Saturday, September 6, 2008

Sometimes you have to choose the wrench


Hey, I know some kids read this blog, and I generally try to avoid that language here (generally, but not always) for that very reason. Anyway, I warned you.

Last weekend, at my suggestion we all watched Good Will Hunting, a movie I quite like. Say what you will about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, this is a strong screenplay and a fine film.

The movie is in many ways a classic SF tale, though no critic to my knowledge called it that: the young man with super powers (in this case, almost impossible brilliance and photographic memory) who can't fit in and has a tortured past struggles to find a place in the world. It's also about being abused, a topic I care about greatly. So, I was a sucker for it. Fortunately, everyone who watched it, inclulding Sarah and Scott, also liked it a great deal.

Second warning: spoiler alert. I'm going to talk about a scene near the end of the movie.

Will (Matt Damon) is talking to his court-assigned therapist, Sean (Robin Williams). They are finally confronting Will's childhood abuse. This exchange (which I transcribed from the film, which is why it doesn't exactly match the online script) occurs.

Sean: The interesting nights were when he wore his rings.

Will: He used to just put a belt, a stick, and a wrench on the kitchen table and just say "choose."

Sean: Well, I gotta go with the belt there, then.

Will: Nah. I used to go with the wrench.

Sean: Why the wrench?

Will: Cause fuck him, that's why.

If you're someone who was abused, you probably had moments like this. You should watch this movie, if only for the bit right after this exchange, when Sean says to Will, over and over, the essential truth that every abused kid needs to understand:

It's not your fault.

It really isn't. You may never be able to believe it in your heart, but it's true: it's not your fault.

As for me, well, if you want to know why anger is so much at my core, if you want to understand me at all, then you need to know this: I always chose the wrench, because fuck them. Fuck them.

Now that's a thank-you present

Back in the day, when I was in high school, I was pretty much what you'd expect: the smart, quasi-artsy, often mean kid with almost no friends. The cheerleaders were also what you'd expect: pretty, rich, and uniformly mean to most of us.

Except one, Lynn, who was from "our" part of town. Though she was as pretty and as intimidating as the rest of the cheerleaders, she always seemed nice, and I never saw her be mean to anyone. She had a big fan base among the non-popular kids (which is always just about everybody).

I mention Lynn because she dropped me an email a while back when she ran across my writing, and she then bought a book and sent it to me for a signature. Hers was the book that led to the humorous beach Post Office story.

Well, when she read that story and next sent me some books to sign, she not only enclosed return postage, she also sent under separate cover a thank-you gift: bacon, four pounds of Dakin Farm cob-smoked bacon.

Now, I'm not John Scalzi, and I sure don't have his blog's reader base, but I do love bacon. So, if any of you are seeking the perfect gift to thank a writer (or, at least, this writer) for something, you could do a lot worse than bacon.

Friday, September 5, 2008

How I work with my agent

As I mentioned in last night's entry, Maria asked me to comment on how I sold my first book and on my agent. I covered in that entry how I sold One Jump Ahead; tonight, I'll briefly discuss how I work with my agent.

First, as yesterday's entry makes clear, I did not use an agent to sell my first book. It never even crossed my mind to approach an agent for that sale, because I figured I would have to go through the slush pile and sell at least once on my own before any agent worth having would even consider taking me. I was luckier than that, as I explained, but I never contemplated getting an agent at that point.

After I sold the first book and wrote a story I owed an editor, I began plotting and then writing a mystery/thriller, Fatal Circle. I wanted--and still want--to work in multiple genres. It occurred to me that an agent might be valuable for this thriller, so I thought about getting one.

Dave's agent, Kay McCauley of the Pimlico Agency, was not accepting new clients, but a long time ago in a discussion about a nonfiction book, she had said she might consider representing me. Though I have never met Kay in person, I have exchanged multiple email messages with her and had multiple phone conversations. In all of them, she has come across as gracious, cultured, intelligent, and generally wonderful. Plus, Dave trusts her, which is big. I contacted her, she agreed to take me on as a client, and that was that. We never signed any paper; we're honorable people and didn't need it.

At that point, I was about 38K words into Fatal Circle. I did not want Kay to sell it until I had finished it. Then, Toni, based on preorders, decided she wanted three more Jon & Lobo books--and she wanted one each year. I was already behind schedule. We did a contract--again on my own, because I had done the first Jon & Lobo book deal on my own--and I had to put aside Fatal Circle to begin work on Slanted Jack.

This left Kay in the position of having nothing of mine to sell aside from foreign rights, on which she and her folks work.

I hope one day to give her the thriller to sell.

That's it. As you might expect, this whole setup is not the usual one, but that seems to be par for the course for my novelist career so far.

Not as good a story, Maria; sorry.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

How I sold One Jump Ahead

Maria asked me to write about how I sold my first book and whether I have an agent, how I work with mine, and so on. Here's the story on the sale of One Jump Ahead. The tale begins about 23 years before I sold the book, so bear with me as I go back in time quite a way.

I made my first professional SF sale in May, 1982. May 1 is the day I received the acceptance letter, which is easy to remember because it's my mom's birthday. The story, by the way, was "My Sister, My Self," which was the first one to feature Jon Moore and the only one in which his sister, Jennie, actually appears. (I had previously made a sale to a semi-pro magazine, so I received money but not enough to count under SFWA rules as a pro sale.)

A few years later, I'd sold another story or three, but in my own neurotic way I was writing infrequently and fretting constantly.

One day, I was talking to Dave Drake about novel ideas and mentioned a concept he agreed was promising. He said I should do it, and he said he'd call Jim Baen to get Jim to listen to my pitch. He did, and Jim called me--five minutes later. Jim and I discussed the idea on the phone, Jim gave me some very good ideas to consider, and he bought the book based on the phone proposal. He and Dave always maintained he bought the book on the idea's merits, but I remain convinced Jim did it as a favor to Dave, and Dave did it to get me writing.

I was worried that I couldn't or wouldn't do the book, so I negotiated with Jim some very unusual terms: I would pay back the advance with 10 percent annual interest if I did not deliver the book. I felt this was honorable, because this way Jim would not lose money on his investment should I fail. Jim laughed at me and told me I was insane, but I wouldn't sign without that agreement, so he eventually reluctantly agreed.

I was worried I would fail. Dave was sure I could do it.

We were both right: I could have done it, but I didn't. Multiple years passed. I finally admitted my failure, called Jim (or maybe emailed him; I can't recall), and told him I wanted to pay back the advance.

He laughed again. He had long since written off the money. Apparently, authors never give back advances on books they don't finish, and they sure as hell don't pay interest on that money.

I insisted, but Jim pointed out he had no real bookkeeping method for taking the money, because he'd written it off. I insisted some more. Eventually, he allowed as how he did need some computer gear, so I bought enough of it to match my debt: the advance and the interest.

Now, flash forward to early 2005. I had been farting around with fiction writing all those years, selling some stories, getting one in The Year's Best, and so on, but I was never really able to commit to writing. I had turned 50 in March and was using the occasion to reconsider many things. My fiction writing was one of them. After much thought, in the middle of May, I decided I would give up fiction and thus gain more peace in my life.

I couldn't sleep that night. I couldn't give up fiction.

If you've read this blog regularly, you know that my advice to writers is that if you can possibly not write, don't. I couldn't stop.

At the same time, I barely wrote fiction, maybe a story every few years.

So, on the day after my sleepless night, I resolved that on June 1 I would start writing every day. (I chose that start date to give myself time to live with the decision and see if it was correct.) My goal was simple: each day I had to devote at least 30 minutes to staring at a blank screen (or notebook or sheet of paper) and doing nothing else. No word minimums; just at least 30 minutes of time that belonged to fiction. I would not allow myself to go to bed until I'd done it. Every day. No exceptions, no matter what.

(As I've written, this past June I screwed up my back, was on painkillers, and so missed some days because I didn't trust I could focus well enough to write. It was a terrifying time, because I feared I would never start again. I did.)

I made a deal with myself that I would take a day off writing after I had finished my third book. I now consider that a bad plan. Maybe after my fifth book.

I had written and sold two stories featuring Jon and Lobo, both with an eye toward using them in a novel one day. On June 1, I began plotting that novel, which ultimately became One Jump Ahead. I finished plotting that month and immediately--no days off, remember?--began writing it. I had to heavily rewrite the stories when I hit those parts, so I did that. I finished the book in December and ran it by Dave Drake and Eric Flint for their opinions. Both thought it was good (and both later blurbed it).

In early October, I had been at Dave's annual pig-pickin' birthday party (as I have been every year since 1985), and Jim was there, also. I walked him to his car, told him I was writing the book, described it, and asked if he'd like to see the finished ms. As I said to him, I felt that my failure to deliver the previous book he'd bought from me gave him a moral right of first refusal to the new book. I also told him directly that if he wasn't interested, he should say so, and I wouldn't bother him. He said he'd take a look, but only at a finished ms. I don't believe he thought I would finish the book; that was certainly the smart money bet from his perspective.

About January 1, I sent the final version of One Jump Ahead to Jim. I was already writing, though on a short story for Eric, "Slanted Jack," which appeared in Jim Baen's Universe and which I used as a starting point for the novel of the same name.

Months passed. I wrote every day. I heard nothing.

In early June--and from here on I probably have some of the day counts wrong; it was a rough time--I mentioned to Dave that I hadn't heard anything and asked if he thought I should check with Jim to see where I stood. Dave said he'd be talking to Jim and would bring up the topic if it felt right to do so.

A few days later, Dave called me. He said he'd mentioned it to Jim in a call a few minutes earlier, and Jim had said, "Yeah, I took that book."

Dave said, "Did you tell Mark?"

Jim replied, "I thought so, but maybe not." After a pause, he said, "How much do you think Mark wants for it?"

Dave said, "Pay him the standard minimum. He wants to earn whatever he gets." Dave was, of course, correct.

I had heard nothing. I received a contract a few days later.

Jim fell into a coma a few days after that, and then after some more time, he died. One Jump Ahead was the last book he bought. I hope he would have been proud of it. I like to think he would.

Toni, who became first Interim Publisher and then officially Publisher, treated the book well, made it the June 2007 lead hardcover title, and after seeing the early reception, bought three more books in the series.

I recognize it's not a normal sale in some ways, but that's how it happened.

Yo, Maria: Aren't you sorry you asked?

The Dread visits

Yeah, I'm deep into it on Overthrowing Heaven. The book is moving along, I'm over ninety thousand words into it, and though I couldn't tell you how long it will be, I can see the end somewhere in the distance. I should be perking up. I perked up at this stage on the last two books.

Instead, The Dread is sitting on my head big-time. Each day, I write a chunk, and I know the chunk is what I want it to be (minus the huge amount of editing and polish I still have to do, of course). Despite that knowledge, however, I'm also terrified that I'm writing the worst, most boring turd of a book ever to have existed.

I don't know any way around this feeling, of course. The only path out is straight ahead, to the end of the book, and that's where I'll head, one day's work at a time until I finish this draft--and the next draft, and the next, until the book heads off to publication. Then, I'll treat myself by starting the next book.

Doesn't this make you want to be a writer?

Monday, September 1, 2008

A peek inside my brain: a foodie quiz

Quite a few folks have commented that they don't understand at all how I think. Sometimes, the context is my fiction and the ideas in it. Other times, the comments arise from my fascination with high-end restaurants, weird events, loud rock and roll, and other topics on which I've written.

Well, as I've said many times, I'm a helper. I want to help folks understand, so I pondered the options and realized that the perfect solution might be a variant of the Cooter Preference Test.

I had to take this test (and I do mean the test, not the band of the same name) as a college freshman. It consisted of hundreds of questions about preferences. You know the type: It's raining, so would you rather be outside playing in the storm, solving quantum mechanics in your basement lair, or taking advantage of that hole you drilled in the bathroom wall to take pinhole photos of your female cousins showering? Like that. (I had a hard time choosing between the second and third options on that particular question.)

The people who administered the test (the Cooters? who knows?) had given the same battery of questions to thousands of professionals in various fields. They then correlated (real heavy math stuff, not just a quick glance and a proclamation) your results with those of the various professionals. The result was a list of occupations whose practitioners' preferences matched yours.

In case you're curious, the test said I matched best with preachers, then therapists, and then artists--which is why it makes perfect sense that I've spent my career as a computer geek and businessman.

Building a test like that is a ton of work, but fortunately, we have only one correlation target--me--and I get to pick the number of questions, so I've simplified the quiz to one target area--food--and only a few questions. I'm also violating all good testing practices and making this simple for you to grade at home.

Take up your pencil and paper.

There is no time limit.

Let's begin.

At the Fleur de Lys restaurant in Las Vegas' Mandalay Bay casino, Chef Hubert Keller has reinvented the hamburger with his "Rossini" Fleurburger. The following questions concern this dish. Each question consists of a statement and then three opinions on the statement. For each statement, choose the opinion that most closely matches your own.

On the restaurant's menu, the Fleurburger appears to use Kobe beef.
(a) I hope it's real Kobe and not Wagyu, because the American stuff is great but the Japanese is insane.
(b) What a waste of money; any decent ground beef would make a perfectly fine burger.
(c) Kobe or Wagyu, the resources people are spending on those cows are an insult to the world's starving masses.

The Fleurburger sits in a shallot and truffle brioche bun.
(a) I hope they browned the inside with French truffle butter.
(b) As long as the bun is fresh, I'm good.
(c) Had the staff invested the same time and energy in helping feed Las Vegas' homeless, fewer Americans would be starving.

Sitting atop the beef in the Fleurburger is a slab of sauteed foie gras.
(a) I hope the foie covers all the beef and that they didn't sear it too long.
(b) Foie gras is gross, pure fat and nothing more.
(c) The torture we inflict on our animal cousins, those poor geese, is cruel and inhuman, and we must stop doing it.

Covering the foie gras is a layer of shavings of black Perigord truffles.
(a) If it's not truffle season, I hope they're keeping the truffles fresh and not stinting on the portions.
(b) I can barely taste truffles, so they're a waste of money.
(c) Imagine the good we could do if America invested all the money from a year of truffle indulgences in improving our education system.

The dish comes with two kinds of house-made mustards and three varieties of high-end salts.
(a) I hope they have the pinker Hawaiian salt, because I love the tang that one adds.
(b) Three kinds of salt is just silly.
(c) We're raping the environment to harvest salt for dishes like this one even as our world disintegrates from our indulgences.

Though they don't appear on the sample menu online, typically a large helping of truffle fries accompanies the burger.
(a) I hope they sliced the potatoes frites style and fried the beautiful sticks in duck fat.
(b) Truffles are wasted on fries; all you need is potatoes and grease.
(c) Our population is swelling like pufferfish poised to attack, and yet we're eating all this red meat and fried food.

The price of the Fleurburger also isn't on the online sample menu, but typically it runs about $75.
(a) What a bargain; in New York, they'd hit you for a hundred easy.
(b) You could eat just as well at Hardees almost ten times for the same money.
(c) Make a salad and donate the rest of the money to feed the world.

Put your pencils down.

Here's the scoring guide:

- If you answered (a) to everything, your thinking matched my own. You have both my congratulations and my condolences. When we next talk, we can compare dieting notes and discuss what types of stents we're hoping they'll use on us.

- If you answered (b) to everything, you think the way I once did, before I discovered the joys of high-end food. Do your budget a favor, and stay the sensible, grounded person you are.

- If you answered (c) to everything, you think like the person my liberal soul tells me I should be--but never will be. I know you love your Prius; mine is on order.

- If you answered with more than one letter, stop fooling yourself that you can have it every way and take a stand on something.

I hope this quiz has helped.

Oh yeah: I've eaten the Fleurburger four times and try to get to it each time I'm in Las Vegas. The thing is freakin' awesome!

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Spain, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and another storm

Friday night before the movie, we watched the No Reservations episode on Spain. The food looked simply incredible. I've been saying for some time now that I was prepared to fly to Spain simply to have dinner at El Bulli, but now I am convinced that I need a much longer culinary visit to that country. Perhaps during my sabbatical next year....

Last night, we went to see Woody Allen's latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Overall, I enjoyed the movie. Javier Bardem was absolutely wonderful. Penelope Cruz was the psycho girlfriend from hell that you would never be able to resist. Scarlett Johansson was as delicious as always but with more depth than usual. The scenery was magnificent, the cinematography was flawless, and now I want to go to Spain more than ever.

Unfortunately, as the credits rolled, I felt unsatisfied. I think the reason is that no one really changed during the course of the film. Everyone entered a certain way, engaged in life-changing activities, and then despite those actions left more or less as they began. I don't need or want an shoot 'em up plot from a Woody Allen film, but the characters should change as a result of their experiences.

Yesterday, I wrote about the wonderful storm that hit us. Another dropped buckets of rain on us today, and I was out driving for part of it. Despite the normal tension of driving in rain so heavy you can't see more than four or five car lengths ahead of you, I nonetheless enjoyed this storm almost as much as the first. I hope we get more soon.


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