Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Alice's Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement

I'm not going to say Arlo Guthrie's 18+ minute song off his debut album changed my life. I was kind of kidding. That would be a gross exaggeration. But it did change the way I looked at things. But all that is navel-gazing gobbeldygook, and you don't want to read it, so instead, I'll tell you about the one time I was a plagiarist.

The year was 1989, and I was a wee lad of 12 or 13 (depending on which part of the year this happened, and I can't remember) and my English teacher assigned a story-writing exercise to the class. He had broken us up into groups, and there were two other people in mine—whose names shall remain hidden. Part of the assignment was to write good definitions for a set of words, and the rest of the assignment was to place these words into a story in such a way as that they were used correctly.

Yeah? Yeah.

I went to junior high/high school in a place called Roma, Texas, along the border of Mexico on the Rio Grande. I don't want to say the place was backwards, but it certainly seemed divorced from the rest of civilization. The closest shopping mall was 50 miles away, and to a brand-new teenager, that was the goddamn moon.

So, with this backwoodsian idea in my head, I thought for sure no one there would have heard "Alice's Restaurant." How could they have?! I only heard it while we were living in San Antonio the year before, a place that might also have been the moon. Armed with that surety, I wrote out the first half of the song's narrative—the bit with the garbage and the cops and the jail and the trial—and found spots where I could substitute vocabulary words, or found other places to further embellish the story so that I might add the required words.

Oh, my God. I was so slick.

I think I wore a self-satisfied smirk all that day. My partners were relieved that I had taken it upon myself to do the writing bit of the assignment, but they had no idea what I was up to. Nobody did. It was the crime of the century! When the teacher began to read the assignments, I sat back in my chair, arms crossed, ankles crossed, smirking. I was coated in Teflon and K-Y. Authorial ninja. Before Sam Fisher, I was Sam Fisher with a pencil.

And then he took his glasses off and looked up at me.

You can all guess what came next. I exonerated my partners and took all the blame for my wrongdoing, but it opened my eyes to how much wider the world was, to how much further widespread things were than I'd thought. Pop culture was more than I knew, and everything was much less... insular.

That's all for this post, really. Have a happy Thanksgiving, and next time, I'd like to talk about the Kindle.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Gospel According to Lucas (And Other Blasphemies)

Howdy, howdy.

For as long as I can remember, I've been a Star Wars fan. In fact, the only story which took hold in my brain before George Lucas' space opera ripped it open was The Hobbit. Oh, I read all about Encyclopedia Brown and Bunnicula, but I knew and loved the adventures of Luke Skywalker and his merry band of Rebels better than anything else.

As a matter of fact, I can only remember six of the VHS tapes we had in the house during my formative years. There were others, many others, but the six constant tapes were Conan the Barbarian, Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers, and the original Star Wars trilogy. Those movies were imprinted indelibly onto my growing mind. Even today, I could sit and watch any of those with the sound all the way off, and no one in the room with me will miss anything anybody has to say. It's annoying as hell, too. So I've been told.



...like watching a movie with these guys.
Fast-forward to early 1997, and the movie theater on base in Pearl Harbor had just finished being remodeled extensively. One of the things they had done was to put in a THX sound system, which meant (ah-HA!) they could show the theatrical re-release of the Star Wars trilogy, which they did. For free.

As a yound sailor, this had staggering implications for me. I was broke all the time, and I had just gotten someone to agree to go to the movies with me. And she was alright with the base theater. And, she was excited to see Star Wars. Be still my beating heart. I was really enjoying myself, until something happened that ruined our date. (Well, it ruined it for me; I can't speak for the unfortunate girl who was stuck with my company for the rest of the evening.)

Greedo. Shot. First.

I was apalled. I was aghast. I was... some other word, also appropriately alliterate.

There were other things in the movie that were, you know, effing awesomesauce. The revamped special effects were spectacular, and the additional scenes were icing on the cake, but come on. Han shoots first. Everybody knows that. That was firmly planted in my psyche. Rooted there.

I can't really put it into words how much it bothered me. (Yes, I know, I'm a writer and occasional poet. The irony does not escape me.) When I was a pre-teen, just a wee baby, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker and run around the galaxy with my laser sword and fight bad guys. When I got a little older and started to notice girls, I wanted to be Han Solo. A scoundrel.

And Han? Hell. Han is the guy that shoots first.

Except now he didn't, and I know I'm beating this with a dead horse, but I'm trying to make a point here. And I'm about to jump a gap to the other part of this here blog.


*insert pun here*

My parents are very Catholic people. One of them is Irish and the other Mexican, the perfect storm of Catholicism. I'd learned from a very young age that, where the Bible was concerned, it was best to sit down and shut up.

Not from my parents, by the way. Whenever I had questions about that big-ass book, my dad did his best to answer them, and my mom referred me to the mysterious ways God has. No, the repression came from the nuns. As a young proto-person, I went to a Catholic school in Chicago, and I guess it was a pretty good one. (I know this because one year, I went to public school, and the teacher consistenly mispronounced chameleon as "CHA-ma-lonn." Yes, I got into trouble there, too.)

One of the things that bothered me was that the many policies of the Church didn't actually come from the Bible, and I think I was too young to understand that. But I was old enough and had enough reading comprehension skills for the other thing that bothered me, that the Gospels didn't quite agree with each other all the time, and the other contradictions between the Old and New Testaments.

I sat and thought about it for a long while. To be honest, I can't remember where I'd heard this, but the idea was floating around in my head that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. So, how could it be wrong? Or, how could it even contradict itself? Or, how could this happen in the first place?

As I got older, I became less and less worried about who I upset and began to ask these questions out loud to people who I thought should know. Some of them were helpful, some were condescending, and others outright furious I could even entertain the notion. Mistakes, please. You must be defective.

One of the arguments I got quite often was, "If God took the time and effort to give us the Word, don't you think He would take steps to prevent its corruption by the hand of man?"

My immediate response was that time and effort wasn't anything to an omnipotent God, but I learned sooner or later that didn't really move the conversation forward, so I swallowed that one. My follow-up question was usually something along the lines of, "Maybe that's what God is doing, what with the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls and all."

I was referred back to the mysterious ways, which frustrated me to no end.

Conversations that do this make Baby Jesus cry.

Well, that's not true. The end was when I stopped chasing the truth of the Bible and gave up the whole mess for other people to worry about. I had other problems to worry about besides that, most of them from all the different views of God that were being jammed down my throat by well-meaning friends and pastors and youth ministers.

I think it was about this time I found my dad's copy of Chariots of the Gods... but that's a blog for a different day.

For a long while, I went through the motions to keep my mother happy. I played guitar in church, I did all the... the... I even forget what they're called now. Sacraments? I went to catechism and got Confirmed, and then after graduation from high school and joining the Navy, never stopped to think about God or any of that unless someone else brought it up.

Still, I'm always curious as to what happened. Not just what happened back then, in 33 A.D., but what happened to the gospels and letters and books, and who changed what and why. All that. Every time there was a show on TV about it, I'd watch it. Not only am I intensely curious about all this, but I had to keep loaded up on things that make people mad. Am I right? Of course I am. With that in mind, I read a book by Bart D. Ehrman.

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why.

This book was excellent. It set up scenarios, and explained not only how the Gospels were being copied, but by whom, and how that led to the first changes, intentional or not. It's a whole big thing, too big for this blog, and if you really want to get into it, the name of the book is right above this paragraph.

What it really did, though, was make things okay with the changing Star Wars universe.

*insert second pun here*

Going back to that. Since 1997, Lucas has changed other things in his grandest of works, and I don't think any of them have been received like he planned. Greedo shooting first, the original thorn in my side, was altered yet again to have the shots coming almost simultaneously, and that helped a wee bit. Other changes included dubbing Temuera Morrison's voice over the original actor's who had played Boba Fett (Jeremy... something? See, I'm slipping.) which I could live with, and putting Ian McDiarmid's face in the hologram for Empire, and that I could live with.

The changes became more loathsome to me when we got to Return of the Jedi. You know the one I'm talking about. Ghostly Hayden Christensen. I know all the rationale behind it, that Obi-Wan said Darth Vader "betrayed and murdered" Anakin, and the ghostly version is of the young self because that was the last time he was Anakin, I get it. But I don't like it. By changing that, Lucas was saying, "Hey, yeah, he redeemed himself at the end, but he still wasn't my Anakin."

I used to get mad about this kind of thing, and about how after approving storylines and official history for the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Lucasfilm trampled all over it, but now? I'm okay. Seeing the changing face of the Bible and the gospels over the course of their early lives made me see how things we take for granted as fixed and immobile aren't really either, as goofy as that might seem.

For now, I'm looking forward to what the next Gospel of Lucas (According to Walt) will bring.

Next time, I'd like to talk about twenty-seven eight by ten color glossy pictures with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was, and how they might have changed my life.

-Thom Brannan

Monday, November 5, 2012

Doctor Who?

Three things spring to most people's minds when you say "Doctor Who," depending on their age, I think. The first is the TARDIS, the blue box what travels in time and space and is bigger on the inside.


...if that holds true for this, too, I should be able to get an extra large pepperoni and 2 liter of Pepsi in it, no probs.
 The other two are just about equally split between the most popular actors to play the character.

Tom Baker was the Fourth Doctor, and he had the longest run of all so far. John Pertwee regenerated into Tom Baker in the cold winter of '78 and the Fourth Doctor ran his floppy hatted, long scarved, widely smiling, Jelly Baby handing out Time Lord ass all over the entirety of Time and Space (and E-Space) until the spring of '81, when he handed the reins over to Peter Davison. He was a madcap, and it showed in almost everything he did.


"A sonic PROBE, you said?" asked Davros.
 David Tennant roared into the role as the Tenth Doctor in 2005, taking over from the very able Chrisotpher Eccleston, and making it entirely his own. He had some very memorable adventures as the Doctor, and ran into all manner of beastie, even some from the Classic Series which had changed, like the Macra and Cybermen, or which had stayed largely the same, such as the Daleks or even the Master. (No goatee, though. For shaaame!) He stayed until 2010, when he passed the role on and Matt Smith took over.

Ugh. You know where that's been? Look up.
One of the things I like about the 2005 version of the show is its reverence for the Classic Series. Every once in a while, you'll see a "roll call" of the previous incarnations of the Doctor, and in particular when the Eleventh Doctor shows his library card, and ooh! Guess who's there?


"Take the picture, will you, my boy, HMM? I haven't got all of time and space to wait for you to find the button."
 That Doctor, the definitive article, as you might say, was played by William Hartnell from '63 to '66, briefly reprised for a one-off appearance with his two successors in "The Three Doctors." He was an irascible old man, and he made a lot of mistakes in his early adventures. The First Doctor was a scientist and a grandfather, and an exile from his people.

Now... hold on a minute. I'm going to put something here that should describe him nicely.

"He was a tall, elderly man, all dressed in black, with slick white hair pulled back, except for a rebellious lock on his forehead. He was smiling an all-knowing, mephistophelean smile, such as Milton could have given to his Lucifer. His eyes were of a penetrating blue; they never wavered..."

And another...

"An old man, dressed all in black. He was tallish, wrapped in a cloak and wore a fur hat and a long, striped scarf. His silver hair was slick and long in the back, with a rebellious lock tilting upward on his forehead. His eyes blazed with intelligence, and a prominent, beaky nose gave his face an arrogant and somewhat aristocratic look."

That's pretty accurate, yeah? Except... it isn't. That's not a description of the First Doctor, but of another character, someone out of French pulp fiction. The person being described is Doctor Omega, from a novel written and published in 1906 by Arnould Galopin about this person who is cut off from his own people and, with his three companions, travels through time and space in his ship, which is like nothing else on Earth.


"Oh, dear me."
 The best part about all this is it's all a coincidence. Sydney Newman, the creator of Doctor Who, had never heard of Doctor Omega and Galopin's book, which isn't all that far-fetched.

After hearing all this the first time, I was skeptical. Now, having read the translated-from-the-French and slightly-revised Doctor Omega from Black Coat Press, I'm more convinced the similarities are mere coincidence. That's not to say some of the revisions made to the novel by the brains behind Black Coat Press weren't made with the mind of making the story closer to a First Doctor adventure. If anything, the ties between the two have been strengthened by this, and by the frequent use of Doctor Omega as the First Doctor in several volumes of Tales of the Shadowmen, a series of anthologies featuring a cross-pollination of French pulp fiction characters and others from around the world.

I'm proud to say one of my own Doctor Omega stories, "What Doesn't Die," is in the collected volume Doctor Omega and the Shadowmen, where Doctor Omega and Nikola Tesla do what they can to deal with a terrifying version of the Bride of Frankenstein.

The reason for this whole thing is, I've been watching Doctor Who from the beginning. It's easy to see where the writers were starting to hit their stride, where they realized, "Hey. We can do... anything!" I thought it would be nice to take a little time and string some bits of the Whoniverse onto the blog for all those interested, and maybe spark some interest in those who haven't any. Doctor Who is a brilliant show, and it's one of the few that has gotten all the air time it deserves, and will hopefully continue to do so for a good long while.

Also, buy my books. All of them. HAHAHA!!!!

Next time, I'd like to talk a little about Star Wars and the Bible and how I've found peace.

-Thom Brannan

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

That Writing Entry I Said I Didn't Want to Do

... I joined a writing group.

To be fair, I joined this writing group two years ago, when I lived within walking distance of the place they were meeting, but then I had little bundle of joy, moved, worked a lot, and moved some more. But recently, I was motivated to check up on this group again, and found they met not too far from where I live now. So, I went.



Why, oh WHY didn't I go dressed like this?

Now, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. I've been a part of Permuted Press' online writer's critique group (the Pit) since 2007, and I've learned quite a bit there. People have come and gone from the group, but there remains a core of participants, some of whom can boast quite extensive publishing histories. And it's been wonderful. A while back, one of us had joined another writer's group, and came back with horror stories about how useless it was.

Needless to say (ah-HAH, but I'm saying it anyway) I went to the meeting with a slight bit of trepidation. When I got there, the group's coordinator was explaining the weekly meeting schedule to another person who had also joined some time ago and not visited, and he handed me a business card while he did so, with this same information on the back.

Shiny, I thought. This guy has his shit together. A realy hoopy frood.

The Saturday meeting I ended up at was a "Shop Talk," I learned, where the group would discuss the mechanics of writing, the process, what works for them... all the stuff I said I didn't want to blog about. (Still don't.) Gathered around the group of tables was a range of people, ages from the mid-twenties to the mid-fifties, I would guess. (I didn't ask.) And all with varying degrees of experience in writing; one of the people there was an ex-military journalist, who had a completed manuscript and was in talks with an agent, while another wanted desperately to write but didn't know where to start, and everyone else fell somewhere in-between.

After the initial "getting to meet you" bullshit, there was some discussion about membership and participation, and then it meandered just a bit before the other new person asked about the methods of writing, which opened up things. We talked about paper and pen vs computer, and voice recognition software to cut down on transcription time, which then drifted into a conversation about other methods, outlining and 3x5 cards and Story Bibles.

There were other techniques brought up, and one guy had a deck of Story Forge cards, which I thought were neat, but I don't think I have a use for. And that went to illustrate a point, that my method may work for me, but you have to find the thing that will work for you.



My weapon of choice when I have to make a decision.
 The discussion ranged all through the before, during and after stages of novel-writing, which was kind of nice. And all of a sudden, just as we really got to talking, the two hours was up. We put the tables back where they belonged, said our goodbyes, and I walked back to where I had parked, unsure how I felt about the group. When I got home, I talked to my Bestest Friend and Confidant, Kitty, and told her what I said here, still unsure how I felt about it all.

She encouraged me to do whatever I felt best, as she normally does, unless she knows when I'm fucking something up, which is often. I'm still not sure what that is, but I will be participating in this group remotely.

I said all that to say this: If you have the option, join a writing circle of some kind, if you haven't already. The kind of feedback you'll get from a dedicated group of writers/editors is invaluable, and the increased number of high-powered eyes on your work will definitely highlight the areas that need work.

And one more word on that: If you join a group, be in the group. Recently, there was a new member to the novel group I'm a part of, who got his novel reviewed, kicked back all our feedback (more or less) and then went on to self-publish the work with little revision. This author wasted all our time, and he "ate and ran," not returning to critique the next work in the queue, or the work after that. Don't be that guy.

Next time, I want to talk about the Doctor. Oh, you know who I mean.

-Thom Brannan

Monday, October 22, 2012

That Mad Serbian Lightning Man


Last time I posted, I said, "Next week, I'd like to talk about Tesla." I am, apparently, a goddamn liar. Or I don't own a calendar. Make what you will out of that.

To many minds, Nikola Tesla was the father of the twentieth century. The Industrial Age would not have been the same without the fruit of the fertile mind of the Serbian-born genius, and it's a damn shame that kids don't learn anything about him, getting instead the propaganda from the Edison camp.

(That's what Thomas Alva Edison was good at. Two things: swooping in on patents when inventors were down on their luck, and PR. Everybody "knows" Edison invented the light bulb, right? Gah.)

But there are other articles on the War of the Currents, articles that are both better researched and better written than what I might have for you. What I wanted to talk about mainly was how Tesla acted. He was a strict man, and when he gave his word, he kept it to the best of his ability. He expected the same of you, and it was quite often he didn't get what he was expecting.

(But no, I'm not ranting about Edison. I promise.)

Instead, this short blog will be about Tesla's ethics. I know my last blog was mostly the same thing, but I seem to be stuck on this, still. Why now? I couldn't tell you. But it seems appropriate, so here we are.

Had Tesla wanted, he could have cashed in on all the patent money he was owed by the Westinghouse corporation and driven them into bankruptcy. That is amazing, that one man had so much hold on the technology of the day, he could have broken the company he was working for, just by getting his due. Instead, he took just enough to keep his experiments going, and even at the end, when his financers backed out on the free energy project (sad, though Tesla might should have seen that coming) and everything collapsed like a house of cards, he didn't take what he could have from Westinghouse.

Eventually, his patent money dried up (the stuff he was collection on) and he was left more or less high and dry. Oh, not right away. He had several rather wealthy and generous investors, one of whom he did kind of... well, lie to. John Astor gave Tesla a lot of money to develop one thing, and Tesla used it to develop something else. This strikes me as odd, having read what I have of Tesla's life, and it makes me wonder what the hell else was going on in his life at the time.

I guess that just goes to show, the guy was human, for all his genius. He had his faults. Besides the OCD, he was also a proponent of imposed selective breeding. Yeah, I know. You don't have to tell me that's fucked up. But anyway. As a scientist, he was occasionally close-minded, which seems odd to hear about such a maverick.

Tesla ended up living poor, giving the occasional (and unusual) statement to the press and trying to find investors for whatever he was working on at the time. Because of the mostly unfettered vision Tesla had, it was hard for him to find money. He's the original Mad Scientist, you know? When he said things like, "I can make your motors more efficient," investors threw cash at him. When he said things like, "I can talk to Mars," mmm, not so much.

He died penniless and in debt, his largest project, that of wireless energy transmission, a failure.

Unfortunately (for both of us, me writing and the one guy reading) I don't have a life lesson tucked away somewhere that will help make sense of all this. Nor do I have an upside. For the most part, Nikola Tesla did what he said, or did his damnedest to, and in the end, he was a broken old man, whose best friend was a pigeon. (No shit, look it up.) And the first person to royally fuck him over lived a good life, active in the community and with awards named after him until he died of diabetes. Rich as sin.

Maybe there is a life lesson there, a kind of truncated Golden Rule: Do unto others.

How does that make you feel? It makes me feel old and cranky, so I guess I'll stop here. Next time (not next week, I know better than that now) I'll have something slightly happier, I hope. Maybe something about writing. I know, I said I wouldn't, but recent developments have decided otherwise for me.

Ciao.
-Thom Brannan

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Why Would Anyone in Their Right Mind Want To Write for a Living? by Scott M. Baker

“Why would anyone in their right mind want to write for a living?”

Nobody wants to write for a living. We do it because we have to. Once we’ve put pen to paper that first time, we’re addicted. The only fix for that addiction is to type out a few pages of a short story or novel.

Those of you who have a passion for writing know exactly what I’m talking about. You carry a pocket-size notebook everywhere you go to write down your thoughts. You carefully observe people for unique mannerisms that then make their way into your characters. You listen in on conversations not because you’re nosy, but because you study how people talk so your dialogue sounds realistic. You can’t watch the news or read a newspaper without getting an idea for a short story or novel. To you, a personal crisis is when you find out that the really awesome scene you thought of last week was already used in another book or movie. To you, writing is not so much a profession as it is a calling.

The reward is not the paycheck. Most writers will be damn lucky if they make enough from writing to pay the bills. No. the reward is seeing your name on the book cover. It’s the thrill of having people read the story you have to tell. It’s hearing from your fans how much they enjoyed reading your story or novel. It’s going to conventions and book signings. It’s watching that one story or novel slowly become a long bibliography.

If you’re nodding your head while reading this, then you’re one of the lucky ones.

“Lucky ones?”

Yes. You’re lucky because you’ve answered the call. Like any calling, the road ahead will not always be easy. You’ll have frustrations. You’ll have doubts. And you might even abandon writing for awhile, only to go back to it soon. Writing is that addictive. But the rewards are worth it.

So if you answered the calling, I wish you the best in your endeavor. You’re going to need it.

If just one of you finds enough inspiration in these blogs to write a novel or short story, or picks up some advice that helps you get published, then my efforts were not wasted.

Just remember me when writing the acknowledgment page of your book.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Marketing Your Book and Yourself Part II by Scott M. Baker

“So that’s it? I set up a blog and a webpage and I’m done marketing my book?”

Hell, no.

In addition to a web and blog page, you will also need to establish an author’s account on some of the various social networking sites (SNS) available on the Internet. Facebook and Twitter are the most common ones, although there are dozens of SNSs available. Set up profiles on as many of these networking sites as you want or on the ones where you feel you can have a greater presence. A great website for the serial social networker is Ping.fm, which allows you to post to numerous networking sites simultaneously. Just bear in mind that Ping should not be used as an excuse to establish a presence on every SNS available, because the more time you spend maintaining these sites and networking means the less time you spend writing.

You will also want to join a few forums and chat groups to make your name known throughout the community. I suggest a mix between those directed primarily to writers and those frequented by fans of your genre. A good place to begin is Goodreads. This site is dedicated to writers and readers and maintains numerous chat groups that span all genres. Beyond that, do your research and check out various forums/chat groups until you find a few where you feel comfortable and enjoy the discussions. As with the social networking sites, moderation is the key.

“Cool. I love Facebook. I have a couple of dozen zombie pets that I’m taking care of.”

You’re missing the point. Your goal is to market your book, not to steal your friend’s zombie rabbits or create photo albums of your last trip to Europe. Always remember that you need to market yourself as much as your book. The best way you can accomplish that is to establish a reputation as a reliable expert in your genre. Although it’s important, don’t use these sites just to talk about yourself and update people on your latest writing project. Discuss the latest books and movies in your genre, provide links to other sites that are of interest to you and may be of interest to your readers, offer the latest news in your genre or the publishing industry, or maybe write a series of blogs on how to get published. And don’t get discouraged if you don’t have a thousand followers at the end of the first week. This is a slow process, so be patient. If you market yourself correctly and give it time, slowly but surely you’ll build up a following of fans who will want to read your book, who will tell their friends to read it, and who will eagerly await your next novel. (NOTE: Gary Vaynerchuk's Crush It!, available from Amazon, provides an excellent step-by-step approach on how to achieve this.)

There are two important things to keep in mind when blogging and networking. First, always use your writing name when posting. While it might be fun to call yourself zombiebunnies on Facebook, it makes it almost impossible for your fans to find and follow you. Second, avoid controversial subjects and flame wars with fans and colleagues. This is one of those instances when bad publicity is worse than no publicity. If you take sides on political issues, militantly support certain causes, or publicly and consistently lambast a colleague as a hack who can’t write for merde, you run the risk of losing major portions of your fan base.

Finally, there are other things you should do to market yourself and your book:

Book signings. These are your most important venue for building your fan base. And don’t limit yourself just to book stores. General book and genre conventions are also a big draw for fans. Of all the horror conventions I’ve attended, authors are among the most popular celebrity guests. John Lamb, author of the Teddy Bear Mystery series, once told me that he sells almost as many books at teddy bear conventions as he does at book signings.

Guest blogging: These are vital for new authors to get their names out in the public domain. There are many established blogs that allow aspiring or first-time authors to guest blog on their sites.

Look for every opportunity you can find to get your name out there. See if you can convince your local radio and television stations or newspapers to interview you as a hometown celebrity. Try and arrange virtual book tours (which is especially important if you’re an e-book author) where you have chat room discussions on various forums. Spend the time and effort to create a video trailer for your book that you can post to YouTube. Donate autographed copies of your book to charity events, or do book signings at such events with all the proceeds going to that charity. These are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. There are dozens of things you can do to publicize your book, all of which inevitably increase sales.

Well, that wraps up my blog series on how to get published. Any questions?

“Yeah. You just described a hell of a lot of work to go through to be a mid-list author. Why would anyone in their right mind want to write for a living?”

Good question. Let me answer that… next week.

FINAL BLOG: Why Would Anyone in Their Right Mind Want To Write for a Living?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Marketing Your Book and Yourself Part I by Scott M. Baker

“What? You mean I spent a year writing my book, six months revising it, and three years getting it published, and you tell me that was the easy part?”

Yup. [NOTE: Of all the authors I’ve talked to over the years, most have stated that the average time to find a publisher is six years. And that’s the average. One mid-list SciFi writer who is now well established told me it took him ten years to place his first novel. So don’t get discouraged after your first dozen rejection slips. This is a long and ego-bruising process.]

It’s time for the harsh reality. Your novel is a product. In the publishing industry, it’s one product competing with thousands of others just like it. If you’re really lucky beyond your wildest dreams, you’ll hit a homerun your first time at bat J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter or, to a lesser extent, Brian Keene did with The Rising. For the vast majority of us, we have to work at building our reputation. You have to make the readers aware that your book is out on the market, convince them to purchase a copy, and hope that they like it enough to come back for more. Up until now you’ve spent all your time writing that first book. Now you have to spend just as much time marketing it if you ever hope to see your second book published. Trust me on this one – I’m speaking from experience.

[DISCLAIMER: What I’m about to say next is a generalization about the industry and does not hold true for each and every publisher. My publisher, Shadowfire Press, understands that it takes several years and several books for an author to come into his/her own, and is very nurturing in that process. However, I know of other publishers that I will not name that see their authors as resources to be exploited for their own gain. That is why, as I stressed in a previous blog, an author must be careful about who he/she contracts with and not feel as though they must take the first offer that comes along.]

All the authors, publishers, and literary agents I’ve talked to stress that publishing is an industry. As in any industry, if you can’t turn a profit for the company, the company will let you go and find someone who can make them money. Publishers spend a certain amount to get your book into print in the anticipation that it will be popular and turn a profit. The industry closely tracks book sales, and that information is readily available. So if the book doesn’t sell well, for whatever reason, and if it the publisher is not able to at least break even, then good luck getting them or anyone else to take a chance on your second book. (The good news is the rise of e-publishing. Since the initial outlay to publish an e-book is so much less since the company does not have to worry about printing and shipping costs, the chances of your book turning a profit are much greater. Conversely, your royalty on an e-book should be greater than with a hardcover or paperback.)

Compounding the problem is the vast number of books on the market today. Gone are the days when a publishing house had a small but reliable cache of authors and would devote its time and resources to making them successful. Today, most publishers dedicate their limited public relations budget to those books or authors they deem most marketable, letting the rest of us fend for ourselves. Even those publishing houses that look after their authors include clauses in their contracts that require the author to take upon themselves much of the responsibility for marketing the book. It’s a fact of life of the publishing industry today.

Years ago the author’s mantra used to be “Write or Die.” Today it’s “Market or Die.”

The good news is, marketing yourself and your book is neither costly nor difficult, only time consuming.

Since you have a product to sell, you need a place to sell it. So let’s begin by setting up a website and a blog. Keep it simple. The goal is to provide a forum to discuss your writing and what you’ve written, so everything that goes on it should be geared to that end. My blog layout contains the basics: a photo and brief bio of myself, links to my web presence and where to purchase my books, links to other websites I frequent, and banners to vampire-related websites that have also provided links to my blog. Check out several blogs and websites for authors you like to see what they have done, then create your own. If the idea of creating one intimidates you, don’t let it. There are several sites out there that allow the technologically-impaired to easily set up and manage a blog or homepage. Once you spend the time to create your blog and homepage, keep up with them. Try to post at least three days a week. If a potential fan clicks on your site and sees that it hasn’t been updated since the Red Sox won the last World Series, they won’t bother following you. It takes half a day at most to set one up and only a few hours a week to maintain it. (And before anyone who has visited my website comments, I admit I’m horrible when it comes to updating my webpage, but I hope to do better, especially now that I chastised you for not doing so.)

Keep the content interesting. Post updates about your writing, when you sign a contract or get published, any conventions or book signings you’re attending, etc. And be sure to vary the content. If your blog is only about you and your writing, you’ll bore readers. Include postings that are fun or informative. I post the weekly Sunday Bunnies and news about upcoming genre-related books, movies, or TV shows. Just try to avoid content that will be controversial or divisive (like politics and religion). If you give your honest opinion of a President or other leading political figure, don’t be surprised if you alienate half your readers.

NEXT BLOG: Marketing Your Book and Yourself, Part II

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Finding a Publisher or Literary Agent Part III by Scott M. Baker

“Great. I have my query drafted and ready to send out. Where do I find publishers and literary agents to submit it to?”

Here is where I date myself. When I first became interested in writing years ago, the Bible of the publishing industry was The Writer’s Market. Without the latest edition on your desk, your chances of getting published were slim. However, relying on The Writer’s Market today is about as antiquated as drafting your manuscript on an electric typewriter. The publishing industry now has an increasing number of small presses and a rapidly expanding market for presses who deal solely or primarily in electronic media, and these publishers open (and sometimes close) at a mind-boggling rate. The good news is that keeping track of who’s who in the market has never been easier.

I use five methods to keep track of the market. More are available, but these are the ones I primarily rely on. Use whichever ones work for you or your genre.

-- Internet-based publishers digests. There are several out there that encompass all markets and genres, but my favorite is Duotrope (http://www.duotrope.com/). Duotrope allows you to narrowly define your search parameters to provide listings based on genre, type of publication (book or magazine, print or electronic), length of work, submission guidelines, and other criteria. Each listing also contains a link to that publisher’s homepage. One feature about this service I particularly like is that you can sign up for Duotrope’s weekly e-mail update which lists markets that are open to submission, updates those markets that are dead or recently closed to submissions, and provides a list of upcoming anthologies by theme. In my opinion, this is one of the best tools for writers currently out there. Several of my works were eventually placed with publishers I discovered on Duotrope.

-- Trade journals and genre magazines. These are invaluable, especially the former. I don’t know what’s available for other genres, but for horror I rely on Realms of Fantasy as my trade journal and Fangoria and Rue Morgue as my primary genre magazines. Their value is in that they provide information on what is being published in your genre and who is publishing it. I use Realms of Fantasy to keep track of trends in the industry and use the book review sections of the genre magazines to obtain leads on publishers who work in my genre.

-- Conventions. Though less readily available then the first two, writers and genre conventions are among your most valuable resource. Publishers use these conventions to seek out new talent, so they are most receptive to hear what you have to offer. Practice your verbal pitch. You want to have a pitch that hooks a publisher in the first few sentences, but doesn’t sound over rehearsed. And be prepared in case the publisher starts asking detailed questions about your work or you. I have seen a lot of authors nail that opening pitch and get all tongue-tied during the follow-up talks. Remember, nobody knows you and your book better than you do. And if you find a publisher who wants to see more of your work, contact him/her the moment you get home, reminding him/her in your cover letter that you just met at the convention and you are sending along the material he/she asked you to.

-- Your local bookstore. You can find a wealth of information here by perusing your genre section. Check out new arrivals to see which houses have published books similar to yours, and use that as a starting point for your research. Also remember to check out the acknowledgement page, for you often get the names of editors to contact as well as literary agents.

-- Forums and Yahoo groups. These can be extremely helpful if you join the correct ones. You want to find ones populated by aspiring and/or new authors who are serious about their craft. Publishers and editors often cruise these sites searching for new talent, and if they are impressed with you they may contact you offline and ask you to submit. I have also seen some forums/groups where publishers are actively seeking out authors. You should be able to find these forums/groups by researching in your genre. (These forums/groups are also invaluable in helping you market your book, which I will discuss in the next blog posting.)

All right, ladies and gentlemen. For those of you who have been reading this blog series from the beginning, you have enough tools available to write your novel. You’ve abandoned family and friends to make the time to write and have spent the last year drafting and editing and revising and re-editing and re-revising your book. You’ve sent out an endless stream of query letters, suffered through the flood of rejections letters (or worse, the annoying lack of responses from publishers you’ve queried) but have prevailed and finally found someone to publish your work. Congratulations! Now the hard part begins.

NEXT BLOG: Marketing your book and yourself.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Finding a Publisher or Literary Agent Part II by Scott M. Baker

Let me add a few observations to last week's blog about query letters. These are my opinions, and should not be taken as gospel for getting published (or as legal advice).

-- Publishers/agents are specific in what they want you submit along with your query, usually asking for sample chapters and a synopsis, and occasionally for a bio or a marketing strategy. Sometimes they ask for sample chapters to be submitted in a certain font or style. If you submit a query, be sure to provide what they ask for in the style they ask for. Although the main reason a publisher/agent asks for sample chapters and a synopsis is to get a feel for your writing style, your query submission also gives them a feel for how well you follow guidelines. If a publisher/agent asks for a three-page synopsis, one sample chapter in Courier 10 font, and a marketing strategy, and instead you send a one-page synopsis, three sample chapters in Times New Roman 12 font, and a bio, you immediately send the impression that you cannot/will not follow simple guidelines. Publishers/agents will be cautious about contracting with you, fearing that you may also be unwilling/unable to follow their editorial guidance and meet deadlines. [NOTE: While I’m willing to make certain changes to the text of sample chapters per the request of a publisher/agent – such as fonts, line spacing, or margins, all of which can easily be done on a computer – I refuse to entirely reformat my manuscript for a query. I did that once. A publisher's webpage said they were accepting manuscripts for consideration, so I spent two days preparing the submission to their meet their formatting guidelines, e-mailed the query, and got a response less than an hour later saying the publisher was no longer accepting submissions. Needless to say, I never made that mistake again.]

-- Every publisher and agent I have talked to has decried simultaneous submissions (sending query submissions to more than one publisher/agnet at a time), each of them relating how they spent several hours reading a submission, got excited about the work, and called back the author only to find that he/she had contracted with someone else. While I understand their rationale for refusing simultaneous submissions, I find it unreasonable. It can take months for a publisher/agent to respond to you, if they respond at all, and more often than not they are not interested in seeing the entire manuscript. That restriction against simultaneous places an unfair burden on aspiring authors. I see no problem with sending queries to more than one publisher at a time. However, and this is vital, show professional courtesy. If you have a manuscript with one publisher/agent and a second asks to see it, let the second publisher/agent know that someone else is currently looking at it. Publishers/agents will understand if they contact you based on a query, but someone else has contracted the manuscript before them. However, if they read the entire manuscript and then find out you were shopping that same manuscript to their competitors, you’ll earn a reputation you do not want to have in the industry.

-- Finally, do not feel compelled to accept any contract offered to you. I’ve been very fortunate that my publisher treats its authors fairly and with respect. Not all of them are like that. Last year I was contacted by a publisher who said how much he loved my manuscript and wanted to send me a contract. When I received it I laughed. The publisher wanted all rights (print, electronic, audio, radio, TV, movie, and character) to my first four books in perpetuity (i.e. forever) for a measly 10 percent royalty on any profits. The contract should have been emblazoned with a skull and crossbones in the corner. If the contract doesn’t settle right with you, trust your instincts and question it. Do not sign on the dotted line out of fear that no one will ever offer you another contract again. You worked too hard on that book to give away all the rights to someone else. Think of how badly George Lucas would have been screwed if he had given away to 20th Century Fox all the rights to Star Wars.

When it comes to discussing query submissions, this blog just touches the tip of the iceberg. But at least it gives you a framework to start from.

Below I included a sample query letter to use as a guideline.


Dear Publisher/Agent:

While researching potential publishers for my manuscript, I discovered your homepage and decided to contact you to gauge your interest in my book.

The Vampire Hunters are Drake Matthews and Alison Monroe, two former cops who turned in their badges for stakes, and Jim Delmarco, an engineering student with a knack for developing lethal weapons against the undead. Their target is a nest of more than a dozen vampires located in Washington D.C. and led by two masters, one of whom prefers to indulge his decadence rather than ensure the nest's survival, and his mistress who will go to any lengths to gain control over the nest. Driven by a determination to rid the city of this ultimate evil, and armed with nothing more sophisticated than low-tech conventional weapons, the hunters wage a relentless and violent war against the undead in the streets and back alleys of the nation's capital.

In The Vampire Hunters I flesh out the vampires so they are an integral part of the story but, unlike many contemporary novels, I depict my vampires as vicious and inhuman. With the recent success of such books as David Wellington's Bullet series and del Toro's/Hogan's Strain trilogy, The Vampire Hunters is perfectly poised to take advantage of the growing interest in vampires as evil, non-romantic characters.

The manuscript is 78,000 words in length and is ready for immediate submission.

As I noted above, the manuscript is the first in a trilogy. I have completed The Vampire Hunters: Vampyrnomicon (the introduction of the Master vampire, Chiang Shih, and her plan to establish a vampire kingdom), which is 100,000 words in length. The final book in the trilogy, The Vampire Hunters: Dominion (the final battle between good and evil), will be completed in the spring of 2010 and should be 100,000 words in length.

As for previous writing credits, I have authored several short stories, including “Rednecks Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things,” which appeared in the autumn 2008 edition of the e-zine Necrotic Tissue; “Cruise of the Living Dead,” which appeared in Living Dead Press’ Dead Worlds: Volume 3 anthology (August 2009); “Deck the Malls with Bowels of Holly,” which appeared in Living Dead Press‘ Christmas Is Dead anthology (October 2009); and “Denizens,” which appeared in Living Dead Press’ The Book of Horror anthology (March 2010).

Per your guidelines, I have included the first thirty pages and a synopsis so you can get a feel for my writing. I can forward the entire manuscript upon request.

Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely yours,
Scott M. Baker

phone number
website URL
blog URL
Facebook URL
Twitter URL

NEXT WEEK: Finding a Publisher or Literary Agent, Part III (where to find them).

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Finding a Publisher or Literary Agent Part I by Scott M. Baker

“How difficult is it to draft a query letter? And how do I find a publisher or agent to send it to?”

First hings first. It’s not that difficult to write a query letter. Which is fortunate, because drafting a good query letter is the most important aspect (next to actually writing the book) of getting published. You may have written the next bestseller, but if you can’t garner enough interest from publishers or literary agents to look at it, your novel/story is just taking up space on your hard drive.

Let me preface this section by stating that there are numerous ways to write a query. Use the format that best works for your work, or that you feel most comfortable with. What I’m offering are tips on how I draft a query, and so far they seem to have been successful for me. Also, this format should be used only for works of fiction. Non-fiction query guidelines are much different.

Start out with a brief introduction on how you discovered the publisher/agent. If a published author has referred you to them, or if you met this person at a convention and he/she asked you to forward a submission, state that up front. It gives you a foot up to climb out of the slush pile. Otherwise, just say that you discovered them while researching potential publishers/agents for your work, and you wanted to give them the opportunity to review your manuscript.

Next comes a brief description of your novel/story. Keep it to one small paragraph, two at most. Make it just long enough to provide a general idea what the work is about and entice the publisher/agent to want to read more. How do you do this? Read a few examples from jacket covers or the back of a paperback to get an idea. Remember, this is the make or break paragraph of the entire query. If you do not immediately snag the interest of a publisher/ agent, they’ll throw the query aside and move on to the next one. You need to get a hook into them so they’ll continue reading.

Your next paragraph has to sell the concept. The publisher/agent will receive hundreds of submission for romances, murder mysteries, vampire thrillers, animal books, or whatever genre you write in. Your novel/story must stand out. Saying your mother or spouse thought it was terrific will not get you published. Nor will telling them that you’re the next Stephen King or Dan Brown get you out of the slush pile. Publishing is a business, and your work will never make it into print unless you can convince the publisher/agent that it’s perfectly poised to take advantage of a new trend in the market, or brings specific insight to the genre that has not been seen before.

Follow with a brief paragraph noting what is attached to your e-mail, the word count, and whether the novel/story is available for immediate submission. [NOTE: Don’t waste your time querying publishers/agents with unfinished work. Rarely do they show interest in them.] If your novel is part of a series, now is the time to state that and, if known, offer an idea when the next book(s) in the series will be available.

Your penultimate paragraph should be about you. What makes you qualified to write this novel/story? Are you a police detective writing about a homicide unit in New York? Were you the victim of an abusive relationship, or a recovering addict, who has fictionalized your life? If you have no specific experiences you can relate to (I’ve never hunted vampires for a living, though I would like to), find a way to make yourself interesting. You’re selling yourself as well as your book.

This is also the paragraph to list your previous writing credits. Don’t list more than three otherwise you’ll look like you’re being pompous. List the most recent works, or those that are most relevant to your query. [NOTE: If you’re writing in a genre in which you don’t have relevant experience, I recommend trying to get several short stories published before you attempt to query on a book. Being able to say that you’ve been previously published bolsters your credentials. I noticed that publishers/agents showed more interest in looking at my novel after I had a few short stories in my bibliography.]

Finally, end with a closing sentence thanking them for their consideration and noting that you look forward to hearing from them.

NEXT: Finding a Publisher or Literary Agent, Part II (some useful tips on writing queries and a sample query letter)

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Mechanics of Writing by Scott M. Baker

“I have a story idea in mind and am psyched to begin writing. What’s the best way to get started? Should I outline the plot first, or just jump in and write?”

There’s no right or wrong method to use in plotting out your novel. The mechanics of writing is one of personal choice, so go with whatever method works best for you.

For example, Jeffery Deaver creates meticulous outlines for his novels, detailing each scene and key segments of dialogue on sheets of paper and sticky notes that fill the walls of his study. He admits that it takes him months to come up with such a detailed framework. However, when he sits down to actually write the novel, since most of the work is already completed, it doesn’t take him long to finish the manuscript.

I prefer a less structured method. When I’m plotting out my novels, I keep a stack of lined 3x5 cards handy and write scenes down as I think of them. On each card I include anything that I want to put into the scene, such as descriptions, plot points, or snippets of dialogue I don’t want to forget. Before I start writing, I arrange the cards in the order I want the book to flow. This allows me to outline the major themes in the plot, but allows enough flexibility that I can add or re-order scenes easily.

These methods represent two different concepts of organization, and most of you will use a method of plot outlining that falls somewhere in between. What is important is, no matter which method you use, be sure you have a firm grasp of the opening, conflict, and resolution of your story before you begin outlining/writing your story. You can always change those elements later. But if you don’t have a basic idea where your story starts and ends, no amount of outlining will turn it into a viable manuscript. Trust me on this one. I have several short stories taking up space on my hard drive because I wrote them based on a single scene, but have yet to find an effective way to start or end them.

“Thanks. This has been a big help. While you’re here, can you give me any tips on writing?”

Yes, I can. But this is not the blog series for that. There are thousands of books out there dedicated to instructing someone on how to write a book. They cover all the aspects of writing – plot, setting, character development, voice, etc. There are even books that tell you how to write in specific genres. Feel free to use them if you want. No one has ever become a bad writer by reading these works.

In my opinion, the best way for someone to become a good writer is to read in order to see how other authors write, and then start writing yourself. When I say read a lot, I mean it. Go through at least one book a week. Start with the classics. We’re still reading Twain, Hemingway, Austen, and the like not just because our English professors are sadists, but because those authors knew how to write compelling stories that have stood the test of time. Then read a wide variety of books and authors in whatever genre you’re writing in, as well as at least a few books outside your genre.

And don’t forget to read trashy books, whether they’re pulp novels meant solely to entertain and entice, or novels that are just horribly written. Figure out what those authors did to make their works so laughable or painful to read, and learn from their mistakes. Remember, it takes a long time and many published works to build up a fan base, but only one poorly-written story or novel to turn off readers forever.

So while I won’t offer writing tips in this blog series, I do want to point out that there are certain aspects of writing you need to pay close attention to if you ever hope to get out of the slush pile and get published. These points have been reiterated to me time and again by publishers and literary agents, all of whom said that when they see these types of mistakes in query submissions, they immediately take the work out of contention for publication.

The first is grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Over time you’ll find your own writing style and voice. But if you don’t have the basics down, you’ll find it that much more difficult to break away from the thousands of other authors bombarding publishers and agents with their works. As part of this advice, make sure you proof read your final work carefully. You may have written the next bestseller, but if your sample chapters are chocked full of spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, and incorrect punctuation, good luck getting a publisher or agent to read beyond the first few pages. Even if they see the potential in your book, they’ll view you a sloppy author and will think carefully before taking you on. And if comes down between you and an author whose writing is solid, who do you think will get the contract?

Realistic dialogue is also very important to sealing that book deal. So of course, it’s one of the hardest parts to get right. If you write dialogue so that it’s grammatically correct, it sounds stilted and turns off the reader. If you write it to sound like every day conversations, you run the risk of making your characters sound like idiots. I trained myself to write decent dialogue by listening to others talk. This has the added benefit of letting people think you’re the silent, mysterious type (or they’ll just think you’re an introvert, which most writers are).

Finally, make sure you maintain the continuity of your story and characters. If your main character’s name is Ken Smith, always refer to him as either Ken or Smith throughout the story, and do not interchange the names. Keep your secondary characters straight as well; if you call someone Bob when he first appears in chapter three, make sure you don’t call him Bill when he reappears in chapter ten. If you describe your main character as being bald in chapter one, don’t have him run his fingers through his hair in chapter five. If your character is a devout Mormon, don’t show him/her drinking a cup of coffee without explaining why. If your story is set in Maine in the middle of December, don’t have the characters sunbathing three scenes later. If your story is set in Victorian-era New York, don’t have electric street lamps lining the streets. These are the minutiae that are easy to overlook. When publishers or agents catch them, they immediately get the impression that you’re a sloppy writer (see above). And if your readers catch them, you lose them quickly. I have had several authors who write historical dramas tell me that the worst criticism they receive from readers is when they get some historical fact wrong.

So consider yourself forewarned. Now get out there and start writing. Your public is waiting.

NEXT BLOG: Finding a publisher or literary agent.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

What To Write About by Scott M. Baker

“Okay, I get it. If I write one page a day, in a year I’ll have a novel. My problem is I have no idea what to write about.”

You’re sitting on a mother lode of ideas. You just haven’t mined them yet.

A good story, no matter what the genre, is about conflict. It’s about developing your main character(s) so that the reader likes (and hopefully can relate) to them, and then placing obstacles in the way of them obtaining their goals. The story is not about the challenges. It’s about how the main character(s) confront these challenges by overcoming their weaknesses and expanding on their strengths. The story is not about the conclusion. It’s about the journey to that concluding page, and what the main character(s) learn about themselves on the way.

Think of how boring The Lord of the Rings would have been if Bilbo had decided to keep the ring for himself rather than give it to Frodo to return to Mount Doom. Or if Ralphie’s mother had acquiesced in the opening scene of A Christmas Story and agreed to buy him an official Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot air model range rifle. Or if Shelby from Steel Magnolias did not have a medical condition that endangered her life during pregnancy. Or if Harry and Sally had hit it off on their car ride from college and lived happily ever after.

Such stories come from within us. There’s no one reading this blog who hasn’t experienced some type of conflict, whether it’s as simple as a troubled romance, as life altering as death or illness or surviving combat, as traumatic as disloyalty or loss of honor, or as frustrating (or comical, depending on the situation) as a dysfunctional family. Tap into those emotions and build your story around them. Will it be painful or uncomfortable to bear your soul like this? More than likely. But if you can be honest to your emotions and successfully weave them into your novel, you’ll relate to your readers.

That’s what writing is all about.

So if I may use an old clich├ęd phrase, write what you know.

“Write what you know? You write about zombies and vampires. What do you know about them?”

Good question. I asked the same thing years ago of Brian Keene, author of The Rising, the novel that launched a new wave of zombie apocalypse stories. The Rising is about Jim Thurmond who lives on the West Coast. As civilization crashes around him, Jim gets a phone call from his young son on the East Coast asking his father to come rescue him; he sets out on foot across a zombie-infested country in a desperate journey to save his son. Prior to writing the novel, Brian had received a phone call from his ten-year-old son whom he had not seen since infancy and who wanted to meet. He made the trip, all the while wondering what their meeting would be like. Brian later wrote about that emotional turmoil in The Rising, and then added some zombies.

Brian’s advice helped me to find my focus for The Vampire Hunters. At its essence, the story is about the war on terror and how those fighting it deal with the reality that for every terrorist brought down, ten others take his place. My main characters embody the three primary outlooks of any long-term struggle: Drake Matthews, the gung-ho commander who’s in the fight for the long haul no matter how long it takes; Alison Monroe, who follows Drake willingly but who, at some point, wants to put down her weapons lead a normal life; and Jim DelMarco, the young kid drafted into the conflict who does not want to be there, but who fights anyway. The trilogy deals with how each of these characters handles the stresses of combat, and how their experiences prepare them for the final battle. And then I substituted vampires for terrorists.

So write what you know, but don’t be afraid to embellish a bit.

A final note: One thing that every publisher and agent has told me is not to write your own iteration of the latest blockbuster. The DaVinci Code and Twilight were overnight phenomenon because they were new and distinctly unique, which is why they sparked the public’s imagination. After each of these novels went to the best seller list, publishing houses and literary agencies were inundated with knock-offs, most of which were not very good, and many pushed the bounds of copyright infringement. Sure, some of them got published. But rarely did any of these enjoy the success of the original works. Your goal should not be to write the next Harry Potter. Your goal should be to write a novel so unique that five years from now other writers will want to imitate you.

NEXT BLOG: The Mechanics of Writing.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How To Write Well by Scott M. Baker

“So all I have to do is write a page a day and in a year I’ll have a novel good enough to be published?”

Not necessarily. You’ll have a novel. Whether it’s good enough to be published is another matter.

Remember, writing is an art, much like figure skating, singing, acting, or painting. You have to practice at your craft to be become good at it.

I used to write espionage/techno thrillers. I don’t even admit to the first book because, in retrospect, it was crap. The second book was better, but still not quite publishable. By the third book I had found my style. It dealt with North Korea acquiring nuclear weapons and blackmailing four U.S. cities. I quickly picked up an agent who presented it to several publishers, all of whom liked the book. Unfortunately, this was right after 11 September, and the market for those books had dried up. So I switched genres.

So go out and write, and submit you work. Don’t get depressed if it gets rejected – that’s the nature of the game. And if an editor sends you feedback, consider yourself fortunate. Most publishers reject stories/manuscripts with a simple form letter. That an editor took the time to offer you feedback means he/she sees potential in you work.

The best way to hone your skills is to get readers who will provide critical feedback. Your mother and significant other do not count – chances are they’ll say it’s good, even if it isn’t. My suggestion is to find a good writer’s group with published authors or aspiring authors who are also interested in improving their craft. I’m a member of The Washington Fiction Writer’s League, and the feedback they provide on my stuff has proven invaluable to improving what I’ve published.

If you do go this route, remember two very important things.

First, find critique groups that will provide honest feedback. I’ve seen too many groups where the members will tear someone else’s work to shreds, but become indignant if you provide any critical feedback on their material. Avoid those groups like you would a horde of ravenous zombies. Those groups are filled with people who think ripping apart your work will somehow make them better writers. Trust me, it doesn’t work that way.

Second, and this is the hardest thing to do, is lock away your ego in a dark room during feedback sessions. As long as the feedback isn’t personal, listen to it and adopt it where appropriate. Every author is wedded to his/her work and hates to here that it is not quite as good as he/she thought it was. Get over yourself. I did.

No matter how well you write, there is always room for improvement. We all have our favorite writers who, over time, sacrificed quality for the sake of pumping out another book. There are several authors who I once loved but stopped buying their books because they started to disappoint me.

Your goal is not to write the best book ever written. Your goal is to write the best book that you possibly can. Every book or story has flaws. But if a reader can overlook the occasional grammatical error or plot flaw because the rest of the story is so entertaining it keeps them glued to the edge of their seat, then you’ve succeeded as a writer.

NEXT BLOG: What To Write About.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

How To Write That First Novel by Scott M. Baker

To all the Permuted Press fans who have been following this blog, my apologies for the dearth of postings the past few weeks.  I'm sure I can speak for the others when I say July has been one hectic month.  For myself, I've spent the last two weekends in Boston and Florida, respectively, and have had no time to blog.  But I don't want to disappoint the readers, so I plan on re-posting over the next few weeks a series I had written earlier for my own blog on how to write your first novel.  And in the interim, if I come up with anything substantial (or witty) to say, I'll post that, too.  Enjoy.


NOTE: I’ve been fortunate over the past five years to be intimately involved with a writer’s group that has allowed me to become acquainted with numerous authors, publishers, screen writers, and literary agents. They have talked openly about the publishing industry in general and their specific genres, and have offered considerable advice. Over time, I’ve grown to realize how valuable that guidance was. So over the next few weeks, I hope to share some of that wisdom with you.]

“What do I have to do to be a writer?”

Write.

Believe it or not, it’s as simple as that. Writers write. It’s what we do. But you’d be surprised how many potential authors forget that.

I’ve met several potential authors who have bragged about all the work they’ve done on their project. One had a detailed outline of their proposed novel. Another had 3x5 cards filled with biographical notes for each character. A third had a notebook in which he kept hours worth of research. When I asked them how far they had gotten in their book, they admitted they had not written anything yet. These people completely miss the point. Research, plot, and character are necessary, but not anywhere near as important as actually writing the book.

So get out there and start writing.

“That’s easy for you to say. You’re a published author and have plenty of time to write. I don’t.”

No one has time to write. You have to make time.

The sad truth about publishing today is that, unless you are a well-established name like Stephen King, K.J. Rawlings, or Dan Brown, most writers maintain a day job (or have a very understanding significant other with a well-paying job and a lot of patience). I get up at 5:30 AM, rush around to feed the rabbits and get dressed, and am off to work by 7:30 AM. If I’m lucky, I get home around 4 PM. Then I have to feed, clean, and spend time with the rabbits; do chores and errands; and try to have some meager semblance of a social life. I’m lucky if I get five hours of sleep a night.

I fit writing into that hectic schedule because I love to write. I need to write. It’s my passion. To do that, though, I have to make sacrifices. When I’m in full-fledged writing mode, my Xbox sits idle and my stack of books to read grows taller and taller. And I don’t want to admit to the number of times I’ve spent several hours cranking out a chapter, only to be greeted afterwards by sets of mopey brown eyes and furry dejected faces giving me that why-didn’t-you-play-with-me look.

Anyone who truly and passionately wants to write can find time during the day to do so. Get up an hour early or stay up an hour late (as long as you devote that entire time solely to writing). If you commute by public transportation, use that time to write. Devote some of your “down time” to writing. Sure, you might have to forego watching American Idol or curtail your time surfing cute pet sights on the Internet, but are these really more important than getting your book written?

“Oh, come on. How much writing do you really expect me to get done in an hour a day?”

Let me put it this way. In that hour, anyone can write a single page. If you type in double space, the way manuscripts should be drafted, that’s approximately 300 words a day. If you do that every day for a year, when you’re done you will have 365 pages totaling over 100,000 words. That, my friends is a novel.

So what are you waiting for? Close down the Internet, call up your word processor, and start writing.

NEXT BLOG: How to write well.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

We're All Going To Die During a Zombie Apocalypse... and We Deserve To by Scott M. Baker

That is not a proven fact verifiable by solid evidence.  This is merely my own opinion based on firsthand observations.  Let me explain why I developed that hypothesis.  But first, some background information.

Last night around 11:00 a freak thunderstorm blew through the Washington D.C. area.  One minute I was watching television, the next the trees around my house were blowing violently, the loose items on my back deck were being thrown about, and I could hear the wind slamming into the aluminum siding.  The lights flickered, went out, and came back on several times.  The rain was heavy but brief, and within twenty minutes the storm had passed on and everything had returned to normal.

This morning, after breakfast, I went out to do some errands.  I was surprised to find that half my city was without power, including about seventy-five percent of the traffic lights.  But I was dumbstruck at how people were reacting.

Now mind you, this was just a freak thunderstorm.  There were no tornadoes, or sustained hurricane-level winds, or massive flooding.  And except for one poor woman in Maryland who died in her bed when a tree toppled over onto her house, there were no fatalities.  But the way people acted out there, you would have thought it was the end of the world.

Intersections with non-working traffic signals were insane.  It seemed as if everyone forgot that broken traffic signals are to be treated as four-way Stop signs.  I don't know who was worse -- the drivers who blew through these intersections without even slowing down, or the timid ones who just sat there, too afraid to move.  I came upon one intersection on a back road where five cars blocked five lanes because the traffic signal was out and no one knew how to handle it.  On the main road, all common sense seemed to have left people along with the electricity.  I saw one driver cruising along in the far-left breakdown lane, and another one stopped in the middle of four lanes reading a map.

The police were out in force, but they seemed to be uncoordinated.  At none of the intersections were they directing traffic; they were merely blocking off lanes and forcing drivers to go into directions they didn't want to go.  Actually, I must correct myself since that statement is inaccurate.  I did find a cop at one intersection with working signals who was directing traffic against the light cycle and causing more confusion than anything else.  He would have been much off going west several blocks to the major intersection without signals where no one knew how to respond. 

On my way home I turned to the news channel on the radio (I had plenty of time to listen since the police kept redirecting me farther and farther away from my home) and shook my head.  According to WTOP, those gas stations with power had lines panicky people desperate to fill up on gas, and some grocery stores were reporting increased traffic as people stocked up on essentials.

By the time I got to within a mile of my house me and several others like me (read either "tough, confident individuals who go into battle mode during a crisis and don't panic under pressure" or "arrogant, self-centered buttheads") were ignoring the craziness around us and just trying to get to where we were going.

What really bothered me was the inability of people to cope, both the civilian and the law enforcement.  Did the academy train the police how to direct traffic (stop all traffic, let one lane proceed at a time, repeat until the intersection is clear) or did they just not want to be bothered?  Would the driver who stopped in the middle of a four-lane highway to consult a map have done the same thing if the situation was "normal"?  (Sadly, being northern Virgina, the answer to that could be yes.)  This was a bright, sunny (and hot) day following a thunderstorm that did minimal damage. I shudder to think what would have happened if the dead came back to life (or some other, but not as much fun, natural disaster had occurred).

With regards to the incident above where five cars blocked five lanes because no one knew what to do, the Bostonian in me let out a string of invectives (I'm at my most creative when I'm combining blasphemies and insults into single descriptive phrases) and long, loud blares on the horn.  The writer in me realized that if this was the zombie apocalypse, me and everyone in my vehicle would be overrun and devoured or forced to set out on foot into the hordes of the living dead because of the actions of others.

So now I'm sitting home, venting my frustrations (and pretending it's a blog posting) surrounded by my pets who are staring at me with that "I thought you were going out?" look.  After doing some writing, I'll probably spend the night in front of the television.  But you can be sure I'll be watching Doomsday Preppers and taking notes. 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

PAIN IS PERSONAL by Lane Adamson

I'd intended to write a brief but enlightening discourse on werewolves, and why they still rock, this week.  Then I got a kidney stone and got distracted.

This was my second go-round with kidney stones.  The first time, the doctor at the emergency room told me that, although I was presenting with the requisite symptoms, I didn't seem to be evincing enough pain to have a kidney stone:  specifically, I wasn't crying or curled up in the fetal position (or even begging for painkillers).  I politely told him that I had a high tolerance for pain--and when the tests showed I did indeed have the stones, he apologized and paid respect to my stoicism.

Jesse Ventura, PREDATOR
Me and Jesse ain't got time for pain

Anyway, after this flare-up, I got to thinking about what one might call the Three Pillars of Fear:  the Unknown, Pain, and Death.  I don't know if this concept is original to me or not (I thought of it on my own, but that means very little); but I think you'll find that you can shoehorn pretty much all horror storytelling into one or more of those three categories.

I'll probably deal with a broader overview of the subject at another date, but I haven't had time to percolate on it yet.  For now, let's look at Pain.

Pain is the most personal of fears--even more than Death, if you think about it.  Death, at least, has finality; they can only kill you once (generally speaking).  Pain, on the other hand, can go on and on almost indefinitely, and (unless clumsily administered) is almost guaranteed not to kill you... but you might wish it would.

That's a powerful thing.

I tend to avoid the more outre movies of the horror genre--they used to be called slasher films (the Friday the 13th series, for example), now they've morphed into what's being called "torture porn" (the Hostel films and others).  I'm a sensitive sort; I don't enjoy watching people get hurt for the sake of watching people get hurt--even if they're promiscuous, drug-using co-eds who somehow "deserve" it.

Eli Roth, HOSTEL 3
I don't like to watch.

Still, just as films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or Them! helped audiences cathartically deal with their fears of the Unknown, while Dracula and Frankenstein bring us face-to with Death (with a subtext of the Unknown), I suppose I can see a certain value in films like those referenced earlier for subliminally subrogating one's pain.

Or, maybe you're all just a bunch of sick bastards.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Belated Father's Day Blog by Scott M. Baker

The reason I'm posting this two days late is because I didn't actually come up with the posting until late Sunday and didn't get a chance to draft it until just now.

My mother and father on their 50th wedding anniversary.
Any one who follows my blog knows that I'm an old Monster Kid going back to the 1970s, and that my mother was the one who enabled my passion for the dark side.  But the person I've never talked about is my father, the one who kept my horror habit fed for all those years. 

As far back as I remember, my father and my maternal grandfather had a ritual that they never strayed from: every Saturday morning they would get up early and go out for breakfast.  As I got older, they began taking me with them.  I loved it, and not just because I got to spend time with my dad and grand dad, which was great.  But after breakfast, my father would drive me around in a quest for monster memorabilia. 

I can still remember impatiently sitting at the table in the greasy little diner in downtown Lynn (the habitual breakfast spot), already having wolfed down my English muffin and endlessly fidgeting in the booth waiting for the real fun to begin.  Such was the curse of having a tiny child's stomach.  Only after the men had finished off their eggs, bacon, home fries, toast, and bottomless cups of coffee would the excitement (for me, at least) really begin.

The first stop was always Cal's News in downtown Lynn, not far from the diner.  Once in Cal's, I would make a beeline straight for the entertainment section and thumb through the stacks looking for the latest treasure: The Monster Times, Eerie or Creepy magazine, the dozens of other pulp monster mags that thrived back in the good old days, or the mother lode of all finds -- the latest issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland.  I could barely wait to get back to the car to start thumbing through them and marvel at the images inside. 

Then it was off to the Don Elder's in Chelsea, a small business run by a kindly, elderly gentleman out of an old garage.  Mr. Elder sold mostly 35mm cameras and 8mm camcorders and movie projectors, but for me the attraction was his vast collection of Castle Films.  These were 12-minute, black-and-white, silent versions of horror and Sci-Fi movies.  Each one came in a box about six inches square, usually with a reproduction of the movie poster emblazoned across the front.  They only offered a tantalizing taste of the original movie, but in the days before video tapes, they were the only way to be able to see your favorite movies without having to wait for them to be played by the local cable access television station at one in the morning.  (I still have my entire collection of them safely tucked away in a closet.)  After that, it was a quick run to the hobby shop in Malden where I would pick up the latest Aurora monster model, and then back home.  On a good day, I would make it back in time to catch Creature Double Feature on WLVI Channel 56.

And never once did my father complain about schlepping me around the North Shore every Saturday.  I'm sure he always pictured me as a Marine like himself and his brother Bob (who fought on Okinawa).  But he never complained that instead he got stuck with a geek little kid who liked monsters.  (Although I did enjoy watching war movies with him, so that surely softened the blow.)  Like my mother, he has always been very supportive of me in everything I've done, and to this day he still gets on the phone when I'm chatting with the family to tell me he's proud of me.

But those days are drawing to a close.  Over the past few years, my father has been fighting a losing battle with a series of mini-strokes that have caused Alzheimer-like symptoms.  He's slowly slipping into the real-life horror that accompanies the deterioration of one's mind, and every time I go home to visit I recognize him a little less.  Soon all that will be left of my father is the memory of who he once was. 

So before it gets too late to say it, thanks for feeding the addiction, Dad.  You helped make me the man I am today.