Thursday, April 25, 2013

So... Why Pulp? - My Unconventional Writing Life





I was supposed to go to Pulp Ark 2013 this weekend. That’s been the plan for months now. If you don’t know what Pulp Ark is, well then you can find out all about it right here: http://www.pulpmachine.blogspot.com/p/pulp-ark.html or here: https://www.facebook.com/ThePulpArk, and I urge you to check it out if you have the means to do so. Unfortunately circumstances beyond my control—namely health and financial issues—forced me to cancel my trip. You have no idea how much it bothers me to write that. It was the only convention I planned on attending this year, since we don’t have a budget that allows lots of vacation expenses in this one-income household. Writing isn’t exactly very lucrative for me at this point, and with a mortgage and other bills, plus some unforeseen expenses over this long, cold New England winter, it just wasn’t going to happen. I would have attended as a staff writer and editor for Pro Se and I had planned on sitting in on, as well as participating in, numerous panels, and having a rousing good time rubbing elbows with my peers and catching up with how things are for them. Well… maybe next year.

It’s kind of a let down when you read all the exciting news about what is going on in preparation for or during such a madcap event, and you know you’re not going to be part of it. While I wish everyone attending good luck, and hope they all have a great time and wonderful sales, I am very sad not to be there with them. Yet I have to keep my focus on my own work, and continue plugging away at it. It would very easy to get caught up in the woe and slack off this weekend, since no one will be expecting much writing or editing to get done on the convention floor anyway. Add to that ‘doctor’s orders’ that I need to get away from this sedentary keyboard banging far more often, and the fact that it’s spring and the garden is calling me. Unfortunately, I still have deadlines and commitments to meet, so the work goes on here. For this unconventional weekend, I plan on splitting my time between writing or editing, and getting my gardens prepped for the season ahead.

There’s no secret to the fact that anything involving writing requires long hours sitting in one place, which is really not healthy for you. While I’ve been word-smithing seriously for over twenty years, the last three have been incredibly busy at the keyboard. I’ve been primarily sedentary all during the day, and have put in some very late nights pounding away. Whether that is the reason for my recent issues with racing heart, shortness of breath, and some sort of tremor, I have no idea; but it seems a likely culprit, given that we human beings are not designed to sit around staring at a monitor and living wholly inside our brains. It certainly hasn’t done my waistline any favors! So as we are testing this and poking that, hoping that by process of elimination we find some identifiable root of this sudden malaise, I’ve come to realize just how far downhill my health has gone lately.

The last month was a real wake-up call, because I’ve had to look at a lot of mounting risk factors for diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other ugly things that could send my life into a tailspin. The fact that I couldn’t even cross my driveway to get the mail without gasping and my legs shaking forced me to realize I can’t keep this ridiculous pace up at my age. I just turned 56, and I have a new grandson on the way. I want to live a long and healthy life and teach him things. That means I have to pay attention to my health now, before it’s too late.

I started with diet, cutting back on the crappy convenience foods that made long hours of writing doable, and eliminating meals taken at the keyboard. I began forcing myself to be in bed each night by 11:30, no matter what was pending or left undone. I began to get outdoors daily, even if just long enough to grab the mail or newspaper. I took regular housework breaks during the day, where I’d get up and do something more vigorous than typing. I napped if I felt I needed it rather than trying to plod through the day yawning. As we have progressed through testing for this or that, I started monitoring blood sugar, pulse, breathing, dietary stuff, etc. I became aware of how much my living habits had devolved to allow all the time for writing, editing, and the self promotion I felt compelled to do, and just how rotten I my health had become. I love writing, and I could sit here for endless hours spinning tales, but not at the detriment of my well-being. Clearly things had to change, and some sort of balance needed to be struck.

Believe me, when you are hooked up to an EKG monitor to rule out an impending heart attack, or getting your lungs scanned for possible blood clots, you start thinking hard about what you’ve been doing and why. Lying on those tables with the big scary stuff being hunted for, I knew I had to go back to living my life as a whole, not solely to write. I know; sacrilege, huh? We all joke about how we’ll sleep enough when we’re dead. All of us stress over deadlines that come too soon, and yet accept additional commitments that pile up like snow in the winter. But this was not a joke; it was very much for real, and I’m just not prepared to sacrifice the second half of my life to another chronic condition. I already have a bad back, high blood pressure, glaucoma, and widespread arthritis. That’s enough!

Fortunately, none of the big scary things were going on, but I took this last month’s unconventional health issues as a chance to reassess how things should be done in this New Pulp Writing life of mine. I did a lot of soul searching, believe me! I still want to crank out the best stories I possibly can, but I’ve had to scale back on how many projects I can reasonably expect to take on. I need to get off this computer more regularly and attend to other aspects of my life indoors and outdoors, so I’ve cut down on the amount of email, social networking, and promotion I do to focus on writing and editing while I’m at the keyboard. I’m not volunteering for much of anything these days, because those additional projects do cut into productive time. In short, I put writing back where it belongs: not the entire focus of my existence, as it has been the last three years, but as one more fascinating area of pursuit in a well-rounded life.

With all that in mind, I managed to write (and edit) all through this small crisis, albeit at a far slower pace. I’ve stopped beating myself up for being human, and started listening to that inner voice that wants to get outdoors and play in the soil, or go walk down by the pond with the camera and take pictures. I turned down a couple projects to focus on what I have promised to do, and I’ve said no to things like Pulp Ark. I’m not out of the woods yet, but I am making progress—sleeping more soundly at night, feeling more rested and energetic during the day, and not as worried about what I haven’t accomplished yet. I use my time wisely now. I’ve cultivated the notion that 500 words done well is far more significant than pumping out 5000 that are going to need serious revision to be readable.

I think anybody who wants to write with a crowded schedule and multiple issues demanding time and interest could take a page from my unconventional writing life. I don’t care what the beer commercial told you back in the 80’s, you can’t do it all. So you’d better do it smart, and spread yourself around in all parts of your existence, because you want to experience as much of life as you can, as long as you’re able to. As for getting your work out there, do whatever you can, but don’t stress over it. Don’t think you can continually shrug off your health and pull another all-nighter without consequences.  Keep in mind, the pulp heroes are on the page, not behind the keyboard, and sick writers don’t produce very good work.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

So... Why Pulp? - ART APPRECIATION DAZE





One of the important things that sells New Pulp books is artwork. Whether it’s slick and glossy cover art or some fantastically detailed interior illustrations, those pictures stand and shout to the world that this book is exciting! This story is something you should be reading! Pick it up now! You can’t see what’s inside without cracking the cover, and you can’t always read a favorite author’s name from across the room, but by golly, as you’re scanning down those crowded aisles or browsing online, a great cover is going to stop you in your tracks. And when that happens, the author gets noted, back cover blurbs get read, and you just might want to take a lengthy peek inside.

I’m a firm believer that appropriate cover art sells more books to people outside the ‘pulposphere’ than anything else we’ve been doing. So here’s my love letter to the folks who make that magic happen for us writers.

Art and graphics people are often the unsung heroes of the pulp world. I read a lot of online discussions and I’ve listened to folks on podcasts and panels at the cons I’ve attended. Art appreciation gets discussed quite often, within both classic and new pulp. And well it should be! You may not remember every detail of the book you read ten to twenty years ago, but if it was good, I bet you recall the cover if it had some significant artwork. While we all seem to love and appreciate those lurid, exciting, and juicy scenes, I don’t think as writers we understand how much time and effort goes into them. The artists I know often work on short notice at the most inconvenient intervals, with multiple projects being juggled. For every word of praise there will be some discord; as at times a piece gets bogged down by quibbling over some aspect which didn’t translate perfectly from brain of author to eye of illustrator. I have to constantly remind myself that artists see a piece they are responsible for not just as a literal translation of what was written, but as a balanced composition that has to draw the viewer in. Many times the finished product is going to reflect as much the imagination of the artist as that of the author.

And that’s how it should be. Lesson here is: Writer—trust your artist. If things aren’t perfect according to your internal vision, step back and take a look at the big picture. Does it catch your eye from across the room? Is there something dramatic and enticing going on? Does it set the overall tone of the story in your mind? If not, then you have a legitimate issue. If it’s just little stuff that can be easily fixed (and in this digital age, there isn’t much that can’t be altered) then politely explain what needs adjusting. Otherwise, just go with it. If it’s big stuff, then you have something to discuss. A cover or an interior illustration should reflect a critical scene in the story and the main characters involved, but it doesn’t need to completely explain it or reveal everything. And please, make sure your artist knows what you think was done particularly well. We all need to hear that now and then.

I can’t tell you how much artwork has influenced sales of my books or the enjoyment of the short stories I’ve written, but I have gotten a lot of compliments on covers and interior art. In a way that’s kind of unfair, because while I created the situation being conveyed, it was the skillful hands of the artist that made it visible to the public. The artists I’ve been privileged to work with have been extremely talented folks who are truly excited about the projects they’ve been given and they really put their time in bringing those scenes to life. I’ve dabbled a bit in art, so I have a passing idea of what goes into putting a coherent scene together, and that was long before this digital age with all the new tools available that also have to be mastered. While I don’t pretend to understand everything that goes into a great cover or interior drawing, I do know these folks are working hard to get it the way I want it while satisfying the need for title and byline placement, potential page size, possible captions, and sometimes even decorative borders as per the publishing mandates. I’m sure there are things I haven’t touched on, but the fact that it all has to be done on a schedule makes it even more amazing. I am in awe of these folks! They make me look good.

If you are asked for an art scene to illustrate from your story, consider yourself very fortunate. That is often done at the discretion of the publisher, not the writer. When you do write something up for the artist, be as detailed and specific as you can manage. And please, be polite and appreciative. These folks work hard at what they do, and most of them don’t get their names on the covers. If you get to see a preliminary sketch or a finished piece, and something is drastically wrong, communicate it in a professional and supportive manner—not on some open internet site but privately in a tactful way. Every one of us writers has a dud story or concept now and then, and artists have off days and projects that just don’t come out right either. No one deserves to have his or her reputation trashed because something didn’t work out between you. Treat every artist like a valued contact, because that’s what they are. If you find someone you just can’t work with, then thank that person for her or his time and move on. Dealing with any fallout is something your publisher needs to handle, not you.

Unless of course you are self-publishing; in which case you’re the boss. Handle it like a good manager should—firmly and unemotionally. Get your point across and either come to an agreement, or move on to someone else that can do the work the way you expect it to be laid out. There is no reason to settle for something that doesn’t reflect at all what you had in mind.

Now, this doesn’t even begin to address the new trend toward putting your own covers together, because in all honesty, I have absolutely no experience with that. I admire the people who do, and I suppose at some point I’m going to have to learn to manage that as well. In the meantime, I’m going to continue to work with artists I feel comfortable with, and help them see what I envision in a way that is most easily understood. I never forget to say thank you to my artists when we have a chance to communicate one-on-one—or at least give those hardworking individuals public kudos for their time and efforts.

Everyone who puts a book together is important, and the power of good artwork shouldn’t be underestimated. It just might be the thing that sells that story to someone who is going to give one of you a hand up the ladder to better things.

So here’s to all the wonderful folks who have and will make pictures out of my words on the page. You’ve all been or will be a vital part of any success I have. I may be walking around in a daze every time a book comes out with one of those to-die-for covers, but I know who made it look so tempting. Thank you!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Slow Death of the American Author



Scott Turow recently penned a very intelligent, albeit distressing, editorial for the New York Times on the sad state of the contemporary authors' lot in life, thanks mainly due to greed, piracy and giant corporations.

Authors practice one of the few professions directly protected in the Constitution, which instructs Congress “to promote the progress of Science and the useful Arts by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” The idea is that a diverse literary culture, created by authors whose livelihoods, and thus independence, can’t be threatened, is essential to democracy.
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The pirates would be a limited menace were it not for search engines that point users to these rogue sites with no fear of legal consequence, thanks to a provision inserted into the 1998 copyright laws. A search for “Scott Turow free e-books” brought up 10 pirate sites out of the first 10 results on Yahoo, 8 of 8 on Bing and 6 of 10 on Google, with paid ads decorating the margins of all three pages.

If I stood on a corner telling people who asked where they could buy stolen goods and collected a small fee for it, I’d be on my way to jail. And yet even while search engines sail under mottos like “Don’t be evil,” they do the same thing. Click here to read the entire article.

While those of us in the New Pulp movement struggle to make anything at all on our work, a large faction of our society is striving to ensure our piece of the pie gets smaller still... sad, but true.