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.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Boldly Searching...

Preparing to research our (hopefully) upcoming Star Trek project tonight, I decided to fire up the digital video recorder and look through the upcoming airings of Star Trek episodes, figuring there might be some potential sources of information, or at least inspiration, that we should record and watch. As I was going through the on-screen program guide's function, this screen appeared, and I fortunately had the camera handy. From there I think it pretty well explains itself...

By the way, on a related note, according to an item appearing in the February 11-17th issue of New Scientist, the praise "to boldly go where no man has gone before," is almost definitely derived from the text of a widely distributed 1958 White House pamphlet called "Introduction to Outer Space." The pamphlet version is, "to try to go where no one has gone before." "Boldly" is a nice improvement, but somehow the more sexist "no man" got introduced with it, and it wasn't changed back until Star Trek the Next Generation made the air. The link included in the article isn't working for me, but you can find the relevant original text of the document here.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Still out here

It's been a while since I posted, in part because there hasn't been a lot to report, but also just because I've been throwing myself into other distractions since we lost Banzai. I kept looking at the blog though, and thinking what a depressing note that was to leave things out. "Hey, everybody! Come on over to Steve's blog and get bummed-out! It's fun!"

So here I am today, with still not a huge lot to report. I'm still waiting on information from Wiz Kids so I can start outlining my next MechWarrior Dark Age book. My upcoming MechWarrior books, Trial by Chaos should be out in June. Chris' Alias book, Strategic Reserve should be in stores most any time now.

We did also just get invited to work on another Star Trek ebook project, similar to our previous Star Trek SCE work in format, but a different line. It may be premature to talk about that though, so I'll just tease for the moment.

Still missing Banzai sometimes, but I'm feeling better. His run was short, but good. He's buried in the corner of the front yard. Right now, there are just some old bricks on top of his grave, but the other day I had an inspiration. Why not take it and turn it into something fun? I'm giving serious though to getting some bags of dirt and a pile of paver bricks and building a miniature "lost tomb of Banzai" as a garden feature. It would be a little GI Joe sized ruin peeking out of a mound of earth, with cat statues on the steps, and perhaps some other "in-jokes" for Banzai.

Strange? Macabre? Maybe, but Banzai was a fun-loving and kind of theatrical cat, so I think he'd appreciate it. Besides, it will give future generations something to puzzle over.