Blog Hiatus While I Party
March 28, 2009
This Writing Life
Saturday, March 28, 2009
Blog Hiatus While I Party
March 28, 2009
In a couple days I'm flying to Florida for a trip to Disney World. The Oxford High School Marching Band is going and I'm going as a chaperone. They're scheduled to march in the Spectral Magic Parade and they're going to be doing a clinic with some Disney musicians.
I'll post when I get back. Sure I'll have something interesting to say by then.
Friday, March 27, 2009
March 27, 2009
From the Wall Street Journal Health Blog today:
We found an item in this week’s CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report inexplicably fascinating: A detailed accounting of the ways Americans trip over their pets.
This is not, as it turns out, a trivial issue: More than 86,000 Americans wind up in the emergency room every year because of falls related to cats or dogs. That’s about 1% of all fall-related ER visits. Nearly 90% of the injuries were dog-related, and females were twice as likely as males to be injured. Here’s more:
“We know that pets have many benefits,” a CDC epidemiologist told the Washington Post. “We just want people to be aware that pets and pet items can be a fall hazard and can lead to injuries.”
Photo: Health Blog
Can't Get No Satisfaction
March 27, 2009
Ah, Mick, Mick, Mick. I remember seeing (probably not live) an interview with a very young Mr. Jagger, probably upon entering the U.S. for their first tour, and a female reporter (naturally) asked Mick Jagger if he'd had any satisfaction yet. He answered, "Sexually, yes; philosophically, I'm working on it."
I just want y'all to know that it's Friday, I'm a bit cranky, the flu bug I've been fighting all week still won't go away, I've got some sinus pressure and... anyway, let that inform the tone of today's post.
The question is: Mark, did you find getting your books published a satisfying experience?
I can't possibly describe how complicated a question this actually is. My writer friend Jon, whom you know better as LurkerMonkey, once commented that a lot of the published novelists he knew felt it was rather bittersweet.
Uh, yeah. I would say that in so many ways--many of them financial--actually getting a novel published didn't even come close to meeting my expectations.
Granted, I've also had some disasters, with publishers going under before the book got published, and that'll taint your experience, fer shur, fer shur.
I think part of the issue--not all, but part--is we invest so much in the process. Typically sitting down day after day to write a 400 page manuscript requires the expectation of fairly great things somewhere in our psyche. And then to have it either rejected repeatedly or acquired for something like $1000 with all these weird contractual stipulations, then not be reviewed, not picked up by bookstores, etc., well, it's anti-climactic.
Your mileage may vary.
Also, some people love to be the center of attention. I'm of the more typical writer variety. I love to be the center of attention--when I'm not around to be uncomfortable by it.
So here's a few thoughts:
The person this will mean the most to is you. For an awful lot of other people it'll be worthy of a, "Oh, congratulations. That's cool," without a second thought. (Unless you got 6-figures and a movie deal, in which case they'll be significantly more interested in who's going to play the main character in the movie, book-be-damned).
Your family's reaction may or may not be what you expect. My sister's always wonderfully supportive, as is my brother. My wife is supportive, but doesn't get drawn into the hoopla because she understands the work-to-reward equation better perhaps than even I do.
Your friends and neighbors... mostly don't give a damn if they know at all.
People in your community, I'll tell you what, they're not going to run out and buy your book. You get a nice interview about yourself and your book in the local newspaper and a week or two later someone'll say, "Hey, nice interview. I should pick up a copy of your book sometime. Does the library have it?" Or, just as often, "Can you loan me a copy?" Or, "I don't read." Or, "I've got this great idea for a novel that would make a blockbuster movie." Or...
So my question here is really for those of you who have had novels published: did you get satisfaction?
And for the rest of you, do you think your expectations are realistic?
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Today's Buddha-Head Lesson
March 26, 2009
Apply it to your writing, apply it to guitar, apply it to your life. Or don't. This is from Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo.
"Here are three adages from the samurai on the spirit required to know the Way. Fix these in your heart as you train.
1. Don't ask, practice.
Some questions no one can answer but yourself. Practice properly and the answers will come to you in time. The only route to understanding the Way is through your own experience.
2. Seven times down, eight times up.
If you slip in your training, get up. Even should you think defeatist thoughts--'I can't learn this,' 'My hands aren't strong enough,' 'I'll never be any good'--never voice them aloud. Burn such thoughts from your mind before you make a single utterance.
The famed martial artist Bruce Lee was said to have done that exact thing: Whenever a negative thought came into his head, he would visualize writing the words down on a slip of paper and putting it to flames.
Apply this thinking to your own training.
3. The only opponent is within.
What matters on the path of Zen Guitar is not the obstacles we face but how we respond to them. Master your reaction to the unforeseen and unfortunate circumstance, and you will master the Way of Zen Guitar."
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
ILLEGAL by Paul Levine
March 25, 2009
I finished reading Paul Levine's latest novel, ILLEGAL, last night. Ripping through it, really.
When Marisol Perez and her 12-year-old son Tino flee Mexico to the U.S.--not simply because of better jobs and life, but because a very bad man wants to kill Tino--Marisol gives her son the business card of L.A. lawyer Jimmy Payne and tells him that if they get separated or if something should happen to her, he should contact Mr. Payne who was an important man in L.A. and he would help him.
Cue the ironic music. The reason Jimmy "Royal" Payne is an important man is because he went nuts in a courtroom trial involving the deaths of a bunch of illegals who died in a sealed truck. Jimmy's career and personal life is a train wreck of near-Biblical proportions. And he's about as far from the stalwart, high-minded attorney as is possible to get. For instance, when coerced into acting as a bagman in a sting against a corrupt judge, Jimmy skims 10% off the top for his trouble.
To-date Paul Levine has written three series about lawyers--Jake Lassiter, the Solomon versus Lord series, and now Jimmy Payne. They're all of a type--a not-quite-ethical lawyer who manages to surpass his own skills and iffy ethics, a custodial arrangement of a troubled but smart and verbal young boy, and a rollicking sense of humor.
Well, back to the plot. Of course, Marisol and Tino do get separated and Tino does hook up with Jimmy, whose career just took a major turn south. He decided--under some prodding from his ex-wife--to help Tino look for his mother. Road trip time: down to Mexico and back up to immigrant farm country with what could be called adventures if they weren't so simultaneously grim and humorous.
I liked just about everything about this book. I would have been just as glad to read another Solomon versus Lord novel or even a Jake Lassiter novel if Paul and a publisher thought it was possible. A couple things struck me most about this novel, though. One was just how complicated all the characters were. Jimmy's likable, but his life's a mess. The villain of the piece--unless you look at illegal immigration as the potential villain in the piece--is very complicated. You can be disgusted by his actions and his behavior at the same time as you nod at what he has to say about immigrant farmers and the U.S. economy. The other is that Levine paints a fairly complicated picture about illegal immigration issues in the U.S. without getting preachy or even digressing. He shows us what's going on and some of the repercussions, which to my mind really elevates the book.
Monday, March 23, 2009
March 24, 2009
I study sanchin-ryu, a form of karate. I'm a first-degree brown belt, so the next level is first-degree black. I'm probably fairly close to it. Or not. I've been at first-degree brown for about 18 months or so, so you'd think eventually I'd be ready, although time itself isn't quite what gets you there.
Sanchin-ryu is also a little different from some forms of martial arts--like, say Tae-Kwon-Do--in that it's not quite as formalized (so far) in its belt promotions. Essentially after purple belt, your sensei (instructor) recommends you for promotion, you're observed by the district master, who gives a thumb's up or thumb's down.
A couple weeks ago I was "observed" by the district master. Then my sensei a bit later gave a couple of us "a little mentoring moment." I have, he says, a "yeah but" attitude, in which he suggests something new or different and I tilt my head, roll my eyes, and he says he just knows I'm thinking, "Yeah, but..."
It's true, unfortunately. He asked me if I agreed and I nodded. "I think too much." Which is true, although generally speaking it serves me well in most other areas of my life.
Plus, I would argue (and this is a major "yeah, but...") that one reason I'm doing that a lot recently is because the style has been tightening up their demands, particularly on those of us going toward shodan, and I'm trying (occasionally desperately) to try and figure out what it is they want in order to move to the next level.
Which is somewhat besides the point. The idea here is I'm expected to have a pretty comprehensive understanding of a certain amount of information and what's being presented to me is primarily a deepening of that information.
Now, when I discussed this with my wife (who also studies, but hasn't for as long, and as a result is a lower rank) she just laughs and says, "Well, you know Master X is a real Buddha-head. Don't be so surprised." Well, yeah, she's right. And some martial arts are far worse than this group in terms of the Buddha-head thing. Even my sensei himself admitted that when he was where I was he asked his sensei (a serious Buddha-head, I've worked out with him a couple times) what he needed to do to go to shodan and his sensei said, "You're the one that has to draw the line." To which my sensei, at least to himself, muttered, "I don't even know what the line looks like."
Here's the thing I've been thinking about. After a certain point, as writers, we've pretty much gotten the basics down. We can string words and sentences together. We use appropriate grammar, no typos, we even tell a pretty good story.
But there's something we need to do to take it past that into publishable. And you know, when I critique someone's work, sometimes you can just tell they're rolling their eyes and saying, "Yeah, but..."
And I think the point is, even though we want to say, "Yeah, but..." we need to listen, really listen, and figure out how those comments or advice fit into what we know, how we can apply it. That doesn't mean that we always do. Despite my "yeah, but..." in sanchin-ryu, I listen to everything and try to figure out what it means to my interpretation of what I know. I don't dispose of anything, although some things I have to shrug and think, "Not likely to use that, but I'll keep it in the back of my mind as an option."
So you tell me. Do you have a "yeah, but..."?
p.s. Ever since I started shaving my head my kids have started rubbing my head and saying, "Rub the Buddha head for luck."
It's BSP Monday!
March 23, 2009
It's Blatant Self-Promotion Monday! Not for me, but for you!
Tell me about your latest book to come out or coming out!
Tell me about your work-in-progress!
Tell me about any book you've read recently (or ever) that you'd recommend!
Go for it!
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Have You Read...
March 22, 2009
I'm writing an essay that will appear in a book next year, sponsored by International Thriller Writers, Inc. The book is about 100 must-read thrillers. Anyway, I was asked to write one about James Brady's "Six Days of the Condor," which I had read when I was a teenager, as well as seen the movie featuring Robert Redford. I'm currently re-reading the book.
Now, this might very well date everybody, I'm not sure, but have you read the book? Have you seen the movie? If so, what do you think?
Friday, March 20, 2009
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Congratulations on your book offer. It's definitely worth celebrating.
That said, and particularly since I have experience with that publisher, I think I know a little bit about what's going on in your head. Let me see if I can address some of those issues, prophylactically, if nothing else.
Not very big, was it? No, but then again, most book advances really aren't. The word "token" comes to mind and although I'm sure you'll find a way to spend it, as the expression goes, "Don't spend it all in one place." When I got started in this biz I kept trying to get other writers to admit that they made a living totally off their novel writing--or not. A lot of novelists hold that they want readers and would-be readers to believe they make a terrific living just from writing novels. It's part of the mystique. I'm a shitty liar, so I tell the truth. I'm a freelance writer and the novels are only a small part of my writing income, which is pretty decent.
My advice to you? Lie through your teeth. My friend, you don't need to tell them anything specific, just say it was "life altering" or "significant" or if you want to go another route, turn around and ask them the size of their latest paycheck was. I mean really, this is a rude question. I used to argue that I thought writing novels would change my life. It did. What I actually meant, though, was I wanted it to change my "lifestyle." I wanted to be able to have a second home, a Porsche 911, and take trips all over the world. Okay, maybe with the next novel.
Negotiating a contract.
Good luck. If you have an agent, lean back and watch in fear and wonder. You'll learn a lot and some of it will terrify you. Because, as hard as it is to remember this, you can't negotiate if you're ultimately not willing to walk. Your agent knows that and probably is willing to walk. The editor for damn sure knows it. Most writers aren't, which is why it's better for an agent to negotiate. They can be as hardnosed as they want. That said, there's only so much wiggle room in a publishing contract and for a first-time novelist, even less. Relax and enjoy. Future contracts will be (a little) better. No author likes every aspect of their contract. None. If you're negotiating for yourself, well, good luck. Been there, done that, it sucks. But it can be done.
Ah yeah, what now? What now or what next is usually a whole lot of waiting. The paperwork goes out, gets churned, eventually gets returned, churned some more, a check eventually gets cut and eventually makes its way into your hot and sweaty hands and pretty soon the government is your partner in your writing business.
But aside from that, you'll have to deal with rewrites, which aren't usually all that horrendous to deal with because it makes you feel like a real writer. Your publisher may or may not be talking about marketing and publicity. I recommend you at least talk to PJ Nunn, a pretty reasonable and successful book publicist, who might be able to give you some idea or help.
Adjust your expectations.
If the advance and the contract didn't already do that, it's not a bad time to think seriously on what your book is likely to do instead of what you hope it will do. Most first novels disappear from the shelves almost as fast as they appear. There are things you can do to slow that vanishing act down, but much of it is out of your hands. Maybe your novel will gather steam and fly off the shelves. It does happen, just not most of the time.
Start calling yourself a novelist.
For real, dude. Congratulations.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Marcy 18, 2009
Every day I make to-do lists for my work. I get great satisfaction in scratching off things as I go. I almost NEVER get everything scratched off. My to-lists--and this is an important point, boys and girls--tend to be a mix of the very specific and the very general. Be careful about very general to-dos. They never get done.
Here's today's with no explainers, sorry.
1. Ian--swimming 3:oo-5:00
3. Outreach Dir
4. Telemed aut art
5. Int Dx Rpt
6. AP stuff
7. Pod Mgt prop
8. Pod Mgt art
9. ITW bio
10. ITW essay
12. TMI comm
13. Angel edits--348
15. O.D. profiles--6
I will share with you that the number at #13 refers to the page I need to restart on and the number at the end of #15 refers to the number of profiles I need to write for that project. And #6, AP stuff is a very general description of a new assignment that actually has quite a few moving parts which will undoubtedly be exploded out into their components as I get going on it.
Do you keep a to-do list? What does it look like?
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Successful People Fail
March 17, 2009
Successful people fail. They just keep coming back and trying again.
I could probably leave it at that, but hell, I might as well talk a bit longer. I was thinking about this this morning because I was doing the morning-talk-yourself-into-it about my Big Shiny New Project and I had this internal conversation:
What's the worst thing that could happen?
You become wildly successful?
And please note that the question mark after successful is intentional. I'm sure I could write at length about fear of success being almost as common as fear of failure, but I'll let you chew on that thought for a while.
In terms of writing, we all know if your book doesn't work out, persistence is key, turn around and write another one, market the hell out of it, yada, yada, yada. What is sometimes missing, I think, is looking at what did or did not work with the previous novel and trying to make sure you don't just repeat yourself. (Maybe I should follow my own advice).
But here's the thing. Example: bestselling author John Sandford, if you go on his website, has some mini-essays about some of his books. At least two of his published novels--I think it was "Eyes of Prey" and "Dead Watch" were turned into his editor who said, "well.... I didn't like it as much as I hoped to." Which was coded language to mean "it sucks, but you sell a lot of books so we'll do it if you insist on it." But Sandford didn't like the response, so he took the manuscripts back and totally reworked them.
I'm not going to hammer the lesson home there. If you don't get it, well, I can't help you.
There are just a couple other points I want to make.
First, in baseball, if you're batting .300--in other words, you're only hitting about a third of the time--you're having a fantastic career. Fantastic!
Second, the only clear statistic I've heard about freelance writers is that only about 1 in 12 query letters gets turned into a job assignment. I think that's about right and I work accordingly by making sure I'm always churning out queries.
Third, Bill Clinton lost an election as governor of Arkansas. Barack Obama lost an election as Illinois senator. James Lee Burke got a novel or two published then went 13 years without a book contract before coming back with his first Dave Robicheaux novel, "The Neon Rain."
Monday, March 16, 2009
Content with Content?
March 16, 2009
Because I'm scurrying around debating with myself about becoming a publisher, and because, as we speak, the publishing industry--especially newspapers--is imploding, I thought I would shine a light on something a little different.
Publishers deliver content.
Writers create content.
I find it interesting that as the publishing models shift, publishers respond by decreasing content. Newspapers firing journalists, etc. My gut feeling is that publications that respond to the shifting content delivery systems by decreasing the amount of content are going to fail. Publications that focus on ways to deliver content--and a lot of high-quality content for which there is demand--will succeed.
How to get paid for it? I know a lot newspapers, which over history have made the bulk of their revenue by way of advertising, aren't making much money off Internet advertising. (Yet, I think. Once advertisers lose that source of advertising, they're going to pay and pay a lot on websites with high traffic. That suggests to me that newspapers and others need to concentrate first on how to drive up traffic instead of how to get paid for it, but that's easy for me to say, isn't it?).
There's always those webanistas who think everything on the Web should be free and they won't pay for anything. I keep wondering which planet they're from. Just keep in mind the truth behind this expression: you get what you pay for.
Anyway, the point of this, which could go on for pages, is that I believe there will always be a need for good content, no matter what the delivery method. And that as WRITERS, our job is to deliver that content.
Saturday, March 14, 2009
I Need Some Suggestions
March 14, 2009
Okay folks. I need some suggestions. I'm looking for two types of software applications.
One, I want a publishing application that will allow me to do newsletter layouts as well as edits of PDFs. I'm assuming this is some brand of the Adobe suite, although they ought to consider making their website more user-friendly. (I'm just saying). Your recommendation?
Two, I'm interested in easy-to-use, but fairly sophisticated software for the Mac for website design. RapidWeaver sounds good and won't break the bank, but I could use some recommendations from you folks.
So, what do you suggest?
Friday, March 13, 2009
On Your Reading Radar: ILLEGAL by Paul Levine
March 13, 2009
Paul Levine is one of my favorite authors. First he was writing about Florida lawyer Jake Lassiter, then about Florida lawyers Solomon and Lord (or Solomon v Lord) and now Jimmy "Royal" Payne. Yes, Paul's characters are funny. Very. But there's a lot of heart in his books. His characters are terribly flawed but lovable and Paul's view of the U.S. justice system is, shall we say, not viewed through rose-colored glasses.
Anyway, ILLEGAL comes out March 24, 2009. I'm reading a copy of it now and will review it when I'm done. So far I love it.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Still Life With Zombies
March 12, 2009
Since yesterday's post was deep and meaningful, today I'll go in the opposite direction. SF writer extraordinaire John Scalzi writes a blog on AMC about SF and todays is about bad movies made out of video games (an easy target, if you want my opinion). Someone commented that as far as they were concerned any movies would be improved by adding zombies. Well, here's today's challenge. Choose a movie that you think would be interesting with zombies in it and give me a one or two sentence synopsis.
HANNAH AND HER SISTERS
Woody Allen just can't figure out which sister he's in love with. But the decision is so much easier when Mia Farrow and Diane Wiest become zombies and try to eat his flesh.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Searching for the Sound
March 11, 2009
My friend Natasha--you know her as SpyScribbler--sent me a book, "Zen Guitar" by Philip Toshio Sudo. Here's an excerpt that applies nicely, I think, to the question: why do you write?
What do you think?
"I hear many students ask, 'What exactly is this sound? A Gibson Les Paul through a stack of Marshall amps? A hand-crafted classical played center stage at Carnegie Hall?'
"It is all of that and none of that. At bottom, it is the sound of the divine spark within us all. Like the cry of a child or the howl of a wolf, it transcends language and culture. It is the sound that drives the dance of life. Zen masters call it sekishu no onjo--'the sound of one hand clapping.'
"Each of us has the potential to know this sound in our own way. Some people are driven to find it through bongos or bagpipes, others use kalimbas or keyboards. Some just open their throats and sing. Some hear the sound through dance or diving or acting or architecture--or just sitting in complete silence.
"It's not enough to simply find your means to express this sound, though sadly, some people never do. You must find your sound, then dig into it until you reach its very source. This is the challenge of Zen Guitar. For at the source of your sound is the source of all sound. Digging to that source means learning to hear every sound--yours and all those around you--as both distinct and One Great Sound. Call it the sound of one hand clapping, call it the voice of God. If you get to that source you will have heard it all.
"Whatever obstacles you face, never stop listening to the sound inside you. Do so and you are sure to lose the Way."
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
March 10, 2009
At the beginning of the movie Gladiator, Russell Crow's character, about to lead the Roman army into battle against the Gauls, says, "At my command, unleash hell!"
It's a great line. Never mind that it seems to conflict with an earlier speech he gives to his soldiers telling them that if they wake up in a field of wheat they have moved on to the Elyssian Fields. Would a Roman soldier who believed the afterlife... oh, never mind.
My point is, at some point in your story, you need to unleash hell. Yes, that's a metaphor. If you're writing a romance novel, what you're creating is conflict.
One reason I'm thinking about that is I'm making edits and proofing the manuscript to my next novel, THE FALLEN (May 2010, Oceanview Publishing, let the BSP begin!). Now, this is a thriller so there's a lot of action pretty much from the first scene. It involves a terrorist attack at a resort where the G8 Summit is being held. I'm about up to page 100 in my edits and I realized that as much as there was a lot of action and plenty of interesting things going on in the first 100 pages of this manuscript, I had started to unleash hell in a different way right around page 100.
That's when everything starts to go wrong for the main character.
And it's going to go progressively wrong for quite some time.
In my experience, unpublished novelists let their main characters off the hook. I'm not sure why. Do they feel sympathy for them?
Readers LOVE to read about main characters getting dumped on and then fighting back and rising to a happily-ever-after place. No matter what genre you're writing about.
The harder the conflict, the more satisfying the resolution.
And it doesn't have to be like poor Derek, discovered by the terrorists, beat up, handcuffed and dumped in a walk-in-freezer with three corpses.
Marjorie the timid secretary secretly in love with the new adventurous employee can make a fool of herself in front of the entire office, have her cat barf on her new blouse, run into her ex-husband or boyfriend, burn dinner or have a migraine on her first date in four years. (Think the movie "Hitch." First you kick her in the head and knock her into the Hudson River. Assuming she doesn't acquire hepatitis from the river, you then accidentally bring up a serial killer from her family's past. Then you have a date and have a food allergy and damn near go into anaphylactic shock. Then your job is outed, there's... you get the picture).
It's not really about world-shaking conflict unless you're writing that type of story. But it needs to be significant to the main character in the context of the story.
In fact, that's well worth repeating: the conflict must be significant to the main character in the context of the story.
Derek Stillwater's ex-Special Forces and an expert on terrorism. It's going to take a pretty bad thing to ruin his day.
But Marjorie lives in a different world than Derek and her traumas will likely be more mundane. But within the context of the story--within her world--they can be just as trying.
I mean, really, I don't need to be locked in a freezer with corpses to have a really shitty day. I can lose clients, get sick, have a death in the family, an argument with my wife, get an unexpected bill or have my car engine catch on fire. I can deal with them all, but if I were in a story and any of those things happened on a day when I was trying to accomplish something big--like if Marjorie was hoping to make a good impression on the new guy--then we've got conflict.
So: go unleash hell!
Monday, March 09, 2009
Battling Your Limitations
March 9, 2009
First, I'd like to thank everybody. After about 24 hours of drenching rain the sky opened up with cold temps and clear blue sky for the funeral today, which was very nice. The walk to the burial site was a bit squishy, but otherwise fine. It was a lovely service.
Now, onto a writing topic.
I've got this writing/publishing project I really want to try. It has the potential to be very, very big and I'm scared and I keep trying to come up with reasons why I shouldn't just go ahead and jump in.
I think this happens to people all the time. Sometimes I write pros and cons lists. Sometimes I just...
Oh screw it.
What do you do? How do you battle the little voice in your head that says, "You might fail. It might be a debacle. Don't do it?"
You tell me.
Sunday, March 08, 2009
The World Is Strange
March 8, 2009
I wonder which genius thought it would be a good idea to place the body of the dead person in an extremely expensive steel box, place it at the front of a room, pipe in creepy music you'd never listen to under any other circumstances, and then invite friends and family of the deceased to come in and talk about the appearance of the dead person.
I'm just sayin'.
Friday, March 06, 2009
March 6, 2009
Okay, I'm stuck in some sort of gear between low and idle. Partly because my mother-in-law died early this morning and partly because it's Friday and I've been very busy for a couple weeks and partly because I'm volunteering at a band festival from about 2:45 to 10:00 tonight and all day tomorrow from about 7:00 to 5:00.
So, here's a vital link to an old but fantastic and hilarious (but true) post about definitions of book deals from John Scalzi. Enjoy, if you can.
Thursday, March 05, 2009
March 6, 2009
If you could have a super power, what would it be?
Me, I think teleportation. Or flying. (Or the ability to heal, like Wolverine only minus the claws).
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
Publishing Basics, Part 4: Translation Rights
March 5, 2009
I love translation rights. They're also sometimes called foreign rights. This is when you give a publisher the right to translate your book into a different language and publish your book in it. To-date I've had two of my books published in French (by a Canadian publisher), German and Slovak.
If you go back to my second-day post where I quote a clause from one of my contracts, you'll note it says something about English and Spanish. That's a little strange, actually. What you usually sell in a novel in this country is typically English-language rights and often that's limited to North America, which gives you the option of selling your work to someone in the UK and Australia. I don't know exactly why Midnight Ink also bought (ha! I laugh, what was I having, a fire sale?) Spanish rights, but I think it was because their parent company, Llewellyn, also has a Spanish language division. (But note I didn't get published in Spanish. I also didn't get "extra" money for including the Spanish rights in the deal).
Your publisher wants to control these rights. Generally speaking, you and your agent also want to control these rights. With Midnight Ink, they controlled the rights and the author gets, if I remember correctly, 50%. A lot of agents have relationships with foreign agents all over the world because it brings in a lot of money getting your books published in Swahili, Japanese, French, German, Spanish...
What can get you on this is the involvement of foreign agents, whether they're working with your agent or working with your publisher. They're stripping some money off the top as well. (If there's a theme in these posts it's that everybody gets a piece of the authors' money. Have you noticed that?)
Look, don't underestimate foreign rights. I've mentioned Joe Moore, The Great and Terrible. He and his writing Partner, Lynn Who-Puts-Up-With-Joe Sholes, write thrillers featuring SNN reporter Cotten Stone. Their book sales are relatively modest (at least compared to, say, Stephen King) in the U.S. But... they've been translated into at least 23 languages. And last time I heard, they were even bestsellers in Poland and Amsterdam. (Joe, correct me if that's not correct). Hey, now they can put INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLERS on their books.
Here's the thing. You might get a couple grand from your U.S. publisher, but by selling a bunch of foreign sales, hey, a few thousand euros in Germany, some rubles in Russia, pesos in Mexico, yen in Japan, yuan in China... it adds up, okay? Sometimes it adds up to A LOT.
All of my foreign deals were fairly small, but they added up to more than my U.S. advances--even after the publisher took 50%.
And by the way, this is a typically negotiable right and agents usually really want to hold onto them. Midnight Ink, who has a hotshot foreign rights person, really held tight to those rights, but they did okay with them for me, so I suppose it worked out. (The fact they handled them as if they were a state secret is a separate issue).
I can add one or two more things. First, to-date my Derek Stillwater novels were published in English in trade paperback. Some of my foreign deals were in hardcover. Cool. Second, sometimes working with the translators is kind of fun. I didn't have any interaction with my German translator, a little bit with my French and a lot with my Slovak translator, who was a more careful editor and asked tougher questions than any of my other editors. He caught things they didn't either.
Movie sales are like winning the lottery. Foreign sales are a lot more likely to happen, which in my book, makes them a lot cooler. Sehr gut, as they say in German. Sehr gut indeed.
Publishing Basics, Part 3: Movie Rights
March 4, 2009
Admit it. You dream of a movie deal.
Maybe because of the money, which is rumored to be considerable--at least compared to your advances and royalties--or because you think you'll get to go to the premier and hobnob with the stars.
Movie rights are part of sub rights or subsidiary rights. The clause in the contract tends to describe them like this: "In the case of dramatic, including film, television, radio or other broadcasting rights..."
Depending on your agent and your publisher, you may get total control of these, in other words 100%. Or not. Sometimes publishers insist on a cut, maybe 10%, maybe 20%, maybe 50%. It depends.
Production companies/producers, if they actually decide they might--key word "might"--want to make a movie based on one of your books, they typically offer an option. Here's where we get tricky. And here's my disclaimer: although I've had nibbles, I've never had a film option so this is going to be kind of general.
Let's say a production company decides they want the rights to make a movie based on your book. They'll offer an option. Let's say the option is, just to keep the numbers simple, they will pay you $100,000 for a one-year option.
What that means is they have one year from the signing of the contract to get a green light from a studio or some other source of money to actually do something with your book. They probably spent some money having a script based on it (maybe), but then they've shopped that around and studios or people with money have said, "no way" or "sure." Or, in the case of Hollywood, probably, "Oh, I love it, it's fantastic, I can see George Clooney as the lead, I'll get back with you." Then they don't.
So, ready to spend that $100,000?
Don't. Because you probably won't get it. You'll get a percentage of it, a sort of down payment on the $100,000. Probably 10%. So you'll get $10,000. That's good. A nice chunk of change. Except your agent gets a percentage of that, quite possibly higher than the 15% he or she gets to sell your novel to a publisher. Maybe 20%. And your publisher might get a cut.
Movie contracts are a byzantine mess and unless you have an agent who specializes in movie contracts, your agent might suggest hooking up with a film agent or entertainment attorney, who will either get a flat fee or perhaps another percentage. This is something I've recently discussed with my own agent and the entertainment attorney would get an additional 5%. What the hell, it's currently only imaginary money. (Just don't forget the way this is getting carved up, though. That $10,000 is now down about 35% and we haven't even taken into consideration taxes. Pretty soon you'll be lucky to walk away with $4500).
Okay, so far so good. Now, if in that period of time--one year, for instance--the producer gets a green light, you get the rest of the money. Go you! If they don't, the producer may ask to renew and you get $10,000 minus everybody else's cuts all over again. Go you! Free money! In some ways this might be the happiest route to go. A number of authors have had books optioned year after year after year without the film actually getting made. The first one off the top of my head is "Catch Me If You Can." That book was optioned about 20 times before Spielberg made the movie with Tom Hanks. The author commented it was great, he kept getting about $20,000 a year for a book that wasn't really selling any more.
Now, let's say they actually get a green light and go into pre-production, which appears to me to be a nebulous phrase that means "someone at a studio said yes but we're years from actually starting to shoot a film." You should get the rest of your $100,000.
Depending on your contract, if the film actually gets made, you will probably get more money. Maybe even a royalty based on how much money the film makes. I have no clue how much that would actually be. I know that the late Jim Cash, who co-wrote films like "Top Gun" and "The Secret of My Success" and "Dick Tracy" with his writing partner Jack Epps, commented once that for every videotape of "Top Gun" sold he got about 5 cents. For the writer my guess is that royalties based on films comes to a percentage of a penny. For instance, 1/10th of a percentage point. That's okay, I guess, since a moderately successful movie can make millions of dollars. Of course, stories of Hollywood accounting are legendary, so even if to all extents and purposes the movie is wildly successful, you might get no money unless you sue the studio for it.
Like I said, I have no direct experience with this. Let me just throw out a few things I have read or heard about authors who've had movies made based on their books.
It takes time, usually. David Morrell's novel "First Blood" was published in 1972. The Sylvester Stallone movie came out in what, 1980 or so?
If you write series fiction, ie., novels based on a recurring character, there's a common clause in a film option that means that if Producer A has an option on Book A starring your character, Producer B, C, D, or E cannot option Book B, C, D, or E as long as Producer's A option is still current. This happened to John Sandford and his Lucas Davenport novels. One movie was made for TV starring Eric LaSalle as Lucas Davenport. (Interesting casting, isn't it? Not quite as interesting as Whoopie Goldberg as Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr, but interesting nonetheless).
Along those lines, a successful adaption of a series character's novel can make future options quite easy to do. Take Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels and Jesse Stone novels. Spenser was a successful TV show starring Robert Urich, there was a spin-off about Hawk called "A Man Called Hawk" and then there were made-for-TV movies based on the Spenser novels starring Joe Mantegna. The Jesse Stone novels have been made into made-for-TV films starring Tom Seleck and just Sunday night one aired that wasn't based on the books but was based on an original script not written by Robert B. Parker.
On the other hand, a movie was made out of one of Sarah Paretsky's V.I. Warshawski novels (titled: "V.I. Warshawski") starring Kathleen Turner. The idea was it would become a series of movies starring Turner. The movie sucked (really, it did) and no other movie has been based on it since.
Your money goes down for sequels. At least it did in the case of David Morrell. In his book on writing he notes how the contracts for "First Blood" indicated the author would get 50% of each previous movie's option if sequels were made. He noted that since Rambo dies at the end of "First Blood" the novel he didn't think that was an issue. Surprise! In the film he lives and has since spawned 3 additional film sequels. I don't remember the numbers but the gist of it was that if Morrell received $100,000 for "First Blood," then he received "$50,000" for "Rambo Part II," and $25,000 for "Rambo Part III" and presumably $12,500 for "Rambo." Or whatever the hell the movies were called. The numbers do not get adjusted for inflation.
On the other hand, Morrell also talks about how there were merchandising clauses in his contract for "First Blood" which he thought was ridiculous, as was there a clause about animation rights. Well, yes, there were Rambo lunch boxes and T-shirts and action figures and in fact there was an animated cartoon. So these things do happen and the money is undoubtedly cashed pretty much without question.
Other random facts: about 1 in 20 novels that get optioned actually get made into films. I don't have a number for the percentage of novels that actually get optioned, but I bet it's really, really low, something like 1 in 1000.
Now, my personal experiences: all the Derek Stillwater novels, including the upcoming one, have gotten interest from production companies. I've talked to at least one of the producers. To-date, nothing has happened. It's happened enough now that I don't even bother getting very excited about it other than to think, "Well, what would you do with the money if you got it?" then packed it away with all the other Lottery winning daydreams. It's fun to do, but you can't pay bills with it.
If your novel is a thriller or a femjep novel, the odds of an option go up. If it's sci-fi, I'm afraid the odds aren't good. Although a hell of a lot of SF makes it onto the screen, not much of it seems to be based on novels, and the ones that do are based on SF written 40 years ago. Straight mysteries and cozies are a tough sell.
The hotter the novel, the more likely an option. John Sandford, optioned. Janet Evanovich, optioned. Rick Riordan, not only optioned for the Percy Jackson novels, but in pre-production and the actors already chosen. Christopher Paolini's novel whose novel about a dragon was optioned and made into a pretty shitty film. (I know, I saw it twice in the theater due to family logistics, and we own a copy of the DVD, which was watched once. On it's own it would have made an okay movie for the SciFi Network, right up there with, say, "Rock Monster" or "Leviathan." But really, there's unlikely to be a sequel).
Still, the "Die Hard" films were based on a novel by an author that was not a brand name whatsoever, so anything is possible.
A friend of mine, Jeff Cohen, had a novel optioned a few years ago. I e-mailed him to congratulate him and you could just tell he was shrugging when he said, "Yeah, well, it doesn't come to that much money, but it'll help pay a couple bills." I thought at the time he was being modest, but now I don't think so.
Jody Picoult described Hollywood this way: "New York publishers say, 'I hate you, I hate you, I hate you,' and then let you in grudgingly. Hollywood says, 'I love you, I love you, I love you," then does nothing."
My experiences have been almost identical. I would probably add that publishers not only let you in grudgingly, but as if they're doing you a favor. Hollywood's all rainbows and moonbeams and unicorns until they decide they're not interested and then that's it, goodbye.
Again, if you know more about this--and somebody undoubtedly does--please share what you know with us.
Tuesday, March 03, 2009
Publishing Basics, Part 2: Royalties
March 3, 2009
Royalties are all tied up in advances, as yesterday's post indicated. A royalty is a percentage of money that is paid the author based on the price of the book. As indicated yesterday, that royalty can be based on the list price of the book or the retail price. Or, based on whatever the publisher wants to base it on. Here's part of a clause from one of my contracts with my former publisher:
"...including but not limited to hardcover, trade paperback, and mass market in English and Spanish, in whole or in part, at prices to be determined by the Publisher, in return for which rights the Publisher agrees to pay the Author a royalty amounting to 10% for the first 5,000 copies, 12-1/2% for copies 5,001 to 10,000, and 15% for all copies thereafter of all moneys actually received by the Publisher from sales of said Work after all returns and allowances. Sales made at a loss such as damaged and imperfect copies sold for clearance, overstock or remainders sold at discount of more than 80% shall not be subject to payment of royalties by the Publisher to the Author."
First, a comment about the royalty amounts. These are more or less typical for trade paperback and hardcover, although 8% is not unheard of for the first print run either. When you get into mass market paperbacks it's not uncommon for the royalty percentage to be 6-8% and when you get into print-on-demand companies like iUniverse the royalties may be in the 25% range, which is also not uncommon in electronic publishing.
The point there being that although there are "industry standards" for royalties, there's typically a range and that range is negotiable. As you can see it's common for the royalty rate to go up the more books you sell. There are also "elevator clauses" although I have never had them, that more or less says if your book suddenly goes crazy and sells a million copies you'll get a bonus of some sort in addition to all the extra royalties. I've even heard rumors that some regular bestsellers have clauses indicating bonuses if they end up on various bestseller lists.
Second, let's examine this part of the clause: "..all copies thereafter of all moneys actually received by the Publisher from sales of said Work after all returns and allowances..."
Here you need to think a bit about how the book business works these days. A publisher prints the books, sticks them in a warehouse, then informs the distributors (Baker & Taylor, Ingram, et al) and bookstores that your book is now available. The bookstores order them from the distributors. The books are delivered to the bookstore. The bookstore pays for those books, somewhere in the range of 40%-60% of the list price of the book (I don't have the exact figure), and then tries to sell the book. If they sell the book, great, they take their profit off the top and pay their bills. If the book doesn't sell and they eventually decide they need to make room on their bookshelves for better selling books, they return the books to the distributor/publisher and get a refund on the amount they paid. My understanding is they take a 10% hit and the publisher pays for UPS to deliver the books back to the distributor. (Which makes me think that if you want to make any money in this business, either own a warehouse or own UPS).
So, back to that clause. What this means is, when a publisher decides to pay you royalties--typically two times a year although some large publisher might actually do this quarterly--one of the things you might see on your nearly incomprehensible royalty statement is: "Held on returns" or something similar. What this means is they're not paying you all your royalties. What the publisher is doing is holding back on some of the royalty money because they expect a lot of your books are going to get returned from the bookstores and they're going to be refunding money to the bookstores. This is often 10% ... although that's not a given. I had lunch with an author friend and an editor a few years ago and the author was claiming that his publisher was holding back about 90% against returns. The editor sympathized, but said they'd loosen up at the next royalty period. I mentioned this to my agent who thought they must have both been mistaken. I don't know, but given my own experiences with publishers, it wouldn't surprise me if that's how they did it. Again, this is a policy that decreases the risk for the publisher.
As Joe Moore, The Great and Terrible, suggested in yesterday's comments, I need to mention sell-through. Sell-through might have belonged in the advances piece. Here's the thing about royalties that you really need to keep in mind. Ready?
Publishers don't expect to pay you any.
Yeah, I know. "What?" you say. "Are you crazy?"
The answer to that is, "Yeah, I'm a novelist." As mentioned yesterday, publishers base their advances--in theory--on how many books they expect to sell. Sort of. Because in reality, most books don't earn back their advances. "Sell-through" is the term used to describe the percentage of your first print run you sell, or, in other words, how much of your advance you earn back. And here's the key: publishers believe that 70-80% sell-through is terrific.
NOT, we should point out, selling all your books and going onto another print run. That's fantastic all right, it just doesn't happen all that much. Publishers increasingly look at an author--especially a first-time author--and evaluate his or her's "success" based on sell-through. You sold 60% of your books, not so good. 70%, pretty good. 80%, great. Anything more than that, Boy Howdy, Hallelujah!
But where in there are royalties calculated? Hmmm...
Which brings up the sell-through corollary. Let's take two authors. One's novel sells 1000 copies in the first 6 weeks of being on the shelf, then dies off completely and doesn't sell anything else the rest of the year. Author #2, however, whose novel came out the same day, has a much slower start, but sells gradually over the course of the year and by the end of the year sells 1000 copies. Which author is more successful?
The one that sold 1000 copies in the first 6 weeks.
There's a term to describe this, but I don't remember what it is. Something to do with velocity. Anyway, the typical shelf life of a novel is about 6 weeks. This didn't use to be the case. But back in the 1980s or 1990s the government passed a tax law making it more difficult for companies to write off excess stock kept in the warehouse. This was meant to prevent companies like Black & Decker from keeping electric drills in the warehouse indefinitely, writing them off on their taxes forever. What it did to publishers was make them remainder books in the warehouses a whole hell of a lot faster and push to get those books off the shelf in about 6 weeks.
Remainder is another publishing term meaning they unload their warehoused books for about a buck a copy to whoever will buy them--often the authors--who then try to sell them for a couple bucks. Those that don't get remaindered get delivered to a pulper or shredder where they're turned into attic insulation. At the bookstore you see these books selling for about half price, but the bookstores still run a profit on them. Now, if you look at the clause way up there above, you'll see that the author, however, gets bupkis.
This is going on forever, but I want to mention all the interest in electronic publishing, particularly as it regards the Kindle. Amazon is selling novels for the Kindle at about $10 a copy. It's not at all clear to me how these royalties are working out. The publishers are complaining that the price is too low, but Jeff Bezos, the Grand Poobah of Amazon claims he's merely selling them at the price consumers are willing to pay. (From an outside perspective, Bezos is almost single-handedly revolutionizing the publishing industry by doing this).
With e-publishing there's no returns. There's no printing costs. Publishers are whining that they still have expenses and overhead. (And has anyone ever wanted to suggest that publishers cut their overhead, especially those whose offices are in New York City, one of the most expensive real estate markets in the world? One of my clients' offices were on Park Avenue. A year or so ago they moved to Newark. I bet that helped their bottom line a lot, although I think it also increased the number of people pushing for telecommuting).
I suspect that e-publishing is the wave of the future. We'll still have paper books, but not as many of them. And e-publishing might very well get rid of remainders and print runs and sell-throughs and holding against returns.
Again, I might have missed something or been too general, so if anyone has any comments, please share them here.
Monday, March 02, 2009
Publishing Basics, Part I: Book Advances
March 2, 2009
I'm going to write a series of hopefully short posts about various components of the book publishing business as I have experienced them. Readers with different experiences, please jump in here.
It stands for "advance against royalties." This basically means a publisher gives you money when you sign the contract. You have to earn that money back before you start earning royalties.
Let's say your book will be published in hardcover and will sell--just to make this math easier--for $20. If your royalty is 10% you will get $2 per copy sold. If you get a $10,000 advance, you need to sell 5000 copies before you get any royalties.
The advance is based on how many books your publisher thinks it can reasonably sell.
Okay, that's the basics as it exists in a textbook format. Here's where things get a bit more nuanced.
First, working backwards.
The advance is not necessarily based on what your publisher thinks it will sell. It is based on what your publisher thinks it can get away with. If you're a bestselling author, they're trying to keep you happy, so they'll put money in big bags and catapult them at your agent in hopes you don't go somewhere else. It has little or nothing to do with sales. It's a bribe, a sweetener, an incentive, whatever you want to call it, the publisher wants to make you happy and they'll pay for the privilege, within reason. Publishers often lose money on celebrity books because they had to pay a bunch just to get the movie star to sign the deal. It didn't have much to do with the number of books sold.
A small press may offer nothing as an advance. Or very little. Because they don't have very much to spend. They offer an advance not because they want to, but because it's industry standard and they want to be considered to be part of the industry standard. So their advance might be $1000 or $3000. What they're doing basically is minimizing their risk. It's okay for the writer to work on spec and gamble with their time, but the publisher has no desire to do so with their money, so, when possible, they don't.
Your royalty is based on the price of the book ... sort of. This depends a lot on the language of your contract, and it gets into words like "net" and "gross" and "retail sales" and it all gets confusing. Is your book discounted? Do you still get 10% of the price of the book if it's sold 30% off? Is the 10% actually on the price of the book or the price of the book as purchased by the bookseller from the distributor?
That last sentence is key, because that's often the case. In other words, your book is priced at $20, but the bookseller gets it from the distributor for, maybe, $10. Sometimes that's what your royalty is based on. Not 10% of list price, but 10% of retail price. This is why agents earn their money. They look out for these sorts of things.
You get your advance in one big chunk. Sometimes. If you've written your entire manuscript--first novel--and they offer it that way, yes. On multi-book contracts it's often a third on signing, a third on turning in a portion of the novel (or turning in all of the novel), and the final third on either turning in the completed manuscript or in some cases when the book is actually published. As Robert Benchley once said, "Writers are paid per word, per hour or perhaps."
I would also add that, publishers being publishers, accountants being accountants, and agents being agents, that you can turn in your completed manuscript, your editor can get around to reading it at his or her leisure before approving the remainder of the advance, which will then wend its slow-ass way through the publisher's accounting system, then a check will be cut, mailed to your agent, who will cash it, and send your portion on to you. Which can take some time, believe me.
So much for a short post. Tomorrow: royalties.
Sunday, March 01, 2009
Putting Yourself Out There
March 1, 2009
Something somewhat unusual happened to me yesterday. An agent I've had contact with before but never really worked with contacted me regarding a potential ghostwriting/collaboration project. Nothing, of course, may come of that, but she had read a couple of my nonfiction book proposals, she knew me from her blog and we've spoken on the phone once. She knew my background and apparently thinks I would be a good match for this.
Sometimes this happens.
I was contacted by the editor of a publication similar to one of my regular clients and asked if I would be interested writing for them as well.
I was hired by a couple doctors to write a book proposal late last year. They knew me via my articles in publications they also wrote for, because I'd interviewed them many times, and because they asked the editor of our mutual publisher who he would recommend and he said me.
It's very nice when it happens, even if it doesn't always work out.
It seems to me that this sort of thing happens to writers a fair amount. I'm thinking of my friend Tobias Buckell, who got slotted to write a couple of HALO tie-in novels. I don't know the details of how he got those gigs, but I'm sure part of it was he or his agent running into the people involved and making themselves available and letting it be known he was interested.
I see a fair number of people who write a lot of short stories get called on to add a short story to an anthology by invitation, or get chosen to edit an anthology.
I suppose part of this is networking, but I also think part of it is just putting yourself out there, doing good work, being involved, and being willing to do these things. You have to say "yes" a fair number of times to things even if they're a pain in the ass, because if you become known as the person who always says "no" then people will stop asking. (Sometimes you just have to say no. I was asked a year or so ago if I would help organize ThrillerFest and I gave it some thought and decided I just couldn't donate that kind of time, which begins to resemble a full-time job toward the end. Still, I did give it some thought, I didn't just say no).
Some of this might mean volunteering. I volunteer to write profiles/interviews for the International Thriller Writers, Inc. newsletter. Sometimes it drives me crazy, but it doesn't take much time and sometimes I have really terrific conversations with other writers, and to me it's worth the trouble right there (most of the time). Will it pay off later? No clue, and that's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it because I can and because I like having these author profiles in my portfolio, although to-date I haven't done anything with them in terms of marketing. But I might, you never know.
Anyway, the longer you stick around, the longer you you stay open to these things, some good things may come your way out of the blue. And hopefully I'll be in a position to pass some of that good karma forward to other writers someday.