“Millions” in writing advice, paid out in pennies


Practical Art: On Teaching the Business of Creative Writing

Fine advice for writers – especially those in or graduated from one of the many MFA programs – but a bit too wordy with not enough practical advice. Sort of like grad school itself.

An apprentice artisan observes the economic realities of his or her discipline. My father and grandfather were carpenters. They built homes and remodeled bathrooms. They worked when other people slept or relaxed. They had to create things that were beautiful and useful in order to make money to help feed their families. Their profession required the synthesis of artistry and practicality.


Blockheads – or Bust!

English: Diagram of venture capital fund struc...

English: Diagram of venture capital fund structure for Venture capital (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just read a report from ReadWriteWeb.com (“Growing Your Business in the Modern Economy: 6 VCs Weigh In”) about what venture capitalists look for in a start-up. I like reading such reports because they remind me why I stopped working for businessmen – I used to watch The Apprentice for reminders but Trump decided to go all political on us. Mainly, communications from capitalists – and nowadays they are all venture capitalists – spell out what is so ultimately FUBAR about their way of doing business.

The paper’s writer makes it clear how VCs see themselves:

One gambles with the expectation of loss, and the delight of having cheated expectations when one wins. Taking risks, on the other hand, comes with the expectation of success. If you fail, it often means that the risk was not properly managed.

In other words, VCs see themselves as different from ordinary gamblers. No Gamblers Anonymous meetings for them! They only put their money down for 100% Guaranteed Winners! This is the mindset of the Bain Capitalist – that frat boy who is gonna turn his daddy’s millions into billions.

In fact, one of the investors the writer consults speaks to that type of greed:

When we spoke to institutional investors, the biggest challenge for their portfolios was growth. Their challenge was getting that 50x to 100x they could get when they bought Symantec or McAfee or Microsoft or Apple.

Ah, the budding Mitt Romney thinks to himself, if only daddy had bought one of those companies. I would already be rich beyond my wildest dreams of avarice!

I like to call people who think like the target audience of this report The Blockheads, the “risk”-taker who has to convince himself that his bet isn’t a bet at all but a Sure Thing – because the imagined rewards are so big. It’s the mindset of the publisher who will only option a book if she thinks it will make her as much money as optioning Stephen King or J. K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer – had she done so. It’s the mindset of the “fan” who chooses which movie to watch based on its expected box office receipts – and thinks a film is good because it made over $100 million its first weekend. And The Blockhead is the VC’s investor of choice because he’s stupid enough to believe anything providing he’s told he’s not stupid at all. That’s really what he’s investing in – someone to tell him he’s smart and a winner, but if you have to give someone money to tell you that… well, you figure it out.

(Not that I think I’m smarter than they are. No, not at all.)

Unusual Inspirations


Fiction (Photo credit: Eat your greens!)

Sporadic posts for a few months, then – two in two days. What is wrong with me?

Here’s what’s wrong with me: I’m moving. My friend & roommate bought a townhouse and we are packing up 20 years of accumulated furniture, two lifetime’s worth of accumulated books (collected by two voracious readers!) and moving there by the end of the month.

Here’s what else is keeping me busy: I’m in the middle of proofreading/editing a book on how to build community – an essential topic in the era of Occupy – that the author and his friends/colleagues want to revise and publish in a new edition. This started out a job but as I “read” the book I’m getting intrigued by its ideas and theories. The original title was Genuine Dialogue and Real Partnership: Foundations of True Community.
Here’s what else has me too busy to blog: I just completed (well, nearly completed) a revision of the Fiction International website because the old one was looking dated.

Here’s my other “too busy to blog” excuse – and it’s a big one (though not as big as boxing books): I’m right in the middle of revising the look of David Brin’s website. In fact, the new look isn’t up yet, though it will be within a week or two weeks. He’s revising his site because he has a new science fiction novel coming out in June called Existence. (If you promise not to share it with anyone, here’s a sneak peek at his new look.)

You might think that this listing is designed to excuse my break in blogging. It’s not; it’s really about the importance of revising things other than drafts – already-published books, websites, a home. It’s also about learning something important about my writing habit:

The break in blogging occurred when I had almost nothing to do but write. Paradoxically, when I’m the busiest I’ve been in months I suddenly start blogging – and writing fiction – again. I think this teaches me something about myself: clearing time from my schedule to write is counter-productive.

The false “debate” about SOPA

Hollywood and some “quisling” artists want us to believe that intellectual property theft is pervasive, and that we must urge Washington to pass SOPA. They have been so skillful at spreading their alarmist propaganda (it is Hollywood, after all, the birthplace of modern propaganda) they even have a friend of mine convinced that if she starts a blog thieves will steal and sell her posts.

I did not make her up. And she’s not stupid, just very suggestible.

Hollywood liberals and Washington DC conservatives might seem like two different species, but in reality they are two sides to the very same coin. (Look at a coin. See that it has two completely different sides?) Both Hollywood and DC are cities that exist to feed – and exploit – people’s fears. They manufacture fear like Detroit manufactures cars – on an assembly line and according to a schedule, and despite popular opinion they operate more in concert than in opposition. They use fear like any predator does – to get the prey animals (that’s us) to react in predictable ways: noise on the left startles prey into moving to the right (or vice versa, which is the DC scaremongering model) while noise in front (horror movies, Hollywood’s specialty) scatters the herd – so they lose the advantage of numbers.

Of course, we prey animals don’t always act upon instinct. After all, we are not that different physiologically from the predators who exploit us, but they have tamed us enough with entertainment and false camaraderie – Hollywood’s other product, the one designed to lull us into complacency so they can ensure we remain prey between bouts of fear-induced panic.

So fear-mongering doesn’t always work as intended. But if the fear the predators manufacture doesn’t succeed in getting the prey into moving in the direction they want, they wait a few weeks or months and try again. Sooner or later we will go where they want and do what they want.

Which is why the SOPA arguments are so interesting. Hollywood wanted it; DC tried, but the herd didn’t tack as directed. We seem stubbornly resistant to this particular fear-mongering. No matter. As Chris Dodd says in this interview,

Here’s the good news: No one’s arguing about whether the theft of intellectual property needs to be dealt with. The question becomes, how?

[The technology community] globalized the issue, made it [about] freedom of speech and breaking the Internet. It’s [rather] a question of whether the hard work of the creative community ought to be protected.

Who is Chris Dodd? He’s past master of the DC fear machine and current spokesman for Hollywood’s fear-mongers. He recently replaced Jack Valenti as President of the MPAA – you will see Dodd make a brief appearance at tomorrow’s Oscar ceremony – but before that he was “the longest-serving Senator in Connecticut’s history.” Hollywood, meet DC. (Oh – you’ve already met him. See Dave.)

Yes indeed, it is a conundrum. How do you get people to believe your lie when it’s such an obvious one? Dodd – and by extension Hollywood – seems determined to continue trying to convince the herd to move toward their lie that they are trying to prevent theft. And who is for theft? Why, it’s even mentioned in the ten commandments!

Sorry, herd – it’s a fear noise. The internet “battle” isn’t being waged because people want to “steal” from the artist, it’s because the artist no longer wants to agree to a system where the chain of businessmen above them take the lion’s share of the money made from their art. Everyone knows artists make the smallest percentage from their art. It’s the studio heads and network owners and publishers – the owner class – who take the big money. Read the Dodd article carefully – what he’s trying to prevent is excessive profitability moving out of grasp of business and – not into the artist’s pocket. Instead, it remains in the consumer’s pocket.

These guys and gals in the non-creative side have had the artists in a vise for years, and they don’t like it that some artists did the math and discovered that a half a cent per song sold is about what they receive from a big record label anyway, so they might as well take the 1/2 cent per download that iTunes will give them and screw the studio system out of their “profits.” Same goes with the 99 cent book and the “pirated” DVD that Hollywood is holding onto in order to create a false scarcity.

I mean really – who knew that an artist could do math?

But there’s another issue at stake for the owner class: They are threatened with the loss of all that excess profit they gain from maintaining their artificial scarcity business model.

In actual manufacturing there is a very real threat of scarcity. Detroit can only manufacture so many cars, for example, and this limitation created scarcity. But anything existing in the “cloud” economy where, theoretically, an infinite supply exists. This should mean that demand will never outstrip supply, but the owner class is used to the scarcity model, so they are trying to legislate control of the demand.

No one would need to “steal” (their word) a movie or a television show if Hollywood (or New York, to be more precise, since that’s where film and television and publishing are headquartered) would simply distribute the damned thing a little more liberally, but they don’t because they are hooked on artificial scarcity.

Remember when the Harry Potter books first came out? The publishers wanted to maintain a by-now-nonexistent time lag between a London publication date and a U.S. publication date, but fans circumvented their delay and ordered the U.K. edition. In fact, so many fans ordered it from overseas that Scholastic Press rushed up the publication date and afterwards the books had worldwide simultaneous premieres…

… which increased their sales! But did the owner class learn the lesson? No! They still try to create artificial scarcity, but now they want to pass SOPA (or whatever it will be called when they next re-introduce it) so consumers can be arrested for not honoring their artificial scarcity business model, and artists/website owners can also be arrested – for eliminating the need for an owner class.

It used to be that studios and publishers and the like performed some service for the artist. They arranged for publicity and did the editing and manufacturing/publishing. Now they perform none of these services – they even have the customer conned into purchasing their own hand-held printing/recording machine so they don’t have to manufacture as many items – but they still want to be paid as if they still do perform a service.

The new economy didn’t just eliminate the need for a middle class. We no longer need owners. Predators are redundant – and they’re annoying besides. Let’s stop behaving as prey. Stop feeding the beasts!

More zombies

The zombies are coming after me again! Since writing my first “zombie” post I’ve had two encounters with zombies.

First, the other night I had a “zombie story” dream. This particular zombie dream was similar to others I’ve had: There was an adorable preschool boy who was a zombie, and his parents were anguished because of it. They could not kill him – could you kill your own son? They wanted to comfort him, and in the end they did. Yes, it meant he would bite them and they would also be zombies, but he was their little boy!

Then I woke up and realized two things:

    It would make a compelling story.
    It would never be sold because editors only publish “plucky survivor” zombie stories.

See? Sort of the opposite of the “elusive room” dream, where you search and search for a room in a dream that you can easily find in real life. My “adorable zombie” story works in dreams but selling it as a concept is elusive.

Then I came across this offer to take one of my photos and re-design it into a zombie photo. Perhaps not in time for Valentine’s Day, but ideal for any couples occasion. Again, this disconnect between people’s fondness for “adorable” zombies when there’s no market for a story about one.

Why won’t agents and publishers consider a novel with zombies as protagonists?

Three readers = three interpretations

I find it fascinating that a group of people can read the exact same text and each one can take a different meaning from it.

Take this interview, for instance: I was led to it by Seth Godin, who found in it a “right” and “wrong” interpretation of what an “author’s job” should be. Godin’s take was that he disagreed with Raab, who interpreted her job as being: “The most important thing an author can do is have his or her book in on time.” (At least that’s Raab’s belief according to the interviewer, Jeff Rivera, who is the original reader of Jamie Raab, publisher.)

But that’s not the interpretation I had when I read the interview. The first thing that caught my attention was that Ms. Raab had originally majored in something entirely unrelated to books – City Planning. It interested me because it’s an anomaly. One would expect a business or literature major to go into publishing, but a city planner? I’m now intrigued by how she ultimately became a publisher.

For me (a writer) Raab represents a mini-lesson in the “chaos” of character-building, because as a writer I find such anomalies make for a more interesting “character” – which is essential when creating a protagonist, skillful when creating secondary characters, and distracting when creating background characters.

But that wasn’t what interested the other two readers. For Mr. Godin (a philosopher) her major was irrelevant, because his focus was on a perceived anomaly in the job description (what’s “the most important thing a publisher can do”). His interpretation represented a mini-lesson in the “chaos” of the publishing industry in the midst of a transformation – a topic which also fascinates me.

And for Mr. Rivera, the interviewer (a reporter), the major was also irrelevant. It was an item on a list of background information. He didn’t ask a single question about it, for example (or at least not for publication), but focused on the business aspects of her job, on how successful publishers make money from authors and books.

Why care that three readers gleaned three insights for three reasons? Because of what it tells me about the differences between writers.

Mr. Rivera is paid to be interested in certain topics, and if that’s not what interests him as a person we aren’t supposed to know that. He’s a reporter: his product is an interview.

Mr. Godin is also paid to be interested, but his specialty is the philosophy of the internet. As a philosopher, what interests him is his product.

I am paid to create interesting characters and utilize their anomalies in fiction. I would never create a protagonist that’s a publisher (because in my world they are never protagonists!), but the anomalies in Ms. Raab’s character – how she started out on one career trajectory but wound up in a completely unrelated field – would work for any protagonist. A detective. Or a spy. Or a zombie.

And who knows? I might need an anomalous publisher-character as a secondary, and she may well be based on my interpretation of Ms. Raab.

“Not all who wander are lost.” – Gandalf

How I became a Runaway Serfer

I didn’t start out as a Runaway Serfer. I originally wanted to change careers.

I was working as Executive Administrative Manager at a biotech company and hated it (hint: they are vivisectionists!). I had originally wanted to write, and abandoned it for personal reasons, and since I still wanted to write, I quit my job one summer day to ease back into writing, re-enroll in graduate school, teach elementary education as my new profession, and create a few writing websites on the side. (I’m a multi-tasker!)

Six weeks later: 9/11/2001.

In the years while I obtained my teaching credential and earned my MFA, the world – and both my planned professions – changed.

  1. Elementary education changed from wanting to educate to wanting to test children. (Might as well have stayed with the vivisectionists!)
  2. The internet morphed into social media, meaning simple websites were not so simple anymore and weren’t the only formats a writer needed.
  3. Graduate school turned out to be a lot more interesting than I had imagined (when I left it was a place to get a degree to impress agents and publishers).
  4. And September 11 really did change everything, and not in a good way

I re-emerged into a society that didn’t want to employ someone my age, then didn’t want to employ anybody, really.

So now I’m learning how to be a Runaway Serfer (a Serf without a Master).