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Riding Off Into the Sunset October 26, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, e-books, New Mexico, VIPub, westerns, Wild West, writing.
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If a song can be said to have an impact on my life, it might be Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin'”. I have always liked the line about getting out of the way if you can’t lend a hand. Looking at publishing this way has kept everything in perspective for me over a long writing career.

Ebooks changed the publishing world. Dead tree books will always be around but I found out Friday that there will be a lot fewer from a Big 5 publisher in the future. My editor of quite a few westerns (including Sonora Noose and The Great West Detective Agency) was gone. Along with her apparently went the entire Berkley line of westerns. Earlier this year they had gunned down all their monthly series. With this lynching, I’d say upward of 100 books won’t be published next year. The times are, indeed, changing.

This opens the door for a slew of indie presses to fill the vacuum. And for VIPub (Vertically Integrated Publishing, where the author writes, edits, produces and markets the book–every aspect of traditional publishing all in the author’s grip). Check out Western Fictioneers, Western Trail Blazer, Rough Edges Press, and more riding down the trail every day.

At the Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium I gave a talk on how the weird western has saved traditional westerns at least twice before. We may be looking at it happening a third time. The times are a’ changin’. And we have to move along or get plowed under. For one, I see this and am doing what I can to stay in the saddle.

One benefit of speaking at the LCCS is meeting a lot of great people. Here’s a picture of me with a very nice lady, 2014 >Mrs NM Kori Zwaagstra.

(Those are some of my books in the center!)

Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium

Lincoln County Cowboy Symposium

What They Read (Kids) May 11, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, e-books, education, ideas, iPad, sense of wonder, VIPub, web & computers, writing.
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Discoverability is an important part of any author’s excursion through the profession. How do you get eyes on your work? A study on what kids in K-12 read makes for fascinating reading, especially when you dig down into it and find the youngest grades are more amenable to ebooks than other groups. I’d always said ereaders would never become commonplace until the earliest grades read using them. It has happened.

The report What Kids Are Reading is downloadable as a pdf and takes a while to go through.

Here are some of my takeaways.

Many of these books are assigned by teachers and, to my way of thinking, aren’t of much use to us as writers of VIPub original fiction. A student reading To Kill A Mockingbird as a class assignment is less important than finding that Hunger Games has found itself a high ranking over the past few years or that the younger students read Dav Pilkey. Those are hardly revelations but give direction to our hunt to garner new readers. One trend that seems obvious to me in the younger readers (pre 6th grade) is the number of “outcast” stories. The kids want stories in the little tailor vein, Heinlein’s ordinary person who overcomes great peril to triumph as an individual. Superheroes are ok (are we being force fed them?) but the kids read stories about solitary heroes and heroines, probably because they see themselves that way (a fight between Katniss Everdeen and Percy Jackson?). No super powers, just outcast and subpar and wanting to do great things. Stories of accomplishment seem to rate higher than those of ordering the kids to have self-esteem. SF looks important in this extracurricular reading.

As long as I have been in science fiction fandom, there has been the semi-joke about the golden age of sf being 12. This report bears that out when you look at the number of words read by each grade group (page 55). The sixth graders read the most. You might make the argument later grades are reading more challenging books and are therefore reading less due to the time it takes to wade through. Maybe so, but if you want to capture an audience and keep it, find what appeals to a 6th grader. By that age they have access to an ereader, are becoming autonomous and developing their tastes in reading, and probably have more money to spend on their epurchases than the authors writing the stories.

Mostly, I need to sift through this report and find what is being read for pleasure, then figure out how to capture some of the market.

Playing In My Own Sandbox (part 3) April 20, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, e-books, history, VIPub, Wild West, writing.
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The word circulated last week that Random Penguin had axed four different western series. This wasn’t unexpected–I pretty much assumed this in December and realized what the merger of Random House and Penguin meant last year when it was announced. I said in an article by Rod Miller in the Feb 2014 issue of WWA Roundup Magazine about the merger: After the dust settles on most mergers, fewer titles are published and fewer editors are needed.

No swami crystal ball sf futurist navel gazing required. That’s how business is done. The easy explanation was also in the article where I said: A merger yields one company selling into a customer base inadequate to keep the two in business.

In other words, the number of readers for separate companies isn’t big enough but a smaller output of books to that same readership might let the merged company survive. That’s the way legacy publishers have to work. Be the biggest fish swimming in the ocean or die. The problem is when your ocean dries up to a mere mud puddle. Big doesn’t work for survival then.

VIPub is different. Ebooks have changed the game, and for the reader (and probably the author) for the better. Four cancelled series = 50 books a year. That’s quite a void for the nimble VIPub ebook author to fill. In the case of westerns, a lot of the readers don’t want or use ereaders, but thanks Amazon, thanks for CreateSpace. Print on Demand! With overhead smaller for independent publishers, smaller lead times and more agile editing and production, this deficit can be addressed fast.

And it seems to be in the works. At least one indie publisher is working on several possible new series, and I expressed my interest. I would love to have input into how these series are structured, since they can be done radically different from legacy publishing. I pitched several weird western limited series years back, to no takers. Maybe now. Interlocking stories is a possibility. A return to the old-school sf trilogy, only with westerns? Open-ended series are fine but sometimes you want a story to, you know, end. Fifty books is a big gap to fill and numbers are on the side of the VIPub/indie publisher. Ten percent of that former legacy market is good money.

But reaching it might be difficult since Walmart isn’t likely to take PoD books due to size and nonreturns. That will go into a future blog post on discoverability and pushing your own series titles.

A tribute to all the fallen heroes in those four series.

Playing In My Own Sandbox (part 2) April 13, 2014

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Nothing is certain but change. That’s the way of life, but not necessarily so in series. If you intend to do a limited series, say a trilogy, your protagonist can have a character arc where all kinds of flaws are corrected or augmented by the end of the series. The protagonist usually grows as a person and responds to the vicissitudes of the plot thrown at him/her. This makes for a satisfying conclusion but presents a problem if the series stretches to more titles.

Readers get invested in the character. Watching one grow and change is fine if the series ends in a predetermined number of titles. If the series has multiple entries, this isn’t such a good idea. A reader coming into the series after 5 or 6 titles (or 50 or 60) can fall in love with that character, go back to read earlier titles and find the character doesn’t measure up. End of interest. Ebooks have the advantage of always being in print so a reader can scrounge up the first book and ride the wave through all the titles and enjoy the character development. But in a print series, this isn’t an easy thing. Print books go OP (out of print) in a few weeks.

Some many-authored long-running series like the Jake Logan books insist that the main character (in this case, John Slocum) never change from the traits listed in the series bible. Authors don’t have to deal with changes or details a book or a hundred books earlier. But what’s an author to do with a static protagonist?

The answer comes in the secondary characters. They can change (or even die). The protagonist carries the plot and everyone around can learn and grow or devolve. End of book, satisfying character changes, but not in the protagonist who moves on, as is, to begin a new adventure.

I am trying something a bit different in a western series starting in October. The protagonist in The Great West Detective Agency is a gambler and something of a wastrel whose liking for the ladies always gets him in trouble. It’s a print series so Lucas Stanton’s not going to change much, but I hit upon the idea of publishing short stories using secondary characters to augment the plot. What are the histories behind the characters in the book? The dance hall girl or the bartender? The sidekick or the femme fatale? The curious “source of all information” or the hellfire and brimstone preacher or the sweet young thing who entices Stanton into a new mystery? This volume (the first will be called 4 Lives) will be an ebook and maybe PoD. But it gives a chance for the behind the scenes look at the characters and how they got to where they are in the book, leaving the protagonist free to push the plot.

If you want a free copy of 4 Lives when it is ready in a month or so to see what I’m doing, drop me a line via my website at http://www.cenotaphroad.com and mention it. Be sure to tell me what your preferred format is.

Great West Detective Agency

Great West Detective Agency

Playing In My Own Sandbox (part 1) April 6, 2014

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Prior bloggy installments dealt with different ways of working with someone else’s property. I have done quite a few trilogies and short run series (the longest is the Swords of Raemllyn at nine titles) and decided to meander about with some ways I have developed them.

Most trilogies are structured similarly. There is one overarching plot that has to be resolved by the end of book 3. But each book has to stand on its own for a variety of reasons. In the legacy publishing days, it might be a year between books in a trilogy (Stephen Donaldson’s first Thomas Covenant trilogy was a groundbreaker–all three books were published simultaneously). In the publishing world this is an eternity. The second book will hit the stands and the first book might not be in print any more, or if it came out in hardcover, there was a boost with paperback publication concurrent with book 2 (in hc). If book 1 came out in mass market, finding it will be difficult. That third book stands the best chance of being the worst seller, both through interest attrition and inability to muster an audience since the first two titles are out of print. (I’ll get into e-books and how great they are for series in another installment)

Making each title a standalone helps keep the series interest high. A reader coming in on book 3 might know how the major plot is resolved but won’t be disappointed picking up the first two since those are different books, different plots but with the overarching plot being developed.

I do a synopsis for everything I wrote (even short stories). Doing one for the main plot and then a separate one for each book in the set helps keep action high and avoid the “marking time” complaint so common about #2 books in a trilogy. (That complaint will always be there, no matter what, because too many readers think it is the smart thing to say–it might be true, but planning keeps it from happening).

The classic plot structure for a trilogy was used by Edgar Rice Burroughs in his first Barsoom books, A Princess of Mars, Gods of Mars, Warlord of Mars. A great value both for entertainment and to see how a longer series is done can be found here. This is where I learned how to do it.

ERB Mars series

ERB Mars series

Playing In Someone Else’s Sandbox (Part 4)(series books) March 9, 2014

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There can’t be any character development in the main character. That puts a damper on a lot of things, but it shouldn’t be a killer for a series. I’ve done more than 125 titles in a series I’m not at liberty to name, but I can recommend a new book or two (ahem).

The series bible is set up so that independent authors can write without needing to read every other title to keep details straight. With the one/month publication schedule such attention to details (or changes to the canon) by other writers would be impossible, especially if there are a half dozen in the pipeline. So, no mention is ever made of any other book in the series and only what is in the bible counts as canon. This isn’t as onerous as it seems. The main character might end the book the same as when he started, but there are a lot of other possibilities.

In spite of what the reviewer (who didn’t seem to have read the book rather than getting it as a gift) said, the plots are where the fun can come in. I haven’t duplicated a situation in all the books I’ve done, though some of my favorite settings have been reused in different ways. My very first title was set in San Francisco amid a tong war. A “giant” had to do with returning bones for burial to China and most recently among the published books I used the same setting for a prison break (or unbreak, actually). What might well be the last of my titles has to do with a huge silver theft from a San Francisco-based railroad. More than different plots and locales to explore and history to unveil, the other characters can get story arcs where they change motivation and alliances/allegiances. They can grow or devolve. After all, only the protagonist has to emerge unscathed emotionally and with his motivations the same at the end as when he started (so the next author doesn’t have to explain why the hero suddenly likes to drown puppies or no longer drinks trade whiskey).

The same dictum worked when I did eight titles in the 1980’s Nick Carter: Killmaster series. These were told first person, which further limited the changes, but wildly strange bad guys were the mark of this techno-oriented spy series. They weren’t likely to change as much they were to be killed. Hence the series name: killmaster. (This reimagined series had a completely different character from his earliest origins in the nineteenth century–that changed but in the incarnations of the series, the Nick Carter character remained static)

This unchanging main character worked in other series books I’ve done. I ghosted an Executioner book and only had a short time to pick up details on the series (only a few additions rather than changes from ones I had read years earlier). But what you get out of these series are nonstop action, great supporting characters and the feeling you’re one of the gang taking part since you know the protagonist so well.

I also did a title in the ’70’s Baroness series that never saw the light of day. But I love the feel of those old series and started something similar with new characters, as much at the behest of others in the yahoo Baroness group as because they are fun to write. I did this one almost 3 years ago and the Navy is just now getting around to deploying some of the gadgets mentioned. Love the techno speculation! One of these days I’ll get back to these characters, so it won’t merely be the first in the series.

Hot Rail to Hell Deluxe

Playing In Someone Else’s Sandbox (Part 3)(game tie-ins) March 2, 2014

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Worlds don’t need to be created when writing stories in well-developed properties like Magic: The Gathering, MechWarrior and other RPGs since the history for such is already extensive. The trick becomes fitting a new story into an established world.

With Magic, the cards call the stories. I did a short story, “Festival of Sorrow,” for the anthology Distant Planes. The idea was to develop a story with characters that fit into the universe that, excuse the pun, played on the card. At the time I played Magic and loved the look of the Festival card. The story built around not a celebration but a warrior’s need for revenge–only to have the revenge stolen away by his foe’s untimely death. All this made for a story I still like a lot.

I also did a Magic novel, Dark Legacy,and this was more open-ended. Fantasy, exploration and the main character wondering why she lacked the charisma of a lesser rover. It turned out to be as much a story of fame and what this means as it did derring-do.

One of the more curious things that somehow happens and is beyond my explaining came to the fore with a MechWarrior book, Ruins of Power. Nothing went right with it, I put in 20 hour days to meet the deadline because of constant changes, and one day out the editor wanted a different ending. On schedule, I delivered a book well over the 90,000 words contacted–and got it edited down for length through such things as losing my dedication and buildup material. Still, the book wasn’t bad and fit into the BattleTech universe. However, it is my worst reviewed book on Amazon and, strangely, one of my best selling. This comes down to fame or fortune. I suppose fortune wins out since that pays the bills.

Finding the right characters that fit into an established universe makes these books sing and dance. I’ve done stories for Warhammer, Pathfinder, Vor: The Maelstrom and Crimson Skies and the trick is, as in any story, putting the character into a dangerous position. The difference is doing it in context with a wide and detailed background established by not only the game developers but the fans. It can be tricky. It is also a lot of fun.

Here is the most recent of such travels into an RPG/gaming universe.

Fate of the Kinunir, a Traveller tie-in novel

Fate of the Kinunir, a Traveller tie-in novel

Playing In Someone Else’s Sandbox (Part 1)(The Stink of Flesh) February 16, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, e-books, End of the World, fantasy, movies, New Mexico, sci-fi, science fiction, VIPub, writing.
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Tie-in work comes in a lot of varieties and most readers don’t appreciate the problems inherent. This is why the International Association of Media Tie-in Writers was formed.

Too many readers dismiss such work as hack work. Might be, but expectations enter in that aren’t brought to other sub-genres. If the reader hates the original game/movie/comic/tv show, then any novelization is going to be awful. Similarly, if the reader loves the original source so much it is part of his life, his very soul, it’s doubtful any novelization will live up to those lofty expectations (those intensely *personal* expectations).

The challenges of adapting a work can be daunting, especially moving from a movie to a novel. In the next few weeks I’ll go over the tie-in work I’ve done for video games, card-based games, series tie-ins and some other stuff. This time I want to hit the movie tie-in I did for Scott Phillips’ The Stink of Flesh. This had some extra thrill for me since I was in the movie (even if my son gets better billing ) so could enjoy killing myself off all over again in the novelization.

I had a copy of the script but had to remember from the time spent on the set what everything around me looked like. Playing the VHS copy I had, stopping it and making notes, helped, too, but with tape this is a tedious process. When I had my notes for every scene, I looked them over and saw this wasn’t a full-fledged book. In a movie characters can, well, act. A major character never says a word. They show emotions without words. Things happen in the background that aren’t explicitly mentioned in the movie There has to be extra material in a book to communicate this. More than this, a script comes up short in terms of page count in a novel. I put in extra scenes to bridge ones in the movie and introduced new characters that fit into the strange world Scott had built so well in the movie. The “Vegetable Man” scene in the book is an example. We know what the zombies want. How do the regular, still-human people live?

The movie is on its way to becoming a cult classic. A 30-copy limited edition is just now for sale.

As Joe Bob Briggs would say, check it out. Also the novelization.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Stink-Flesh-Robert-Vardeman/dp/0976943409/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1392574144&sr=8-1&keywords=stink+of+flesh+vardeman

A: The Clone Ranger February 9, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, death, ideas, sci-fi, science, science fiction, sense of wonder, serial fiction, writing.
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Q: What goes hi ho, Silver, Silver, Silver?

My dreams tend to be pretty worthless for thinking up plots or characters. A while back when I had trouble sleeping, I tried melatonin. This worked wonderfully well getting me to sleep but it gave me the most vivid–and boring–dreams ever. The vibrant colors came through unmatched by any other dream, but the sequence itself tended to be unthrilling, boring stuff like waiting in line at the supermarket. That was it. Just standing in line.

Recently I had a bout of dreams about clones. Who knows why? Something about the dream theme set my conscious brain to thinking in terms of sf stories (none of this was in the dream itself–that all came later). The variants on Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” are obvious but the moral considerations (and legal ramifications) are what boiled up in my head.

If you have sex with your own clone, is this masturbation? If you kill your own clone, is that suicide? (The truly scary ending on The Prestige is a take on this) If clones are considered separate entities, what does this do to DNA solutions for crimes? How do you prove it wasn’t you but your clone that did the crime? Could a clever criminal use his clone as an alibi for actually committing a crime? If you create your own clone for the express purpose of a sex crime (on the clone), who is the victim and who is the perpetrator? Is this even a crime? Could therapy for a serial killer be killing his own clones rather than other people? What are the ethics involved of trying risky medical treatments on clones to find the proper one for the “original?”

Cloning certainly eliminates the need for estate planning. Just will your clone your fortune. Skip a few hundred years into the future. Would all the wealth be consolidated in the hands of a few clones?

I need to get to work on a science fiction book. Not dealing with clones, not exactly (could a clone be used as a surrogate to serve a prison sentence?)

How Long Is It? February 2, 2014

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The second most asked question after “where do you get your ideas?” has to be “how long did it take to write that book?”

A seemingly simple question but one that has no real answer for me. The time spent at the keyboard is short compared to the time spent getting ready to pound away on the keys (after pushing the cat off the qwerty row, of course). An idea pops up, like Minerva from the forehead of Jupiter and takes form. Only it is ghostly. Some details might be sharp but most are seen through a gauzy curtain that has to be pushed and pulled until a good gust of creative wind blows it away. Then more of the story is apparent.

Even then this might not be much of a story. A character? Where does the character come from? Go in terms of plot? Research? What surrounds and further erases the impediment to actually seeing the details? All this gets turned over. Maybe a first line or a final one comes to me. From this more is built, scenes, other characters, plot, complications. More reading and research. Or maybe not in that order. All is chaotic.

And still utterly perfect. Things become more defined and less perfect when I get the ideas put down into a synopsis. The plot takes shape and the characters fit in better than before–or not at all. Some get lost and others discovered hitchhiking along mental back roads. The synopsis might be written in an afternoon or a month.

More thinking, more fiddling, more rearranging and invention. When the synopsis says “now!” the time is right to write. And then, of course, the writing reveals fatal flaws that must be remedied. And a second draft. More thinking. More tinkering and research, as needed (and it always is).

A month actually tapping out the book? Probably. That much more to redo, rethink, polish it up. If I’m lucky.

From idea to “The End” might be a month or, as in the case of the book I am still working on to get a decent synopsis, years. By my count, five years. If everything clicks, and it doesn’t seem to be at the moment, I’ll have the synopsis done in a few days. It’ll be a long book. Easily a month to write. But what do I answer when asked “how long did it take?” With research and ideation and writing and redoing? The answer has to be “as long as it took to produce an entertaining book.”