Why Crime? And Why Go Back To Sci-Fi?

Back in 1999, when I contemplated going pro, I had a decision to make. I could do science fiction, since that was where the sandbox I’d been playing in lay. Or I could do crime. At the time, science fiction was actually in a low cycle. The shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble were dominated by franchise tie-ins: Star Trek, Star Wars, Pern novels if you wanted something original.

On the other hand, crime was literary. It had a long and storied history. PIs were big. Thrilling Detective!

The real reason I went the direction I did? The best I could do was retread Star Trek, and Star Trek was starting to run on fumes at that point. Anything I could come up with would just be another thinly disguised version of the show. But crime?

Hey, Cleveland didn’t have a PI. (OK, it had one, which still made it a novelty.) I had a character. Plus, I was just so freakin’ bored with science fiction. By going into crime, I discovered not only the PI masters, but new writers like George Pelecanos and Laura Lippman. I read Mystic River and discovered everything a novel could be if you put enough into it. So I went crime.

I won’t rehash here the reasons Holland Bay will likely be my last crime novel. But why science fiction? Why did my Dick write a novel. (Oh, you knew I was going to trot out that old joke, didn’t you?)

There was something I remembered from the 1990s. Nerds, when they find something they love, latch onto it. And there’s something about being the guy that creates something like that. Everyone from Ursula K. LeGuin’s thoughtful work to Gene Roddenberry and J. Michael Straczynski have created worlds their fans care about. And there’s something about being the creator of those worlds. It’s fun building those worlds.

Will I continue with crime? It depends on what happens with Holland Bay. And right now, Holland Bay is getting it’s last chance.

Gray Listing

As you may know, if you’ve been following this space for a while, I quit subbing short stories for publication to run them myself. The paying markets for crime are almost nil unless you get an anthology invite. So until then, short fiction is going to be something of a garage band arrangement.

As Jim.

As Dick, I’m still subbing to paying markets. After a couple years of fine-tuning and reworking, I’ve discovered something. I am going to have to “gray list” a handful of markets. What’s gray listing?

While science fiction has a wealth of places to submit, there are a handful of markets that, despite what they say, really want to see a track record. Are you famous amongst the spec ficcers? Do #gamergate idiots want to boycott you? (Hint: That means you’ve made it, kids. Go thou and piss them off. It’ll boost your sales.) Did Tor or some other imprint buy your work? If so, you can get into these magazines because your name will sell copies. (Or in the case of tor.com’s short story page, draw page hits.)

When I first started subbing stories to pro markets, I decided to aim high and send to the biggest names in SF fiction. Every one has been shot down. Then it occurred to me that, until Dick either sells a novel to a trad house or manages to move a bunch of copies on his own, they’re not going to talk to me. Do I want to sell to them?

Does a tauntaun shit in the snow?

But that’s not going to happen now. So I’m gray listing them. What’s gray listing (for the second time, Jim)? Simple. White listing is a list of people, markets, or whatever that meet your approval automatically. No questions asked. Black listing, which many of us do to car companies, insurance carries, brands of beer, and so on, means this person, company, market, whatever is banned from doing business or interacting with you. Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars. Go directly to jail. For instance, I will never own another Chrysler product again. The Neon was just such a sloppily built vehicle that I can’t bring myself to make five years of payments on another one. So I have blacklisted Chrysler. I also have blacklisted one short story market for sending one set of specs for a story, then publishing a completely different set of specs. Mind you, I know there are exceptions, but their submissions requirements were so obscure that I had to go through back channels to get them. After being asked to submit. Sure, the pay there would be good, but I think a writer has a right to ask for some clarity.

Gray listing is different. Gray listing means you take the person, place, or thing out of the equation until the time comes when you and the person, place, or thing in question can work for mutual benefit. Hence, Large SF Market Oligarchy™ will not get anymore submissions until Dick becomes someone they would be interested in. Or they ask, which would be cool. One market I’ve stopped subbing to because of this, but also because they only take hard copy submissions. Hello! It’s 2014!

The reason is simple. If it’s highly unlikely an editor is not going to accept a submission regardless of how good it is, then the time spent waiting on approval or rejection is time wasted. Yes, prestige is all well and good, but I (as Dick) want two things: SFWA-approved credits and payment. I really want that last one. I’m a middle-aged man staring at years of student loan payments and want to get rid of a couple of mortgages.

So gray listing’s your buddy. You’re not wasting your time. You’re not wasting a magazine staff’s time (and believe me, the slush pile is an enormous time suck). You’re being efficient. And if one of those gray listed markets sends you a request, then the list has done its job. Win-win.

Friday Reviews: Unlocked by John Scalzi

Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden’s Syndrome

John Scalzi

This short novella is a preview of Scalzi’s new novel, Lock In, about a plague in our near future. The story is told through interviews with government officials, reporters, scientists, and business people who were involved in fighting a mysterious, rapidly mutating disease called Haden’s Syndrome, named for the First Lady of the United States who becomes its most famous victim. It begins like any other disease in recent memory, such as SARS or the swine flu. Our interconnected world sends a mysterious flu-like bug around the world in days, which takes out a huge swath of the population. And like SARS and the various flu viruses that get away from doctors, many recover. Only it has a second “meningitis” stage, where victims relapse, this time with stiff necks and back and severe headaches. While fewer people who survive stage one reach stage two, the mortality rate is higher. If victims survive this stage, a third, more terrifying stage awaits some of the survivors: Lock in. (Hence the name of the upcoming novel.)

Haden’s syndrome locks its victims into their bodies. They are conscious, but unable to speak, unable to react, able only to respond in an MRI chamber where technicians can tell if they are responding yes or no.

The fight against this plague, which actually reverses population growth for a time, is described as a “moon shot.” The rich and powerful give everything because, as those interviewed point out, everyone is impacted. Scalzi illustrates what humans seem to do best: When the race’s back is against the wall, we seem to perform at our finest.

A Modest Proposal: Star Trek: The HBO Series

2009 Star Trek cast

Source: Paramount Pictures

As JJ Abrams takes on Star Wars, nothing but Star Wars, it’s clear there’s only one Abrams-driven Star Trek left. Paramount has decided it wants a movie for the fiftieth anniversary of Trek‘s debut. But after that…?

Let’s be honest. As good as JJ Abrams is, he didn’t think of the future of Trek, just how to get fannies into theater seats. But the technology is too omnipotent. A couple of devices used to drive both movies’ plots – transwarp beaming and Khan’s blood – don’t bode well for long-term story-telling.

So let me suggest that, once Pine, Pegg, Quinto, et. al. take their last bow in 2016, that Paramount reboot the series once again, this time for HBO.

HBO Original Series logo

Source: HBO

Or SyFy or Showtime or FX or… You know. Star Trek is ripe for the kind of storytelling that made Breaking Bad, The Wire, Battlestar Galactica, and even Deadwood hits. It’s time to start over, give the thing an arc based on its original run, and take it places. While completely revamping it like BG is a horrible idea (Galactica was always kind of an unfinished idea in its original incarnation anyway), it would be an opportune time to toss out some of the cliches that have grown up around it. A cable series would also allow writers to explore aspects of the crew’s story that are only hinted at or played around with in novels and fanfic. Is there really a sexual undertone to Kirk and Spock’s relationship? Why is McCoy so neurotic? What’s the real story behind Khan? Klingons: Ridges or no ridges? (I know Enterprise answered that, but this would be a reboot.) I’d also love to see an end to all the time travel nonsense.

Fans, of course, would have to come along for the ride. It’s been fifty years. Time to give up pelting the writers over trivial inconsistencies that would simply be ignored in real life. It’s not Doctor Who, where the very nature of The Doctor demands inconsistency. Besides, back when I indulged in cosplay, this sort of nitpicking sucked all the joy out being a fan. One idiot told me I could never write fanfic involving Harry Mudd, the lovable rogue who gave Kirk and company migraines in the original series. When I asked why, he said that Roger Carmel, the actor who played Mudd, was dead. Yeah, I’m pretty sure Ron Moore and Brannon Braga were going to show up on my doorstep with a bunch of red ink. Rick Berman would shake his fist thusly at a pizza delivery driver from Cincinnati no one had ever heard of. That kind of lunacy.

But it’s also time to bring Trek back to its original story. The altered timeline with a Kirk who is something of a cross between Han Solo and Stifler from American Pie works for the Abrams movies. Now, let’s get back to why people even care about him in the first place. You can’t duplicate Shatner (which is why Kirk’s character was selected to be the epicenter of the altered timeline), but you can build on what he did previously. And it’s not that you need to ignore the latest movies. Why should you? They’re fun. (OK, I do still cringe whenever I see Spock bellow “Khaaaaaaaannnnnn!!!!“)

It’s something to think about. Besides, Trek is a story about explorers. Exploration is better suited for TV. Movies are for high action and epic battles.

Which is why Abrams needs to do Star Wars.



From Joffrey to Han Solo

King Joffrey

Yeah, he’s kind of a dick. Source: HBO

When I started writing the SF novel, I took an earlier character I’d written and lifted his origin story. Why not? You’re never going to read that material anyway. Or if you do, you’ll have to dig for it.

*Ahem* Anyway…

My original character, by the time we meet him, is kind of a cross between Han Solo and Captain Kirk. The Kirk part only came from the fact that the guy wore a uniform and had to have some degree of discipline and decorum. He still was a fly-by-seat-of-pants smart ass.  But his mother was extremely wealthy, like Koch Brothers wealthy but without the Bond villain tendencies. His father was a lord high muckety muck in the military. Being the oldest son of such prestigious and powerful parents, one might expect him to be more like Joffrey and less like Harry Potter sans wand. So I lifted that origin story, dropped it into the new SF universe and went to town.

Sorry, George, but he still shot first. Source: Lucasfilm

Sorry, George, but he still shot first. Source: Lucasfilm

With the SF novel’s rough draft in cold storage at the moment, I’ve given a little thought on how to make him believable to a new audience. As I said, he is based on another character I always envisioned as being a parallel to Han Solo, a somewhat selfish rogue who nonetheless has a conscience and a helluva pragmatic streak. The old character was cruising into middle age when I wrote him, so this wasn’t hard to sell.Now?

The new character is not much older than Joffrey. He has to have something of a conscience because he finds his life of privilege to be a gilded cage and proceeds to go out into the world for a load of drinking, whoring, and generally stealing any really cool mode of transportation owned by his mother. When mom steps out of the board room long enough to mom all over him, he runs away, and therein we dump him into what Christopher Vogler calls “the ordinary world” in The Hero’s Journey. He might be getting dumped into the ordinary world, but it’s the one we know when meet him. Actually, when we meet him, he’s vomiting on the boots of a security guard, but anyway…

When I finished the book, he was, indeed, on his way to becoming the lovable rogue. However, I don’t think I made him dickish enough in the beginning. This guy needs to be a brat, a really snotty brat. There are a couple of scenes where he acts like he’ll be out of his predicament in no time, but it’s not long before the farmer’s daughter takes a shine to him. Don’t know why she’d do that if he’s an ass. I suppose Joffrey is a bad comparison. Joffrey had no redeeming qualities. He killed whores for sport. Moments before his death (This is no longer a spoiler, kids. The episode was two weeks ago, and the book was written in 2000. Get over it.), he is busy humiliating his smarter, better-hearted uncle (possibly the only Lanister in Game of Thrones who ought to be allowed to survive the series.) And his bravery makes Draco Malfoy look like a Schwarzenegger character. (Besides, Draco turned out to have a conscience, too, even if he took after his sniveling, conniving dad.)

But these are simply references. This character is not the one I based him on. He is not Han Solo. He is not Joffrey in the beginning. But the existing characters give me points of reference to use. He has to grow up. He’s trying. Unfortunately, he succeeds if only because circumstances won’t allow anything else.

Hey, I’m fishing for Amazon reviews, good or bad. I just want tongues wagging. Wanna help out? I’ll send you The Compleat Winter or Road Rules. You tell the world what you honestly think of it. Hit me up on Facebook, DM me @authorjimwinter, or email me at jamesrwinter@yahoo.com for details.

Space Stuff! It Is Finished. For Now.


Source: Lucasfilm

Sunday morning, I wrote the final scene. The science fiction project checked in at 98,562 words. It also took four months longer to write than I anticipated. So now what?

The running joke for this thread is in the tags: “My Dick is writing a novel,” meaning the Dick Bachman to my Stephen King. So when I start talking about this once again, it will be as “Dick.” First, I need to get Dick published somewhere with short stories, articles, possibly even reviews.

draftMore importantly, I have to tackle the rewrite. I basically invented a new universe from scratch. Oh, I laid some groundwork, but there were points in the story where I thought, “Is that too primitive for 300-500 years in the future?” And I know some things are inconsistent. Also, I have two main protagonists, one male and one female. The female is a brain, though there are plenty of female ass kickers in this tale. It’s a character that doesn’t yield well to someone who’s written crime fiction for the past decade and a half. So she’s a bit more passive than I like.

The other problem stems from the Act II doldrums that dragged this thing out an extra four months. I’m sure I was on the right track (sometimes literally, since much of it takes place on a commandeered maglev train) when I re-outlined in late fall, but I also know that part has the most opportunity for major structural changes.

Peer reviewerAnd finally, how do I want to publish this? Will I go traditional? That was the original plan, and we’ll decide on that in the rewrite. Maybe go indie? Science fiction is a better genre for indie writers than crime fiction. A series’ fan base tends to be more fiercely loyal than those of crime fiction writers, and much easier to grow. People love a really good shared mythology.

One idea, however, is to serialize it. The story has twin plot lines that really don’t merge until late in the game. This worked successfully for John Scalzi, who is doing a second “season” of The Human Division. It’s a format tailor made for ebooks and independent writers, and Tor, Scalzi’s publisher, is behind this idea.

But for now, I need to go back through one last time just to read the book as a coherent whole. Then I need to stick it in a drawer and forget it exists. I’m pretty strict about things like that. When I’m not writing or revising a book, I don’t want to discuss it or know it exists. This frustrates people I ask to help with edits, but it’s a necessary step, and really, every writer should do this.

I’ll take out the novel again this summer. Then Dick can tell you how I’m spending my summer vacation.

Space Stuff! Almost There

EndorshaftIt’s time to figure out how this thing ends. My original ending is gone, but I know where it’s going now. I just did not map out how to get there. So I finished all the scenes I outlined and began making notes.

I had hoped to be done last weekend, but life often gets in the way of writing. It’s never going to get easier, even if this novel becomes a full-blown business unto itself. But we press on.

One thing I did do was get all but one of my protags together. This may change in the rewrite. After all, Holland Bay now looks nothing like the original draft. I’m good with this. The rewrite is how I’m spending my summer vacation.

Review_DeathStarTrenchRun_stillBAct III is where the writing gets most intense for me. Sometimes, I will neglect other tasks to get it done, though that’s harder these days than it was in previous years.  At the same time, there’s also a weariness to this effort. I started this in August with the intention of finishing before Thanksgiving. Act II woes nearly derailed the project, and the weather actually interfered. I’m ready to be done. I’m ready to turn this over to “Dick.” I’m ready to revise Holland Bay. And I’m ready to work on the next Kepler novel.

All photos Lucasfilm

Space Stuff: War of the Words

War of the Worlds

The 2005 remake of War of the Worlds, Paramount Pictures

As of Sunday morning, when I’m writing this, the SF project reached 72,885 words. It is now longer than Bad Religion, my longest published work. The longest thing I’ve written is Holland Bay, which checks in at around 89,500 in its current draft. Still, it’s another important milestone.

As I said last week, 60,000 is the minimum length for a traditionally published novel. 90,000 is about the average. Now this story will have a fairly short Act III (if you’ve been paying attention, my word count was sluggish this past week). Originally, I was going to put all my protags together (after killing two of them off), then have our good guys try to retake a destroyed city before the invaders can move in and start selling real estate to the folks back home. What every good land grab is all about.

mimitw-metallicaThe trick now is to get this done in a reasonable amount of time. I originally expected to be done by Thanksgiving. Then New Year’s Day. Now it’s this weekend. Lucky for me my wife is going to rural Kentucky for a family function while AJ is going to drum corps practice. I have the house to myself for two days. Yes, I will stay up late Saturday night typing away (between my writers group, church, homework, exercise…) I plan to drink beer, eat a lot of pizza, and crank up the music. I don’t often listen to Metallica these days, but when I do, so do my neighbors. Sorry, neighbors.

Regardless of whether I finish next weekend or not, I expect there to be only one more of these posts. Then I turn the promoting over to Dick.

Space Stuff: The Final Frontier


Source: Lucasfilm

By the time you read this, the SF project will have crossed the 70,000-word barrier. There are several milestones a novel must reach if traditional publication route is an option. 60,000 words is the minimum length of a commercially produced novel. In fact, Road Rules‘ 55,000-word length was a major hindrance to its sale. 90,000 is the usually minimum length for a science fiction or fantasy novel published traditionally. 70K tells me I’ll have no problem meeting that length.

However, it’s not the end of Act II. I have a couple of major characters to kill off, and I have to bring two sets of protagonists together. In this story, Harry doesn’t go to Hogwarz until late in the game. Getting there is much more interesting.

One thing I’ve run into is the fear that this is not good enough. It happens to every writer with every novel. With science fiction, it’s amplified by the future factor. The devices I’ve come up with for hundreds of years into the future will be obsolete in a couple of years. Why do my characters behave a certain way? Why do my aliens shoot like Stormtroopers from Star Wars? One thing I have to remind myself is that this is a first draft. I’ve already accepted that a massive rewrite is an option. So, instead of “ZOMG! I got a lot of work ahead of me!”, I’m actually disappointed that I have to wait until the next draft to put all these new ideas into play. Theoretically, I could go back and rewrite earlier scenes, but then I’ll become one of those writers who keeps tinkering and tinkering and tinkering, never finishing the damn thing.

Kinda like Brian Griffin.

The best part is that I’m almost to the last act. And in the last act, I’ve been known not to shower, go to work, or even speak English to people asking me questions.

It’s my favorite part of writing a novel.

Space Stuff: Damn It’s Cold!


Photo: Niccolo Bonfadini via weather.com

Isn’t that an awesome picture for today’s post? I spotted that on The Weather Channel’s site. It’s in northern Norway, and the guy taking the picture was camping(!?). Those worm-like things sticking out of the ground are actually trees coated in snow and ice. What kind of trees? We’ll find out in June. On the upside, the presence of daylight that close to the Arctic Circle means only one thing: Spring is coming.

And not a moment too soon. The first of our now-regularly scheduled polar blasts really knocked the momentum out of the science fiction novel. Yes, even as Dick Bachman, I need to keep going. Getting the car fixed, dealing with other weather-related problems, and the beginning of Spring semester have conspired to slow me down. I’m writing this on Sunday morning. The night before, I’d planned to descend into the Dungeon here at Chateau Nita to get another 1000 words knocked out. After dinner, I… Well….

I’m getting old. I went to bed on a Saturday night. Only a few years earlier, Nita and I would stay out until all hours on Saturdays, watching live bands and hanging out at our favorite haunts.

But when you can’t manage word count, you can manage to finish a scene. So when I know my writing time has been compromised, I simply finish a scene. In some ways, it’s just finishing a thought. This morning, since the aliens are pretty much as faceless as Storm Troopers in Star Wars and not showing any menacing leader, I introduced the human villain. And it’s complicated. The human blames my male protagonist, or rather his Earthbound family, for the sudden apocalypse. It’s a revelation that doesn’t sit well with our friend, and one that’s going to play out over the series.

Of course, it could all be rewritten with this scene disappearing in the summer. I just started rereading Holland Bay in anticipation of the edit for which I’m about to receive. I’m trying very hard not to edit the glaring typos lest I get too involved in this novel and completely lose the SF project. And I’m not making any structural changes. That’s what I’m trading betas for. I am, however, noticing that a rewrite from scratch is the best thing I did to Holland Bay. And as plot flaws and continuity problems pop up in the SF project, having Dick do a rewrite is looking like a wonderful way to spend my summer vacation.