Giftwrapping an Idea

Most gifts are tangible things, items that occupy space and have weight. But writers tread the realm of visions and dreams, thoughts and imaginings. You can’t give those things as gifts, can you? Well…

Author Andrew Gudgel and I were exchanging gifts at holiday time a few years ago. He’d been talking (for well over a year) about a story idea he had. I thought it was wonderful and kept urging him to write the story. Instead, as a gift to me, he said, “You write it.”

There were some tangible things he also gave me, the notes he’d compiled while preparing to write the story. But the real gift was the idea, and he’d given it to me.

I know, I’ve blogged before that ideas are the easy part, the trivial part, the dime-a-dozen part, and I’ve said the hard part is actually scribbling down the story and polishing it until you can sell it.

Let me caveat that now. Some ideas are more valuable than others are. Some are gold. Some are more valuable to a writer other than the one who thought of them. Such was the case with Andrew’s idea; he sensed I loved it more than he did, and that I would not hesitate to run with it. For him, it was in the ‘I’ll get to it someday’ bin.

From Andrew’s idea came my story “After the Martians.” In partial payment to him, I named a character in the story after him. If you add the value of that to the value of whatever silly gift I gave him that year, you’d still fall far short of what he gave me. I was out-gifted, plain and simple.

As Andrew so eloquently put it in his blog: “’Ideas rot if you don’t do something with them,’ said the writer Edd Dumbill. I agree. By keeping a creative idea locked away in your head/on your hard-drive/in your notebooks, it’s not free to enrich the world. Think about it this way: you may be fated to conceive of the idea and to give birth to it, but not to be the one who raises it to maturity. That may be someone else’s task. So, if after a period of sober reflection, you come to the conclusion that you’re not going to make use of an idea, give it away—throw it to a creative friend, put it on your blog, launch it out into the public sphere—and give someone else the opportunity to enrich the world with it.”

For completeness, I should mention another, earlier example of giving an idea as a gift, though this still causes me anguish and shame.

Many years and several critique groups ago, I was in a group with Raymond (not his real name). Each month, Raymond contributed a new chapter of the novel he was writing. One day, we found out Raymond had died. I don’t recall the circumstances, whether illness or accident, but he was far too young.

I got a letter from his widow saying that in his final days, Raymond had told her he wanted me to finish his novel, and she was asking if I’d do that.

Wow. Tough dilemma. On one hand, I couldn’t refuse a request from the widow of a friend and fellow writer, could I? She wasn’t asking for that much—just complete the story he’d almost finished and send it out for publication. She wasn’t asking for a portion of the payments, if the novel made money.

On the other hand, I didn’t have the passion for the story that Raymond did. I didn’t think I could do it justice. The novel involved a plot and genre type that had already saturated the market. It didn’t seem to me that readers were begging for another such novel.

In the end, I turned down the offer, with regrets. Perhaps I should have taken it, but I didn’t. Raymond’s idea deserved a champion who cared about it as deeply as he had. I was not that writer.

As you can see, it is possible to get wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows around something as insubstantial as an idea, a whim. If you’re struggling to do it, and can’t quite figure out how to cut and enclose, fold and tape the darn thing, if you need an expert guide, call—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Wagging the Long Tail

A few authors sell vast numbers of books, while most authors sell very few. If you could amass accurate data on that, it would probably look like a decaying exponential curve. It would have the Pareto property, where 20% of the authors sell 80% of the books—those on the left. However, today we’ll focus on the right side of the curve. Statisticians, with their penchant for arcane, hard-to-understand terminology, call that part “the long tail.”

The curve I present here is approximate and intended for illustrative purposes only. Note the vertical red line. Believe it or not, the number of books sold to the left of that line equals the number of books to the right.

Out on the tail of that curve are many, many authors who sell very few books. Looks a little lonely out there, doesn’t it? Most of those authors would love to move left on the curve, ideally all the way left. Readers only have so much money to spend on books, though, and they’re more likely to read books by authors they know.

Very few of those “long tail authors” will move much further left from where they are now, and only a tiny fraction will make it near the vertical axis into the stratospheric heights of the best-seller lists.

That may sound depressing, but let’s squint and take a closer look at that long tail. Each author represents a single point on that curve, but book distributors look at the curve differently. These days, they see the near-infinite length of the long tail as a new profit opportunity.

Distributors have realized we now live in the age of instant and easy searches for obscure information. With the ability to print books on demand, it doesn’t matter how few readers seek, for example, alternate history books about trips to the moon. What matters is that the book “A Tale More True” pops up in response to that search and a sale ensues.

In Wikipedia’s article on the long tail, they quote an Amazon employee as saying, “We sold more books today that didn’t sell at all yesterday than we sold today of all the books that did sell yesterday.”

You might have to read that again and let it sink in. I’ll wait.

In fact, now is the best time to be a long tail author. Let’s consider the set of those readers searching for steampunk books about planet-threatening comets. They easily find my book, “The Cometeers.” Among that admittedly small set of readers, I’m a best-selling author!

Here are a few more examples included for instructive purposes, and certainly not for crass self-promotion:

Readers search for books about: They find and buy:
Alternate histories involving the Ottoman Empire To Be First  
Romance stories taking place in Ancient Greece Against All Gods  
Stories involving Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions Leonardo’s Lion  
Sequel to War of the Worlds After the Martians  
Shakespearean clockpunk Time’s Deformèd Hand  

If you’re a long tail author, don’t despair. You have plenty of company; readers can find your books more readily than ever before; and book distributors now regard you as a profitable part of the book-selling enterprise. Happily wagging my tiny part of the long tail, you’ll find—

Poseidon’s Scribe

P&E Readers Poll Results

The folks at Critters.org have announced the final results of the Preditors & Editors Readers Poll for the most popular fiction of 2016.

My story, “After the Martianstied for third (with two other stories) out of thirty-nine entries in the Science Fiction short story category. That’s wonderful! The story earned a Top Ten Finisher emblem, and it ended up in the top eight percent of the entries.

Thanks to everyone who voted for my story.

The anthology In a Cat’s Eye (in which my story “The Cats of Nerio-3” appears) didn’t do as well, placing seventeenth out of sixty in the Anthology category. Still, that’s in the top third of many, many entries. Thanks also to those who cast a vote for that anthology.

You readers did me a great honor by voting. Now I need to get busy, working to ensure the best fiction of 2017 gets written by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Last Chance, the Final Day to Vote

You meant to vote in the Preditors & Editors Readers Poll, you really did. But time slipped away and you kinda forgot.

Wait! It’s not too late! There is still time to vote, if you do it now. You can vote for my stories, or you can vote for those of another author. It doesn’t matter. Just vote!

Of course, I’d be grateful if you’d cast a vote for my story “After the Martians” in the Science Fiction Short Story category, and for the anthology In a Cat’s Eye, in the Anthology category. My story “The Cats of Nerio-3” appears in that delightful anthology.

According to the latest vote count, “After the Martians” is fifth out of thirty-seven, and In a Cat’s Eye is tied for  thirteenth out of sixty. Let’s vote them each up to number one!

Since you’re almost out of time, click on any of the links or pictures in this post and vote. If it seems confusing, see the more explanatory instructions here.

You can stop reading this post, because this is not the time for reading. This is the time to vote for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Should You Enter Writing Contests?

You’ve heard there are writing contests out there. Wouldn’t it be great to win one? Should you devote time, energy, and possibly some money, to enter one or more of them? Let’s explore these questions.

What’s in it for you?

If you win, you get whatever prize the contest offers, generally a monetary prize. Some contests publish the winning entries. Also, there’s the prestige of being a contest winner. You’re “an award-winning author.” You can cite that contest among your achievements. When you submit stories for publication, you can mention in your cover letter that one of your tales won the XYZ Writing Contest.

Some contests offer second and third prizes that carry their own prestige too.

If you lose the contest, you also lose the entry fee you paid, if any. You may also experience a brief moment of disappointment, dejection, etc. This should be brief; you shouldn’t have your heart set on winning a contest. Losing should prompt no more than a fleeting twinge of sadness before you move on with life.

How do contests work?

Say you wanted to set up a writing contest yourself. How would you do it? You’d make sure you had prize money (or whatever type of prize you were going to offer) available. You’d advertise your contest, specifying the rules about how to enter, genre(s), submission guidelines, submission fees, any other restrictions, etc.

You’d assemble a panel of judges, people with demonstrated writing skills or other literary credentials, people you trust, who are willing to wade through numerous submissions. Realize these are people, not angels. They have biases, pet peeves, favorite styles, etc.

You have to decide whether to charge a fee for submissions. If your prize money comes from a giant pile o’ cash you have sitting around, you might not need to charge for entry. However, you might consider charging a fee (1) if there is no giant pile o’ cash, (2) if you can’t seem to lure the judges you want without paying them something, or (3) if you anticipate a tsunami-type volume of entries and need a way to limit them.

(There’s one other, less high-minded, reason you might charge a fee. If your motivation is not so much about finding and promoting undiscovered writers, but is more about swindling gullible rubes, you’d definitely require a fee for submissions and disguise your contest as legitimate.)

Lastly, you’d set up some way to have the judges review the submissions and render a judgement. You could set up some sort of voting mechanism; you could have stages of reviews where not all the first stage judges read every submission but only a subset. You could structure it in any of several ways.

That’s what you’d do if you were setting up your own writing contest, right? That’s pretty much how it happens.

How do you win?

Yeah…about that. If I knew a precise, never-fail method for winning contests, I wouldn’t be wasting time writing blog posts. Let’s restate that question as “How do you increase your odds of winning?”

Mathematically, if every submission had an equal chance, your odds would be one out of the number of entries. Like a well-run lottery, someone’s going to win, and it might be you.

However, the submissions don’t all have an equal chance, and you want to make yours rise above the rest. (In a scam contest run mainly to exploit vulnerable writers, you need to be a friend or relative of the main judge.)

For a legitimate contest, the way to increase your odds of winning is to (1) strictly observe all the contest rules for entering, and (2) follow all the same rules of story writing as you would if you were submitting to an editor for publication. Regarding (2), those story-writing rules consist of all the same advice I’ve been giving for years in this blog: strong and endearing main characters, high-stakes conflict, vivid setting, logical and well-paced plot, distinctive style and voice, etc.

Should you enter?

Obviously, it’s a question that depends on (1) whether you think a particular contest might be a scam, (2) whether there’s an entry fee, and if so, whether you’re willing to pay it, and (3) whether you have a story that meets the contest’s rules, and other factors specific to the situation. You’ll have to answer this one yourself.

One more thing…

Oh, yeah, while you’ve got contests on your mind, don’t forget to vote for my story “After the Martians” and the book In a Cat’s Eye in the Preditors & Editors poll, in the Science Fiction Short Story and Anthology categories, respectively. The voting period closes on January 14th. See the instructions in last week’s blog post.

Whether you enter a contest or not, at least you’ll make your choice armed with a complete knowledge of the opinions of—

Poseidon’s Scribe

It’s 2017; What’s Your Favorite Story from 2016?

<Clink!> ~kazoo blast~ Happy New Year! Yes, the ol’ Earth made it one more time around its elliptical orbit to a particular, and arbitrary, point. Let’s party!

I know a productive way you could begin 2017. You could click over to the Critters Writers Workshop site and vote in their annual Preditors & Editors Poll for your favorite books published during 2016.

The poll includes a variety of categories. Although it’s not a scientific poll, winning it gives the fortunate author some bragging rights, and even making it to the top ten is an honor.

You could (ahem) even vote for two of my stories. One of them, After the Martians,” is in the Science Fiction & Fantasy Short Story category. In the Anthologies category, the book In a Cat’s Eye contains my story “The Cats of Nerio-3.” The links in this paragraph and the book cover images open a new tab taking you straight to the correct poll category to vote.

To vote, click the button beside your favorite story’s (or anthology’s) title, then enter your name and e-mail address, then scroll to the bottom where you’ll see the image of a book’s cover (not mine). Type the author’s name of that book in the box to prove you’re not a spam robot. You’ll receive an e-mail to confirm your vote; just click the link in the e-mail and you’re done. Please vote before January 14, when they close the polling.

Recently, In a Cat’s Eye received a five-star review on Amazon by Katherine A. Lashley. She singled out “The Cats of Nerio-3” as one of her favorites in the book, saying it “does an amazing job in exploring the future of humans, artificial intelligence, and cats.” Thank you very much, Katherine!

If you haven’t read “After the Martians” or In a Cat’s Eye, you can still vote for them in the Preditors & Editors poll, but I also recommend reading them. Whether you vote for my stories or those written by others, I thank you for supporting authors. We value any scrap of appreciation thrown our way. Take it from—

                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe

Happy Birthday, H.G. Wells!

Science Fiction pioneer H.G. Wells was born September 21, 1866, 150 years ago. Although he died in 1946, his works live on and inspire us today.

The novels of his I’ve read include The Time Machine, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, and The Sea Lady. Most of those remain classics today.

h-g-_wells__c1890
H.G. Wells

As readers of my blog know, my main author-crush is with Jules Verne, but Wells gave us several archetypal story themes and ideas that Verne did not explore.

The two authors approached their writing differently, too. Verne strove for scientific plausibility and accuracy, but Wells concentrated on telling a good story and gave only a passing nod to the science.

After Verne read The First Men in the Moon, which includes an anti-gravity substance named cavorite, he wrote, “I sent my characters to the moon with gunpowder, a thing one may see every day. Where does M. Wells find his cavorite? Let him show it to me!”

Despite my preference for Verne’s stories, I have to say, “Lighten up, Jules. If a scientist does invent an anti-gravity mechanism, your criticism will look antiquated. Further, you knew your gunpowder cannons couldn’t really launch men to the moon when you wrote From the Earth to the Moon, so you’re not a paragon of accuracy, yourself.”

As discussed by Steven R. Boyett, this dichotomy between scientific exactitude and telling a good story with a smattering of sciency stuff persists today in the arguments between hard and soft science fiction.

Returning to Wells, you do have to overlook his personal life and philosophy as you read his books. A believer in socialism, anti-Semitism, and eugenics, he also led a sex life that was, well, complicated. Fortunately, his early, less philosophical works don’t give hints of any of this.

afterthemartians5My readers know that Wells’ The War of the Worlds inspired my own story, “After the Martians,” so I owe him a great debt.

So, happy birthday, Herbert George Wells! Your legacy is looking great after all these years. Your works remain classics today, read and enjoyed by millions, including—

Poseidon’s Scribe

September 25, 2016Permalink

½ Price Sale on Many of My Books!

You’re looking for some great beach reads for your Kindle this summer. You keep hearing about that author—what’s his name?—who everyone is talking about. That’s right, it’s Steven R. Southard, the one who calls himself Poseidon’s Scribe.

You’ve been meaning to read my books, but you keep thinking they’re so darned expensive. Well, you’re in luck. Your wait is over.

For the month of July only, Smashwords is offering many of my books (the ones in the What Man Hath Wrought series) for ½ price! That’s right, get two for the price of one.

Here’s how to take advantage of these great prices. When you click on any book at my Smashwords site, a message will appear telling you to use a specific code at checkout to get the discount.

Here’s the list of stories and their prices during July:

AftertheMartians72dAfter the Martians
$2.00

 

RippersRing5Ripper’s Ring
$2.00

 

TimesDeformedHand3fTime’s Deformèd Hand
$2.00

 

TheCometeers3fThe Cometeers
$2.00

 

ToBeFirstWheels4To Be First and Wheels of Heaven
$2.00

 

RallyingCry3fRallying Cry and Last Vessel of Atlantis
$2.00

 

ATaleMoreTrue3fA Tale More True
$2.00

 

TheSixHundredDollarMan72dpi-1The Six Hundred Dollar Man
$1.50

 

ASteampunkCarol3fA Steampunk Carol
$1.50

 

AgainstAllGods4Against All Gods
$2.00

 

LeonardosLion4Leonardo’s Lion
$2.00

 

AlexandersOdyssey3fAlexander’s Odyssey
$2.00

 

WithinVictorianMists4Within Victorian Mists
$1.50

 

WindSphereShip4The Wind-Sphere Ship
$1.50

 

Better take advantage of this limited time offer before Smashwords wakes up and realizes what they’ve done. Heck, you could buy all 14 books for a cool $26. How’s that for value?

Remember, go to Smashwords and grab these deals while they last. Tell ‘em you were sent by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

When Characters Wrest Control

Sometimes, while playing God, writers get surprised. Occasionally, while we’re creating our little worlds and our little people to inhabit them, one of those people doesn’t stay in the intended space.

Wresting ControlToday I’ll consider the topic of characters getting too big for their britches, and assuming a bigger (or different) role than the one planned for them. When this happens in your writing, should you take it as a good thing or a bad thing?

This has happened to me a few times. In my story “After the Martians,” the character Frank Robinson is a war AftertheMartians72dphotographer. He’s meant to be a secondary character, pursuing a parallel plot line that intersects the protagonist’s life near the end in a meaningful way. However, Frank became a little more compelling than intended and darn near overshadowed the protagonist. I kept most of his exploits in, so the reader cares what happens to him and follows his plot line with interest.

RippersRing72dpiIn “Ripper’s Ring,” Diogenes is a Bassett hound owned by a Scotland Yard detective. You know how some movie actors dread performing with animals because the animal might steal the scene? That nearly happened with droopy old Diogenes, whose seeming lack of interest in following a scent made him an endearing comic character in an otherwise dark and philosophical story. I kept him that way.

ATaleMoreTrue72dpiThere’s a French servant named Fidèle in my story “A Tale More True” who almost ended up having a more compelling personality than that of his master, the protagonist. Once again, he was a secondary character meant to provide comic relief and to showcase the protagonist. However, he tended to get the best lines, and to be the one suggesting the right course of action. I kept him as I’d written him, since the story is a voyage of learning and discovery for his master, and Fidèle is a necessary part of that.

WithinVictorianMists9Another servant, this time a plump Irish one named Daegan MacSwyny, nearly took over my story “Within Victorian Mists.” I’d meant this secondary character to be funny and unintelligent, but he ended up being secretly wise in almost magical ways. As with Fidèle, he gently prodded his master, the protagonist, toward the right answer at every step, though it’s never clear whether that’s by intention or accident. MacSwyny and all the Victorian Mists characters appeared again in “A Steampunk Carol” but there the servant kept to his secondary status.

In each case, a secondary character threatened to take over the story by force of personality and by being more endearing than the protagonist. That’s just the way my muse rolls.

But not only mine. Other writers have blogged about this phenomenon. Mae Clair lets it happen, for the most part, and later writes separate stories featuring such characters.

Melanie Spiller had written such a good scene about the death of a character whom she hadn’t meant to kill off, that she kept the scene in. She’d once been told a character wresting control of the story is a sign you’ve created a believable character.

When a character takes on a bigger role, you have choices. You can:

  1. Let that character go in this new direction, at least to some extent.
  2. Rewrite the story to keep the character as intended.
  3. Delete the character.

So far, I’ve always chosen option 1. Other writers choose either 1 or 2. It would be gut wrenching to opt for 3, so I suspect that’s rarely done.

When you play God by writing fiction, do you have characters wresting control every now and then? If so, what do you do? Or do you just like that word ‘wrest?’ Rise above your role as a blog post reader, and leave a comment for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

A Great Time at BALTICON 50

BALTICON50_banner_1The major science fiction and fantasy convention in Baltimore turned fifty this year, and the organizers went all out. With George R. R. Martin as the Guest of Honor, and some seventeen previous GoH being there as well, this was a star-studded event.

I’m told attendance more than doubled the usual number, and from the way folks crowded the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, I can believe it.

Nobody would describe this convention as a well-oiled machine that ran like clockwork. Still, what impressed me was the good attitude of the attendees. Most people accepted the chaos as a given; they went with the flow.

I shared a book-signing table with author Paul Cooley, an engaging and entertaining guy. One fan, a pregnant woman, asked him to sign a book she intended to give to “Jude.” When Paul asked who Jude was, she patted her bulge. He told me it was the first time he’d signed a book for someone who hadn’t been born yet.

KellyAHarmon at Balticon50
Kelly A. Harmon

I managed to grab a pic of fellow author Kelly A. Harmon during the Broad Universe rapid-fire reading session. She captivated the room while reading from her latest novel, A Blue Collar Proposition, third in her Charm City Darkness series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At a later reading session, I had the pleasure to join authors Ming Diaz (left), Michelle Sonnier (second from right), and Goldeen Ogawa (far right). Ming is a natural storyteller, with a melodious voice that mesmerizes. Both Michelle and Goldeen read from unpublished manuscripts of theirs—sections from novels in progress. (I’m not brave enough to do that.) I read from “After the Martians.”

Reading at Balticon50 (2)
Ming Diaz, me, Michelle Sonnier, and Goldeen Ogawa
Balticon pic009
Goldeen Ogawa’s sketch inspired by “After the Martians”

Goldeen Ogawa served as our moderator and kept things lively and fun. She’s a graphic designer as well as a writer, and creates her own book covers. While Ming, Michelle, and I were reading our selections, Goldeen drew little sketches based on what she saw in her artist’s mind while we spoke. The sketch she drew for me is a great rendering of a Martian tripod fighting machine battling in a desolate landscape. Thanks, Goldeen!

After every convention, I come away charged up and full of story ideas. I get a vivid reminder of the devotion of science fiction and fantasy fans, their hunger for good stories, and their willingness to learn about undiscovered authors. BALTICON 50 will be long remembered by—

Poseidon’s Scribe