Observations on science fiction, writing, life and whatnot

Writing

At play in the universe of S.M. Stirling

The old world goes away and the new one comes in with strife, terror and death …

These days, that seems to be the only story, told well or poorly. One of the better ones, though — one with depth, complex and emotional characters, incredible details from the food the characters eat to the armor they wear to the lands they travel through — is The Change series by S.M. Stirling

Back in 1998, Nantucket Island was suddenly whisked off to Bronze Age Europe. That was the start, three books worth, but then Stirling turned his attention to a part of the world that was left behind, and thus began the Emberverse Series. That started in 2004 with Dies the Fire and has continued through ten more books with the 12th, The Desert and the Blade, due in September. What happened to the world wasn’t pretty — electricity stopped flowing, steam power lost its punch, explosives lost their bang and internal combustion engines stalled forever — and the books have chronicled how a real post-modern history has unfolded with the rise and fall of kingdoms, petty tyrants and religious fanatics (with a real edge to them). And underneath it all, good people trying to find answers and create new societies.

Though Stirling gave us a peek at some of the rest of the U.S. — his characters had to traverse the continent on a quest, after all — and some hints about the rest of the world (hint: Prince Charles does not come off very well), he, like any author building new worlds, has to limit his scope in order to keep the story on track. So he generously opened his world to other writers, asking them to write short stories, setting them wherever they liked as long as the rules of the universe are followed.

The result is The Change: Tales of Downfall and Rebirth (ROC, $27.95). Fifteen authors telling 16 stories (Stirling tells one of his own) in several places around the globe, including Florida, California, New Mexico, Nebraska, Louisiana, Alaska, North Dakota, Canada, Australia and Greek galleys battling it out in the Mediterranean,

Authors, both known and upcoming, include A.M. Dellamonica, Kier Salmon, Lauren C. Teffeau, M.T. Reiten, John Jos. Miller, Victor Milan, John Birmingham, Walter Jon Williams, John Barnes, Harry Turtledove, Jane Lindskold, Jody Lynn Nye, Emily Mah, and Diana Paxson.

And Terry England. Yeah, me. And I can tell you I’m proud and honored to be a part of this.

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One day steeped in the world of KC SF and fantasy

I spent one day this past weekend at ConQuest 46, the Kansas City science fiction convention.

One. Lousy. Day.

Why only one day is an explanation for some other time (having to do with bad choices, stupid actions and unreal expectations, but let’s not get into that now. Or maybe never. Some things are just too depressing for public discourse).

No, the con was not what was lousy. What was lousy was that I only got to spend one day out of a two-and-a-half-day event. The con itself was a pleasant as a con can be, with fans coming to see writers and partake in discussion panels, check out offerings by fantasy-based artists, see what the merchants were offering — books, T–shirts, medallions, swords, the usual things except for the life-sized R2-D2 units; don’t know if any were for sale, but it was a kick to be sitting in the foyer and seeing an R2 unit diddly-beeping along . You could get your picture taken sitting in the throne of swords from Game of Thrones. You could play games, electronic and board. You could write a story based on what you pulled out of a bag, or you could have had one of your stories critiqued by people willing to give up a holiday weekend (and a couple of weeks before) to do that. And, of course, dress up in costumes (called “masquerades” in the standard SF con vernacular; perhaps the term is now being co-opted by “cosplay”).

And writers, of course. Brandon Sanderson was the writer guest of honor, and if you know him as only the guy who finished the Robert Jordan Wheel of Times series, you are missing a lot. This man is a writing machine. George R.R. Martin was editor guest of honor . Yes, editor. Wild Card series, anyone? Dangerous Women, Rogues, Old Mars, Old Venus — just a few of the many anthologies he’s edited or co-edited. Of course, he can’t get away completely from his writer status. At one point, Sanderson was at a table in the second-floor foyer signing books and Martin was in one of the ballrooms. Sanderson’s line of fans went along one wall and Martin’s down the middle of the foyer, down a hallway and — who knows? — perhaps out the door and down the sidewalk all the way to the Missouri River. Who says people aren’t reading books any more?

(There were other guests of honor, but alas, I didn’t have enough time to see them: artist Nene Thomas, fan Mark Oshiro and toastmaster Selina Rosen. My apologies, folks.)

This all took place in the Downtown Kansas City Marriott Hotel, which will be the main hotel for next year’s worldcon, MidAmeriCon II. It was nice as modern hotels go, but it has its quirks. See, it’s not enough any more just to push a button to summon an elevator. No, now you have to tap a keypad on a screen, then watch a graphic that tells you which elevator to expect. All nice and 21st-century-ish, but while high-tech hits the call button, the elevator itself is still subject to gravity and other forces in moving up and down the shaft. So, if you plan to stay at this hotel for the worldcon, be prepared for the usual pile-ups of people waiting for the elevator. (Experienced con-goers are already pretty familiar with that phenomenon, I’m thinking.)

Comic-book cons perhaps have taken the spotlight from SF cons, but if you like science fiction and fantasy — and horror, or anything in the related genres — you really should consider one. There are regional cons all over the country. The two I know best are this one and Bubonicon, New Mexico’s version held in Albuquerque. It’s a chance to meet other fans, plus you get an idea of that’s going on not only in publishing but on the Internet, blogs, sites and podcasts. And the people who run them are friendly and welcoming. I mean, come on, how many conventions honor the people who come to the conventions? Just ask Mr. Oshiro, cited above.

For me, it was a chance to shove aside current frustrations and relax among people with similar interests (and senses of humor, which helps.) I got to see a New Mexico friend, John Jos. Miller, a Wild Cards writer from the beginning and 1950s SF movie freak. (Check out his Cheese Magnet site for deep, academic [heh-heh] discussions of the classic and less-classic films.)

ConQuest is sponsored by the KC Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, Inc., or KaCSFFS (they say it’s pronounced “kax-fuss.”) . The next ConQuest will still take place next May. (The worldcon doesn’t happen until August. While KaCSFFS is involved with MidAmeriCon II planning, the group isn’t the only one. Worldcon is just too damn big for that.)

I plan to attend both. This is a goal. Whether either or both happens, we’ll see.


The spat is over, just in time for the holidays

Certainly glad to hear Amazon and Hachette have settled their tiff about e-book pricing. While its good for customers and fans, the authors caught in the middle should come out better once the buying and rating systems are restored for their books..
I don’t know if the boycott did any good — I doubt my not buying anything from Amazon made much of an impression. Perhaps the effort led by Douglas Preston and others nettled Amazon corporate honchos enough to give ’em a little extra incentive to stop being jerks. I hope so. I hope no one forgets the authors were hurt the most by this.
I support the effort to bring Amazon’s shenanigans to the attention of the Department of Justice, even if nothing happens there. Regulators need to be made aware that even one large company can strangle free enterprise without much risk on that company’s earnings.
Some people are saying the Amazon boycott should continue, but I’m not so sure. I think we ought to buy as many Hachette authors as we can for the next few months to show Amazon that they can suffer from bad business practices, too. Plus, its a good way to let those authors know we missed them and still support them.
I’m still wary of both companies despite this sudden breakout of amity. These two giant corporations still can — and do — new methods to screw the writers and artists. We must watch both sides constantly or face the possibility of losing a lot more than delayed deliveries or loss of sales. The stakes remain large.


A new year, a new beginning … meh

So, the new year is 16 days old and by now you should be well along in your new resolutions.

Yeah, right.

Just another year, y’know. One more turn around the Sun, four more seasons come and gone. Same thing, year after year, the Earth spinning, the Sun making helium, the same old same old.

Animals don’t care. They live for the moment. Is it cold today? Is it warm? Is it breeding season? Is it time to eat? Is it time to be eaten? What’s that you say? A year? Crap, I have enough trouble getting from sunset to sunrise to sunset, I don’t need to be thinking about whether today marks a year from the same day last year. What is a “year” anyway?

And we’re not really back to where we were a year ago. An Earth year doesn’t come out all nice and even, there’s an odd fraction. That fraction ensures we don’t hit the exact same spot on this side of the Sun as last year. Plus, the entire Solar System and the entire galaxy are moving, so the spot we were on Jan. 16 2013 has gone way off in the stellar distance somewhere. That’s the factor most writers of time-travel stories ignore. Not only do time travelers have to aim for the correct time, they have to aim for the correct place. As in, Earth’s place on, say, Jan. 16, 1813. They might be spot-on in the time dimension, but they’re gonna find themselves in a spot with no solid ground. Or air to breathe. Or anything else. A situation much, much worse than that of the astronaut in Gravity.

We humans constructed this concept of a “year” so we could have a place to point to that is both the “end” and the “beginning.” Say good-bye to 2013 now shuffling off the stage, a creaky old man with a long, gray beard carrying his scythe. (OK, now just where did he get that scythe, anyway? The new year comes in as a baby in diaper and top hat, but no scythe. Is the old man carrying the same scythe as the original old man did lo those many billions of years ago? Or does the Old Man Time get a new one sometime during his year? From where? At what point during the twelve months does he obtain the scythe? Six months? When he’s old enough to carry it? Big enough? Six months is middle age, right? By July, his hair is going gray, arthritis is attacking his joints and his teeth are falling out. So is that when the Great Timekeeper in the Sky bestows the scythe upon the current year’s physical representative? Why a scythe? Well, look at the physical representative for death. He definitely uses his every day of the year. Same thing for Old Man Time. The cute Hallmark cards never show him using the scythe to slice off the previous year from the time stream in a bloody finale. No going back now, folks.)

A new year is a chance for new beginnings, or so we’re told, but it’s easier just to continue with the old, right? Change is hard. Stop eating, stop smoking, stop smirking, stop drinking, stop watching so much TV (except for — Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, NCIS, Downton Abbey, Mythbusters, American Idol: place your own show here). Just stop doing whatever you’ve been doing that’s harmful to you, then start doing the healthy things, the educational things, the kind things, the positive things. Make yourself a better person. Easy, no?

No.

Well, we all do share one accomplishment for the year: We’re still alive. No small thing, given all the ways that a single human life can be extinguished. Yeah, some of those resolutions are geared toward, y’know, reducing that risk. So when the completely arbitrary year of 2015 comes around, we’ll still be here. Hah! Another accomplishment!

The trouble with we humans is that our developed brains allows us to fill our lives with — stuff. Good word, “stuff.” (How many variations of coffee drinks are there at your favorite coffeehouse? How long’s it take you decide which one you want?) Often we find the best way to deal with “stuff” is simply letting it wash over us. (Like picking the same coffee drink every time.) It’s much easier, don’tcha know. (Yes, George Carlin had a terrific riff on “stuff.” I have expanded the meaning to include active things, not just the material things we stick on a shelf. “Stuff” covers it all.)

Oh, I know. These past couple of months I’ve been hit with lethargic ennui that has made doing anything of substance not difficult, particularly,  just … unimportant. My excuse is that things happen in life that forces delay, but that’s a poor one, no? Life happens to everyone and we all have to deal with it. Stuff (to use a more polite term) happens according to the gods, and we’re left to deal with the consequences. My way of dealing with it lately has been to pretty much let it slide. And we’re taught that “letting it slide” is not a good thing, though I at this point I could make a good argument in favor of it.

But, never mind. So, yeah, I decided enough’s enough. Did I decide it now because of the new year? It’s likely that I’ve fallen into that tired old way of thinking about “starting anew.” But I think one of the main spurs of this is that I remembered I owe a project to a friend, one I had committed to months ago. When I meekly asked if I had missed the deadline, he generously said I hadn’t, that a place was still being held for me as long as I did meet the deadline. So, there you go: Commit to a project for a friend to break the shackles of ennui.

Not that the end of last year was a complete null. I did complete a project on my own, but man,  it took forever. Now it’s out in the cold, cruel world hoping someone will take pity on it and give it a home. And pay me for it. Well, like so many of my other projects … we’ll just have to wait and see.

And then there’s the third project, which is on the cusp of being complete. This one was easier because it’s a collaboration with another friend and his friend, so there was plenty of incentive not to screw it up..

These last three paragraphs are very self-revealing bordering on self-pity. I usually don’t do this (in public) because I feel like private stuff should stay private (a polite way of saying “It’s none of your business”). I’m going public with this partly as a spur to get that one project done. I shall post the results whether success or failure and the one or two of you who read this can say either “That’s great!” or hold me up to public scorn.

Now there’s an incentive.


Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Eh — never mind, it’s just another superhero

Superheroes are everywhere. You’d think they were gods or something.

Humanity always has had a yen for something greater than itself, someone or some thing that will fight for the oppressed and right the wrongs in society.

Because it’s so hard to do it oneself, right?

Super-strong and/or super-smart creatures of myth go back as far as golems and Herculeses and messiahs and archangels, but for our purposes, superhero history starts in April, 1938 with the publication of Action Comics No. 1. The cover sported a man in red-and-blue tights smashing a car into a boulder as (presumably) the crooks flee in terror. The man in tights was Superman, as if any American born after 1938 couldn’t tell.

Superman was a big hit almost immediately and still is going strong, fueling a billion-dollar business today with video games, movies, comic books, graphic novels (thicker comic books, some with hard covers, to make them at least look sophisticated) and all the assorted merchandising therefrom. Superman’s got more staying power than any battery-operated bunny and he’s known worldwide. Children whose great-grandparents picked up Action No. 1 have a broad choice on which Superman story to follow. If you’re interested in Superman’s personal history and all the permutations to this point, and about the men who created him, Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (Random House) is a fine account.

Tye did an excellent job for me in tying together the many threads that are Superman. As each generation changes to the next, publishers feel a need to update their superheroes lest they be become obsolete or even worse, unhip. This has led to the many variations of Superman and his ilk: Batman, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, the Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Captain Marvel (and Junior, Mary and Uncle), Ant Man, Aqua-man, The Human Torch, Plastic Man, Wonder Man, The Shield, Sky Wizard, Magno the Magnetic Man, Red Raven, The Green Lama, Iron Man, The Flash and so on and so on to just about infinity. Some of those are oldies and long gone, some are oldies but still around and even more have yet to be discovered. It’s a wide, wide world in the realm of the superhero.

My first experience with Superman was in the ’50s when he seemed … boring. Either he was in a romantic tiff with Lois Lane or Lana Lang or some other “LL” girl or he was being warped out of shape by the various colors of Kryptonite, or he was – temporarily, always temporarily – about to be eliminated by Brainiac, that ‘LL of a guy, Lex Luthor, or that guy with the all-consonant name. Bizarro was the interesting character; his warped being and that warped world he lived in much more interesting than the latest lecture on how superbeings must always do good. And I couldn’t stand Jimmy Olsen.

The arrival of the Marvel superheroes didn’t do much for me, either. Yeah, I know Marvel saved or reinvented superheroes (depending on your point of view), but they were all too whiny and too inward-looking. They were superheroes, for goodness sake, couldn’t they come to some conclusion and then get on with saving the world? And yes, the art was great, but the characters … meh. Mostly. Occasionally one stood out. The Thing, the Hulk, Captain America, Fin Fang Foom. (Wait – that last isn’t a superhero, is it? He’s one of those weird Jack Kirby monsters who were often more interesting than the superheroes.)

And the Marvel villains – talk about going off the scale! Planet-devouring gods. Mystic bald-headed advisers. A man with metallic arms attached to his side. A shiny surfer (in a ploy to show the surfer crowd that superheroes can be cool, too).

DC couldn’t just stand by in the face of all this, so their supervillains started getting bigger and badder. Until one came along who could kill Superman. For a while, at least.

This points out one of the basic problems of superheroes: they need enemies that can fight at their level. If you’re a superhero, just arresting bank robbers, thieves, corrupt politicians and greedy CEOs will get boring after a while. So, eventually the Lex Luthors, the Brainiacs, the Dr. Dooms, the Jokers, the Galactuses, the Doomsdays, the Doctor Octopuses start appearing. And with each iteration, they get meaner, more destructive, and more personal in their vendettas. Only on rare occasion is a villain destroyed; but usually they just slink away, only to come back later. Or escape the insane asylum

This constant recycling of bad guys became a problem for me. In the superhero realm, this has to do with prohibitions against killing. In the real world, it has to do with the writers unable to come up with a new villain. Look, shoot ’em, punch ’em, break ’em , zap ’em, pulverize ’em– just get rid of them. Granted, it’ll be hard to replace the Joker, but it’ll be a good challenge for the imagination.

Batman is a special case, of course. He’s not a superhero in the strict sense; he has no power that enables him to fly or move mountains or drop tanks on bad guys. He’s been carrying the trauma of his parent’s death for 70 years now, and he’s gotten darker and darker, until he’s just this paranoid, angry vigilante hiding in the shadows. But that’s part of his charm – if you can call it that.

There’s talk the new move will make Superman darker, too. Tye makes a good point in that Superman cannot really become this because he’s too embedded in the American mythos. In the 74 years of his existence, Superman has become the symbol of what’s good about America. Naive, maybe, but with the optimism and a belief in himself. Just like the country he represents. A dark Superman will suggest that the optimism is misguided at best and worthless at worst. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the country, but as so goes Superman, so goes the nations’ future.

It’s all tied into these generational changes. Each superhero must be reborn, his (or hers) backstory altered to fit the mindset of the hip young, the ones with money and a driving thirst for entertainment. This has led to that tangle of threads mentioned earlier that threatens to engulf all of the superheroes. This is also a failure of storytelling.

Tales of a different set of superheroes (and superlosers) has worked around that problem. The Wild Cards series doesn’t come out in comic-book form but as novels and anthologies (thus perhaps too daunting for some people). Edited by George R.R. Martin (yes, that George R.R. Martin; he does do other things besides Game of Thrones, you know) and Melinda Snodgrass, the series has been going since 1987 and is up to 21 books, soon 22. The series came out of a role-playing game and started with a core group of writers sharing the Wild Card universe. New writers have been picked up along the way, helping solve the staying-relevant problem. The generations not only pass in the real world, they pass in the series, too. The original superheroes have aged, some have died, others have just disappeared; and still others have been born (or mutated) since the series began so there’s always a new crop of heroes. And villains, who come out of the same source as the heroes.

That source was an alien virus deliberately spread into Earth’s atmosphere. Its effects on humans varies; you can become an Ace with nifty superpowers, or you can become a Joker with terrible physical consequences. All this certainly stretches credibility, but it’s better than bites from radioactive spiders, mystical magic, lanterns from space and vats of acid.

The stories are about humans dealing with the cards they are dealt, and it’s not always for the better. Power has different effects on people; not every man endowed with superpowers is going to fight crime and battle for truth, justice and the American way. And other people – heads of corporations, dictators of nations – are going to want to exploit those powers for nefarious reasons. Even reality TV enters into the Wild Card universe. How hip is that?

(A Wild Cards movie is in the works, but if you want to familiarize yourself before then, you can always start at the beginning with the original Wild Cards anthology called, um, Wild Cards. Tor books has released a revised edition with a new story added. Or you can start with the latest, Fort Freak, for a good introduction; Lowball, the 22nd book, is due this year).

As mentioned, the Wild Card heroes at least have ready-made villains instead of having to wit for someone to arrive out of the mist. This idea of superheroes having no one to fight is one of the premises of my own superhero novel, The Tyranny of Heroes. (You didn’t think I was talking about superheroes just for the heck of it, did you?) The heroes – 54 of them, just to make things interesting – descend upon Earth at about the same time Superman did in his universe, during the Great Depression. They start out like Superman did, catching crooks, smacking down nasty landlords, dealing with greedy capitalists etc., etc. They help with big government projects like Hoover Dam while taking care of the Mafia-connected gangs that terrorized the population. Unfortunately for my superheroes, though, there isn’t anyone who can challenge them. So what do they do? Well, they do what I’ve always thought people with superpowers would do – they take over the world.

At first, they are reluctant to accrue too much authority. But World War II persuades them that humanity needs guidance and they’re the only ones who can provide it. Good intentions begin to go awry, as they often do. In trying to fix this problem or stop that injustice, they slowly usurp the powers of the government. Not just the USA government, but all governments. Soon the superheroes are not just in charge, they are dictators. A benevolent dictatorship to be sure, but in securing the world’s safety they have to take draconian actions, meaning dissidents go to jail, certain ideas are crushed, censorship is the norm and all nations must follow the American ideal.

Is that so bad? There are no wars big or small; civil rights are guaranteed for all; electric cars dominate the roads; mag-lev trains crisscross continents; nuclear weapons are banned; every country is economically secure; air, land and water are unpolluted; and national borders are open with passports a thing of the past.

The downside? Humans haven’t gone into space. You want to study Moon rocks? The Supers will bring you all the samples you want. You want to know what Saturn looks like up close? The Super will take videos for you. You want to live in space? Well – it’s dangerous out there and not inviting at all. Humans haven’t explored their own planet much, either. It’s cheaper to send a Super to the bottom of the ocean than it is to build an expensive machine to protect frail humans. The world might have mag-lev trains in 2014, but personal computers are just barely appearing in the marketplace. The Internet isn’t even a dream and cable TV has yet to be strung. Cell phones? Never heard of them.

Scientific and technological advances are under Supers control. While research has eliminated diseases such as smallpox, polio and malaria, everyone in the field must adhere to the Supers rules – or be bounced out (sometimes literally). And often politics plays a part – look at the debacle the Supers made of the AIDS epidemic. (I know what some people are going to say about the politics of all of this, but they will be wrong. This is a fable, not a manifesto.)

Of course, most people are quite satisfied with the way things are. Life is good, why rock the boat? But there is that minority that sees the status quo as a dead end for humanity. They struggle to point out the loss of national sovereignty, the denial of due process, that civil rights don’t exist if dissidents face imprisonment in Alcatraz – or worse. Arrest, trial and execution cane be swift then the overlords have powers way beyond mere humanity.

Still, the Supers have secrets of their own, secrets that could undermine their authority. This is why they keep their origins a secret; this is why research into Super DNA is banned. But they can’t stop human curiosity. One man who feels his family is threatened by the Supers suddenly is becoming a real irritant under their superskins.

Then the Supers suddenly face a threat that does have the power to destroy them, but from a direction they never expected.

The Tyranny of Heroes is an e-book. Clicking on the picture at right will take you to Amazon.com. For now, you’ll have to go to Barnes & Noble through your browser.


Please don’t hate me for what I am about to do

I’m not planning anything illegal or immoral; all I want to do is get a novel published (though certain segments of society might see that as immoral). I have tried the traditional means, and now I’m going to the route that technology has opened for us.

Unfortunately, that route also attracts heaps of opprobrium.

A recent post of a quote from a guy who describes himself as having worked for three big-name publishing houses and 10 years as an agent is the epitome of this criticism. When you pay for editing, he says, when you pay for cover design, when you pay for marketing, when you pay for anything (emphasis his), “that is a vanity press.” He says you’ll never see your book on store shelves and the only people who will buy it are your relatives. The publishers will make money from those pathetic sales while you’ll be stuck with a garage full of books. (That last part’s not in the post, but it’s sure as hell implied.) As such, it is not the definition of a published author by any yardstick he uses.

I got angry when I saw this. First, this, this “knothead” is trashing the efforts of a lot of good writers who have chosen nontraditional means to publish their books (because, bottom line, it’s a threat to Big Publishing). And then he shows his ignorance when he conflates “vanity press” with “self-published.”

I’m familiar with true vanity presses; I know enough to stay away from them, both as an author and what I saw as an editor of a newspaper’s book-review section. I received several; all were junk. I always looked at them though; you just never knew …

I also received self-published books. Aren’t they the same as vanity press? Only to a point.

A guy in Colorado sent me a book he wrote, and he also paid for the cover art, he paid for formatting, he paid for editing, he paid for printing and he was paying his own marketing costs (all before e-books and e-readers existed, by the way). Under knothead’s definition, that’s “vanity press.” But the author didn’t use any of the existing vanity presses; he formed his own press to publish and market his book. He’d tried to market it the traditional way, but all he received were rejections. He had something to say, he had a good story, he wasn’t about to let his creation fade away. He probably sent copies to dozens of book reviewers all around the country, many of whom likely rejected it out of hand. (“We don’t do self-published vanity books,” they probably sniffed as they threw their copies into the trash.)

I read it. It had a great cover and an intriguing plot. I passed it along to one of my reviewers, an author himself, and he liked it, wrote a nice review. I can’t claim all credit for what happened next, but I like to think I at least helped. Enough praise from other non-snooty reviewers eventually got a Big Publisher to pick it up and soon the author saw his book on store shelves. It’s still in print and still gets glowing reviews. Not bad for self-published, eh, knothead?

Now I’m in the same situation. My novel is a good story, with lots to say, and it’s well-written. People besides me have said so, and none of them are related to me. Some are published authors who gave me guidance while I was writing it. I have been trying for years to get it published by sending it to publishers and agents. All have rejected it. One rejection came back with the hand-scrawled note, “We don’t do superheroes.”

OK, can’t do it the traditional way, so I’ll go the new way: e-publication. And because I’m not artistic enough to design the cover and unsure of myself to do the formatting, I have paid to have all that done. Oh, and the editing, too, by a professional. (“Evil! Evil!” moans knothead. “Vanity publishing!”) I do this because I have no choice.

Perhaps I did give up too early on the traditional agent/publisher method. But I’ve run out of publishers that will first, allow me to submit without an agent; and second, would be even slightly interested in a superhero novel (“As we said before, we don’t do superheroes”). All the agents I contacted – and there were many – declined to represent it (“We don’t do them, either.”). And perhaps they did have a good reason for rejecting it: the book is terrible. Always a possibility, but I know bad and my biased opinion this is not a bad book. Someone else will have to decide the final merits of it. Plus, there’s the issue of time. I’m getting old and would like to at least see something I’ve written published before lights out.

I’m going into this with eyes wide open. I know I’m taking a big chance, possibly even an end to my fiction writing career. (With the state it’s in at this point, no great loss.) I could put the novel out there and not see one sale (well, a couple maybe, my niece and my sister, but those would be family sales, as knothead would gleefully point out). It could be ripped to shreds (metaphorically, of course) and scorned as dreck. Those are risks authors take with any kind of publishing, but e-authors also seem to run the risk of alienating traditional publishers. (“You have e-books for sale? Ewww! I’m calling security!”)

And, of course, I’m dropping the book into a maelstrom where millions of e-books already exist, each trying to catch the eye of a browsing customer. I don’t have a big following so I won’t have automatic sales. I do have one novel available as an e-book, but its sales aren’t exactly burning up the sales chart. (It’s called Rewind, available through E-Reads.com, see the link under the cover image at right. [Yes, that’s self-promotion, that’s the thing authors have to do even when they find it abhorrent, but never mind, go buy a copy.]) So the odds are stacked against me, yet I persist. I’m either tenacious or a fool. (Knothead and his ilk will have no trouble picking which one.)

Another disadvantage will be the lack of reviews. I’m not sure how many magazines or other periodicals or bloggers review independently published books (a more sophisticated way of saying “e-books.”) Not that reviews will boost sales all that much, but any mention anywhere (even negative ones) help. And I’m not sure e-books make any lists of the best novels of the year or are considered for awards. Not that awards are the end-all. But they sure look purty on the mantelpiece.

I do not want to give up on traditional publishing. Indeed, I have a different novel awaiting adjudication now. I sent it in to a traditional publishers four months ago, but outside of an e-mail confirming arrival, I’ve heard nothing since and yet I must wait another couple of months before inquiring on status. And even if I sold it today, it’ll still be around two years before anyone would see the physical copy.

Even with all that, though, I’d still love to see a traditional, ink-on-paper, bound book with fancy cover art on a bookstore shelf. I would love to be part of a marketing campaign, including going out and meeting fans and readers. I would love to see reviews in magazines such as Locus, the definitive magazine about SF publishing. It’s a thrill doing all of that, as I found out with Rewind (though five people came to my first signing, all friends). I go to bookstores and see books by friends on their shelves and I see where the authors are getting interviews and reviews and I see the lines at their autographing sessions. Yes, I get jealous. And I get angry and irritated. But I have to temper my reactions because if my writing career is creaking and clattering along and losing pieces like Howl’s castle, I have to take a lot of the blame for it.

Traditional publishers are getting mean now because they’re panicking. One of those friends whose first published book (and the first in a trilogy) received all sorts of attention ran into problems over cover art, scheduling of the paperback editions and editing and scheduling of the other two books, all from the publisher who bought the series in the first place. So traditional publishing has its pitfalls, too, some of them severe and nearly career-ending (as happened to another friend, but fortunately he’s really smart and a damn good writer so he’s been able to continue his career elsewhere).

Just for fun, let’s examine one of the unsaid things in knothead’s diatribe. What knothead is really saying is that you, the readers, don’t have the sense the creator gave a snail. Agents and publishers are there to take you by the hand and show you what books you like and want ought to read. You can’t do this yourself because only they have the knowledge, experience and keen intellect to pick those authors whose books meet their strict standards. Your intellect is not powerful enough to realize which books are dreck and which ones are good. You must leave such decisions to them.

Baloney. If they were so good, every book they published would be best-sellers, get glowing reviews (and none negative) and the Pulitzer Prize committee, faced with all these deserving books, would be reduced to flipping a coin to determine the winners. None of that happens because Big Publishers have no more idea what makes one book rocket up the charts, another book to become a cultural icon, and yet another a disaster. There is no secret formula (at least not yet) that can predict what the reader wants on any given day.

And readers, that means you are the ones in charge. I will put my book on e-pub sites and hope you will see enough in it to A: buy it and B: tell someone else about it. That’s the real way books become known, through word of mouth. Just ask J.K. Rowling.

My book is called The Tyranny of Heroes, and as I said, it’s about superheroes. I think I have something unique to say about them, and I think the story is good. The cover art has been selected, the formatting is about done, and I hope to make it available in a couple of weeks.

And then, its fate is up to you.


Into the Unknown, or a pleasant weekend at a Midwestern SF con

ConQuest 43 (theme: Into the Unknown) is history now and it lived up to its reputation as a friendly regional con that took place in a mostly convivial atmosphere.

I say mostly because it had the misfortune of being held during a hotel name switch. The con hotel used to be the Hyatt, but that company lost operating rights or however these things work and now the Sheraton has taken its place. And, of course, the new people have to put their mark on the place by putting their own their stamp on it. And the best place to make that statement is the front lobby, which was blocked off completely. This meant getting on the elevator, going up one floor to the mezzanine, walking to the opposite escalator nearly three-quarters of the way around the hotel and riding it down to the one tiny corner of untouched lobby for check-in. Once competed, the same journey had to be made in reverse in order to get back to the elevators that took you to floor, all the while dragging your luggage behind you like dead pets. (And grumbling – a constant chorus of muttered complaints could be heard in the back-and-forth parade of newly arrived and irritated hotel guests.)

Fortunately, I arrived too late to hear the cacophony of jackhammers tearing up the tiled lobby floor, but I heard plenty of complaints about that.

The con itself was a chance to see New Mexico friends such as Parris McBride, wife of George R.R. Martin (George himself being in the wilds of Montana) and Steven Gould (Jumper, Helm, Blind Waves, Wildside); SF acquaintances such Robin Wayne Bailey (Shadowdance) and Gardner Dozois (editor, writer) plus the chance to put faces to names I’ve seen over the years such as Sharon Lee and Steve Miller (Ghost Ship, part of the Liaden series of novels).

This con – and any con held this year, and maybe last year and the next – comes in the middle of the Great Upheaval in Publishing where e-books are coming up strong, panicking traditional publishers, who are doing some rash things in response. They’re afraid of the economic model that allows authors to go around them and make their work available to an audience directly. Many of the writers who attended ConQuest have had experience with e-books either as an adjunct to their print career, a second track to their overall career, or as their main career track. As Gardner pointed out, writers with a backlog of out-of-print titles should be taking advantage of e-book to get those titles back into print and make some money off of them. Steve Gould is one who has done so, and he says his e-book backlist is paying his mortgage. For every writer doing that, however, are several who aren’t because they don’t know how and don’t want to learn. Those tend to be older writers, but they’re hurting themselves. Writers with established careers have fans, who would like to see some of the old stuff again. Plus, e-books could bring in new fans for these writers.

The large traditional publishers have reacted to this by dumping mid-list writers (those who sell steadily but not spectacularly) in favor of those who sell millions of copies and thus earn millions of dollars. Gardner equates this to shooting oneself in one’s foot because the publishers spent all that time and money supporting the careers of these midlist writers, but by cutting them loose, they’re sending he author’s fans away, too. The author then can turn to e-books, continue sell to his backlist to fans with not a cent going to the original publisher.

Some writers are doing both, selling their books to traditional publishers while putting short stories, novellas or even novels on e-book sites. This puts printed copies on bookstore shelves while maintaining an electronic presence, sometimes through a small press. If done right, both methods feed off each other (that is, give the author more marketing presence).

The third category is fraught with uncertainty. This is the author who has no backlist, is perhaps just starting out, and puts a first novel on e-book sites. Because most people won’t have heard of him, the possibility of the book just sitting there is large. E-book self-published authors have no marketing staff behind them, no signing tours planned, no ads in printed or broadcast media (not that those help all that much). Word of mouth – readers telling their friends to read a book they like – is the best ad campaign, but a lone author has little unless he can get his friends to start the ball rolling. So why would anyone do it? Because he he’s got something to say and he knows he’s got a good story, well-written, professionally edited and formatted, so, despite all reasonable expectations being against him, he does it anyway. (Hang around here long enough and you might see something like that actually happen.)

The big problem with doing this is the author watching his beloved child sink into a morass of self-published dreck, never to be seen again. The only consolation is that traditional publishers often published dreck, too, and spent a lot of money doing it.

One worrisome item mentioned at the con was the aging of the attendees. Many fans started attending – and a lot of writers started writing – in the 1960s-’70s, so there was a lot of gray hair walking the hotel corridors. Getting younger folks to attend should be a priority of con planners, yet there seems to a be a reluctance to do this. Old canards about young people not reading cannot be used as excuses because it’s not true. It certainly isn’t graybeards and grayladies buying Harry Potter or the Hunger Games or Brian Selznick or any of the other successful juvenile authors. You must consider youth or your con will just wither away with the Old Ones.

So it was good to see ConQuest make an attempt with the con-within-a-con programming geared toward paranormal romance fans. As was pointed out, SF/fantasy and paranormal romance genres don’t overlap that much, but they still have some things in common. Inviting fans from other genres causes intermingling, which can lead to discoveries on both sides. The old SF/fantasy conventions might change because of this new blood (heh-heh), but change is good.

Long live the genres of any stripe.