A Fistful of Novels

The prospect of a second year of the pandemic loomed over my first pandemic winter. There was some hope of vaccines making things semi-livable again, but we weren’t quite there yet. I was still working from home, enjoying having back 2 hours a day that I used to spend commuting. And I got the time to scratch the itch of putting writing in motion again. I ended up reading a lot because of that.

The social media algorithms sent me an ad for a writer’s workshop. Remote. Hmmmm. About the equivalent of half a month’s pay, but run by folks who knew what they were doing, were people who had published, had edited, and had represented people making money at writing, not just writing to write.

I threw my hat into the application process. I’ve read Westlake, this was no Super Star Music Co, but I was under no illusion that if I did have a smidge of promise I’d get in, if not in the first round of acceptances, then maybe a later one as the first picks changed their minds. It was not a “I’ll take this workshop and come out a published novelist!” plan at all. Just a way to dust the rust off and connect comfortably and remotely.

I took a few hours locked away to write up up a dystopian YA novel scene (I didn’t know I was a decade too late) of overthrowing the government using an army of [two groups of unlikely people] and their friendly neighborhood [plot devices].

Well enough received. That writing snippet and half a paycheck later, I sat down to start writing a YA novel for this workshop. The first class was the second week of January, but we were already doing our warm up work when I woke up to write on Wednesday, January 6th. 2021.

None of us got a lot of writing done that week. Instead, we were immersed in the news. I metaphorically tore up my book and went in a completely different direction. I wrote a pandemic novel, instead, which, of course, I was assured no one would be buying.

But even to write that novel, I had to read more. I re-reviewed The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), and picked up the Legend series by Marie Lu to strengthen my dual narratives game. (not a referral link, just a store I’ve shopped from in the past https://www.oldfirehousebooks.com/book/9780142422076).

Did the workshop the last of that winter and early spring. Wrote and read my book, read everyone else’s book, even if pandemic novels weren’t selling. And maybe they aren’t, but I got that book out of my system, at least. It’s due a big rewrite, but that’s on hold until I get something more marketable done.

Reading those other novels, both yet-to-be-published and new-to-me helped me derive how to tell that story. The feedback helped that story and hopefully future ones I tackle.

Taking the workshop got me out of my rut of “someday” into “why not now”?

It also led me to reading other novels outside of my usual realm, to bring me up to speed on how we tell stories today, and how we can tell them tomorrow. Just like our musical preferences are burned in in our youth, our reading preferences are, too. But we don’t have to stay stuck there.

Spring 2021 Reading List:

  • Legend – series by Marie Lu (dual voice)
  • Detroit Free Zone – series starting with Minimum Wage Magic by Rachel Aaron (urban fantasy)
  • Hunger Games – series by Suzanne Collins (dystopian – got people reading like the JKR stuff did)
  • Vicarious – Rhett C. Bruno (I picked it up for Wil Wheaton’s performance and dual voice)
  • The Salvage Crew – Yudhanjaya Wijeratne (first person new world, spawned off of Vicarious)
  • When I Was a Loser: True Stories of (Barely) Surviving High School – John McNally
  • Departures – E. J. Wenstrom (I thought dystopian was over?)
  • Uglies – series by Scott Westerfeld (suggested by a fellow reader and writer)
  • Chronicles of the third realm war – series E. J. Wenstrom (feeling completist)
  • The Emily Starr Series – series – L.M. Montgomery (feeling nostalgic for east coast mayo bootstrap stories)
  • Amari and the Night Brothers – B.B. Alston (I think I need to reread this as I’m drawing a blank)

Mentored by a Mid Lister+

I touched on this briefly before, but I corresponded back in the pre internet days with what would now be considered a high mid list middle grade and YA author. 

They were “big” enough to generally make a living at it, but “small” enough at the time to still handle their own mail. In between the blather I sent, we also talked books. I got my first look at writing as a business. How the size of their market compared to the USA meant a best seller in their home country was only “meh” if the same number sold in the US. (Their home market was only about a tenth the size of the USA market.)

We talked about the creative side, and they had some kind and well intentioned but ultimately incorrect writing advice. But old folks always think us whippersnappers just don’t get it (I’m guilty of that myself, as I hit middle age). Their “incorrectness” was right for the industry at the time, but wrong for our target audience. The industry changed, and I imagine they took the change in stride, forgetting our ephemeral exchanges. 

But my biggest take aways were keep writing, learn to write, to read, to edit, and be edited. So I did, taking up industrial writing to pay the bills until I could get back to novelling. Several decades later, lol, but back to it.

We get by in the biz of writing with a little help from our friends. Thanks, friends. 

Author Journeys

I’m one of those “dreamed of being a writer since I was a kid” types, writing down partial ideas, bad teenage poetry, and showing meagre promise at student competitions. I suspect most kids were competing to earn extra credit for class; I should have asked for that, I realised too late.

With no good ideas on how to get published, I got in my head to write to authors to see how they managed it. I got back some form letters from secretaries (!), some missives elicited no responses, but one wrote back. We corresponded for a long while; they were very generous with their time, and quite practical about their business like approach to their career. By today’s guides, the books were young ya (tweens) and older ya (teens); at one point they took on intellectual property (ip) writing as well, under their own name.

After all this time, (fourty years?) they still have their original publisher. They aren’t quite a lead author, but not generic midlist, either. Most of their recent books that are non-ip have audio books available. And I’ve see how their voice has changed over the years as they got to be a better writer, and going with the changes (improvements, imo) in the industry.

I’ve also rewatched Julie and Julia recently – that first book of hers took 8 years and went through three publishing houses. But it’s not just about the writing, but the growth. Julia found comfort in precision and the skillset she was building; but never let her missteps overwhelm her.

Julie and Julia hints at, but does not get into hugely how much book writing is only somewhat a solo venture. We writers need each other, and we can finally find each other. Yay internet. I’m glad to have a fat ass cloud account to store my writing in, instead of keeping stacks of five and a quarter disks around, writing on them lightly in pencil to keep them in order.

And an internet to reach other writers swimming along the same rocky publishing shoals.

The Hunt For Red Pillars of the October Earth

With no access to good school libraries or expansive public libraries, my early reading was curated by my parents. I read whatever they had around, and from time to time asked for recommendations.

Two books suggested to me in quick succession were The Hunt For Red October and Pillars of The Earth. They came out several years apart, but I read them one after another in when Pillars hit paperback. Dad flew a lot, so he went for fiction to pass the time. He’d liked the series of linked melodramas of Pillar and the plot of October. Maybe I would, too.

At the time, teenage me thought  they were both great, though when it came to Cold-War era spy books I eventually tended more towards DeMille (I thought he told more compelling stories). Considering the earn out on Jack Ryan and all of Clancy’s stuff, I seem to be in the minority on that score.

Pillars was like nothing I’d seen in other adult books; a romance novel with some romance and star crossed lovers, etc. It also wefted the warp with slice of life stuff and the romance of being able to do what you love. Building a family, and a life. Finding survival skills like building a cloth business or building a cathedral that blazed with stained glass. A romance novel “for boys”, finally, and I liked it.

When I got to adult life and had access to astonishing amounts of cheap books (library sales! Tag sales! Books by the box shops!) and well stocked libraries, I read more Clancy. Nope, still not my cup of tea, just copaganda and not told well (in my opinion—I don’t think much of Steven King, either, but that’s more likely not liking horror too) though I did like reading the real life Red October story told later by other authors (there are several retellings I’ve read).

I read more Follett. Mostly thrillers, but it was interesting to read them through and guess where he was in his career based on how the story went. I briefly went through a phase of completion-reading in my youth, but again, books were pretty terrible (made want to write, though) when I was a kid so I dropped that expensive habit, mostly. Watching a writer’s career wax (and sometimes wane) as their skills develop, as their editors shepherd the manuscript through edits (or they change editors who take a different tack) and the publishers accede to market changes is pretty cool.

So when I read something now, it’s not just to read it, it’s to learn something from it. And if I read more than one of a novel or more than one series, it’s to get a feel for how the author and their editors grew and changed (along with the market and social dynamics, in many cases) over the years.

Buy it to kill it — researching one thing to figure out another

I’m a big fan of explainer books. My eclectic collection has included, over the years, books on fly-tying, hiding money in Swiss banks, creating forged identification papers, and legitimately counterfeit dictionaries. Well, I don’t own the dictionaries yet, but I’ve got dibs on them some day, a day I hope is far far away.

When I want to understand something new, there’s always the internet, but you get what you pay for. And sometimes you know so little about a topic that “googling” doesn’t do you any good. You get whatever crap someone decides to put online, even if you stick to somewhat sensibly crowd-regulated resources such as Wikipedia.

So I turn to explainer books from various sources, put out by publishers large and small. Luckily for me, people like Mary Roach and Michael Lewis are paid by publishers to write them. There are others, less well-known or published by smaller presses less interested in publishing “we all must consume constantly” narratives, but these two folks are my usual go-tos for understanding science and process or ‘self perpetuating’ capitalist machine tendencies.

As part of my research for my un-revised pandemic novel, which drew from my un-started revolution novel, I wanted to know more about crypto currency and blockchains. I’d heard about Bitcoin when it first surfaced, when it was starting to be used mildly in the “real world” and was worth several “real dollars*” each. I wanted to mine it, but was discouraged by my local hardware/software expert. I was also chasing around young kids, so I didn’t have the brain space to ever set up a mining rig.

But I wanted to use a blockchain currency in my novel(s). So I needed to learn more, not just pick up snippets from reading about general modern economics. I worked for a pair of crypto wallet companies for a while, and got the transaction side of basics down, but it still wasn’t enough. I got my pandemic novel written, but left the blockchain currency bits in the outline for book three, only setting up the ground work in books one and two.

I’ve also recently finished Michael Lewis’ The Premonition: A Pandemic Story, and it was pretty good. I had it in mind to see what, if anything, the author of Moneyball, Liar’s Poker, The Big Short, and Flash Boys had to say about it at some point in the future. Turns out Michael Lewis is writing about it*, as of late, and at the time my next read was being written he was likely still believing it was a pretty legit industry and not completely about fake money.

That tidbit is from that next read: Easy Money: Crypto Currency, Casino Capitalism, and the Golden Age of Fraud (non affiliate link). It’s hilarious and chatty, and content wise, a well written book. I heard an interview with Ben McKenzie about his collaboration with financial writer Jacob Silverman on it, and picked it up release day.

I listened to the audio edition which has some issues, but something struck me after a further garble in Chapter 11/12: the USA based oligarchs (a number of whom are part of the Union of Assholes and owned lock stock and barrel by no-goodniks out of the country) are applying “buy out the problem” to knowledge and art.

Buying out the problem is old hat in the business world. Build a company, notice a competitor, drive them out of business or near enough, then buy them out cheap. See also Wal-mart. With the “tech revolution” of my young professional years, this moved to software companies, too. Buy out a competitor just for their customer list, or their patents, then slowly shut it all down as the SLAs expire along with the contracts. Or reinvent your company, shedding the old customers you don’t want, “re-signing” the new ones at higher rates because only you can solve the problems in your own software.

Now it’s content. In the ollllllllllllllld days (up through the 90s), TV shows and movies (and contracts) were written with syndication payments included. Eventually home movie (BetaMax, VHS, VideoDisc, Laser Disc, and DVD) sales. But the execs learned, and refused to negotiate in improved rates or decent rates for streaming profits. That and AI, which I’ll cover another time, is at the heart of the current writer’s strike. HBO is pulling content, Paramount has pulled content, and others like Disney are continuing to wreak havoc, too. It’s never to be seen again, unless we bake it into our contracts — should it get pulled or go out of “release” (for books, it’s fall below a specific threshold of sales) — we get our stuff back.

But that’s not what I realised from Easy Money. Ben was going on about how this crypto fraudster was taunting that crypto fraudster and “liking things” and “deleting tweets” and how other intrepid investigators went through content in harder to see platforms like instagram and other closed platforms.

I remember those days, before APIs were more available, scraping RSS feeds, working with some friends to figure out why people were lying on the internet. (Bored people stealing photos and spinning stories for financial gain.) We didn’t have “google image search”, we just had to weed through everything to pick it out and then mega post on whatever message board ecosystems they were scamming.

But with twitter restricting API access (and Reddit), USA based oligarch Musk isn’t just suppressing people his investors (the bone saw wielding types) prefer not to have access to open communications. Straight up academic researchers are shut out, hobbyist data collectors are SOL, and they’re effectively shutting down investigations of fraud, too. If Ben had tried to write this book a year later, or Musk at the behest of the investors he’s beholden to had gotten Twitter and shut off the APIs sooner, much of this information would have been ruinously expensive to gather, if it could have been gathered at all.

Maybe Wikipedia needs to start a twitter clone. Technobros Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg and the relatively quiet Peter Thiel have already proven they can’t be trusted to run things. Considering what it takes to become a mega millionaire or billionaire, no one really qualifies. Though the Wikipedia model of policing by group consensus in some ways won’t necessarily flex to fit a new Twitter fast enough. The problems are always faster than the solutions.

  • Real dollars – all money is fake, a shared delusion we share to get stuff done. It also allows the local Oligarchs to pull all kinds of bullshit shenanigans on us to get more of this fake stuff and give us less … but that’s a whole other ball game.
  • Crypto is just … faker. Ben and Jacob’s allusion to The Emperor’s New Clothes is very apt.
  • And NFTs … well: https://twitter.com/obsoletedogma/status/1682845832368857093
Jack Dorsey dropped 2.9 mil on an NFT. Now worth about four bucks.

Source: https://www.facebook.com/catsacab/posts/pfbid02fi18pYZWBVWFzPT5GGhSfNokiCtw4BKMf7qn2r8oN7vpwPsW2taoLTwJL6spqTpAl

*Michael Lewis is writing about [cryptocurrency]:

You were following him [Sam Bankman-Fried] closely before his legal troubles started. When did you first get the sense that his business was in trouble and possibly fraudulent?

I would rather not answer that question. I want the reader to experience surprise when reading it. My own experience will be part of the surprise. In October, there’s probably going to be a trial, and the two sides are each going to take a bunch of facts and tell completely different stories. I think I can tell a story that’s a better story than either side, that includes all the facts and will put the reader in a position of being the juror.


Rise of the Mages – Scott Drakeford

Growing up, most of the books available to me were used until around the time I hit my teens. More than half a million people in my home stomping grounds, and the only new books came from mail order, the community college bookstore, or the occasional Scholastic order form (we didn’t have the traveling book fairs until I hit junior high).

The used stores weren’t terrible; my folks sought them out and found well stocked places we could raid. The shops were fed by an eclectic, traveling, educated professional class who occasionally needed to dump a bunch of cool books their new job wouldn’t pay to move.

That included a lot of early 20th century kid-fic, which was very heavily East Coast influenced. Getting a real bookstore made some difference. But the majority of content was still put out by a real buffet of mayo and seltzer style folk – not people like me, in my lived experiences. The books were about boys, doing “boy” stuff, and girls were pretty secondary. There were books about girls, doing “girl” stuff (horse riding, solving mysteries, getting into trouble for being “tom boys”).

There were few exceptions of people just doing people stuff, Ramona Quimby by Beverly Cleary, and just about anything by Paula Danziger that wasn’t Amber Brown (no hate, just didn’t happen to read), and several of Barthe DeClements books.

I wanted to read more than kid books pretty early, but there wasn’t much for older kids but not adults that weren’t romance or sports. I tried to get my hands on high fantasy and sci-fi beyond Narnia and The Phantom Toll Booth. No one really wrote high fantasy or sci-fi for kids. What little I could find of it was pretty unrelatable to me – written at a language level I couldn’t get, with not much context to hang my comprehension on. And so much of it was so terribly, terribly, terribly misogynistic, even to a tween. 

Except The Hobbit. I didn’t mind so much that I didn’t get all of it, at first read, because it was relatable. Unwanted guests, snacks, and an adventure? Sign me up! Sometimes I still can taste the food described in it, and think up my own hobbit-style foods. It was officially a “tenth grade” book, but I had a friendly high schooler to loan me their copy early on.

Be that as it may, I never really got into the euro-centric kind of fantasy settings of most high fantasy. But I pick them up from time to time and try, at least for a few chapters.

I do like the new genre of urban fantasy. I think what the industry means by urban is in the city, and modern, not code word for “black and brown people” being poor and lifted up by managing to get accepted despite their melanin or genital “deficiencies”.

So I picked up Rise of the Mages to get more of what The Publishing Rodeo podcast was about.

High fantasy? Check. Magic? Check. Guys and girls exerting power in political ways? Check. Nobles, nepotism, peasants, and enslaved bodies and minds? Check check and check. Geopolitcal manouverings based on grudges old and new? Yup. A lot of what I’d not liked about high fantasy wasn’t in there, and the main character (the only one deeply focussed on, ensembles aren’t easy) felt relatably going along, not monolithic or a complete woolheaded foundling de’jour.

Overall, it’s solid. I have to agree with the consensus of the podcast that Tor should have put more behind it. Since I don’t read fantasy, maybe it’s not that remarkable in the genre, but the structure and layout of the storylines he spun remind me of early non-thrillers* by Ken Follett. 

Give it a pick up. For sure. 

(this is not an affiliate link, but a store I have purchased from in the past)


*Ken Follett writes thrillers, but really rocketed up there with his book The Pillars of The Earth, and was given more room to go for non thriller generational epics and has done pretty well with that. He discusses this in one of the reprint editions of Pillars:

One day I was checking my royalty statement from New American Library, my U.S. paperback publisher. These statements are carefully designed to prevent the author from knowing what is really happening to his book, but after decades of persistence I have learned to read them. And I noticed that Pillars was still selling around 50,000 copies every six months.

Pay Creators. Pay all workers more, much more.

Basically, most of the people who actually work in this world are not paid enough. There are long complicated reasons why, and history behind it. But it’s been this way since the world decided to take up the idea of creating scarcity and rulers, why pay people more when you don’t have to? But there were social contracts that included taking care of people to some degree, even if loaded with bullshit like moral standards (for the benefit of those in charge) and mixed up with religions designed to keep most people busy and in the rest of them power.

Those social contracts are pretty ragged in the USA. Despite the founding of a country on stolen people and their stolen labor, on stolen land, some things got better, some only pretended to get better. But the last handful of decades have seen consolidation of economic power that is insane and it does boil down to simple slogans. The rent is still too damn high (I pay about 38% of my day job salary). The wages are too damn low. People need a fair wage.

I stand with and for anyone striking for better conditions. Summer 2023, that includes:

  • Fast food and other ‘essential’ workers – $15 is still too low but a start.
  • Delivery and long haul drivers, from gig-drivers (and that’s a whole other scam) to unionized and non unionized peeps, both local delivery and long haul truckers.
  • Postal service, teachers, another couple of groups being ground down by grist mill capitalism.
  • Healthcare, healthcare, healthcare, though it’s a “luxury” in this country anyway.
  • SAG-AFTRA and the writers guild.

Get off your fucking yachts and come back to the table, the last contracts were bullshit, and the current round is a load of crap too.

I currently work as a writer in various industrial organizations. My kind of people aren’t usually unionized, and as a rule of thumb we’re paid about 35% less than the folks of equivalent level we’re supporting. No one thinks writing about the product is part of the product, not enough for us to get paid more than the least we’ll accept.

Over the last couple of years, the buying power of my income has gone down about 10%. I officially got a raise, eventually, but my rent went up a grand a month, food is up 20-40%, and because of shortages and interest rate changes, I’m overpaying for a used car at 7.5%. So it’s more like an 8% cut instead of at 2% raise.

Things could be worse, I could have no savings, or be on the track to unemployment (though I do expect to be replaced by ChatGPT’s successor). So I’m pretty lucky for now. I have a little more time and headspace to point out we all gotta look out for each other.

Don’t cross picket lines. When the call goes out to boycott streaming services, boycott them. I suddenly have free* access to four streaming services through my cell phone contract, my internet contract, and through Amazon wanting me to buy stuff on Prime day. (I want to see Good Omens Season 2, so I took it). 

But the minute the call goes to strike streaming services, I’ll cancel them all. I hope my DVD player works. If it doesn’t, well, I guess I’ll have to spend more time at the library.

*free access to four streaming services:

  • Netflix through my mobile service provider (three years now)
  • Paramount Plus through my mobile service provider (six months now)
  • Amazon Prime (one month, as a loss leader for Prime Days)
  • Peakcock Plus (for two years, starting soon, from my internet service provider who owns Peakcock Plus and rolled it around the same time they started saying let the writers starve)

The rent is too damn high:

  • https://www.nytimes.com/1977/07/24/archives/old-saw-reckons-25-of-income-on-housing-it-isnt-that-simple-25-of.html “In the middle and late [19]30’s, it was generally considered that one‐seventh or one‐sixth of gross income should go for rent,” she says. “How did we ever get from that to one‐quarter?”
  • https://www.thezebra.com/resources/home/housing-trends-visualized/ The median house of 1960 would cost just $104,619 in 2020 dollars, far below the actual cost of $240,500, meaning housing costs have increased by 229%.
  • https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2001/05/art3full.pdf [Look at table 3; but most “housing expenses” budgets include acquiring furniture and maintenance, as well as utilities. My 38% cost is not inclusive of furniture; I had some and bought some but I have to put up 38% every month, rain or shine, before I eat or buy gas.]
  • https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/how-america-spends-money-100-years-in-the-life-of-the-family-budget/255475/ [A popular explainer for the data above.]

The Publishing Rodeo Podcast

Gail Carriger suggested this podcast a few weeks ago – I’ve just finished binging up to the latest episode. Today, that’s episode 23, and if you’re not sure if writing is an art that is squeezed down to a business, episode 23 will clear that right up.

Do you still want to be a writer after listening to episode 23? 

I do, but I’ve been on this path a while, treating it as something I want to learn without going to college, just working in an adjacent industry. 

As the team are fond of asking: What is your goal?

Best seller? Write a book from your heart? Start a new trend? Tell the stories of life mainstream media won’t touch? Capture your memoirs?

Mine is to write books I enjoy, well, and get comfortable as a mid-list writer. As referenced in earlier episodes, this would be easier if I had a spouse with a day job or some other patron, but hey, I’ve got my own day job. I’ll write on the edges of life, as I’ve seen quoted here and there (I can’t remember who to attribute it to).

In 2008, Dr. Kerry Spencer Pray watched her book die on submission after the financial crash halted publishing acquisitions. She then decided to do a PhD, focusing her research on what makes books sell.