Jim Aikin's Oblong Blob

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Archive for the ‘writing’ Category

Gatekeepers and Glut

Posted by midiguru on October 19, 2014

This fall I dusted off an unfinished project, the first book in a fantasy epic trilogy, and spent a few weeks finishing and polishing it. It’s aimed at the YA (young adult) market, which is booming. Trying to write honestly and accurately from the point of view of a 17-year-old girl is perhaps a bit tough if you’re a guy and over 60, but I think I did okay. (Naturally, I’m not in a position to be objective.)

So now I have a complete novel sitting on my hard drive, and a detailed outline of the trilogy. The next step is to try to find an agent. And that’s where the plot thickens. Because the market is healthy, agents are inundated with manuscripts from aspiring writers. A conservative estimate, based on no data whatever, would be that as many as 1,000 times more YA manuscripts are hitting agent in-boxes as are ever published.

Think about that. You’re a literary agent. In the email every morning you receive maybe 20 query letters from aspiring writers. The next morning, 20 more. This year you have the bandwidth to take on maybe four or five new clients, total. Granted, 80% of those queries will be garbage. You can drag them to the trash without a qualm. But that still leaves 20 queries every week, among which a hidden gem may be lurking.

To make matters worse, your salary is 100% on commission. If you pick what you hope is a winner and put hours and days of work into pitching it to publishers, but it doesn’t find a home, you’ve been working for $0 per hour. The result is predictable: The agent is only going to take on a book by a new, untested author if the book dovetails in a precise way with what publishers are buying this season. If the publishers think paranormal romance (basically, girl-meets-vampire) is a glut on the market, it doesn’t matter how fresh or wonderful the writer’s paranormal romance manuscript is. Sorry, Mr. or Ms. Author — you’re not going to be able to find an agent.

You can self-publish, of course, and do your own book promotion. In the Internet age, the tools for self-publishing are very good. You may sell a few copies, or even a few hundred copies. But you’re never going to see your book on the shelves in Barnes & Noble. That door is shut, barred, and bolted.

Anyway, I’m not into self-promotion. I’ve always felt, rightly or wrongly, that promotion and marketing should be left to those who have a talent for it. I’d rather spend my limited time on this planet actually creating stuff. My goal is to find someone else who will market my stuff.

In a perverse way, though, I’m starting to get interested in taking on a creative project for which there is no market whatsoever. Not just because it’s one less thing to worry about while writing, but because I’ll have no competition. Whatever I do will be, as the Romans used to say, sui generis — of its own kind.

But in the meantime, I have a list of seven literary agents to query.

 

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Lowered Expectations

Posted by midiguru on September 25, 2014

Doing a little research into the YA fantasy novel market. (Don’t ask why. Way too soon to talk about it.) Had to share this delightful bit from an Amazon reader review of Throne of Glass, by Sarah Maas. Calaena is the girl-assassin heroine of the series, but possibly not a character whose appeal will be universal:

“Celaena’s backstory is gruesome. Her parents were murdered when she was very little, and she was tossed out into the streets. Then an assassin adopted her, trained her up, and sent her out to kill people. She killed and killed and killed…until she was captured and sent to a labor camp at the age of seventeen. That’s a series of unfortunate events, right? That’s a grim, grim, grim life. And yet Celaena is a chipper, cheery sort of girl. She’s not troubled or wounded or broody or damaged. She thinks about murder in the bubbly, uncomplicated manner of a cheerleader practicing for the big game, and her primary concern after leaving the labor camp is eating enough to be svelte and attractive again.”

Zing!

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Dumb Bunny

Posted by midiguru on September 6, 2014

A few years back, I bought a mystery by Michael Connelly called Chasing the Dime. I’m pretty sure I never read it, but the other day when I was looking for something to read, there it was on my shelf.

Turns out it’s not a Harry Bosch novel (though an old case of Bosch’s is referred to, sort of but not quite peripherally). The viewpoint character is not a cop or a lawyer, he’s a genius biochemist named Henry Pierce.

My first thought was, “Oh, this is Connelly’s modern take on the amateur sleuth sub-genre.” Amateur sleuths (the prototype is Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple) tend to be found in the “cozy” sub-genre, not in Connelly’s two-fisted, tension-filled corner of the mystery universe, so this could be interesting.

I’m now 3/4 of the way through the book, and it has now become apparent that this is not an amateur sleuth story at all. Henry Pierce is being set up to be convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. Dark forces are at work. But that’s not what I wanted to comment on.

The problem with the story is that Pierce keeps acting like an idiot. We’re told he’s a Stanford grad. Not only is he a genius biochemist, he also has enough business smarts to be running his own company with more than 30 employees. He reads patent documents on his lunch break. And yet, when confronted with indications of criminal misconduct, he does everything backwards.

He’s drawn into the mystery by the fact that his new phone is suddenly ringing off the hook with calls for a hooker. The number is on her web page, but somehow it has gotten reassigned to him. This, in itself, is highly suspicious, for two reasons. First, the phone company doesn’t usually reassign numbers for a few months after the old account has closed — but more significant, why was the old account closed? The hooker is missing and has quite likely been murdered, but she seems to have disappeared quite suddenly: Her house has been abandoned for a month or so, but the rent has been paid and the power hasn’t been shut off. So how did her phone number happen to get reassigned?

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Culture, Creativity, and Copyright

Posted by midiguru on July 29, 2014

The law of copyright is a modern innovation. Copyright protection was developed for an important reason — to enable creative people to earn a living by doing creative work. Before the law assumed its present form, authors and composers routinely saw their popular works pirated. Unless an artist was fortunate enough to have a wealthy patron, the artist’s income was precarious.

As valuable as this legal framework has been to thousands of artists, there’s a downside. Works that captivate the public (and also, for that matter, works that remain little-known) remain exclusively owned and controlled for a number of years by the owner of the copyright. During the term of the copyright, nobody else can make use of the materials in a creative work.

Here’s a neat example of why this is a bad thing. In 1562, a long-forgotten author named Arthur Brooke published an English translation, in verse, of an Italian love story. He called it “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.” Only 30 years later, Shakespeare recast the story in a play, Romeo and Juliet. If modern copyright law had been in existence in England in the 16th century, we would not be able to enjoy that play today, because Shakespeare wouldn’t have written it. Just as likely, Brooke couldn’t have published his translation either, so Shakespeare would never have been inspired by it.

Technically, Shakespeare could have written the play — and then put it away in a drawer for 50 or 75 years, until Brooke’s copyright expired. But why would he have written it if he couldn’t publish it or have it performed?

Culture is not a private act. It’s a shared public experience, a shared human experience. Culture should not be kept locked away in tight little boxes that nobody is allowed to open unless they’ve checked out an authorized key from the Official Keeper of the Authorized Keys.

The law of copyright turns culture into a commodity. It turns the recipients and beneficiaries of culture (that is, all of us) into passive consumers. We’re allowed to enjoy the hallowed works of culture, but we’re not allowed to participate in them in any significant creative way.

Unless, of course, the copyright holder gives permission, either tacitly or overtly. The world of fanfic (fan fiction) is apparently quite healthy. People write their own Harry Potter stories, their own Star Wars and Star Trek stories. Some authors (such as J. K. Rowling) allow it. Others (such as George R. R. Martin) don’t. It’s up to the author — or, if the author has died or sold the rights, to the current owner of the copyright.

I’m sure most fanfic is dreadful, but that’s neither here nor there. The people who write fanfic are actively participating in their own culture, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Eventually, after the passage of years (and the law differs from one nation to another with respect to how many years have to pass) a copyrighted work passes into the public domain. When that happens, anybody can exercise their own creativity by freely adapting the material. Anybody can write Sherlock Holmes stories or Wizard of Oz stories, because those books are in the public domain.

To be more specific, the L. Frank Baum Oz books are in the public domain. Ruth Plumly Thompson’s Oz books aren’t, so you can use the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion, but you can’t use any characters that Thompson created.

As that caveat suggests, you have to be careful. Want to write a sequel to The Maltese Falcon? It was published in 1930. The legal situation in the United States is murky, but many novels published since 1923 are still protected by copyright. You might have the makings of a terrific mystery starring Sam Spade rattling around in your head, but unless the copyright owner (whoever that happens to be) is feeling charitably disposed, you could be in for a world of hurt.

This is not how culture and creativity are supposed to work. I don’t have a solution to offer, but there is damn well a problem here.

Posted in music, politics, random musings, society & culture, writing | 4 Comments »

Reality Check

Posted by midiguru on July 16, 2014

The local public library has hundreds of books on religion, but only a handful on atheism. Yesterday I checked out The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, by Alex Rosenberg. At first glance, it seems sensible enough, but problems soon develop.

Rosenberg is absolutely right to insist that science provides the only usable source of information with which to address life’s important questions. He gives himself a quick pop quiz, and gets the answers right: Is there a God? No. What is the purpose of the universe? There is none. What is the meaning of life? Ditto. Does prayer work? Of course not. Is there free will? Not a chance!

He’s also correct, I think, in noting that a big part of the appeal of religion is that the human brain is hard-wired by evolution to relate to stories. Religion is a huge repository of stories — charming, inspiring, or scary. Science is hard for people to grasp because it isn’t a collection of stories.

Where he runs off the rails is in his discussion of science. He doesn’t get his facts straight. Instead, he starts telling stories. Okay, there are no people in the stories, but they’re fables nonetheless.

He accepts the hypothesis of a multiverse as fact, when in fact it’s no more than a vague guess, unsupported by a shred of evidence. He asserts that the entire physical universe is made up of fermions and bosons, even though physicists have no idea what sort(s) of particles dark matter (if it even exists) may be composed of. He dismisses the anthropic principle without troubling to explain that there is a weak anthropic principle (which is quite sensible) and a strong anthropic principle (which is silly).

Or consider this passage: “The physicist’s picture of the universe is the one on which all bets should be placed. The bets are not only that it’s correct as far as it goes, but that it will eventually go all the way and be completely correct. When finished, it will leave nothing out as unexplained from physical first principles (besides those principles themselves).” [Italics in original.] This reminds me of the apocryphal comment, made toward the end of the 19th century, that the Patent Office might as well be closed, because all of the devices that could be invented had already been invented.

As any reader of Scientific American knows, the frontiers of physics are very fuzzy indeed. The essential problem — and it’s not just a practical problem, though it is that; it’s essential — is that the things physicists would like to study are so very small or so very distant in space and time that we’re reaching the limits beyond which it will be impossible to gather raw observational data.

And while we’re on the subject, where exactly did those first principles in physics come from? This is not a trivial question. As Einstein once remarked (or so I’ve read), “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Why exactly should all electrons behave identically? And isn’t that question one that physics should be prepared to investigate?

No, Mr. Rosenberg, physics will never be complete.

His discussion of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is conventional, but flawed. (I’m sure this same flaw is found in physics textbooks. You don’t have to thank me.) Here is how Rosenberg puts it: “The second law tells us that in any region of space left to itself, differences in the amount of energy will very, very, very probably even out until the whole region is uniform in energy.” A few pages later, he says the second law “requires only the extremely probable increase in entropy from moment to moment in a closed system — the whole universe or some isolated part of it.”

There are two related problems with this formulation.

First, there is no such thing as a closed system. You can build an iron box if you like, and pack it full of gas molecules, and observe how they mix. That’s the sort of “closed” system theorists like to talk about. But every second, millions of neutrinos will be zipping straight through that box, as if the iron walls weren’t even there. The iron walls themselves, not having been cooled to absolute zero, will be radiating heat into the interior of the box while simultaneously absorbing heat from whatever is outside the box.

Yes, the Second Law will describe what’s going to happen in the box, unless some outside source of energy intervenes. If an improbable distribution of gas molecules shows up, you look for the outside source of energy. That’s very sensible, but let’s not talk about closed systems, shall we? There are always outside forces acting on a “closed” system.

Second, and more important, we don’t know that the universe as a whole is a closed system. It may be infinite in extent. The part we can observe appears to be finite, though extremely large — but there is an edge past which we can’t see. We don’t know what may be out there past the furthest objects we can observe. If the universe is infinite, then the Second Law becomes meaningless as applied to the universe as a whole, because somewhere out there, there will always be regions of improbably high energy density.

And that’s just the chapter on physics. Having barely started on the chapter about biology and evolution, I stumbled on this howler: “Darwin estimated that at least 300 million years had been required for natural selection to provide the level of adaptation we see around us. (He was off by three orders of magnitude….)” Sorry, Mr. Rosenberg. The difference between 300 million and 3 billion (the actual time span) is only one order of magnitude, not three.

With friends like this, atheism may not need enemies.

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Needed: Big Blue Box

Posted by midiguru on July 10, 2014

I really ought to go back to writing science fiction. In science fiction you get to make stuff up. The trouble with writing about the real world is, you pretty much have to get it right. Or at least, I feel compelled to do so.

I like reading mystery novels, so it would be natural to think about writing one. (I don’t actually like reading science fiction. With a few exceptions in the fantasy genre, SF annoys the shit out of me.) But modern police work is complex, not least for reasons of advanced technology. If I were to try writing a mystery set today, nailing down the details of law enforcement and digital surveillance would be a lot of work, and not very gratifying work. Besides which, crime itself has sort of fallen victim to technology. How can the murderer concoct an alibi when there are video cameras at every stop light and GPS tracking cell phones?

At first blush, then, writing historical mysteries seems like a terrific idea. No fingerprints to worry about, no DNA, no wiretapping. But while the research is a lot more fun than talking to modern cops would be, the need to get the details right is still driving me crazy.

This story, see — it starts in a town in Wisconsin in 1871. Possibly a town called Two Rivers. The truth is, any town in Wisconsin would do. I picked that one by throwing darts (metaphorical darts) at a map.

The difficulty is, I know zilch about Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The bulk of my story is set in Chicago, and finding good research material on Chicago in the post-Civil War period is not difficult. Research on Two Rivers, though? Good luck with that.

I figured, there had to be lumber mills in that area in those days, so let’s use a lumber mill as a dramatic setting. But tonight, while searching the Web in vain for information on the Wisconsin criminal court system in the 1870s, I learned that the lumber mills in Two Rivers went belly up in 1857, owing principally (according to this particular source) to the fact that the nearby forest had been logged out.

The big industry in Two Rivers in the 1870s was a factory that made chairs. It was apparently one of the biggest chair manufacturers in the world.

Chairs — not a gripping backdrop for the opening of a mystery novel.

History is an endless, echoing cavern. Try as I might, I’ll never know enough. What I need is a big blue box — a police call box, one that’s a lot bigger on the inside than on the outside. Short of being there and seeing what there is to see, how can you really think you know anything about history?

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A Taste of History

Posted by midiguru on July 8, 2014

History is not as far away as we tend to think. Once in a while it rises up and gives you a little extra ripple of pleasure.

Right now I’m doing some research for a possible rewrite of a novel I wrote five years ago. The novel is set in Chicago, in 1885. I enjoy doing research, and I’m also somewhat obsessive about wanting to get the details right. If you want to know about the development of the bicycle or the telephone, let me know. Both were new in 1885. The phonograph existed too, but it wasn’t in common use.

The details of daily life are endless. What kind of paper money did people have and use in 1885? That’s a good question. Since my story involves a robbery, I need to know. I couldn’t find any good answers online, and my local public library was mostly a bust, so I availed myself of the inter-library loan system. This is a great system, as long as you’re careful not to lose books. (The fine is $100.)

Today I got an email notification that the books I requested had arrived, so I drove down to the library and picked up a copy of a book called United States Notes, which was sent down at my request from the University of Nevada. The paper is a bit yellowing, the language somewhat archaic, and as it turns out, there’s nothing in the book that’s very helpful. But here’s the fun part:

Flipping to the front, I found that the book was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1884. This is not a Dover reprint — it’s the original damn book. It has been sitting on a library shelf in Nevada since a year before the events in my story.

My grandfather, Frank Aikin, was 20 years old in 1885. But that’s an abstract fact, and anyway, I never knew him. This book is concrete. It’s sitting right here on my end table. History.

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What’s in a Name?

Posted by midiguru on July 7, 2014

Five years ago I wrote a historical mystery novel. My agent didn’t think it was marketable, and in retrospect he was right. There were problems.

Ever since, I’ve been mulling over ways to fix it. Last month I figured out what needs to be done, so now I’m ready to attempt a rewrite.

The difficulty I’m wrestling with today is what name to give my detective. All the good names are taken. I think of one that might work. I google it. There’s already an actor named that, or a historical figure from the same period, or a novelist.

In the original version, his name was John Gordon. I like the dark vowels. What I don’t like is “Gordon.” It’s customary to call an adult male character by his last name — and “Gordon” is ambiguous. It could be a first name. And not a very strong or dignified first name — a bit wimpy, in fact. Gordon this, Gordon that. Not good.

It occurred to me that his ancestors might have come from Wales. Morgan is a good Welsh name, but there’s already a John Morgan. There’s a John Corwin. There’s a John North. There’s a John Moore. There’s a John Flint.

Pfui.

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Too Many Synthesizers

Posted by midiguru on June 6, 2014

I’m perpetually looking for opportunities to write about synthesizers and related technologies. Not just because I love playing with new toys (though that’s part of it). I also like letting other people know what’s worth checking out. Maybe along the way I can give a manufacturer or two a tiny nudge in a good direction, or improve a deserving company’s sales figures ever so slightly.

Trouble is, the outlets for product reviews are pretty jammed up. Today I was talking to a magazine editor (not the editor of Keyboard or Electronic Musician) about product reviews, and he made it clear that his publication has the same problems they do. The advertisers pretty much demand coverage for their latest offerings. Meanwhile, the page count has shrunk drastically over the past decade or two.

Just in the software realm, I’d guess there are at least five times as many new music programs today as there were 15 years ago. The magazines have maybe half as much page space as they had then.

Musicians are the losers in this equation. We’re forced to base our buying decisions on three-sentence “reviews” in the online retailers’ pages, reviews written by who knows who, with who knows what agenda or level of ignorance. Yes, a video tutorial on a product can help a lot … if you can find a good one. Even so, there’s a glut of product and a shortage of solid information about it all.

Tonight I’ve been looking at Oscilab, a very forward-looking iPad app from 2Beat. I don’t even feel like pitching a review to Keyboard or EM, because neither of them has responded to my last few pitches. Not because the editors are rude (though they’re certainly overworked). The core problem is that the magazine itself doesn’t have the bandwidth.

A few years ago, Nick Batsdorf started a magazine called Virtual Instruments. Great idea, but it folded after a couple of years. I’m guessing, not enough ad dollars were coming in. The magazine was clearly needed, but the economy wouldn’t support it.

Okay, I got that off my chest. Now I can go back to playing with Oscilab.

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Solipsist Sodality

Posted by midiguru on July 9, 2013

Writing is a solitary activity. When not writing, some writers are outgoing and sociable, but a lot of us aren’t. Making connections with your peers is a valuable thing no matter what field you’re in, but those who engage in solitary occupations face some special challenges.

Today I’ve been looking into writers’ organizations. I’ve got a couple of leads that may pan out, but on the whole it’s not a pretty picture.

The California Writers Club has a chapter headquartered not too many miles from me. The chapter has monthly activities. But when I look at the bio pages of about 20 members, I would have to say they’re not my peers. Not to disparage any of these charming people or their passion for writing, but I’ve been a pro for upwards of 30 years. It’s not the case that any two people who put the word “writer” in their bio are automatically peers, or that they can engage in mutually beneficial concourse.

I’ve tried a couple of online writers’ groups, but it’s pretty much the same picture — a horde of amateurs. Not people I can discuss nuts and bolts with. Plus, an online forum is a public place. What I’m seeking is more in the nature of a private, personal dialog with two or three people who have similar experiences and concerns.

Conventions are a big deal in science fiction and fantasy. Lots of writers fly off to conventions, both to promote their books to fans and to schmooze with one another. At the risk of indulging in a cliche, I would rather attend a convention than have bamboo shoots driven under my fingernails … but, well, how many bamboo shoots are we talking about? I’ll have to think about it and get back to you.

It’s not so much that I want to talk about what I’m writing, though that’s fun (and I’d be happy to hear about what you’re writing, if you’re one of my peers). I’m more interested in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in fiction, writing | 6 Comments »

 
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