Read about EPICon 2003
Read about PERSPECTIVES ON PUBLISHING--a Dash of Cold Water
I'll start with a minor innocent note, before getting into the horrendous material of the column. Following the column comes my long convention report, and then the text of my keynote address, so all told there's over 16,000 words this time, surely enough to surfeit even rabid Anthony fans for a while. I have mentioned our Garbage Garden, with things growing from kitchen garbage we bury. But this winter the rabbits ate everything down to zero, including the back yard grass; our lawn there is gone. So I took fine-mesh wire and set it around one potato, tomato, and squash. Lo, it worked; in the otherwise bare area those three plants are flourishing. Victory, and I hope the bunny is not mad at me.
Last time I posed two ogre-stumping questions for readers, and I got good responses. The simple one was in what manner a girl with a pair of hips just like two battleships was considered sexy. I received several responses, and realized that it's really hyperbole (remember, I defined this word last time: humorous exaggeration) rather than serious description. It seems it's from an army marching song, "My Gal's a Corker," which may be where I heard it. Both Ian Covell and Joseph Reed sent me the complete version, which begins "My Gal's a corker, she's a New Yorker; I'll buy her anything to keep her in style." It goes on to describe her several aspects, such as a pair of legs just like two whiskey kegs, a pair of lips just like potato chips, a pair of eyes just like two custard pies, a giant nose just like a big red rose, a head of hair just like a grizzly bear, and of course a pair of hips just like two battleships. She's just big and bold all over. David G. Medlock had a couple of alternate stanzas: "My girl ain't got no nose/ Breathes through a rubber hose.../ My girl ain't got no tits/ Squirts milk through little slits." Rob Miles has gentler stanzas: "My girl's a pretty girl/ She is a city girl.../ Someday she'll be my wife/ I'll love her all my life../ She's got such pretty hair/ In patches here and there.../ She's got two great big eyes/ just like two pizza pies..." One version, he says, devolved into her being in a coma in the hospital: "She's got a new TV/ It's called an EKG." Reminds me of the collection of facetious romantic descriptions I learned as a child: Your lips are like petals--bicycle pedals. (This works verbally, not written.) Your eyes are like pools--cesspools. Your teeth are like stars--they come out at night. Your nose is a Roman nose--it's roamin' all over your face. Your ears are like flowers--cauliflowers. I think there was more, but that's all I remember, half a century later.
My other question was more serious: What am I doing in my fiction writing that puts the reader into the scene, distinguishing it from what some other writers do? Half a slew of answers, some hard to summarize. I'll mention ten in the order they arrived, then see if there's a consensus. Tim Reddick says I write in a simple style with just enough detail to set the scene so that the reader fills in the rest with his/her (hereafter, "his" includes "her" for convenience; I can't stand the singular "they" to fudge gender) own imagination. Thus every reader's impression may be different, yet real to him. Rob Miles says his favorite writers do draw him into the scene. "I'm not sure that it's necessarily something you're doing so much as something those writers who fail to draw me in aren't doing." Shirley Stafford says that I answer the question myself when I say that I am in every scene I write; I'm there as an eye witness, so my reader is there too. William Fink says he noticed the way I describe the environment visually, and the thoughts, emotions, and actions the characters have in response to the environment. "A lot of writers tell a story, you make us live the story, by making the picture in our heads of the scene so complete." Michael Kaler agrees that I give just enough detail to get his imagination in gear. Some other writers describe too much. "Your characters also read very real with realistic motives and development." Leah Clark says that I know Xanth really exists, so it's real and alive, and I care about my readers. Glenn Moss, who met me in Tampa--see my convention report following this column--says "It's YOUR talent." Joan Matousek says "Just believe me that your natural method of writing is both simple and complex enough to draw in a wide range of readers spanning all ages, and that it is also uplifting by touching on real life issues that we can connect with." Jim Hufstetler ays "Good writing is the same as good music; the words must follow each other as a note follows a note in building the ambiance necessary to project the LOGIC of the story. Even fantasies...have to have logic so to woo the rational mind so the unconsious mind can be set free to wallow. If the rational mind is not soothed, it will thrash about and prevent the reader from the restful experience of taking a cruise on the ship called IF." And Richard G. Everit says that seventy ears ago an aspiring writer named Conrad Richter learned the principles that make a reader respond to a writer's prose. He applied them and won a Pulitzer. Later he published a book on the subject, The Mountain on the Desert (1955). My Xanth novels, Everit says, illustrate many of those principles. Okay, what does this all add up to? That I write simply, with just enough of the right detail and logic, and care about my characters and my readers, bringing them into the scene with me. Maybe so. Critics tend to think that good writing is detailed and complicated, so simple narrative is inferior. That's like missing the target--and blaming the target. My writing is seldom if ever held up to critical acclaim, but readers seldom find it obscure or dull. I suspect that the same qualities that make it readable bar it from critical acceptance--which perhaps says something about misplaced critical standards. My pet theory is that most critics are failed writers who relentlessly refuse to understand the reasons for their failure, and condemn those who succeed. They're in denial about the real nature of effective writing. But mainly, I just write the kind of prose I like to read, and it seems my taste aligns with that of many readers. Like a runner who doesn't care to analyze the interplay of his bones and muscles, but who does move along better than most.
A third question received fewer responses. I discussed the ads for huge penises, saying that women did not crave being rammed by these, and asking whether any ladies disagreed. So far I have had three or four responses from women, all agreeing, some emphatically. Women do look for particular things in men, but not monster members. Shere Hite, sex researcher, had an article in the 25 January NEW SCIENTIST on a perhaps related matter: most women don't orgasm regularly during sex. The drug industry wants to claim this is female dysfunction, and provide a Viagra-like pill to fix it. The real problem is that male penetration rarely--maybe in 2% of cases--fosters female orgasm, because it doesn't stimulate the clitoris. Women know how to have orgasms, but don't feel free to express this during sex with men. What's needed is a revision of the concept of sexual activity, so that women become free to have orgasms their way during copulation. If men left their supposedly inadequate penises alone and focused on appropriately stimulating their partners, they could truly please women sexually. And also perhaps related: the Dear Abby column had a case where a man arranged a sexual liaison for his adult (age 40) paralyzed friend. The woman was knowledgeable and understanding, and the event went well. Then the man's religious moralistic parents caught on, and banned the friend and cut off their son from any further such experience. It's interesting how so much religion condemns the natural function of sex; didn't God make sex, too? A storm of letters followed, supporting the paralyzed man and his friend. Good for them.
My readers are doing so well answering my questions, some of which have bugged me for decades, that I'm inclined to ask some more. Obviously if I were smart enough to research the answers myself, I'd have done so long ago. That's why I cultivate smart readers. Once in childhood--not that I ever really left it--I was reading what I remember, perhaps incorrectly, as a book of stories by Rudyard Kipling. I thought it was Jungle Stories, but later when I checked, it wasn't. They were preceded by brief poems. One story was unmemorable for me, but the poem latched onto my mind. It went something like this: "The earth gave up her that dead than night/ Into our camp he came/ And said his say and went his way/ And left our hearts aflame.// Keep tally on the gun-butt score/ The vengeance we must take/" That's all I remember. Does any literate person out there know this poem or this book? What does it mean? This has bugged me for about 55 years.
There was also a poem I heard once during training in the US Army, 1957. Its title was something like "Elegy on the Four Letter Word," and it was a phenomenal statement about how it's not the concepts but the words that really make a difference. For example, if a man would like to have sex with a woman, he can talk about a roll in the hay or evening delight, and maybe he'll be in luck. But the girl doesn't live who will stand for "Let's F---" it concludes, the rhyme scheme making the blanks clear. I mean, what four letter word begins with F and rhymes with Luck? Even an ogre might figure that one out, in time. So it's not subtle, but it's right on target. This has bugged me for 46 years.
There's also a piece of music that I hear every so often but never get the title. It may be associated with the Russian Revolution, or some such. It's voice, four notes, a break, four notes again, break, then about 7 notes, very feeling. It's that odd staccato beat that gets me, making me think of the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution: move forcefully ahead, abruptly pause, then move forward again. My wife, who once played the bass strings and knows music, can't place it. Can any musical literate tell from this inadequate description what piece I'm looking for?
The morning of the day I was to head for EPICon--there's a tediously long con report following this column--I was amidst my archery when the string broke on my left handed reverse curve bow. Actually it turned out that it had merely slipped off, but it shouldn't have done that. The bow has started to warp, after six years, and finally got to the point where it won't hold. It was a good bow, but these things don't last forever. I pondered, and concluded I'd be better off with a left handed composite bow, to match my right handed one. So after the convention I went to the local archery store to order one--and lo, they had one there, so I bought it. I had them set it at 60 pounds, same as the right side bow, so my exercise will be even. For those not into archery, I'll explain that a 60 pound draw weight means that it takes 60 pounds of pull to fully draw the string. This one has a 75% let-off, which means that when you draw it all the way, the pull declines to a quarter, or about 15 pounds, making it much easier to focus on the detail of aiming. That's part of the joy of compound bows; you can take time to aim without stress, and when you loose (not fire) the arrow, it takes off with 60 pounds force. It's not magic, actually, but rather an offset wheel that makes a pulley effect, gearing it down. So you don't have to worry about drawing it too far, or not far enough; the let-off sets it up for the same force every time, which is a real convenience.
Okay, I brought the new bow home--and realized it had no sights. So I put on the ones from the old bow. It had no peep-sight in the string, so I threaded through a bit of dental floss to mark the place. Then I set about zeroing it in. That turned out to be an adventure, spread out across three sessions. First, it was difficult to draw the string. I could do it without the arrow, but when I had the arrow in place, my effort of drawing (60 pounds would be beyond the ability of beginners) dislodged the arrow, and it fell to the ground. Shouldn't I just draw it smoothly, keeping the arrow in place? Yes. But I couldn't be smooth at the limit of my strength. Also it was a different type of arrow rest that allowed the arrow to fall off either side; I couldn't tilt the bow to keep it in place while drawing. And I realized that my right side bow, set for years at 60 pounds, must have eased a bit, because it was not as hard to draw as the left side bow. So 60 pounds was not at my level, but beyond it. Sigh; once again, ogre-style, I had stumbled into a picklement. Oh, I could wind it down to 55 pounds or less, but that would be like cheating; I wanted to conquer it at 60 so I wouldn't have to admit to making a mistake. What to do? Well, first I set the shaft of the arrow off the arrow rest, nestled in a nook so I could tilt the bow when drawing. I heaved, but the arrow couldn't escape. Then I used my finger to nudge the arrow up onto the rest. It went too far, dropping off the other side. I angled the bow to swing it back, and it dropped off the string entirely. So there I was with drawn bow, no arrow. (There are those who think the stupidities of ogres are funny, when viewed from a safe distance.) So I started over, managed to heave-draw again, and nudge it correctly. Then I loosed it at the target from 50 feet. Pow! The arrow vanished from the bow and appeared instantly in the upper baffle target. I had missed high. Well, that's why I have to zero in my sights. I missed two high, then moved back to 100 feet and tried the same setting. And missed two more high. Okay, so I moved back to the 150 foot range, figuring this time it might drop a foot or so and be in the center of the target. And plowed two arrows into the ground, one of which vanished. Huh? Finally, with much heating of overstressed brain, I figured it out: the ground isn't level. The 50 and 100 foot sites are at similar elevation, but the 150 foot site is a foot or eighteen inches lower. Allow a foot drop of arrow for distance, and another foot or more for elevation, and suddenly it's not in the center of the target, but below. So I adjusted my floss and caught the bottom of the target. I adjusted it again, and scored on the ground again. Oh--I had gone the wrong direction. (I believe I have mentioned how ogres are justifiably proud of their stupidity.) So I moved it the other way twice as far, and fired again, and scored roughly in the center of the target. Victory! Then I searched again for the lost arrow, and finally managed to find it, buried behind the target at an angle; it had evidently bounced and deflected. They can be fiendishly clever about hiding. So I'm making progress. I'll work on building up my muscle until I can draw the bow correctly. It may take some time; I'm 68 and have to work to stay in shape. But I should get there eventually. Meanwhile, breaking in a new bow feels somewhat like breaking in a new computer program: an unpleasant challenge fraught with risk, but with eventual rewards.
Coincidentally, I received a letter from a lawyer pursuing a case of a carbon-shaft arrow that shattered on release, damaging the archer's hand. One of the other recipients of that letter--maybe the lawyer made an Internet search for Archery--was sharply negative in his response, dead set against any action against the manufacturer. So then I weighed in, and here is the edited text of my letter:
"I use metal arrows, and am strictly amateur in this regard, loosing only at propped targets. I am no hunter; indeed we do not allow hunting on our 90 acre forest property. I do have one set of 12 carbon arrows, but do not use them. This is because they are too light for my 60 pound draw weight, and because their shafts are narrower than their points. This tears up my target when I remove them.
"However, for what it's worth, I disagree with Mr. Falks. I wear gloves and glasses to protect my hands and face, as I do not care to risk injury to my body when practicing. But I believe the manufacturers have a responsibility, a tort, to ensure that their arrows are well made and free of potentially dangerous defects. If there is a defect that caused your client injury, I believe he has a right to appropriate compensation. But this is merely a bystander opinion; I have no case of my own."
I sent a copy to Laval Falks, who is serious about archery, and had a response, explaining his reasoning, and it is persuasive. If a new arrow broke, the archer might have a claim. But when he uses it, it can suffer damage, and the manufacturer should not be liable for what is done to an arrow in the course of use. Don't I know it; I bent two of my new aluminum arrows when I missed my targets and bounced them off trees and/or into the ground. Ouch! So there needs to be evidence that the original arrows are defective, or there is no case. Also the equipment should be inspected whenever used, to avoid any potential problem; the user does have to take due care. I have to agree. A compound bow is no toy; it can be dangerous if used carelessly. And I guess I'd better wind that draw weight down a notch after all, rather than tempt fate.
Collected smaller notes, jammed ignominiously together: I think it was a Microsoft form I filled out once, name and employment. Now I get letters and calls for Piers Anthohy Writer (sic on both spelling and name). No, Mr. Writer isn't home, and my middle name is not Anthohy. But it does give me an instant indication that the other party is working from a blind list. My RowBike chain broke. This was the second time in a couple years. I could get it fixed again, but decided instead to retire the machine, because it's dangerous. When the chain breaks, I'm pulling back hard to row it up a hill, and I smack my back down and could maybe whipcrack my neck. We aren't the world's greatest housekeepers; papers pile up. My wife saw one beside her chair starting to go, and grabbed it, but it fought her. I grabbed it to help hold it upright, but it started to bow out from the middle. That thing was determined to come apart, despite both our efforts; in the end we had to entirely dismantle it. A shame to lose several patient years of accumulation like that. A miniature wasp is setting up house on my study door. These little wasps are cute; their wingspan is about the breadth of a human thumbnail, and their nests start out acorn sized. Every time I use that door the wasp gets a jolt, but seems resigned. We also have wrens building a nest by a window; we'll be able to spy on their secrets from inside the house. Carroll and Lina Wren might not like that, if they caught on. They are sitting three eggs. They found Elizabeth Smart, the fourteen year old Utah girl kidnapped from her bedroom last year. She had been taken by a would-be founder of a religious cult. God told him to breed with teen girls. Ever notice how God tells some people to do what they secretly desire to do but don't dare admit it? Some use God to forbid sex; others are the opposite. As an agnostic I see both attitudes as suspiciously convenient. I should think that by this time God must be getting fed up with hypocrisy in His name. Some folk are overdue for smiting. Speaking of which, a deadly new flu-type virus is spreading; I hope it doesn't come here. And Mister Rogers died. He was the exception proving the rule: there are some good men on television, just as Senator Wellstone showed there are some good men in politics. They praise them and lay them away. Thirty years ago we set our daughter up to watch Sesame Street, but it was Mister Rogers who won her little heart. I used to tease her with a parody of his monologue on the uniqueness of each child: "You're a bad little girl, and there are hundreds more just like you." No, of course she knew better. A reader asked me, challengingly: Why do I write about the Afterlife, if I don't believe in it? I answered that I write fantasy, and the Afterlife is fantasy. (Will they ever learn not to challenge the Ogre on his home turf?)
I have a third current movie option now: Split Infinity, the leadoff novel in the Adept series. Remember, an option is merely the paid-for right to make a movie; most options are not exercised, but these look promising. Xanth, Incarnations, Adept--I see it as like lighting matches in a firecracker factory. I'd love to experience the explosion. Of course it might make my inrush of mail worse, forcing me to hire a robot ogre to write feeling personal responses.
In FeBlueberry I finally caught up on videos. Some were sexy junk, like Body Chemistry, and some were not as sexy or junky as I had hoped, like The Amy Fisher Story, while some were interesting in devious ways, such as In the Realm of the Senses, about a Japanese prostitute who becomes obsessed with her master. At one point he puts an egg in her vagina, and she has to lay it like a chicken. She finally kills him in a siege of sado-masochism that goes too far, cuts off his penis, and happily keeps it. She's not shown as a bad girl, just one who loved unwisely. Banned & Censored cartoons were not sexy at all; many seem to have been banned for political correctness. Betty Boop sees a man whipping animals, and is outraged; black folk are shown with huge lips, eating watermelon. Caricature, yes, but this sort of thing should not be banned so much as refuted. To me, censorship is more dangerous than caricature. Then there was The Fury; I read the book decades ago and found it imperfect; so was the movie. Unforgiven, a harsh and I suspect realistic look at the wild west. Finding Forrester, wherein a smart black youth associates with a former award-winning novelist, and gets in trouble at school because his teacher thinks he's stealing material. The idea is that he had to be, because blacks are known to be intellectually inferior. Forrester, the novelist, finally gets fed up with this nonsense and intervenes at the school, vindicating him. Yes, this is a movie for a liberal writer, my kind of non-junk.
We also saw two current movies. My daughters are long since tired of my story of how a quarter century ago my wife and I made a deal with them: we'd watch one of theirs, then they'd watch one of ours, and maybe see which was better. Theirs was Disney's The Rescuers, a nice cartoon feature. Ours was the first Star Wars. We won. It's a real achievement for the old fogies to set back their savvy children like that, which is why I cling to the memory. Well, this time we saw Daughter #2 Cheryl the Newspaperwoman's choice, Daredevil. Then came our choice: Chicago. I believe we did it again, despite the fact that my daughter is not turned on the way I am by the sexy opening song and dance, "All That Jazz."
I also read some books. Several were related to EPICon so are covered in that report, but some were not. Dragon's Fire & Wizard's Flame by Michael Mennenga is a fantasy for young folk, the story of Zac, a dragon without fire, making him a pariah. He sets out with a big moose and small squirrel--all the animals talk--and in due course overcomes evil and saves the dragon's village. Children should relate. Surviving Dystonia, self published by a local (Inverness) writer, Carmine Petrangelo, nonfiction. Dystonia is a rare disease that gradually deprives the victim of control of his body; limbs may jerk around on their own, and the body can warp. Adults decided that the author was faking it for attention, so no one was allowed to help him, when he could not even walk without support. After years of this he finally saw a competent specialist and got treatment, which helped considerably. As one who in childhood suffered from jerks of the hands and head, I relate, though mine was indeed psychological; when I finally declared my emotional independence from the stresses between my divorcing parents, I slowly mended. But I remember how it was, having made myself an oath never to forget. Childhood is not necessarily the joy most adults choose to think, and doctors and psychologists can be idiots. Tales of the Man Da'oud by David de London, Xlibris, is a collection of apocryphal stories that may have been part of the oral tradition for perhaps 5,000 years. They are moralistic but not dull. The shortest is under 50 words; others can be several pages. In one the man Da'oud (think David, though the pronunciation is not the same) saw an old man laboring to plant olive tree seedlings beside the road. Why, Da'oud wondered, did he work so hard despite knowing that he would be long gone before the trees bore fruit? "Consider this," the man replied, "the world was not a barren place when either of us came into it." In another an arrogant stranger expected Da'oud's grown son and his companions to wait on him. They, annoyed, wrapped pellets of sheep dung in warm flat bread, urinated in half a cup of sour wine, and filled a wash basin from a muddy stream. The stranger used them before realizing, then was most upset, while the others rolled on the floor in helpless laughter. Then Da'oud arrived and chastised them for violating the laws of hospitality. But the great judge of all things (think God) was not really upset by the conduct of the young men, seeing the humor in the situation.
I receive a good deal of mail. Most is routine, but some isn't. I received a desperate plea for an interview from a fifteen year old tenth grader with a paper due in two days; could he have an interview? I said sure, via email, the only medium there was time for--and my response bounced because of an invalid address. I heard from Metria R Jones, the name chosen from my character the Demoness Metria. Xanthly demons are more or less independent of gender, though they do tend to choose a male or female identity. Metria Jones chose. She is a transsexual, converted surgically from male to female it Thailand, after struggling with the wrong gender for 38 years. Her site is http://xanth.us/, and provides the life story and pictures. Press release from UFOWATCHDOG.COM, the one who put me onto Sean David Morton's appropriation of On a Pale Horse for a supposed movie and who reacted, as I put it, like a smoking rectum when we challenged this. Now Morton is suing WATCHDOG for a million dollars for defamation. This is evidently a SLAPP effort: Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, the intention being to prevent legitimate criticism of a person's actions. WATCHDOG has my sympathy, as I suspect some publishers would like to SLAPP me for telling the truth about them; the truth needs to be published. My agent and I are cooperating with WATCHDOG's defense, though the Pale Horse matter is peripheral. A grandmother wrote about the way her fourteen year old grandson's school excluded two Xanth novels from their reading program: The Color of Her Panties, and The Dastard. Apparently their librarian was unfamiliar with the actual content of the books, which are typical Xanth novels, and banned the books because of their titles. Maybe there is supposed to be something obscene about panties, or maybe someone misread Dastard with a B? This is of course foolishness. Xanth pokes fun at just about everything, including the foibles of those who base their judgments on other than the real nature of things. I'd say that fun-poking is justified, as they evidently don't find it funny. So let's cut the fun for a moment and call a spade a spade: this is the sour fruit of the bigotree.
Two people sent me "Charlie Daniels Open letter to the Hollywood Bunch" which begins "Ok let's just say for a moment you bunch of pampered, overpaid, unrealistic children had your way and the US didn't go into Iraq." It continues that if we destroy our nuclear weapons, cut our military budget, and bring our troops home, would there really be peace in the world? This is a good rhetorical question; obviously there wouldn't, because there are too many shits like Saddam out there who know no language but force and deceit. But this tirade vitiates its case by descending to name-calling and posturing. "Why you bunch of pitiful, hypocritical, idiotic, spoiled mugwumps, get your head out of the sand and smell the Trade Towers burning." Oh--did Iraq do that? It suggests that opponents of the invasion of Iraq are traitors. "America is in imminent danger. You're either for her or against her. There is no middle ground." Really? Black/white thinking is typical of bigotry. There is no credible evidence that America is in imminent danger from Iraq. From North Korea, maybe; from terrorists eager to get hold of old Russian nuclear bombs, surely; from al-Qaeda who may want to follow up the Trade Towers bombing with a plague of smallpox, oh, yes. But it seems these are being ignored in favor of an invasion of Iraq. This isn't sensible defense so much as militaristic folly. There is indeed a huge middle ground, and I'm in it: I want to see America defended from the real threats, which include the erosion of our constitutional rights by our own government. I fear the rantings of the author of this open letter as much as I fear the savage ill-will of Saddam, because this ranter is much closer to home and shows so little comprehension of what America is all about. He seems to think that honest dissent is unpatriotic. He thinks he's making sense; that's truly scary.
Another circulated essay is by Tony Parsons of the UK's DAILY MIRROR. It says the 9/11 event was horrible, the victims innocent, the perpetrators evil. Yes. Then it says that anti-Americanism has increased in the last year. Yes. What it doesn't say is why: because the current US administration ruthlessly squandered global good will by invoking a hard right-wing agenda it did not campaign on and that the majority of American voters did not support. Remember, G W Bush was not elected, he was appointed by a party-line decision of the Supreme Court that ignored the evident will of the voters in America and in Florida, where a careful recount showed Gore won. Then this administration used 9/11 as a pretext to undermine Constitutional civil rights, and to invade a country that was not responsible for it. This is a horribly cynical use of a horrible atrocity. Is there no shame? That's why there are protests around the world; America is half-blinded by misplaced patriotism, but elsewhere the truth is clearer. Those of us whose belief in American values is more than platitude deep hate to see them thus ironically corrupted.
Yet another: the text of career diplomat John Brady Kiesling's letter of resignation to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Selective quotes: "The policies we are now asked to advance are incompatible not only with American values but also with American interests. Our fervent pursuit of war with Iraq is driving us to squander the international legitimacy that has been America's most potent weapon of both offense and defense since the days of Woodrow Wilson. We have begun to dismantle the largest and most effective web of international relationships the world has ever known. Our current course will bring instability and danger, not security." "We should ask ourselves why we have failed to persuade more of the world that a war with Iraq is necessary." "Why does our President condone the swaggering and contemptuous approach to our friends and allies this Administration is fostering, including among its most senior officials. Has loderint dum metuanti really become our motto?"
Okay, I regard this as an excellent statement, as my prior remarks in this column should indicate. But one thing perplexes me: I can't make out the Latin phrase. I took three years to barely pass two years of high school Latin, and it did me precious little good. The context suggests "Devil take the hindmost," but I don't know. Maybe a more educated reader will clarify this for me. (I remember a joke: Teacher: "What was the Roman's most significant achievement?" Rebellious student: "Learning to speak Latin.")
This is hardly the only informed criticism of current policy. According to THE WASHINGTON SPECTATOR newsletter the AFL-CIO unions voted unanimously for a resolution criticizing President Bush for failing to make "a compelling and coherent" case for invading Iraq now. Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), now the Senate's most senior member at age 85, said in a speech there: "This nation is about to embark upon the first test of a revolutionary doctrine applied in an extraordinary way at an unfortunate time. The doctrine of pre-emption--the idea that the United States or any other nation can legitimately attack a nation that is not imminently threatening but may be threatening in the future--is a radical new twist on the traditional idea of self defense. It appears to be in contravention of international law and the UN charter...In only the space of two short years this reckless and arrogant administration has initiated policies which may reap disastrous consequences for years." Amen.
But some condemnation goes too far. A To Whom it May Concern email from a prisoner who says he has been beaten and tortured for many years blames the present administration, concluding "Bush is Evil." If he has suffered for many years, he can't blame it all on Bush; some blame, by this logic, attaches to former president Clinton. Prisons are rough places; abuses do occur. But I doubt that W Bush is doing it, or that he approves of it. The letter also says that most 9/11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia, which I think is true but does not implicate Bush, and that Bush is addicted to cocaine, which I doubt, but again, this would not make him evil.
Another circulated essay: "A Soldier's Viewpoint on Surviving Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Attacks." This one makes a lot of sense. It tackles various threats and shows that they aren't as dire as they seem. Chemical weapons tend to hang around the area they are distributed, and have to be in the right concentrations to be effective; you can simply leave the area, preferably upwind, until they settle out. Low-yield nuclear devices will kill most folk within half a mile and fry electronic devices two miles from ground zero. Care and hygiene offer considerable protection. Biological weapons can also be dealt with by hygienic measures. The fact is, common sense can minimize such threats. They are unlikely to bring total devastation. I suppose that's reassuring.
On to more personal material. I received an email from a girl, which asked me not to answer because she has to use her parent's email account and they could not be told. "I've taken the pills and am most likely gonna die real soon, so I'm just writing my goodbyes to everyone." She asked her family to send me a story she was writing, that perhaps I might finish, but wasn't sure they would. They didn't. She said if she ended up surviving, she would finish the story herself. "With my luck, there is a very good chance that I will not end up dying." I have not heard since. This is one of those cases where I have to reconsider ethics: I try to maintain the confidence of my readers, and not betray their secrets to others. But is it right to remain silent while someone may be dying? I am not sure.
Perhaps related: a teen girl said that she and a friend both burst into tears, and neither knew why. My answer became a spot essay, and here it is:
My observation, based on correspondence over the decades with hundreds of teen girls and some boys, is that things can get tough for girls at the time they become young women. It may be the rush of hormones, or the way boys stop trying to avoid them and start trying to touch them, or the new rules they must learn to get along as people who can no longer match the size or strength of boys. It's a different lifestyle. Now a girl becomes a social leader if she is sexually attractive, rather than intelligent or well coordinated. Those who are average in appearance become marginalized, and that can be painful. They are in a whole new world with changed rules, and not well equipped to handle it. They suffer loss of self-esteem, a little or a lot. If they are then subjected to additional stresses, like moving, divorce of their parents, a death in the family, unfeeling or predatory teachers, or bullying by other teens, it can be overwhelming. They can lose it, for a minute, a day, or years. They turn depressive. Some survive to find their places in the new scheme; some don't. The thing to remember is that it's a combination of things, and probably NOT YOUR FAULT.
The next letter I answered seemed to relate, indirectly. It was from a girl the same age who sent me her poem. I asked permission to run it here, but did not hear from her again, so can't. It was the image of branches seeming to weep as they dropped down toward a deep pool whose mirror reflected more leaves than were there. I saw it as a possible analogy to the state of young women in distress.
Another letter was from the Florida mother of an eight year old troubled boy. He "has already seen the inside of three psych hospitals. He has been diagnosed with a form of Autism and three other disorders...There are thousands of children in our state that are suffering and being ignored." Psychiatric care is limited, and insurance companies don't pay for treatment because it is expensive. Is there anything that can be done? I have my doubts, given the present political climate where bombs seem more important than sick children, but I present it here, just in case.
Column by Robyn E Blumner in the ST PETERSBURG TIMES concerning the global status of women. They are disappearing in societies that want male babies, via gender-selective abortion or infanticide. There are now about 75 million excess males in Asian countries with little to do, it seems, but fight, since they can't make love without women. This threatens to fuel a new regime of violence ranging from crime to war. The best means of reducing aggressive tendencies in men is to marry them off, but less of that will be happening, obviously. We need to have more women, and to promote equality of women. To save the world.
A prospective nightmare for writers: messed up regulations may cause writers to receive two 1099 forms for every payment: one from the publisher, the other from the agent. The tax man will think the writer is earning twice as much as he is. Ever try to clarify things with a messed-up tax collector? I have; it just kept hitting me with higher penalties, for nonpayment of a tax I never owed, until I suggested that I was getting ready to sue. Then it softly and silently faded away, after harassing me for a year. Will it be that easy the next time?
Another problem for writers: a letter in AUTHORS GUILD BULLETIN, Winter 2003, confirms what I knew from experience long ago; in fact it's the reason I dropped my subscription: PUBLISHERS WEEKLY's policy of anonymous reviews allows unscrupulous reviewers to crucify the work of writers they don't like. Writers and editors are afraid to complain, lest they be the next ones targeted. It's an act that needs to be cleaned up, but the magazine shows no interest in doing so.
A new take on dark matter: NEW SCIENTIST had an article suggesting that there is no such thing, it's just that physicists don't properly understand the nature of gravity. Modified Newtonian Dynamics--MOND--suggests that in certain cases gravity may weaken directly with distance, rather than by the square of the distance. Thus the galaxies can indeed spin cohesively like giant platters, requiring no hidden matter to boost their outer gravity. I'm a fan of dark matter--it's a fantasy concept--but MOND has a certain persuasiveness. When they try to locate dark matter they find it associates with galaxies; so does gravity. Interesting coincidence.
Newspaper item: a long-term study indicates that violent TV does promote violence. Boys who watched violent programs in the 1970s were more likely as adults to push, grab, or shove their wives during arguments, and to punch, beat, or choke other men, or commit a crime. Girls became women more likely to throw things at their husbands. This may be the real reason America has about a hundred times the incidence of gun violence as other nations: not the guns, but the TV.
My daughter is dyslexic, and I suspect I was as a child. But sometimes a dyslexic makes sense. Letter in the newspaper said "My dyslexic son, when asked what letter followed 'A' answered 'They all do.'" Let's finish on that truth.
EPICon 2003As a general rule I don't do conventions any more. I tried them for a decade, but got fed up with their determined amateurishness, and I think the last one I attended was in 1992. Once I wrote a letter to a convention organizer saying something like how I expected there to be a room available for my program, and a person to introduce it. Evidently they didn't know that, as they had not been doing it, and maybe still aren't; I had a later report that they spread the word about how choosy Piers Anthony was, so other conventions should be wary. So I solved the problem the easy way by no longer going, turning down all invitations. Of course then the word spread that I had done something that made me be no longer be invited to conventions. In sum: they just didn't get it. Maybe expecting minimal professionalism at amateur conventions is too much to ask.
So I considered carefully when EPIC invited me to be their keynote speaker for the 2003 EPICon www.epic-conference.com in Tampa, Florida. I don't like to travel, and normally do so only under duress, such as a death in the family, but this was close enough. EPIC stands for Electronically Published Internet Connection, something I'm interested in and that I support. So I put duty before desire and agreed to attend. Would I regret it, again?
The short answer is no. Oh, I still hated to be away from home, and things piled up in my absence, and I missed three days of exercise and a TV Survivor episode. I really need my wife on hand to run the details of my life, but she had to stay home to run our dog Obsidian's life. But apart from that, the experience was good. In fact, after consideration, I have to say, grudgingly, that this was probably the best convention experience I have had. It was well organized, had a dynamite schedule of events, programs started on time, and yes, there were rooms and personnel to introduce the programs. The hotel was good, the people were friendly and compatible, and there was an excellent mix of publishers and knowledgeable folk so that I found I could talk with any random person there and have a rewarding dialogue. For example when on a bus bringing us back from an event I sat next to a woman I'd never met, Anita, she was interesting to talk to. One morning I joined another unfamiliar woman, Sarah, for breakfast in the hotel buffet, and again we had common interests and a nice exchange. When my key card stopped working so I couldn't get into my room, Jennifer came to my rescue, called, and got a hotel man up to fix it. Of course I was meeting others throughout, at programs and between, and always relating well. There was a community of interest that made that happen; I suspect that any of the other attendees would have been as easy to be with. (I'm using mainly first names so as to provide a translucent veil of privacy for folk who may not wish to be fully exposed here, hoping I got the names right. When I refer to specific books or publishers, I try to use full names, so that potential readers can locate them.)
But such a commitment meant I had to prepare. I didn't want to look too shaggy, so cut my hair and trimmed my beard. But lo--my teeth were yellow. Something in the water from our well gradually colors them. It's okay, except when I go public; then idiot vanity kicks in. These days folk are supposed to have impossibly white teeth. I had a vision of the convention: "What did you think of Piers Anthony's talk?" "He talked?" "You know--the keynote address." "Oh--the guy with the teeth!" I concluded that I preferred to be judged for the content of my character than the color of my cuspids. So I asked my dentist: how can I whiten my teeth? He set me up with a bleach treatment involving plastic molds containing gel that I wore overnight. It was expensive and hard to tell how well it worked, but at least I didn't freak out any convention folk. I hope. Another spot decision was to leave my hat at home; I normally wear it outside to keep the sun off my ears so it doesn't trigger more cancer there, but I figured to be indoors almost all the time, and the hat's a nuisance to tote around. So I gambled and won.
I also worried about things going wrong. I'm marginally depressive, which actually seems to help my writing--I suspect most creative folk are depressive--but my imagination doesn't turn off for the negatives. Would I suffer an accident or pneumonia right before the convention? Would the US invade Iraq the day before it, forcing suppression of travel and stifling the event? Would I mislay key papers at the last moment, and have to speak from balky memory, making attendees wonder what idiot ever invited me to speak? Experience has shown me that it's the one thing I don't think of that will go wrong, so I try to think of everything. But this time, by some mischance, nothing was amiss. That's suspicious.
The convention started, really, with the trip there. Traveling is my hobgoblin; things always foul up. But Dan Reitz, of MUNDANIA PRESS, came to my house with his associate Bob to pick me up, and delivered me back home three days later, so that this part was easy. His rental car had a fascinating feature: a satellite connected travel guide that spoke in a woman's voice saying things like "Turn right in half a mile," and was correct. Even I might find my way somewhere with that. Where will such guidance lead, when perfected? As the day wanes, maybe this: "Turn right in half a mile," the dulcet voice will say. "Enter the motel there, Room 5B. I will be waiting for you in a pink negligee." Well, maybe not, in drear Mundania. Thus I reached the hotel on time and without hassle. Amazing.
I checked in, put my stuff in the nice room on the 8th floor, went to the Registration Room, and found Janice Strand, who was running things. She was very friendly and helpful, having time for everyone. No, she wasn't in a pink negligee. Then a teen boy wandered in, probably cutting through on his way to the sandlot. He turned out to be Janice's husband Jeff Strand, maybe not as young as he looked, the author of several books, the master of ceremonies for the awards banquet and a hilarious fellow when he gets going. I met several people, and some gave me books and things. One book was The Ultimate Guide to Sea-Monkeys (small crustaceans), by Susan Barclay, replete with advice for naming them, such as Seamantha, Crustacea, or Clamentine, together with their associated mythology. There were also bags of goodies for all convention attendees, including useful briefcases with straps so that things could be conveniently toted around. Plus convention membership tags set up on a sort of plastic holder with a neck strap that also had several pockets for cards, notes, hotel room keys, or whatever, plus a surface to hold buttons. Maybe this is now standard at conventions; remember, I hadn't been to one in a decade. I found it quite handy.
Soon it was time for the trip to the book-signing. We didn't have to struggle to get there; there were two chartered buses that took us to Barnes & Noble in Carrollwood, where the Internet publishers lined up in front with their wares. I was taken inside and given royal treatment, something that makes me uneasy; remember, I'm a writer, not used to that. I had asked where supper fitted in, as things were continuous from 4:30 to 10 PM, so Janice mentioned it to the store personnel who quickly set me up with juice and a nice salad. So I sat there just inside the glass that fenced the electronic peons out, and read the first five pages of one of their books: Enchanted Cottage, by Linda Bleser. The author saw me reading it, and took a picture through the glass. It starts well: "It was a beautiful day to die." It's about a cottage that restores youth to its inhabitants: a timeless residence for a woman to die for. A well written Romance Fantasy crossbreed. The electronic publishers are doing a lot of cross-genre material, and more power to them; traditional publishing at times seems to care more about length and classification than about quality or interest. That's one of many reasons why we need an alternative. I noticed how different approaches can be; my Realty Check concerns a house whose front door opens on a busy city street, and whose back door opens on an endless ancient forest. My novel is all about fathoming the mystery of the house, while Enchanted Cottage is a romance that uses the house mainly as a setting.
Then came the book signing. They organized it well, setting up numbered groups of ten people, so that it never seemed rushed. That gave me a chance to chat briefly with the folk, as I prefer, and to pose with them for pictures. It took two and a half hours to clear the line, and I know some folk quit without enduring that. I'm sorry, but it just wouldn't have seemed right to process them through with impersonal swiftness. I noted that A Spell for Chameleon was up to it's 49th printing; ten minutes later it was the 51st printing. Two printings in ten minutes--that's fast! There were also copies of MUNDANIA's edition of Pornucopia, and of course I teased any women who brought it: "What's a nice girl like you doing with a book like this?" Actually I understand that Romantica, which is erotic romance, is getting pretty hot, and may make my dirty book seem less obnoxious. I ought to read some Romantica and see; one thing I wonder about is that it seems that it requires the use of four letter words, which are hallmarks of gutter writing. It is my thesis that anything a four letter word shows can be conveyed by other means, so I use them mainly for spot special effect, rather than dissipate the impact by repetition. Even in my dirty books, which are no strangers to weird sex. Glenn Moss brought a book for me: Souls in Metal, an anthology of robot stories. He had mentioned it in a letter, because I'd said science fiction had not predicted the Internet, but "A Logic Named Joe" by Murray Leinster had done that in 1946, and here was a book containing the story to prove it. And lo, when I got into it, I discovered the book led off with a story I had been searching for for decades: "Helen O'Loy" by Lester del Rey, published in 1938. (I didn't start reading SF until 1947, so had missed it.) Thus serendipity. Then at ten the buses took us back to the hotel, the day being done.
After my struggle to get into my room, mentioned above, I entered, and discovered that they had set it up with a fine plate of assorted nuts and a container of iced beer. The problem was, I was late returning, so the ice had melted, the sides had sweated, and the glass table was covered with water trying to drip on the floor. I mopped up as well as I could, drank one beer, put the others in the refrigerator, called my wife, and turned in. I never got back to the beer; I'm not a teetotaler, but as a general rule I don't drink while driving lest I kill myself physically, and don't drink while making public appearances lest I kill myself socially. I've never been drunk in my life, preferring caution to inebriation. Moderation in most thing is a good rule.
In the morning after 5 hours sleep--I wake up at dawn regardless when I turn in--I showered, dressed, and took the elevator down. Those are fun boxes, glass-faced on the back so that they show the hotel's huge exotic inner court. They rise and sink on long poles; I wondered whether those rods ever got bendy when fully extended eight floors. When you stand in the atrium, the folk in the elevators look like posed framed pictures floating up and down overhead. Unfortunately no young women were wearing short skirts while I was gazing up. I ate at the breakfast buffet, where I joined Sarah, who has lived in Spain, as I have, and is writing an episode of Mexican history, trying to find a market, much as I sought a market for my novel of Spain and World War Two, Volk. If you leave the mold, you do have trouble getting published. Until the Internet, electronic, and self publishing change things. That of course was the point of this convention: promoting that vital change.
At 9 AM I attended the EPIC business meeting, though not a member. They remarked on their lame Web site; it seems that the host had been good, but deteriorated, and they need to do something about it. The EPIC standard model publishing contract, which is potentially a good recommendation for EPIC, is supposed to be on the Web Site, available for everyone. Instead it got put in the Members Only section, unavailable to the public. There'll be a new EPIC president in April; maybe he'll be able to fix it. EPICon 2004 will be in Oklahoma City, and EPICon 2005 in the Los Angeles area.
Next I attended Todd Stone's "Talk Like a Man" program, because I do a fair amount of female viewpoint narrative and want to be sharp on the distinctions between male and female expression. Todd used slides with printed paragraphs. He said that dialogue is a challenge, and said it is not recorded speech but forged speech; counterfeit rather than real. Had he lost his marbles? No, he was right on. Translation: he agreed with my observation over the decades. Real speech is fraught with "uh" and similar interjections, it backtracks, it sidetracks, it fouls up with wrong words and awkwardnesses. It would be boring as hell in narrative writing. So we clean it up for fiction, make it sharp, on-target in a way natural speech seldom is. And what do you know, that makes it seem realistic. Art imitates life, becomes more real than life. So if you want your character to talk like a man, you fake it. And before you females expire of the giggles, remember that female dialogue is similarly faked.
It was a good presentation, and I have more notes on it, but I'll skim on. I think I summarized the essence of the difference between male and female writing, which is akin to the distinctions in their dialogue, years ago: a woman takes the reader by the hand and leads him to view her wonders. A man picks the reader up by collar and crotch and hurls him into the action. Both techniques have their points. At the end Todd gave the audience a spot assignment: write a piece about two lovers who quarrel and make up, showing their different approaches. Then exchange it with your neighbor for comparison. I was sitting next to Katharine, a long-time correspondent and novelist in her own right, so we exchanged. And you know, we both found it hellish to write that on short notice. When we did, we discovered it was essentially the same thing, except that I was still foundering for a suitable lead-in to my text, while she had figured one out that would do for either of our pieces. "Andrea said, pirouetting: 'Do I look all right?' Andy, not looking up: 'You look fine.'" That of course precipitated mischief, which was the point of the exercise; she wanted to be noticed and appreciated; he wasn't doing it. Just like a man.
Naturally I was constantly talking with others between programs; this is what you do at conferences like this. This continued through meals. EPICon was well laid out, with half hour breaks between programs so that folk did not have to be rushed, had time for spot snacks, bathroom, and stray acquaintances. Thus I had lunch at a round table for 9 with Dan, Katharine, and others, and they did have a vegetarian entry that three of us used, with peach pie for dessert.
Then it was time for my keynote speech. I did it as I usually do, with a prepared text for half an hour, followed by questions from the audience for the rest of the time. I began by calling my audience blockheads, and they applauded, and I concluded with my hope that electronic publishing will help reform Parnassus, the arrogant traditional publishing establishment. No need to bore you with the text of it; that follows this convention report, so you can readily skip it if you wish. It did seem to be well received.
In the afternoon I attended the Editor Round Table Part 2, having missed Part 1. This was general advice for writers, presented by publishers. I was going to skip the one after that, the Hot Java New Product Release; what did I want with some snazzy new brand of coffee? But Katharine more or less steered me into it, and I was pleasantly surprised. This was not a spot gimmick, but a new approach to reading. They demonstrated a three way novel: ongoing text, ongoing speech, and a series of still pictures in the background. This works well; it makes even a dull story interesting, as they were showing a dull story and it was interesting. They'll be selling books for $20 to $30 minus a nickel, running 8 to 11 hours long. You can back it up to repeat a section, thus clarifying a difficult passage, getting the spelling and pronunciation right. The pictures change at about five second intervals; it takes about 5,000 of them for a book. They figure they'll be able to prepare a book in three months from acceptance. They believe that the average reader will be able to retain 95% of what he assimilates this way, much higher than with ordinary books. So is the this shape of future publishing? We'll see.
Friday evening was the Starlight Cruise. Three chartered buses conveyed us to Clearwater, taking about an hour and a quarter to get there because there was an anti-war demonstration they had to get around. I'm glad to know that folk are expressing themselves; objections are beginning to approach those of the Vietnam war era, our last pointless military adventure. There was enough slack in the schedule so that we were not late for our cruise. The boat was really one big floating restaurant. We made our orders, then went three stories up to the top deck where we viewed the night sky of Clearwater Beach in a fairly stiff breeze. The motion of the boat was so smooth I would not have known it was moving without seeing outside it. I got involved in a discussion with Todd's expressive wife of present American policies; it seems I'm not the only one who feels we have a disaster in the making, because hard-line idiots have got the bit in their teeth and don't seem to care what's right or wrong. Dinner was served after close to two hours, and my vegetarian platter was good, but twice as much as I could eat. I hate wasting food but had no choice. I understand that's one reason for the alarming trend of obesity: huge portions. There was live music, and a few couples danced. So it was nice enough, but once is enough for me. I came away with their parting gift: a little packaged candy.
Saturday I started again with the buffet breakfast: mushroom cheese omelet, cereal, orange juice, banana, assorted fruit slices, yogurt. The atmosphere and service were very good. I tried the plastic spoon in the yogurt lid, assembling it and using it: it worked. Fun for the inexperienced. I'll keep that brand in mind for when I'm traveling without a spoon.
In due course, on to the Writing for Children panel. Children's books need to be simpler in organization and language, with less violence and sex. If you plan to write for this genre, the organization to join is the Society of Children's Book Writers, scbw.org. Otherwise, it's similar to adult books.
Then the panel I was on, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Pros and Cons of E-Publishing. I shared it with Jane Friedman, managing editor of WRITER'S DIGEST, and Moderator Elise Dee Beraru, who pointed out that the panel title seemed like labels: Piers as the good boy, Jane as the bad girl, Elise ugly? Um, I'd have to think about that, but I suspect it's just a coincidence of listing. We differed on things; I said traditional publishing hardly gave new writers a chance, as it's hard to sell without an agent, and you can hardly get an agent if you haven't already published. Jane said that wasn't true; she had a list of 25 agents. Oh, agents exist, but that's not exactly my point: will they take on novice writers? I suspect she's out of touch with the reality most writers face. So I stand by my contention that we do need alternatives, and electronic publishing is a major one. One sad note: I understand a woman wanted to attend my panel, but couldn't, because her panel was scheduled opposite it. Sigh; I hate to put damsels in distress.
Then there was the Publisher's Luncheon, where we fetched sandwiches--yes, there was a vegetarian one for me; it did seem the convention managers saw me coming--and sat at our choice of tables hosted by publishers. I spoke briefly to the folk at AWE-STRUCK because it was that publisher that inadvertently put me on to the notion of making a list of electronic publishers, then went where there was space, HOT JAVA. They said yes, they could consider a book like Realty Check, which I feel could adapt very nicely to their pictorial presentation. So when I got home I followed up formally with an email query. As yet I don't have an answer; they may be glutted with queries.
In the early afternoon I joined the table of ELLORA'S CAVE, talking with their Public relations coordinator Jennifer Martin and author Ann Jacobs. They do Romantica and are it seems getting really hot, now getting 100,000 hits a day on their site. They were passing out GOT SEX? buttons, and I got one. I love that mode of advertising. We had a nice dialogue, as we do have different notions. They require use of the four letter words for their hottest line; as mentioned above, I use them only advisedly, even in my dirty books, preferring to save them for special effect. I suppose it's a matter of which segment of the erotic market you are appealing to; I suspect mine is more intellectual. I maintain that it is possible to convey any almost concept other than bad taste without resorting to gutter language, but maybe those who really do see all women as walking vaginas yearning to be penetrated by the nearest penis require language tailored to their intellects. (Substitute the appropriate four letter words where applicable; both begin with C.) Female authors of erotica generally need to use pseudonyms, because male readers otherwise get crude notions. I use a pen name to protect my privacy, not being subject to the sexual interest of strange men. Actually some horny females approach female writers too; for some reason they don't regard that as an improvement. The female approach is one I am careful of as well, not because it bothers me but because if I were ever in a room alone with a young female reader, she could cause me grief by accusing me of molesting her, regardless of the truth. Some folk who have never met me have already suggested I'm guilty of that, apparently because I recognize sex as one of the pleasures of life. So I had a good deal in common with the Ellora's Cave folk, with separate slants. It was fun comparing notes. This is of course one of the prime reasons to attend conventions: you get to have meaningful dialogues with those you would seldom if ever otherwise encounter, who understand where you are coming from. I have not published with the Cave, or ever read any of their books, and may never do so, but it was great talking with them, because we do have a rough community of experience. Their literature amuses me in places, such as the guidelines for writing Romantica: heroes must always be tall, muscular, well endowed, and slightly obsessive. Strong heroines are a must, but not drop-dead gorgeous. Always have a plot. (It is necessary to tell writers this? Must be.) Use condoms wisely. For their NR-17 rating, which outsells R rating by four to one, use the four letter words, have explicit sex leaving nothing to the imagination. Folk tell me that this sort of stuff makes my dirty books pale in comparison. I doubt it, but those familiar with this genre are welcome to read Pornucopia and The Magic Fart and let me know. I believe I violate too many of the Cave taboos, despite having written the first novel over 30 years ago. So what to make of this? I think they are tapping into the enormous market for sex, and why not? I've always felt that a good novel should not have to expurgate the sexual element, which is after all a fundamental aspect of nature. But I do like to have a story with it.
An afternoon snack of assorted ice cream sticks was served; EPICon was great about feeding folk physically as well as mentally. Those of other folk behaved well; mine fell apart before I could finish it, and I got melted gunk on my hands and had to go wash up. No, I don't think Fate was sending me a message about messing with hard sticks poked into meltingly soft sweet substance; I just happen to be a slow eater.
Then on to the panel on E-Book Erotica, where some of the same folk were. Six women and Jeff as moderator; no symbolism there either, I think. Why write erotica? Money, for one thing; sales are hot. But some also like to write sensual stuff. Do family and friends know? Some do, some don't; the authors wish that some family members didn't. I know exactly how it is, having been brought up in a Quaker environment were elders were wary even of dancing or card playing. But I knew that if I allowed my writing to be subject to their tacit censorship, I would never be a success. It turns out that some men write female erotica under female pen names, and some women write under male names. Again, not much of a concern of mine, as my name is sometimes confused for female and occasionally stories circulate that I am a woman. There was a question: what was the oddest fan mail received? It seems that some readers do curse the authors (I think those are called critics), but I didn't hear anything really odd.
Then I took an hour's break, relaxing in my room, before attending the photo session. I didn't put on a tie, as I didn't need a picture; I simply make it a policy to get generally out amidst people, so that anyone who wants to meet me has opportunity. But the change in those who were getting publicity pictures was remarkable; suddenly these relaxed sloppy folk were spiffy. I sat and chatted amicably with several.
Then at 7 PM it was time for the Eppie Awards Banquet. I had asked Janice whether I could skip this, as in my experience they are long dull events and my interest in awards is limited. She urged me to attend, promising that it would be interesting. Sigh; I had my orders, so I attended. As we entered the hall, I was talking with Linda Eberharter, publisher of the new (as of January 2003) Liquid Silver Books imprint of Atlantic Bridge Publishing, dedicated to quality Romantica; she had been on the erotic panel. Her daughter was with her; I didn't catch her name, but she would surely answer to the appellation Blonde Bombshell. Women outnumbered men at EPICon four to one or worse, but the men I think noticed only this one woman, glowing like a star amidst debris; I'm surprised they let her in. Maybe the Liquid Silver artists use her as a cover model. She turned out to be another vegetarian, surely owing it all to that. At any rate, when the meals were delivered, it seemed that the steaks had been cut from old tractor tires. Remember the Incredible Hulk movie and TV? Banquets traditionally serve Inedible Bulk. Meanwhile the vegetarian portobello mushroom entree was wonderful. Gay, on my left, struggled with her blob, gave up, and exchanged it for a vegetarian entree; so then we were three, making the others suitably jealous, I'm sure. Vegetarianism will conquer the world; this night was one small step. Jeff, the Master of Ceremonies, was apt and clever throughout. Gay, journalist and mystery writer, asked me to define fantasy, and I gave my standard response: Science Fiction is the literature of the possible; Fantasy is the literature of the impossible. Gay turned out to be the presenter for the Fantasy Award, and she used my definition there. The winning novel for that category was Shadow Prince by Jennifer Dunne--you know, the one who helped me get into my hotel room. Everything makes sense when you fathom the threads. There was one category without a listing of finalists: the Friend of E-Publising Award, given to a person not a member of EPIC who had done most for electronic publishing. That turned out to be for me: a nice plaque for my ongoing Survey of Internet Publishing, and my support of the e-book format. Yes, I was surprised. Good thing I learned about EPIC and added it to my Survey recently.
Sunday morning I was up as usual at 5:30. I left my room before 7 AM, went to the courtyard, and found no one else up, nothing open. Par for the course. So I sat at a table in the atrium, admiring the exotic palm trees and sculptured artificial rivers that course from five rocky springs, along the court, down to a quiet central pool. It is truly a pleasant place. I read an issue of LIBERAL OPINION WEEK, trying to catch up on reading. The convention had been so busy I had read almost nothing, and had not written a story, as I usually do when traveling, though I did manage to make some notes for the story "Scenarios." In due course I was joined by Edward, who showed me a silver replica of the coin Jesus saw when they asked him the trick question whether Jews should pay taxes. If he said no, he would be in trouble with the Roman authorities; if he said yes, he would alienate his constituency. But he foiled them by replying "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's," and of course it was Caesar's picture on the coin. Jesus was no dummy.
Folk slowly gathered, and we had the Continental Breakfast. I talked with Katharine again. Two of her novels had been up for awards, but the inherent competitive dynamics of the awards process that turned me off several decades ago denied her. Then the breakfast melded into the final program, What Editors are Looking For Right Now. Last year only three publishers attended; this year there were eighteen, pretty well covering all genres between them. It wrapped up with door prizes, concluding about 11AM. EPICon was done.
Dan and Bob drive me home, and we got there by 1 PM. My wife served a luncheon and we chatted until 3 PM. Then Dan and Bob headed back to Tampa to catch their plane, unless their dulcet guide really was waiting at a motel in a negligee. I started in on the accumulated routine of complications of my father's estate, negotiations for movie options, and the ubiquitous stack of mail. Mundania is such a dull realm.
Only when I got home did I have occasion to delve into the collected goodies I had acquired during the convention. It was a considerable haul. One was a mini CD disc labeled EPIC History 1998-2003. I hadn't seen such small discs before and wasn't sure whether they would work on my system, but lo, no problem. In 1997 folk at Romance Writers of America--RWA--tried to set up a special email list for the exploration of ebooks. But RWA balked at having an epub chapter, so they had to do it independently, setting up their own website. Mary Wolf was president, but then she purchased Hard Shell and resigned so as to devote herself to that. EPIC incorporated and made plans for a conference. They had a mini-conference in Chicago in 1999, and the first full conference in 2000. Then another mini-con in Las Vegas in 2001, and another full one in Seattle in 2002. And of course the con in Tampa in 2003. EPIC was growing throughout, and now seems reasonably well established.
Other goodies: a copy of the January 2003 WRITER'S DIGEST. This magazine supports electronic publishing, unlike some in Parnassus, though I'm uncertain how deep that goes. This issue has a column on submissions and contracts, very general; articles on writing fiction and nonfiction; finding a mentor--that is, a successful writer to help guide you past the slings and arrows of outrageous editors--; setting goals; breaking into the women's markets (you don't have to be female); how to survive the problem editor (you mean there's any other kind?); writing for the alternative weeklies; 10 commandments of writing (which boil down to Love Writing and Be Professional); and so on. The novice writer can profit from this compendium of general advice; the pro can get along with out it, having graduated from school long ago. I never read such magazines, for example; I never was good at fitting into molds. My impression is that this magazine understates the hazards writers face, being largely fixed on positives, but I recommend it as a place to start.
There were numerous free samples of myriad types. A big plastic EPICon mug with a false bottom, under which is a Suncoast scene: loose sand, a toy baby alligator, palm fronds, shell, sunglasses, and a computer. Yes, I have a mug story: once my daughter had a fancy mug, and when company came she called down the stairs to me "Daddy, should I bring down my mug?" I replied, "Yes, and bring the rest of you too." I don't know why she moved far far away when grown. A pencil with a salamander. "Hugs and Chocolates," courtesy of Ginny McBlain (www.ginnymcblain.com), with real chocolates; maybe if you visit her site she'll email you some. Her 3.5" disk was also included, with the Bear Hugs novel. A packet of pepperment herbal tea, courtesy of Janet Lane Walters, author of Murder And Mint Tea. A necklace of plastic pearls from Catherine Snodgrass (www.catherinesnodgrass.com), author of Circle in the Sand, and several others, and a pen and newsletter. A cute keychain lamb doll from Karen Hudgins (www.KarenHudgins.com), author of One Night with Zorro. An emery board: "Stories to touch your heart," www.anitalynn-author.com. A week after my return I got a messed up fingernail; I clipped it back, but it was cracked so still snagged things. So I fetched that emery board and filed it smooth. Thanks, Anita, one time seat mate and author of Hart's Treasure, at FICTION WORKS, a novel with a breast cancer survivor. A badge from EBOOKS showing a naked man with a computer masking his groin: Hot Reads for your Hard Drive. CD disc What's Cooking, favorite recipes of authors at www.ebooksonthe.net; I recall being invited to contribute to this or a similar compendium and declining because I'm ignorant of recipes. 3.5" disk from The Book Babes, www.bookbabes.net. 3.5" disk Romance with Attitude from Maralee Lowder www.maraleelowder.com. 3.5" disk Holiday Hearts, by four authors, autographed by Linda Bleser. CD The Wages of Justice by Kate Saundby, the Double Dragon Publishing edition. I read that novel some time back, and believe I had some input on its revision. CD Mind Trap, audio, written and read by Tony Ruggiero. Also half a slew of bookmarks, and publishers; literature galore. I was also given the novel Tell No Tales, by the author, Michael P Higgins, in a massive 1stBooks trade paperback edition. This runs over 500 pages, and I had this convention report to do, so had to wait, but I did read it. Its setting is interesting: the year 2007, in the sixth year of the War Against Terrorism, some odd things happening. So it's a science fiction adventure, and my first glimpse of a physical 1stBooks edition. There are some problems with it; a competent copyeditor could have made a world of difference. But it is nevertheless a work of considerable imagination, with hard-hitting adventure. It could make a slam bang movie.
PERSPECTIVES ON PUBLISHING--a Dash of Cold WaterI'm a blockhead. No, I don't mean for coming here, and I'm not suddenly agreeing with my illustrious critics. I am referring to the statement by Samuel Johnson: No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. It's a nice pithy sentiment with which many agree, especially when responding to those who profess to be outraged that any person should ever get paid for writing. Well, I'm a commercial writer, which means I do write for money. But I don't write only for money. Money is my means to an end, rather than the end itself. I need money to survive so that I can continue writing. Anyone who writes without getting paid for it will soon be out of business unless he has an independent source of income. I made it as a writer, and now am pretty well independent. That means that now sometimes I can write what I want to write, instead of what someone else wants me to write.
But making it the way I did is like winning a lottery: only one writer in a hundred will ever sell anything traditionally, and perhaps only one in a hundred of those will make a good living from it. So unless you are that one in ten thousand, you'd better not be writing for money. You have to write for some other reason, such as the sheer love of self expression, or to sustain a worthy cause, or to create a thing of beauty. In short, you need to be a blockhead.
That goes for most publishers, too. There are a few big boys with access to the bookstores and publicity mechanisms, and about 99% of the sales. If you're a small publisher--and chances are that if you're an electronic publisher, you are small--you aren't going to make much money. So you'd better be in it for idealism or diversion or perversity; probably you won't get rich, even if you don't go broke, and you know it. So you have to be a blockhead too. In fact I'm pretty sure that just about all of us in this room are blockheads, and rather proud of it.
Now, having established my credits for addressing you--that is, that I'm a blockhead--I'll get down to business. I said only one in a hundred will make it to traditional print. I don't think there are reputable figures; some say only one in four hundred. Fortunately today there are alternatives. There are the small presses, and they publish many good books that big publisher's won't touch because they aren't interested in good books, they're interested in bestsellers. It is true that it is theoretically possible for the two categories to overlap, but as a practical matter it's not common. So if you have written a good book, small press is a more likely bet. And there's electronic publication, and the Internet connection. Why do I suspect that's not news to you folk of EPIC?
But here's the kicker: electronic publishers also have standards, both literary and commercial. They have to, because few will take them seriously if all they print is junk, and if they aren't aware of the bottom line, they'll soon be where the bottom goes, which is in the toilet. They are up against the cold equations of survival. They can't give you ideal terms, lest they perish. You may think it's smart to go to the publisher that provides the biggest royalties--and royalties can go as high as 70%--but if that publisher doesn't have a solid financial foundation, it will fold, probably just before your royalties come due. So they are looking for quality and saleability. That means they don't publish everything they can reach. In fact they take only about one in ten proffered manuscripts. Most are soon glutted with books. So if you're a writer with a book, you can upgrade your chances from one in a hundred to one in ten by going electronic. That's fine for you, if you happen to be the one who makes the grade, and you get a stable publisher. But what about the remaining 90% of all writers? They have dreams too. Where can they go?
That's where self publishing comes in. Let me make an important distinction: I don't mean vanity publishing, where you pay twenty thousand dollars and get crap, I mean affordable services that facilitate your doing it yourself, and you retain control of your literary rights. That's important. Technically they're not publishers, but they waddle and quack like publishers, and lay some eggs, so it's easy to dismiss the distinction. As some of you may know, I support self publishing. In fact I'm on the board of directors of one of the big ones, Xlibris. I invested in it for blockhead reason: not to make money, though it is possible I will, but because I wanted this avenue to exist for all writers. Yes, I use it myself; I have nineteen books there at present, all of which I paid to publish. Xlibris isn't perfect, but it's good enough, and so are the others. 1st Books, iUniverse, Trafford--compare their services and see what's best for you. There are small self publishers too, so you have a fairly wide choice. I maintain an ongoing survey of electronic and self publishers at my HiPiers.com site that anyone can access; it's free and ornery and, I hope, fair.
A sidelight on that: A year or three back I was asked to write an article on writing fantasy by a long-time writing trade magazine I had written for before. So I wrote a generalized advice piece, and included a positive note: aspiring writers who get nowhere in Parnassus, which is my name for the traditional publishing establishment, could go electronic and greatly increase their chances. I provided some Internet site addresses. And the editor refused to include any reference to that alternative. So I withdrew my piece and it was not published, and of course I wasn't paid. Here's the thing: not only was this censorship, which should be anathema to a magazine for writers, it was evidently editorial policy to provide its readers with no hint of their best chance for publication. It was locked in to Parnassus, serving the interest of traditional publishers rather than the interest of its readership. That disgusts me. When, decades ago, before electronic publishing existed, I encountered a similar attitude in a writer's organization, I quit it in disgust, and of course got badmouthed there as well as blacklisted. It seems Parnassus hasn't changed much in the interim.
Fortunately we do have electronic publishing now. If you have a book, you should be able get it published, one way or another, unless it's really offensive. Wouldn't you know, I ran off the Xlibris chart in two directions: I had some novels that were too big for it, and some that were too dirty for it. I believe I mentioned that today I can write what I want to, and that can mean pushing the limits. What's the point of limits if you can't push them? So I found a small press that lacks those limits, and if you have a lot of patience or a dirty mind, you'll be able to obtain those books. So if you have written a book that makes even self publishers balk, keep looking; you can surely get it into print somewhere, somehow. Thus virtually every writer is publishable today, if only by Blockhead Books. I love that.
But here's the dash of cold water on that: not only may it cost you several hundred dollars, which you are unlikely to recoup; when reader reactions come in you may be sorry you did it. Because chances are you aren't nearly as good a writer as you think you are. Despite appearances, editors are not total fools. They may reject your manuscript because it is unreadable. So it's worth pondering not only what you can do, but what you should do. If your book gets bounced many times, consider whether you are after all not destined to be a writer. I'm a writer, not a publisher, but I have to say that some writers seem less than realistic. Once I received a query from a hopeful writer that was directed to another established writer; the publisher had garbled the mail and sent it to the wrong writer. It happens; anyone named Anthony can be confused, or even Piers--I once got a passel of student letters intended for Piers Paul Read. Yes, I redirected them, and hope he eventually received them. But in this particular case, the correspondent was offering a deal: he would write the books, and the established writer could put her name on them, making them salable, and send him half the money. Great plan, no? I redirected the letter, but also wrote to this person myself, explaining that readers and even some editors do notice the difference in styles and competence, so it wouldn't work. I suggested that he focus on developing his own talent and name; this might take time and effort, but would be better for him in the long haul. He wrote back: "You don't understand: I need the money now." I let him be; this turd had to find his own bottom line.
I also receive queries from writers asking for my personal recommendation for a specific publisher to try. I try to avoid doing that, for several reasons. There may be no single publisher that is ideal for every writer, just as there may be no single man or woman who is the ideal marriage partner. Publishers and writers vary, and the challenge is to find a good fit. That means spot research on the part of the writer, keeping his own needs in mind. Also, there are a number of worthwhile publishers; who am I to say any one is the best? When it comes to self publishing, I have a conflict of interest; the one I know best is the one I have money in. How can my judgment there be trusted? So I try to comment objectively on the ones in my survey, include the links, and leave it to writers to sort out what makes sense for them.
I mentioned trying to be objective. That means positive and negative comments where they seem warranted. A list that praises every publisher, including the bad ones, is useless; there has to be some differentiation. Naturally publishers don't like negative comments about them. I do get feedback. Yes, some of those publishers are here; no, I won't name them. Some are polite, correcting my errors; some are threatening. I feel it is a point of principle to stand my ground, and to protect my sources. If a writer gets wronged by a publisher, and tells me, and I run the information anonymously as a warning for others, naturally the publisher wants to know who the whistle-blower is, so it can step on him. I won't tell, because my survey would be useless if I let publishers squelch all negative comments. I have been the route; as I mentioned, I was blacklisted by some traditional publishers for six years because I complained to a writer's organization and got a lawyer when a publisher cheated me and stonewalled my queries, and the organization tacitly sided with the errant publisher. This was serious business; I survived as much by luck as determination, and the rights of the case had little to do with it. I learned first hand, the hard way, that justice does not necessarily prevail, and that neither publishers nor writers are necessarily honest. Parnassus has one big bottom; some of it does smell.
This is where it pays to be the ogre: today I have the will and the means to take it to an errant publisher, and I have done so on occasion. I know that the average writer can't do that, so I feel obliged to do it myself when it is warranted. I tend to view editors as a different and inferior species and publishers as potential scoundrels. But how can I tell when a writer has an unjustified grudge and just wants to get back at the publisher? This can be tricky. So I run the comments, but keep an eye on the situation, and sometimes retract them on a subsequent update. I hope you will take my word that I have never done so on the basis of a threat. But neither do I trash those who threaten me, except to summarize the situation in their entries in my survey, in my ornery fashion, so that all will know their attitude and mine. A publisher can be arrogant but also honest; I know it's possible, because that's the way I am. That doesn't mean I'm always right, just that I do try to correct my mistakes.
I mentioned luck. It's nice to think that good writing ability is all you need to succeed as a writer. File that with the other illusions. Even if the system were not loaded against the beginning writer, he still needs to get the right manuscript before the right editor at the right publisher at the right time, and that can be sheer chance. It can also be damned near impossible, in traditional publishing, because most editors will not even look at unagented manuscripts, and most agents won't take on writers who have not previously been published. I sold several novels on my own, and got cheated, before I got an agent. For small press, electronic, and self publishing you can make it without an agent; in fact you may have to, because there's not enough money in it to interest most agents. If you make enough of a splash electronically, then you may be able to interest a good agent. You don't want a bad agent; that's another black hole. But at such time as you can get a good one, do so; you'll have to pay him 15% of your earnings, but he may double your income and save you the sort of hassles I got into early on. An agent has leverage you don't.
Let's say you have your book and you find an electronic publisher. This type of publishing is new, and standards have not jelled. We need a model e-contract, because publishers can rip you off legally by predatory terms, and some will. Some things to look for: limitation of rights taken, such as electronic only, so that if a traditional publisher offers you a bundle for your book, you can take it. I had a report of a movie option proffered for a book, $7,500, which is a good offer, that could have transformed the author's career, but the e-publisher controlled the book's movie rights, tried to get greedy, and lost it. A license for a fixed term, such as two years, so you can recover your rights then without hassle if you are not satisfied. If you are satisfied, then you can renew it; it merely gives you some control. An audit clause, so if you suspect there's a mistake or outright cheating, you can prove it. A typical audit clause allows you or your lawyer to inspect the publisher's accounts, at your own expense, unless a discrepancy in your disfavor is found that amounts to more than ten per cent of the total; in that case, the publisher must pay for the audit, as well as catching up the missing royalties. This is not academic; I audited a print publisher, caught it cheating, and made it pay for the audit. But if you are wrong, and the accounts are straight, you pay--and I've done that too. So this clause is not a license to harass the publisher without cause.
Here's something that happens in traditional print publishing that I don't think occurs in electronic publishing--yet. It's called privishing. This is when for some reason the publisher changes its stupid mind about your great book, and doesn't want to publish it, but has already paid the advance and is obliged by contract to follow through. So it prints a few copies and releases them without any real promotion, so few folk even know the book exists, let alone where to buy it. Since few electronic publishers pay advances, they don't need to privish; they can simply dump your book. But keep an eye on it; they might hang on to the rights without doing anything with the book, so you can't take it elsewhere. I have a jaundiced view of the way traditional print publishers typically treat writers; I have seen more than enough of the way they can hold the writer to the letter of the contract, while violating it themselves. Just because they can. This is not going to change unless the balance of power changes. It is said that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear; when I was in the US Army we had a more pithy version: you can scrub and scrub but you can't shine shit. I don't want to see it in electronic publishing, and I will expose it when I do see it. Meanwhile, try to keep an escape hatch in the contract, such as the limited license I mentioned, so you can get out of it if the publisher does wrong by you or your book. This is where an agent can really help, if only you had an agent.
One liability of electronic publishing is that the author may have to do the promotion. If you love traveling at your own expense to hawk your book, and you like paying for ads, and you have connections to get book-signings, okay. But if you're like me, you'd rather stay home and let the publisher handle all that. So consider the promotion the publisher is prepared to do on your behalf. It can make the difference between great sales, and dead weight. The thing is, there are thousands of books out there, and unless there is some way to attract the attention of your potential readers, they won't know your book exists. Traditional publishers ship books to bookstores, and a fair percentage of readers go into the stores, look around, and choose from what is there. That doesn't happen with electronic books; they aren't in the bookstores. Maybe in future they will be, but you have to survive today.
So maybe you'll use the Self Publishing and Print-on-Demand technology to print up a pile of books and market them yourself. You've got a Web site and friends; surely you can sell, oh, a hundred books. If you make two dollars profit per book, and you sell them all, you've got two hundred dollars right there. And all it cost you to publish it was $500. You blockhead. I've been that route too; HiPiers was originally set up to sell my own books. We had an office and a staff and an 800 number, and copies of all my titles. We did sell a lot of books. And we lost $50,000 a year. So we shut it down, and they gave our 800 number, still listed in some of my books, to a porno outfit. Now I get irate letters from the mothers of teens who tried that number, and some blacklist me. So heed the voice of experience: be cautious.
So I hope my dashes of cold water have chilled you somewhat. What I'm trying to do is to bring reality to your fond dreams. By all means write your book, and get it published, and hope for the best. And you publishers, do what you can to be successful. All of you have a better chance today than you would have had a decade ago. Just be aware of the pitfalls. You are unlikely to make a lot of money or fame, but if you get the right breaks, and play them correctly, one of you writers in ten thousand may achieve the sort of success I did, and I wish you the best of it. One of you publishers may advance from the small time to the big time; more power to you. Just try to do it without making the mistakes I made, and without getting too arrogant. After a while, it can get tiresome being a blockhead. There are panels coming up at this convention to help you steer a better course in whatever respect you require. Be there.
And maybe, maybe, all of us together can help change the face of publishing so that there is room again for good books by ordinary folk that are not bestsellers. So the regular guy can have a fair chance. The Internet is a phenomenally powerful tool, and we're still pretty much on the ground floor. What we do today will help determine the shape of publishing tomorrow, and not just on the Internet. There is our Dream; let's try to make it come true.
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