What’s Your Pleasure?

“Almost anyone can be an author; the business is to collect money and fame from this state of being.”

~ A. A. MILNE

Good morning, friends and followers!  Here we are again on another beautiful Wednesday morning, and once again I have to find something to write about; one must keep current if one wants to attract readers, you know!  I have decided to update and reprint an old post from a long-defunct blog that asks you to think about your place in this big, wonderful world of writers.  We’re all in it.  We all love it.  What do we do in it?

A number of events have transpired since I’ve been retired to impress upon me just what a hobbyist author I am…  Not that my sales figures don’t keep that fact firmly in front of my eyes!  But no, I speak of other things.  I have a friend and fellow author who told me that he is so thoroughly immersed in writing that he left the work force in order to follow that pursuit 8-12 hours a day.  Several people have informed me that a true writer can sit down and crank out 10,000 words at will, regardless of mood, illness, pain, surrounding aggravation, or whatever.  Last year I was approached for an interview by a host from an internet radio show who said I had been recommended to him by a mutual friend, and that was the catalyst that got me thinking about all this as a whole.

Basically, I had to ask myself what I have to say to an audience expecting a guest to provide them with some profound insight into the life and philosophy of a writer.  My honest answer has to be not much!  The last time something like this happened to me was in January of 2014.  Beyond the Rails had just been released, and I was offered a signing (not out of the blue; I had been talking with them before) at a local shop called Mysterious Galaxy, a San Diego bookstore specializing in fantasy and scifi.  I thought this was cool as all get out until I looked at their calendar.  In the month of January alone, they had scheduled a who’s who of the genres that included award-winners and best-sellers, some of whom had been my idols for years.  If I owned a bookstore, I would consider getting their January lineup to be the crowning year of my ownership.  And they were going shoehorn little ol’ me in between two giants of the field.  Yeah, no thanks.  The only question I could envision their sophisticated clientele asking me was, “How did you get in here?”  I passed, as I have passed on the radio show.  I’m not that guy.

You see, my life doesn’t revolve around writing.  Blasphemy, I know, but there are too many other things that life has to offer for me to spend 8-12 hours a day with my nose glued to this keyboard.  I have a family that I love very much.  I was just getting good at blues harmonica when I had to get an upper denture; I have a lot of work to do to get back to where I was, not to mention move beyond.  There are dozens of Xbox games I haven’t seen the end of, and hundreds, thousands of books and movies await my attention.  There are places to see, dishes to try, and this keyboard isn’t going to provide any of them.

Dude 4-16

Due to my lunatic sleep patterns, I rise hours before the rest of the household.  Well, except for Dude the Insane Beagle, and once I give him a couple of treats, he’s out for the duration.  Anyway, I typically have up to three hours to spend at the keyboard, and that’s plenty to pursue a hobby.  I can knock down a scene, turn out a blog post, or put up a review, and the girls never miss me, because they’re still asleep.  Anyway, that’s about all I can do in one sitting.  Right around the three-hour mark, my fingers go numb, my brain turns to mush, and anything I force myself to produce after that is just wasted material that I’m going to have to throw away anyway.

So you see, I’m a hobbyist.  Writing is one of many things I dabble in.  I don’t use professionals because I would be in the hole forever.  $500 for a cover would equate to a couple of decades before my book made enough money to break even.  I have a camera and some steampunk gadgets.  You can see pictures of the gadgets on the book covers; they were taken with the camera.  Likewise editors.  My wonderful beta readers catch most of my mistakes, and I’ve painstakingly taught myself the rules of grammar and composition.  I go with about three rewrites, after which I find I’m changing things back to the way I wrote them in the draft, and if the comments and reviews that the series has received are any indication at all, it’s working.

So, yes, I’m a hobbyist, and I’m good with that.  I still get goosebumps when I check my dashboard and discover a new sale, and the thrill of reading a good review is positively orgasmic!  I’m not convinced it would be the same if I was getting twenty a day.  Most of my author friends are young, and still have stars in their eyes.  I wouldn’t do a thing to take that vision from them, and I hope with all my heart that they succeed, but I’m where I want to be.  If the series suddenly takes off, I guess I’ll have to reevaluate, but I don’t anticipate it, and I’m not unhappy right now, today.  How many people can say that with a straight face?

View from the Blimp

StoneSeekersFront

To quote my childhood crush, Hayley Mills, “I just had the most scathingly brilliant idea!”  Observing what a big item the fantasy genre has become, it occurred to me that I could spread my name to a wider audience by publishing in that genre.  Accordingly, I dug out my old fantasy manuscript, The Wellstone Chronicles, polished it thoroughly for typos, grammar, and plot holes, and published it under the more appropriate title, The Stone Seekers.  It has done nothing, and I mean almost literally nothing, and part of this I lay on the doorstep of Goodreads.  They have a new-book promotion program that I used for all the Beyond the Rails books, and if huge sales weren’t generated, it at least made several hundred readers aware of their existence.  The program still exists, but now they want $119 for the basic, stripped-down model, and if prior experience is any guide, that’s about what your typical indie can expect to make in royalties over the lifetime of the book.  I already have the $119; why should I give it to someone else in the hope that I might someday just possibly, if everything goes right, earn it back?

All this talk of being a hobbyist notwithstanding, like any collector of stamps or breeder of dogs, part of the enjoyment of a hobby is sharing your accomplishments with others.  And that brings up the real problem that all indies face; in a word, advertising.  You could write the greatest book on earth, but if you aren’t independently wealthy, you just can’t get the word out.  I will, nonetheless, continue to advertise on various platforms, Facebook, my Goodreads blog, here, for which I have apologized in advance, but part of my reason for doing this is to sell books.  Along those same lines, I’m also no longer going to dilute my own efforts promoting authors who ignore my promotions when I post them; if you want your latest promotion to appear on my pages, then mine will have to appear on yours.  I’m sorry to have to be that way, but part of being a writer is selling books, which is a business, and I’m given to understand that to be successful in business, you have to eliminate the programs that aren’t working.

To get back on topic, though. I’m afraid if The Stone Seekers doesn’t generate some interest soon, I’m going to have to cut my losses and remove it from sale, because a book doing this badly can only hurt my reputation and harm my brand.  I’ll give it until August to move a few copies, after which it will vanish into history as a bad idea whose time never came…

The main project right now, and until it is finished, is The Darklighters: Hong Kong.  This is my Victorian-era steampunk Man from U.N.C.L.E., and is a spinoff from Beyond the Rails, continuing the adventures of Abigail “Jinx” Jenkins, who visited the Kestrel a couple of times, bringing her own rowdy brand of enthusiasm to that otherwise sane and sensible crew.  The first story is finished, and can be read in its entirety at the tab above.  When I have completed four more, they will be collected in a book of adventures connected by a story arc.  I am still taking applications for beta readers, and could use about four more.  Read the story above, and if it looks like it might be interesting to you, drop me a line and I’ll send you the particulars.

In Other News…

AfterPunk

David Lee Summers is back with yet another story in yet another anthology.  After Punk is a collection of steampunk-themed stories dealing with various aspects of the afterlife.  I can’t yet endorse the collection, but I can whole-heartedly endorse David’s talents as a writer, and I will be acquiring this book for my own collection soon.  I guess that’s an endorsement in itself…

 

 

And that’s all I’ve got.  See you in couple of days with a new book ad!

The Burden of Being a Writer

“When you’re a writer, you no longer see things with the freshness of a normal person.  There are always two figures that work inside you, and if you are at all intelligent you realize that you have lost something.  But I think there has always been this dichotomy in a real writer.  He wants to be terribly human, and he responds emotionally, and at the same time there’s this cold observer who cannot cry.”

~ BRIAN MOORE

Let me begin by making one thing perfectly clear:  I am a hobbyist author.  For most of literary history, the term “author” has described both a professional and his or her profession, and by no means has that profession fallen by the wayside.  But over the past decade or so, through the magic of the internet, it is the case that anyone can write anything they choose and, without regard to whether they have any idea what they’re doing, make a few mouse clicks, and voila, their opus is for sale on amazon.com.  These are the hobbyists, myself among them, who publish 5,000 new books every day.

Those 5,000 new books run the gamut from “How does this guy not have a book deal?” to “This guy couldn’t write a grocery list.”  The only statistic in question is how many of us admit that we’re hobbyists, and how many put that unedited, virtually unreadable first-draft up for sale, and immediately list “Author” as their profession on their tax return.  But there is one area in which the professional and the hobbyist are indistinguishable.  I refer here to those hobbyists who have put at least some level of effort into learning The Craft.  You’ve taken a class, read some how-to books, or otherwise made some effort to grasp the basic principles of what you’re trying to do.

Once you understand how plots and characters are created and developed, you always have one eye out for another author’s technique.  Now, when I read The Sword of Shannara, I’m no longer just on an epic quest through the wild with Shea Ohmsford.  Part of me is standing behind Terry Brooks watching his technique, second-guessing his choices, trying to understand why he gave the reader this critical piece of the puzzle now, and not earlier or later.

You are told what the author feels you need to know at the time you need to know it.  That’s all well and good, and when you are immersed in a tautly-crafted read, you aren’t even aware that you’re reading; the experience being described in the book is going on around you, and you aren’t just reading.  You’re hearing the twig break in the darkness, smelling the prosecutor’s harsh after-shave lotion, feeling the sweet lips of your paramour, and even though there is nothing to hear or smell or feel, you are there!

Compare this to what happens on a movie set.  The camera is dollied along a suburban street, and you as the viewer take in the details of everything from the house numbers to the garden gnomes, and maybe wonder what sort of life is lived in this house or that.  But those houses are only the fronts, plywood cutouts hung on scaffolding, and as a writer, part of you is constantly trying to pull back the veil and see how this other writer built his scaffolds.

I myself write in third-person viewpoint, which means I tell a story in the form of “he did this,” and “she said that,” but I’m not completely omnipotent.  Each scene has a “viewpoint,” a character through whose eyes that piece of the narrative is told.  I aim for 80-100 scenes in a novel, generally four to a chapter, with plot twists at the quarter, halfway, and three-quarter marks, and never more than six viewpoints.  The majority of the story is told through the eyes of the Protagonist, with a lesser number of scenes falling to the Opposition, the Confidant, and the Henchman.  My protagonist always has a distraction going on, rats in the basement, so to speak, while he’s trying to deal with the wolf at the door.  Sometimes this distraction takes the form of a fifth viewpoint character, and on rare occasions, I’ll use a sixth just to stir the pot, but never more than that, and when I see a well-established professional introduce that seventh main character, I’m out of the plot.  I want to know why, what story point made it necessary, what was the author trying to accomplish, did she succeed, how did she make it work?

And that’s the burden.  You’re a reader trying to have a good time, but you’re also a writer trying to improve your own Craft, and how better to do that than to crack the code of J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, or Michael Crichton?  If you’re a writer, you know that it never stops, and it does interfere with your enjoyment.  I can’t say whether it’s worth it.  Financially, certainly not.  I often joke that one month, my book sales paid for my internet service, but that isn’t really a joke.

But as a hobbyist, it has been very much worth doing.  I have a number of writing friends that I get to rub elbows and compare notes with, and the feeling you get when someone tells you in person, or better yet, posts a review praising your stellar work and divine skills is worth almost any sacrifice it might take to get it, even if the numbers aren’t that great.  And in my case, they won’t be.  I have turned down a book-signing, a couple of conventions, and a radio interview, because even though the chances are infinitesimal, there is that fraction of a percentage point of possibility that some unsuspected event could catapult me to celebrity, and I don’t want to live that life.  I’m happily retired, have a great relationship with my family, and that’s the way I want to keep it.

None of that means that I don’t carry the burden, though.  How about you, my writing friends?  Do you experience anything like this?  How do you maintain your enjoyment in the face of that “need to know?”

Ghosts of Childhood

“Make the crooked straight, make the straight to flow.  Gather water, fire, and light.  Bring the world to a single point.”

~ DENG MING-DAO

I’m engaged in a titanic, solitary struggle right now, a fight for a large part of who I am.  You see, I’m 69 years old, and since the age of nine, back in 1958, I have been writing to entertain others.  I have been trying to drive this new page as if I don’t have a care in the world, but the astute among you have already seen the chinks in the armor, and to try to ignore this or gloss it over would be dishonest.  I do not intend to be dishonest.

I’m no psychologist, but I have a suspicion that my burning need to write is rooted in a less-than-ideal childhood.  While I certainly didn’t miss meals or live chained up in a shed or a child-labor sweatshop, I was shunted around from relative to relative until I ended up being raised primarily by my great-grandmother, who as nearly as I could tell had neither patience nor use for children.  I was whipped with a switch on bare legs for the slightest of infractions, and constantly reminded that I was worthless and stupid.  Discovering that I was good at writing, I set about proving her wrong.  Now she is long-dead, gone on to her final reward, and perhaps my subconscious, feeling that I have proven myself to someone who will never know about it, is ready to move on.

That’s my theory, anyway.  But I want to be a writer.  That’s the one thing that I have been since childhood, and it is such a huge part of me that I have no desire to give it up, hence this website, among a number of other things.  I have no patience with braggarts, and yet a month ago I reposted a review I received on the Good, Bad, Bizarre website (now defunct) extolling the virtues of Beyond the Rails.  That was done mostly for me, to prove that I could do it, and I’m going to do it again in the hope of reminding myself in public that I am a quality writer, and still have something to say.  This one is of the second installment of Beyond the Rails, and is by C. William Perkins, who spins a pretty wicked yarn himself in his Lorna Lockheed stories.  He was a reviewer for Steampunk Reviews dot-com, which also seems to have gone under, but his review lives on at Goodreads, and it thrills me to tears to repeat it here:

“Beyond the Rails II: Soldier of the Crown is a fantastic return to form for indie author Jack Tyler. Following once again the crew of the airship Kestrel in 1880’s colonial Kenya, these six new stories are a welcome continuation, further building the world, developing the characters and shaking up the status quo.

We pick up not long after the events of the last book and Tyler continues to succeed in his episodic, almost TV Season like approach to storytelling.  The memories of “last season’s finale” are still fresh as he picks up a new adventure with the Kestrel crew.  Only Captain Monroe, the American cowboy Smith, and the young tagalong botanist Dr. Ellsworth remain to keep the ship aloft and take on new missions.  Even in her absence though, the prodigious pilot Patience Hobbs leaves a noticeable impression on the others, like a daughter who has run away from home and might not come back this time.  Though Tyler never lets us forget her, he uses the break wisely to let the others stand out and prove their worth.  Monroe languishes over keeping the Kestrel in the air and on mission, and Smith with his Peacemaker and rugged Clint Eastwood charm always entertains.

Previous Prussian engineer Gunther has vanished between seasons like an actor who asked for more money in the offseason and didn’t get it.  I thought he more than earned his keep but I can’t say as I missed him for long, so maybe it was for the best.  Ellsworth covers for him in the engine room until he’s replaced but still can’t find time to be as interesting as the rest of the cast.  As for Hobbs, I won’t spoil what Tyler does with her, but he makes sure we don’t forget about her and he definitely uses the absence to enhance the story.  In fact, the first couple tales she sits out are easily some of Tyler’s best crafted stories.

The first is a quick jumpstart, sucking you back to the audacious African frontier with Tyler’s usual sense of mystery and danger.  This time it’s reminiscent of The Island of Dr. Moreau, as they find themselves trapped with a family of mad scientists.  The third story (one of my favorites) takes a break from the action when one of their passengers lures them into his international treasure hunt, evoking a Raiders of the Lost Ark feel.  Tyler plays with a lot of fun but familiar tropes: the daring escape, the interrogation of a bad guy high in the air, the race-against-the-clock chase to save a life, or the framed-for-murder mystery.  Each is familiar to anyone who has seen an action movie in the last forty years, but Tyler handles each one with poise, using the various scenes to illuminate his characters, build suspense, or tease us into second guessing our own expectations.

Tyler’s writing was good before, but his straightforward and direct style is even sharper this time.  His extensive research makes me wonder once again about the kind life he’s lived.  His maritime vocabulary and proficiency with the mechanics of the ship’s boiler suggest he could quite possibly build his own airship and tour us across Kenya himself if he felt like it.  Unlike a lot of steampunk, he keeps one foot firmly grounded in real life and doesn’t get swept up in fanciful genre indulgences.  I wouldn’t call this hard science-fiction just yet, but his “steampunk-light” approach retains the kind of gravitas and depth that we all first fell in love with during 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or Around the World in 80 Days, where one good premise is enough to inspire awe rather than a slew of improbable gadgets and pedantic mad scientists.  Not to say he doesn’t dip his toes into some darkly ominous human experiments, but when he does he stops short of gratuity to make sure his characters and their experience come first.  To say it works is an understatement.  I loved it and it’s a high standard for others in the genre to live up to.

His guest stars once again are so compelling that he fools me almost every time into thinking they’re about to join the cast.  The underrated Chang Wei, the treasure hunting Eric Hafner, or the Maasai priestess Darweshi all prove to be as fully realized as the main cast.  Recurring characters like Governor General Sanderson or the barman Faraji are equally delightful.  I look for them every time we return to port.

As the Kestrel rises above Mombasa, you really feel like you’ve joined their crew.  Part of that comes with time, having simply had more exposure to the characters after twelve stories total, but their interactions really do feel more authentic and “in the moment” this time.  And that’s what makes these stories so compelling.  Like Star Trek or Firefly or Battlestar Galactica, you really want to be a part of this family and you wonder what they’re up to between scenes.  Part of that comes as a result of Tyler’s story-craft.  For each main plot, there are little digressions, mini-episodes, or scenes that stand on their own, like a meal at the bar, or the negotiation of a new fare, or an innocuous walk through the market before being mugged.  Or even just the denouement after the dust has settled where they discuss the mundane practicalities of refueling, restocking and how they’ll find their next paid gig.  When each story ends, the most satisfying element is the excitement of wondering what mayhem and misadventure is lurking behind the horizon.

I’m sure Tyler’s next novel Stingaree will be his best work yet, but I’d be lying if I wasn’t a little bummed that it’s causing a delay in Beyond the Rails III.  A reveal at the end ties together a handful of previously disconnected loose ends going all the way back to the opening story in book one.  A new arrangement with Kenya’s Governor General in the second story, for example, creates an interesting subplot early on, but it never really comes to fruition.  Either he set it up to throw us off (which actually worked on me since I kept waiting for it to backfire), or he’s still getting to his big payoff.  Little narrative references along the way suggest that while Tyler likes each story or episode to appear unique and independent that he still wants to make sure we’re following the breadcrumbs.  He’s building to something and I want to know what it is, and that might be the best compliment I can give above all the rest, is that he’s got me hooked.  As a reviewer, he’s turned me into a fan, and now like the rest of you, I have to wait for more.

Conclusion:  5 out of 5 stars.  I usually save this for the kind of professional-level books you find in a book store, but if I could find anything like this from a traditional publisher, I’d buy it for sure.  Tyler succeeds in taking us along for another African airship adventure and like the season finale to your favorite guilty pleasure, you can’t wait till next year to see what’s going to happen.”

Well, Mr. Perkins, at least you didn’t have to wait for Beyond the Rails III!  This was my second “epic” review, and is the kind of stroking my subconscious needs to regain its interest in the written word.  And I so much want it to!  I have been asked by the new Scribblers’ Den to provide an introduction and maybe a story for their new anthology coming this fall.  I’m going to pitch into this with all the energy I can bring to it, and maybe that will be the kick-start I need to get back on the Rails, so to speak.  If it is, I plan to “dance with the girl I brought,” and begin work on Beyond the Rails IV.  After that, there is The Darklighters spinoff I set up in BtR III, so maybe I’ll have enough in this familiar universe to keep me engaged.

I can’t pretend to know what’s going to happen down the road, but I know what I want to happen, and am going to bend every effort to bringing it about.  Wish me luck, and watch for results; I’m not going down without a fight!