Pocket, so they're obviously impressed. This is very exciting news, and overdue. Adrian is a fine writer with a unique voice. So, if you'd like a chance to get in on the ground-floor with someone who could be the next Anne Rice, you should look for the name Adrian Phoenix in months and years to come.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Herbie road-trip

We're leaving the cats with a sitter tomorrow and headed off in Herbie for a long over-due road trip. Good for us, good for the car (diesels really need to be run out, and we do far too many short trips). We're headed down to Lake Elsinore in California to visit our son and his family, with a side-trip to Las Vegas for a couple days.

I'll try to take some pictures, and possibly check in during the trip if anything of note happens.

See you in a few days.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

New book out (and Minion guest-appearance)

I realized that I have announced the arrival of my new Mechwarrior book in stores everywhere but here. Duh. Well Chris loved my in-character announcement over on my Minions at Work cartoon blog so much, that I've decided to repost it here (and save my self a few minutes in the process).

So, let's turn things over to Minion No. 1 (he hates it when you call him "No One.")

Greetings, comrade-dudes!

I am totally cutting into my vital pretzel-break time to bring you the important news of a new novel just released, written by Minions creator J. Steven York! Is called "Trial by Chaos," which pretty much describes the morning I've, I will tell you! This is his second novel in the Mechwarrior Dark Age series, set in the ever-popular Battletech universe.

I am totally urging you to run right out and buy this book on Amazon, Barnes and Nobel, Powells, or ask for it at your local book retailer.

No. Wait. I must totally be thinking like management if I am ever to be promoted. Do not ask. Demand this book.

You will be all like: "if you do not order this book from the nearest distributor, I will use my orbiting solar-death-mirrors to reduce your world to a blackened ball of carbon!" And they'll be like: "But we have it on the shelf right over here." And you'll be like, "oh, I never know if books like this are shelved according to series or author name." And they'll be like, "yes, different stores do it different ways, but there it is." And you'll be like, "well thanks for your help. Sorry about the solar-death-mirrors thing." And they'll like rip off their rubber disguise mask and shout, "but we've tricked you into revealing your evil plan! Now you can never succeed, Minion No. 1!"

I have just been busted in my own, imaginary scenario. That is so lame.

Just buy the book, because Steve pays the bills here, and without your support, you know what this means: mustard-cutbacks. Buy it for me. Buy it for my pretzel.

Later, dudes. Salty-buttery goodness totally awaits.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Did you get your Monday Minions fix?

It's Monday, and I just posted a toothsome new Minions cartoon over at Minions at Work. Check it out. Tell your friends. Alert the media. Lock your doors.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

Peace at last!

Well, not in the middle-east, but here on Tsunami Ridge, where our big tom-cat Oz has decided to accept the new kitten, Sydney. Not only is he putting up with her, he's actively encouraging her to play.

This is great for everyone in the house. Oz, because he was lonely, lethargic, and neurotic without his buddy Banzai (our 3-year old cat who passed away several months back). Sydney, because she was lonely too, and at just under six-weeks-old, still much in need of a cat role-model. Us, because it's keeping Oz happy and distracted for the first time in forever, and because it's helping to burn off a lot of that kitten energy and aggression that's been wearing us out.

These two are great to watch together. What's most amusing about it, is that Oz is usually content to let Sydney be the aggressor, leading her on wild chases around the house. Despite superficial appearances, these are his idea.

If he doesn't want to be bothered, there will be hissing, and a swat or two if she bothers him. But when he decides it's play-time, he makes his intentions clear. Sometimes, he'll hide and ambush her, but when he leaps out and surprises her, he'll immediately turn and run so she can chase him.

But it's the relative size-difference that really makes it a hoot. Sydney is growing rapidly, but she's only about two and a quarter pounds, and a lot of that is the pot-belly he has from his constant eating. Oz, on the other hand, is 14+ pounds of athletic muscle and fur. To watch that tiny dark kitten chasing a streak of orange fur many times her size is just something to see.

That's why I decided to post some pictures today that include both of them, just for a sense of scale. Here's Oz in one of his favorite spots, sitting on top of Chris' beading tool-box, watching the front yard for evil birds or bunnies. Sydney is creeping in from the right, watching Oz "hunt," and maybe seeing if she can interest him in a game of tag. (Remember you can click on the thumbnails above for the full-sized pictures.)

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A "Generation X" movie?

Some of you may be aware that a few years back I did a couple of novels, "Crossroads" and "Genogoths," based on a now-canceled Marvel Comic called "Generation X." The comic, which had a troubled creative and editorial history was great in concept. Xavier's School for mutants had become so focused on the X-Men and their agenda that a new school, the Xavier Institute, was formed elsewhere to carry on it's original mission, to locate young mutants and teach them to use and control their powers. One of the headmasters was Emma Frost, the White Queen, a reformed evil-mutant with her own troubled history of dealing with young mutants.

I loved doing those books, I'm very pleased with how they turned out, and I came to love the characters. And because so much of their development in the comics was vague or contradictory, I've always had a somewhat proprietary feeling about them.

This is based on nothing what-so-ever of course. The characters belong to Marvel (one of the wages of writing tie-ins, discussed elsewhere), and neither of my novels is considered "canon," that is, part of the "official" history of the characters. But I love my little dead-end stub of Marvel's X-Men, and I'm still proud to have been associated with them.

But despite the worthy concept (there was even a Fox network pilot for a TV series, aired as a TV movie but never picked up) and some sound characters to work with, the comic was ultimately doomed. The creative staff changed again and again. Various editorial hands pulled it this way and that. Jay Farber (who I had the pleasure of meeting just as he was taking over the book) did his best, but I think the editors never let him run with his ideas. Larry Hamma, best known for updating GI Joe back in the 80s, had an infamous run. If ever creator and subject matter seemed a bad fit, this was it. There were brief moments of glory, but Marvel never seemed to understand what the fans clearly did, that this was a gem in the rough.

The comic was canceled just as it seemed to be finding its legs, and most of the characters passed into oblivion. In fact, most of the characters are dead (as dead as anyone gets in the Marvel Universe) now, or changed almost beyond recognition. I expected that Generation X would never live again.

Well, that's still probably correct. But I was given a ray of hope today by an article in USA Today. Given the huge success of X3, a number of possible spin-offs are in the works. Here's a brief quote from the article:

"We've also talked about doing something on the kids in (Professor X's) school, focusing on their lives, and less of a global adventure for the team," says Hutch Parker, production president of 20th Century Fox.

Hey, I have an idea? Why not put them in a motor-home and take them on a cross-country trip where they fight injustice? Okay, okay, there will be ice-skating in hell first...

Actually, this is likely not the Generation-X that I knew. It could also be adapted from the "New Mutants," comic, or (this is probably most likely) be "X-Men Junior" featuring some of the younger character from the movie like Ice Man, Shadowcat, and Angel. (But there's former Generation-Xer Jubilee, who has appeared briefly in all three movies! Go Jubilee!).

Ironically, in addition to the previously discussed Wolverine and Magneto sequels, they have one more on the table:

The studio is also exploring a movie with Three Kings director David O. Russell based on the character of Emma Frost, a sexy mutant telepath who can transform her skin into diamonds. She is an X-Men comics regular but was not featured in the movies.

Maybe four is two many. Maybe if you guys just combined two of your ideas...

Yeah, dream on.

Monday, May 29, 2006

New Minions

It's Monday, so there must be a new Minions cartoon posted over at Minions at Work. Check it out. Tell your friends.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Horrors! Oh, Horrors!

At the risk of starting a flame-war, I simply can't resist responding to this recent comment here:

Found this blog through a conan site (remember the Superman III incident) and after reading a little, I am shocked at how "industrialized" writing has become. I had no idea that there was this group of mercenary writers pumping out cookie cutter stories. Not because that's what they wanted but because it paid the bills.
Are we living in the light beer age of writing? Will technology soon allow a new age of liberated authors to write great books similar to the recent explosion in microbrews?

I never fail to be amazed at the surreal and romantic notions that people have about writers, publishing and "literature" (however you want to define that last term). Publishing is a business, and it's been "industrial" since the invention of movable type and/or the printing press.

I don't really know where the notion came from of the lonely, alcoholic writer starving for their art, chiseling their masterpieces word by painful word, stuffing the pages in a drawer for posterity.

Fact is, its very difficult to find a writer who doesn't at least aspire to "pay the bills" through their works, even if that means publishing in obscure literary magazines to support a academic career, or taking to the lecture circuit to speak to the legions of people who would like to pretend to have read your work.

That doesn't mean I'm saying all writers are in it for the money, including myself. Sure, there are some very, very rich writers (look at J.K. Rowling, for God's sake!), but in general, there are far easier and more certain ways to get rich. Heck, there are far easier and certain ways to become middle-class. If you want money, there are better ways to go about it, and I think every writer knows that.

Most professional writers write because they love to write, because they have to write. It's only logical that these people try turn their inescapable obsession into some kind of paying gig. Otherwise, you have to keep a dreaded "day-job," and it cuts into your writing time.

Sell more, sell better, write more, spend less time flipping burgers. It's a pretty simple formula that's worked for a very long time. If you love to write, you hope to sell.

Of course, though the author of the comment doesn't specifically say so, I suspect they're taking a pot-shot at "tie-in" writers, people who (like me) turn out books based on existing properties and universes, comic books, computer games, TV shows, movies, etc. Ah, well, anybody in this business is used to it. We're used to being dissed, even sometimes by our fellow writers. It was exactly that situation that lead to the recent formation of the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers, an organization created to promote and honor the writers engaged in this challenging and under-appreciated area of publishing.

Though I'm a member, I'll be honest that I don't know why it's necessary. Those of us in the business know the score, and I really don't care what the world-at-large thinks. My goal is to entertain my readers with the best book I can produce, and enjoy myself in the process. Most days I think I accomplish that. Not always, but most days. I'm content to let history sort our the literature.

Of course the implication of any such criticisms is that any tie-in book is inherently inferior in some way to any original work of literature, which is simply nonsense. Hacks don't last long in this business. And no matter how good you are as a writer, if you don't take your work seriously, if you can't put your best effort into it, then it's time to hang up your hat and call it a day.

Is one likely to find the pinnacle of 21st century literature shelved among the tie-in fiction? I doubt it, though it isn't impossible, and you'll certainly find a good number of fine and serious novels. For certain, you'll find a preponderance of enjoyable and entertaining books, many of which surpass their source material in every way.

Why do people think tie-in fiction is inferior? Well, first of all, there's the matter of its being based on existing material.

Perhaps the assumption is that the author is somehow limited or shackled by this preexisting structure. As if western literature and the novel form itself weren't a complex kind of structure to which the author is generally expected to conform. Writing with such strictures doesn't make things easy sometimes, but it's endlessly challenging and helps develop the author's skills. It can detract from the work, sure, but it can also be the annoying grain of sand that generates the perfect pearl.

As if many works of celebrated serious literature weren't derived from earlier literary works, historical figures, or characters of myth and legend. For instance, this year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize for literature, "March" by Geraldine Brooks is derived from the classic "Little Women," by Louisa May Alcott. In that respect (and admittedly, in that respect only), it differs from a Star Trek novel primarily in that it wasn't licensed or approved by the owner of the original work. Ms. Brooks just took a classic work in the public domain and used it as the springboard for her novel.

And it's even a broad generality to say that tie-in novels are automatically highly derivative. Most of my tie-in work, from Conan to MechWarrior has mainly used elements of concept and background. Virtually all the characters and their situations have been entirely original. Not all of it. The Star Trek and Generation -X books, for instance, have used mostly existing characters, but even then, many of the supporting characters are original to the work.

Then there's the matter that most tie-in fiction is produced under battlefield conditions. No waiting for the muse. No excuses (or none that your editor is likely to care about). No delivering a book radically different from the one you promised. It needs to be done. It needs to be done on deadline. It needs to be done to specification. It needs to fit the package we're prepared to market.

Does that hurt the quality of tie-in works? Sometimes, but less so than you'd think. Tie-in writers are, by definition, fast, and I could do a whole separate post (and I may, at some point) on the literary myth that fast means hackwork, and slow means quality. That isn't, in my experience, true at all. Sure, it's possible sometimes to push a novel too hard, to write it too fast, and that can hurt a book.

But in my experience, the natural pace of a book that's working well is pretty fast. When the book is moving slow, it's often a sign not of quality of care, but of a writer struggling with problems, or flailing around on a book they really don't understand yet. There are examples of great novels that took years or decades to produce, but I'll wager that if you could have been a fly on the wall, very little of that span was actually spent typing on the project at hand. Most was spent procrastinating, researching, throwing away false-starts, working on other projects, dealing with life, or flipping those infamous burgers.

Then there's the taint of writing "popular" fiction. Too many people like that Trek crap, so it can't be good. I'm convinced this is a legacy of the English class system. Anything attractive to the dirty masses is obviously not fit for the refined tastes of the literary upper-class.

This taint carries over to popular fiction as well, where its easy to turn one's nose up at bestsellers simply on the basis of their success. Yes, there's some pretty poor writing in the bestseller pockets at your local grocery store (though all of it is entertaining and successful on some profound level, of it would never be a bestseller). Yes, there are some books there written in a paint-by-numbers fashion that makes the most restrictive tie-in book pale by comparison. But there's also some damned fine stuff there on occasion.

If one defines literature as "works that will continue to be published, read, and appreciated long after the author is gone," (and admittedly, that's only one of many possible definitions), then I suspect that much of what will be read by future generations will filter through those best-seller lists, while other, more celebrated "literary" works fade into obscurity. It's easy to forget that Charles Dickens, for instance, was the Stephen King of his day, turning out commercial entertainments that were serialized in newspapers for the pleasure of the masses, or that "Moby Dick" was a huge bestseller, the "Da Vinci Code" of its day.

Oh, the hackwork. The bill-paying. The industry. The horror.

There's one other element to this comment that I'm going to address separately and less formally:

Are we living in the light beer age of writing? Will technology soon allow a new age of liberated authors to write great books similar to the recent explosion in microbrews?

The technology freely to self-publish via the internet has existed for over a decade. The technology to cheaply self-publish short-run print books via laser printers has existed since the 70s. I see no evidence that any of this has resulted in any flowering of literature. The creation of the blog may have made some kind of contribution to journalism and the field of non-fiction essays. But literature? The impact is virtually nil.

I think that's easy to explain. There's a misguided popular perception that the entire publishing industry and editorial process is a barrier that separates an vast and undiscovered trove of great books from their potential audiences. A single afternoon picking through the slush pile of any national publisher or magazine will quickly break you of that notion.

In fact, these institutions are a filtering mechanism, sifting through a sea of muck for the occasional fleck of literary gold, or at least somewhat impure silver.

Sure, some good stuff occasionally doesn't get published, or more rarely, a self-published book will be "discovered" and go on to major success through a conventional publisher. But I think these counter-examples say less about the industry, than about the failure of the authors to effectively and doggedly market their books. Good books are rejected every day for a zillion reasons, most of which have nothing to do with the quality of the book itself. But that doesn't mean that a good book isn't highly likely to sell somewhere with continued effort.

Technology isn't going to "save" us from the publishing industry. The publishing industry is saving us from people who only think they can write a book.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Kitten Picture of the day

Awww, ain't she cute? Of course, if you look closely, you can see the little blood specks under my beard where she clocked me while tiring herself out playing.

Ah, but it's my fault. I let her rough-house on my chest and encouraged her to play. I expect to spill some blood in this stage of training a kitten. There are only a couple of commands I expect a cat of ours to know, and the most important one is "OW!"

Don't laugh, I'm serious. "OW!" means "whatever you're doing hurts, stop immediately." The way I taught Oz and Banzai this was just to play with them when they were young, but when they grabbed on too hard with claws or teeth, I'd freeze and shout "OW!" in such a way that they knew play time was over until they backed off. They pick it up pretty quickly, though it occasionally meant just sitting there with claws in my arm for a while. Let's face it, yanking your arm back is just going to make the situation worse anyway. Better to tough it out and teach the cat a lesson.

With Sydney, I usually also put my hand on her and just gently hold her down so she can't play any more. I could never get away with that with Oz (too big and strong by the time we had him) or Banzai (who was just too wild as a kitten). Sydney actually plays pretty gently, but those little claws and teeth are sharp, and sometimes she gets carried away. I think she's going to be a strong cat like Oz, so I need to get her trained early.

Oh, the the regular Monday Minions cartoon post is up at Minions at Work.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

A Girl with Attitude

Okay, this is not the sort of edgy in-your-face stuff that I sometimes strive for in this blog, but hey -- kitten pictures!

After the sad and premature loss of our #2 cat Banzai a few months ago, it's become increasingly obvious that we had to get a companion, or companions for our remaining cat Oz. He's bored, needy, and increasingly neurotic. The willful personality that had made him so amusing when teamed with Banzai was becoming intrusive and annoying.

Don't get me wrong, he's a wonderful cat, and no way we'd trade him for anything, but he needed company. A possible solution arrived when a pregnant stray cat showed up at the nearby home of our friends Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Better yet, the stray showed characteristics marking her as likely being from the same family of strays that had produced Oz and several other wonderful cats previously adopted by Dean, Kris, and other friends.

The mother cat was feral, however, so catching her to have the babies in captivity proved to be out of the question. She threw herself at the bars on the carrier, and probably would have lost the kittens if they hadn't released her. So the hope was to wait until she had the kittens and they were old enough to wean, then catch her (for a trip to the vet to be fixed), and go track down the kittens for rescue and adoption.

We were willing to take a pair, and our friend Dan Duval was also willing to take a pair as companions for his lone cat. If there were more, we hoped to find homes for them as well.

As for how all this went, better to get the story from the source, as I wasn't one of the ones crawling under a house searching for hidden kittens. Serve it to say, there were only two surviving kittens, both girls. Dan got the quiet one. We got the feisty one.

We've named her "Sydney," after the lead character Sydney Bristow from "Alias" (Chris just having finished her second ALIAS novel, a character near and dear to us) because she was a girl who had attitude and could kick butt. You see, Sydney's default reaction to anything so far is to hiss, with option (but frequent) spitting. Swatting with the claws is also good.

Actually, despite her ongoing attitude thing, she's actually a very friendly little kitten, and has spent most of the afternoon and evening perched on one or the other of us sleeping, eating, and playing.

Since there were only two kittens to feed, both were rather large for their age. Sydney is the smaller of the two, but she's still large, and I suspect will be growing rapidly. They've very healthy, except that Sydney has a slight eye inflammation that should clear up with some salve the vet gave us.

Since the little girls weren't weaned, we're having to slip her over to solid food. Discovered very quickly that she loves beef baby food, as you can see from the photo. She ate probably two-thirds of the jar over a couple of hours. Hope to get her over to Science Diet kitten kibble in the next week.

The big hurdles now are getting her box-trained, and getting her and Oz to stop hissing and growling at each other. But the good news is that, despite being very jealous, Oz isn't being aggressive, and she isn't afraid of him (despite the fact that he weighs about ten times what she does). He hisses, and she just stares him down and hisses back. It will be interesting for the next couple weeks.

As for the box training, she's spending her nights and unsupervised times in a large kennel cage with a starter litter box. Hopefully we'll avoid any accidents until she figures it all out.

Yeah, that's what you came here to read about: litter boxes!

Friday, May 19, 2006

Minions on the Move (be sure to move with them)

The new Minions toon site, Minions at Work is live and running at:

Monday's new panel will be posted there, not at the old Minions for Hire site. You'll also find all the exisiting Minions material reposted at the new site as well, so you don't even need to bookmark the old one as an archive (it will go away at some point anyhow). I will post a reminder of the new panel there, and every week for a while, until I'm sure all traffic has been directed to the new site.

Please bookmark the new link and delete the Minions for Hire link. Once again, I ask your help in passing the new Minions at Work link far and wide.

I apologize again to the Dandelion Studios folks for accidently treading on the title of their comic. You'll find a link to their site on the new page as well. My way of saying, "sorry, dudes."

And sorry to my readers out there for this inconvenience so soon after we've started. Just to make it worth your while to visit the new page, I've added a little "DVD Extra" feature for Minions #6.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Flying Cars Redux

The current issue of Popular Science magazine has yet another article on the flying car concept. As I said in my earlier post on the subject, this is one of those ideas that is as irresistible as it is impractical. According to the article, the Terrifugia Transition will have two seats, no luggage space, and sell for $150,000, "about the same as a fully-loaded Ford GT."

Uh-huh. I think I'd go with the Ford GT, or maybe a new Corvette to park at each end of my commute, and a boat-load of airline tickets. In either case, it will probably have just as much room, be more fun, and be cheaper to insure.

I just can't see the market for these. But then, when has that ever been the attraction?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Cleaning out the news Junk Drawer

Mechwarrior Update

Confirmed today that the deadline for my untitled third MechWarrior Dark Age novel is being moved (for reasons totally unrelated to me) forward to early next year, rather than this summer as had originally be contracted.

This is fine with me, as (thanks to deadlines) I've hardly seen a spring or summer day in the last two years due to deadlines. The warm weather here on the Oregon coast doesn't last long enough that you can afford to waste it. I'm looking forward to puttering around the house (doing long-neglected repairs, improvements, and redecorating), and working on some original novels for a change.

Meanwhile, my second MechWarrior novel, Trial by Chaos, is still scheduled for release next month. I'll have some more to say about the background on this one when it starts to hit the shelves.

More Reasons Why Authors Don't Hand Out Free Books...

There is a strange expectation when people meet an author that the author has books to give them. It happens to me all the time. I'll meet someone in town, and it will come up in casual conversation that I'm an author. They'll say something like, "well I love to read. Bring me a copy and I'll read yours." Uh-huh.

Today a box arrived which finally contained the author copies for the first book in my "Anok, Heretic of Stygia" trilogy. This book has been out since last fall, and I had long ago gotten author's copies on books two and three of the trilogy. But somewhere the books for volume one were either lost in transit, or never sent, and once things got off the rails, it was hell getting them back on. I don't blame the nice folks at Ace books for this. These things happen, and in the great scheme of publishing, sending out author copies just isn't a huge priority. That's as it should be.

But in those months, I have given away a few copies of book one, to friends, relatives, contest prizes, and promotional copies. I bought all those copies at retail. And mind you, when I say that I got "author's copies," I don't mean cases of books. On this book, I got fifteen copies of each volume, and that's only because we negotiated the contract up from the boiler-plate figure of ten copies of each.

So, let's say that I put one copy on my "brag shelf." I keep another as a "beater" copy to haul around with me to show off. I call it a "beater," as it's likely to take some wear-and-tear in the process. I put away three or so copies for file and future use, and a put one as a shelf-copy in my office for reference. I send two or three copies out to immediate family, and give a few more to close friends. So that leaves me five or less copies for more casual friends, more distant family, promotional use, and whatever else comes along.

So if you meet a writer, don't automatically expect that they'll give you free books, no matter how much they like you, and if they do, be flattered. And if they do offer you a book from their own stocks, it would be polite to offer to pay for it, even if they don't ask, and to expect to pay full retail (since they may have to go buy a replacement copy at that price) and not some discounted amount. And if they give you a book, and won't take money for it, you should be flattered and properly appreciative. Perhaps they have a large stock of that title for some reason, but assume they're being especially nice to you.

Minions Update

You wouldn't know it from reading the Minions for Hire blog, where only a few comments have been posted, but I've been getting (via email and posts on other groups and lists) a lot of positive feedback on the Minions toons posted there so-far. Just as importantly, the stats show that people are following the link from Minions back to our main web-page, so the viral marketing aspects of this will work, as long as people actually visit the Minions blog in sufficient numbers.

Again, I ask your assistance in that. If you like the Minions, spread the link around to friends, family, or post it on mailing lists where you think it might be appropriate and appreciated (please don't go spamming on my account).

We're up to seven toons posted so far, and I have several more done and sitting on the hard-disk ready to post. My goal is to post a new one every Monday on an ongoing basis, and we'll see how it goes. I'm also thinking of setting up a Cafe Press store to sell Minions tee-shirts, mugs, and the like. I've got what I think are some very clever designs and slogans in mind for these items. I'll start work on this, once I get around to shooting some nice, posed group-shots of the Minions to work with. My goal is to produce shirts that will be funny even if you've never heard of the Minions before.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Meet the Minions

I've just opened my latest attempt at viral marketing for beta-test. It's a blog devoted to photo-toons featuring the Minions, generic stooges of the type who populate every super-villain installation, from Goldfinger's estate, to Dr. Doom's castle, to the Death Star. You know the type: interchangeable. Expendable. Not too bright.

These are their stories, as dramatized by 1/6th scale action figures.

Minions for Hire

Okay, maybe it's less an attempt at viral marketing than an excuse to play with my collection of action figures, but you never know. Though I'm still filing off the rough edges, please feel free to pass the link along to anyone you think might enjoy Minions.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Farewell to a rocket man

I feel compelled to comment on the passing of former test pilot Scott Crossfield recently.

Though Crossfield was far less well known than some of his contemporaries, such as Chuck Yeager, his contributions to aviation and space flight were significant. He was the first person to break Mach 2, and one of twelve people ever to fly the amazing X-15 rocket plane.

Though not-much-remembered these days, the X-15 was one of the most exciting and significant programs in both aviation and space history. It was the first winged, reusable spacecraft (it flew many sub-orbital space flights), and by most measures, was also the fastest manned aircraft ever built. As a research aircraft, it pioneered many techniques and technologies still in use today.

But the X-15 program was a risky one. Crossfield cheated death in the X-15 at least twice. Once, when a rocket engine exploded in a ground test while Crossfield was sitting in the cockpit of the aircraft. And again when Crossfield's X-15 suffered an engine failure shortly after being dropped from it's B-52 mothership. The X-15 was designed to land with its tanks empty, and though Crossfield dumped fuel on the way down, the craft still touched down dangerously overweight. When the nose-wheel touched down, the X-15's back broke, nearly snapping it in half. Crossfield walked away, and the X-15 was salvaged, rebuilt, and flew again.

After retiring, Crossfield remained active in aviation and space, as an advisor, consultant, and industry executive. Though in his 80s, he continued to fly as a private pilot, and was killed when his plane crashed during a routine flight, possibly the victim of bad weather.

Some would say that Crossfield's amazing reserves of luck (and skill) had finally run, out, but perhaps not. Some people just weren't meant to die in bed.

I salute one of aviation's pioneers.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Writers and other delusional people

UPDATED March 7, 2009 - Check at the end of the original post for new truths and comments.

I heard yet another story the other day of a writer being scammed by a so-called agent. What was most horrifying about the story was not that they were paying the agent to rewrite their stuff, but the sheer glee and delight with which the writer was submitting to the process.

Rule #1 in this business is: Money always flows towards the writer. If it doesn't, something is seriously wrong. If you fail to recognize this, or worse, mistake it for success, you are playing the fool.

There is no more gullible, self-delusional, fog-headed being on the planet than an aspiring writer. So predictable and common are their delusions that an entire industry of crooks, con-men and scam artists exists to exploit them, and such a sweet deal it is for them, too. Not only are most of their scams perfectly legal, their marks are actually grateful to be scammed! It doesn't get much better for a predator than that. It's like the entire herd of antelope crowding around the lion shouting, "Eat me! No, eat me!"

Wait. No. Keep reading. You may resemble this remark. Fact is, most of us do at one time or another. And if it does describe you, take comfort that you have plenty of company. I hear from these people all the time. Some of them I've had extended correspondence with, and I've learned some things.

Most of the writers getting scammed aren't dumb. They're nice, intelligent people who sincerely want to be writers, and have simply lost their way. Most of them are so invested in whatever flavor of Kool-aid they've swallowed that they not only can't see the truth, they don't want to. Yet most of them are aware, on some level, that something is wrong. That's usually why they write me. They have concerns. They have questions. Just not enough to wake up and look around. The correspondence, in antelope-terms, usually goes something like this: "This lion has actually agreed to take me on! Right now, it's chewing on my leg. And it's great! Although, I'm concerned about the bleeding. And the dismemberment. But really, it's good! It's great! Uh, should there be so much pain? But I'm good!"

Okay, here are the truths, some of them anyway, that every writer should know. Read them. Memorize them, Live them. And please, do so before you graze among the scam agents, book doctors, vanity publishers, and the various flavors of publishing delusionaries who, with the best of intentions, invite you to participate in their own mad delusions, and partake of their special Kool-aid.

Truth Numero Uno - Being Published vs. Being Read

First truth, and maybe even more important than rule #1 above (or at least as important): Writers do not need to be published. Writers need to be read. This should be obvious, but it's not. Having a pallet full of expensive hardcovers in your garage is not getting you read. Being in an ebook that's downloaded thirty times isn't getting you read. Going out through a small press or a literary zine with a print run of a hundred copies isn't getting you read (not in the way that you want to be, anyway).

Being read means selling to a national magazine, being published through a real book publisher and showing up on chain-store shelves, or at least being published on a high-traffic web-site with thousands of visitors daily. Yet again and again writers are seduced with the notion of seeing their manuscript in print between two covers. If this is you, my advice is this: Go to Kinkos and pick out a nice font, and some pretty paper. Then, once you have a book to look at, get over it and get back to the real work of getting read, or forget being a writer.

Corollary to Rule Numero Uno: The markets that will get you read most are generally also the markets that can afford to pay you the most money. Refer to Rule Number the Second.

Rule Number the Second - Payment

If you don't get paid, and I mean up-front, then it isn't a sale. People who don't have money to pay you generally don't have money because they aren't selling books. Refer back to Rule Numero Uno.

Corollary to Rule Number the Second: "Paid in copies" is an oxymoron.

Second corollary to Rule Number the Second: An advance is the only money you can ever count on, and even then, the check has to clear.

First Royalty Statement of Rule Number the Second: 6% of nothing is nothing.

Second Royalty Statement of Rule Number the Second: 100% of nothing is nothing.

Third Royalty Statement of Rule Number the Second: 110% of nothing is still nothing.

Rule Third, Third, Third - Editorial Opinions

Rule Third, Third, Third: Ultimately the only opinions about a manuscript that count are yours and the person who can actually buy the manuscript.

Rule Third, Third, Third Corollary One: Your mother cannot buy the manuscript.

Rule Third, Third, Third Corollary Two: Your workshop cannot buy the manuscript.

Rule Third, Third, Third Corollary Three: Your agent cannot buy the manuscript.

None of which means you can't listen to these other people, but the responsibility to apply (or not apply) their opinions is ultimately yours.

Scofield's Axiom (a superset of Rule Third, Third, Third): You are responsible for your own career.

Rule the Four - The Secret Handshake

Rule the Four: There is no secret handshake.

Rules 5 - Agents

Rule 5a: Any agent you can get as an unpublished, unsold writer is most likely not anybody you want as an agent. There are rare exceptions, but they are rare, and they are exceptions. Do not assume the agent courting you is either, until you have done much research.

Rule 5b: The primary job of an agent is to submit manuscripts and make deals. Agents do not sell manuscripts. Manuscripts sell themselves. If your manuscript is not equal to this task, the best agent in the world cannot help it.

Rule 5c: Anyone can call themselves an agent (just as anyone can call themselves a publisher). Saying it does not make it so. Neither does a business-card, letterhead, a web-site, or a line of snappy banter.

Rule 5d: Agents make their living off a percentage of the income stream of the writers they represent. Any deviation from this, either in terms of your own money or anyone else's, is at best highly suspect.

Rule 5e: Agents work for you, and not the other way around. That still doesn't mean you pay them, except as described in 5d.

Rules VI - Ideas

Rule VIa - Ideas are cheap. Ideas are plentiful. Stop thinking of them as being made of gold. A good writer can turn a bad idea into a good book far easier than a bad writer can turn a great idea into a good book. If you have only one great idea for a book, the best thing you can do is put it aside and think of a dozen more, because until you can do that, you probably aren't going anywhere as a writer.

Rule VIb - Nobody is going to steal your silly idea. Probably it isn't worth stealing, and if it is worth stealing, you probably aren't the first one to come up with it. In any case, so what if they do steal it? If you had an "idea for a house," and somebody else built it, would the house belong to you?

Rule VIc - Stealing words is a crime. Stealing ideas is frequently a smart thing to do, but always steal from the best. Start with Shakespeare and work your way forward.

Rule ala Seven - The Easy Genre

Rule ala Seven: There is no easy genre. Romance is not easy. Science fiction is not easy. Fantasy is not easy. Writing children's books is not only not easy, it is very, very hard. People looking for an "easy" genre don't want to write, they want to have written. They are pretenders. If you are the real deal, don't worry about what is easy, or what is hot. Write the stories you want to write, and the stories you want to tell. Practice. Develop your skills. You can worry about marketing later.

Rules da 8 - How Becoming Published Will Change Your Life

Rule da 8: When you make your first sale, your problems are only beginning.

Rule da 8.1: Publishers don't buy books, they buy careers. If you aren't thinking past your first book, you are of very little value to anyone. Pray the publisher forgets to ask.

Rule da 8.2: Wash, rinse, repeat. Repeating is the hard part.

Rule da 8.3: The only time a second book can be easier than the first book is when the second book is already written, and even there lie pitfalls.

Rule da 8.4: You can't rest on your laurels unless you have some, and even then, laurels don't pay the electric bill.

Rule da 8.5: Sharks gotta swim, writers gotta write. Sharks stop swimming, they die. What does this tell you about writers?

Statement of Limitation

Those are only a few of the truths that aspiring writers need to know, but they're enough for you to chew on for a while. Pretty much, success in this business boils down to do the work, submit the work, and keep learning. Don't waste your time looking for shortcuts, because none of them preclude these three basics and the search will waste your time.

And remember that you don't even have the right to call yourself a failure if you don't try, and you still don't have the right unless you've stopped trying. Until then, you're still a success waiting to happen.

Good luck out there. Just remember, you make your own luck.

Here we are a couple years later, and I find myself revisiting this post, and lo, among the comments below (you can dig though yourself to find the context, though it isn't especially important), I made the following statement:

"I have a great agent that I'm very happy with."

Looking back at that, I added the following comment, and having done that, I decided it was important enough to move up here where people can more easily find it. Here is a slightly reedited version:


Interesting reading my comment above. See, my the Great Agent I mentioned is now somebody else's great agent.

Actually, they were somebody else's great agent while they working for me too. Turns out they weren't MY great agent.

So allow me to add:


No great agent is a great agent unless they're great for YOU. It doesn't matter how good an agent they are for someone else. If you're going to work together, you have to be compatible in your goals and methods and they must be helping your career. It's a relationship. There are no absolutes.

Ask not what you can do for your agent. Ask what has your agent done for you lately.

Despite what they'd like you to think, you don't need your agent nearly as much as your agent needs you. (And if you DID need them more than they need you, why should you trust them to serve your best interests, and not their own?)

Should you discover your great agent is not great for you (or perhaps not great at all) apply SCOFIELD'S AXIOM (see the previous rules list) until the problem goes away. Not having an agent is an infinitely better situation than having an agent that isn't working for you.


Okay, let us return to the statement that started this:
"I have a great agent that I'm very happy with."

Let us add to the original list:

Just because the writer believes something is true, does not make it so. The writer's capacity for self-delusion is boundless, endless, and sneaky as hell. None of us is immune.



Not even me.

And just so you don't think this is just sour grapes aimed at my former agent, it isn't. They really are someone's great agent, from what I can see. They might be yours.

Or not.

But when you're signed with an agent and things are perking along, it's easy to ignore the problems until you've done yourself considerable damage, and that's what happen to me. I let my agent's opinions undermine my self-confidence, and I sat on plenty of perfectly good novel projects until I let my career stall. (See "Rule Third, Third, Third - Editorial Opinions" above.)

I'm not saying my agent did it to me. I did it to myself, by hanging on with an agent whose methods and goals were not my own, and whose focus was (properly, from the agent's perspective) on bigger fish, and not the careers of smaller players like me.

I sat around for far, far too long fretting in the dark, before contacting my agent with hard questions, confronting the situation, and making the break.

Self delusion.

Why do writers do it?

As it happens, I'm currently reading an interesting book titled "Lonely Planets, the Natural Philosophy of Alien Life," by David Grinspoon (apparently out of print, but you can still buy it on Kindle) and yesterday I ran across these words:

"So strong is our desire for certainty in the face of this grand mystery that we cannot resist the urge to vastly overinterpret every bit of potential evidence." and "We find signals in the noise of existence and read into them the conclusions that we want to reach."

Grinspoon is talking about our (the big humanity "our") questions regarding the potential for intelligent life in the universe, but it applies perfectly to writers as well.

It's our nature. We're all sitting alone, looking out into the darkness, pulling patterns out of nothing, weaving stories out of dreams. It's hard to turn that off when we need to put on our business hats. Maybe it's impossible.

But we still have to keep trying.

Me too.

Good luck to us all.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Snow Day

We've been getting some of the freakish early-spring weather that we sometimes get here on the Oregon coast. We woke this morning to find several inches of snow on the ground. Those of you in the east or Midwest or similar places are laughing at that, but snow is a fairly rare occurrence here, and always noteworthy.

I'm not unused to snow. We didn't see huge lots of it when we lived over in Eugene, but it was typical to see it a few times a year, often in some quantity, and often it would stick around for at least a few days.

Not on the coast, even though we're only a little over a hundred miles away. The ocean moderates our weather: almost never too hot, rarely too cold. When snow happens, it almost always melts within a few hours, a day or so at most.

But snow on the beach is a kind of magical thing to me, much more so than snow inland. It looks so stark and dramatic on the sand, and it's surreal to watch the waves rolling in and out, capped with floating drifts of snow.

The picture above was taken from my wife, Chris' office (at her 9-5 job), looking south along the beach. The white you're seeing isn't foam, it's snow. The scale is always deceptive from up there too. Those aren't sticks you're looking at, they're logs, some of them old-growth trees that weigh as much as a loaded semi-truck. If you enlarge the picture (click on it) and follow the bluffs up to where the inlet is, you'll see a couple fair-sized houses on top of the bluff there. That's your only real clue to scale here. This picture covers a lot of territory.

One other nice thing about days like this is the unique quality of the light. Our remaining cat, Oz perched in the sun-lit front window this morning curiously watching the snow fall. That's when I snapped this last shot. The cat does take a good picture, doesn't he?

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Flying cars and other bad ideas

I've always been fascinated by the intersection of technology and human culture, and I studied it rather intensely during my time working in the computer press and the computer industry itself.

It's made me, among other things, a terrible curmudgeon about product interface design and usability. (My conclusion: either I know more about it than the combined resources of most technology companies, or most companies just don't care, probably the latter.)

It's been my intention, since starting this blog, to touch on this subject area occasionally, and I thought of it today when, on a newsgroup I frequent, the old subject of flying cars came up again. Specially, the subject was this typical example of the breed, the terrific, seen above. Another current example is the Moller Skycar, which has been bouncing around (and occasionally sorta-flying) for many years now. The Skycar is always just this close to becoming operational and changing the world. I predict it will remain this close for a long time to come.

Really, as fanciful as these vehicles may seem, getting a car to fly (or a plane to drive like a car) isn't that hard, nor is it new or futuristic. Glenn Curtis made the first attempt to build one way back in 1917. It wasn't successful, but people kept trying over and over, often with fair technical success. The first flying car to be certified by the government was the Airphibian, almost 60 years ago. It could drive at 50mph, and fly at 120mph. If flying cars were ever going to succeed, it was going to be in post-war America. Financing couldn't be found, and the Airphibian was lost to history.

Yet a series of ongoing attempts were made to create and market flying cars, and they continue even today. I have three words about this: "forget about it."

Flying cars fall into a special and interesting class of ideas: wardrobe ideas that nobody really wants. This class of ideas are something like technological tar-pits, irresistiblly attractive ideas that draw in inventors, dreamers, and occasionally backers, leading to their inevitable waste. And no sooner has the last victim slipped beneath its shiny surface, when another shows up to take their place.

Now don't get me wrong. I love flying cars. They're fun to look at, and fun to think about. But I don't want one, and most likely, neither do you.

Lets take a closer look.

The attraction of flying cars is obvious. Who hasn't sat stuck in traffic, and dreamed of push a button on the dash that allows them float effortlessly into the open sky, and leave it all behind?

Actually, that's where the fallacy starts. This works very well in the comic books, or in movies like Bladerunner, Back to the Future, and The Nutty Professor, but none of the operational flying cars have ever offered that possibility. If it could be made to work, the Moller Skycar might offer something close, but that's a very big if in this case.

In fact, most "flying cars" need to take off and land at a conventional airport just like any other plane. Upon landing, they transform (often with considerable manual help from the pilot and passengers) by folding, shedding, or towing their wings and other airplane-specific parts, at which point the pilot is left to drive his now-grounded vehicle through the bumper-to-bumper traffic with the rest of us. In this day-and-age, with small airports being turned into Home Depots and housing developments at an unprecedented rate, your ground-bound commute could be long indeed.

This is one of several reasons I maintain that there was a limited window for flying cars to be adopted after WWII. This was a golden moment in history. There you had the prosperity to buy them, the industrial capacity and skills to build them, a huge pool of skilled ex-military pilots to fly them, many small airports to fly them from, new housing developments springing up everywhere, any of which could have been designed to add a small landing strip for flying cars. Also important, it was before the era of auto-safety regulations. Making a car fly is fairly easy. Making a car meeting all current crash-safety standards fly is near impossible.

But it didn't happen, and that time is gone. Even if you have a flying car, the odds are good you have no place to take it off near your home, and no place to land it near your destination.

As I said, making a flying car meet safety standards is a problem, but the fact is, a flying car is just a nest of unhappy compromises. The qualities that make a good airplane do not lend themselves to being a good car, The qualities that make a good car do not lend themselves to being a good airplane. The result is usually a slow, heavy, inefficient, difficult-to-fly airplane that turns into a slow, small, cumbersome, horribly expensive, poor-driving automobile, often at a cost that exceeds the combined cost of buying both a separate plane and car.

Ultimately there are no advantages over taking a cheap commercial airline seat between those two airports, and renting a car (cheap, universal, reliable car-rentals are another thing that didn't exist in that post-war era). Even if you still want to fly your own plane, you can still get that rental car, and the different in cost between a good used light-aircraft and a new flying car will buy you decades of car rentals.

Of course, there's the expectation that technology will come and solve all the problems. But to quote Scotty, "you can'na change the laws of physics!" Any aircraft compact enough to fly from your driveway will almost certainly be too loud to operate in a residential area. The lift simply has to come from somewhere, and since a running start with wings or big rotor-blades are out of the question, you need jets, or rockets, or small fans or blowers. It's going to sound like a truck-load of chain-saws battling a truck-load of leaf-blowers to the death, no matter how you do it.

The Family of Bad Ideas

Flying cars are, by and large, useless. Build it, and they will not come.

There are many other ideas in this same family. Take for example the video phone. This one has been around in prototype form since at least the 60s, and it always sounded cool, but nobody really wants it for everyday use. At some point, every day is a bad-hair day, and we all know that's exactly when our boss or our future mother-in-law will call. Video phones suck.

The technology for internet videophones, of course, is there for anyone who wants to buy it, and it has niche applications, teleconferencing, phone sex, visiting the grand-kids. But for the most part, this just isn't going to take-off unless our society does, and in a big way.

Curiously, though nobody wants video-phones, people do want camera phones, and even phones with video, in a big way. These are different of course, in that standard phone conversations are the default, and pictures a special function. As these become more common, perhaps they will reshape us into a society where people think nothing of seeing half-dressed perfect strangers before their first cup of coffee in the morning. Hopefully I won't live that long.

Another related idea that at least had the decency to lay down and die was the touch-screen computer. The idea was simple and obvious: we were all going to operate our computers by punching pixel-buttons, and dragging things around on the screen using our fingertips.

It sounded great. It sounded simple. It sounded natural. It sounded easy.

This one actually got to production, with Hewlett Packard (people who should have known better) building a line of touch-screen equipped desktop computers. That's when people discovered it wasn't such a great idea. The screen clouded up with fingerprints, people's hands got in the way of what they wanted to see, people's arms got tired, and the human finger turned out to be just too blunt and inexact an instrument for many tasks. Then there was the matter of a little thing called the Mouse, which did the same thing, only better, cheaper, and easier. It took maybe five minutes longer to learn, which pretty much every person in America did a long, long time ago.

Touch screens still survive, like the video-phone, in niche applications: palmtop devices, service kiosks, bank machines, credit-card terminals, and even a few computers. And I have no doubt that the practical merging of display and input device will come along eventually, perhaps even fairly soon. But the desktop computer controlled primarily by tapping on its screen, that was an idea whose time never came, and likely never will.

Bad Ideas that Aren't

I'd like to discuss one last idea near-and-dear to me, one that many other people would say belongs to this category of ideas: the ebook. I beg to disagree.

There have been many efforts to commercialize and market ebooks, with small success. I've written several ebooks myself, our entries into the Star Trek SCE line. In fact the first of these made the top ten of the national ebook best-seller list, putting us up with folks like Grisham and King. But because it was an ebook list, it meant we had sold only hundreds of books at most, and that even names like King and Grisham couldn't do any better.

Sales of ebooks have continued to grow steadily since then, but the numbers are still tiny compared to print books, and many book-lovers are quick to pronounce from this that ebooks will never succeed. They inevitably start ticking off a list of advantages of print books, starting with their lack of need for batteries, and very often ending with their smell.

Yet I maintain that ebooks cannot be placed in the family of the flying car and the video phone. In fact, print books are something like the flip-side of a flying car idea. They're the thing you're already using that you think you love, but you really don't. No child who has ever gone through a school day hunched over under the weight of a massive backpack can really love print books.

They're too heavy, too fragile, too hard to store, too difficult to keep open to the right page, too difficult to search, too hard to organize, too difficult on our aging baby-boomer eyes. We don't love books, we love what's in books. Yes, there are esthetic aspects that will always happily remind some of us of pleasant reading experiences, the book is not the content, and the content is not the book. The only thing "saving" books is that there hasn't been a better alternative until now, and if you look at the losses publishing has suffered against other media such as television and video games, you could argue that they haven't been saved at all.

The practical ebook still isn't quite here yet, though I have little doubt it will be. The main technical issues remaining are screen readability, cost, and battery life. Those problems will likely be solved soon, and most likely, all the necessary parts will be incorporated into some electronic device not sold as an ebook, perhaps a phone, or some consumer device that incorporates a phone along with many other functions.

At the very moment those devices are out there, and the screens are at least as good as a paperback book (a pretty low target, actually, I expect they'll surpass that very quickly), and the batteries last as long as a current phone or iPod, then ebooks will take off.

If the industry is in place on that day in a sensible way, with good selection, ease of purchasing, reasonable copy protection, and fair prices, then they'll buy books. If not, they'll steal books, just as people steal songs and videos now. I pray the business is ready, but the track record for such transitions isn't good.

For some ideas, their day will never come.

For others, their day just isn't here yet.

judgment day is coming.