Category Archives: BY THE MAD GENII

A list of our perpetrators.

What do you want?

As I was preparing for today’s post, I cam across a couple of things I thought I’d share. The first is a perfect example of one of the problems facing traditional publishing today. The second is a post about why it’s a great time — sort of — to go indie. Both are, in my opinion, things we need to think about.

Last week, the Buffalo News posted an article about Gov. Andrew Cuomo. No, it wasn’t about his politics. Instead, it was about his book and how much he’s made — and how many copies the book has sold. But before we get into the finance aspect, a little background. Cuomo was elected governor of New York in 2010 and took office January 1, 2011. His book, All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life, was published by HarperCollins on October 4, 2014. Even assuming HarperCollins pushed to get the book out as quickly as it could, I doubt they had the book for less than a year before publishing it. So, at most, Cuomo had been in the governor’s mansion for two years when the book came out. And this is where things get interesting.

Now to the money. According to the Buffalo News, Cuomo has made, to date, $783,000 for writing his book. The publisher is reported to have laid down a first run printing of 200,000 copies of the book. Now, based on all that, you’d think the book sold well, possibly going into second and third printings, right?

Wrong.

The book has sold approximately 3,200 copies since publication. As of the time I’m writing this post, the hard cover price is $8.45, more than a buck less than the e-book price (which is still set by the publisher at $9.99. More on that in a moment).

It is more than fair to say the book tanked. HarperCollins basically through Cuomo under the bus for the poor performance of the book back in 2015. It seems Cuomo didn’t tour to promote the book and turned down media appearances. They were surprised, I tell you, surprised. They thought he would do at least some promotion. That, it seems, is one of the main reasons the book didn’t sell as expected.

Riiiiight. Putting on my cynic’s hat, I could say HarperCollins never really expected the book to sell. They paid all that money to Cuomo as a legal bribe. But that’s the cynic and I have no proof of it. However, I’m not the only one that thought came to. Google the book and its poor performance and you will see a number of others who have thought the same and have made no bones about it.

Taking off my cynic’s hat, this poor performance is indicative of some of the problems in traditional publishing. HarperCollins didn’t consider the fact Cuomo isn’t all that popular outside of New York. Considering the low sales numbers, I wonder if he is all that popular outside of NYC. They made the mistake of paying on inflated and unrealistic expectations just as they did with the initial print run. As for the promo claim — or should I say no promo? — pardon me while I laugh. I’m sure if you asked Cuomo, he would say HarperCollins didn’t promote the book that way he thought they would. They expected Cuomo to do the promotion. Welcome to the world of publishing. Publishers, at least some of them, promise to promote a book and their idea of promotion is not the same as the author’s.

The long and short of the story is, however, a simple one and it is a cautionary tale. Publishing cannot continue to pay huge advances and guaranteed payouts to political darlings and Hollywood-types, giving them outrageous initial print runs without doing at least a simple market review first. How much money has been lost by traditional publishing houses like this? More importantly from a writer’s point of view, how many mid-list writers, those who have pretty much guaranteed sales of a certain figure book after book, have been dropped because publishers feel they can’t afford to keep them and how often has this happened AFTER a book has bombed by someone like Cuomo?

Next up is this post about why it’s a great time to be a writer, sort of.  I’ll leave you to read the post but the short version is simple. If you want to go traditional, not much has changed. You can keep slogging for months and years, trying to get your work picked up by an agent and then on an editor’s desk where you can hope to get a contract. While there is nothing wrong with this, the length of time it takes to break in this way is a negative, as is the declining number of bookstores.

Then there’s indie publishing. That’s the great part. If you have the drive and you have a book finished, you can publish it now. There’s no waiting to shop the book around, looking for an agent and then a contract. You make it the best book you can, slap a cover on it and push the publish button.

Of course, there’s a but. There’s always a but and that’s where the “sort of” comes in. To be successful as an indie, you have to work at it. You have to take on much of what the traditional publisher does. You have to make sure your book has a great cover, is well formatted and edited. You have to market it. You have to do the accounting and pay the taxes. In other words, you have to remember that this is a business. It’s a lot of work and there is no guarantee that you’ll be a “success”. However, there is an advantage in that you aren’t at the whim of a traditional publisher, held to releasing a book only according to their schedule.

The decision as to what is best for you is, of course, up to you.

Now, since I’m an indie, here’s a bit of promo.

Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2)

Plots form, betrayals are planned and war nears.

Cait Hawkener has come to accept she might never remember her life before that terrible morning almost two years ago when she woke in the slavers’ camp. That life is now behind her, thanks to Fallon Mevarel and the Order of Arelion. Now a member of the Order, Cait has pledged her life to making sure no one else falls victim as she did.

But danger once more grows, not only for Cait but to those she calls friends. Evil no longer hides in the shadows and conspirators grow bold as they move against the Order and those who look to it for protection. When Cait accepts the call to go to the aid of one of the Order’s allies, she does not know she is walking into the middle of conspiracy and betrayal, the roots of which might help answer some of the questions about her own past.

33 Comments

Filed under AMANDA, PROMOTION, WRITING, WRITING: PUBLISHING

Don’t Derive to Market

LawDog has gotten a slim but gut-bustingly funny volume of his police stories off to his editor, and is now oscillating between writing down more tales of Africa, working on an urban fantasy… although, can you call it urban when it’s in small town Texas?

(Picture a satyr before a rural-county Texas judge. “You can’t sentence me! You don’t believe in me! I’m a mythological creature; I can’t exist!” “Boy, I saw weirder things than you in the sixties. Now, you’re up for theft, public intoxication…” )

…anyway, and half a dozen other projects that keep crowding into a writer’s brain. As we were discussing life, the universe, and everything (including him yelling at the “police gear up for a raid” scene on tv, “Why are you loading your weapons? Why are they not already loaded?”) , he paused to ask why certain books in a genre we’ve both read feel so… divorced from reality, and so thin.

Ah, LawDog, says I, the word you’re looking for is “derivative.” The kindliest interpretation is that the true groundbreakers in the field created a field, because the subgenre barely existed, or was still coagulating, when they wrote this weird thing they loved. So they were widely read, and drawing on a lot of different sources, and pulling together many different things. Then came authors who loved the world the first one created, and wanted to put their own spin on it. So they drew on other sources, or re-interpreted the first one’s sources as well as the first author. But then, then came people who loved the second wave of authors, and hadn’t read outside the subgenre… and so their pool of resources and interpretation to draw on is extremely shallow and limited compared to the first or second wave.

This extreme shallowness is often seen in fanfiction, where the inexperienced writer loves their one show, but hasn’t done any digging into the source materials the writers pulled from to create that show and world. If all you know of Meiji period Japan comes from Kenshin, then you’re not going to have a very great pool of knowledge on how and why that world works… and when a writer fills in the gaps with their own world and assumptions as they wander off script, it’s often profoundly wrong (including one fanfic assuming Kenshin was set during Europe’s Dark Ages… because feudal! *facepalm*)

Kris Rusch has a slightly different take; she says the original groundbreaker slipped past the gatekeepers somehow, and when it proved to be a breakout success, the publishers looked around to find similar books that were written on spec by people who just loved the genre. When they started being published, and there was a large demand, then other writers would jump on the bandwagon, briefly read the top books in the genre, and crank out something in a similar style without knowing or loving the genre. This is the sort of “writing to market” that she decries.

With the indies slipping past the gatekeepers, the truth is probably a mix of these, and other reasons. How do you make sure that you’re not falling prey to this?

1: Go Deep. Read the oldest depths from which your genre sprang, not just the last 20 years. Find the good stuff that inspired the books that inspired the books and films that inspired you.

Jeffro Johnson started reading his way through Appendix N – the list of sources Gary Gygax listed as his inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons . Many, many a current fantasy novel treats Dungeons and Dragons as the foundation of their world, upon which you can either build, or try to subvert (with a brief nod to Tolkien, who came before.) The retrospectives are now a category up on the Castalia house blog:
http://www.castaliahouse.com/category/appendix-n/page/11/
or in kindle book: http://amzn.to/2nVJ4Qa

What he found was nothing like the “standard fantasy novel” you get now, and nothing like the stereotype of “pulp scifi” that some quarters burn in effigy without ever having actually read. It’s worth reading some of what he found as a transition – but even more so, it’s worth reading everything on Appendix N itself! ( http://digital-eel.com/blog/ADnD_reading_list.htm )

(And let me sigh here and note that when following this advice and reading Jack Vance’s Tales of a Dying Earth (http://amzn.to/2oPHezs ) I had to keep breaking out the dictionary. I thought I had a fairly good vocabulary, but if this was the stuff “the common man” enjoyed in the 1950’s, my nose has now been painfully rubbed in just how far our education system had fallen by the time I went through.)

2. Go Deeper. Go back to the original legends, myths, histories, trading routes, wars, cultures…

Alma Boykin recently posted a snippet of a fantasy that’s been battening around her brain as the result of reading academic papers and monographs on medieval trade:
https://almatcboykin.wordpress.com/2017/04/09/bad-muse-not-again/#more-4965

When’s the last time you saw something like that, compared to “He paid five copper for the meal, and two silver for a room.”?

3. Go wide. Read about things far outside your field. Orson Scott Card is reputed to have said one of the best ways to get inspiration to is to pick something you don’t care about at all, and then research it in depth.

For example, Peter’s first published book, Take the Star Road (http://amzn.to/2nVBIMl ), was partially inspired by The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. ( http://amzn.to/2pu5Bka )

Here’s another for you: Rory Miller is the author of the highly interesting book Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence (http://amzn.to/2pJKbyX ). Last night, as Peter was reorganizing books from one bookshelf to another as he moves the reference books from Things for Westerns to Things For Fantasy, another book by Miller popped up on the couch. Violence: A Writer’s Guide. ( http://amzn.to/2oi7IGV ) I didn’t even know this thing existed. But it is an excellent breakdown on what motivates people to violence – from the office gossip (manipulation to get their way) to the bullying SJW (aggressive posturing and speech to get their way) to assault, to murder… and what those people think of other’s use of different levels of force. It’ll definitely force you to think through the eyes of a character completely unlike yourself, and in doing so, make them more real and alive.

4. Go and do yourself.

There is no perfect substitute for actually going to a place, or doing a thing. Because in the going and in the doing are a thousand sensory details, rhythms, habits, minutiae, large-scale considerations, environments, and people that you can use to make your writing come alive.

If you’ve never shot a gun, go to a range and take a basic pistol course with an instructor. You’re going to find it’s as close to the movies as… as, well, most people’s courtships are to Adam Sandler’s romantic comedies. Many police departments offer citizens academies or ride-a-long programs, which prove that real life is nothing like TV, either.

Go hike the unpaved trails, and discover that moving from point A to point B through different terrains is a while lot different than driving. Take a flying lesson, a sailing lesson, or go whitewater rafting. Get your fishing license and learn to fish, or find a climbing gym and get coached through a climbing wall. Ride a horse, or take a horsedrawn carriage ride. Learn to fence. Hey, it’s research! And it’s learning, growing, stretching yourself in ways you haven’t done before, or done in years. Do a chef’s tasting menu, try a flight of wine, go on a distillery tour… check your local area’s tourist literature, and play tourist in your own home state. You’ll turn up the most random and fun things to do – and if you ask more questions, you’ll find people who are passionate about something love to talk about it, and can tell you more than you dreamed existed.

Art is the synthesis of all our knowledge and worldview, mixed with “what if?”, “and then what happens?”, and a creative spark. So increase your knowledge, enrich your worldview, and throw a lot of new experiences into the mix. What comes out will be all the better for it!

75 Comments

Filed under characterization, FYNBOSSPRESS, Uncategorized, WRITING: CRAFT

Persistence

You won’t be successful at writing. 

You will never be successful at writing as long as you measure yourself against someone else’s yardstick. Your success has to be yours, no one else’s. You can’t write like Heinlein/Correia/Nuttall – only they can (or could, since I don’t think zombie Heinlein actually exists, no matter what Sarah says). Sure, you can go look at Larry Correia’s list of writers, and figure out where on the alphabet you fall. But the honest truth of the matter is that the only way for you to be successful is for you to write. You don’t have to write 10,000 words a day to be a success, or even a thousand. If, like most of us, you are juggling the writing, family, and a career or something, then you know that there are days you can’t keep all your balls in the air.

Some writers are really spectacular jugglers. They can keep six flaming torches aloft, and spin ’em under their legs and the rest of us are all gaping, or peering through our fingers with hands over our faces flinching because dang, that’s gonna hurt if he misses… Look, I know some folks who eat fire, or juggle with it, and they didn’t pick up the chainsaws and say ‘look, Ma, no hands!’ and not mean it. They started out slowly, with things like scarves that float a little and give you plenty of time to get your hands in the right position before you have to grab.

Writing is like that. Sure, there will be days your wordcount is in the thousands, but there might also be a week with no words at all. Instead of beating yourself up, pick up the balls and start again. Keep your eyes on the balls in motion, because if you’re looking at the floor all the time, you’re going to miss them. If you’re looking at the dude with the flaming chainsaws, you’re going to feel like a failure, and you’re not.

For one thing, we don’t all write the same stories. Thank goodness. How boring would that be? Each one of us has a different voice, a style all our own, and only we can tell that story in that way. Is there a market for it? Who knows? You won’t, until you put it out there. The beauty of Indie Publishing is that you can put it out there, for very little or no capital expenditure, and find out if there’s a market. If there isn’t, you shrug and move on. But you’re still a success. Why? Because you wrote that. You finished it, and you put it out there. Success is not about how much money you get, it’s about the completion.

Money is good, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be trying for money. It’s a great milestone of ‘readers like me!’ and ultimately it’s what tells us how successful a story is. But you, the writer, are a success when you write something. When you don’t write, or when you ditch all your stories before they are complete, then you fail. It’s what makes you a writer, not how much money, or who publishes you.

Now that you’ve succeeded in writing a story, what comes next? Write another one. And another, and…. you get the idea. If you want to make money, if that’s the goal of this juggler’s act, then you need to have more than one story out there. Simply put, readers want to read, and having read, they move on to the next book. One is not enough. I’m not sure where the point comes in that volume creates it’s own momentum – at six novels, I had it for a while, and then lost it when I didn’t keep publishing. Momentum is important.

Does that make me a failed writer? No, I think not. I still have fans. I have a book that should be out already, but has been delayed while I added a new career to my juggling repertoire. I have more stories in progress (including a children’s book that unfolded in my head today nearly fully formed. Weird how that works, after years of saying I’d never be able to write one). I am a successful writer. I’m a slow writer, now, managing a thousand words a week rather than a day as I once did. But I’m not trying to make a living as a writer – that would change my goals. I want to up that wordcount, but for the moment other things have priority. I’ll creep slowly back up to adding the writing ball into my daily juggling.

In other words, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t manage pro-level output on a daily basis. Push yourself, but don’t burn yourself out. Set a manageable pace, and don’t quit. When you drop the writing ball, pick it back up, and instead of rushing, slowly work up to speed. If you rush, you’re more likely to make mistakes. And you don’t want that with a flaming chainsaw, really you don’t!

44 Comments

Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: LIFE

I Quit!

I. Quit.

No, no, not MGC.

But I’m taking a hiatus from my big series and trying some new things this summer.

Now, why would I do a silly thing like that? Well, it’s pretty simple. I’m a (nearly) complete unknown and as such my sales numbers are low. And since I’m in this for the money–yeah, I’ve got an husband bringing home the bacon, but he’s teetering on the brink of retirement, and I’d really like to bump up the projected (post retirement) household income. That means I need to do a number of things. Marketing . . . I’m also working on. But another (and much more fun!) thing I can do is broaden my fan base by publishing in other genres.

But how is a writer of a huge series to break the bad news to her fans?

Well it depends. If the series is at a natural stopping point, it’s easy. This is one of the advantages of an overarching Mega Problem. Once it’s solved, you can give your readers a brief glimpse into the Happily Ever After and then quit.

Hahahahaha! As if!

And the more popular, the more fans will want you notice that there’s a problem behind the problem and keep going.

In my case most of the stories are stand alones . . . but it’s one big saga with a fair amount of background that builds up. But there’s no clear cut end point. It’s just a Cross-dimensional Multiverse full of potential. It has been mentioned that it would make a great SF soap opera.

So again, why quit?

There’s a dozen reasons.

I need to broaden my reader base, so getting out of this specific sub- genre and into Time Travel, Space Opera, and Urban Fantasy sounds like a good idea. I mean, Regency Romance may sell better, but I seriously doubt I could tempt any of those readers to try my older work . . . where SO and UF have plenty of overlapping interests with my old series.

And then there’s the challenge. Something that will stretch my knowledge base and send my research in a new direction. Time Travel hurts my head, BTW. And I have zero knowledge of how Law Enforcement actually works. Which is really necessary when you’ve got a thin blue line standing up against demonically engendered werewolves. Space Opera will be the easiest, what with me being a space fanatic. All I have to do is check that what I know really is so. Ouch! Our knowledge of reality changes so fast it’s easy to fall behind.

I recommend this to all writers. It’s too easy to get into a rut, to coast. “Oh, I know everything about this Universe, after all, I created it. I don’t need to research anything!” Too easy to depend on the character building you did in the previous books and leave your character flat and uninteresting. Or viciously attack and maul him, to give some space for Mr. Perfect to (re)grow. Kill her, because you’ve come to hate her.

It’ll be a good separation, a refreshing vacation. I’ll come back to the Wine of the Gods with a new perspective, new enthusiasm.

I’m breaking the news to my fans gently. Umm, because, being an addict of my own series, I seem to have, umm, let me count. Oh bloody . . . eight stories in the pipeline. Not counting the novella that’s out with the Beta Readers. That will be published next month. So while I’m going to write other stuff this summer, I’ll also get out at least one more big Wine of the Gods book sometime this fall, and the rest at reasonable intervals. So it’s just a slow down, not really quitting.

I can get over this addiction. I can stop any time.

Can you? Tell me how that works, eh?

And, being unfortunately well acquainted with my subconscious, as soon as I post this, it will pop a story into the frontal lobes, crack the whip and make me write it . . . What’s that? Xen teams up with Ebsa, Ra’d . . . and Eldon! To defeat the Cyborg Empire!

Oh, just kill me now!
But first, buy a 99¢ short story. I promise I won’t leave [spoiler] in [spoiler] for too long.

36 Comments

Filed under BY THE MAD GENII, PAM UPHOFF, SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY

It really is a business

Maybe it’s because taxes are due today. Maybe it’s something else. But, for whatever reason, the last few days have been spent looking at my writing from a business standpoint. I try to do this on a regular basis, but I know I don’t do it nearly as often as I should. Part of the reason is because I would much rather write. After all, I am a writer, not an accountant, etc. But the business aspect is a necessary evil.

It also includes much more than simply looking at sales and making sure taxes are paid.

But it does include numbers — ick — and looking at trends, seeing what other authors are saying about their sales and making determinations about what needs to be done, if anything.

So, the short version of what I’ve done over the last few days is simple:

  • Reviewed my sales for the last year
    • by title
    • by genre
    • by price
  • Looked at pricing for similar titles, including age of title
  • Reviewed blurbs and keywords
  • Reviewed covers and compared them with what is currently selling well, indie and trad published
    • looked at the art elements
    • looked at the font
    • looked at overall cover design
  • Reviewed my publication schedule for the next year
    • made determinations about what should be released when
    • made determinations about new titles (unrelated to current series)
  • Reviewed my meager promotion operation with an eye to expanding it

Now, don’t start running to the hills. I’m not going in-depth into what I did and what my plans are. For one, a lot of those plans are still being made. For another, right now a lot of it is subject to change, at least until I work some more on it. Still, some of the things that are factoring into my decisions are, I believe, things each of us need to look into when it comes to our writing.

Because numbers (ick) are involved, I’m still looking at my sales figures and comparing them with the last several years. In some ways, this is an exercise in comparing apples to oranges. In others, it is interesting. For one thing, I can definitely see a trend. Once I hit 10 novels, my sales across the board went up. Also, once I started linking my pen names with my name, sales across the board went up. Still, numbers are involved, so this will take several more days for me to winnow out all the information I’m looking for. (sorry, I’m a writer, not an accountant and numbers make my head hurt.O

The next thing I looked at happened to be my product pages. Oh my, there is so much there we have to take into consideration and we don’t tend to. At least I don’t. Sure, I want to have the best possible cover to draw the reader’s eye. I want a snappy and interesting blurb to grab the reader and make them want to buy the book. But I don’t tend to check the product page on anything other than my laptop. I forget to look at it on my Kindle Fire or Mom’s iPad. I sure forget to look at it in my phone. Or, more accurately, I used to forget it. After the last few days, I won’t. What I learned is that the longer blurbs will work on a tablet or computer screen but, on a phone, they are a pain because you have to keep scrolling. Not good. Scrolling for a screen or two is one thing but for screen after screen after screen — nope. Not gonna happen. Fortunately, most of mine weren’t that bad and those that were happen to be on two titles I am going to withdraw because they were supposed to be short term promo titles initially.

Another thing I don’t always do, and it is now on my list of must do, is check the preview function for my books. I’m not talking about the downloadable preview (although that should be checked as well) but the “click to see inside” preview. A number of readers, myself included, use this to determine if we want to buy or borrow a book. This is where they will get their first real impression of that particular title. It’s important to make sure the preview doesn’t appear to be poorly formatted. Even more important is making sure there are no misspellings or outrageous grammatical errors present. I can’t stress this enough. This is a free promo and so many of us don’t bother checking to make sure it is accurately representing our work and that, in turn, can cost us sales.

All that showed I have some blurbs to update. As a reader, one thing that will stop me from buying a book is a badly written blurb. If I find misspellings or poor grammar or punctuation in a blurb, I’m going to assume the book is written in much the same way. Also, look at the formatting of the blurb. If there is no white space between paragraphs, you are basically screaming one of two things. Either you are in newbie who doesn’t know how to format blurbs or you are careless and don’t care. Either way, it isn’t the image you want to put out for your readers to see.

I also need to update my keywords on several books. This is important because the keywords help with the search function. Also, in case you didn’t know it, keywords can also help determine what genres and sub-genres your work is listed under. Amazon is starting to crack down on what keywords you use because they had so many complaints by readers about searching certain keywords and finding books that were not “romance” or whatever. That means I need to go back and make sure I have not run afoul of the rule by mistake.

Also, the keywords change from time to time. So to sub-genres. That makes it imperative to regularly make sure we are using the best keywords we can. It helps sales by helping readers find out books.

While doing this, I also looked at my covers. Now, I’m not going to spend any time on the making of covers because, duh, I’m not an artist. I will say this. Don’t be afraid to periodically change your cover. Now, I’m not talking every month or even every six months. But, just as sub-genres change and expand, covers for those genres change as well. As indies, we need to be aware of what the trads are doing in our genres, both with images and with fonts. While we don’t have to copy them, it never hurts to at least have the same “feel” as they do. Why? Because if you write books with the same feel as the Mercy Thompson or Jane Yellowrock books, it will only help for your covers to have the same feel. Why? Because readers of those series will see something that is familiar when they look at your work and the cover might just entice them into reading the blurb and buying the book.

But there is something else to look at as well. If, like me, you write series, your covers within the series have to relate to one another. It is another way of cuing your readers that the new book is part of the series they are already reading and enjoying.

Finally, even if your cover worked when the book came out two years — or ten — ago, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will now. So look at what is selling well in your book’s genre and sub-genre and then look at your book cover with a critical eye. If it doesn’t feel fresh, if it looks and feels dated (or worse, amateur), then change it. But do your homework. Know what works — both in images and in fonts — in your genre and sub-genre.

Now you see why I said I wasn’t going in-depth today about everything. All this was just off the product page. More than that, it was off the product page of just one one-line store. More than that, it isn’t everything off the product page that I’m looking at as an author. By the way, I am also looking at it as a reader, trying to think about what strikes me and grabs my attention when I’m looking for a book to read. If you guys want, I’ll continue with this next week. Otherwise, the next scream of frustration you hear is me when I once again return to the task of looking at my numbers and trying to see if I can make sense of their arcane magic.

56 Comments

Filed under AMANDA, WRITING: PUBLISHING

Marvelous duh-versity

It’s been a long time since I collected any of the Marvel comics. When I see panels like this (now infamous) example, I conclude that I am not missing much.

When I was introduced to my first Marvel title — X-Factor, in 1989 — it was through a friend who knew the Marvel mutants series backwards and forwards. I enjoyed the universe, eventually picking up several Marvel mutant titles over the course of about four years. Not every issue was a knockout, but the storylines were consistently well-written and the mutant concept itself was intriguing. Especially since the entirety of the Marvel universe wove in and out of the space specifically given over to the mutant lines.

If I’d been greeted with a panel like the one above, when first someone handed me a copy of a Marvel title, I’m not sure I’d have gone on to invest all the money I eventually invested in Marvel products. Because I’d have felt like I — as the audience — was being so crudely condescended to, it was either a bad joke, or an insult.

So, what the hell is going on at Marvel these days?

David Burge (aka: Iowahawk) once posted the following:

1. Identify a respected institution.
2. kill it.
3. gut it.
4. wear its carcass as a skin suit, while demanding respect.
#lefties

The first thing I can see going wrong, is that Marvel has allowed certain time-honored characters to be switcheroo’d purely for the lulz. Gender, ethnicity, sexuality, they’re all on Marvel’s chopping block. And while it may be novel to flip Thor’s sex, flipping Thor’s sex and then having Thor utter lines as if Thor is a regular at Candace and Toni’s book store . . . is a great way to let the audience know that you not only don’t take the character of Thor seriously anymore, you don’t take the audience seriously either.

If you want to “diversify” your comics, A-OK. Do it with new characters who grow to inhabit their roles over time, and — this is important — don’t always sound like they spilled directly out of a grievance studies degree program from a trendy East Coast private university.

Last I checked, almost half the country voted in a way that the other half of the country did not. It might be nice to see some of this intellectual diversity inhabit a few costumes on the Marvel stage.

I won’t hold my breath, though.

The second thing I can see going wrong, is that Marvel is trading in audience loyalty, for quick-sales stunts. More switcheroos purely for their own sake, because these may knock the numbers — for a given title in a given month — up to double or even triple what they usually are. Remember when I wrote in this space about the marketing disaster of New Coke? I sorta see Marvel going down the same path. Whether or not Marvel has the good sense to resurrect Classic Thor or Classic Iron Man, remains to be seen. The minds at the top can either respect the core audience, or they can live in fear of being Twitter-shamed by Social Justice Zealots. Most of whom sorta don’t give a damn about comics anyway. Comics are merely a very visible institution that Social Justice Zealots want to take over and own, for their own political purposes. Ergo, kill it, gut it, wear it as a skin suit, then demand respect.

Hopefully Marvel jettisons the switcheroos, but again, not holding my breath.

The third thing I think Marvel may be messing up — and this is hardly a problem unique to the comics world — is mistaking internal in-house excitement for a thing, for external marketplace demand for that very same thing. This comes from creators on the inside getting bored with the same-old same-old, and deciding to get cheeky, or daring, or inflammatory, with a given line or character. The marketplace will just happily follow along, right? And if the marketplace doesn’t follow along, we’ll call them all a bunch of names, right? After all, it worked so well for the Ghostbusters reboot. Which — by the way — nobody asked for. And which never did domestically earn out its estimated $144 million dollar budget.

I am pretty sure they still call that kind of movie, a flop.

If confessions from within Marvel proper are to be believed, Marvel is getting mighty nervous that it might have a few flops on its hands. As if nobody could have predicted that arbitrarily messing with several characters and lines simultaneously, purely for the sake of politics — changes which precious few people in the core audience desired or said they wanted — was going to go badly.

Back to Burge: kill it, gut it, wear it as a skin suit, demand respect.

A huge step in the right direction, would be to STOP taking the Magic Unicorn approach to diversity. Don’t hang a damned blinking sign on the fact that your character(s) is gay, or trans, or a woman, or non-white, or whatever combination thereof you choose. “Hey, look everybody! The character of Tomahawk is both biracial and bisexual! Like, he’s really REALLY biracial and bisexual! We will go out of our way to make sure you ABSOLUTELY KNOW that Tomahawk is biracial and bisexual! Ooooo! Ooooo! So edgy! So diverse!” That kind of crap is the kindergarten version of diversity. It’s not even Diversity 101. It’s Remedial Diversity 077, for sheltered progressives who apparently don’t spend much time around anyone who is not also a sheltered progressive.

Ordinary people — even gay, trans, female, non-white — don’t broadcast their demographics like that. If they are broadcasting their demographics like that, just as with aggressive church evangelists, they’re usually assholes.

It’s hard (but not impossible) to sell a hero who is also an asshole.

(Lobo fans are excused, okay? Jeez, pipe down already.)

The next step would be to quietly jettison any and all switcheroos performed on time-honored characters, and let those characters go back to being who and what they were, before the Social Justice Zealots decided to ruin things.

Yes, you will endure howling mobs of Twitter users trying to hashtag your company into the ground. But if you’ve got even a little bit of spine, you can take the heat. After all, the hashtaggers are not the whole universe. Hell, a lot of people would respect and admire a creative entity standing up against a concerted Two Minute Hate. The American public especially seems to have reached its threshold for that kind of crap. They’re ready to support somebody — anybody — who looks like (s)he won’t roll over and say “Uncle!” at the first threat of digital arm-twisting.

The final step would be, naturally, to stay the course. Keep the time-honored lines secure. Make sure the venerable characters stay in character.

By all means, bring on your diverse cast of non-white, non-male, on-hetero, non-cis players. Give them their own lines. Spin mighty arcs of story wonderfulness around these individuals.

And leave the old-school characters OLD-SCHOOL.

Ya know, kinda like America itself? Old-schoolers and new-schoolers all walking down the same streets together, shopping at the same stores, watching the same movies, eating at the same restaurants, etc. Old-school and new-school, kicking it to their unique grooves. Because there’s room enough in the world for everybody.

Unless you’re a Social Justice Zealot. In which case the world before the year 2000 was a frightening wilderness of total and absolute oppression, and everything older than yourself must be sandblasted into an unrecognizable lump of nothingness.

I like to think the world of commercial creative arts has had its fill, where Social Justice Zealotry is concerned. That shit just doesn’t sell. No matter how much you harangue or lecture people. There are only so many consumers who will open their wallets as a matter of political duty. Everyone else . . . is going to go where the fun is.

I think Marvel may be learning this. But is the damage already irreparable?

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Filed under BRAD R. TORGERSEN, WRITING: CRAFT, WRITING: PUBLISHING

Cover Art: Fractals

I promised a cover post, and this is one. I’m not going to re-cover old ground (much) and talk about how the cover is not a representation of some exact scene from the book. The cover is meant to convey a sense of the book, to grab the reader’s attention, to draw them in and compel them to begin reading the blurb. The blurb then hooks them into buying the book and reading the first chapter… you get the idea. The cover also ought to signal the genre, loud, clear, and proud.

As an artist, I had long lamented that my personal style was not suitable for the kinds of books I write, or the people who hire me to create covers for them. I spent a lot of time working on becoming better, using the tools at hand… and then one day I discovered Apophysis.

Apo is a fractal flame generator, and it’s capable of an impressive array of special effects, including stunning star fields and nebulas. Suddenly, I could create a lot of space art that was cover-worthy. So in this post, I’m showing you how I do some effects, and where you can find the program (It’s free!) and a ton of tutorials that will help you learn more. If you want to see some of the things you can do with it, check these out: Last Exhalation, Zygotes, Apocalypse Rose, and Hydrangeas.

Explosion

here’s the workspace for Apophysis 7x, my preferred version of the program. You can start by clicking on one of the random flames that are in the left column, as I’ve done for this.

For very simple effects, all you need to know is that those triangles control the ‘shape’ of the flame. The gradient (icon in the top toolbar) controls the colors. I’ll show that later. if you click on one of the triangles and drag it, you’ll see your flame in the tiny editor box change shapes.

explosion 2

note that there are ‘variations’ and I have the red triangle (#1) set to: flatten=1, spherical 0.79, and swirl=0.20

This doesn’t work for an explosion, which is the element I’m working on for a cover. Too much geometry! It needs to be more fluid and abstract, since it’s going to be an exploding spaceship. I’ve dragged the triangles around a bit more, in the image below, to get the look I wanted. You’ll also note I’ve changed the colors with the gradient tool, using ‘summer_fire’ to get flame colors.

explosion 3

Now this is more like it. Here you can see in the editor window a few things: the gradient, which can be used to ‘paint’ the flame by sliding the center bar around. Also, I’ve changed the scale, so I can see what the ‘splosion will look like far away, and so I make sure I’m not clipping off bits when I render this.

You’ll note that it still looks very fluid. In space, an explosion is going to release gases and they are going to glow, and to behave differently than in atmosphere. Check out images of nebulas (like this one of the Crab Nebula), and you’ll see what I mean. You might want to keep in mind that a nebula is a space explosion, just on a really large scale, and that a LOT of the nebula images on google were actually created with a fractal flame generator. Anyway…

explosion render

Rendering is the most important part.

You’ll have to render your flame to use it, once you are happy with what you have. I keep mine set to a fairly low working render (between 15-20, you’ll see the drop-down selector for this on the top tool bar) so I don’t have a huge lag when I’m working on a flame. This means that the final render will be both smoother, and brighter than the view on the screen. Keep this in mind if you like (or hate) the grainy appearance. I set my elements to a reasonable pixel size – in this case 3000x2000px. I’m not usually using them for a full 6×9″ cover, so I can scale as I want to. The bigger you go, the longer the render. The density is important, this allows you to faithfully render tiny details. I usually set mine to 5000 or 10000, and the filter radius to 0.2 (you could make this bigger if you like the graininess) with the oversample at 2. Don’t increase the oversample unless you plan to render overnight. I have my computer set to use 2 cores, you could set to one (the default) or more if you have a bigger processor. This element took about 40 minutes to render. I’ve had renders run 13-14 hours. For some reason star fields can be freaking huge. Not all of them, and I haven’t figured out why yet.

oh, you may have noticed the flame moved and got bigger. I didn’t want to render it tiny – I’ll scale it on the image later – and I wanted to rotate it (same editor window as the gradient) to fit the image size better. Finally, while I have Apophysis set to a black background, the completed render is a png with transparency, making it super easy to set on an existing image without having to delete unwanted background. It also has some drawbacks, but I’ll show you what to do about them.

roughed in explosion

This is the thumbnail sketch I sent my client. He approved the layout, knowing the weird splashes of color will be replaced with a cool explosion. By the way, the ship and the starfield in the background are both fractals.

If you want to be able to make your own cool starfields and nebulas, check out some tutorials.  Bear in mind there are several versions of Apophysis. I have two loaded on my computer, along with three of Mandelbulb, which is what I rendered the spaceship with (I’ll do another post on MB3D at a later date. it’s awesome, but holy heck the learning curve is steep).

Capture

it’s not about the size, it’s about the placement.

I’ve dropped the fractal element on the image (having made my silly splashes disappear) but as you can see, you can see right through it. Hardly what you’d expect when a very solid ship blows up.

I’m going to scale the image by dragging on the corners, tilting and maneuvering it until I’m happy with the placement, and then I’ll duplicate the layer, so I get some opacity from it.

explosion

And here we have a classic exploding spaceship, at the moment of utter destruction.

I’ve duplicated my explosion layer, rotated it, set one layer to color dodge, and chopped up the edges with a smoke brush set to eraser tool. I also toggled back on the splashes (what, you thought I deleted them? Never throw anything out, you might need it!) and they add a little something under there, so I’m keeping them.

After some discussion with my client, we chose fonts for the author name and title (he’s using Counter Strike, from dafont, for the title). I applied those to the finished art.

Sabrecat cover3

Tom’s comment on seeing the cover “that right there is full of win.”

And hey, presto! All original art, all explosions, all science fiction. I could have spent a LOT more time on the ship, but it took me a month just to get this far. And I’m happy his book will have a cover that ought to enhance his sales a touch.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments! I don’t think WordPress supports image comments, but I’d love to see your efforts if you play with Apo, so try putting them up with Flickr or facebook or deviantart, and linking here.

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, cover design, WRITING: PUBLISHING