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03 April 2016 @ 11:41 am
. . . you can find my blog here.
02 April 2016 @ 06:06 pm
I first stuck my toe into the water of self-publishing four years ago with “The Mailbox,” a revised version of my first pro sale. Then I got distracted by other things. Now that I’m a full-time freelancer, I’ve been getting back into it. I’ve got a handful of Kindle singles available and more projects on the way. Eventually I’ll have all my e-books available for Kindle, Nook, and iBooks, but I’m not there yet; all the links in this post are to Amazon.

Even though I’m publishing these myself, I decided to have a name for my virtual press, mostly to amuse myself. I settled on Stuck in the Middle Press for two reasons. First, most writers are stuck in the middle, wandering the no-man’s-land between their first sale and the lightning strike of fame. Second, my initials are SMP, but I couldn’t simply use that because of St. Martin’s Press.

Right now I have just four other titles available in addition to “The Mailbox,” all short stories. There are two Kate Sullivan mystery stories, “Out of the Jacuzzi, Into the Sauna” and “Of Murder and Minidonuts.” Wisecracking Kate likes to stick her civilian nose into crime, investigating murders that happen in her vicinity. High jinks ensue. The first story originally appeared in the regional anthology Resort to Murder, where each story was set on a resort in Minnesota.

In the science fiction story “Finders Keepers,” Cpl. M. J. Robeson faces an intruder trying to pirate the starship Alliance. The story was first published in the anthology Space Grunts. Robeson will return in her next adventure at some point.

The Lovecraft pastiche “The Squid that Came to Phil’s Basement” first appeared in Space and Time Magazine. It answers the question “What if there were a Cthulhu help line?”

I have four other projects in various stages. Clothes Make the Man and other Crimes is a collection of four short-short crime stories that is almost done. Happiness Through Philosophy and Other Nonsense is a larger collection of absurd stories and ludicrous vignettes. “The Satellite Dish” is another Minnesota story, featuring the same characters from “The Mailbox.” The last is an as-yet-untitled collaboration with another writer, details to be announced as we become more certain of them.

Please consider picking up these stories for Kindle, and by all means leave me a review on Amazon if you enjoy them. If you don’t, I apologize, and please play with a kitten until you forget about leaving me a review that compares me to fungus. Thanks in advance.
31 May 2015 @ 02:03 pm
Back in 2011 I was an acquisitions editor at Zenith Press. That year I had the pleasure of working on two books about the space shuttle. The first was the NASA Space Shuttle Owners’ Workshop Manual by David Baker. That was simply the U.S. printing of the newest Haynes manual, so I didn’t have any real editing to do, just paperwork as I moved the project through production. Next up was Piers Bizony’s The Space Shuttle: Celebrating Thirty Years of NASA’s First Space Plane. That was a full start-to-finish project. It’s a subject I love, and Piers is a great author to work with; imagine getting paid to read about—and look through photos of—the space shuttle program. It’s great work if you can get it.

But that’s all just backstory. Those books led to me getting a call from Luke Ployhar of Afterglow Studios. He was researching CAD files of the space shuttle and was wondering if the authors had sourced such illustrations in their books. As it turned out, they had not. All the detailed cutaway illustrations in those books had been done the old-fashioned way, with pen and ink.

I asked why he needed CAD files. It turned out he was developing a 3-D CGI movie in the IMAX format about the past and future of human space travel called Space Next. Somehow it came up that the screenplay he’d been developing in-house wasn’t finished. “Well,” I told him, “I happen to be a published science fiction writer, I’m familiar with the screenplay format, and I’m a space program geek and a movie buff, so if you’re looking for a writer . . .” And that is how I schmoozed my way into doing a new draft of the screenplay.

Now we flash forward four years to the present. All that time Luke has been diligently working away at Space Next on the side of his regular workload at his busy CGI studio. The screenplay now needed some revisions as well as narration for new scenes. I jumped back into the fray, happy for the opportunity to revisit the project and excited by the quality of the animation I got to see in Luke’s office.

The movie is still being edited and polished, and there will be some more revising and tweaking on the screenplay as we tighten up the timing of the narration to the final cut of the animation. For a movie and space nut, this has been and continues to be an unbelievably amazing project to work on. When I eventually see my name in the credits on the giant silver screen I may explode. Just a warning to anyone else in the audience that night.

Updates to come as the story develops . . .
21 May 2015 @ 09:32 am
Yesterday I submitted my final reviews of the invasive species manuscripts I wrote work-for-hire. I did four of these: Africanized honeybees, red imported fire ants, zebra mussels, and kudzu (the vine that ate the south).

These were very short books for elementary school reluctant readers, so they had to be at a specific reading level. The process necessary to get them there turned out to be the most difficult job I've ever had, and if you only knew the behind-the-scenes stories of some of the projects I've worked on in my years in this business, you would fully appreciate that statement.

OK, one story: I once worked on a book that the author submitted hard copy. I had to arrange for someone to key enter the manuscript into Word. At one point the author submitted changes, including inserts where he had cut manuscript pages in two and taped in new typewritten passages. Now that was old school! Great guy and a great book, but . . . wow.

Back to invasive species: the ratio of hours of research, writing, and revising to the final word count was off the hook. I only barely crawled across the finish line thanks to my editors on the project. The finished books will be another strange addition to my scattershot publishing resumé, which includes Star Trek stories, a Led Zeppelin discography, and poetry (with one poem given an honorable mention on Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year list in 2010).

I’m looking forward to sticking to one freelance project at a time for the foreseeable future. This will give me time to get back to some long-neglected writing projects of my own. At least that’s the plan, but . . . did I mention we’re house hunting?
As a writer and an editor, I have a pile of pet peeves concentrated around dialogue. It seems so simple, and yet it trips up everyone from beginners to pros. Although the basic format long ago became second nature to me, I still find examples of most of my other pet peeves in my first drafts. Sometimes I find examples of these in my published work, and that really drives me nuts. So, what bugs me about dialogue? Let’s dig in …

Talking Points
       “Dialogue format is pretty simple,” said Bob. “But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for beginners.”
       Sue nodded. “If you get confused, just grab a novel off your bookshelf to use as a guide.”
       “What she said. And start a new paragraph for each speaker.”

The dialogue above demonstrates the two key attributes of the format: indenting for each person and indicating—when necessary!—who’s speaking with phrases outside the dialogue. This may seem obvious, but I’ve seen beginning fiction writers forget to use indentation, creating a solid block of quotes that’s difficult for the reader to untangle into a conversation. In other instances, dialogue is not clearly or correctly attributed, leaving the reader puzzled about who’s saying what. Once this basic format has been applied, we can dig deeper into the rest of my pet peeves, which are more about style and less about nuts-and-bolts structure.

Look, Who’s Talking? Dialogue Tags and Character Actions
There are three basic ways of indicating to the reader which character is delivering a line of dialogue. One is the direct dialogue tag, like the “said Bob” used above. Another is giving the character a bit of stage direction like “Sue nodded.” Both of these clearly indicate to the reader which character is saying the related quote. The third way is more subtle, as demonstrated by the final line of dialogue above. Because there are only two people in this scene, it’s clear that quote is from Bob. These few points are at the heart of a bunch of pet peeves.

Excessive dialogue tags: If there are only two people talking, don’t use a dialogue tag for every line. The reader gets that the characters are speaking alternately. If there’s a pause in the discussion, and then the same character who last spoke starts speaking again, that needs to be explained. Otherwise, just let the conversation flow.

Awkward saidisms: Using “said” is perfectly acceptable. Some direction can be effective, such as “she whispered.” But don’t go out of your way to come up with new expressions to describe a line reading, like “she grated” or “he masticated.” What do those even mean? And be careful about redundancies like “she yelled loudly.”

Punctuating actions like tags (or vice versa): Be careful about the format. These are not correct:

       “If you’re getting confused,” Sue nodded, “just grab a novel off your bookshelf.”
       Bob said. “What she said.”

Talking is Hard and People are Lazy
It’s easy to throw everything into dialogue, far more than what should be there. This is another source of pet peeves for me.

Wordy dialogue: People often speak in simple or incomplete sentences. A person wouldn’t generally say, “Bill, open that door for me because it’s locked, and I couldn’t find my key in my jacket.” The person stuck out in the cold would simply say, “Hey, open the door, I lost my key.” Or just, “Open up, dammit!”

Dialogue as first drafted can often be condensed for a more natural sound. Your characters’ speech doesn’t need to be grammatical. Of course, if one of your characters is a strict English teacher, maybe he will often speak in full, perfect sentences.

Exposition as dialogue: Explain background information in the narrative, don’t stick it all into your characters’ mouths. One reason this often falls flat is that, in order to give the reader necessary back story, the writer has one character tell another character something they both already know:

       “This is serious,” said Doctor Johnson. “Her heart’s in bad shape. She’s in poor physical condition, and her unhealthy diet hasn’t helped. If we don’t operate soon, her chances of survival are slim.”
       Doctor Smith frowned. “Well, duh, I’m her cardiologist, why are you telling me this?”

The Name Game: Outside of parents talking to toddlers, people rarely call each other by name. Unless a character is calling for someone in a group, leave out the name. Don’t resort to excessive use of names as a way to indicate who’s speaking. Using a character’s name in dialogue can produce a certain dramatic tone, but the effect is weakened if used repeatedly.

This Discussion is Over
Not because I’ve covered everything, but just the opposite. I could go on forever about little stylistic things, like if you need several dialogue tags in a row, vary the format (“said Bob” vs. “Sue said”) and the placement (before quote, during quote, after quote). Or if a character says, “Dammit, I don’t want to go, and you can’t make me!” you probably don’t have to add “she said angrily” because the content of the dialogue makes her emotions clear on its own. So we’re just stopping here for convenience.

       “And,” he said, “because I want to get some chocolate. Mmm … chocolate.”
24 February 2015 @ 04:58 pm
Years ago, many more than I care to admit, I began developing an idea for a steampunkish novel. I eventually sent three sample chapters to my friend Marco Palmieri, editor extraordinaire, who gave me some great feedback. I started revising the chapters and outline to his notes, but kept letting the project be sidetracked for various reasons, some good and understandable, and others questionable and neurotic. I finished revising the first three chapters, but bogged down in the synopsis of the rest of the book. I began referring to the manuscript as “my long-suffering steampunk novel.”

Recently, as I’ve dedicated myself anew to my writing, I plunged back in, hoping to quickly finish the revised synopsis and then get some beta readers to make sure I was on the right track. Revisions got sidetracked again as my part-time day job and various freelance writing and editing gigs took up most of my time. It was all slipping away again. I stalled just a few chapters short of finishing this round of revisions.

As mentioned in my previous post, however, I’ve reduced my work hours and have gotten back to the novel. Once again I thought I would quickly finish the synopsis and move forward. Instead, I realized that all the cool changes I’d made to the current events of the novel had made a confusing mess of the back story. Characters’ comings and goings no longer made sense in the bigger picture. The causal relationship between the back story and the events that unfold in the novel were a complete hash.

I knew I had to get that stuff sorted out before continuing, but it was frustrating. When you’re moving forward in chapters, you have a sense of accomplishment. When I had to go back to my notes and chronology of events prior to chapter one, I felt like I was spinning in place at best, maybe even sliding backward, even though I knew it was important work in the long run. This would be the difference between a tightly constructed story and a manuscript full of plot holes.

Then something exciting happened. As I made the necessary changes to the pre-novel chronology, new plot points started popping up out of the blue. As I rearranged certain events, new connections appeared between the characters. The back story became more complex. Not only was I making sense of this novel, I was laying the groundwork for the next two! I’d always thought of this manuscript as the start of a world I’d like to revisit, and now I’ve got layers built into the back story that might not even come up in the first novel.

With this work done, I can now get back to the story at hand. After fixing whatever’s necessary to accommodate revised chronology, I can finally wrap up this synopsis!
22 February 2015 @ 02:52 pm
I’m a neurotic writer. I know, I know, “neurotic writer” is redundant, like “crooked politician.” But still. Anyway, because my quiver of neuroses has so very many arrows in it, I’m only going to focus on one in this post.

Although I have every right to lay claim to the label of “writer” by virtue of having been published several times over the course of my glacially advancing career, I almost always feel like a poseur when I refer to myself as a writer. What’s up with that?

Ever since deciding I wanted to be a writer in the seventh grade, I’ve always referred to any job I had as a “day job.” I wanted to make it clear that I had a different focus. But one of the problems with day jobs is that they can easily become just “the job,” especially if full time. You’re completely reliant on that job for income, and your writing ends up as an afterthought.

Remember that painfully awkward scene in Friends when they play an old videotape from prom night, and Ross says that he wants to work “on his music”? I’ve often felt that the audience’s reaction to that line is the same thing people think when I mention “my writing.“ Yep, I really am that neurotic. And it was even worse when I would say, “I’m working on my novel.” Even though sometimes it was literally true that I was working on a novel that was contracted for publication.

I was talking with someone recently about my struggle to make time for writing, and she nodded in solidarity, mentioning her own attempts to get creative projects done on her days off. She was being sympathetic, but in my head I couldn’t help but think, “Those are your hobbies. Hobbies are great, but writing is not my hobby.”

But perhaps that’s the real problem here, that I have inadvertently let it become a hobby: it’s been shoved to the sidelines, the back burner, it’s the person with a paper cut on the bottom of the triage list. I’m endeavoring to change that.

I’ve reduced hours at my current part-time job, which will henceforth be known as my hobby job. My additional time at home allows more writing time (as well as more time for freelance editing gigs to help fill the coffers). I’m devoting a lot of attention to—wait for it—my novel.

So my writing is no longer the person with a paper cut, it’s a guy with a head wound. Okay, maybe not the most inspiring metaphor, but I can work on that. After all … I’m a writer.
08 February 2015 @ 09:53 am
Back in 2011, the ever-ebullient Bob Greenberger was contracted to write Star Trek: The Complete Unauthorized History for Voyageur Press. He solicited sidebar contributions from several other Star Trek writers and fans, including myself. I was excited to be able to contribute to the book. In fact, I’d actually helped the book happen behind the scenes. At the time I worked for Zenith Press, another imprint for the same publishing company that owned Voyageur Press. One of their acquiring editors had asked me, as the company’s resident Trek fanatic, if I thought they should do a Trek book. My response was probably something along the lines of, “Uh . . . YEAH!” We kicked some ideas back and forth, and I dropped Bob’s name as a possible author for the book. Happily, it all came together, which is never guaranteed in the publishing industry.

Then things took a twist. One day I was in my cube working on one of my projects, probably a World War II book, which was a specialty of Zenith Press, when Voyageur’s publisher dropped by. He said that it would probably make sense to have the company’s resident Trek fanatic be the editor for Bob’s manuscript, if I was interested in doing it. My response was probably something along the lines of, “Uh . . . YEAH!” So I took on the project (and suggested adding the silhouettes and Vasquez Rocks to the cover). But now that I’d become the editor, my previously contracted sidebar got a little weird. I would essentially be submitting something to myself. It seemed awkward, but I wrote the sidebar. When the manuscript went to the copyeditor, I explained the situation and said, “Be ruthless on mine.”

The copyeditor took that to heart and responded that some of the stuff I covered in my piece was similar to the other sidebars, and since I already felt uncomfortable about it, his suggestion was to simply cut mine from the manuscript. That was absolutely the right call, so Bob and I cut my sidebar and I didn’t have to feel weird about it any longer.

I stumbled across the piece in my computer files recently and thought that the sidebar, and the story behind it, might be of some passing interest to my fellow Trek fans. So here it is. (Side note: as the book was unauthorized, we generally couldn’t use official photography from the franchise, so much of the book is illustrated with photos of my personal memorabilia collection!)

Old Fans, New Fans

Tucked away somewhere in a box in the basement is a get-well card I received from a classmate in the third grade which reads along the lines of “Get well soon so you can come back to school and play Star Trek.” That would have been about 1972, so I’ve been a Star Trek fan for four decades. Not as long as some, but it still easily qualifies me as an old fan.

Flash forward from my childhood adventures aboard the Enterprise to about thirty years later, the early 2000s. My daughter, Ella, asked me, “What’s this Star Trek thing you’re always talking about?” I decided to introduce her through the animated version, thinking the cartoons might draw her in more easily than the original series. I figured she’d like it, but I didn’t foresee that she would love it and instantly become a fan. But even though she started about the same age I did, her experience of Star Trek is wildly different than mine.

For fans who came to the franchise in the twenty-first century, there is a wide-ranging body of TV series and movies that already existed when they started watching. That’s a completely different way of exploring the Trek universe compared to those of us who experienced its growth in real time, especially those of us who lived through the decades of a single show being the whole universe. In those pre-VCR years, you had to have a channel that syndicated the show or you had no Star Trek. I grew up out in the country with just four TV stations. There were whole years when I had to go without Star Trek on the screen. I once went to a family reunion, which required an uncomfortable overnight Greyhound bus ride, largely for the off chance that I might get to see some Trek. Indeed, it was on in Colorado, and I got a fix. But now Ella can sit down in a coffee shop with her Wi-Fi iPad and stream any of the series from Netflix.

A side effect of this is that Ella accepts all these shows as Star Trek without pause. While I’ve embraced the new entries in the franchise as it grew, I can still understand why some people are devoted to just the original series or how people who started by watching The Next Generation in the 1980s can have a different view that doesn’t quite embrace the show from the 1960s. When you’re a more recent fan, however, it’s all there at once. You can watch an episode here and there from across the Trek timeline whenever you want, instant gratification instead of investing seven years in finding out if Voyager got home or not. I think this makes it easier for new fans to embrace everything, while old fans experience “you ruined my childhood” moments while watching a new incarnation.

Of course, there are even newer fans now, who started with the Abrams reboot and only know Chris Pine as Captain Kirk. (Cue sound of older fans gasping.) Recently, Ella was stunned that one of her eighth grade classmates didn’t know who William Shatner was. But there’s no way around this for a franchise that’s been chugging along for nearly fifty years. And without new fans, where would Trek be? Still rerunning those same original episodes? This old fan and his new fan offspring—as much as we love the Shat—are glad that Trek keeps growing. We can’t wait to see what new versions await us in the future, and we hope that those new versions introduce even more new fans to this universe that we love.
Okay, it wasn’t a bar, it was just me at the computer with a glass of wine. But anyhoo . . .

So I’ve got this short story I’m fond of, “The Sad Rains of Mars,” an homage to the late, great Ray Bradbury. It had a couple beta readers during the first few drafts, and I was happy with it. Over the last year I’ve been sending it to various markets. I started out big, sending it to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, then to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. After a form rejection from both of them, I had another friend read it, and she had some nice comments that led to a few minor tweaks.

Next it went over to Tor.com. Then Clarkesworld after that. Two more strikes. Yeah, that’s up to four strikes now, pardon the sloppy baseball metaphor. I took another look at it and restructured the first page or two a bit. It struck me that those opening paragraphs were a bit back-story heavy, and I think I achieved a better balance between the dialogue and the exposition necessary to set up the world for the reader.

At this point I should mention that I don’t advocate rewriting after every rejection. That way madness lies. On the other hand, if a story isn’t getting placed you should be open to the idea that there might be good reasons for that. You have to find the right time to double down for your art and when to admit that your manuscript isn’t the shiny stack of awesome and rainbows you first thought it was.

With the repolished opening, I once again felt pretty good about the story. But I needed to pick a new market. I started going through some old bookmarks I had in my browser. Wow, that was depressing. Several cool markets, both print and online, had gone out of business over the last couple years. The URL for Lissette’s Tales of the Imagination now takes you to a Japanese porn site. Either that or Lissette’s has substantially changed its format and target audience.

The other thing I noticed was how many of the remaining markets I had bookmarked paid quite low rates or minimal flat fees. Like, say, $50 for a short story. That’s the business model that keeps these periodicals going, and I recognize that’s the cold reality of a lot of small markets. I am not dismissing them as a group; there are a lot of fine publications and publishers that work on that level, and they’re publishing great stories. (Of course, there are also others who take advantage of eager beginners desperate for publishing credits, young writers willing to essentially give away their work to see it in print.)

As I clicked through more markets, I realized that simply getting another publishing credit isn’t important enough to me to justify handing over a story for a few bucks. At this point, I’d rather sit on a story or self-publish than get underpaid. I eventually found a market that pays a reputable six cents a word, which is the rate that the Science Fiction Writers of America uses in its definition of a professional sale.

So off the manuscript went. We shall see what happens.
So. Last blog post dated July 29, 2014. Today’s date January 25, 2015. What the heck? Well, things just got away from me. I got busy. Last fall my freelance work started picking up after several months of silence. After a mountain of metaphorical tumbleweeds rolling past though empty streets, with only Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, and Will Smith wandering about during daylight hours (Boom! Geek reference!), I started getting work.

Simon & Schuster called (well, emailed). Would I like to copyedit Ken Lui’s epic first fantasy novel Grace of Kings? Uh, yes, please. Then would I like to copyedit his collection of short stories, The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories? Yes, I’ll have some more. Those two are forthcoming this year from the Saga Press imprint. Meanwhile, their Pocket Books imprint also dropped a dime on me (well, emailed). Would I like to copyedit Star Trek novels? Uh, would I?! Just last week I sent in the fifth novel I’ve copyedited in the Trek line. The first one I worked on, John Jackson Miller’s Next Generation novel Takedown, hits the stands any day now.

Then came work-for-hire writing. My former boss at my former day job at Zenith Press, gave me a jingle (well, emailed). Would I be interested in working with Piers Bizony on the 2015 brochure for the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex? Uh, get paid to visit KSC and write about it? Mmm, yeah! Then a former coworker from my former day job—yeah, okay, he emailed, let’s just go with that. Would I be interested in writing some science-themed books for kids? Sure, why not? I’m a jack-of-all-trades, bring it.

And my friend Tony Dierckins called (no, really, on the actual phone). Would I like to cowrite his new history book on the Glensheen mansion in Duluth, Minnesota? Sure, buddy, sign me up!

Then things started getting a little wobbly. Some projects came in later than expected. Some projects came in sooner than expected. Deadlines started crashing together. Holiday scheduling at my part-time day job edged closer to full time. In October a couple weeks after getting back from my trip to Florida, I fell asleep at the wheel in broad daylight after the best night of sleep I’d had in weeks. My daughter, my only passenger, yelled at me, but as I woke up I still lost control of the car. We fishtailed wildly across the freeway before sliding off the pavement and rolling over once. That was the end of the car, but we walked away unscathed.

And now it’s 2015. After downgrading from coauthor to copyeditor on the history book and getting some deadline extensions during a scourge of a cold in early January, I was able to make it through the whole tangle of jobs. The schedule at my day job is getting lighter. I’m no longer saying yes to every freelance offer I get. I’m still behind on the podcast I do with my daughter, Generations Geek, but should get that back on track soon enough. I’m finally getting some of my own writing done, which had gotten backburnered to the point of falling off the stovetop during all this other stuff.

So . . . time to just dig back into my own projects. Irons in the fire. Stuff happening. Networking. Hope for some interesting things to happen this year. Be back soon. Yadda yadda yadda.