Monday, September 30, 2013

Some thoughts about grandparents...

In recent years September 30 has been kind of a sad day for me, as this was the date on which my last remaining grandparent, Mary Lee Burbage, passed away at the age of 84. (This was, perhaps coincidentally, and perhaps not, the date on which her own mother died, many decades before. Make of that what you will.)

I am not going to assert that her death was a tragedy. It wasn't. The death of a twelve-year-old girl is a tragedy. The death of a fortysomething father of three is a tragedy. Eighty-four is a good run, in the big scheme of things, and a lot longer than many people get. Nor did she have to endure a long period of suffering. Her passing was peaceful, as passing goes.

However, her death was relatively unexpected. She had been one of those “active” older folks—very independent and very self-sufficient, and certainly not “doddering”.

The weekend after Labor Day, 2007 she was hospitalized for a sudden bout of pneumonia. I was concerned but not particularly alarmed at the time. She died in the hospital a few weeks later.

I was thirty-nine when my last remaining grandparent died, and my other grandparents had survived through most of my twenties. Many people lose their grandparents much earlier. Once again, I cannot plead any special misfortune. 

But that doesn't change the fact that your relationships with your grandparents will be among your shortest significant relationships. And that realization is worthy of reflection.

We live in an age that emphasizes youth and the future. Grandparents, obviously, represent neither of those things. Most grandparents have been retired for years by the time we meet them, so their advice about school, work, and other practical matters is hopelessly dated. They are two generations removed from us, after all. They aren’t “current” on the topics that we care most about.

Nevertheless, you probably recall that your grandparents were very interested in you. Grandparents want our time and attention. They are our first groupies, literally from the day we are born.

While your parents might have loved you unconditionally, they also wanted you to clean your room, get good grades in school, and study for your SATs. Your grandparents were able to relax in the knowledge that your parents were taking care of these things. Relationships with grandparents are therefore generally more relaxed, a unique blend of friendship and paternal love.

Most of us are very close to our grandparents early in life, then take them for granted when we become adolescents and teenagers. Then we rediscover them in adulthood—if they are still around.

I accept the passage of time and the circle of life, etc., etc. But I still miss my grandparents, especially my most recently deceased grandmother, who died six years ago today.

If any of your grandparents are still alive, I encourage you to call them today. Someday you’ll regret it if you don’t. Trust me on this—I know from experience.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

On writer's block

A reader asks:

"Dear Ed, you've written lots of novels and nonfiction books. Do you ever experience writer's block?"

The short answer is no. I certainly do go through periods when I am distracted by other things, real-life concerns that divert time, energy and focus from writing. Once I am in my "writing mode", however, I usually work pretty fast. Not Isaac Asimov fast, mind you (Asimov sometimes completed a novel in a few days); but reasonably fast: I can write 2,000 to 3,000 words per day without sacrificing quality or frying my brain cells.  

I can't understand full-time, working writers who need three, or four, or ten years to complete a 300-page novel. But there are plenty of them. Richard Ford, a novelist  whose work I enjoy, has been a working, published author since 1976, some 37 years. Since then, he's published seven novels and four short story collections--a total of 11 books. 

That comes out to 3.36 years per book. (And Richard Ford's books are not particularly long). This would be a very respectable pace for a part-time, weekend-and-evening writer. For a full-time writer, though, it seems kind of slow, especially when compared to some genre writers who crank out several books per year.   

Speaking of the part-time writer: I can, of course, understand part-time writers who require multiple years to write relatively short works, who have to squeeze writing time in between the demands of jobs, spouses, children, and other commitments. I can also understand how it can take years to write a thick nonfiction book. Research takes time. Organizing a vast amount of research into a coherent text takes even more time.

Usually when a writer has what is commonly referred to "writer's block", the problem is a lack of preparation on the front end. This means that he or she doesn't fully understand what needs to be written. 

The error here is a lack of what I call pre-work: Before you sit down to write anything--be it an email at the office, or a 500-page novel--you need to plan.

The amount of required planning varies, depending on the nature and length of the piece to be written. For me the planning stage sometimes occurs entirely in my head. Or it might consist of a few notes jotted down on a legal pad, or typed on my iPad. Alternatively, the planning stage might involve an elaborate outline. (I have written outlines as long as 5,000 words before starting to write a book.)

But the writer (and I use that term generically here) should always plan before attempting to compose. It's generally a bad idea to attempt to combine the planning and rough draft phases. When you try to plan while composing a rough draft, you are forcing yourself to plan what you want to say, while thinking about how you need to say it.

This usually results in a condition in which the writing process feels excessively difficult--a condition known as "writer's block". 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Red Dawn 2012

I finally got around to watching the remake of "Red Dawn" tonight.

Traditionalists may disagree, but I liked this one even better than the '84 version.

This isn't high cinema, of course; and there are plot holes that you could drive a bus through. But it's a fast-moving, entertaining film with a great message. Two thumbs up!

I'll post a more detailed review later in the week.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

New review of Blood Flats

Kay B., the proprietor of the blog Confessions of a Word Addict, recently reviewed my novel, Blood Flats. Below is an excerpt:

....the story is definitely one that a person can get lost in. Right away the reader is shown the main character's life and then the action begins. With barely time to breathe, we're on the run and introduced to many unsavory characters lurking in the dark shadows of Hawkins County, Kentucky. 
I was almost afraid that the book would only have bad guy after bad guy popping up. Thankfully there are many shining lights scattered throughout the book that reflect the goodness in people as well. With a large cast of characters, it's sometimes difficult to make sure that each of the important ones gets enough screen time. I think the author did a great job and achieved a good balance of keeping the reader informed on the lead character while giving a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes, so to speak. Each of the characters did have their own flaws, distinct personalities. While a lot of the unsavory ones were showing off their bad sides, at times they did have their softer moments as well. I thought that was a great contrast and gave them dimension.  
As I mentioned, there is a lot of ground that is covered within the books 300+ pages. There were a few times when my interest waned a bit only to find myself glued to the book the next minute. This is one of those stories that really rewards the reader for making it to the very end. Overall, it's an action packed, thrill ride that takes you from the hills and hollers of the backwoods into the sprawling cities and back....

Needless to say, I'm gratified to read this review, and appreciative of all readers of Blood Flats. To read the rest of the review, click here.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Facebook, and “grown-up” as the new synonym for “dead”

When I hear the words “acclaimed critic”, I always shudder, as I know that I’m about to be plunged into a stew of clichés and half-baked premises. This is doubly the case when the moniker “acclaimed critic” is linked with anything related to the Internet.

It was with this sense of incipient dread that I clicked on the link to an article entitled, “Acclaimed critic says‘Facebook is for old people’.” You don’t say.

As you’ll know from some of my previous posts, I’m not a huge fan of Facebook. Online social networking, in fact, is mostly a waste of time and brain cycles. However, I was tempted to log on to Facebook (I have an account that I rarely use), just to show my support, after I read a few lines of what passed for Mr. Lefsetz’s analysis:

"Acclaimed music industry analyst and former major label consultant Bob Lefsetz is widely known for his insights in the music industry, but his opinions and analyses reach beyond music from time to time. In his latest ”Lefsetz Letter,” a periodic newsletter Lefsetz has penned for more than 25 years, the analyst discusses Facebook and the tendency for young people to look elsewhere for their social networking needs. 
 “Oldsters are about yesterday. Youngsters are about today,” Lefsetz wrote. “Documenting your entire life history, building a timeline, a shrine to yourself, so that the people you grew up with will be impressed? That’s for baby boomers. Their children want nothing to do with it. Kids are for living, oldsters are for dying.”

Speaking of baby boomer-esque clichés: Weren’t they the generation who first coined the ridiculous phrase “Don’t trust anyone over thirty?”

Lefsetz, somewhat predictably, is a baby boomer himself (born in 1953); and one can easily picture him dutifully absorbing all the youth-worshiping platitudes of the Woodstock era. Lefsetz found out—as all youth worshipers eventually do—that youth is an ephemeral god. (More in a minute regarding what this means to online marketers.) He is therefore happy to dismiss anyone over the age of fifteen as a “dying” [sic] “oldster”—as if the world were built and maintained not by adults, but by an army of high school students.

Lefsetz does make one valid point: There are better things one could do than spend hours constructing elaborate personal timelines on Facebook. But what alternatives would the youth-worshipping Lefsetz offer us instead? One hundred-forty character tweets about who had the coolest outfit at last week’s party, or who sat with whom in the school cafeteria?

With all due respect to my readers under 30 (or under 20, for that matter): The blame for the above nonsense is not to be placed on the shoulders of the young, but on the legions of people my age (and older) who can’t accept the fact that they aren’t fifteen or twenty-one anymore—and ARE NEVER GOING TO BE THAT AGE AGAIN! If there is anything more annoying than a teenager who is parochially stuck in the mindset of a teenager, it is a middle-aged adult who is parochially stuck in that psychological zone—a youth-worshipper such as Mr. Lefsetz.

But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s return to the original problem: the plight of social networking sites that wake up one day and discover (gasp!) that most of their users are adults, and not fifteen year-olds.

I recognize the need for young people (especially those oh so prickly, oh so painfully self-aware teens) to carve out their own spaces. I was that age, too, once; and I realize that nothing can throw a wet blanket on a candid conversation so quickly as the presence of an adult—or, heaven forbid—the presence of an adult who happens to be an institutional or familial authority figure. I would therefore excuse any teenage Facebook users who don’t want to friend their teachers. (Note: Your teachers, for various liability reasons, probably aren’t anxious to friend you, either.)

At the same time, there would seem to be something wrong with the notion that a social networking site can’t possibly maintain its edge unless it happens to be the sole and exclusive domain of today’s batch of youngsters. And the reason for this is as simple and inexorable as time itself: No one gets to be a youngster for very long.   

I first learned about Facebook from a female coworker who told me about it back in 2006. She was born in 1983 and was then 23, right on the cusp of being oh-so-young and oh-so-trendy.

Today my ex-coworker (who happens to still be one of my Facebook friends) is (gasp!) thirty. She has children of her own now. And in another five years she’ll be thirty-five, on the threshold of middle age.

OMG! ZOMG!—even! Like, she’s almost dead! In the youth-obsessed universe of Bob Lefsetz, she’s heading for “dying oldster territory”.

And guess what? In a few more years, those kids born in 1993 or 2003 will be adults as well. (Revelation: Adulthood happens to everyone, on more or less the same timetable.)

Does that mean that the social networking sites they use will instantly become passé, utterly unusable for subsequent young people?

I should hope not—not if the objective is to actually build long-lasting businesses on the Internet.

A question for Mr. Lefsetz, from an unacclaimed critic: Are we really going to proceed on the premise that a social networking site becomes the equivalent of a nineteenth-century telegraph wire the minute that a sizeable number of adults can be counted among its users?

Or does that simply mean that the site has grown up, has achieved maturity? There is nothing wrong with a business growing up, despite the fact that growing up is a process that the esteemed Mr. Lefsetz apparently disdains.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Effort, the individual, and how publishing has changed since the 1980s

I'm currently diving into Dan Simmons's mammoth horror novel, Carrion Comfort

I don't really have too much to say about the novel itself yet. I enjoyed the two previous Dan Simmons books that I've read (Drood, Flashback); and I anticipate liking this one as well.

What I want to talk about here is not the novel, but a portion of the book that many readers might be tempted to skip over---the introduction.

In 2009, Simmons wrote a long introduction for Carrion Comfort for the book's twentieth-anniversary edition. This introductory essay will be especially insightful for the writers out there. 

In the introduction, Simmons relates the challenges and disappointments that he encountered while trying to guide Carrion Comfort to publication in the mid-1980s. Simmons presents a long, often tragicomic tale about his struggle with (and sometimes against) the publishing industry of that era.

The first publisher to purchase Carrion Comfort, Bluejay Books, went bankrupt only weeks before Dan was to submit the final version of the book. Then Carrion Comfort was acquired by another publisher (apparently as part of the bankruptcy settlement arrangement). This was a much larger, established publisher (I'd never even heard of Bluejay Books), so Simmons was cautiously hopeful. 

Then he was assigned a (very) junior editor to work with--a young woman who was only twenty-one years old at the time. During their first meeting, she described herself as "gifted". ("We gifted people know we're gifted," she said.) 

Then she announced that she was not going to be a "passive editor". Nor "a kind and gentle one." She told Simmons that she would critique his novel rigorously, and that it had better "measure up", or it wouldn't be published. 

Simmons, who was then working as a teacher, scaled back his hours so that he could accommodate her edits and finish the book. However, she was late on her edits, and Simmons wasted time and lost income. 

Then she began sending him confusing, contradictory pages of instructions via ground mail (there was no email then, remember). Simmons eventually grew frustrated. 

After she instructed him to start Carrion Comfort over from scratch, Simmons had had enough: "I'd wasted a year and a half of my writing time and lost half of my teacher's pay." 

So Simmons arranged to buy the book back from the publisher who acquired it in the Bluejay Books bankruptcy settlement.

The story of Carrion Comfort has a happy ending, of course. However, this introductory section illustrates the challenges that writers faced in the pre-Internet days. Today there is a lively debate between advocates of independent publishing (self-publishing) and traditional publishing (corporate publishing). But self-publishing wasn't even an option 25 years ago, unless a writer only wanted to print a truckload full of books and store them in his garage.

Technology has also changed the game. There were word processing programs in the early 1980s; but they were primitive by today's standards, and the hardware required to run them was beyond the budgets of most writers. For the majority of authors, "high-tech" meant a high-end IBM typewriter. 

I never wrote a book-length manuscript during the 1980s; but I wrote plenty of high school and college term papers. While I often use this space to wax nostalgic about "the way things used to be," I definitely don't miss my 1985 IBM Personal Wheelwriter Typewriter

A prodigious amount of effort was required to produce a long text with a typewriter. There was no delete key, no copy and paste function. If you made a mistake of more than a word or two on a page, you usually had to retype that page from scratch.

It was, to say the least, a very time-consuming process.

This is not to say that the 21st century is a paradise of milk and honey for writers. Today we have new problems. 

In the 1980s, few writers had to worry about copyright laws. Today, criminal websites in Russia and elsewhere facilitate the mass piracy of ebooks. 

While it's easy enough to "self-publish" nowadays, technology has failed to bring the average writer anything resembling financial success--or pizza money, for that matter. 

Writing has always been what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a "tournament field". In other words, rewards have always been unequally distributed, with a small number of writers growing rich, and the majority barely scraping by--or making practically zilch. And there have always been more aspiring writers than either the publishing industry or readers demanded. 

But now the playing field is even more crowded, as the low entry barriers of electronic publishing have led to an overly saturated marketplace for written works. The ease of publishing has made marketing all the more difficult.

And finally, people who write books have to compete with even more pursuits that chase entertainment time and dollars. It isn't just television and music anymore, but online video, online gaming, and the unceasing, mindless tug of Facebook. 

So are things better or worse than they were in 1988? Well, there is good news as well as bad news.

The bad news is that real success as a writer still requires a rare alignment of talent, effort, and luck. And that luck is less likely to come from a corporate publisher than it ever was in the past. The economic and technological changes of recent years have strained the publishing industry. This means that publishers have fewer resources to "develop" writers than they did 25 years ago. 

Oh, and there are also fewer publishers, thanks to industry consolidation. Fewer buyers mean a narrower range of manuscripts that publishers are interested in. Editors are less willing to take risks.

So what about the good news--not from a technological perspective (this is obvious enough), but from a bottom-line perspective?

The good news is that the individual writer is far more empowered today than she was a quarter-century ago. The odds are still against her, but individual effort can do more to turn the tide in the writer's favor.

If you doubt that, go read and reread Dan Simmons's 2009 introduction to Carrion Comfort

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Do libraries hurt authors and publishers?

Children's author Terry Deary seems to think so, per the CS Monitor:

"People have to make the choice to buy books. People will happily buy a cinema ticket to see Roald Dahl's Matilda, and expect to get the book for free. It doesn't make sense," he said. "Books aren't public property, and writers aren't Enid Blyton, middle-class women indulging in a pleasant little hobby. They've got to make a living. Authors, booksellers and publishers need to eat. We don't expect to go to a food library to be fed."
There is also a post about this at The Annoyed Librarian.

At present the publishing industry is hurting. Part of the problem is the economy, of course; but the root causes run deeper than the financial meltdown of five years ago.

The publishing industry (and the ranks of writers) are dominated by people who are generally leftwing, generally ignorant of economics and business management, and ill-equipped to make savvy business decisions. Most of these folks lack the business perspicacity needed to run a small lemonade stand, much less a multimillion-dollar (or multi-billion) dollar company.

The industry  swings back and forth between dewy-eyed idealism, and a quasi-aristocratic sense of entitlement. Note how many writers and publishers blog about politically correct topics, and wear their concern for "the poor" on their sleeves. 

At the same time, though, the publishing industry maintains a New York-based, absurdly high cost structure that is incompatible with the streamlining that has taken place in other industries in recent decades. In the electronic age, there is no reason for a low-margin industry like publishing to be based in New York. 

Frustration with the less-than-robust status quo has led some in the industry to lash out--often in bizarre ways. James Patterson recently called for a government bailout of the publishing industry. (Yes, you read that correctly.)  And Terry Deary has decided that the real culprits are libraries--which have existed in the UK (Deary is a Brit) since 1850, and were launched in America by none other than Benjamin Franklin, a reasonably astute capitalist.

Let's get this straight. The publishing industry is hurting because:

1.) Most books are purchased for entertainment. And there is more competition for entertainment dollars than there has ever been before, much of it freely available on the Internet.

2.) Books have become too expensive, relative to other forms of entertainment.

The solution, as I've written before, is not to "give it all away!" as the Cory Doctorows of the world foolishly and naively assert. At the same time, however, the publishing industry needs to realize that $30 hardcover novels and $14.95 ebooks simply don't represent a competitive cost structure. 

So cost structures have to be lowered; and operations need to be made more efficient, as they say in manufacturing. (And the publishing industry can start by getting the heck out of New York.)

But what about those libraries? 

Speaking for myself, a dedicated reader for more than four decades: 

I primarily use libraries to sample new authors. Once I know that I like a given author's work, my inclination is log on to Amazon and buy their work. 

This is not because of any idealistic, altruistic impulse to "support fellow authors." This is because checking books out from the library (and managing waiting lists, due dates, etc.) is an activity that involves more time and effort than I generally want to expend. It's usually a lot easier to simply buy the book.

I borrowed my first Stephen King novel (Salem's Lot) at my high school's library back in 1984. I was an instant fan, and I have bought almost everything that King has written since then. That "free" book at the library was the free sample that got me hooked. 

More recently, I have discovered Bentley Little and Laura Lippman at the library. I have since purchased the work of both authors--on multiple occasions.

I am examining this question from an unabashedly capitalist perspective. I'm not going to close with sanctimonious claptrap about how libraries benefit the economically disadvantaged, as that chestnut has already been beaten to death by others since Deary's comments first came to light. So I'll spare you the touching and self-serving vignettes in which the residents of inner cities flock to the public library in droves to read Dickens, and research the history of the Italian Renaissance. 

This might indeed take place (and it's great if it does); but most of the people I see in public libraries are well-fed, well-dressed suburbanites who possess at least some disposable income. These are readers who will very often purchase the work of authors after initially sampling it for free.  

In short, the library is a marketing venue that benefits authors, publishers, and readers. It's a win-win scenario, if you read books, write books, or otherwise have an interest in selling them.

Public libraries are not eviscerating book sales. Fewer readers (and overly expensive books) are the factors that are undermining the publishing industry's bottom line. 

We must ask, therefore: 

1.) How can books be made more cost-competitive, relative to other, competing forms of entertainment? 


2.) How can the ranks of dedicated, compulsive readers be significantly increased?

Closing the libraries doesn't seem to be the answer to either one of these.

"Last Dance with Emma" free for five days

Starting tomorrow, and continuing for five days, you can get my short story "Last Dance with Emma" free on Kindle at The story is one of the sixteen tales included in the Hay Moon and Other Stories collection. 

If you enjoy "Last Dance with Emma", I'd invite you to consider the entire Hay Moon collection, or--even better--my recently published novel, Eleven Miles of Night, which has recently garnered some 4- and 5-star reviews on Goodreads.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A nice review of "Blood Flats"

An Amazon reader recently posted a review of Blood Flats that I particularly liked. Below is an excerpt:

"....the story is definitely one that a person can get lost in. Right away the reader is shown the main character's life and then the action begins. With barely time to breathe, we're on the run and introduced to many unsavory characters lurking in the dark shadows of Hawkins County, Kentucky. I was almost afraid that the book would only have bad guy after bad guy popping up. Thankfully there are many shining lights scattered throughout the book that reflect the goodness in people as well. 
With a large cast of characters, it's sometimes difficult to make sure that each of the important ones gets enough screen time. I think the author did a great job and achieved a good balance of keeping the reader informed on the lead character while giving a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes, so to speak. Each of the characters did have their own flaws, distinct personalities. While a lot of the unsavory ones were showing off their bad sides, at times they did have their softer moments as well. I thought that was a great contrast and gave them dimension. 
 As I mentioned, there is a lot of ground that is covered within the books 300+ pages. There were a few times when my interest waned a bit only to find myself glued to the book the next minute. This is one of those stories that really rewards the reader for making it to the very end. Overall, it's an action packed, thrill ride..."

I did some research, and discovered that the reviewer, Kay B., also maintains a book review blog, Confessions of a Word Addict. You'll find informative reviews of a number of books there. (Kay is a voracious reader.)

It was obviously gratifying to me to discover yet another reader who not only liked Blood Flats, but who also responded well to the book's "mission statement": I wrote Blood Flats to be a crime novel--but not just a crime novel. My focus in the book was on the characters, the normal people who were thrown into extraordinary situations. 

Other readers have noted that the book is action-packed and fast-paced; and I of course appreciate these observations. As a writer, though, you always light up when a reviewer responds to the deeper layers within one of your novels--which is why I especially like this particular review.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Why bookstores, at least, love me

I seem to be unable to enter a bookstore without spending at least $50. 

For those of us who love to read, there is something addictive about the book browsing experience itself. You develop a tendency to stockpile books. Even if you don't have the time to read a particular volume now, you tell yourself, you'll certainly find the time to read it later.

I spent some time in the IS department of a large company, and this gave me a permanent penchant for expressing abstract ideas in flow charts and IF/THEN statements. 

The graphic below (which I found on Reddit) is a fairly accurate depiction of the way my brain works when I find myself in Barnes & Noble or Half Price Books.