My Fiction Site

In the right sidebar are clickable images of the covers of my novels, which will take you to their Amazon listings. Other posts will link to available free works – mostly shorter ones – and assorted thoughts on the writing of fiction.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Indie Writers' Movement Part 3: Prisoners

The Prisoner is my long-time favorite among television serials: for its originality, for its consistently excellent scripting and acting, for the presence of Patrick McGoohan, and for its exploration of the meaning of freedom, a thing of inestimable value to me. Over the decades that have passed since McGoohan's iconic production first graced the small screen, nothing even remotely comparable for theme, quality, or style has emerged.

It brought home to me the magnitude of one of the worst sins of modern fiction and its practitioners: our propensity to leap onto the current bandwagon as if we were incapable of an original thought. It's saddening beyond measure that that sin against one's own imagination has become just as prevalent among indie fictioneers as it is among conventionally published writers.

A few years ago, when I was also maintaining Musings of an Indie Writer, I wrote:

Fiction, like other forms of entertainment, is frequently afflicted by fads. Readers of contemporary fantasy are already aware of the fads for vampire and werewolf-oriented stories. Science fiction recently experienced a fad for stories about the extremely far future, and before that, what a friend called the “my artifact is bigger than your artifact” trend. And of course, “high” (medieval) fantasy often seems like one enormous, decades-long fad for quest adventures.

Many a writer will hop onto a fad in the hope of gathering a little of the gravy while it’s still flowing copiously. Being a devout capitalist (among other things), I cannot and shall not condemn such writers; they’re following the star most important to them. But the samenesses of faddish currents in fiction don’t speak well to the creativity of the participating writers.

Of course, a genre can experience two or more fads concurrently. Right now, contemporary (a.k.a. “urban”) fantasy is enduring trends for zombie-oriented stories, along with all the dreck about werewolves and vampires. Possibly it started with the “Resident Evil” series of video games, which were enormously popular and spawned an equally popular movie series starring the beautiful and talented Milla Jovovich. One way or another, we’re being overrun with zombie fiction. It’s become a campy motif: We have parodies such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the hilariously funny movie Zombieland, op-ed essays that use a plague of zombies as one pole of a sociopolitical comparison, and assorted bits of humor such as the bar that posted, as a reason to drink there, that it’s well prepared for the “Zombie Apocalypse.”

...and so forth. But leave aside for the moment the readiness of the reading public to consume mass quantities of fiction about vampires, or zombies, or whatever. What accounts for writer Smith's decision to produce such material, given that there's already so much of it out there?

Smith might be personally fascinated by the central motif of the fad. Or he might think he has a truly original idea for exploiting it. Or he might be a hack, who just wants to slurp up a trickle of the gravy from a booming subgenre. Or -- and this is the part that fascinates and saddens me, because my review of other indies' works makes it seem the most likely explanation -- he might not have any original story ideas, but wants to write anyway.

If you have no original ideas, why write? Why inflict your story on a reading public that has seen too many such already? Isn't the first lesson of success in business -- any business -- that you must "differentiate the product" -- ?

As for the "striking experience," here's the morning's illustration of how desperate many readers are for something they haven't seen before:

I don't wish to comment on the main topic, which I have never seen and do not intend to amend that fact. Your "about the author" made me laugh so loud it made my children come running. Keep writing. You've got your "writers' voice" you just need to find your wider audience. And you will good sir, you will.

The sweet woman who penned that comment wasn't even interested in the subject matter of my article. She was merely surfing PJ Media and her eye caught on my piece: specifically my "About the Author," which I copied from my SmashWords profile page.

What tickled "Katherine in RB" so greatly? She's probably seen as much humorous prose as any casual Web reader. My self-deprecating pseudo-bio -- alright, yes, I do have bad acne and crooked teeth, but I have no effect on local property values...I think -- isn't even all that funny. But it's a contrast to the praise so many indie writers have heaped upon themselves, to say nothing of the plaudits they award their own books.

Lack of imagination and "bandwagoning" even afflict writers' self-descriptions.

Yes, there are considerable risks involved in striking out on a wholly new path. For one thing, you can fool yourself about the degree of originality of your ideas. For another, they might not provide sufficient substance for a novel-length story. And for a third, there might not be any readers interested in the motifs you've employed or the themes you've chosen to highlight; as one who writes explicitly Christian-themed science fiction and contemporary fantasy, I know that particular risk very well. But there's an even greater risk in blandly following the crowd.

The crowd has power but no mind. Its decisions are approximately random, and often randomly destructive. By submerging yourself in it, you surrender your imagination, your latitude of action, and your self-respect. Should the crowd take you somewhere you'd rather not go, there'd be no guarantee that you'd be capable of freeing yourself.

If we eschew original thought for the current fad and its evanescent appeal, we cease to be independent minds. We become prisoners of others' decisions. Is that a status to which an "independent" writer should aspire?

Food for thought.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Indie Writers' Movement Part 2: Room For Everyone

If anything is likely to promote the independent writers' movement from "promising" to "has hit the big time," it's most likely to be independent publishing's absence of barriers to forms, motifs, and themes disfavored by conventional publishers.

Of course there are no such barriers in indie fiction. Who is there to erect and defend them? Writers won't do so against themselves, while publishers, publishers' editors, and literary agents are completely excluded from the field. So elements and approaches of all sorts that would never be accepted by Pub World will proliferate in indie fiction to the extent the market will bear.

That is: as far as "the market will bear" and no farther. When no one stands between the creator and the consumer, the market is the sole arbiter. Those who attempt to defy the market simply won't sell. Over time they'll cease to try. New entrants, observing what works and what doesn't, will emulate the successful, as is the case in all commercial arenas. And of course, as tastes change, so will the market's winnowing dynamic.

Here's a quick survey of the currently most conspicuous divergences between Pub World fiction and the indie world:

1. Military fiction.

During Tom Clancy's glory years, Pub World grudgingly made room for his sort of military-adventure fiction for a simple reason: it brought millions of men back into the fiction market at a time when all the major publishers were hurting badly. However, it's noteworthy that they had to have their self-inflicted wound rubbed in their faces. Clancy's first, overwhelmingly successful novel of naval adventure, The Hunt For Red October, was rejected by every major publishing house and no small number of lesser ones. Only after it was picked up by the Naval Institute Press and became a multimillion seller were Pub World's major players willing to concede that they might have overlooked a profit opportunity.

But note: since the decline of Clancy's market power -- which preceded his demise by some years, sad to say -- Pub World's attitude toward military fiction has reverted approximately to its previous condition. Whether that's because no one of Clancy's stature has arisen since he, Stephen Coonts, and Dale Brown dominated the field is impossible to say, but with so little military adventure coming from the big houses, we cannot be sure.

2. Masculine protagonists and feminine leading ladies.

Gender-war feminism and Robert Conquest's Second Law have worked upon Pub World's purchasing patterns to eliminate, for practical purposes, traditionally manly men and feminine women from their offerings. This is in part due to the rise of "tough chick lit," in which a heroine with traditionally masculine assets, including physical strength and courage, uses them to prevail in a conflict that would once have centered on a male hero. However, even in stories that lack a "tough chick" protagonist, we seldom see a female Marquee Character who's feminine by the standards that prevailed before the rise of gender-war feminism.

It's not impossible to create a strong, brave heroine who's also feminine in outlook and in her relations with men. I've done so. Indeed, I've done so more than once, not merely to demonstrate that it's possible. But you wouldn't know it from the novels that emerge from the Big Six publishers, nor from most of the smaller establishments.

In this regard, the recent tumult within the Science Fiction Writers of America is highly illustrative. For as I mentioned only yesterday, writers' associations are as subject to Conquest's Second Law as any other kind of organization -- and have the added pressure of assisting their members in marketing their products, as well.

3. Freedom.

Given that freedom has come under attack both rhetorically and in practice, perhaps it shouldn't surprise anyone that novels that celebrate it, or that portray protagonists willing to fight and sacrifice for it, are rare among Pub World's offerings.

Writers to whom freedom is a critical theme get very little shrift from Pub World. Hearken to one such writer, whose cri de coeur just happened, coincidentally or otherwise, to appear on Bastille Day:

Things started changing for so many of us in the publishing industry when there was finally a viable alternative to traditional publishing available to us. No longer did we have to keep our mouths shut about how we felt for fear of having our options dropped or of being blackballed in the industry. Still, it was a slow journey into the light. We’d hidden our political beliefs for so long and had been so indoctrinated with the belief that admitting we were libertarian or – gasp – conservative would lose us readers.

But then events started happening that pushed us to the point where we could no longer hold our tongues. Looking around, authors who had been hiding in the political closet for so long saw the new indie authors saying what they thought in social media and on their blogs. Looking at the best seller lists on Amazon, hearts beat a little faster and a spark of hope flared to see authors who shared the same libertarian values these long-silent authors held not only selling their books but selling well.

Clearly, if we go by population movements, there remains a great hunger for freedom. That hunger extends to entertainment, particularly fiction. Longtime readers will be aware that I have a dear friend named Duyen who risked her life and future on a homemade bamboo raft to escape from North Vietnam and find freedom. You'd expect someone like that to be sensitive to the subject when she encounters it in a story...and she is.

Among recognized publishers, only Baen Books has provided an outlet for freedom-promoting, freedom-celebrating fiction. Baen sells a lot of books. Its roster includes some of the most popular SF and fantasy writers at work today. You'd think that, were profit of great interest to Pub World, it would draw the moral. So far, it hasn't.

4. Christianity and Christian Ethics.

This might be the most tragic of all the exclusions practiced by the major houses, in part because of the way it operates. I don't speak here of "Christian fiction" as such, because, not to put too fine a point on it, most explicitly religious fiction of any kind is narratively abysmal and unbearably preachy. There's another aspect to the thing: conventionally published fiction's treatment of religious clerics and religious characters generally. Protagonists with deep, sincere religious convictions are rare; even honorable Supporting Cast members are exceptional.

As I'm a devout Catholic, I'm particularly sensitive to this, but once again, market indications ought to constitute a corrective force even if simple decency is lacking. Taken together, I've sold over 75,000 copies of Chosen One, On Broken Wings, and Shadow Of A Sword, all of which are explicitly Catholic in protagonist and theme. For that matter, one of the best selling novels of all time, The Lord Of The Rings, is explicitly Christian in theme and treatment -- and J. R. R. Tolkien said so right out in front of God and everybody.

Everything Pub World disdains has flowered in indie fiction, as if it had been waiting for the outlet to emerge. Granted, the indie milieu is equally open to the sort of tale Pub World embraces, but that's only as it should be. The point is that the independent writers' movement has room for everyone, that it spurns no one and no kind of story, and that the success or failure of some new subspecies will depend solely on its progenitors' storytelling ability and the market's reaction to their offerings.

A businessman of acuity knows that the most precious of all things is an underserved market segment. Verbum sat sapienti -- and there are more than 1300 such words here.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Indie Writers' Movement And "Writers' Guilds"

Yes, the emergence of the independent fiction writers' movement was a brave and promising thing...back about six years ago, when it first gained steam enough to get noticed. I was certainly pleased to become part of it. I've contributed my modest skills to it ever since, and have seldom failed to be gratified by my readers' responses.

But here we are, several years and many thousands of independently published books and stories later, and it's still mostly a promising thing, rather than a full-blooded competitor for the affections and wallets of readers. The reasons are several: inadequate attention paid to marketing, a persistent crudity of appearance in the product, and, sadly, the prevalence of low quality fiction. And those of us who've given it our hearts and our fondest creations continue to search for remedies.

No, I'm not about to back away from the indie movement. (No one in the conventional world of fiction publication would come near me, anyway.) But I keep wondering what it will take to elicit the sort of support structures -- proficient editing services; high-quality cover designers; marketing and publicity consultants; etc. -- that assist "con-pub" writers. Of course, given the greater revenues that the con-pubbies receive for their efforts, the problem might be that the supports are out there, but priced beyond the typical indie's means. That offers no relief, of course; it just sharpens the frustration.

A comment to Sarah Hoyt's latest PJ Media column speaks as plaintively about the problem as I've found to date:

Wanted 'Indie Writers Guild'!

And as a fan, let say one benie for this proposed 'Guild' would be low cost EDITING. Which is my only real quibble with 'Self Pubing'. I've lost count of the INDIES that I've bought, started and set aside unfinished because of lack of an editor (grammar/plot/character/dialog etc. weaknesses) that made reading through to the end just to much of a chore what with SO MUCH MORE on my list else to read...

So just my 2cents.

(written while attending an Indie Writers Banquet{sitting alone in front of a computer eating a bowl of Ramen})

In a bare hundred words, the commenter has accurately pinned the major faults that retard the acceptance of indie fiction by the reading public -- and in an irony beyond irony, he incorporated four spelling errors, three errors of grammar, two errors in punctuation, one badly run-on sentence, and (for lagniappe) a missing "Oxford comma." Clearly, the lack of affordable editing services is quite serious.

Mind you, there are excellent free-lance editors out there who'll happily rake your work over the coals. I've worked with one: Kelly Tomkies of Columbus, Ohio. They're thorough, they probe plot structures and character development in depth, and they express themselves unabashedly about the flaws they perceive. But they tend to charge amounts near to $1000 for a typical novel-length manuscript: an amount that, while it might not "break the bank," would certainly give the typical indie fictioneer pause, considering his prospects for revenue from his novel.

Similarly, there are excellent free-lance cover artists available as well. My favorite is Donna Casey, a.k.a. "Digital Donna," who's done most of the covers of my books. But the best of them are getting to be expensive, too.

The one area where support for indie fiction seems to be lacking is marketing and promotion, but this might be merely a flaw in my knowledge. At any rate, when it emerges, I'd expect it to be as pricey as good editing and cover design services. Supply and demand play no favorites.

An "indie writers' guild" might contribute to the solution of the editing problem, or it might not. It might become a funnel for high-quality cover-design services, or it might no. It might assist its members with their promotion and marketing efforts, or it might not. Regardless of the verdicts, it would do something else, as well -- something writers with pro-American, pro-Christian, and pro-freedom views must beware:

Robert Conquest's Second Law of Politics:
Any organization not explicitly right wing
will, over time, become left wing.

The forces that bring this about are in plain sight: Whereas righties are mainly interested in enterprise, achievement, and profit, lefties are obsessed with power over others. Therefore, when a position that offers power, even of the only influential or indirect sort, is created anywhere, lefties will pursue it far more ardently than righties, who mostly want *someone else* to take the role and "get the job done." In the usual case, a little time is all it will take for the control of the organization to pass to left-wingers, with all that entails.

We can easily see this dynamic operating in the conventional publishing industry. Hell's bells, I could show you examples from suburban critique groups! So a formally organized "indie writers' guild" would be vulnerable to it, as well.

The only approach that doesn't open itself to left-wing corruption is the smallest and most intimate of all: a small, closed "mutual assistance circle," in which all the members know one another and agree on moral, ethical, and political fundamentals, and to which no stranger is ever admitted. The members must bind themselves -- morally, at least -- to perform mutual critiquing and editing, to assist with cover concepts and design, to perform "mutually assured pimping," and other generally helpful chores on request.

Even this approach has drawbacks. For example, when one member is much more proficient, or much more successful, than the others, the asymmetry can cause considerable tension. But at least it's armored against being suborned by persons with a toxic agenda.

At any rate, the problems will persist as we search for alternate approaches. But so will indie fiction. As Sarah Hoyt points out in her Book Plug Friday column, the sense of freedom is inexpressibly valuable to those of us with stories to tell. It's especially important to those of us with relatives, friends, and neighbors whose ears are already callused over from listening to us.

Apropos of which, all my drivel over at Smashwords is free of charge until the end of July. If you appreciate the gesture, why not toss one or two of my novels a nice review? Thanks.