William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Short Shorts Review: Bradbury 13

Wow, I totally spaced on posting my last Sci-Guys podcast spot. Many apologies. But...better late than never, yes? So without further ado, the text from my most recent appearance as found on Sci-Guys Podcast #110...

Hey, Sci-fans. Sorry I missed Halloween, but I was tied down with this 99-cent ebook called “The Ghost Story Megapack: 25 Classic Tales By Masters.” I figured, hey, if I can find just two or three decent ghost stories in the collection, it’ll be a steal. What I didn’t anticipate was that nearly all of the stories would be from the 1800s. But I thought, “OK, these are the roots of modern horror. This is good to enjoy for its literary value and erudition and—”

No. You know what? It was boring. Beyond boring. Mind-numbing in the endless descriptions of sprawling estates and cloudy skies and on and on and just about everything except anything resembling an actual story! I took a Victorian Horror class when I was in college, and the only thing scary was how much time I blew being bored off my ass!

Maybe I’m uncultured. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to appreciate fine literature. Whatever, but I’m sorry. I just couldn’t do that to you listeners.

Instead, I stumbled across a rare treat at the library called Bradbury 13. If your library doesn’t have it, you can pick it up on Audible.com or Amazon. Before I get into it, though, I have to tell you that I’ve been a rabid audiobook fan for over twenty years. I have a huge collection, especially of sci-fi and horror, and I’d say that in the last few years, I’ve listened to ten, maybe fifteen books for every one I’ve read on paper. I listen when I’m walking to the mail, washing dishes, making coffee, and any other time I have at least a few minutes of quiet, non-social time. I keep half a dozen different audiobooks on my phone, carry a Bluetooth earpiece in my pocket, and while yes, listening is slower than reading, I get so many more listening minutes than I do minutes to concentrate on a book that I end up consuming way more literature through my ears than my eyes.

OK, end of audiobook pitch and back to Bradbury 13.

This is an adapted collection of Ray Bradbury tales from the ‘50s and ’60s. In fact, the first Short Shorts review I ever did, for Bradbury’s “The Veldt,” is in this collection. There are time traveling hunters who have an unfortunate meeting with a T. Rex, a machine just guaranteed to make anyone happy…until it doesn’t, a team that makes supposedly first contact with a new planet one day too late, and more – thirteen stories total. NPR ended up pouring $120,000 into making this into a fully casted production, complete with sound effects and musical score. I’m too young to have enjoyed radio dramas, but that’s exactly what these are. They originally debuted on radio, with one story in every 30-minute segment. I only found one story in the set, “The Screaming Woman,” that I found disappointing. Sure, many of the stories sound quaint and archaic. Bradbury is prone to his bouts of gee-whiz, Golden Age of Sci-Fi sentimentality. You can’t survive in space with just an air helmet. There are no abandoned cities on Mars. We know all these things now. But if you can set that aside and let your imagination roll back and see such things as fantasy more than science, then the humanity and symbolism that Bradbury excels at so deeply shines through.

The CD version of Bradbury 13 sells for $16 and change on Amazon, $11.95 as an Audible download, and $13.95 from the publisher, Blackstone Audio, if you like supporting the little guy. Search YouTube for “Bradbury 13 The Ravine” for a free and probably not-so-legal preview. I could swear that at one point I found the individual stories available to download for three bucks each, but hell if I can locate the link now. No matter what, I can’t recommend this collection enough. It’s nostalgic, fun, inspiring, and maybe, just maybe, it’ll spark in you the same passion I have for reading by audiobook.

Until next time, this is William Van Winkle, and thanks for checking out my short shorts.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Short Shorts: Of Zombies and Missing Pieces

I have always been a chronic over-writer. In high school, back when dot matrix printers and fanfold paper still reigned, classmates would grab the first page of my English paper, drop the rest out of our second-story window, and let my text blow in the breeze to see how far my latest opus reached. Who knows how many hundreds of thousands of extra words I've written in my life? The thought of all those hours I might have reclaimed if only I were more concise gives me productivity nightmares. Yet I seem powerless to stop this overkill at the keyboard.

Thankfully, the world has editors that impose limits. With the Sci-Guys podcast, the powers that be tell me to keep things under three to four minutes. The first draft of my piece on Scott Nicholson's Missing Pieces came in at almost five and a half minutes on my first reading. Ugh... So I set about slicing and dicing. You can hear the results starting at about 32 minutes and 40 seconds into the new Sci-Guys podcast #105.

Some people have longer attention spans when reading than listening. (Just ask my wife.) I started out with the Sci-Guys crew months ago talking about zombies, and I think there remains a lot to say on the subject. Unfortunately, zombies are the new vampire -- or they were a year ago. I sense that the public's sense of zombie fatigue is growing, and that's to be expected. Fascination with this or that sort of monster is bound to ebb and flow like any fad. When AMC cancels The Walking Dead, we'll know that this zombie wave has run its course. Apparently, the show now has its own Facebook game, so it shouldn't be long.

Anyway. See? I'm doing it again.

Without (much) further ado, I'll only say that below is the original version of my review script rather than the abridged version I sent in for the podcast. (And can anyone tell me how to minimize those hard "s" sounds in Audacity? Please?) Also, I want to emphasize right up front that if you love horror lit and enjoy supporting independent authors, you need to check out Scott Nicholson. Read through his Web site and sign up for his ebook giveaway projects. Try a few. You won't be disappointed. I mean, how can you not love a guy who does his press photo as a vampire in a casket?

~   ~   ~   ~   ~

Why do we love zombies?

This is a tricky question once you dig under its flaky, rotting surface. I thought about this a lot as I was writing my Civil War zombie story, “The Followers.” I mean, monster tales and the horror genre in general work on different levels. If we think of slasher flicks, where things suddenly jump and scream and scare the bejeezus out of you, there’s not much depth here, right? It probably has something to do with the fight or flight response and how that little adrenaline pop stimulates our hindbrains. There’s no intellect involved; it’s just primal. And primal is fine. Primal is how we make kids, after all. But a great story demands more.

So...zombies. Let’s recap. What exactly is a zombie? Well, usually, a zombie is a human that has been attacked somehow and rendered into a mindless, devouring corruption of its former self. I’m picking these words carefully: mindless, devouring, and corruption. Mindless is important because we identify ourselves with our minds. The mind defines us and makes us human. It’s the fence around our ego. Without mind, we’re nothing but a sack of meat in an empty universe. Here’s the key to horror: Nothing terrifies us more than loss of identity. We laugh about zombies craving brains, but did you ever wonder why the brain? Why not the heart or something else? Because the brain contains the mind. Zombies are about the destruction of the mind.

Now back to devouring. Zombies aren’t scary because they’re carnivores. I’m all for bacon and baby backs, OK? Zombies are cannibals. Murder is taboo, but it’s ordinary. It happens every day. Cannibalism? That’s something else. It’s not just an offense against an individual, it’s an offense against the species, and that threatens us at a deeper level.

Corruption. I remember reading Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant fantasy series when I was a kid, and the one quotation that’s stuck with me all these years is this: “There's only one way to hurt a man who’s lost everything. Give him back something broken.” In a zombie apocalypse, where we as a world have lost everything, the real horror isn’t the loss of power or food or any other external factor. It’s that we get back our loved ones broken and corrupted. They are mindless, rotting, empty reminders of corrupted love.

Good literature tells the story of ourselves. Through the characters, we see our own faults and dreams. Zombies – the best kind of zombies – appeal to our fear of losing ourselves. Because we all stand on this cliff every day. The ground under our feet feels firm. We have money, food, family, and most of all a sense of who we are, the identity that defines our place in the world. But just one step, one bite, one little crossing into death and back again, and we tumble off that cliff into corruption and lose everything that really matters. We become entirely, terrifyingly alone.

Scott Nicholson has written many stories about zombies, but one of the most haunting is titled “Darker With the Day.” It’s about a man named Lt. John Sorenson, who was one of the first victims of the zombie apocalypse accidentally unleashed by the military. In a really clever twist, Nicholson gives his zombie full recall of who he is and was so long as he has recently fed. The more hungry he gets, the less he remembers. And Lt. Sorenson has only one wish: to get back home to the wife he loves with all his soul.

There are a lot of Christian images and references in “Darker With the Day,” and at first this bothered me. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw how well it fit into the zombie archetype. If religion is one of the ways, maybe the biggest and most profound way, that we as thinking humans cope with the universe’s emptiness, then Nicholson is adding another layer of loss and corruption on his zombie. It’s not only about loss of identity. Lt. Sorenson is battling the loss of his faith and spirit. It’s subtle and clever and really helps sink this story into your subconscious like few other zombie tales I’ve read.

“Darker With the Day” alone is worth buying, but it appears in a collection of ten stories titled Missing Pieces for only 99 cents. Scott Nicholson has written more than 30 books, and he has a very bad habit of giving them away for free. I honestly feel guilty when I download his promos. But he can turn from backwoods hick humor to dark poetry on a dime, and when his stories hit home, they hit hard.

Scott Nicholson, Missing Pieces, 99 cents to download. Don’t miss it.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

What Price, Entertainment?

"What price should I set for my ebook?"

If you're a self-published author, this question persists like a bad flu. Just when you think you've put it to rest -- bam! Back it comes again, more vexing than ever.You can read the Romance Writers of America's survey showing that $6.13 is the "fairest price" for a romance ebook. You can skip to any of influential indie author Dean Wesley Smith's discussions about ebook pricing, probably starting with this one that ties prices to word counts. You could take inspiration from the many authors who have found success pricing their works at 99 cents, hoping to trade near-term profits for long-term popularity. Or you could throw up your hands in exasperation and go with your gut, saying, "I spent eight years working every night on this 250,000-word epic, and it's every bit as good as any other $11.99 best-seller on the Amazon Top 100, so pony up, people."

Today, I'm so far from being a best-selling author that the distance of my career from "here" to "made it" has to be measured in astronomical terms. But I'm as entitled to an opinion on the pricing question as the next guy. Trouble is, I don't know enough to have an opinion. That's the curse of being a journalist. I feel like I have to be surrounded with case studies, data, and a burden of evidence before I can feel confident in having an informed opinion.

If I had years of experience under my belt and a fleet of self-pubbed novels I could price this way and that, perhaps I could pass judgment on price points with some authority. But I don't. I could probably reach out and find a few, but they'd probably get so annoyed with my statistical haranguing that we'd never reach a conclusion before they sent me to blacklist banishment, that filtered layer of Hell reserved for shady pharmaceuticals, overly optimistic marital aids, and fawning journalist fanboys.

But we can't all wander around blindly. There must be some objective yardstick for gauging how to price ebooks, right? RIGHT?!

I and many others have tried comparing ebooks to movies in the past. Theaters sell $10 movie tickets by the millions, and most movies don't last anywhere near as long as a novel. Some counter-argue this point, saying that whereas a novel gets produced by a handful of people, movies require hundreds or thousands. Nobody spends $50 million to produce a novel. Think of the cost disparity. Shouldn't this translate into consumer prices?

No. That fallacy plays only into the hands of those who would spend more to make more, with nary a thought for the quality of the consumer's experience along the way.

That's the key: the quality of the consumer's experience. I don't care that it cost over $200 million to make and market the new Total Recall movie. I've paid 99 cents for ebooks produced on essentially zero budget that gave me far more entertainment for a longer time than the 135 minutes I sat yawning through Sony's botched remake. The question every consumer might ask is, "How much is this entertainment worth to me?"

More importantly, can we reach general conclusions about the value of entertainment?

The movies vs. ebooks pricing comparison can't stand on its own. It's a number in a vacuum. We need additional context so that the number becomes part of a pattern. With that in mind, I went into a Googling frenzy and emerged with some very interesting finds.

#1. Gaming

I'm not much of a gamer, but I'm surrounded by people who are. In 2011, video gaming was a roughly $16.5 billion industry just in the U.S. In comparison, 2011 movie ticket sales edged just over the $10 billion mark for all of North America. I took an informal poll of my friends, and the general rule seems to be that men in my demographic (30- to 40-somethings) buy a handful of top titles each year bolstered by several more "filler" titles -- mostly older games found in the virtual discount bin. Some games get played for days, some for only a few minutes before being tossed aside. Back of the napkin figures placed the price of gaming among my friends at about 50 cents per hour.

Not content with such informality, I went searching for harder data. One lucky find surfaced at http://howlongtobeat.com/stats.php. Among other things, the site maintains a list of how long it takes people to complete games. Here's the list of ten most-submitted titles and the average of how long users took to complete them.

1. Mass Effect 2 – 35h 56m
2. Portal 2 – 9h 00m
3. Mass Effect – 27h 00m
4. Portal – 3h 27m
5. Batman: Arkham Asylum – 15h 17m
6. Assassin’s Creed II – 25h 46m
7. Bastion – 7h 26m
8. Deus Ex: Human Revolution – 28h 03m
9. Half-Life 2 – 13h 36m
10. Dragon Age: Origins – 56h 51m

All told, this gives us an average completion time of about 22.25 hours.

Next, we need to know how much the average game costs. While top titles now frequently sell in the $60 range, one reputable source showed that the average selling price in 2011 for new titles was (converted to U.S. dollars) $40.

Do the math, and what you get is an average gaming price of $1.80 per hour. However, this ignores the rising tide of smartphone and tablet apps, such as Angry Birds, which might cost a buck and deliver dozens of hours of jaw-clenching challenge. In accounting for this, we might skew our final figure downward by...half? Maybe more? Let's figure half and call gaming a 90 cents per hour affair.

#2. Movies

It's the knee-jerk example we all reach for, but just how much does a theater experience cost? Two quick searches yield good info.

First, Hollywood Reporter claims that the average price of movie tickets now stands at $8.12, an all-time but totally not surprising high. Finding the average movie length was slightly harder, but I like the data compiled by Peter Sciretta, stating that the average length for the top 50 movies of 2008 was 110 minutes.

Divide and multiply and we see that cinema outings average $4.43 per hour -- not counting gas, concessions, and so on.

But here's the tough part about movies. In my home, we ditched our cable over two years ago (best. decision. ever.) and now watch most of our movies via Netflix or Redbox. I'd estimate that we watch five movies at home for every one in a theater. With subscription and rental costs averaged out, I'd peg the price of our home movies at about $1.50 each. Factored in with the cinema viewing, that drops us down to $1.42 per hour.

#3. Bowling

Why not? It's entertainment, yes?

Our local lanes are pretty representative of an average bowling alley, and the place charges $4 per game during open bowling. Let's figure that it takes an average person 15 minutes to bowl one game. If you bowl with one partner, the two of you will complete two games in an hour. Ignoring shoe rental, you're out $8 per hour.

#4. Concerts

Sad to say, but I haven't been to a concert in years. Partially, this is because we had kids, but it's also because ticket costs for the bands I like have become stratospheric. I know that artists often depend on concerts rather than album sales for their real income, but...holy cow.

I found some excellent data at Pollstar and selected bands starting with the letter V as a sample set. Average ticket prices for those bands ranged from $3.72 to $108.81, but the average was $37.50 per ticket. If we include opening acts and figure three hours per show, which is probably being generous, then we get a concert entertainment rate of $12.50 per hour.

#5. Books

Pegging entertainment value on reading is tricky. Different genres gravitate to different novel word counts. To keep things simple, I wanted one number -- one giant average for the entire literary field -- and I found it in a Huffington Post story. The magic number is 64,500. How long does it take to read a book of this length? The most-cited statistic says that the average U.S. adult reads about about 250 words per minute. Reliable studies seem few and far between, but one interesting Syracuse University paper reported rates of 231 and 189 words per minute, so I'm fine with leaving 250 as a reference point. With these averages, a normal person should be able to read a book in 258 minutes, or 4.3 hours. If this seems fast to you, adjust accordingly.

One problem, though: Most books only report their number of pages. Word counts have only started to come into vogue with ebooks, which render page counts meaningless.

While the number of words on an average page will vary based on a host of factors, we can take 350 as a fairly solid ballpark estimate. Using this, let's check out Stephen King's indescribably awesome 11/22/63, a behemoth weighing in at 880 pages, and figure that it has about 380,000 words. That works out to 25.33 hours of reading time. As of this writing, Amazon lists the hardback of 11/22/63 for $21. That's 83 cents per hour for some of the best literary entertainment I've enjoyed in decades. If we opt for the $12 paperback, that number drops to 47 cents per hour.

I wanted a top 20 title and found out that Catching Fire (book 2 from The Hunger Games trilogy) is 101,564 words, making it a 6.77-hour read. The hardback sells for $10.79, yielding $1.59 per hour. If we take the $5.99 Kindle version, we can follow the adventures of Katniss for only 88 cents per hour.

Putting It Together

I think of books, movies, and gaming as "everyday entertainment." Bowling and concerts are much less frequent activities. It seems accurate to draw a correlation between frequency and hourly entertainment cost, doesn't it? The more of a "treat" the entertainment is, the more we're willing to pay for it on an hourly basis.

Looking at everyday entertainment, if we take the paperback of 11/22/63 as a low (47 cents/hour) and movie consumption ($1.42/hour) as a high, an author can feel totally justified in pricing his or her novel at $1/hour. At 250 words/hour, I'm reading 15,000 words/hour, which means a 90,000-word novel is smack on target at $5.99.

Where this starts to break down is with shorter fiction. If we have a 30,000-word novella, that's two hours of reading for a $1.99 price point. Dean Wesley Smith would have us pricing this length at $4.99 or $5.99. I'm not saying that this is excessive. I'm only saying that such a price is skewed way out of line with the kind of hourly averages we're seeing for everyday entertainment. Believe me, as a writer, I'd love to be able to charge $3.49 for my 13,500-word historical horror novelette, "The Followers." But my sales have narrowed to a trickle even at $2.99, and that's with a bonus short story included. My slight amount of personal evidence combined with the data detailed here tells me that the market won't accept what most would call a short story for $3.49.

But by this $1/hour reckoning, all short stories should be 99 cents. In fact, you wouldn't even think of graduating to Amazon's key 70% royalty price point at $2.99 until you crossed the 45,000-word mark. I don't think that's feasible. There has to be some bend in the graph. The shorter the ebook length, the higher the entertainment value per reading hour. Again, if we take a loose range of $0.50/hour for the very longest works and $3.00/hour for the shortest, we might see results like this:

Short story (5,000 words): $0.99, 20 minutes @ $3/hr

Short story (10,000 words): $1.49, 40 minutes @ $2.25/hr

Novelette (15,000 words): $1.99, 1 hour @ $2/hr

Novella (30,000 words): $2.99, 2 hours @ $1.50/hr

Short novel (45,000 words): $3.99, 3 hours @ $1.33/hr

Novel (60,000 words): $4.99, 4 hours @ $1.25/hr

Novel (90,000 words): $5.99, 6 hours @ $1/hr

Longer novel (120,000 words): $6.99, 8 hours @ $0.87/hr

Jumbo novel (over 180,000 words): $7.99, 12 hours @ $0.67/hr

Again, I'm not saying if this scale is right or wrong. It certainly slants against writers of shorter fiction. But in comparison against other forms of everyday entertainment and the value that people seem to place on it, these numbers seem fair. We have to resist the temptation to see value in terms of the hours and expenses needed to produce fiction and weigh pricing in terms of the only metric that matters: what the market is content to pay to be entertained.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Sci-Guys Review: Total Recall, Konrath, and the Three-Titter

Here's my latest Sci-Guys Short Shorts piece as it appeared in Sci-Guys podcast #104:

I’m recording this before the Sci-Guys do their podcast. For all I know, they might love the new Total Recall. I didn’t. I saw it last night with my wife and another couple. For me, the entire movie was summed up in the fact that both my wife and her friend dozed off repeatedly during the film.

I’ve got a long list of stuff that’s wrong with the new version, starting with my favorite complaint, that there isn’t a single sympathetic character in the movie to connect with. In the 1990 Total Recall, you really felt bad for the oppressed mutants, which in turn made you despise the evil Cohaagen, which in turn made you root for Douglas Quaid. In the new version, I didn’t care what happened to the Australians...or Quaid.

In 1990, the female characters, Melina and Lori, were sexy and playful. I mean, go back and watch Sharon Stone. She was on fire in that movie. So how do you take two foxes like Kate Beckinsdale and Jessica Biel and drain virtually all of the sexy awesomeness out of their screen time? It’s freaking criminal.

And that’s what’s really wrong with Total Recall in 2012. It’s not fun. Yeah, Schwartzenegger comes off like a lumpy, bumbling oaf with dialog timing so bad that not even post editing could save him, but at least he was fun. His world was fun. There is no fun in the 2012 version. Amidst all of the endless explosions, the story has bled out and died, and that’s why my wife fell asleep.

Now bear with me. I want to coin a new phrase here, which never works when you try to do it on purpose but here goes. There was an element in the new Total Recall I want to describe as a “three-titter.” You remember Mary, the three-breasted mutant from the first movie. She had three breasts because she was a mutant, deformed by the radiation that was a key element in the movie’s backstory. Now, tell me why there’s a three-breasted character in the new movie when there are no other mutants. It’s a gratuitous, senseless nod to an earlier version of the story that’s simply there to tickle your nostalgia and make you think better of the current travesty in front of your face. It’s not just stupid, it’s insulting. I hereby christen this device a “three-titter.”

Which finally brings me to my short fiction recommendation. Betcha thought I forgot all about that. I recently discovered a three-titter in a story called “The Screaming” by Joe Konrath in his collection called Horror Stories. “The Screaming” is about two strung out bums in 1960s England who make their way to an abandoned countryside mansion in the hope of finding some loot they can sell. What they actually find chained up in the cellar is a wasted, suicidal, and vampiric Abraham Van Helsing.

I wouldn’t quite call this a perfect three-titter. At the end of Dracula, Van Helsing becomes a sort of grandfatherly mentor to Quincy, the son of Jonathan and Mina Harker. Konrath picks up the story by having other vampires wipe out the remaining humans from Dracula and then convert Quincy, who in turn converts Van Helsing, who now seems to be the last surviving vampire in the world. It’s not a bad premise, but let’s ask the question: Did it have to be Van Helsing? Not really. Any stranded vampire would do. But we get Van Helsing to tie in the original story and hopefully convey some of the famous tale’s mojo through osmosis. In Konrath’s defense, “The Screaming” was written for an anthology called The Many Faces of Van Helsing, so the fate of having a three-titter was sort of built into the assignment.

“The Screaming” isn’t a great story, but it’s not bad. And it’s not bad because Konrath knows how to keep things fun. He specializes in gore and sick, guilty laughter, and there’s plenty of it in this three-dollar story collection. Despite the three-titter, Konrath is the horror genre’s equivalent of 1990’s Total Recall. I’ll spare you the long story, but Konrath is also the poster boy for ebook-era self-publishing. His blog details his rise from obscurity to grossing six figures per month, and he offers a lot of advice on how to do the same. But if there’s one bit of wisdom I can pull from this Horror Stories collection, and maybe Konrath and Total Recall in general, it’s that fiction doesn’t have to be epic to succeed. It doesn’t have to be immortally crafted and painstakingly perfect. It just has to give people that one thing they want, and more often than not that one thing is fun.
This is William Van Winkle, and you can check out my short shorts again in about...two weeks.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Off Topic: On Horror and Fear

Last night was the mass shooting at the midnight Batman showing in Aurora, CO. Another terrible day for America. We can all only read the news and find ourselves imagining what it must have been like to be in that theater, in the smoke, feeling the concussions, the panic, the fear. In the long run, I think fear is the worst for us as a society. How many of us planning on seeing Batman this weekend (including me) now wonder if it's safe? Is any crowd safe anymore? The randomness of terror is debilitating.

In reading through comments posted online, I see a lot of people my age and older mourning for decades past when America was a different, better, healthier place. We remember being able to walk anywhere when we were kids. There was no thought for staying in sight or even earshot. You only had to be home by dinner. I remember disappearing for hours, just walking and walking, and it was glorious. Ah, the safety of the early '80s.

To those who need some shred of reassurance, I suggest this: http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/ As it turns out, violent crime in America peaked in 1991-1992. In Oregon, there's actually 25% less violent crime now than when I was my oldest son's age. These are the hard, sometimes counter-intuitive facts of statistics.

As a parent, I guard my children far more rigidly than I was ever guarded. And why not? It seems that every week, I see headlines of some new travesty streaming across my homepage and many more through my Facebook feed. Thanks to the Internet and my constant connection to it, I've been exposed to an ever-increasing awareness of just how dangerous and terrible the world is right outside my door.

Except it's not. My perception is flawed. The fear that fuels my protection of my kids stems from conditions present in the early '90s. While the danger of those conditions have declined in reality, my perception of that danger has increased dramatically because of the media and related information I absorb every day.

It's the fear. Fear is dictating my actions. Fear is changing how I behave as a parent and thus how my kids behave and perceive their world. And in reality, despite today and despite the grim tidings surrounding my daily awareness, I have less reason to fear now than any time since 1973. When we live in fear, we harm ourselves by denying ourselves joy and give others the ability to control us.

I'm going to Batman tonight. I will not let a random occurrence, no matter how brutal and tragic, make my knuckles whiter or my mind more clouded. Because we, all of us, have to fight the fear. Could it be that we see so many of these shootings, from Columbine to today, being perpetrated by youth because they were raised inside a haze of such negativity? Could our increasingly unfounded fear itself be helping to spawn these horrors?

I have no desire to participate in such a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My Kingdom For a Good Character!

Critic reviews for the new Amazing Spider-Man movie have been generally positive; I found the flick decidedly underwhelming. Is it just me, or do other people agree that the film's big bad monster looks like it evolved from a Halloween costume rather than the other way around? Honestly, though, that didn't bother me as much as Lizard's half-hearted and quickly ignored character reversal at the end. (Sorry, was that a spoiler? Meh, not really.) More to the point, the whole opening of the movie involving Peter Parker's parents could have been entirely dropped, leaving Peter to find his father's old work file in the basement, and nothing else in the story would have changed. All he has to do is find the file. The events of his childhood have no other bearing on the plot.

Even forgiving that Parker was somehow able to create web-shooting devices in his bedroom in days while it took the mighty Oscorp presumably years and untold millions of dollars, how is it that Emma Stone's Gwen character (I think of her as "not-MJ") as a lowly intern has all of this high-level access and ability to whip out a world-saving serum in 10 minutes? Anybody? Anybody?

The Amazing Spider-Man is simply poorly written, with story and logic holes as wide as a sewer main. You even see this reflected in comments by at least one of the producers, Avi Arad, who said, "We were working on what we called Spider-Man 4 and it was the same team [as with the first three films]. The problem was we didn't have a story that was strong enough and warranted ... another movie. And Sam Raimi ... realized we [didn't] have a good reason to make another one. And between [him] and [star] Tobey [Maguire] and obviously the studio, we all went into it not feeling good about the next story."

I've always found this phenomenon befuddling. How is it that a Hollywood production team sitting on a story concept likely to gross a billion dollars (The Amazing Spider-Man did over $500 million worldwide within two weeks of the U.S. premiere) can't find and develop a decent script? For an even more extreme example, look at Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. How on earth did that travesty happen? Is it that the scripts are decent, but they just get butchered during production and editing? We see this over and over, and it strikes me as a terrible, heart-wrenching waste.

How can it keep happening? Well, that's easy. I can think of about 500 million reasons for starters. We get what we settle for.

Yesterday, I finished a short story called "The Plagiarist" by Hugh Howey, author of the WOOL series. Here is Howey's blurb: "Adam Griffey is living two lives. By day, he teaches literature. At night, he steals it. Adam is a plagiarist, an expert reader with an eye for great works. He prowls simulated worlds perusing virtual texts, looking for the next big thing. And when he finds it, he memorizes it page by page, line by line, word for word. And then he brings it back to his world."

There's a core concept in "The Plagiarist" that's key to the ending, so I can't describe it to you. I will say that this concept is the same idea found in a completely (and justifiably) overlooked 1999 movie called The Thirteenth Floor. By bizarre coincidence, I happened to stumble across this movie on Netflix Watch Instantly only a couple of days before buying and reading "The Plagiarist." Like The Amazing Spider-Man, The Thirteenth Floor was a big screen production (backed by Columbia Pictures) wrapped around a solid idea with a script that turned out to be one part captivating, two parts crap.

I emailed Hugh Howey yesterday and asked if he'd seen The Thirteenth Floor. He said that he hadn't, although a reviewer had once accused him of ripping off a movie -- presumably this one. And I believe him. As Howey said, "Had I seen the movie, I would have been powerless to write the story!" Yes, the ideas are that close.

But this is the point. Howey's short story is so much better than The Thirteenth Floor. Hollywood felt compelled to take the core idea and gussy it up with a bunch of intrigue and action, most of which only served to make the plot meandering and occasionally incomprehensible. This pushes us back to character. The protagonist in "The Plagiarist," Adam Griffey, is a schmuck. He's pathetic and largely unlikable, which I normally view as a story deficiency, although it can occasionally work, as it does here. In The Thirteenth Floor, there is virtually (ar-ar) no character development for the protagonist. If we can't identify with the main character, we can't bond with the story...and the piece fails. Every time.

At least there is enough meat to the new Peter Parker to sustain a tenuous thread of interest. I found his shift from confused, rebellious teen to noble superhero rushed and unconvincing, but he was still likable and sympathetic enough to keep me engaged. With Howey's Griffey, had the protagonist been likable and less pathetic, the whole story would have fallen apart; none of the action would have made sense. The reason why "The Plagiarist" works and these two films don't (for me) is because the writers ignored the essential relationship between character and plot. The two must dovetail effectively. When they don't, well...you've never heard of The Thirteenth Floor before, right?

Why, oh why, can't Hollywood figure this out on a consistent basis?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Short Shorts: Peter and the Vampires

From the Sci-Guys #101 podcast:

At age 41, I’m not above enjoying a good young adult story. Look at Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, or, my own favorite, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series. The good ones are like Pixar movies; there’s something there for everybody of any age. Reading for yourself is great, but there’s also nothing quite like enjoying a great story with your kid.

This week, I wanted to bring you a young adult recommendation, and I found one that’s awesome. As soon as you’re done listening to this podcast, hit up your favorite online book vendor and search for Peter and the Vampires. It’s by Darren Pillsbury, and it’s free.

Peter is a grade school kid who finds himself forcibly moved into his crotchety grandfather’s creepy mansion. He befriends the neighbor kid, a cowardly troublemaker named Dill, and the duo soon embark on a series of accidental adventures pitted against all kinds of chilling enemies. There are four novellas in Peter and the Vampires, and each chapter is only two or three pages long. To be honest, I read it on my phone’s Kindle app, mostly in the bathroom. Maybe that’s too much info, but the point is that I found myself increasing my water intake — always a good thing — just so I could have an excuse to read the next chapter. These stories are a blast, and there were several times I actually laughed out loud at Dill’s dialog. Be aware that people asking why you’re laughing in the bathroom can be awkward.

I interviewed Darren Pillsbury, and you can find the whole Q&A [below]. But he says that he modeled the hero, Peter, after himself as a kid, although Peter is the braver of the two. Sci-Guys fans may appreciate that Darren as a kid wanted to be named Peter after Peter Parker. Unfortunately, his parents had considered the name but rejected it because it would have given him the initials “P.P.” Dill started out named after Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird, who was also a humorous troublemaker, and the name just stuck.

Pillsbury confessed to me that Stephen King books were forbidden in his home when he was a kid. So starting about the time he was ten, whenever his mom took him to the store for shopping, he would sneak off to the book aisle, grab the latest Stephen King, and start digging.

“That’s who I’m writing these books for,” says Pillsbury. “The 10-year-old kid in the grocery store aisle, the one looking for ‘the good parts.’”

Personally, I thought Pillsbury’s monster descriptions were just a pinch more than my 7- and 10-year-olds are ready for, but 12 and up should be fine. There are now 18 Peter stories out, and most are collected into three larger volumes. Many of the individual stories are $2.99, but so are the collected volumes, so...you figure it out. If you’re an old geezer with a young heart that still enjoys witty banter and genuinely classic B-movie thrills, don’t miss Peter and the Vampires. It’s free, and it’s a blast.

~   ~   ~   ~   ~

WVW: Where did the characters of Peter and especially Dill come from?

DP: I wanted to write horror novels, but I didn’t want to have to start over again every time with new characters, new settings, etc. I thought, “Man, wouldn’t it be great if I could do something like a television series, sort of like THE X-FILES, with established characters and a different monster of the week?”
And BAM, that was the genesis of the series.

To answer the main question, Peter is basically me at that age – a good kid, doesn’t misbehave too much, sweet-natured. Peter’s a lot braver than I ever was, but hey, that’s why he’s the hero. Interesting side note: I actually wanted to be named ‘Peter’ as a kid, after Peter Parker (secret identity of Spiderman). My parents told me they had considered the name, but because my initials would have been P.P. (Get it? Pee-pee? Pretty awful nickname for a first-grader), they decided against it. So, of course, my hero had to be named ‘Peter.’

I wanted to give Peter the best friend a kid ever had – somebody funny, somebody who misbehaved, somebody who pushed him to break the rules. I immediately thought of Dill in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, who’s an instigator, a troublemaker, and downright hilarious. I hadn’t read the book in 25 years, so I just started writing based on my vague recollections. I used the name ‘Dill’ as a placeholder as I wrote the first story, figuring I would rename him later…but after I finished, ‘Bob’ or ‘Steve’ just wasn’t going to cut it. He was Dill to me by then, so I left him that way.

Incidentally, Dill in MOCKINGBIRD is based on the author Truman Capote, whom Harper Lee knew as a child. Dill in my books? Not nearly as smart.

WVW: As you’re writing for a YA audience, how do you tweak your prose for that audience? Is there a particular reader you’re writing for?

DP: Interestingly enough, I’d say 80-90% of my fans are adults – college age through early 50’s, mostly. People who are young at heart.

I’ve tried reaching kids, but it’s extremely difficult. There aren’t that many trolling Amazon or BarnesAndNoble.com, and the ones who are typically want THE HUNGER GAMES or something similarly famous. So if you know the secret to marketing to teens – please clue me in.

When writing the PETER books, I limit my vocabulary a little – not dumb it down, necessarily, but not bust out the 50-cent words when a 25-cent word will do. Also, I’m aware of the gore. I keep it PG or PG-13. Mostly I try to creep my readers out, not gross them out.

I grew up in a pretty conservative household, and Stephen King was absolutely forbidden. When I was ten or eleven and had to go with my mom to the grocery store, I would sneak off to the book aisle, find the latest Stephen King book, and start flipping through to find ‘the good parts.’ That’s who I’m writing these books for: the ten-year-old kid in the grocery store book aisle, the one looking for ‘the good parts.’

WVW: Your “About” says you’ve been writing since high school. Ghostwritten scriptwriting aside, have you had much experience with traditional publishing? If not, is this something you regret?

Nope, no experience with traditional publishing. I tried to get an agent, but one of my greatest faults is that I don’t handle rejection very well. I get easily discouraged. After the first 50 agents saying no to my query letter, well, that was it for me.

Do I regret not being traditionally published? If it were an automatic ticket to Richville, I would. But in reality, a very small percentage of traditionally published authors actually make a living at writing books. The vast majority teach or do something similar to supplement their incomes.

Right now in self-publishing, I’m getting 70% royalties instead of 10-15%, I have 100% say over the content of my books, and I’m making enough money to live on while reaching hundreds of new fans every month. So I’m pretty happy. In my opinion, the Kindle and the Nook are the best. inventions. ever. Well…after the Internet. Gotta give credit to the Internet.

Would I take a traditional publishing deal? Yes, but only if A) the advance were unbelievably huge OR I got to keep the ebook rights, and B) I retained full editorial control.

WVW: How much of your early work did you give away through your blog? Do you feel this approach gained more in readers than it cost you in sales?

DP: The very hardest thing in publishing – whether traditional or self-publishing – is promotion. It’s TOUGH. It’s much harder for me than actually writing the book. And with a blog, it’s the exact same problem – how do you get people to read your stuff? After three years, I had maybe 200 core readers. And that was after advertising sporadically on similar blogs and webcomic sites.

Through the blog, I gained some great fans who spread the word, pointed out mistakes in the stories, and encouraged me for years. For that I’m extremely grateful. But the number of people who found the blog over a three-year period was fairly small compared to the number who stumble across me by accident every month on Amazon and BandN.com.

By the way, giving away the first book in a series will help an author immensely, and I can prove it. By jumping through some hoops, I was able to get Amazon to continually give away the first volume of stories for free. Before that happened, I was selling maybe $25 worth of books a month. Total. Five months after Amazon started giving away the first book for free, people have downloaded it over 20,000 times, and I’m selling over $1000 a month combined of all the other volumes.

WVW: I can see how the Peter series could become addicting. Now that you’re – what?  Seventeen novellas into the series? What sort of writing pace do you maintain?

DP: Ha! This will be a big dilemma over the next year. I published the first 13 novellas in three multi-story volumes on May 5, 2011. Those 13 stories took me about four years to write, from 2007 through 2010.
Starting in February 2012, I began publishing a new novella every month – but I already had #14 through #18 written. Now, for the first time ever, I’m faced with a deadline. 

Normally I take anywhere from one to three months to write a hundred page novella, but since I quit the day job to write full-time, I’m trying to speed up that process. I wrote #21, PETER AND THE ORGAN GRINDER, in a single month, but I’m also trying to expand into other genres with pen names. So I’m either going to have to start writing my butt off (which is unlikely – I’m kind of lazy), or I’ll go to a bi-monthly schedule with the PETER stories as I try to expand into other genres.

WVW: You have one non-Peter book, Imaginary Friends. Are you working on anything else? How far do you see the Peter series playing out?

DP: Yeah, I’m trying to diversify – I keep hoping for that one break-out hit that will allow me to eat something more than Top Ramen for dinner. (I kid, I kid…but not by much.) 
I have an adult horror novel out under a pen name, with a second coming out soon. I keep it separate, though, because it’s a hard R-rated book. I don’t want anybody who treasures the innocence and fun of the PETER novels to read it and be traumatized. I’m not just writing for that 10-year-old in the grocery store book aisle, I’m trying to protect him, too.
I’m currently writing a science fiction/military action series. Hopefully the first book will be out by Christmas 2012. 
As for the PETER books, there’s an overarching storyline that concerns a curse on his family that ultimately binds all the stories together. Like HARRY POTTER, I want to take him up to age 17, where the series will end once and for all. But that could be anywhere from 60 to 100 stories total. I’m at #21 now, and I would need at least 40 more to accomplish what I want. It’s going to get a lot darker as time goes on. More than anything, I want to show him struggling through his teenage years, falling in love, getting his heart broken – all that real-life, gut-wrenching stuff. But, y’know…with monsters.

WVW: Having written a few magazine columns over the years, I know how hard it can be to sustain a series, and you’ve been writing Peter a long time now. How do you keep the series fresh, both for readers and yourself?

DP: I really, really love the PETER stories. Especially Dill. Dill alone makes the stories fun and enjoyable to write. I love the other characters, too, but writing Dill is like getting to watch a favorite TV show - I never really know what's going to come out of his mouth. And if have a fun villain to write, especially one with snarky dialogue or moral ambiguity, that's icing on the cake.

In my first attempts at writing books years and years ago, I wrote a lot of 'serious' books. Not much humor. At its heart, the PETER books are as much comedies as they are horror, and that's why they stay enjoyable for me. If I'm smiling while I'm writing, I'm having a great time - and I think that translates over to my readers. The adult horror novel I wrote? Very little humor. It was a slog to get through.

Also, I really wanted to write a werewolf novel, a vampire novel, a ghost novel, a zombie novel, etc. ALL the classic monsters. When I approach one of those classic stories, I usually just think, "What's the most badass scene I can think of with this villain? And how can I tweak it so it's slightly different from all the other versions I've seen or read?" For example, story #20 is PETER AND THE DEMON. Dill gets possessed. The touchstone for all possession movies is, of course, THE EXORCIST. I wanted to do something along those lines, minus the horrific language and sexual material. So...who's the exorcist in my version? I thought of a Father Merrin/Max von Sydow character - but the exorcist is always a guy (a priest, naturally). Often an old one, at that. We already have Grandfather. Two old men is boring. "What if it were a nun?" I thought, and from there I had to come up with why a nun is doing the exorcism. Then we were off to the races with an exorcism story that, I think, is fairly different from other stuff out there. And it's quite possibly the scariest story I've written so far in the series.

Also, taking an off-the-wall idea and running with it is a way to keep things fresh. For instance, #21 PETER AND THE ORGAN GRINDER has a monkey rodeo as an integral part. That's the kind of thing that makes me excited to write more.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Getting Hot Art for a Cold Story

A couple of days ago, I released a new short story called "Stay Cold" on Amazon and Smashwords. As with two of my other stories, I was fortunate enough to have Andria Cogley of A. Cogley Design supply the cover art. I've written here before about how important it is to get professional help when producing ebooks, but to illustrate the point, I wanted to show you the process we went through on the cover for "Stay Cold" and how a good designer's intuition will usually trump a writer's best graphical ideas every time.

Long before I went to Andria with the story, I started with this image:

This copyrighted shot was supplied to me by a photographer friend, the immensely talented Gary Wilson. I instantly fell in love with the drama of the approaching snowstorm and how it seemed to warp the sun's light. Especially viewed at full size, the photograph is incredible, and it seemed to encapsulate this sense of impending disaster. I sent the picture to Andria, told her I thought it was the greatest thing ever, and asked her to do something with it. This was the initial result:

I know Andria is probably cringing while reading this, as she strongly encouraged me not to share the image while the cover was in progress. (Sorry, Andria...but we're good now...right?) She was very up front about indicating her dislike of this draft. I'd noted that the concept of melting figured into the story, so she gave the sun a warmer tone. And since that warm sun would be revealing some unsavory elements buried in the storm, she threw a hand into the foreground as a sort of conceptual placeholder.

But as Andia had insinuated, the whole cover just flopped. The colors weren't right. Nothing popped out visually. Why was there textured ground after a blizzard that flattened everything? And most of all, where was the approaching storm? I tried to futz with the composition myself and just couldn't get the storm back into the frame. It was a bust.

That takes us to draft number two:

At first, I resisted this version. I missed the storm, most of all. But the longer I looked at this draft, the more I recognized where Andria was going. Now, we had a bloody hand that looked to be trapped under thawing ice. That lent a drama to the scene that was wholly absent in my design. Was the owner of the hand alive or dead? Why was there blood? Most importantly, this new urgency now gave fresh, intriguing ambiguity to the title. If someone was trapped, why should it "stay cold"?

At this point, I hadn't finished the story, and Andria couldn't read my mind. I had to tell her that there was no ice in the tale. We needed the snow back. Also, I missed the big, blocky font from the first draft, which struck me as more dramatic and imperative.

So we went into draft number three:

When this popped out of my inbox, my breath caught in my chest. I'm going to start calling that "The Andria Effect." I had never even mentioned frostbite to her. There is no mention of frostbite in my story. But she thought that up independently, and it completely made the cover. OK, I'll be honest. I'd never seen frostbite before and didn't know that it would turn finger extremities black. I had to look it up in Google Images, and that was no treat on a full stomach, let me tell you.

I loved damn near everything about this cover. You get the snow, but it's a texture, not distracting detail. There's blood, so you know something possibly violent has happened, but the blood takes a back seat to the frostbite, which in turn visually pops against the pale background. (Note that it's the same hand as was used in the second draft, only dressed up in a lot of Photoshop layers. I really wish I knew how to create effects like that.) I got my big font back, and I even dug the way she sort of set it into the snow.

The only thing still needed was cleaning up some of the oddly placed snow texture and frostbite/blood stains that looked more like ink than damaged tissue. Andria also added some puckering to the skin to simulate desiccation. That took us into draft 3.5 (right).

I'm finding that both the art and text in my self-publishing go through three major drafts followed by one or two touch-up mini-drafts. Some writers do two or only one major draft; some will edit and re-edit for years in the hopeless pursuit of perfection. If I can get to 90% to 95% of perfection in three drafts plus spare change, I'm a happy camper. That's a schedule I can live with and feel acceptably productive.

In any event, there you go -- another cover evolution that shows how something awesome can emerge from good intentions gone horribly wrong...with the proper professional help.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Stay Cold," Spawn of Monkeys

The three questions I get most often from people about my writing are:

1. Where do you come up with the ideas?
2. How do you find the time to write?
3. Where'd you learn how to self-publish?

In reverse order, #3 is easy to answer. There's really nothing to it, at least there isn't when you're publishing ebooks through Amazon. Pretty much everything you need to know, at least for getting started, is here: https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/help?topicId=A2VHRJZXET0TWT.

As for finding the time to write...what can I say? It feels like there's never time to write. I usually take an hour in the morning, between getting the kids off to school and starting my day job at 9:00, to work on my novel. But sometimes that gets hijacked, as when a critical rush happens on my day job or, as happened this morning, I'm publishing a new story and minor issues need to be fixed before I can promote the new work.

Where do ideas come from? Anywhere. Everywhere. Stephen King has joked about this several times. It's one of those impossible questions to answer. I had a Religious Studies teacher in high school who, when discussing meditation, said that the mind was like a monkey, constantly swinging and bouncing about inside your skull. The object of meditation is to still the monkey.

If I twist his metaphor a bit, thoughts are like monkeys. We all have these crazed troops of monkeys constantly performing their gymnastics in our heads. Some monkeys sit munching on grass in the background. Some swing right up to the glass and beat on their chest, demanding your attention. And sometimes, monkeys will be monkeys and do the Wild Thing. I find that most monkeys are private and carry on their hot monkey love out of sight in the bushes. But they do commingle, and every so often -- bam! There on the ground you've got a new, steaming baby monkey.

New ideas are like new monkeys. Most will never amount to anything. Oh, sure, they're fuzzy and cute, but it's not like they'll master sign language, compose Hamlet on the monkey exhibit typewriter, or lead an ape insurrection that wipes out humanity.

Except every so often, under a blue moon on a third Thursday, one does. One in every million or so conjugal visits between concepts yields the stem cell of a story. Like the swapping of monkey DNA, the process is largely random and unpredictable. But it happens. The trick is to be paying attention when that special baby monkey hits the ground, because the primates in your skull are an inattentive, rambunctious lot. No sooner is that new idea spawned than they're off banana hunting or foraging for fur lice, and little junior is long forgotten.

A writer will recognize a special baby monkey on sight. It creates an electric jolt in the hindbrain unlike any other. With the story I just published today, "Stay Cold," one such jolt literally arrived out of nowhere. I was at my desk, working on some article about computing. I'd been reading zombie lit for a few weeks while working on "The Followers," but I wasn't thinking about it then. Perhaps my eye fell across the weather report (it was March), and I thought about how unseasonably warm the winter had been. We'd had no snow. Wouldn't it be weird if my kids got snow on Spring Break?

And just like that, the baby monkey smacked to earth with a wet plop. As I sat here looking at my computer screens, I imagined a kid making a snow angel in a massive amount of snow -- so much snow that virtually everything had been buried under it. And frozen inside all that snow, just a few feet under the kid making his snow angel, there were bloody zombies, waiting. Just waiting...for the weather to get a bit warmer.

The image struck me as sublimely creepy. This monkey was special. I just knew it intuitively.

Central Elementary School in Roundup, MT
In any case, I immediately started poking at the idea. I needed a setting, someplace small and fairly isolated but still with modern amenities. A few minutes on Wikipedia led me to Roundup, MT, with a population of about 2,000. Thanks to Google Maps Street View, I was able to click through the streets and confirm that the hospital and shops where single-story. Central Elementary fit what I was looking for exactly. I found the house I wanted in the southeast corner of town. As happens so strangely often with writing, when the story is meant to be, the details all seem to snap into place with eerie convenience. Special monkeys do that.

However, not everything comes easily in those initial stages. By the time I finished first draft, I was left with a kid who had no purpose. He was just there, in this crazy, terrible environment, yes, but otherwise he was just floating through the events. I hadn't really asked myself who Tommy was or what he wanted.

In that first draft, Tommy was ten years old, which seemed natural because my eldest is currently that age. But my best friend and editor, Baron Schuyler, astutely pointed out that ten was too young for some of the actions in this story. Tommy had to be more like 12 or 13. The idea of 13 sparked another bout of monkey business in my mind, and only seconds later, I knew that Tommy was Jewish. He'd just turned 13. These events weren't just random; they were his trial of manhood. Suddenly, I had a real story about a real kid in an unreal, incredibly terrible situation.

Enough said. I'll be back soon with a look at how the cover for "Stay Cold" evolved. For now, I hope you'll bundle up, give the tale a read, and have a good shudder.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sci-Guys Short Shorts: Lacuna and Serial

Wanna hear four guys rip Dark Shadows a new one? Then check out the newly posted Sci-Guys podcast #098. And if you want to stick around for my Short Shorts reviews of David Adams's Lacuna stories and Blake Crouch's "Serial," look for it to start at the 41:00 mark. If you happen to be challenged of hearing or simply impatient, here's what I had to say:

*   *   *

Hey, this is William, and something’s been bugging me. You know how everybody says that self-published ebooks are junk? Well, here’s some news. Remember Hugh Howey’s Wool, the self-published Kindle book I talked about last time? It turns out that 20th Century Fox is now turning Wool into a movie, with both Ridley Scott and Steve Zaillian, the guy who won an Academy for his Schindler’s List screenplay, attached to the project. So for all those who think that short fiction ebooks are crap, think again. If you keep your ears and eyes open, you’ll find loads of awesome fiction out there – no big publisher required.

Case in point, check out this 27-year-old guy from Darwin, Australia named David Adams. He’s a software programmer by day who’s been writing Star Trek fan fiction for years – just for the hell of it. Last year, he started cranking out a story series called Lacuna. Check it out at lacunaverse.com. Long story short, you’ve got aliens blowing away 50 million people because humans developed a technology they’re not supposed to have, and this is the story of humanity fighting back. Now, I haven’t read the two Lacuna novels that Adams has out, because I’m ridiculously busy. But I did buy the two 99-cent short stories, and this is my point. His short stories told me two things: Adams can spin a good tale, and this Lacuna universe is a place I want to explore. I now have his books on my wish list because I was impressed with his short stories, which functioned as sort of a teaser. This is something you rarely saw in the old world of print. You don’t have to risk 5 or 10 bucks on a paperback blurb anymore. Put a dollar on the table. Take a chance. You might just discover a new voice and a new world filled with adventure, moral dilemmas, great science, and badass aliens.

Now, out of the thousands of new ebook authors out there, where else do you start? Usually word of mouth, just like me to you, right here. But I also keep up on several ebook-related blogs and forums. Through one of these, I found Blake Crouch and the short story "Serial," which he co-wrote with Joe Konrath. In a nutshell, we know that hitchhiking can be dangerous. The guy who picks you up could be a serial killer. But so could the hitchhiker, right? This story asks: What happens when the driver and hitcher are both serial killers? For five bucks you can get Serial and nine other short stories in Crouch’s insanely good collection, Fully Loaded. [Edit: It's four bucks. What is it with me and ebook prices?] You might call this suspense or thriller fiction rather than horror, but I would argue that monsters come in all shapes and sizes. To me, the unsuspected monsters strolling right next to you on the sidewalk can be more terrifying than anything covered in slime. Horror can happen wherever you find cracks in reality.

So... Sci-fi. Suspense. Horror. Self-published and totally awesome. Go get it. Again, this is William Van Winkle, and thanks for checking out my Short Shorts.

The Road Trip That Became a "General Invasion"

I met Baron Schuyler when we were high school seniors, way back in 1988. It was at a poetry workshop at Reed College (I think). I remember absolutely nothing about this workshop except sitting at a conference table with Baron on the opposite side of it. He was even skinnier and paler than me (no easy feat back then), long-haired, and clearly the only kid at the table with a clue how to string five decent words together.

Because we each seemed to make some impression on the other, we gravitated together two years later as Portland State University freshmen majoring in English, and we've been close friends ever since. He was the best man at my wedding, and we've been witness to each other's victories and stupidities for over two decades.  Early in our college career, we started making an annual trip from Portland to Ashland, OR to take in two or three plays the town's Shakespeare Festival and work on our respective -- or joint -- fiction projects. Over the years, we've started a lot of such projects, and some of them remain simmering on the back burner, too good in concept to fade completely into the night. Like so many other would-be writing teams, we've spent years getting together, enjoying the collaboration process, but inevitably getting derailed by the other time demands of our lives.

Figuring in lunch, the trip from Portland to Ashland takes about five hours each way. Our traditional pattern is that four of these five hours will be spent bitching about work and women troubles, and about one is spent on writing, which explains why we've never published anything. But we've sure had a lot of good times along the way.

Our 2011 trip was different. For one thing, it was the year we hit middle age and I got serious about self-publishing fiction. ("Good God, I'm 40 years old with no novels to my name," blah blah blah.) I don't think either of us had an undue amount of complaining to do about women on this trip. The stars lined up a certain way as we sped southward down I-5, and something slightly magical happened. The story that would become "General Invasion" (originally called "General Contact" until Baron thought of the better twist) was born.

I'll let Baron describe it...

I don't remember exactly what made me think of this concept, but I'm pretty sure it was after seeing a snippet of the movie Battle Los Angeles. I remember thinking to myself something along the lines of, "Another alien invasion story where everybody tries to blow each other up. It's always that or mysterious abductions." It seemed to me that almost all alien contact stories fall back on one of these two motifs, with only the very occasional exception. Star Trek had a classic exception in its first contact between Humans and Vulcans.

But even Star Trek wasn't immune to the allure of the cliche. I recalled an episode in which aliens were abducting Riker for medical experiments. (IMDB identifies this episode as "Schisms" from season six.) But I also recalled another episode with Riker, where he took on the role of alien invader. Fans of the show will recall that Federation officers often had minor surgery to make them blend in with unsuspecting alien populations, allowing them to obey the Prime Directive. In this episode ("First Contact" from season four), Riker is injured and his human anatomy is discovered by the alien civilization. He tries to escape captivity and he is offered a way out by a lascivious nurse who will help him if he agrees to a sexual tryst with her. This was done rather comically, but as a throwaway line.

Later, I somehow had reason to think about all of this in relation to online pornography. I can't remember why exactly. But it may be because I work at the library and we occasionally have people with poorly defined boundaries come in and view pornography on our public computers. (I mean, c'mon. Really? In public?) We have the annoying task of requesting that they not view it in the library. (Or else.)

At any rate, I wondered, "What if the alien abductions were not for medical experiments or ultimate world domination, but were the work of intergalactic pornographers making stag films?" This seemed rather comical to me. As such, I mentioned it jokingly to William.

Surprisingly, William thought this might make a good story, a sharp and irreverent comic piece. We spent most of our annual trip to Ashland trying to hash it out. Our first attempts focused on a female main character. We kept trying different permutations, but everything came off as crass or tasteless or politicized or politically correct, etc. Most of all, none of it was especially funny.

Just when I was saying that maybe it was best as a passing joke (and not a story), William hit on the brilliant idea of having the main character be a guy. And not just any guy -- a general in the US Army. This struck me as hilariously funny. The idea of it had me laughing so much that I am glad I didn't wreck the car as I was driving us home. He had been working on a story with Roswell connections and linked it to that. It all seemed to fall into place.

William did the hard work of creating a first draft. I had the easy task of doing the first rewrite. It went smoothly after that, with only minor changes and edits.

While most of our rides home tend to be a bit morose -- no one likes ending a vacation -- we laughed almost non-stop for 300 miles. I used the voice-to-text function on my Android smartphone to try and dictate notes into a Google Doc, and only later did I realize how much of the file was gibberish. But enough of the phrases were sufficiently intelligible to trigger my memory a few months later, and I wrote the initial draft in awkward 15- to 60-minute blocks over several weeks. If the final draft strikes you as funny and coherent, you can thank Baron, because those elements were largely absent in my initial sprawling mess.

Honestly, I don't know if "General Invasion" works or not. I'm too close to it to judge objectively. I still believe that humor and horror are the two most difficult genres in which to write well, because you're trying to elicit a more visceral emotional response from the reader. I'll let you decide whether or not we were successful.

For me, even if the story never sells a copy or gathers positive reviews, I'll consider it a glowing accomplishment that's been 20 years in the making. Baron and I finally completed a piece of fiction that (I hope) was ready for a widespread audience. Friendship has no requisite purpose. No two people ever say, "We're going to be friends in order to..." But if there ever were a purpose behind Baron's and my friendship, I think we would agree that it would be to write together. There's an inexplicable joy in the collaborative process that helps keep us together decade after decade. Being able to turn that collaboration into something tangible, something that can be shared with the world, may not be essential, but it sure feels great and long overdue.

Here's to hoping the next one won't take as long...