Thursday, October 31, 2013

Writing books I like and recommend

There are a lot "writing advice" books out there. This is largely because there are a lot of mid-list authors who decide to diversify by writing them.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. These books can often be helpful to beginners. However, the sheer volume of them sometimes makes it difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In response to a tangentially related question from one of my YouTube subscribers, I recently discussed the writing books of Donald Maass. Of all the books in this genre, these are the ones that I most strongly recommend. 

Maass isn't a novelist. But he does own a literary agency; and this arguably gives him an even better perspective on the elements that constitute a "break-out" novel. 

Maass largely skips the basics on plotting, etc., preferring to focus on the deeper qualities that make a work of fiction competitive in a crowded marketplace. I suggest buying all three books in the video below. If you write fiction, you'll want to read each of these at least twice.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Horror fiction must-read list: the top 25

A reader asks:

Dear Ed: You’ve written horror fiction of your own, but what are your influences? Or what horror novels do you recommend (other than your own books, of course ;)?

A fair question. As I’ve noted, I’ve been influenced by a lot more than just horror fiction, and I actually don’t read all that much horror fiction anymore. (I don't like most of the newer horror fiction, truth be told.)

Nevertheless, there is some horror fiction out there that is legitimately worth reading—must-read horror fiction, in fact. These titles are listed below, my top 25

  1. Salem’s Lot, Stephen King
  2. The Shining, Stephen King
  3. Carrie, Stephen King
  4. The Stand, Stephen King
  5. Night Shift, Stephen King
  6. Everything’s Eventual, Stephen King
  7. Pet Sematary Stephen King
  8. Different Seasons, Stephen King
  9. Skeleton Crew, Stephen King
  10. Christine, Stephen King
  11. The Rising, Brian Keene
  12. Ghoul, Brian Keene
  13. Dracula Bram Stoker
  14. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  15. Rosemary’s Baby, Ira Levin
  16. Hell House, Richard Matheson
  17. I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
  18. The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty
  19. The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
  20. Song of Cali, Dan Simmons
  21. Carrion Comfort, Dan Simmons
  22. Ghost Story, Peter Straub
  23. If You Could See Me Now, Peter Straub
  24. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James
  25. Jaws, Peter Benchley

I would also include the collected works of both Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, which both consist mostly of short stories, and are available in various printed and Kindle-based formats.

*    *    *
You’ll notice, of course, that almost half of the above books were authored by Stephen King; and I’m perfectly fine with that. King took a niche genre and transformed it into the stuff of popular, mass-market fiction, by populating the world of horror with likeable, sympathetic characters that readers genuinely care about.

You’ll also notice that most of the Stephen King books I recommend are ones that he wrote prior to 1988. I’m okay with that, as well. Over time, Stephen King’s quality has varied considerably (though some of his recent works are still very, very good.) Also, King has diversified away from straight horror since the late 1980s. I read 11/22/63 earlier this year. That’s a good book—very much worth your time; but it isn’t exactly horror. 11/22/63 isn’t horror at all, in fact, but would better be classified as science fiction or fantasy.

And no, I’m not going to put Eleven Miles of Night or Hay Moon on the above list, although I would of course be delighted if you would consider them after you’ve had a chance to read the books enumerated above. (I’ve got to eat, after all.)

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

On being 40something, and my inner curmudgeon

One of my Facebook friends shared this link from the Huffington Post , "40 effed up things about being 40". 

Or 45, in my case.

Everybody dreads turning forty, and laments how devastating it is.

But for me, at least--not so much.

To begin with, most age-related life changes are incremental, and most can be delayed or averted to some degree through a mixture of positive and preventative action.

For example, I gain weight more easily than I used to, so I diet more stringently nowadays; and I exercise harder.

To avoid falling behind the times, I spend more time engaged in reading and other forms of autodidactism.

Now, I know what you're going to say: These are but stopgap measures that only delay the inevitable. 

And you'd be right.

None of my actions alter the fact that death is inevitable--and yes, for me, as well. 

But in the meantime, I intend to enjoy the ride. And that means savoring middle age. 

Somewhere deep inside me, there has always been a middle-aged curmudgeon who was longing to burst out and strut his stuff. Thirty years ago, I was a middle-aged curmudgeon trapped in a teenager's body. But now I can be myself.

No, being fortysomething isn't so bad....not if you know how to play it.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The conservatives' reading list

From my YouTube channel:

A viewer there recently asked what reading resources I recommend to conservatives (and aspiring conservatives).

I've previously noted that it's necessary to distinguish between the conservative satirists (i.e. Rush Limbaugh, etc.) and the serious conservative analysts. (Rush Limbaugh was highly amusing and enjoyable back in 1988, when everyone--himself included--realized that he was "just an entertainer". Problems arose when he and others began to take him and his act seriously.) 

I don't watch Fox much, not because I believe hysterical, sophomoric slogans like "Fox is fascist! Baaa!"--but because I generally don't watch much television. I'm a books-and-Internet man, for the most part. 

That having been said, my starter reading list for conservatives includes:

Niall Ferguson
Thomas Sowell
The Weekly Standard
National Review

Watch the video for a few more...


He's no Steve Jobs (and maybe that's okay)

Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell reveals that new Apple CEO Tim Cook "isn't the next Steve Jobs," though he does have some reserved compliments for Cook:

"If I were to choose somebody to run international manufacturing and processing and keep the wheels on the bus, Tim Cook is about as good as anybody can get."

And this is the sort of CEO under which most companies have historically prospered: Efficient leaders who skillfully direct the efforts of others. 

The larger-than-life personalities of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs (and a handful of others) have led to a collective belief that the CEO of a tech company must possess a persona. This simply isn't a practical expectation, moving forward.

Nor is this the conventional wisdom of most other industries. How many readers can, off the top of their heads, name the CEOs of Ford, Toyota, or Honda? What about the current CEO of P&G or Corning? 

I was fascinated with Steve Jobs as a visionary (though, based on what I've read, I may or may not have liked him so well as a man). But Steve Jobs was a once-in-a-century phenomenon. So was Bill Gates, for that matter. 

If the tech industry hopes to outlive its founding generation, it will need to learn to thrive as companies in other industries have thrived: And this means a diminished reliance on the "visionary leader", the business equivalent of the man on horseback. 

Most industries--even those that substantially innovate, are characterized by somewhat boring CEOs at the top, with creativity and "wow" power more evenly spread and nurtured among the ranks. 

For Apple to continue to be a great company, it can't depend on the emergence of another Steve Jobs. There will be no Second Coming. 

Rather than simply having a great leader, Apple will have to develop itself as a great company. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

H.P. Lovecraft and me

A reader recently asked me to talk about H.P. Lovecraft, and the degree to which he has or hasn't influenced the books I have written in the horror genre.

This will be the subject of a longer, more extensive post at a later time. But for now I'll leave you with the presentation I made for my YouTube subscribers:

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

On Facebook "defriending"

A reader asks,

“Dear Ed: What do you think about the practice of defriending on Facebook? Has anyone ever defriended you? Have you ever defriended anyone?”

The short answers, in order, are: It’s really no big deal, yes, and yes.

As I’ve noted before, my Facebook account is for my personal friends and contacts. It has nothing to do with my online writing or the promotion of my books. So it isn’t necessarily a matter of the more the merrier. I’d be thrilled if 10,000 people showed up at this blog everyday. But I wouldn't particularly want to have 10,000 Facebook friends—even if that were possible.

I’ve never been involved in a defriending situation that was preceded by an argument or other personal rift. Most of the time, defriending occurs for me when a.) I haven’t talked to someone in a long, long, time, and b.) the relationship was never really that close, anyway.

Defriending has occurred in both directions for me with people whom I technically “knew” at my previous job, but at a very superficial level. In the context of 2009, it might have made perfect sense for us to be Facebook friends. But in 2013, Facebook has long since become the only link between us: We’ve both moved on from our previous jobs, and those jobs were our sole source of camaraderie.

Here’s an example: In 2009 (when I first opened a Facebook account) I became online “friends” with a young woman who was one of my supplier contacts at work. We were very friendly (not in a romantic way—she was newly married at the time), and we talked everyday. We got along swimmingly, as the British say. So we became Facebook friends.

I stopped working with her in 2010. (Her company moved her to another account.) After that, there was very little contact between us. She was located in Michigan, and my office was in Kentucky. There was no longer a business reason for us to communicate at work (though we did exchange email birthday greetings that first year). And it would have been awkward and inappropriate for me to contact her after-hours. So the relationship, such as it was, dwindled. There has been absolutely no contact between us since early 2011.

While reviewing some of my old message archives on Facebook recently, I happened upon one of her messages from 2009, and I noticed that she is no longer on my friends list. So she must have defriended me.

I don’t consider her to be “stuck up”—because I’ve done more or less the same thing myself. I had collected about twenty Facebook friends at my last corporate job. I recently defriended about half of them. This wasn't because I had any issues or grievances with the defriended folks, but simply because they were superficial work acquaintances—not people whom I’d bonded with in any significant way. And I’m fairly confident that none of them will notice my absence on their friends lists, unless they are among those Facebook users who compulsively track such things.

The work-related Facebook friends I’ve kept, on the other hand, are people who I connected closely with at the time, and I still talk to all of them more or less regularly.

At the time of this writing, I have 136 Facebook friends. Not all of them are really close friends, but all are at least people with whom I have a good rapport and something in common. About half are old classmates. The rest are people I’ve met at various jobs and other miscellaneous places.

I’ve never understood the advantage of having 500 or 1,000 Facebook friends (or even more). Facebook isn’t a popularity contest.

It also makes sense that some online friendships—just like offline ones—will survive and flourish, while others will fall by the wayside. Not everyone you meet and like at some superficial level is going to become a long-term friend. Some relationships are limited to a particular time, a specific context. That’s the way it is in real life, so it shouldn't be much of a surprise that that’s the way it is on Facebook.

A sad year for the espionage thriller genre

Tom Clancy, best known as the author of The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games, has died of undisclosed causes following a brief stay in the hospital. He was sixty-six years old.

This is of course a tragedy for Clancy’s loved ones. However, I—like almost everyone reading these words—knew Clancy only as an author. It is, therefore, I think, acceptable for me to briefly acknowledge the personal loss involved here. Obviously, our prayers go out to Clancy’s friends and family.

Now for Clancy the writer: As an author, Clancy is leaving the scene when he still could have had a decade or two of productive writing ahead of him.

No, Tom Clancy wasn't a kid by any measure. No one would describe sixty-six as youthful, and it is way past retirement age for many fields.

But writing is different. Few writers really catch fire before the age of thirty-five or so, and their careers can last much, much longer than those that involve more conventional forms of work.

Stephen King is almost exactly the same age as Clancy was; and he is continuing to break new ground. Haruki Murakami and Ken Follet are both 64. Edward Rutherford, a prolific author of historical novels, is 65. John Le Carre is 81 and still publishing.

So given Clancy’s prior output (he had written several dozen novels by the time of his death) it is not unreasonable to conclude that Clancy still might have had a good ten or twelve novels left in him. He was still fifteen years shy of John LeCarre’s present age, after all.

This has been a bad year for the espionage thriller genre, with the very untimely death of Vince Flynn (1966 – 2013) at the age of 47 back in June. Flynn, who died after a long battle with prostrate cancer, was at the peak of his productivity and popularity.

I preferred Flynn’s novels to Clancy’s books. Flynn was the master of the counter-Islamist terror novel. Clancy, on the other hand, cut his teeth during the Cold War, and his best works were those that featured the conflict between the US and the USSR.

However, both Flynn and Clancy were entertaining storytellers, who wrote the sort of novels that were accessible even to people who ordinarily “don’t like to read”. The world of books is poorer for the passing of these two men.

Writing question: promoting one’s work among friends and family

A reader asks: 

“Dear Ed, what do you think about writers promoting their books among friends/relatives, and encouraging friends and family members to write reviews of their books?”

My answer here is pretty definitive: I don’t do it, for a variety of reasons, which I’ll enumerate below.

1.) My friend who started selling real estate ten years ago. I had a friend from my college days who, in his mid-30s, decided to shed the shackles of corporate life and become a real estate agent.

This is in itself was fine, of course. I’m all for people leaving the cubicle farm and finding their own way.

However, my friend also believed that everyone he knew, was related to, or had ever known had been automatically drafted into his unpaid marketing team. This part was a problem.

Henceforth, every conversation with him became a “Do you know anyone who is looking to sell their house?” conversation.

Within a few years, it was, “Gee, you haven’t forwarded me any real estate contacts in a while!”

He used to call me to catch up with personal matters. Now he was calling me to “see if I had my ears to the ground, and if I’d caught wind of anything.”

My old friend had become a smarmy real estate agent, twenty-four hours per day.

This was before I started writing commercially, of course. But I didn't enjoy friendly conversations that almost immediately turned into sales pitches. This is one reason why I never push my books on friends and relatives, and rarely even talk about them in personal situations. I always think of my old friend who sold real estate. I don't want to become that guy.

2.) Five-star shill reviews don’t sell books. If you’ve spent much time on Amazon (the main market for anyone starting out as an author, as first-time authors and self-published authors generally don’t make it onto the shelves of Wal-Mart), then you’ve seen shill reviews.

These are usually very brief, and are filled with generic superlatives. (“The greatest horror novel since The Stand! Watch out, Stephen King!”)

Shill reviews usually don’t demonstrate much knowledge of the book’s contents (except for the fact that it’s “the greatest ever!”) because in many cases, the reviewer hasn’t actually read it. He or she is simply fulfilling an unwanted obligation to “write a review and help get the word out” for a friend who is a writer.

Shill reviews are readily transparent to most real readers, and a slew of them can harm a book’s sales more than a small number of reviews—or even zero reviews. When I see an Amazon book page that contains a dozen one-paragraph 5-star reviews, I immediately conclude that they aren’t legitimate, but the results of an author pestering friends and family.

A dozen 5-star reviews also represents a violation of the laws of physics, as the manifest in publishing world. Almost every book receives a distribution of 5-, 4-, 3-, 2-, and yes—even 1-star reviews.

One-star reviews don’t necessarily sink a book’s chances in the marketplace—unless there are a dozen 1-star reviews and no positive ones. But a dozen 5-star shill reviews can be almost as bad.

3.) Not all of your friends and relatives are interested in your book. In fact, the odds are very great that many of them won’t be. Reading tastes tend to be highly specific. Some people rarely read books, others don’t read at all.

You may have written what you consider to be the world’s greatest cookbook, paranormal romance, or science fiction thriller. Now suppose I’m your friend, and you want me to read and review it for you.

Well, I never read cookbooks, paranormal romances—nor much science fiction, either. And I read a lot. I just don’t like to read in those categories.

Don’t pressure your friends and relatives into spending their leisure time reading your book, when they’d rather be playing Grand Theft Auto or watching pro football. Instead, focus on finding readers among the wider population who are already interested in reading cookbooks, paranormal romances, or science fiction thrillers. (That’s a topic for another essay, of course—or ten other essays.)

4.) Your friends and relatives represent a very small market, anyway. How many cousins, aunts and uncles do you have? How many bowling buddies and high school classmates who still answer your emails?

Few of us know more than a hundred people really well. Most know far fewer. To expend a lot of time and effort pushing your books on this number doesn't represent an efficient use of your time—unless a substantial number of them maintain well-trafficked blogs that regularly review books. (And this, of course, is statistically unlikely.)

*   *   *
That’s what I think about marketing your books to your friends and family. So how do these beliefs/distinctions show up in my behavior?

Nowadays, a large portion of my writing life, as well as my personal life, has an online element. I keep the two almost completely separated.

My Facebook presence is for maintaining relationships with old classmates and more recently developed friendships. I don’t write Facebook posts about my books, with rare exceptions.

For example, earlier this year my book about the Middle East was prominently recognized by a well-established blog/website. I did make a note about that on Facebook, as that qualified as the sort of “significant life event/achievement” that other people post on Facebook all the time.

But I don’t post excerpts of my books there, or anything else that falls under the rubric of general marketing.

Once in a while a post from this blog will find its way to my Facebook page, if I think it’s something that my Facebook friends would find interesting and relevant. I posted my September 30 piece “Some thoughts about grandparents” on Facebook, and a number of my friends liked it. But it was presented as a personal post on Facebook, not as an advertisement for my books or my blog. Only a handful of my Facebook friends were aware that it originally appeared on my blog.

My Blogger, YouTube, and Amazon presences, on the other hand, are where I promote my books.

While very little of my content on these sites takes the form of explicit commercials, I reserve the right to occasionally plug my latest novel or post a 1,000-word excerpt of an upcoming book. That’s a big part of why I’m here, after all—although I welcome those readers who are interested solely in my online content, as well.

But if you show up here, then the odds are great that you probably aren’t an old classmate or someone who I worked with in 1995. You probably came here because of a Google search or an incoming hyperlink.

The price of admission is that you might (occasionally) find yourself on the receiving end of a brief sales pitch for a new book. There are, to be sure, people on the Internet who object to any sort of a commercial message, under any set of circumstances. But those are criticisms I’m willing to cheerfully ignore.

Once in a while one of my real-life, offline friends will happen across one of my commercial spaces, either by Googling me, or by Googling a topic that I’ve written about. When this occurs, I certainly don’t deny that it’s me, but I don’t turn it into a sales situation, either.

As I recently told one of my friends who asked about my books, “Yes, I write books. If you’re interested, you can find them at Amazon. But I’m not going to pressure you into reading them. That’s completely up to you.”

(Once again, I recall my old friend the real estate agent.)

When you are first starting out, it is tempting to see friends and relatives as your first potential readers. However, this is usually bad form, and seldom results in many book sales, anyway.

In closing, I especially encourage you to beware the 5-star shill reviews. You really can’t fool legitimate readers this way.