Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Historical Fiction—Doing it Right

I write historical fiction. I chose this genre because I enjoy the research and a historical novel can last forever. My first book was a nonfiction computer technology book that was obsolete before Wiley could get it on bookshelves. After that experience, I vowed never again to write a book that had a three nanosecond shelf life.

(The Shut Mouth Society is a contemporary thriller, but it still has a strong historical theme around Abraham Lincoln.)

I enjoy history. History is the big, ongoing story about how we developed as a world and as a nation. History is a gazillion stories about people who lead, hindered, or stood around as stuff happened. Every one of them has potential to be an interesting story.

In nonfiction, events should be factually accurate. Historical fiction, on the other hand, can go places where nonfiction dare not tread, but it should stay true to the tenor of events. Although historical fiction may be free of the rigors of documentation, it remains subject to the precepts of storytelling. That means historical fiction, like all fiction, must have a beginning, middle, and end and remain interesting throughout. That’s always a tough assignment, but especially difficult when telling about real events.

A few months ago, Chuck Sambuchino wrote “How to Write Historical Fiction: 7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity.” I agree with all seven, but would add an eighth: don’t let research interfere with telling the story. This is not original with me, of course. It is usually stated: don’t let your research show. It’s tempting to drop a factoid into a storyline. Interesting tidbits can add spice and intrigue. They may do just that, but unless the information moves the story forward, it should be cut. The prime directive of storytelling is to never take the reader out of the story. A fascinating sidebar does exactly that. In fact, the more fascinating, the more likely it will distract the reader away from the story. Good writers should cut everything extraneous to the storyline.

Adhering to an accurate timeline can also ruin a story. Tempest at Dawn is my novelization of the Constitutional Convention. In my first draft, I presented speeches in their proper historical order. My book was as disjoined as the actual convention. When someone gave a speech, it took days for an opponent to craft a rebuttal. All kinds of other subjects were discussed in between. By remaining faithful to the actual sequence of events, the critical elements of pacing and tension were lost. I decided to write a historical novel about the convention to bring life to the characters and intrigue. Exactness was defeating my purpose.

There are many top quality history books on the Constitutional Convention, so I decided to tell a rousing story that was true but not completely accurate. In my first major rewrite, I adjusted the convention sequence so speeches were immediately followed by rebuttals. Since I only included the controversial or emotional speeches, the book suddenly took on energy. I also discover that the adjusted timeline made alternate opinions more easily understood.

I resolved the ethical question with a Historical Note at the end of the book that explained I had reordered speeches for clarity. A simple solution to keep the story moving.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Books that drove me mad

Kimberly Turner published a piece on Lit Reactor titled, “7 Horrifying Ailments Named After Literary Characters.” I believe she missed a few, but then Turner wrote about real ailments. Here are a few phobias I developed from reading books.

Marathon Man made me afraid of the dentist.

Ever since Psycho, I lock the bathroom door when I shower.

The Ghost and the Darkness made me fear tall grass.

2001: A Space Odyssey convinced me computers were out to get me.

Apollo 13 made me afraid of the number 13.

The Da Vinci Code kept me away from art museums.

The Shining made me avoid long, empty hallways.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Banned authors clobber the banners!

western fictionI was unaware that my favorite library once banned a book by my favorite author. In 1885, the Concord Free Public Library banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. You should never slight Mark Twain. He responded immediately to the ban by declaring:
“Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums.’ This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”
Too bad Twain is not around to chasten those who still want to condemn Huck. Nowadays, they want to ban the book for using the n-word. Ironic, since his intent was to expose and ridicule racism.

Flavorwire has published 10 Famous Authors’ Funniest Responses to Their Books Being Banned. The moral of the story is to never attack someone who knows how to wield a keyboard. My favorite is Ray Bradbury’s reponse.
“… it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmild teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. ”

Libraries that are architectural wonders

Monday, November 18, 2013

11 Things Writers are Tired of Hearing

BuzzFeed listed 10 Things Writers are tired of hearing. Add cute animations and some acerbic replies and you have an interesting article. Here are the BuzzFeed’s 10 and my personal answers.

     1.     Do you make any money doing that?
             Yes, but I’m still struggling to make more than minimum wage.
     2.     When does your book come out?
             Darn … last year.
     3.     Oh, I have a great story for you…
             I only have enough time on this planet to write my stories.
     4.     You should write about me!
             I’m glad you haven’t noticed I already did.
     5.     Cool. You know, J.K. Rowling is a millionaire.
             Yeah, but she went to school at Hogwarts.
     6.     What’s your novel about?
             About 72,000 words.
     7.     You have your MFA? What’s that do?
             Actually, I have an MBA. It taught me how to make money so I could write.
     8.     Have you ever considered being a journalist?
             I write fiction, which means I lie for a living. Wait a minute …
     9.     But what’s your real job?
             Not writing. I enjoy it too much for it to feel like work.
   10.     Really? Nobody reads books anymore.
            You obviously don’t have grandchildren bugging you to buy them chapter books.

Okay, so here is my #11 thing I am tired of hearing: When will the next Steve Dancy book be out? 

Actually, I love to hear that, but I tend to over-promise, so I cringe when people ask a second and third time. It takes way too long to get a book from first draft to print-ready.  And if I haven’t worked on it for a few days, the query makes me feel guilty. 

Honest stories filled with dishonest characters.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What makes a good TV series?

Bonanza, 4th Longest Running Series
What makes a good television series? You probably already guessed that I would say writing. Some might say exceptional characters, but writers define those characters. In fact, the characters are usually defined prior to casting. Actors audition to fill predefined roles. Actors? Without a quality script, even great actors phone it in.

Television writing is a team contact sport. A series can employ over a dozen writers and everyone knows you can’t manage writers. They always want to do something creative and a television series promises continuity. Writers are egotistical. Writers are inflexible. Most writers are slow and disdain deadlines. Television writers want celebrities to mouth their words, not the words of the writer sitting next to them. A room full of writers magnify these flaws exponentially.

Simpson's Writing Room
So again, what makes a good television series?  Not writing per se, but skillful management of a writing team. This is a tough job. The lead writer needs to define hard boundaries, yet encourage craftsmanship and creativity within those boundaries. 

Do you want to see a small example on how this is done? Read Writing for Bonanza: Seven Rules From 1968. Rule #7 summarizes the rules nicely: "What we do want is Western action and Western adventure, concerning a worthy and dramatic problem for the Cartwrights, and strong opponents. We want human drama built around a specific locale and specific period in the country’s history; simple, basic stories as seen through the eyes of Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe Cartwright, and Candy.”

After reading this article, it’s obvious that a key element of managing writers is clarity. Firm rules, stated firmly. Then let them have at it. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

How do you think Westerns have evolved in film?

Robert Duvall is one of my favorite Western actors. (Others on my list include John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, Gene Hackman, Sam Elliott, Steve McQueen, … oh never mind, there are too many.)

Duvall starred or had a major role in Lonesome Dove, Open Range, Broken Trail, True Grit, Joe Kidd, Lawman, and The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid.

Recently in an interview, he was asked, “There have been some takes on the western genre recently, with Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and The Lone Ranger. How do you think Westerns have evolved in film?”

He answered: “Well, if that's what it's evolved into, I don't know what to say (laughs). That's all I'll comment on at this point.”

‘Nuff said.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Yeah, this skit has it about right.

Many years ago, in what seems like a prior life, I wrote a nonfiction book on enterprise computing. At the time, I was a Chief Technology Officer for a Fortune 50 company. Since nonfiction is all about credentials, I had no trouble finding an agent and publisher. I was pretty happy. I had a Boston agent and Wiley & Sons as a publisher. This was going to be good.

I wanted to title my book Dinosaurs and Whippersnappers. I thought that would be a catchy title for a book about managing computer professionals. Unfortunately, my editor disagreed. In fact she disagreed with everything I wanted to write. She insisted that focus groups had determined that books with the word Digital in the title were in high demand. Against my wishes, she re-titled the book The Digital Organization. She also wanted the book to be about corporate America, insisting that I leverage my familiarity with a celebrity CEO. I also couldn't criticize any inane technology fad because Wiley had surely already published a book that claimed the craze would blow away all prior technology, reduce the corporate labor force by half, and eliminate childhood illness. 

None of this was good advice. By the time the book was eventually published, technologists were sick and tired of books with Digital in the title, my celebrity CEO had lost his luster, and all of my technology advice and references were woefully out of date. Business leaders, however, still had to manage computer professionals and my chapter on this subject kept the book alive in some MBA programs.

What brought all of this ancient history to mind? A hilarious skit by Mitchell and Webb. Way too close to my personal experience. Take a gander. 

The irony of all of this is that Wiley is still marketing The Digital Organization. Traditional publishing moves at a glacial pace, so this technology book was already obsolete by the time it hit bookshelves in 1997. Yet Wiley continues to offer a Kindle version for $49.95. Not many authors recommend against buying one of their own books, but I suggest you give this one a pass.

By the way, this experience taught me a lesson. Never write a book that has a shelf-life of six nanoseconds. This is a big reason why I write historical novels. They last forever. Even the contemporaneous books of Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Raymond Chandler, and Louisa May Alcott are now read as historical novels. I may not be of their caliber, but I sure want to write in their genre.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Publishing Trends Viewed from an Omaha Armchair

The digital revolution continues to roil publishing, so here are a few of my recent observations. I suspect at least three of these five are correct. It’s your job to figure out which three.
  1. Shift from books to e-books is leveling out
  2. Content becoming more profitable than e-reader devices
  3. Amazon continues to innovate ahead of traditional publishers
  4. Traditional publishers are adapting
  5. Indie-e-books are a saturated market

Can traditional publishers fight off the pesky indies?

Shift From books to e-books is leveling out

For the prior five years, my printed book sales as a percent of total sales have declined. Until this year. In 2013, the ratio of print, e-book, audio, and large print sales have all held steady with 2012. In fact, in recent months, I have seen a slight resurgence in printed books. I suspect this means that the e-book phenomenon has reached a mature state.

Content becoming more profitable than e-reader devices

Amazon appears to be shifting its e-book strategy, with increased emphasis on content rather than on selling Kindles. Device prices have dropped as technology-prone readers have for the most part already purchased Kindles. Now, the big money is in selling content and annual device upgrades. Amazon has taken a couple of subtle steps to nudge e-book prices up, or more precisely to inhibit low or zero priced content.

Amazon continues to innovate ahead of traditional publishers

Amazon has recently started two new programs. The Matchbook feature allows publishers to offer a steeply discounted Kindle version to print book purchasers. This is doubly clever. Matchbook encourages book purchases through Amazon rather than competitors who cannot offer a similar deal on the market-leading Kindle. Matchbook also adds revenue without cannibalizing either format, while at the same time furthering Kindle domination. The second program is called Kindle Countdown Deal, which allows publishers to program discounted e-books for a limited time. The trick here is that Amazon "counts down" the remaining discount days to build urgency into the buy decision. Both of these are attempts by Amazon to increase their control over e-book discounting.

                                         Traditional publishers are adapting

Even a battleship can eventually turn. Traditional publishers are flexing their promotional muscles and showing contract flexibility with their bestselling authors. Mid-list authors aren't getting any better treatment, but they seldom made money for traditional publishers anyway. Few care if they jump ship. It looks like it’s turning into a build your platform first world. By the end of the publishing digital revolution, it’s possible traditional publishers will be more profitable. 

Indie-e-books are a saturated market

First giving away books for free quit working, now it’s hard to sell e-books at 99¢. When there are tens of thousands of e-books published every month, it’s hard for any particular author to get noticed, despite whatever financial shenanigans are employed. As more and more indie-authors experience weak sales, a growing number will pursue other endeavors. This will reduce supply until we reach market equilibrium. In the meantime, indie competition will be a slugfest.

Monday, November 4, 2013

If you bought print copies of my books from Amazon, get a Kindle version for 99¢

Many people are unaware that Amazon has a program called Matchbook. If the publisher enrolls their books in the program, Amazon purchasers of print books can get an Kindle e-book version for a steep discount. The price for Matchbook must be between zero and $2.99. All of my books have been set at 99¢. This means if you have ever bought one of my print books on Amazon, you can now pick up a Kindle version for less than a dollar. 

Here is a link that will display all of your eligible titles.  

You'll see all the books you've purchased that are enrolled in this program, but I'm sure you'll jump on my books first. If not, maybe second? Anyway it's a good program, especially for people who have made many purchases through the years, but have only recently acquired a Kindle. 

Happy reading.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Catching Killers

January Magazine publishes a series titled “Five of a Kind," and one of the articles in the series is Bill Crider's, “Sleuths in Spurs” about Western mysteries.

He writes, “People are reading mysteries from just about any time period you can name. Except one. Nobody's reading mysteries set in America's Wild West.” Bummer. But not entirely true. My own Western mystery, Murder at Thumb Butte, has not knocked anyone off the NYT bestseller list, but sales are pleasingly steady. The audio version narrated by Jim Tedder and the large print edition have also sold well.

Crider not only summarizes “5 of a kind,” but goes on to lists many other Western mysteries. He forgot Murder at Thumb Butte, a traditional whodunit with a Western theme. To make up for his absentmindedness, here is a synopsis:

102 Amazon Reviews for 4.4 Stars
254 Goodreads Ratings for 4.1 Stars

In the spring of 1880, Steve Dancy travels to Prescott, Arizona to gain control of a remarkable invention. But on his first night in the territorial capital, his friend, Jeff Sharp is arrested for a midnight murder at Thumb Butte. Dancy launches a personal investigation to find the real murderer, only to discover the whole town wanted the victim dead. For help, he turns to another old friend and associate, Captain Joseph McAllen of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
Can Dancy discover the true killer before his friend stretches a rope on the courthouse square?

If you like mysteries, don’t forget about crime dramas on the American frontier. Crider’s article can guide you to almost 50 good detective yarns.

He concludes his article by writing, “Western mysteries are all around, and anyone who refuses to read them because they feature horses and Colt revolvers is missing some wonderful reading.”