Tag Archives: Isaac Asimov

Mixing It Up

There’s this idea in the publishing world that if you write, say, a mystery novel, it should be strictly a mystery novel. If you follow the tried and true formula, it shouldn’t cavesofsteeleven have a romance subplot. Or, if it does, the person the protagonist is interested in usually disappears between books. (Hmm. Should we be investigating these philandering sleuths to see what they’re doing with their mates when we’re not looking?) Of course, that rule only applies to series characters, for the most part, but it’s part of the genre.

But I digress.

The point is, if you write in a particular genre, you’re supposed to stick to the traditions (tropes?) of that genre. That’s the standard readers expect—according to the publishers, anyway—and if you color outside the lines, you’ll get a lower grade on your homework.

Or will you?

Let’s go back a bit, way back to something like the 1950s and the novel The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. Asimov wrote this novel in response to John W. Campbell’s assertion that science fiction and mysteries were incompatible, his argument being that, if the writer is already inventing facts the reader can’t know (i.e., a future where technology exists that can do pretty much anything the writer wants it to), then it can’t be a real mystery. Nothing is at stake. Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel, as well as several sequels, to prove his assertion that science fiction could be laid over any other genre and make a good story. On the whole, I’d say he was successful, but you have to keep one thing in mind: The Caves of Steel is still sold as science fiction (if you can find it in a bookstore, that is).

sword edged blondeThe Caves of Steel isn’t the only example, but it’s the one that always pops into my head when I think about mixing it up. I’m reading a fantasy/mystery mashup right now called The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe. I’m not sure if that’s the best title ever, but if you’re a fan of the old hard-boiled mysteries like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep, but you also like your wizards and magic, check this one out. It’s the first in a series, and it’s shaping up to be a good read that successfully mixes elements from both genres into something new.

And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe that’s why publishers tend not like mashups like this: it results in something new. And we’re talking here about an industry that’s so bipolar it’s not funny. They want the next new thing, the next Twilight, the next Hunger Games, the next whatever-will-sell-like-crazy, and yet they’re always afraid to take chances on new authors. One of the chief reasons indie presses are doing so well right now.

As a reader, I like finding these new things. They aren’t always great discoveries, as I found out with this book (and I’m not the only one), but on the whole, it can be interesting to see how someone else does something like that, even if the end result isn’t always to our liking. You have to cheer them on for slipping one under the publishers’ noses, at the very least.

What about you? You like mixing it up? Or do you prefer your genres to stick to their traditions? Are their exceptions to the rule, or do you see these things as aberrations?


What’s Happening to Science Fiction?

When it came to science fiction, I grew up reading the old masters—many of whom were considered the Grand Masters—of the genre: Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov,Robert-A.-Heinlein Frederick Pohl, Jack Williamson, Joe Haldeman, to name a few. I’ve read the modern masters as well: Orson Scott Card, Jack McDevitt, EE Knight, Peter F. Hamilton, David Weber, John Ringo, and others.

They all had something in common: they told a good story, and they did it well. They challenged my thinking in some way, and quite often presented me with new and novel concepts in the way of technology or setting or both. Even some of their lesser works were a pleasure to read.

For me, science fiction is sorta like your old alma mater or a favorite aunt: there’ll always be a soft spot in your heart for it. Just looking at some of those names brings back pleasant memories of hours almost literally discovering new life and new civilizations, letting the author take me where no one had gone before.

And the books! Stranger in a Strange Land. The Foundation Trilogy. The Starchild Trilogy. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Pebble in the Sky. The Forever War. Starship Troopers. The Night’s Dawn Trilogy. The Honor Harrington Series. The Vampire Earth. Ender’s Game. The list goes on and on, hours and hours immersing myself in other worlds, other peoples’ imaginations. Journeying to new planets, or seeing a new version of this one.

strangerEverything must change, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. I don’t dip into science fiction as much as I used to. Too busy reading crime fiction, keeping up a steady diet of the kind of thing I’m reading. But every now and then I come across a new one in the field that sounds interesting, and I’ll pick it up.

Unfortunately, these days, I’m often disappointed, and it makes me worry for the future of the genre.

Two books in particular—I know, not exactly what you’d call a large scientific sample, but when you pick up two in a row, it makes you wonder—have me worried. The first I’ve mentioned in a previous post: Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Thomas Sweterlitsch. I picked this one up (and the other one I’ll mention as well) because it seemed to promise a mixture of crime and science fiction, something I’m interested in pursuing.

And, from what I read of it, the book seemed to be good, though I had some quibbles about it. For instance, I’m getting really tired of the psychologically scarred hero who can’t quite seem to get over his past trauma. I know we need our protagonists to have flaws, but do they all need to be in therapy, for crying out loud? But on top of that, the author had a literary degree and had to have his own little signature trick of ending pretty much every line of dialogue with an em dash. Irritating as hell. Kept throwing me out of the story because it made it feel like everyone was interrupting everyone else.

Didn’t finish it.

Then there was The Forever Watch by David Ramirez. Again, interesting premise: a serial killer on a generation ship that contains the last remnant of humanity on a thousand-year voyage to a new planet. Generation ships are nothing new to science fiction, nor is the idea of the ship containing the last remnant of humanity. I’m not foreverwatchaware of a story in which a serial killer was on the ship.

It had lots of possibilities, and after I gave up on the book, I turned to the last page. It looked like they might discover the ship was actually constructed by aliens, or at least had an alien presence on board, and that would account for the serial killings, which were of a particularly nasty, brutal nature: the victims were literally torn to pieces and scattered all over the scene. Add in that the government seemed to be covering these deaths up, season with conspiracy theories about the murders, and you had what could have been a tense, appealing story.

Except David Ramirez is a computer programmer (or at least that was one of his jobs), who apparently really loves programming. Especially the concept of hacking.

Now, I got nothing against hacking (as a plot point, that is) or programming. I’m a web programmer. I know or at least have a familiarity with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, JQuery, Visual Basic, PHP, Visual C#, SQL, MySQL, DOM Scripting, Java, Ajax…are your eyes glazing over yet? That’s how I felt reading this book. The protagonist has some talent as a hacker and she devises a program fairly early on to search all the databases on the ship’s network (called the Nth Web for some strange reason) for anything to do with these mysterious murders. Nothing wrong with that. Your character should rely on his strengths to solve his problems.

But when I’d reached something like page 70 or 80, and the protagonist was going on picnics with her ugly love interest (a cop, of course, tall, dark, strong, but not good looking, which was a nice twist) and still refining her searchbots and nothing else is really happening…I don’t have time for that. I’m a programmer. I do this stuff for a living (or I’m trying to), but I don’t want to read about it in my fiction. The reality is—for me, at least—that programming isn’t all that exciting. Sure, I love making a change in my CSS or HTML and seeing the immediate result on the website I’m building. I like writing a program in PHP—a language I’m convinced is the lingua franca of Hell—and getting it to work, even if it’s a simple slide show.

Don’t mean I wanna read about it in my fiction. Not in that much slow, boring detail, anyway.

So I put the book down.

neuromancerWilliam Gibson’s writings about cyberpunks trolling through cyberspace I can read. He makes them exciting (just read his book Neuromancer, the novel pretty much responsible for starting the cyberpunk subgenre, and you’ll see what I mean) by giving us graphic representations of cyber cowboys jacking into a deck and losing themselves inside a not-quite-real-but-still-very-dangerous world. Perhaps Mr. Ramirez could profit from going back and reading some of Mr. Gibson’s work.

I’m hoping these two books are just blips on the radar, that this isn’t the way science fiction is going. There are still books coming out from the likes of Orson Scott Card, David Weber, John Ringo, and EE Knight, so I have hope for it. There are always going to be books in the genre you don’t like, with concepts you just can’t get behind, and science fiction, along with its sister genre fantasy, seems to have that kind pop up more than other genres.

I just hope it’s not going to be the prevailing trend.


More on Editing

Here a few weeks back, my daughter, Jesi,  wrote a post on her blog about editing in which she talks about my formula—lifted from Stephen King—of editing: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10% (I lifted it from his book On Writing,which I can’t recommend enough). Jesi stated that she didn’t necessarily subscribe to that formula. Furthermore, she stated

Cover of "On Writing:  A Memoir of the Cr...

that I’ve told her if I want, say, a 90,000-word ms, I’m gonna write 99,000 words.

Guilty as charged.

Where I think the misunderstanding comes from, though, is her thinking that I pad my work only in order to have the requisite ten percent to cut. I say misunderstanding, but to be quite fair, I think that misunderstanding is my fault, because of the way I stated things.

See, it’s my belief—and the vast majority of writers and editors would agree with me—that first drafts are good, but always need work…and they’re usually too long. Especially if you write seat-of-the-pants as Jesi and I do. I’ve deleted whole pages from some of my stuff—false starts that felt good when I wrote them but didn’t pan out as the novel progressed. I had loads of those in Pipeline, and I admit it freely and without shame. If you look at the book Writing Fiction for Dummies, authors Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy devote quite a bit of space to describing the different methods people use to write—from full, detailed outlines to sitting down at the keyboard with no idea on God’s green Earth what you’re gonna write about. (Okay, maybe that last is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.) What they say it all boils down to is that you either do all your work at the beginning or in the end. Although there are several ways to write a story, and they cover the entire range I mentioned above, they reduce to two end results: do the work before or after.

What that refers to, for the most part, is working out your plotline and plugging up any plot holes.

But even outliners have to edit.

There have been exceptions to the rule, of course. Isaac Asimov didn’t rewrite because he believed doing so robbed the

English: This image is a reproduction of an or...

English: This image is a reproduction of an original painting by renowned science-fiction and fantasy illustrator Rowena http://www.rowenaart.com/. It depicts Dr. Isaac Asimov enthroned with symbols of his life’s work. Français : Peinture de Rowena Morill réprésentant Isaac Asimov sur un trône décoré des symboles de son œuvre littéraire. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

story of its spontaneity. And I’ve read that Thomas Harris (Red Dragon; Silence of the Lambs) simply won’t accept editing. He also won’t do interviews, so I’m tempted to tag him eccentric. If you can get away with that kind of thing, more power to you. Both are successful writers, even if they’re at opposite ends of the scale output-wise.

So why do we need to edit? Mostly because first drafts require it. Let me give you an example from the first draft—and I mean the first draft, since it’s ended up going through several by now—of Pipeline:

I pulled over to the side of the road and got out of the car. I hadn’t seen anybody for maybe an hour or so, and there weren’t any fresh lookin’ tracks on the road. I could hear an airplane flyin’ by way off, but it was almost drowned out by the wind in the trees and the birds singin’. The road I was on ran north to south, more or less, and the trees throwed shade across it. There was an old field on the other side, but it was growing up in weeds and brush. Didn’t look like anybody’d bush hogged it in a long time.

The driveway was washed out some. It ran up the hill and disappeared among the trees. An old black mailbox, one of them big ones some country people get, stood off to one side, leaning backwards with the lid slanted up toward the sky. I looked at the ground and saw that the county had cut a ditch right across where the driveway took off, so nobody’d been up there in awhile. ’Course, far as I knowed it might must lead to some old field, but with that mailbox there I kinda doubted it.

Not that bad, right? I mean, for a first draft and all. Now compare that with the edited version:

I pulled over and got out. I hadn’t seen anybody for maybe an hour or so, and there weren’t any fresh lookin’ tracks on the road. The buzzing of an airplane off in the distance was almost drowned out by the wind and birds. The road ran north to south, more or less, and the trees throwed shade across it. An old field across the road was growed up in weeds and brush. It hadn’t been bush-hogged in a long time.

The driveway ran up the hill and disappeared in the trees. An old black mailbox, one of them big ones some country people get, stood off to one side, leaning backwards with the lid slanted up toward the sky. The county had cut a ditch right across where the driveway took off, so nobody’d been up there in a while. ’Course, far as I knowed it might just lead to some old field, but that mailbox said probably not.

Says the same thing, but with some changes, huh? Another thing to note: the first passage is 202 words. The second, 160. That’s quite a bit more than ten percent, and I picked it that way on purpose because I wanted to show several cuts and edits. I’m sure some of you out there can see others that still need done in the second draft, but you get the idea.

Now, of course, not all of the ms gets this much editing. If it did, I think I’d start considering another dream to dream—macramé, maybe. Stamp collecting. Something like that. There are even a few pages that didn’t get notes put on them (though they probably would if I looked at them again, now that I’ve got more emotional distance).

But, see, I don’t pad or fluff just to have words to cut. Not at all. Sure, I shoot for a word count roughly ten percent over what I want my goal to be. But it doesn’t always work out. In my novel Spree, I ended up with over 108,000 words. If I want it back down to my goal of 90,000, that means I gotta cut over 18,000 words. If I cut ten percent, that’ll just put me at around 97,000 words—still too high. So, what do I do? Well, I’ll go ahead and do my usual edit, but I’ll be looking closer for scenes I can cut. I’ve already got some ideas on that score, scenes that haven’t really played out. If you put your mind to it, you can cut a lot out of your story. And, as Stephen King says, if you can’t cut ten percent, you’re not trying very hard.

Yeah, I can hear some of you now: he’s full of it.

Maybe. But I’ll tell you what: I’ll do it my way, you do it yours. We’ve all got our ways of doing this writing thing. It’s said that Kurt Vonnegut edited each page as he wrote, so he might not get more than one or two pages a day. But when he finished, it was ready to print. Can you imagine doing that in the days of typewriters? That guy must have had a huge trash bill.

The bottom line is, you edit to make your story better. If you think others are interfering and trying to tell you how to do your writing by giving you a convenient formula—and especially a formula that seemed to bring them closer to success almost immediately—then don’t listen to them. Do it your way.

I’m not published (yet). I don’t know how much my opinion on how to do things counts. But I do know this: life experience has shown me that I can learn a lot from people who’ve already been there and gained success doing it a certain way. There are far too many folks out there trying to get published for me to ignore someone like Stephen King, who’s been a bestselling writer since the 1970s—that’s closing in on forty years. Not a bad record in an industry where careers are often measured in single digits, not the number of decades. Doesn’t mean he’s infallible, and I don’t subscribe to everything he says. But I’d say I agree with at least ninety percent, and probably more. Whether you like his writing or not, he didn’t get where he is by accident or by knowing someone.

Does that mean you have to whore yourself to the publishing industry?

I give you an emphatic “Hell no!” It’s your work, and your name will be the one associated with it. I see certain conventions going on right now that I will not allow in my work—such as using the word alright for all right. I think I’ve harped on that enough that I don’t need to explain my position on it. There’s a difference between bettering your work and making yourself look like an illiterate idiot, and I refuse to do the latter.

I’ll finish this post off with a paragraph from page 18 of Writing Fiction for Dummiesthat explains what I mean very

Cover of "Writing Fiction For Dummies"


Great writing never happens in the first draft. It happens when you edit your work—keeping what works, chucking what doesn’t, and polishing it all till it gleams.

I couldn’t agree more.




One of the big changes I noticed in writing crime is that I have to do more research. Maybe that’s why I wasn’t able to finish any projects when I tried writing sf/f: I wasn’t serious enough about it to do the research I should have. When you write speculative fiction you have to do so much world-building that it isn’t even funny. You end up knowing a lot more than you ever tell the readers.

Of course, every writer does this to one extent or another. You’ve always got to know more about the world you’re writing in than will ever end up in the book. It can be a fine balance sometimes, too, between giving just enough info for the reader to understand what’s going on and crossing the line into some weird hybrid of fiction and nonfiction, where the novel becomes the lesson plan.

Let’s face it: if you’re writing about it, chances are you’re interested in it, and everybody is guilty at one point in their life of lecturing on, I don’t know, the mating habits of lemurs, or something equally exotic, that leaves everyone else hiding their yawns. The temptation to do it as a writer can be stronger because you just spent six months (or whatever) doing so much research that the local librarians call you by your first name. And you’ve got all this knowledge that you’ve spent so many man-hours accumulating. Why not regurgitate it on the reader? (I picked that word on purpose.)

I just watched a mini-documentary that told of Louis L’Amour researching a novel he was setting in Utah. He wanted to look at a particular patch of land he’d seen years before from a plane or something like that, so he left LA and chartered a helicopter and, along with his son Beau and some others, they found the place and walked the land he wanted to use.

That’s dedication. And I have places I’d like to research that way. For instance, my novel Spree is set largely along the I-10 corridor from Los Angeles to roughly Mobile, Alabama. The protagonist and his partner-in-crime originally intended to follow it all the way to Jacksonville, Florida, but things didn’t quite go as planned (when do they ever?). I’ve only ever been on a comparatively short stretch of I-10, from somewhere in western Louisiana to Houston, and that was way back in the 80s (1984, I think). I’m not an expert on the highway.

So, I made things up about the terrain. I can’t go to Google Earth (God, what a luxury that is for a writer who hasn’t sold anything yet, or not enough to charter helicopters as Mr. L’Amour did) because I don’t have Internet at home and you can’t use it on the library computers. I do know somebody in Phoenix who’s gonna get me pictures of downtown, and maybe some east of Tucson if he gets out that way, but I can’t ask him to make special trips (thankfully, he drives a truck, so he might make it to those locations). I could use Google Maps and get some of what I want, I’m sure. I’ve played around with it before and, while it’s not the 3-D Google Earth, it can be handy.

When I brought this up in an after-meeting discussion at writers group, Dusty Richards said something to the effect of, “Why worry about it? How many people know what it looks like?”

Well, that’s true. A good point. But…I guess I’m just anal enough to want some accuracy in my descriptions, especially since I actually want them to be a little distorted through the lens of my character.

Likewise, I’d like to get most of my law enforcement details right, as far as how various cops act and the procedures they use. I don’t have to be as meticulous about it as, say, Joseph Wambaugh, because I’m not writing police procedurals like he is. Of course, he has the advantage of being a former police officer, with connections inside the department. I don’t have either one (yet).

But see, what Mr. Wambaugh does is the equivalent, in the sf world, of hard science fiction. That’s the stuff that tends to be written by people like Isaac Asimov, Robert Forward and Larry Niven. These guys are working scientists, or were at one time, and they’re very familiar with the concepts they’re putting forward. Mr. Forward was, if I remember correctly, an astrophysicist. Mr. Asimov, while I don’t think he had much in the way of formal training, held several honorary degrees simply because he taught himself all of it. And I can’t remember exactly what Mr. Niven did, but he was in astronomy or something like that himself.

I can’t compete with that and, quite honestly, don’t want to. I think that’s one of the reasons I always like the space opera: it’s heavy on the fiction and much lighter on the science. The tech is there as a backdrop. I mean, look at shows like Star Trek and Star Wars. Trek was a little heavier on the science, if only to make Mr. Spock sound like he knew what he was talking about. But Star Wars? Not so much. We’re talking about the franchise in which Han Solo bragged about making the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. Parsecs are units of measure, not units of speed (they’re approximately 3 light years, the space-going equivalent of a league).

(As an aside, author AC Crispin explains this in the Han Solo trilogy by saying that this is actually a dispute between Han and Chewbacca. It seems the Kessel Run, um, ran close to a cluster of black holes, and Han took the Millennium Falcon extremely close to the event horizon in a successful effort to evade Imperial ships. He claims that actually shortened the run to 12 parsecs thanks to the bending of space, while Chewie disagrees.)

Now, my novel Spree is something like a space opera in that I don’t want to get too technical on law enforcement techniques. Heck, if I do, it’s likely the book won’t work. Surveillance techniques—especially as regards the kind of technology LE can bring to bear these days—would put an end to the trip probably before they got out of LA. I think I do a good explanation of how they manage to evade the cops across the entire nation, but I doubt it would stand up to any kind of detailed scrutiny.

So what? It’s a fun story, for the most part, and that’s all it’s intended to be.

But what about my Rural Empires stories? They involve undercover work and, with the first two or three especially, Lyle working closely with the cops. How accurate do I need to be? To be honest, I’m not sure.

Authors regularly tweak details for the sake of story. I know there are cops, for instance, who won’t watch cop shows because they’re not accurate. Well, what if they were? I mean, how interesting is most police work? As a storyteller, you have to gloss over all the boring meetings, roll calls, stakeouts, traffic stops, paperwork, and all the other mundane details and emphasize the thirty seconds of sheer terror (to borrow a phrase from the military) that comes in a shoot-out with the bad guys (or good guys, depending on the cop).

What do you think? Do we owe it to the readers to get the facts as accurate as possible? Or can we tweak (or even ignore) them for the sake of story? For that matter, do we have to cling religiously to either scenario? I mean, my daughter has written a novel about teenagers robbing banks, and doing it quite successfully, using their natural inclination to role-play and get into costumes. At first glance, it seems awfully far-fetched. But is it? Or is it just something that hasn’t been done yet? I tend to think the latter.

What are your thoughts?



Prequels and Sequels

I have a friend who doesn’t like the idea of a series of books. I’ve seen him, time after time, buy a book that’s maybe number two of a series. He doesn’t care that there’ll be back story he won’t know. It doesn’t bother him that, after he reads the book, no matter the ending, he won’t find out what else happens to the characters.

I’m not sure how he does it.

He also has no desire to write a series. That’s more understandable. I mean, sure, if you pick up a book that’s part of a series and it turns out to be crappy, it’s a pretty good bet you’re not gonna finish it. I read the first two books of the The Strain trilogy by Guillermo del Torro and Chuck Logan. I liked the first two but couldn’t get into the third. I think I just wasn’t in the mood for it at the time. That, and so much time passed between readings that I felt a little lost when I should have had a better idea of what was happening.

Regardless, I can understand not wanting to write a series. It can be easy to get tired of a setting and/or characters—usually both—and pass on to something else next time around. That’s what my friend says his problem is: once he’s done with a story, he’s done with the setting and characters.

On the other hand, because I’m writing a series, I can speak to both sides of the argument. I like being able to settle back into my Rural Empires setting, with Lyle and the Higginses and Ledbetters. I also like introducing some new background characters from time to time. New challenges, but all within a familiar setting.

In that, a series is a lot like real life. These days, I’m not constantly meeting new people. Sure, it happens occasionally, but for the most part, I’m settled into my group of friends and acquaintances and I’m comfortable there. No big desire to meet hordes of new people. Most people are that way, and it’s probably why the series is so popular these days—and maybe always was.

I cut my teeth on the series, especially the trilogy. Fantasy and sf both are rife with them. I’m not sure if it’s a subconscious desire to emulate pioneers such as JRR Tolkien and Isaac Asimov, or if it’s just that fantasy/sf writers tend to paint on a larger canvas. Most of these stories are big and involve a lot of characters. Some of them, such as The Foundation Trilogy—though it has in the years since become more of a series—cover great gulfs of time as well.

All of this predisposes me toward the series. I admit there was a time there when I couldn’t stand a long book involving the same characters, much less a series. We all go through phases in our reading tastes, and for a while mine meant that I could barely finish a book before I was eager to embark on another one with entirely new characters and situations.

I’ve gradually come out of that, though, and gone back to reading series. I’ve finally finished all of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books, at least until the new one comes out later this year. I’ve also finished his two books about Jack McEvoy, the reporter, and I plan to next take in all the Mickey Haller books. He’s the Lincoln Lawyer.

As for the publishing world in general, I recently read somewhere that publishers prefer a series these days, probably because that’s what readers want. You have a better chance of being published if you can show that you have an idea for sustaining a cast of characters that readers can visit and revisit over the years and multiple books.

I hadn’t originally planned that with my Rural Empires setting. The Pipeline books were to introduce the setting, but I was going to move on from Lyle and tell other stories in the same setting. In other words, the setting was going to be the only real common link. Sure, characters would appear in multiple novels—it’s a sorta small world there, after all—but the actual stories would be told from different POVs every time.

That ended up not working. I couldn’t seem to get anything going from any other character’s POV. I’d get good ideas, but I could sustain them. Maybe I can still work them into short stories. I still like the idea of telling stories from POVs other than Lyle’s. And, who knows? I might end up with a few novels as well.

But I finally decided that the majority of the stories will be told by Lyle. It’s the prevailing way of doing things these days, so it will hopefully increase my odds of being published. After all, I’ll have the prequel (when I get it written, which is getting closer to happening) as my free ebook, and I have at least three full-length books toward the series.

On the other hand, other than an oblique reference to my Rural Empires setting, Spree is a stand-alone novel. It has totally different characters, and it’s very unlikely they’ll show up in any of the Rural Empires books, or in a sequel. And it felt good to write that book. I’d finished Pipeline and was working on the edit when I wrote Spree. Because I was doing two things at once, Spree took some time to get together, partly because the story came to me slower, partly because it took a little more preplanning than Pipeline did.

So you can see why I can see both sides of the story. I’ve written on both sides of it.

What’s your opinion? What do you think of a series versus stand-alone novels? I’m talking about from the same author, of course.

Let me know.



Writing as a Business

Though I haven’t taken anything like a scientific poll on this—I wouldn’t have the foggiest notion of how to do that—it seems to me there is a general consensus among writers that there are two things we all dislike, maybe even hate: writing synopses and doing self-promotion.

Hating the synopsis is understandable: we didn’t get into creative writing to do product description, and that’s what a synopsis is. We have to take our wonderful story, with all its twists, turns, character development, wonderful prose (at least in our opinion), and nuance, and turn it into this soulless piece of writing and hope a total stranger will actually find something redeeming in it. When we think every single redeeming thing about it has to be taken out for the stupid synopsis.

Sure, there are writers out there who like writing a synopsis, or at least don’t hate it like so many of us do, but they’re probably the exceptions. Most of us hate what it makes our stories look like, and, for me at least, it seems as if it actually decreases the chance that an agent/editor will actually bite. How can he or she actually exhibit an interest in this thing? It’s got nothing going for it this way.

We forget that the agents/editors who want a synopsis are aware of this, that, somehow, they take this into account. I’m not sure if I could sit around all day looking at dry, boring synopses. But, I have to say I’ve read a few well-written synopses that made me want to get all the juicy details that are in the actual story. A good synopsis is like a good newspaper headline: it has just enough details to tease the reader into wanting to know the rest of the story.

And let’s face it: the synopsis is an unavoidable part of the business. Not every agent/editor wants one. In fact, I’d have to say most of the agents I’ve submitted to (I haven’t submitted directly to any editors) only want a query with a one- or two-paragraph plug, rather than a synopsis. Synopses are becoming almost as rare as the first-fifty-pages rule that used to be the industry norm. I know of only one agency, Ethan Ellenberg, that still wants a full fifty pages. Most that want a ms want three or five. One—I can’t remember the name off the top of my head—wanted the first three chapters.

So, while we hate synopses, they’re not the general rule that self-promotion is.

We’ve been having once-a-month marketing classes in my writing group on the last Thursday of the month. Last time, one of the members asked something like this: “If we have to do all this, getting Facebook accounts, and LinkedIn accounts, writing blogs, how in the world did authors like Isaac Asimov and Harper Lee make it? Did they have to do all this?”

No, Isaac Asimov and Harper Lee did not have to do all this. Besides the obvious fact that there was no Internet to do it on, back in their day, the publishers handled promotion. They set up the book signing tours, they approached the book stores, arranged for the ads, all that stuff. They were set up to do it, and could almost manufacture the next bestselling author.

Things are different now. Publishers expect the author to do self-promotion. They’re already putting a lot of money out there upfront, risking a lot of cash on you as an unknown. If you want to be the next (insert name of favorite bestselling author here), you have to get there largely on your own. You need a blog. A Facebook page. A website. A LinkedIn account. You gotta get out there and comment on other people’s blogs as a subtle way of putting your name in front of people. You gotta learn to play the Amazon promotion machine—assuming you have a book on Kindle—in order to make people buy your book by, strange as it may sound, giving away copies.

And the sad irony is, if you do all this and manage to reach bestseller status, the key to the kingdom will be handed to you. All of sudden, your publisher will start promoting you on their dime. Why? Well, Stephen King has often complained that his critics say he could publish his laundry list and it would be a bestseller. That fact that they’re probably right bugs him, and I can’t say I blame him. You reach that point, you gotta wonder if they’re buying your writing or your name on the cover.

And the publisher doesn’t care. As long as you’re selling books, who cares why customers are forking over their hard-earned moolah for your books? You’re a bestseller. As long as you retain that status, the money they’ll spend on promoting your book is well worth the return they’ll get.

The irony is that, now that you’ve reached the point where you don’t need them doing all this marketing for you, they’re falling all over themselves to do it.

Where the hell were they when you were trying to get your debut novel off the ground? Why didn’t they put this kind of effort into getting you established? I did all the ground work to get this thing off the ground, and now you want to stand around with your hand out?

It’s enough to piss you off.

Most of us are raised to be humble. You don’t front yourself. You elevate friends and family members, while downplaying yourself. And, besides, who has time to do all this marketing crap? I’m a writer, not an ad man. Let the marketing department take care of that stuff. I’ll sign some books, sure, but if I’m updating my Facebook page and writing blogs, when do I have time for my book?

All legitimate questions, but here’s the rub: how many other professions spend the bulk of their time doing their actual job? How many other jobs entail attending endless, seemingly meaningless meetings and web-conferences? How many times, in your line of work, have you attended the so-called productivity meeting, the one that makes you wonder how important it’s gotta be if you’re stopping production in order for you to attend.

Much as we hate it, writing is a business. You are that business.

Compare it to musicians. How many times a day do you hear that little promo piece on your local radio station that features a famous artist saying that this is so-and-so and you’re listening to such-and-such radio station? That’s not just promo for the station. It also keeps the artist’s name out there, on your consciousness. You hear it and you might just think, I hope that means they’re going to play the new song now.

It seems like an insurmountable task, especially when you consider you still have your day job to contend with, not to mention family life and other day-to-day problems. Your budget’s already tight, and you have to fork over money for a website? What’s up with that?

There’s an old axiom: You have to spend money to make money.

I don’t particularly look forward to doing all this. I’ve had a blog for a couple years now, I guess, and a Facebook page for about as long. I just opened a LinkedIn account this week. Haven’t had a chance to do much more than finish the profile and, with my schedule, all this will take longer than I’d like. I also have to save up the money for a website from what little I make selling plasma. And, I’m going to make a concerted effort to write more short stories and get them published online and in local anthologies.

These are the kinds of things you gotta do if you want readers outside of family and friends to see your work. If you want your work out there and known, you have to make yourself known first. No one else is gonna do it for you. Yes, fellow writers will help as much as they can, but you have to return the favor.

Writing is a business, and that means we gotta become business people. Yes, it’s the antithesis of writing. Writing is creative, fulfilling. Business sucks your soul out, or that’s how it feels to me.

Just keep your eye on the goal: a book on the shelf of your favorite bookstore, the opportunity to log onto Amazon just to see your book there.

Writing is a business. You gotta make it your business to be good at it.



The Joys of Editing

I’ve spent the last couple three weeks editing Pipeline, and I have to admit I’ve enjoyed it. I remember reading in On Writing where Stephen King said he loves the editing process because he gets to take what’s good and make it better. I kind of smirked when I read that and thought he must be some kind of anal retentive idiot or a glutton for punishment, because I’ve never liked editing. In some ways, it feels like I’m taking away from what I’ve done. It’s a natural feeling. Isaac Asimov refused to edit, outside of fixing typos. He said that it took away from the spontaneity. I can see that.

But I didn’t know as much about editing back when I read Stephen King’s words. I was looking at the glass as half empty, never realizing that, by taking away from it, I was filling it up.

Sounds awfully Zen, doesn’t it? But it’s true: besides getting rid of those embarrassing typos (for some reason I always want to spell the word gauge g-u-a-g-e. I’m not sure if I just get in a hurry or what), but you get to clear up things a reader might misunderstand. Or not understand at all. In going over my manuscript, I came across sentences that I can clearly remember had meaning when I wrote them, but now they just make me shake my head. I read them and think, I knew what that meant back then, but what the hell was I trying to say?

It also gives you an opportunity to clear up things that are worded silly. The things that make you go, Why did I word it that way? They’re like the embarrassing typos: you’re glad you get a chance to catch them. Unintentional comedy isn’t much fun. You end up not so much asking yourself what you were thinking when you wrote that as were you thinking at all.

But another problem I was able to take care of was getting the ms down to a manageable size. In this case, because the story is so long, I broke it down into two book, tentatively titled Pipeline: Startup and Pipeline: Franchise (I’ve always been horrible at titles). It helped that there are two story arcs within the overall plotline, and that shows in how I broke them up. I took the first book to the point where he’s about to take over his own territory as a distributor, and the second book details what happened after he moved up. Hence, the titles.

Doing that made me feel better. I’d spent a lot of time wondering how to pitch the book. Should I leave it as one story? Or break it into two or more books? It was a tough decision. I like long books and, as a reader, I’d enjoy losing myself in something that would come out to around 700 pages (at a guess), as long as it was good.

But that’s the catch: it has to be good. So far, it looks like it is. The people in my writer’s group all like it very much. It’s flattering to know there’s something of a Lyle Villines fan club there. Since I’m not completely convinced I’m a good writer on some levels, at least, having something like that happen is pretty neat.

With all due respect to those in my group, though, the question remains: is it good enough to sell that way?

Answer: probably not.

Some first-time authors can get away with that kind of thing. Look at Gone With the Wind. Or don’t. It’s an old novel, and the standards were different back then. Most of the ones who can get away with it, though, are writing in the literary genre (whatever that is). They’re writing introspective books, where the characters take long passages of staring at their navels.

Crime readers aren’t fans of navel lint.

They like the smell of cordite in the air and the ring of gunshots. They want action, man.

Pipeline has action, but it’s a big chunk. It needed broken down into something manageable. Editing it gave me a chance to do that.

Of course, I talked to Duke Pennell, whose opinion I highly respect, and he’s the one who stressed to me that no one would entertain buying a first-time novel of that length. I was halfway there already and, to be honest, was looking for help. I felt too close to the story to break it down to one book. Duke suggested making it two, and I guess that liberated me somehow, because I started it the next day. I’ve gone from one novel that (with a second edit unfinished) clocked in at 207,126 (these numbers include chapter headings, which won’t amount to much) to two novels with 95,995 words for Startup and, in the middle of the second edit, 90,003 words for Franchise. Both are just a little over the 90,000-word recommendation, but far below the upper limit of 109,000 that pushes the envelope.

Duke, by the way (shameless plug alert), offers editing services and also publishes the ezine Frontier Tales.

Editing also gave the chance to cull out unnecessary scenes. Yes, you read right: scenes. Not just words or even full sentences/paragraphs, but whole scenes. I doubt I’m the only one, but it’s bound to happen to me more often because I write seat-of-the-pants. Because I do, I often take off following paths that dead-end in one way or another. I had scenes that I used to impart some knowledge about the drug trade without using the infamous info-dump but, in the end, they were scenes that served no purpose, other than to impart that knowledge. There were better ways to do it, and the information could be summed up in a few sentences, if I decided it was absolutely important.

That’s why there’s a disparity between the old word count and adding up the two novels. Some scenes just didn’t make the cut. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched the extras on a DVD and the director and/or producer relates that, while he may have loved a certain scene, it got cut from the final edit because it was redundant or didn’t forward the story. These were the two things I tried to keep in mind when evaluating scenes. Because of this, I cut a scene where Lyle meets with his Smurf early in the novel and we learn about Lori Arnold, the sister of actor Tom Arnold, who was one of the first major meth dealers in America. I didn’t need to use 2,000+ words to do that. Sure, you got to meet the Smurf, but he never reappears, who why bother? In the same vein, a scene where Lyle consults with a guy whose an expert on smuggling didn’t make the grade, and for the same reasons, if not more so. Both of these scenes were good scenes, and I don’t regret writing them because there’s no such thing as wasted writing. I won’t toss them. When I edit, I make a copy of the original file and edit that. And even that is a copy of a file where I’ve gone through and made notes. I need that because I don’t do chapter breaks or any of that on first draft. I just write. Only section breaks are there. I don’t want to have to worry about where to end a chapter while I’m writing. That’s a technicality I can save for later.

In the end, editing is like taking an old car that’s been sitting in the garage too long out to wash and polish it. You want to make it shine. And, just like waxing a car, it’s hard work, but it’s all worth it when you get to stand back and look at it gleaming in the sun. Makes you want to take it out for a drive, let other people see it.

That’s what I’m going to do next.



Why Crime?

I’ve called this post “Why Crime?”, but I could have called it “Why Science Fiction?” or “Why Romance?”. I’m using crime because that’s the genre I seem to have settled into very comfortably. And I ask the question because, well, I ain’t sure if there’s an easy answer. Why are we drawn to write in a particular genre?

Well, I don’t know why we are, but I might be able to say why I am drawn to crime.

It wasn’t what I started out to write when I discovered I wanted to be an author. If you’ve paid any attention to this blog at all, and if you’ve read some of the writing samples I’ve posted here, you know that science fiction/fantasy (sf/f) is my first love. I fell into it quite happily when I had The Hobbit read to me in sixth grade. You’ll find that story elsewhere on this blog. Tolkien’s Middle-earth took me to places in my mind I’d never been and I wanted more.

It wasn’t long after that I discovered the flip side of fantasy: science fiction. I can’t remember the first sf novel I read. The first one that really stands out is Isaac Asimov’s The Foundation Trilogy. It seems there’s a thing in sf/f for trilogies, though Foundation was written, or at least published, before LOTR, if I remember correctly. Of course, it’s been expanded past a trilogy since then. Asimov had a simple writing strategy: eight hours a day, seven days a week. No exceptions, no holidays. I read an anecdote where he was on a sf cruise once as a featured speaker (along with several other sf/f authors). While the fans were enjoying the attractions of the cruise ship, the authors were in their cabins writing, Asimov among them. He brought his typewriter. I’m not saying everyone has to have that kind of work discipline, but the man did publish an average of twelve books a year. On all kinds of subjects, not just sf or even fiction. He seemed to have an interest in pretty much everything.

Another sf author I cut my teeth on was Robert A. Heinlein, author of such classics as Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land. If you’ve never read either of these books, do yourself a favor and go get them. Even if you don’t like sf, you might like these books. Heinlein, like Asimov, is one of the Grand Masters of sf, and there’s a good reason for that.

I could go on and on about the sf/f authors I’ve read in the past 30+ years, but I won’t. That’s not the point of this post. I just need you to get the idea of why I decided to become an author. Like fantasy author Dennis L. McKiernan, I soon ran out of the kinds of stories I liked. Tolkien died in the early ’70s and, let’s face it, not many can write up to his level. For modern readers, LOTR is probably dry and stiff, especially when you consider Tolkien was a linguist and let it show in his writing. But the story, in my opinion, is wonderful.

I do not now and never did pretend to approach the level of Tolkien or one of my other favorites, Stephen King. But they did inspire me to write, King especially. I’m sure he’s inspired more than one author. For me, it was the first inkling that you don’t have to write like a stuffy professor. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. With his penchant for indirectly addressing the reader and writing in a thoroughly modern style, it was easy to get caught up in the story and, later, think that maybe I could do this writing thing, too.

My first efforts, good as I thought they were then, were embarrassing, to say the least. I came upon one several years ago, something I wrote while I was a teenager, and though I kept it around for a while, I cringed when I read it. I can also remember submitting a story to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine somewhere around that same or perhaps a little later, and when I think of it now (I can only vaguely remember the story, thank God), I picture the editorial staff doubling over with laughter after reading the thing. I was about as far from being a competent, much less good, writer then as I am now from being an astronaut.

But I started out writing sf/f because that’s what I read. I still enjoy the stuff. You can’t read the same genre for as long as I did and not have an abiding love for it. I’ve read several times where some folks always dismiss their reading sf/f in their teen years as being juvenile. As if the only way you can enjoy the subject is by being immature. They look back on it from their lofty positions as sophisticated, hip, modern, urbane writers who can only shake their heads in wonder that they were so immature that they once read such icky stories. Ridiculous!

Well, bite me.

If you read any real sf/f and not that Tom Swift stuff, you’d know that sf/f authors, especially back in the Golden Age of Heinlein and Asimov, took on some pretty weighty subjects there beneath the spaceships and alien races. Speculation about the future and how humans would conduct themselves abounded. Heinlein has a novel called The Menace from Earth that tells the story of First Contact from the alien’s point of view. It’s one of the few (of his) I have yet to read, but you can see how it would be a challenge to write. It’s not just a man trying to write a woman character, which would at least have some kind of familiarity to work with, but a human writing from an imaginary alien character.

It was this kind of thing that made me want to write sf/f. I tried my hand at a few other things, like horror (inspired by my love of Stephen King) and toyed with the idea of doing a Western, thanks to Louis L’Amour. The horror never got off the ground, and the Western never had more than a page or two written before I gave up. I wanted it to be authentic and didn’t want to take the time to know that period of history as well as L’Amour did.

But I devoured sf/f all the time, so it was only natural that I write sf/f.

One of the first serious efforts I made was back in the early ’90s. I set out to write a Tolkienesque fantasy on a world called Aja (stolen from the Steely Dan album of the same title) about a group of characters questing for an object called The Phar Medallion, and artifact crafted by an all but extinct race. I wasn’t sure what its powers were, but I figured I’d know when it came time to write The Final Battle.

That story never got written. Along the way, they met a character named Luke Fontaine, a former bounty hunter on the run from a mysterious past. The more I thought about Luke’s back-story, the more I wanted to write it, so I did. Two novels and maybe half of a third. They’re still on my hard drive as I write this, and I still toy with the idea of rewriting them. I’ve had several ideas over the years, but never sat down and tried them out. I originally wrote them with the idea that I would tell the Phar Medallion Quest from Luke’s first-person POV. The problem I ran into in the third novel was that you can’t tell an epic story like that from the first-person POV. I needed other things to happen, and I couldn’t have Luke be present for all of them. I thought about telling the others in third-person, but never felt real comfortable with the idea. These were supposed to be Luke’s memoirs. How could he tell the things I needed told? I still think about it from time to time.

The bottom line is that I never finished anything, and I couldn’t figure out why. Now, I suspect, it may be that I’m not a sf/f writer. Maybe I’m a crime writer.

I fell into crime through the Tony Hillerman mysteries. If you’ve never read them, do so. The books revolve around Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, two Navajo tribal cops in the Four Corners area. They solve mysteries on the Navajo Reservation, and while they’re at it, their lives go on from book to book. It’s not all just about the mysteries. Each of them has dreams and problems, and Hillerman writes them fully fleshed. I have yet to read them all, but I will eventually.

Thing is, I’ve always had an interest in the criminal mind. Why do they do what they do? Why are certain people attracted, or even driven, to commit acts that the society around them considers wrong? It could be chalked off to one-dimensional reasoning, but that’s not why we write characters. “Oh, he’s a member of a crime family, part of the Mob, and he does it to make money.” Or “He’s evil.”


Nobody thinks of themselves as evil. Not even such icons of evil as Hitler. He thought he was advancing the German people and removing the insidious threat of the Jew. Sure, the rest of us see that as horrible, but he didn’t. To him, he was being reasonable and good. Most, if not all, criminals are the same way. They know their actions are illegal, even “wrong,” but they just think those are artificial restrictions. Either they don’t apply to them, or they just don’t care.

I’ve always been fascinated with this mindset. It started with serial killer novels, but then, after visiting my daughter in LA, I discovered there is a whole subgenre of crime novels set in LA, just as there is another one set in New York City. I started reading them, at first, as a way of feeling a little closer to where my daughter lives. But when I read Robert Crais, and in particular his novel L.A. Requiem, it became about the novels themselves. LA is a perfect city to tell multiple stories in. The settings are so varied and there are so many different kinds of people there.

At first, the idea of writing a crime novel didn’t really occur to me. Reading them was one thing, but writing one? Naw, I’ll leave that to folks like Crais and T. Jefferson Parker.

I kept this thinking up until I went and saw the movie Winter’s Bone. If you’re not familiar with it, Winter’s Bone is set in southwest Missouri and it’s about a girl who has to try and find her father after he’s been busted for cooking meth and puts the family home up for collateral as part of his bond, then disappears. It’s a great movie, filmed on location in the Ozarks, and it uses real homes and people from the area. It’s based on a book by the same name by Daniel Woodrell.

But it’s so damned depressing. I thought about it, and about the Billy Bob Thornton movie Sling Blade and decided that, as a native of the Ozarks, I wanted to tell a different story about us. In both of those movies, people from this area (yes, I know: Sling Blade doesn’t take place in the Ozarks, but it does take place in Arkansas) are grim and going through life just trying to get by.


The people I know aren’t like that. Sure, we have our off days. But we don’t go around depressed all the time. After all, we don’t live in New York City.

But what could I write? I’d tried the idea of a horror novel set here, and it didn’t fly. I’d also written an urban fantasy set here, but it felt a little hollow. Urban fantasies really work better in an urban setting. We’ve got that, but not a big one like most of them are set in, like LA or Chicago.

Then I read an editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about how Northwest Arkansas is part of the pipeline for Mexican meth going further east to places like Virginia. This was backed up when I read Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding. In an aside, he states that one of the Mexican immigrant informants he interviewed made his first delivery to men with long beards outside Rogers, Arkansas. Rogers is only like fifteen or twenty miles at most from where I live.

Voila. Story. One that started with that infamous what if: what if a local guy got caught cooking meth and was offered the chance to work with law enforcement in lieu of going to prison? That’s how the novel Pipeline was born, and it’s how I discovered Lyle Villines. I’ve gotten to know him very well over the last (almost) 180,000 or so words and I’ll be sorry to see him go. But he’s been a good way to fall into writing crime from the criminal’s POV, and I have a few more ideas on the back burner for more. All told from the criminal’s POV. I figure there’s plenty of cops and private detectives out there telling their stories. I want to tell the other side, the side that fascinates me so much.

And maybe, someday, discover why they do what they do.



PS. I just finished re-reading L.A. Requiem by Robert Crais, and I have four words for you: Get it. Read it. It may well change what you think a crime novel is, and it definitely defines what a crime novel should be.