The Independent Reader

“One of the dumbest things you were ever taught was to write what you know.  Because what you know is usually dull.  Remember when you first wanted to be a writer?  Eight to ten years old, reading about thin-lipped heroes flying over mysterious viny jungles toward untold wonders?  That’s what you wanted to write about, what you didn’t know.”

~ KEN KESEY

In Tara Sparling’s last post, she laments the dearth of original material in the new books being published, and well she should.  I have long been lamenting the dearth of originality in movies, and the reasons are very much the same:  The bottom line.  It costs a blankety-blank fortune to make a movie, and the risk of not making a worthwhile return is just too great to face anymore; we’ve all heard of those movies that cost $100 million to make that only brought in $10 million at the box office.  A big studio might survive that, but the people whose names are on those non-starters may never work in Hollywood again.

Books, fictional books at least, operate under very much the same immutable laws of economics.  While I’m sure the cost of producing a book is far less than a movie, the publisher still has to sell enough copies to the reading public to make a decent return, and the audience for any given book is much smaller than that for a movie.  Books are also consumed differently than movies.  A movie aficionado might look at a mystery starring Brad Pitt, and decide to attend or not based on whether he wants to see that star in that genre; he may not know nor care who the director is.  Many readers, on the other hand, have a stable of authors whose work they’ll buy, sight unseen, whenever they offer a new release.  I myself, while I enjoy the work of certain actors, do not automatically attend every film one of those actors appears in, but every time R.A. Salvatore releases a Drizzt DoUrden novel, I’m first in line at Barnes & Noble.  Why not Amazon?  I don’t want to wait an extra week to be reading!

All of which stacks the deck against any new or obscure author trying to find his way into the hearts of these fans.  If you aren’t already known, how do you get known?  It’s Catch-22 brought to life:  “You have to have experience to get this job.”  So, how do you get experience?

If you are a recreational reader of fiction, I must then pose a simple question.  Why should you, an experienced reader, carry a selection of independent authors on your reading list?  For one very good reason.  Originality.  What was the last original movie you saw?  Can’t think of one?  That’s because no one is making them anymore.  That’s why we’re inundated with remakes of old movies, reenvisionings of comic books, reboots of old TV shows, the unrecognizable retelling of old, popular books “brought to life” by the “magic of Hollywood,” and episode CCXLVII of the Big Space Saga.  No one is willing to take the chance anymore that something might not have a built-in audience clamoring for tickets before it arrives in theaters.

Books have largely gone down the same path.  Publishers, unwilling to take a risk, compete with one another to shovel out copies of copies of copies of The Last Big Thing.  Where is the grand fantasy tale that doesn’t follow Lord of the Rings to the letter?  How many clones of Twilight, Fifty Shades, or Game of Thrones can you read before you can recite the plot points before you come to them?  You may be surprised to hear that those cutting-edge stories and novels are out there waiting to be read, and I’m going to tell you where to find them.

In the files of independent authors.  While traditional publishers cling to the center of convention, carefully scouring their submissions for yet another retelling of a done-to-death story, independent authors, just as independent filmmakers and musicians, are out on the fringe, past the edge of the map, chronicling the tales that no one has yet heard, that have yet to be told.  These are the stories you want to read, the stories that are worth finding, the jewels that you’ll remember long after the last Underworld Ring Games clone is moldering in the landfill and long forgotten.  These are the true heirs to the tradition of storytelling.

Authors decide to self-publish for any number of reasons. Some because we have been rejected by traditional publishers, often for being too original to suit their no-risk publishing model.  Some have gone indie because we didn’t want to get involved with the “you do the work, and we’ll keep the money” attitude of the big publishers.  Some of us are well-known traditionally published authors who have been screwed out of our due one time too many, but we all have one thing in common:  We answer to our creative muse, and no one else.

We have all had an experience, maybe more than one, with an independent author who had no business writing a grocery list, let alone a book, and some of us may have said, “Enough of this!  I’m sticking to the Big Five from now on.”  That’s your choice, but you do yourself a grave disservice by that reasoning.

We all try new products every day.  Whether it’s a new makeup, pain reliever, pipe wrench, or ball-point pen, we have all gotten our hands on one that doesn’t do what the advertisement said it would.  But do we then say, “I’m never using makeup again!”  Of course we don’t.  We learn to be more careful consumers.  There are many ways to carefully consume books, one of them being to never stray from the big names.  Again, that’s your choice, but there are ways to find the quality indies as well, and if you want to read the books that are telling the new stories, you must include indies on your reading list.

How do you find quality indies?  Amazon.com is a huge help.  Most of us publish there because they make it so easy, and they provide useful tools.  Look for an indie who has high ratings, even if there aren’t too many of them.  A low rating isn’t a deal-breaker either, unless that’s all there are, but ratings can help.  Then once you find a book that looks interesting, use the “Look Inside” feature.  Yes, it only shows you a few pages, but if the author can’t write, you won’t need much more than a paragraph to determine that.  Then, of course, there’s the tried and true method, word of mouth.  If someone you know and trust is recommending an indie, by all means, take a look.  You may discover worlds beyond imagining that lie at the tips of your fingers.  So, come on out to the fringe; we’re waiting to welcome you.  Here are some names to get you started:

Raymond Esposito, David Lee Summers, C. William Perkins, Karen J. Carlisle, S.K. Anthony, C.P. Lesley, William J. Jackson, E.C. Jarvis, C.W. Hawes, Stephanie Kato, Sarah Zama, Kara Jorgensen, N.O.A. Rawle, Alice E. Keyes, Steve Moore, Ichabod Temperance, Bryce Raffle, Jonathan Fesmire, Maxwell Grantly, and of course, yours truly, Jack Tyler.

If you can’t find something to engage your imagination on that list, you really just don’t want to read.  Try something new and exciting.  Come take a ride!

Friendship vs. Loyalty

“The novel is the greatest example of subtle interrelatedness that man has discovered.”

~ D.H. LAWRENCE

There is a quality that those who serve, or have served, in the military know well.  I’m sure that first responders and law enforcement professionals share it as well, but my experience is military, so that’s how I’ll approach it.

There are many, many days in military service on which you find yourself in a life-or-death situation.  You don’t have to be under fire; violent weather, fires, and natural disasters all qualify.  The unique feature of military service is that when you are eyeballs-deep in whatever catastrophe is breaking loose around you, if you take a second to look around, you’ll see a group of your closest friends, and they’re all still there, in the midst of the end of the world, and you know without question that they’ll risk their lives to save yours without a second thought, and that you’d do the same for them.  When you work at Target or MacDonald’s, on the other hand, you may have friends among your coworkers, but how close are they?

 

Soldiers, sailors, and airmen of every stripe, whether they’re currently serving or have separated, even if they didn’t do well within the rigid structure of military life and got out at the earliest opportunity, know well this feeling of absolute loyalty, and miss it in their daily lives.  Many people who work in retail, fast food, or Joe’s Tire Shop share this with their immediate family members, but if some jackass ran a stop sign, and you found yourself trapped in a burning car, how many of those on the sidewalk would risk their own safety to try to pull you out?

You can apply your own answer to that, and I assure you that those heroic individuals are out there, but you can’t identify them by the way they look, and you never know when they’re around.  Probably best to stay out of accidents.  But this web site is about writing, so let’s apply this to your novel.

You have to know, first and foremost, who your characters are.  This was decided when you made your character sheets (you did make your character sheets didn’t you?) and now, in order for the character to have an impact with the reader, he or she must act appropriately when they see that burning car upside down in the middle of the intersection.  Is he going to leap into action?  Of course, you want him to; he’s your hero, after all, and you don’t want to present him as a milquetoast, standing idly by while others suffer in agony.  But sometimes the appropriate action for him to take is no action at all.  If you want to study the background of behavior, this will get you started and suggest further reading, but in terms of characters, I am putting a lot of my chips into a study I read about last year (and can’t find now) in which university students were called to a waiting room, and once the whole group was seated, flipping through magazines and whatnot, the researchers began to pump in smoke, barely a trace at first, then increasing to the point where the room was visibly smokey, and they were coughing from it.  In none of the study groups did anyone rise to ask questions about it, or pull the clearly visible fire alarm.  Everyone waited for someone else to get excited, to take action, or to at least indicate that there was a problem, but no one ever did!

When I find that study again, I’ll share it here as a footnote, but consider the ramifications.  If your hero is an ordinary man or woman on the street, think twice before you have him leaping into heroic actions at the drop of a hat.  It’s rarer than we might wish.  Of course, if your character is a cop, soldier, firefighter, or something similar, as many are, and the story is about his or her heroism, then by all means, have at it.  But what we’re all working to instill in our readers is a suspension of disbelief, and if you have a coming of age story, or a romance about a bean counter finding true love, you might want to think twice before you turn this guy into Batman every time the stress level rises.  It may come across as unrealistic, and no author wants that!

I’ve been studying the Craft of writing for sixty solid years now, and I know what readers want, every single one of them.  Pay close attention now, because I’m going to share that great cosmic secret:  The one thing, the holy grail, that every reader is seeking is immersion.  He wants to forget that he’s reading at all, wants to live the life of your hero for the minutes, days, or weeks that he spends with your story, but he can’t do that if he is constantly wading through a swamp of typos, rereading every other scene because your use of language functions as a barrier between him and what you’re trying to convey, or is constantly befuddled by the unrealistic actions embraced by your characters.  I relentlessly harp on maintaining the high quality of your characters, and here is why:  If you are a fiction writer, you don’t tell the story, your characters do, and if your characters are acting out of character, your story is doomed.  Take your time, get them right, then sit back and enjoy the rewards!

A Moment in Time

“Reading about imaginary characters and their adventures is the greatest pleasure in the world… Or the second-greatest!”

~ ANTHONY BURGESS

Good morning.  I’m still less than two weeks into this new venture, and to help some of the newer followers get to know me better, I’m going to indulge in some speculation concerning some of the more everyday uses you might find if you actually had access to time travel.  David Lee Summers, a good friend and fellow author, was tagged a good while back by Susan J. Voss at the Dab of Darkness blog, and while he didn’t pass the tag on to me, he did mention my work favorably in passing, so I thought it might be fun to take this on just as it was put to him.  I believe this will give new visitors some more insight into Jack the Writer, and make an engaging post for all to read.  This is almost an interview, with the subject tasked to answer a series of fun and revealing questions, and this is how it went:

What is your favorite historical setting for a book?

I’m not sure I have just one.  “Historical” rules out sci-fi and fantasy, which have always been big on my reading lists, but that still leaves a lot!  As a steampunk author, I’m almost obligated to say Victorian, and that’s true, but I also like those tales from the age of exploration, the golden age of piracy, the colonial era in the Orient, when the Asian cultures were viewed as somehow mystical, and separate from anything we in the west could imagine.  But with me it’s more about the historical era of the author rather than his particular work.  I am a very immature reader.  I most enjoy (and write) stories written in the style of a bygone era, when the action didn’t stop every ten pages so the hero could have sex with some random hot chick, when they used cleverness instead of torture to gain information, when the solution to every problem didn’t involve blowing it up with the biggest bomb they could drag into the setting.  I very much enjoy the “boys’ own” adventure tales of the 1920s and 30s, and when I can find a book written in that style, period or contemporary, it becomes a prize possession and even gets re-read from time to time.

What writers would you like to travel back in time to meet?

Jules Verne, of course; I’d even learn French for a crack at him!  H. G. Wells, one of the pioneers of sci-fi, who also gave us wargaming in the gentleman’s parlor.  Doyle, Poe of course, and Robert Louis Stevenson, who popularized pirate tales.  The pioneers in their fields, I suppose, the people who said, “No one’s ever done this before, so I’m going to.”  That’s brass, and also huge talent.  To identify a new field to write in, and then to do it, and nail it in such a way that their names are remembered and their books are sold and read over a century later just boggles the mind.

What books would you travel back in time and give to your younger self?

The_Crystal_Shard_(first_edition)

The Forgotten Realms series by R.A. Salvatore.  For those unfamiliar, this is an ongoing fantasy series that began in 1988 with The Crystal Shard, and will continue later this year with the release of Timeless.  The series at this writing comprises 47 books and counting.  The publishing house is Wizards of the Coast, and all the characters and situations are based to a large extent on whatever edition of the Dungeons and Dragons game was current at the time of each book’s writing.  When I saw that, I was remarkably unimpressed, but Salvatore’s talent is to pare this huge world down to a handful of core characters and make you care about them over years of adventures together.  Teenage Jack would have loved it!

What book would you travel forward in time and give to your older self?

Cycle_of_nemesis

This is tricky, as I don’t know my older self…  Or maybe I do, being 69 years old now.  When I try to think of a book I enjoyed as a youngster that I probably wouldn’t pick up now, it’s hard (see my answer to the first question above) because I’m such a juvenile reader that I still like the same things I did as a kid.  Probably a book I would skip today just because of its lurid cover art would be Cycle of Nemesis by Kenneth Bulmer.  I probably would have skipped it as a teenager, but I was stuck for a weekend in an airport waiting for a seat via space-available, and there was very little to choose from.  Cycle of Nemesis concerned an ancient horror from space who was locked away by Sumerian gods who recorded the imprisoning incantation on a stone tablet.  Because the bottom of the tablet is missing, the wards only hold for 7000 years, meaning that 7000 years after the last uprising, the current society has to remember what is required, and equally importantly, believe it in order to reset the seals.  Of course, in the plot of the book, it was our turn.  It was an amazingly good read trapped in an amazingly bad cover, and coincidentally, in keeping with this theme, it involved a good bit of time travel.  I still have this book, and re-read it again about three years ago.

What is your favorite futuristic setting for a book?

This is a hard one, as I’ve really kind of moved away from sci-fi reading.  I would probably have to say the Star Trek universe, as there is room for science, adventure, exploration, social commentary, and most importantly, there is a huge amount of established canon, so I don’t have to learn a whole new reality every time I crack the cover.  That may be part of my fascination with Forgotten Realms as well; I’m a lazy reader.  I want to pitch into a gripping story, not slog through a cultural history of some nonexistent society.

What is your favorite book that is set in a different time period?

One book?  You have to be kidding, right?  Limited to one that I assume would comprise my entire library for the purposes of this question, I would have to go with the collected stories of Sherlock Holmes.  The brilliance of the man and the ambiance of his surroundings are just too good to pass up.

Spoiler Time: Do you ever skip ahead to the end of a book to see what happens?

Absolutely not!  Knowing first hand the blood writers shed to bring us their fantastic stories, I couldn’t do this to them.  I may have when I was a child, but if I did, it was too long ago to remember.  Respect for The Craft aside, why would I want to deprive myself of that earth-shaking surprise.  And if you’re a reader who does commit this disrespectful act of pure evil, SHAME ON YOU!

If you had a Time Turner, where would you go and what would you do?

Easiest question on the list.  I would take it to the deepest point of the Marianas Trench, weld it to an anvil, and drop it in!  I’ve read altogether too much terrifying sci-fi to imagine that anything good could come from messing with the time flow.

Favorite book (if you have one) that includes time travel or takes place in multiple time periods.

This one’s easy, too.  I simply have to return to Cycle of Nemesis.  Just stellar work, as the Big Bad’s imps tamper with the time flow attempting to gain an advantage over the heroes, and those confused characters try to make sense of the occasional glimpses they catch of themselves in strange costumes.  A spectacular ride.

What book/series do you wish you could go back and read again for the first time?

 

Tarnsman_of_gor_vallejo_cover

The Gor series, by John Norman.  Begun in the 1960s, these books postulated the existence of a Counter-Earth named Gor that traveled perpetually on the opposite side of the sun, and in the pre-satellite and space probe days, could not be detected.  Gor was a fantasy world without magic where warriors rode on giant hawks or tyrannosaurs, and unwittingly fought for humanity in proxy wars set in motion by the mysterious Priest Kings.  There are 34 books, the last installment being published in June of 2016.  The first six were a magnificent sword-and-planet series reminiscent of the Carter of Mars books by Burroughs.  Somewhere between #6 and #7, he seems to have had a run-in with one of the early militant feminists, and the series thereafter devolves into an anti-female screed, with whole chapters devoted to the idea that women are neither happy nor well-adjusted unless they have a man telling them what to do, they are natural slaves and sex objects, and a whole list of similar themes that I found too offensive to continue to wade through to get to the deeply buried story inside.  What I really wish is that I could go back and read the first six, and never know there were any more after that; that would eliminate a huge disappointment from my young adult years.

And those are my answers to some excellent time travel questions. How did you guys like it, and more to the point, what would your answers be?  I’d love to be able to read and discuss them, so consider this your invitation to dive in create some words!  Whether in the comments here, or on your own web page, I’m hoping to generate some enlightening conversation on this, so don’t be shy.  Tell us how you feel about time travel in all its permutations.