Sunday, March 16, 2014

Word Business

The last two years haven't been about ups and downs. Life has been a series of downs and deeper, darker, downs. For months, I could not write. Ideas were there. Plots took shape. I looked at a blank screen and could not put the words on the page. Thankfully, Sarah did not give up on me, even when I was ready to quit. The dark days are less frequent. Words escape my twisted little brain and land on the page most days.

In an ideal world I would spend every day writing. The writing would be effortless and brilliant. Everyone would be envious of how the words flowed onto the page. Publishers would snap up my stories and beg for more. I don't live in that world. Nobody does.

The world I live in is one where life revolves around books. That's pretty good.

These days I spend so much time on the publishing side of the writing industry that my writing takes a back seat. That's not a complaint. Part of each day is set aside for my writing. Besides, I am finding publishing interesting, educational, and sometimes fun. FUN? I haven't used that word in a while. Who would have thought a job so demanding, time consuming, and difficult would put laughter back in my life?

Anyone who has ever thought of starting a press needs to take a hard look at their reasons. It is a business, not a hobby. Running a tiny press means that every decision is going to impact the bottom line. Those of you who saw our first set of royalty statements know that bottom line was pretty small. Every book, every cover, every author, every artist, every story matters. Work doesn't end.

Since one of us has to have a day job, weekends are about getting stuff done that involves Sarah. She spends most of her time at home reading and editing short stories. Longer work lands on my desktop. I spent Saturday night emailing authors. Here it is Sunday morning and I'm happily back at my computer. No one could have convinced me that I would willingly get up at six the morning to see if a new book cover was in my inbox. Now I am trying to let Sarah sleep in instead of running into the bedroom to tell her about the cover. The fact that she would kill me has me blogging instead.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Future of Short Fiction

When I first talked to small press owners about anthologies they all had the same advice "DON'T."


The stories they told me varied, but themes emerged. The complaints came down to three basic replies.

1. You will lose your investment because nobody buys anthologies, book stores won't carry them, there are no reviewers, they're impossible to market.
2. It is hard enough to deal with one author's ego you have to be crazy to take on trying to satisfy multiple authors.
3. Small presses don't have a pool of name authors who write consistently solid stories.

Wow! The ways publishers lost money on anthologies gave me pause. I listened to all of them, knowing that these experienced publishers were telling me true stories of what happened when they published anthologies. Somewhere in all those tales of woe another theme cropped up, "we love short stories." Inevitably the statement was followed with the word "but." Another tale of woe began.

I love short stories. I love reading them, plotting them, writing them, and telling them. I have discovered many of my favorite writers because of a gem they had written for an anthology. There used to be tons of venues that carried short stories, magazines, newspapers, and books of short stories. I once wrote one that was printed on cans of coffee. What happened?

Many of the pulp magazines have folded, a lot of those left are struggling. Authors who write short fiction are finding fewer paying markets. Many shorts are going paperless, selling directly to e-venues. Some authors are posting individual stories and collections to Amazon. I don't have sales numbers or a clear picture what, if anything, works. At the moment I don't think any single place can be considered the definitive destiny of short fiction. Publishing in general is uncertain of its future.

On the other hand, librarians tell me that short stories are still checked out of libraries. Readers tell me that they enjoy reading shorts.

If authors like writing short stories and readers like reading them, how do we go about bringing the two together?

I think it is going to take some effort from all sides of the industry. The short story needs to be taken seriously. We need more awards and attention for the form. After having worked as both a coordinater and judge for the Derringer Awards, I am aware of the difficulty in doing awards. I am also aware of the limited place short fiction is given in the writing community.

There is a crying need for short story and anthology reviewers. There also need to be sites and ezines dedicated to short fiction reviews. Readers need a way to find the kind of stories they love. They also need to create book clubs that share those stories with other like minded readers. Amazon is not the answer for book reviews of any kind and certainly not the place for short fiction reviews.

Writers need to be able to make money writing short fiction. Publisher's need to be able to make money publishing short stories. In today's marketplace that's a tall order. I believe it can be done. Mystery and Horror, LLC is experimenting with an advance and royalty system. We are too new at this to know if the experiment will succeed. We would love to hear what other publishers and authors are trying.

The future of the short story may be headed for another golden age, but only if we care enough to make it happen.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Blame it on the Drugs

Writing takes a particular type of mental work. As much as we writers would like to sit down at our keyboards and great books magically flow onto the blank screen, stories aren't written that way. We labor over our words. We choose them with great care. Many of us agonize over the quality of our work. This is how books get written.

For the better part of a year, I didn't agonize over writing. I agonized over the thought of writing.

I'm not talking about writers block. There was no lack of ideas, no silence from my muse. My muse screamed at me to no avail. A flood of ideas built up behind the dam in my head. I could not write. I couldn't edit stories that I'd all ready written. I couldn't submit work to publications, write query letters, or talk about writing.

Instead of improving with time. I got worse. I would burst into tears at the mention of sending my finished novel to the editor who had requested to see it. I had panic attacks at meetings of my writer's group. Attending a conference was a nightmare. Sarah stayed very close to me through meetings and shielded me from the most difficult parts of public events. Unfortunately, she could only watch the agony of not writing.

Thankfully, the dam has burst. I would like to claim that the volume of creative work I've completed in the last two months is the result of some inner drive, great inspiration, a passion for work--anything but the truth. The facts are not comfortable.

The truth is I had a drug problem. The anxiety medication I had been on for several years had stopped working. Since Sarah and I had been living in a state of crisis from the moment we arrived in Florida, changes in mood and temperament were blamed on the situation. I am sure that anyone who has been through the experience of seeing a loved one through the final months of life can appreciate the tunnel vision that process creates. Instead of thinking about my own health, I ignored all the warning signs.

It is uncomfortable to think that panic nearly cost me my life. A simple doctor's visit could have prevented a difficult year from becoming a hellish one. Lesson learned? I hope so. Only time will tell.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Strangely Funny II

Last year we kicked off our adventure into the publishing world with an anthology titled Strangely Funny. Those who follow this blog know our debut book was not a roaring success. Reading through the mixed reviews of Strangely Funny, I discovered that stories that stood out to one reader fell flat with another. The one point everyone who read the book agreed upon was that it contained some stories they loved.

Humor is extremely subjective. Unlike writing horror, mystery, fantasy, or science fiction, funny stories have no unifying criteria. Humor either pulls the reader in and lets them see human foibles through the eyes of the protagonist or it doesn't.

So why are we doing a second volume of strangely funny tales? The answer is quite simply, because we like reading unusual, paranormal, super-natural, and yes FUNNY stories. I still believe there is an audience for the quirky, off-beat, and downright weard humor.

I am committed to finding that audience...but, I'm not telling where they've committed me. They're my readers. MINE, MINE, I tell you!

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Update on Our Mystery and Horror's Micropress

Most of our friends know that last year Sarah and I decided to add a micropress to the Limited Liability Company we formed to protect our creative work. Since we already had the business structure, the first job was to draw up a business plan for publishing.

I won't delve into all the details in a blog post, but drawing up a business plan takes as much research as writing a historical novel. The big difference is the type of research, printing costs, postcard, bookmark, book cover, prices, distribution channels, review sites, etc. Once we knew what it would cost us to put out the first book, we had to decide what kind of books we wanted to publish, how many we had time to work on, and divide up the labor.

Notice I did not at any time say anything about making money. Neither of us had any expectation of financial gain in the first few years of the enterprise. Our financial goal was to keep the press from being a money pit. Believe me, small businesses can suck up investment dollars. We had no guarantee that anyone would submit stories to a press that offered such a small return. The big question when we sent out a call for submissions was "would we get anything of the quality we were willing to print?"

Notice I said small return, not no return, to the writers. We are writers. We know how much work goes into writing a book. Most of all, we believe money should flow to the writer. Without the authors, there is no publishing business. If anyone liked our books, money would eventually flow back to the press, but that takes time. This is why we set up a royalty structure with an advance. It gives every author something and promises a share in our success to authors who's stories earn money for us.

Our first book, Strangely Funny, came out in July. Sarah loves this book. I think it has some of the best and funniest short stories I have ever read. Individual stories in the book were well received. There the praise kind of peters out. I don't know if the book will ever earn out the advance. The reviews were few and mixed. Sales were lower than the lowest numbers I had projected. In short, the book and the press were off to a rocky start.

All Hallows' Evil sold better. It also got better reviews. It didn't quite earn out the advance in its first quarter, but will in the next. I may even have to send the writers more money. I am sure that will make them and me smile.

Our last two books, Undead of Winter and Ha-Ha! Horror, were both released near the end of November. A few copies sold before the November 30 cut off time for this reporting period, but it is too soon to know how well either will perform.

Our first checks for sales arrived at the end of December. No, those checks did not cover what we put into the company this year. We didn't expect that. We did expect and get the satisfaction of completing the books we planned to publish. The press was getting a core group of good authors who contributed to more than one anthology. Sarah and I got some much needed help from group of friends who worked to get word out about our press and sent us stories that they could have made more money from elsewhere.

Will Mystery and Horror, LLC survive its rocky start? I think we will not only survive but grow in the coming year. Despite Strangely Funny failing to capture the hearts of the reviewers, there will be a sequel. Sarah loves quirky little stories.  Perhaps Strangely Funny II will be better received. Perhaps not. Either way the odd, quirky, funny, paranormal stories have a place at our strange little press.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas is a Catastrophe

After weeks of being exposed to positive thoughts and uplifting reading, I have come to the conclusion that happiness is overdone. This is particularly true this time of year. It is time to take a serious look at the holiday season. Trust me on this. You people need to get a grip before you go overboard and turn your kids into a bunch of sniveling liberals who want everyone to be happy.

That's right. You, in the red suit, I don't know what you're smoking in that pipe but breaking into people's houses, eating their cookies, and drinking all the milk is criminal. For that matter who told you to trash the place with all those toys and goodies. I could have broken a toe if I hadn't checked my stockings before sticking my feet in them. And another thing, giving all this stuff away is UnAmerican. Do you want to wreck our whole economy?

I am not a grouch. I just call it as I see it. This Christmas thing is a communist plot to spread happiness and good cheer all over the world. It has got to stop.

Now don't start telling me about Scrooge or how I need to get into the spirit of the season. Scrooge was just a hard working business man, and example of thrift and other conservative principals. It isn't his problem that Tiny Tim didn't have health insurance. His parents should have worked two jobs apiece and put him in an institution. That's the American way.

Do you think the folks in Congress should all be visited by a bunch of ghosts?

You do?

Well, I think you've been in the spirits a little too much. How much brandy was in that fruitcake? If you don't stop, you may be the ghost of Christmas past.

Who said anything about drinking and driving? I was going to knock you in the head with this rolling pin, the one my dad carved from a fence post. That will teach you to stay out of my kitchen, and out of my bourbon balls.

Really, Christmas is a catastrophe waiting to happen. All this joy and happiness is just a distraction from the real reason for the season. Shopping! Block the streets. Plug all the exits. Don't let anyone escape the mall until the credit cards are maxed out.

Most of all people, you need to teach your children that life is hard, cruel, and unfair.Why not make this whole season a teaching occasion? Rip the joy out of those chubby cheeks.  Teach them that the candy and Christmas cookies make them fat while you bake the next batch. Structure their time so they don't waste it with daydreams. Do you want them to have visions of sugar plums? Of course not.

So, if you must give toys, make sure they are educational. You owe it to your children to make them miserable. They've got to learn about the real world sometime.  Fill the season with stress, expense, pressure, and excess. Fill their heads with greed and guilt, and tell them that this is happiness.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Looking for the "Good"

For the next couple of weeks I am supposed to be actively seeking out the "Good" in my world. Two weeks of relaxing, looking at positive, funny, inspiring, books, television, and movies. Two weeks of self-indulgence in activities that give me pleasure, of spending at least an hour every day doing something just for fun--about now my hard working friends are all sighing and wishing their doctors would give them this order. It sounds like a prescription for a vacation.

What it really asks is that I change habits and thought patterns of a lifetime.

As a counterpoint to this experiment I am also asked to avoid angry, violent, negative, sad, depressing thoughts. I am to not watch the news, put down the murder mysteries, not look at crime get the idea. Death, crime, murder, violence etc. are banished. I close my eyes, snap my fingers, and poof, its gone. Right?

Okay, nobody, not even my thrity-something doctor thinks I'll magically make the bad stuff vanish. She does think that the cycle of nightmares, sleepless nights, and panic attacks can be broken. Her "I think you can" attitude seems young and naive to me. But all the doctors are looking young these days.

As for reading positive stuff, I would much rather have a good mystery. Feel-good writing is not my thing. I have never read a "Chicken Soup" book. I've always assumed that I would gag on the syrup in them. Perhaps I would, but I will give a couple weeks of anything a try if there is a chance it will get me back to writing again. This morning I read through Virginia Satir's "My Declaration of Self-Esteem" without gagging. I still want my "Chicken Soup" in a bowl, and still have doubts about feel good medicine being the right prescription for me.