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.