Thursday, July 16, 2015

Moving On - SFWA

Somewhen about 1977 or so, I joined the writer's organization, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, SFWA. Thirty-eight years ago, and at the time, fairly big deal for me.

The qualifications were, you have to have sold a novel, or two short stories, to an approved, paying market, which back then, meant on of the big publishing houses in NYC, or one of the three or four American SF magazines still alive.

Later, the organization tried to expand its reach to include the rest of the world and add in "fantasy," and the acronym changed, but it didn't really stick. SFWA, pronounced "siff-wah," and there we were.

This joining marked me as a professional writer in my chosen field, and I remember getting the letter from Mildred Downey "Bubbles" Broxon, one of the SFWA officers, telling me I had been accepted as a member, and being absolutely thrilled.

Over the years, there was a lot of wrangling in the organization, this issue or that, and the house magazines, one public, one for members only, carried a lot of back and forth which at times got heated and nasty.

Being a member didn't really get you anything at the street level. The officers worked to improve contracts, they put out how-to stuff, listed markets (which were usually closed by the time the Bulletin or the Forum arrived) and did this and that. Not really a toothless tiger when it came to dealing with publishers for member grievances, but not much past a house cat tom. 

Mostly, it was a boys club, and there were a thousand or fewer members who, at various conventions, would go the sponsored hotel suite to drink beer and grouse about the biz.

Now, the numbers are up and somewhat diversified, though it's still mostly boys who read the stuff ...

Back when there was a perceived problem with George Lucas and Star Wars novelizations and royalties, SFWA, via one of its overzealous officers, actually cost me work. To make a long story short, they included me in the list of people who wanted to face off with Lucasfilm after I had expressly told them not to do so because I absolutely did not want to do that. 

(A faction of SFWA was unhappy about the lack of royalties being offered for novelizations, even though the flat-fee being paid was the highest in the field at the time.)

Suffice it to say, they didn't exactly bring George Lucas to his knees, and there was some fallout when it was done.

One doesn't bandy the term "blacklist" about carelessly, but a bunch of us SFWA members who had been writing for Star Wars doing novelizations and comics and games and such quite successfully all of a sudden weren't getting our calls or emails returned, and that seemed awfully coincidental. My first effort there was way up the NY Times Bestseller list, and I was, I thought, one of their fair-haired writers, but several years elapsed before I was allowed back into the fold. Some of the SFWA'n's never made it back at all.

Well, the responsible party for that is no longer with us, and I won't speak ill of the dead, at least not by name ...

Um. Anyway, each year, I got a guide, a list of the other members, addresses, email, agents active in the field, and that was pretty much what my dues bought me. I never volunteered for office, didn't go to the meetings, and the house organ 'zines were pretty much my only contact with the organization.

Still, I ponied up the dues each summer and stuck around. Some writers I know quit in high dudgeon, rejoined later, then quit again. Lot of 'em in the field have left, or never been members in the first place, and it didn't seem to hurt their sales.

All of which is to say, when the bill arrived this time, I looked at it, and decided that paying ninety bucks a year to be able to say I am a member of SFWA? Not worth it. Outside of that initial rush of being on the list of working pro writers, I'm not sure it was ever really worth it, but I hung in there. Until now. 

Adíos, SFWA.  Mystery Writers of America? You might be next ...

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Perfect Student; the Instant Master; the Rookie of the Year ...

There is a cliche in martial arts, that of the perfect student. Been done forever, and here's the basic version: A young person, boy or girl, from out in the hinterlands, shows up at the martial arts Master's place. Generally not accepted as a student right away, eventually the kid gets in, and s/he is the perfect student. In a matter of months, maybe a year, the student sweats blood, breaks blisters and bones, and learns the system so well that s/he kicks the other long-time students asses regularly, and fights the Master to (at least) a draw. 

Is this possible? In a perfect storm kind of way, yes, one has to allow that it is possible. I can't recall ever seeing or hearing about it in the real world, but maybe I'll win the lottery, too. It could happen.

How likely is it? Probably on a par with winning two lotteries at the same time. That ten-thousand-hour rule doesn't always apply to every thing, all the time, but the logic is solid. If there is a guy who is relatively adept studying and practicing a thing every day for ten years. somebody who walks in the door and can do that thing better in a few months is either some kind of physical genius ... or a fantasy. 

People who like to think it is more likely often point to the Rookie of the Year. Some kid point guard gets drafted into the NBA, he kicks ass and takes names, and outscores a slew of other point guards who have been doing it a long time. Happens every season, doesn't it? and there you go.

Not so much, no.

The newbie in the NBA almost certainly has twelve or fifteen years of practice at basketball. He shot hoops in the driveway or at the gym every day, was on his primary, middle, and high school teams, maybe did a year or four of college basketball, summer camps, and now he's stepped up to the big league. It's a whole other level of skill, top of the pyramid, but he's not some guy on the street who doesn't know a basketball from a bong. Yeah, he has to up his game, but nobody who steps into the NBA and gets to be rookie of the year comes from total inexperience with the sport. Doesn't happen. Or at least it hasn't happened that I can find it. 

More likely is, somebody who has been training for two or three years and who has a lot of talent, can stay with players who have ten or fifteen years of practice, but less natural ability. 
Michael Jordan was a world-class basketball player, some say in the top three or four ever, but he was a lousy baseball player. How we know this is that he quit basketball for a while and tried to play baseball in the minor leagues. He was smart enough to give that up when it was obvious it wasn't his game. Lot of minor league baseball players were way better than Michael.

Because it has been done so often, and because most people involved in MA know this Perfect Student scenario is primarily hogwash, writers have come up with ways to explain how somebody who doesn't know anything about a thing can get better than somebody who knows a whole lot about that thing in a short time. 

Couple quick examples: Tom Cruise, in The Last Samurai. And Bob the Nailer (Bob Lee Swagger), in The 47th Samurai.

In the former, Cruise, an ex-calvary officer from the U.S. is captured while training troops "modern" combat in 19th Century Japan, and over the course of his captivity, learns kendo/iaido well enough to stay with the village's master. 

The set-up is that Cruise is a warrior, turned into a drunk by his experiences in battle, but a hero when he was in the saddle and sober. He's quick, and a natural. Able to handle a sword pretty well, albeit a different kind, so learning a new system,  he has a good general idea of how to move and not get killed. He has to work at it, but after most of a year, he's there.

Iffy, but still, an attempt to explain something that is a stretch. In writing, this is sometimes called "hanging a lantern on it." If a thing is unlikely or even impossible, but you need it to happen, you do it, point it out, and you let it go. 

"Hey! That solid state screen blew up! That's impossible!"

"Yeah, but, dude, look at all that fire and smoke!" 

This is the writer telling readers, I know this can't happen, but I did it anyway, and because I did it like this? You can't bitch about it. 

In Stephen Hunter's 47 Ronin novel, he knows better than to have his old fart hero, who is retirement age and patched together with pins and plates, learn enough in a few hours to beat a bad ass ninja-type sword-on-sword, so he had a cheat. I won't tell you what it is, in case you want to read the book, but it is very clever, and while it probably wouldn't work, I was willing to suspend my disbelief enough to grin and nod when I saw it.

Supposed to be a movie in the works. I sure hope they don't screw it up. 

Mostly, the Perfect Student/Instant Master/Rookie of the Year is not gonna happen, and if s/he does? Better the writer has some clever reason to get away with it than not ...

Monday, April 27, 2015

Marylhurst Instrument Show

Sunday Concert Schedule

Went to the show at Marylhurst as we usually do, and if you were local and you skipped it, you missed a great time. Lots of handmade instruments, guitars, fiddles, basses, charangas, flutes, harps, lutes, banjos, and ukuleles. Great mini-concerts, fifteen minutes each of excellent players showcasing instruments. We saw half a dozen of these, including Travis Stine on ukulele, doing his version of Jake's arrangement of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," on a tenor uke by Mark Roberts.

Three bucks apiece for admission. Can't beat that with a stick ...

Some ukulele-related images:

Woodley White, above

Pat Megowan tenor, above

Mark Roberts ukuleles, above

Kerry Char ukuleles, above

Howard Replogle, Ebi Ukkuleles, above

Mark Roberts, above, with the side-port tenor uke


Travis Stine, above, below, 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Lap Steel Guitar

Hey, check out Mike Byers' new toy, a homemade lap-steel guitar:

Sound sample here.

Way cool ...

Saturday, April 11, 2015

New Urban Fantasy Novel: Stemwinder

So, I am about to finish the copy-edit on the current book-in-progress, Stemwinder: An Urban Fantasy in 4/4 Time. Probably the subtitle and the cover image are enough clues to tell a potential reader there is music involved.

Bear with me and I'll spin you a tale connected to this biz, and a decision to which I have come regarding this particular book ...

So I am past the Geez-what-a-pile-of-crap-this-is! and to the transient stage where It-doesn't-seem-absolutely-awful, and still a ways from the Hey-this-is-better-than-I-remember-it! phase, which usually comes a few years down the line.

(When I look back at some of my early stuff, I am sometimes pleasantly surprised. I wrote that? Wow. That's not bad ...)

Um. Now the decision comes as to what road I should take to get the new novel into the hands of readers. The choices I see are two, and hereunder, a comparison and a conclusion.

Traditionally, I have gone traditional, i.e., I cleaned the ms up, printed out a copy (and later, emailed a copy) to my agent, and went on about my business while she shopped it around and looked for a New York City publisher to buy it. 

Sometimes, I offered up three-chapters-and-an-outline, which sped the process up a bit on the front end. 

When things went well, my agent would make a sale within a couple of months, the publisher would put it into their schedule, and a year or so later, plus-or-minus, the book would hit the racks.

Part of that process involved me getting some kind of advance against future royalties, and this stipend ranged from so-so, to not-bad, to whoa! depending on the project and publisher, and how well I had been selling other books. If the new title sold well, I got more money. If not, I still got to keep the advance.

Um. Anyway, when things didn't go as well in traditional publishing, the book took a long time to peddle, the pub date stretched out to a year-and-a-half or longer, and they divided the advance up into bits that came in three chunks: on-sign; on delivery/acceptance of the manuscript; on-publication. 

When they really didn't go well, the book came home to live on a shelf in Steve's garage. Some times I'd go back and rewrite 'em and try it again; others abide on the shelf still. Few of us bat a thousand.

When the book market crashed for many of us mid-listers in the nasty recession of 2008, I started poking around in early ebookery, and now have a goodly portion of my backlist up in a couple of places, most lucrative one being, where I get a small monthly check for titles long out of print. It's free money, they never go out of print, and I don't have to do anything past the initial listing.

There were a couple of novels my agent didn't find thrilling, so those I also put up as original ebooks, and they sell a few copies, too. Since my publisher no longer wants any of my Matador titles, any more of those I write will go straight to epub, too. 

Now, the either/or:

The good thing about traditional publishing is the advance. The bad things include the process of submission, waiting, wrangling with agent and editor, and elapsed time before the book sees the light of day, plus a short shelf-life.

With ebooks, these are reversed: No waiting, no wrangling, publication the next day, but also, no upfront money. Yes, the royalty rate is much, much better than traditional, unless you are George R.R. Martin or Stephen King, but in my case, the copies sold this way will be smaller in number and spread out over a longer time. At the end of a couple of years, I might make just about as much money in dribs and drabs as I would have in an advance.

Or not. No way to tell.

One of the things about this particular book is that it is skewed toward readers who are musicians. There are things in it that I hope will make singers and players smile, including some lyrics for songs, and gearhead stuff about guitars and ukuleles and amps and such.  I hope that I'm good enough so the gist comes through in context, but it might be that a publisher will worry that non-musician readers won't get it. And if they don't, it therefore might not sell a lot of copies.

I dunno, there are a lot of musicians out there. If 10% of them bought the book, I'd make millions, and the publisher would make tens of millions ...

Thing is, I don't want to take all that material out. I find it interesting, and I can't help but believe that enough readers will also find it interesting so there will be some market for the novel. Again, no way to tell. 

This is where ebooks shine. They allow a me to produce a work that, even if it does have a limited audience, I can still write it like I want without having to worry that I make a traditional publisher sufficient profit to justify their outlay. I don't begrudge them that notion, if you don't make money, it's harder to stay in business, but I am at a stage in my career that writing what I want and saying it how I want to say it is more important than making a lot of money. Who knew I'd ever get there?

So, yes, this will be an ebook, unless a print-publisher comes calling, and agrees to do it as I wrote it, and I won't be holding my breath waiting on that ...

Onward and upward ...