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Friday, October 22, 2021

A Tale of Two Book Covers

I’ve been taking a really deep dive into marketing lately, to try to learn what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong, and where we can improve. The objective of Rampant Loon Press is to get people to buy and read books, after all. That’s our entire, fundamental, raison d'être. If people aren’t reading what we publish, nothing else we do matters.

And to be blunt, sales are a pretty damned good metric for measuring whether or not people are reading and enjoying what we publish. “Likes” and good reviews are all well and good, but numbers are what matter. And our sales numbers are not what I want them to be.

To improve our marketing, then, I have been sitting through a ghastly load of marketing webinars lately. I’ve already developed some pretty strong opinions on what makes for a good webinar. Most of them more honestly should be labeled infommercials, as they have about ten-percent useful content and ninety-percent saccharine enthusiastic fluff combined with pressure to upsell you to the next webinar, where the presenters promise to actually deliver all the information they’d said they were going to deliver in this webinar but didn’t. Fool me once…

Once in a while, though, I get into a webinar in which I learn some useful things and leave with some solid insight into what we’ve been doing wrong and how we can improve. Among other things, one of the areas in which I’ve realized I have been doing things really wrong is in our approach to cover art. 

For example, consider PRIVATEERS OF MARS. While I am not 100-percent satisfied with this art, I thought it got pretty close to the concept I thought would sell the book. If you read the book, this art suits it. The reviewers pretty much all got the concept: this is a sci-fi space western and a novella for people who still miss Firefly and Malcolm Reynolds. I think my favorite reviewer comment was that this book reads like three episodes of a really great TV series you wish someone would make.

If you read the book…

That’s the rub. The print edition makes a great artifact. If you were to see it on the racks in a bookstore somewhere, you’d probably want to pick it up and take a closer look. Once you skimmed page 1, you’d probably be hooked on the characters and the story and want to buy it.

A bookstore. How quaint. 

Unfortunately, here in the second decade of the 21st century most people will never get even close to clicking the Look Inside link (which by the way looks like complete crap; Amazon has changed the way they render Look Inside content again). The way they’ll be exposed to the book will be in the form on a thumbnail, about this big.

What do you see? A brownish blob on a brownish background, with the word “Mars” as the only thing that’s readable? Not exactly enticing, is it? 

Now compare that to this mock-up cover, which I whipped together in about ten minutes using stock art. Between these two thumbnails, which one says “science fiction action/adventure” to you? Which one makes you somewhat more likely to click through to the Amazon sales page, to take a closer look at the book, and at that point, to finally see the opening line of our sales pitch?

Meet Jacob Rhys: scoundrel, brawler, gambler, drunk, and licensed privateer working for the Free Mars State—until the authorities on Ceres seized his ship…  

I liked the original cover. I liked working with the artist, to get a unique, commissioned piece of art that (mostly) represented what I thought would entice people to take a closer look at the book. 

But if I want to sell books in the reality of Amazon’s world, the cover is the first thing I need to change. Perhaps to something more like this: 


Go ahead. Click through. Never mind the “Look Inside” mess; it doesn’t look like that on my Kindle. (If you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber and it does look that bad for you, please, let me know.)

Cover art. Just one of the many things I’ve learned I need to change if we’re to improve sales and reach a bigger audience. Stay turned for more. 

—Bruce Bethke


 

 

 

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Help Wanted: SF Readers

 

Eric Dontigney has just turned in the first draft of his new unabashed space opera, RINN’S RUN. From what I’ve seen of it thus far it’s pretty exciting, but I haven’t had time to read the entire manuscript myself.

Ergo, I’d like to do something a bit different this time. What I am looking for now are four or five people willing to read the manuscript and form a focus group. I am not looking for a close proofreading at this time; this is still a rough draft. What I’m looking for are people who:

  1. Like science fiction. If you prefer fantasy or paranormal romance or something in the vein and don’t usually read SF, this is not the book for you.

  2. Have a little time to spare. This is a full-length novel, about 85K words long. This is not something you’re going to knock off in an afternoon.

  3. Are willing to think in developmental editing terms. As I said, this is a rough draft, so I’m not looking for detailed technical copy editing at this time. What I’m hoping to find are people who are willing to breeze through this manuscript and then answer a few pretty fundamental questions.

    1. What works?
    2. What doesn’t work? 
    3. What bits need further development because they’re either unclear or too short?
    4. What bits need to tightened or cut out because they’re unnecessary or too long? 
    5. And the big one: does the ending work? 


I realize this is asking a lot, so to sweeten the deal, I’ll send a print copy of Eric’s previous novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND to everyone selected to join the focus group, and a signed print copy of RINN’S RUN to every member of the focus group once the book is ready to be released.

Does this sound like something you’d want to do? If so, drop me a line at brb [at] rampantloonmedia [dot] com, and we’ll get the ball rolling.

Thanks!

—Bruce Bethke

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Think Before You Kill • by Marie Brennan

Some authors really enjoy killing characters, and some kinds of story practically require it. But any time you start offing people in a tale, you run the risk of yanking away one of the main supporting beams of the audience’s interest. Many of us engage with the mystery or threat through the conduit of one or more characters, and once those characters are dead, we find ourselves with little reason to care anymore.

So how do you get away with a high body count—and more, how do you make that effective? It’s easy enough to bump off nameless mooks, but also pretty meaningless. We can tell who’s cannon fodder, and we don’t bother getting attached to them. But when you’ve got an ensemble cast of developed characters, and you then start picking them off, it can be powerful storytelling…assuming you don’t lose your audience along the way.

Three principles may help. 

  1. The first is to make it clear to the audience what kind of story you’re telling. Sometimes genre alone will do this for you: if your novel or film is advertised as a war story or slasher horror, then we can guess going in that not everyone will survive to the end. There’s still a risk that our favorite characters will die too early, but at least we won’t be blindsided when it happens. When it comes out of nowhere, too often it feels like the author was going for pure shock value, which is rarely as effective as those authors seem to think.

    When genre alone isn’t enough to wave the flag, it’s worth looking for other devices to signal what’s coming: a frame story, a reference to a prior massacre under similar conditions, an ominous prediction by one of the characters, or anything else that cues the audience’s expectations.

  2. Second, think carefully about who you’re killing. There are some unpleasant patterns around who tends to die early, predictable enough that they’ve been mocked by countless parodies: the Black friend, the gay guy, the girl who’s had sex, and so forth. If you repeat those patterns, there’s a portion of your audience who will quit. They’ve seen it before, and they’re beyond tired of it.

    But this principle isn’t just about the unfortunate habit writers have of tossing in a few diversity tokens and then whacking them. Lots of stories still have Generic McStoicson as their main lead, on the theory that he, as an “everyman,” is relatable to everybody. In practice, though, that guy is often thunderously boring. What life and flavor the story has comes from the characters around him. Once the curtain has dropped on the rest of them, the audience is left with nothing but the protagonist-shaped piece of cardboard, and they start wondering why this guy gets to survive while all the more interesting people die.

  3. And finally, give careful thought to how the characters die. If you’re felling them in mass quantities, then obviously the story won’t have room for the kind of impact—the shock and grief and mourning—that can follow on a single death. The members of your ensemble may go out quite quickly, and sometimes they’ll go out senselessly, because not everyone gets an ending full of meaning and moral.

    Still, you can and should bear in mind what the audience wants for those characters, and not thwart that desire without good reason. Both the page and the screen have far too many examples of intelligent, capable, ferocious women who turn helpless and pathetic the moment their demise is required to further the hero’s story. Don’t ignore someone’s strengths because it’s more convenient that way. And distribute the senseless deaths with a sparing hand; if we’re invested in a character, losing them for no better reason than “it ups the stakes” or “it shows that death can strike at any time” will be deeply unsatisfying. It calls to mind the reaction of the grandson in The Princess Bride: “Jesus, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?!”

    In some ways, the most satisfying deaths can be the ones that go in the other direction. The character who’s been helpless and pathetic all along, but who finds a moment of unexpected strength right before the end? That speaks to us. So does the moment of bonding or support between two characters who have loathed each other all along. Those deaths are memorable because they add something to the narrative, instead of merely taking something away. They leave us feeling like we’ve gotten a return on our emotional investment.

Even with these principles in mind, though, a story that reaps its cast like grain at the harvest still won’t work for everybody. Not all readers or viewers are on board with a story that will slowly whittle the ensemble down to a lucky (or unlucky) few survivors. Some are on board…right up to the moment when their favorite exits stage left, and even if the exit is a good one, that wound proves too much for them. No matter how hard you try to make your whole cast well-developed and interesting—including your central character—you’ll never catch all readers in your net.

That’s all right. Not every story is for every reader. And there are no doubt good stories that violate all the principles above and still manage to work, at least for some portion of those along for the ride. But keeping an eye on these guidelines will increase the chance of keeping your audience to the end.

_____________________

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to The Night Parade of 100 Demons and the short novel Driftwood, and together with Alyc Helms as M.A. Carrick, she is the author of the Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy, beginning with The Mask of Mirrors. The first book of her Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. Her other works include the Doppelganger duology, the urban fantasy Wilders series, the Onyx Court historical fantasies, the Varekai novellas, and over sixty short stories, as well as the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides. For more information, visit SwanTower.com, her Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon at www.patreon.com/swan_tower.


cover art for THE NIGHT PARADE OF 100 DEMONS by Marie Brennan


Tuesday, October 19, 2021

CREATING ALIEN ALIENS: Part 1 -- The Premise and Groundwork

Five decades ago, I started my college career with the intent of becoming a marine biologist. I found out I had to get a BS in biology before I could even begin work on MARINE biology; especially because there WEREN'T any marine biology programs in Minnesota.

Along the way, the science fiction stories I'd been writing since I was 13 began to grow more believable. With my BS in biology and a fascination with genetics, I started to use more science in my fiction. 

After reading hard SF for the past 50 years, and writing hard SF successfully for the past 20, I've started to dig deeper into what it takes to create realistic alien life forms. In the following series, I'll be sharing some of what I've learned. I've had some of those stories published, some not...I teach a class to GT young people every summer called ALIEN WORLDS. I've learned a lot preparing for that class for the past 25 years...so...I have the opportunity to share with you what I've learned thus far. Take what you can use, leave the rest. Let me know what YOU'VE learned. Without further ado...

I have created three universes.

In the first, it’s Humans alone. We genetically engineer ourselves to fit the varied environments we encounter. The overarching conflict is between the Empire of Man and the Confluence of Humanity. The first considers someone Human if they are 65% or more “Original Human” DNA based on the completed Human Genome Project competed in 2003. If you’re less, you’re considered Sub-Human. The second sees ANY genetic manipulation to be A-OK.

In the second, it’s us and mobile plants. Humans have gone deep into space and encountered the WheetAh, mobile plants reminiscent of a mobile giant saguaro cactus crossed with a pitcher plant. The conflict is as obvious as it is inevitable – we eat plants. They eat rodents; hence the pejoratives each lays on the other. We call them Weeds; they call us Weasels.

In the third, we are junior members of the Unity of Sapients, some fifty extremely different intelligences (I can’t say species – as in Kingdom Phylum Class Order Family Genus Species – as there are smart minerals, arthropods, collective, herd, and individual intelligences in the Unity. We haven’t even been certified sapient. (definition: adjective – having or showing great wisdom or sound judgment; Orig –1425–75; late Middle English sapyent < Latin sapient- (stem of sapiēns, present participle of sapere to be wise, literally: to taste, have taste), equivalent to sapi- verb stem + -ent- -ent

So, I’ve written stories in all three universes. How many in each have been published?

Confluence/Empire: I’ve written seven; only one has been published.
WheetAh: Written two; one published.
Unity: Written seventeen, four published…which seems good, until I point out that the four published stories didn’t contain aliens.

So, I CAN’T write believable aliens very well.

Why not?

Writers who have written believable aliens: David Brin, Julie Czerneda, Hal Clement, James White, Alan Dean Foster, CJ Cherryh, Larry Niven, Octavia Butler, SL Viehl, and others that escape me; clearly depict them. But HOW?

I’ve been doing some superficial analysis and it seems that when Humans and aliens interact closely and the alienness is narrowed down to one or two SPECIFIC differences; the ones that somehow cause the problem; that’s when the aliens are acceptable.

For example, CJ Cherryh’s atevi. Basically giant Humans with golden eyes and coal black skin, bipedal, five digits, and sexually compatible with Humans (though not reproductively compatible). They have one clear difference: they have no concept of love. In place of love, they have a profound sense of association. All large, mammalian life forms on the Earth of the atevi have this same biological urge – to associate under one strong leader. The single Human who interacts with them, Bren Cameron, understands this and can speak their language fluently – but he still makes mistakes when under pressure to assume that the atevi “feel” about him as he does about them. This creates countless situations of tension and have driven the story line for some TWENTY novels over a quarter of a century of time. The reason I go back repeatedly is because I want to see what happens next as the Human population grows and the atevi advance in technology and eventually reach parity with Humans; and possibly visit Earth.

Another example is James White’s famous Sector General novels. Twelve novels spanning over thirty years of writing, they depict the life of a small group of Humans on a massive space station away from the “main thoroughfares” of a vast interstellar civilization as they interact with countless alien cultures and medical personnel. Languages, medicine, morality, humor, and emotions are touchstones – and points of conflict – for the series.

So – what have I learned with my brief analysis?

1) Aliens and Humans HAVE to interact closely; intimately. (I tried this with “May They Rest” and it was quickly bounced by five magazines as well as my favorite, to which I’d sold several stories…) In “A Complications of Sapients”, my character and an alien, “cockroach” sapient interacted VERY intimately – and didn’t sell…

2) I need more aliens than Humans. I did this in “Peanut Butter and Jellyfish”, podcast from CAST OF WONDERS. It took place on a trimaran carrying cultural exchange WheetAh. Humans needed to be at a disadvantage. The aliens were at an advantage.
 It was published.

3) It needs to be a BROADLY threatening situation. I think I did this in “The Princess’s Brain”, but I’ve got to go back ad reread it. I DID do this in “The Krasiman, Monkey Boy, and the Frogfather”, but that didn’t sell, either.

So, I’m ready to try something new. Using what I've learned from Lisa Cron's book, WIRED FOR STORY, as well as seriously studying the successful aliens published in books and online and paper magazines...should give me an alien story that will sell. We shall see!

_______________________________________________________

Guy Stewart is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

Monday, October 18, 2021

My sense of empathy is being tested

 

We print fiction writers have a longstanding love/hate relationship with Hollywood. We love the insane amounts of money we can make from having our works adapted to become a successful film or television series. We hate the horrible things Hollywood screenwriters and industry executives do to our brainchildren in the process of turning them into visual media products. 

Over the course of my career I have known at least several dozen writers who have had their books or short stories adapted to become films, and of them all, the only one who was completely happy with the way the film turned out was the one who told me, “They gave me a check for a hundred thousand dollars and took my name off the credits. Their check cleared the bank, so I’m happy.”

Recently though comes this news from Hollywood. The WGA apparently is in crisis, as despite Federal law and lawsuit settlements to the contrary, there is still shameless age discrimination going on in Hollywood! It’s an outrage!

WGA West Career Longevity Committee Demands “Inclusion And Equity” For Older Writers

(“Yeah, tell me about it,” mutters the 40-year-old actress.)

Now, normally I wouldn’t pay any attention at all to what’s going on with the WGA—they are strange and alien people over there—but then this article showed up in my feed this morning:

How to Make Money and Thrive as an Older Screenwriter

It’s an article by a screenwriter, writing for screenwriters, discussing strategies for making money in the face of the systemic age discrimination in the film industry. Some of his suggestions made me laugh—e.g., “Take that original script you can’t sell and turn it into a novel”—yeah, right, you think there’s more money to be made in writing novels

But then this one caught my attention. Paraphrasing now:

Find an older piece of IP that you can option for little or no cost up front, and then get yourself attached to the project as a writer-producer or executive producer. Even if the film never gets made, you (meaning the screenwriter) by WGA rules must be paid a significant amount of cash plus the requisite WGA Health and Pension benefits [emphasis added] for writing the unproduced script.

Oh, boy. That one got my hackles up. I have been on the “original author” side of that transaction before, and what a low- or no-cost screenplay rights option or “shopping agreement” means is that the original author of the intellectual property in question makes nothing until the screenplay actually gets greenlighted and goes into production, or sometimes not even until after the film is finished and released. (And yes, films do get finished and then go into the can, to be released years later, or perhaps never. It happens more often than you think.)

Meanwhile, thanks to the WGA, the screenwriter who adapted the original writer’s IP to become a script most definitely does get paid for the work, at Guild rates, and with health and pension benefits as well.

Hmm. No wonder I’ve been seeing so much interest in my back catalog lately from people claiming to be in the film industry: interest that invariably evaporates as soon as I give them my agent’s name and contact info and tell them that I have absolutely no interest in signing a no-cost rights option or “shopping agreement.”  I will gladly pay you Thursday for a hamburger today. Yeah. Right. Sure.

I’m trying to be empathetic to their plight—after all, even Hollywood screenwriters were humans, once—but I can’t help but find the comments on the linked articles amusing. They break right along the age line. The older readers form a Greek chorus, singing, Yes, absolutely, this is exactly what we need! while the younger readers deliver the antiphon, Ah, shuddup, die, and get out of the way already, Boomer!   

Makes me want to get a big bucket of popcorn, sit back, and watch how this plays out.

—Bruce Bethke

___________________________________

SHAMELESS ADVERT:  If you’re an out-of-work Hollywood screenwriter looking for a book that would make a brilliant film, check out THE MIDNIGHT GROUND! READ IT NOW!



Talking Shop: And Then…After the First Draft • By Eric Dontigney

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

As most of you know, I spent the last few months writing a space opera novel by the name of Rinn’s Run. I chronicled that adventure with my almost weekly Writing Challenge updates. As novels go, that book was written pretty fast. I wrote the bulk of it in about 90-100 days. When you’re writing that fast, a first draft can become somewhat all-consuming. You think about it all the time, even when you’re doing other things. I’d plot out scenes while I was making dinner, or vacuuming, or giving my cat her mandatory 20 minutes of daily affection. I’d toy with phrasing in the back of my head while I was doing my day job writing. I’d think about symbolism while…nah, just kidding. I never think about symbolism. The point is that the book bleeds into every part of your life, if only by simmering in the background.

Then, one fine day, you type “The End” and it’s over. At least, that all-consuming creative push that drove you to write the book in the first place is over. Now, for some writers, there’s a kind of mental staggering that happens after you finish a draft. There is this big gaping hole in your brain where that book used to live. You’re not really done with the book, yet, because editorial notes, revisions, and new drafts are in your future. The key phrase there is “in your future.” Between turning in that draft and getting back the first round of notes, there’s a good chance that you’re treading water and feeling at wit’s end. You feel like you ought to be doing something, but there’s nothing to do.

In that respect, I’m lucky. I had tentative plans for what I’d do next when I first started writing Rinn’s Run. I know there will be a follow-up (or several) to Rinn’s Run. I’ve got a pretty good idea about what happens in the next book. I have 50,000+ words already written on an urban fantasy novel that I need to finish. I have partially completed short stories for my next Contingency Jones book. I have a novella started that I really want to finish before Christmas. I’ve got plenty to do to keep me occupied. The question I’m up against is this: Which project do I focus on next? There is a big part of me that wants to jump straight into writing the next Kalan Rinn book. In fact, I may write the first chapter or two just so I have somewhere to start when I do sit down to write it. It won’t, however, be my next big project. You may be asking yourself a very reasonable, “Why?”

It’s because I know that I have editorial notes and revisions coming my way in the near future. I sincerely doubt that I could knock out a complete draft of the next book before I get those notes. I asked myself if I wanted to be writing the second book while I was trying to polish the first book. The answer is no. They’re too closely entwined. I’d inevitably wind up dragging my editor brain for book one into my writing sessions for book two. You need perspective to do good revisions. You need creative fire to power through a first draft. The two do not mix well. Once I settled on that, the question became what writing would I work on over the next few months. I settled on the mostly completed urban fantasy novel. Again, you could quite reasonably ask, “Why?” Won’t I have the same problem with dragging my editor brain into my writing process?

I don’t think I will. The space opera and the urban fantasy have a couple of fundamental differences that will help me maintain the necessary disconnect. The space opera is told primarily from a third-person perspective. The urban fantasy is told as a straight-up first-person narrative. That alone will do a lot to keep the two processes fundamentally separated in my brain. Second, aside from a couple of tropes common to space operas (FTL, blaster guns, sentient AI), Rinn’s Run doesn’t knowingly break with the laws of nature. Mind you, my knowledge of those laws might have failed me in some way in writing the book, but I did my best to keep it grounded. The urban fantasy, by nature, deals with violations of the laws of nature all the time. I reasoned that, given those differences, the urban fantasy was the safest choice for the next project. Even if finishing it does overlap with the rewrites on the space opera, switching between them should prove a workable situation. 

_______________________________________________

Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at ericdontigney.com.


SHAMELESS ADVERT: If you like Harry Dresden or John Constantine, you’ll love THE MIDNIGHT GROUND. READ IT NOW!

Sunday, October 17, 2021

About that book cover...

 

I’ve come to realize that I respond to a fascinating new idea the way a dog responds when someone says, “SQUIRREL!” In the case of this faux book cover, I was crawling through a stock art collection, looking for an illustration to go with a story, when I ran across this piece of art and was overcome by “Aww, that’s adorable!” I immediately stopped what I was doing and began to think of ways I could make an excuse to use this art. Perhaps I could write a novella to go with it? Or perhaps I could use it as a prompt in a contest? Or maybe, how about if I combine the two ideas and put together a theme anthology chapbook of contest-winning stories inspired by this illo? Or...

Or wait one damn minute. I don’t really have the time to do any of these things. And making the time to do it would mean taking time away from another project that is more central to the Rampant Loon mission. I already have three novels on my desk in various stages of completion, and Eric Dontigney has just turned in the first draft of Rinn’s Run, so I need to get started on reading that.

So, no. Cute idea, but get thee behind me, adorable li’l robot and boy.

But then I took one more look at it, and a more subtle meaning became clear to me. This art appeals to me because it reminds me of my Dad. 

My Dad ended up being a teacher, but deep down, he was a Wisconsin farm boy who came of age during the Great Depression. As such he embodied the DIY ethic to the point of excess, and it stayed with him all his life. Even in his later years, when cash money was no longer hard to come by, he still lived that way. If you needed something, you either made it yourself, figured out how to make do with what you already had, bought something that was almost good enough but a lot cheaper, or did without. And you never threw out anything that might conceivably be useful again some day, even if it was broken.

When I look at this picture, then, I realize that if I had asked my Dad for, say, a robot when I was a kid, that’s what I would have ended up with. He would have taken me down to the basement, handed me an old coffee can, pointed to a bushel basket filled with rusty plumbing fixtures, pinball machine parts, and random bicycle sprockets, and said, “You’re supposed to be so smart. Build it yourself.”

In some strange Lamarckian way he passed that character flaw trait on to me, and it’s profoundly affected the development of Stupefying Stories and Rampant Loon Press. For the past ten years I have been deeply into learning how to do everything here myself, which effectively means that I deliberately, if unintentionally, made myself the bottleneck on the critical path.

No more. This week’s watchword is “delegate.”

Now who here would like to do a development read on Rinn’s Run?

—Bruce Bethke

Econ 101: Opportunity Cost

 

There are plenty of people who are eager to tell you how to write. (Or more accurately, eager to sell you their book/program/webinar/master class/whatever that purports to teach you how to write an award-winning bestselling novel at home in your spare time, without all that messy trial-and-error and practice and learning by doing stuff.) There are almost as many people who are eager to tell you exactly what to write, or when to write, or why to write—

[Actually, that last one doesn’t seem to be a problem. Most successful writers I’ve known only started to wonder about why they wrote what they wrote after they were successful. When they were first starting out, for most of them writing was more of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. As one particularly well-known and award-winning author I knew put it, “Why do I write? Because I can’t not write.”]

Hmm. If the how, what, when, and why are already covered (and then some!), what else could I possibly teach you? How about… 

What not to write! There is an open niche! Now, how do I turn this into a two-hour webinar complete with slide deck and accompanying workbook and follow-on consulting services? Hmm again.

Wait. Whoa. Deep breath.

Somewhat more seriously: I will admit that I am sometimes tempted by the teaching path, from time to time. My parents were both teachers. I did a stint as a TA in college, and another stint teaching in a Federally funded arts grant program, which I’d rather forget. I do get offers to teach writing every once in a while, which usually are withdrawn in haste the moment the offering party discovers to their abject horror that I do not have at least an MFA in Creative Writing. [My God, how did this happen? He somehow managed to become an award-winning and world-famous writer without being properly nobbled and gelded by an accredited university English department! What went wrong?!?!?!]

But I digress. Which is precisely my point.

If I were to take something like a teaching position somewhere, in the English department of some backwater university or small-town college, I wouldn’t want to teach Creative Writing anyway. What I would want to teach would be something like ECON 101: Economics for English Majors. Because one of the things that was really drummed into my head while I was serving on the SFWA Board of Directors, and that has been reinforced by repeated experience ever since, is that most creative writers don’t have a flippin’ clue about how real economies actually work, on a macro scale, a micro scale, or anywhere in between. They can’t even balance their own checkbooks. 

Yet they continue to create fictional worlds in which human societies run on utter economic nonsense—Star Trek is particularly egregious in this regard—and then, if their fiction is successful, they presume to extend their fantastic notions into the real world. After all, it made perfect sense in their imagination.

It is charming, in a childish and naïve way. Sort of like the little kid who tells you he’s going to tie a big bunch of balloons together and fly away to the Moon.

_______________


So let’s begin a conversation about practical and tactical economics, as they apply to writers and publishers. My purpose in writing about these subjects is not to convert you into a Hayek-quoting Chicago School-believing free-market libertarian—Lord knows, we have enough of them in the SF field already—but to give you some insights into the changes we’re going to be making here at Rampant Loon Press and Stupefying Stories in the coming months. More importantly, I want to give you some ideas to think about as you develop your own writing career. 

First up, let’s consider a concept that has had a very direct impact on my own life and writing and publishing career, and thus on the fortunes of Rampant Loon Press, and which therefore has been very much on my mind lately: opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is, to put it very simply, the cost of doing something expressed in terms of other opportunities not pursued. Every decision you make carries an opportunity cost, sometimes trivial and sometimes life-altering. Every time you choose to do something, you are also choosing not to do something else, and usually several other something elses. 

It seems obvious, right? When an opportunity presents itself, choosing whether or not to follow up on it should be an easy problem to solve. If I choose to do this, what else am I giving up? Except—

  • Your resources—time, money, and energy—are finite. You will never have the resources to pursue every opportunity that comes along.

  • You will always be making your decisions based on incomplete information.

  • You will never know the true opportunity cost until after—sometimes long after—you have made a decision and chosen a path of action.

  • Here’s the real headache: every writer’s basis for calculating opportunity cost is different. What seems like a reasonable opportunity cost for Writer A might be an absolutely catastrophic cost for Writer B.

    [We writers are, deep down, a highly competitive lot. Whether we admit it or not, we are always acutely aware of how well we are doing in comparison to Writer A. This comparison will drive you nuts if you let it, and there is probably at least one column that needs to be written on the subject of how Writer A’s skewed cost basis is changing the sort of fiction that is being written and published now. That is a topic for another day, but this differing cost basis is what makes it so difficult to teach you how to decide what’s right for you.]

Someday, if we’re lucky, the Rampant Loon Press story will be a case study in business school, and it will be a study in opportunity costs. It will be a ten-year saga of a small business that was always going off in six directions at once and trying to do too many things simultaneously with too few resources, because the founder (me) was always bubbling over with curiosity and treating the company as an experiment and an opportunity to learn new things, and not as a business. It had some resounding successes, and some flops so bad they augured in and left smoking holes in the ground, because the one thing the founder didn’t bother to learn was how to make his successes repeatable, because he was systemically incapable of resisting fascinating opportunities and interesting digressions!

So that’s my job for the next six months: to learn how to better calculate my opportunity costs, and thus to learn how to resist the siren songs of fascinating digressions and focus on the RLP projects that have a very high probability of marketplace success. 

Hang on tight. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

—Bruce Bethke


Monday, October 11, 2021

Exploring An Old, Old Story…Daniel Keyes and “Flowers for Algernon” by Guy Stewart

I tripped down memory lane this week reading ALGERNON, CHARLIE, AND I by Daniel Keyes…

I was in junior high when our class read a version of this story written as a play. Honestly? The story did something to my head and I never forgot it after that. I read it as the Hugo-winning novelette much, much later. I’d like to see if I can get this issue of F&SF, but we’ll see. I’ve been collecting too many books and stuff lately!

At any rate, I’ve even gone so far as to write a contemporary, middle-grade novel with a similar theme, though updated. THE RECONSTRUCTION OF MAI LI HASTINGS is about a young teen who helps his mother with his adopted sister, a developmentally disabled young adult who can do nothing for herself.

While all of my brothers and my sister were born in possession of all of the faculties our Human society recognizes as normal, I spent two years working in a facility that “…follows a person-centered, active support approach to ensure that the individuals with disabilities we serve have a hand in directing their services and a voice concerning their future. We place no limits on what a person is capable of accomplishing.”

I worked as a regular caregiver and eventually became a supervisor of the night shift. As a regular caregiver, I was responsible for eight residents – everything from assisting with daily life skills to doing their laundry. As a supervisor, I was required to be familiar with the entire facility’s 32 residents because I was required to do the job of caregiver for any one of the four units if a regular called in sick.

I took my experiences there, my job as a middle school teacher, and my science education, and wrote the novel. I wanted to look at Charlie Gordon’s story from a different angle – the sibling, CJ, of a kid who needed full-time care, who was Mai Li, when she was home; and who went to a day-program when she wasn’t at home.

Before working in the facility, I’d also been certified as a Nursing Assistant and had worked part time as a nurse’s assistant at a nursing home.

All of those observations poured into THE RECONSTRUCTION OF MAI LI HASTINGS.

After reading ALGERNON, CHARLIE, AND ME, I think I know why I wrote my story. “Flowers for Algernon” was last reprinted in February of 2018, in an admittedly obscure volume called The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, 1929-1964. Your average adolescent isn’t going to pick that volume up and “discover” Daniel Keyes’ story.

Also, recent developments in neuroscience surfaced in late 1999 when Keyes stumbled across an article by Dr. Joe Z. Tsien (then at Princeton), who had genetically engineered a “smart” mouse. The concept, while different, was remarkably like what the doctors in Keyes’ story did to Algernon, the eponymous mouse in the short story. The mouse’s surgery led to the same kind of surgery being performed on Charlie.

Of course, it was successful in the novelette and novel. But it has also been done in mice in reality…The question I have is if Tsien ever read “Flowers for Algernon”. While the article doesn’t mention it, I DO note that Tsien got his doctorate about ten miles from where I’m writing this – the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities; and we’re a pretty big SciFi and Fantasy community with some big names coming from here – including one of my all-time favorites, Clifford D. Simak, Poul Anderson, as well as Gordon R. Dickson, and more recently, Patricia Wrede, Lois McMaster Bujold, and Emma Bull among others, including four prominent Black speculative fiction authors: DC Edwards, Briana Lawrence, Marlon James, and André M. Carrington.

Who knows, maybe someone in Tsien’s doctoral program said, “Hey, you ever read ‘Flowers for Algernon’?”

In ALGERNON, CHARLIE, AND I, Keyes wrote, “I write in hope that, long after I’m gone, my stories and books, like pebbles dropped into waters, will continue to spread in widening circles and touch other minds. Possibly other minds in conflict with themselves.” Yep, I like that. Those might be good words to adopt for myself – and a good sketch of a target I can aim at.

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joe_Z._Tsien, https://twincitiesgeek.com/2020/02/4-minnesota-sci-fi-and-fantasy-books-by-black-authors-for-black-history-month/

_____________________

Guy Stewart 
is a husband supporting his wife who is a multi-year breast cancer survivor; a father, father-in-law, grandfather, foster father, friend, writer, and recently retired teacher and school counselor who maintains a writing blog by the name of POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS (https://faithandsciencefiction.blogspot.com/) where he showcases his opinion and offers his writing up for comment. He has 72 stories, articles, reviews, and one musical script to his credit, and the list still includes one book! He also maintains GUY'S GOTTA TALK ABOUT BREAST CANCER & ALZHEIMER'S, where he shares his thoughts and translates research papers into everyday language. In his spare time, he herds cats and a rescued dog, helps keep a house, and loves to bike, walk, and camp.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Movie Review • The Last Days on Mars

 

I’ll save you some time. If this one shows up on the recommended list while you’re scrolling through Amazon searching for a good sci-fi movie to watch, just keep scrolling. To condense this review to one word: avoid.

Sure, the movie looks promising. It stars Liev Schreiber, who has been in some good things, and has an international cast. It’s beautifully photographed. They spent serious money on the sets, costumes, and props. It’s only 98 minutes long.

By the end of it, though, it will have seemed much longer, and you’ll be wondering where you can apply to get that hour and a half of your life back. 

The opening setup seems promising. It’s in the closing days of a six-month expedition to Mars. (Hence the title.) The expedition has been frustratingly unproductive, and there’s a lot of tension and hostility between the members of the team. For a while it looks like this is going to be some kind of atmospheric drama about people who can’t escape each other living in a pressure-cooker microcosm and cracking up under the strain.

Sidebar: One technical point worth noting here, with a little admiration, is that the backstory is that an Earth-Mars cycler system has been established. They can’t leave Mars until the orbiting platform returns and drops a new lander with the resupply crew. This is interesting at first, but the more Schreiber’s character has nightmares/premonitions about not being able to make it back to the orbiter, the more you begin to feel that you’re being clubbed over the head with foreshadowing.

Anyway, with all of that established: as the days tick down and the pressure builds, the obligatory Crazy Russian on the team breaks the rules, defies orders, and takes one last trip to one of the dig sites to take one more core sample, and lo and behold, he at last discovers life on Mars! In the form of a mysterious bacterium, which he quickly discovers, turns people into—

Zombies.

Yeah, frickin’ zombies. They’ve spent all this time and money and effort and character-building up front, just to turn it into another frickin’ zombie movie. Imagine Aliens mashed up with—well, pretty much any standard-issue by-the-numbers completely imagination-free zombie movie and that’s what you’ve got. They’ve taken the time and trouble to make a movie that actually looks as if it was filmed on goddam Mars, and then turned it into a formulaic zombie movie that could have been made on any suitably dusty location in the American Southwest. 

Hint to writers: if you’re going to take your characters to Mars, have them find something more interesting to do there than to turn into either zombies or zombie chow.

Yes, of course, Liev Schreiber’s character ends up being the sole survivor. Yes, of course, when the lander finally shows up the zombies surprise and overwhelm the relief crew. Yes, of course, Schreiber manages to escape the zombies and take the lander back up into orbit—but too late, he’s missed the rendezvous with the orbiter, and doesn’t have enough fuel left to make a safe landing. But that doesn’t matter anyway, as he realizes that he’s been exposed to the bacteria and is probably infected as well. He delivers one last monologue, in the form of a last message to Mission Control that seems cribbed from Ripley’s last message at the end of Alien, and then…

Roll credits.

In short, this movie begins with some promise, then turns into a paint-by-numbers zombie movie, and then everyone dies. The end. What a waste. 

—Bruce Bethke

Friday, October 8, 2021

Talking Shop: Eric's Writing Challenge Update 15

Okay, I'm basically on time with the update this week. So, let's jump right in with the writing challenge update.

To date, I've written approximately 77,650 words toward the 87,500 word goal. That puts me at about 89% done. I wrote about 9000 words this last week. That averages out to a little under 1300 words per day across 7 days. 

Now for the Rinn's Run Update

Total Words Written: 84,000

Total Chapters Completed: 40

Percentage complete: 100% (first draft)

So, I finished the first draft of the space opera. It's about 9000 words longer than I expected, but editing usually trims down the word count. So, I'm not too worried. 

It's always exciting to finish the first draft of a novel, but it also comes with a certain kind of weariness. I've been living with these characters almost full time for the last three or four months. Tomorrow, I don't have to keep them in my head. It's a bit like un-clenching a muscle you've had clenched for a long time. 

I'll do what I usually do with first drafts and let it sit for a while. A few weeks minimum, before I jump into editing. I need to let it cool off, so I can come at it with more objectivity. 

However, this writing challenge wasn't just about writing the space opera. It was also about productivity. So while the Rinn's Run updates will go away now, the Writing Challenge updates will continue on for a little longer. Next up, I go back to work on a mostly finished urban fantasy novel titled Jericho Lott.