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Two Down, One to Go?

I think I got the idea for The Bow of Heaven series back in 2004. This week marks the debut of book two in the series, A Mixture of Madness. (Cue upbeat commercial music. "Look for it in paperback and ebook at Amazon.com!") My goal is to have the third and final (?) novel published by the end of 2014. Three books in ten years. I'm going to have to pick up the pace if I'm going to become the next E. L. James. I'd have to change the subject matter as well.

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So why all the question marks? (There's another one.) Because I have enough material for a fourth book waiting in the wings. The problem is, it is more back story than continuing narrative of the battle of Carrhae, which is what I set out to chronicle in the first place.

It is fascinating how a book wanders off the page and becomes something unintended while you are not paying attention. Originally, I had meant to tell the story of one of Rome's greatest defeats in two novels: one from the Roman point of view, namely that of Crassus, the old general leading the expedition; and the other from a young Parthian bowman enlisted to become an unwilling hero of the conflict - Melyaket of Sinjar. Well, I've written 900 pages so far and haven't even gotten the two armies to square off against each other. Plus the storyteller is neither Roman nor Parthian, but Crassus' ancient Greek slave, Alexandros, looking back on his life and adventures.

Who's in charge here? I have the sneaking suspicion a writer should be in better control of his characters. You'll tell me in your reviews, won't you? (That's the last one.)
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Happy Days

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Well, it's been a long year (is it not even October?), and I've learned a lot. It's tough being an independent publisher, tougher being a self-published author while you're trying to earn at least half an honest living and spend more than twenty minutes a day with your family. Book two of The Bow of Heaven series, A Mixture of Madness is almost finished. The title is taken from a quote by Aristotle:

"No excellent soul is exempt from a mixture of madness."

I'm feeling very excellent these days. Did I tell you the world's finest and most prolific literary critic (from Dryden to Marvel Comics), Steve Donoghue, managing editor of Open Letters Monthly, was asked to write an article for the Wall Street Journal on what's new and upcoming in Roman historical fiction? No, that compliment wasn't self-serving; if you don't believe me, just read a random sampling from his blog, stevereads.com. Steve, in addition to touting mainstream authors like Mr. Saylor and company, will be mentioning me. OK, it's a little self-serving. The article will be published by mid-October. And you can bet I'll be re-posting it here.

Do writers of the WSJ read a higher proportion of Roman historical fiction than the average reading public? You know, when you think about it, I'll bet they do.

So what's that exotic, yet forbidding graphic up there all about. Can't tell you. It's a surprise.

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Not Gone, Possibly Forgotten

Here's a quick post to comment on the difficulty of meeting the deadlines imposed by family, the career that pays the bills and the career that rewards the heart. It's virtually impossible to do it all with consistency, as you can tell from the 2-1/2 month silence between this and my last post.

I'll be back, as soon as I don't feel like the water inside a whistling tea kettle, but the top priority now is getting
A Mixture of Madness out by the end of October. Thanks for your patience.
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Does This Idea Float?

Let's talk about the insanity (?) of offering books for free. I speak, naturally, from the author's point of view, not the buyer's, or the librarian's. We live in a world where Amazon.com is to books what the blue whale is to saltwater. How big is it, Johnny? Here's what techspot.com says: Amazon's $34 billion
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in revenue is larger than the GDP's of half the countries in the world; Amazon serves more than 137 million customers each week - that's a third more people than voted in the 2010 elections; and Amazon's warehouses total the square footage of 700 Madison Square Gardens.

Recently, Amazon began its KDP Select program (Kindle Direct Publishing), whereby members who pay a fixed fee per year can "borrow" ebooks for free for as long as they like. These people are called Amazon Prime members; does that mean the rest of us are subprime? Amazon throws at least $600,000 into the pot each month and splits it up between the authors who have signed on. Authors are also entitled to list their books for free for 5 days during the 90-day contract. I'll get to the catch in a minute.

Amazon obviously thinks listing books for free is a big deal, otherwise why would they tout it as a benefit to joining KDP Select? Something tells me they have more to gain than the authors who publish on their site. How do I know this? It's easy to get more than somebody who is getting nothing. Unless someone out there can show me something I'm missing, I can only see two valid reasons to (temporarily) list a book for free: 1) to raise your ratings on Amazon so that potential buyers find your book more easily; the effect has a short lifespan, but if it keeps the book 'visible' after the freebie long enough to make some sales at money, so much the better. And 2) if you're about to publish the second novel in a series, making the first book free may generate sales for the latest arrival.

Now about that catch: authors who join KDP Select must not publish their ebooks
anywhere else. As if Amazon wasn't big enough already. By the way, is the company name a reference to size, as in the river, or are they a company of half-naked warrior women? I hazard a guess it's the former, but wish I was wrong. So. Amazon is not content being Amazonian; the publishing pachyderm's pernicious plan is to pulverize any remaining competition under its prodigious paw. (Sorry, I got carried away.)

Which is why I feel guilty, and something of a traitor. I first published
The Bow of Heaven on Smashwords, the upstart house that distributes to all booksellers, as well as selling ebooks from authors the world over, giving our lonely profession an outlet of great artistic freedom. At first, I naturally scorned any attempt by Amazon to squash this helpful little firm who walked me carefully through every step necessary to ensure that my book would upload and be viewed properly on all the world's e-readers.

Six month's later, Amazon - 6,000 downloads, Smashwords - 250, or about 24:1. Need I say more? Apparently. I have this theory that writers are egoists, and though they slave alone in the dark, crave fame and fortune just like any other artist. Well at least I am, do. And I want to reach the largest possible audience. I caved, and decided to try KDP Select, but my altruistic self, that wee, small voice of ethical fair play overwhelmed by capitalistic greed on an almost quotidian basis, is hoping the free price offering, of which I am taking advantage of March 15 and 16, will bomb horrifically. Even if a bunch of penny-minding readers throng to get a book which would have only cost them 299 pennies more to buy at retail (which makes every single one of them my loyal and cheap fan), if the ploy doesn't boost my ranking high enough and for a long enough period of time to generate more real sales, I ask you, what good is it? (Well, that reason number 2 above seems pretty self-explanatory, but aside from that.)

Wish me luck. Or don't. I'm on the fence.
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Yo, mistuh, youse got a toga I can borrow?

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When writing historical fiction, what tone will pull the reader into the time period without jarring his or her sensibilities? If we get it down with complete accuracy, it's apt to be unreadable, especially if the time period goes back more than a couple of hundred years. I recently had a review that complained that The Bow of Heaven contained too much bad language and violence. We're talking about Republican Rome. Clearly, the reviewer had never read any Catullus. If anything, the book contains a fraction of the grit one would encounter walking the slums of the Subura. The point is, the reader already had expectations of how the book should 'sound,' and if your version does not match hers, there's not much you can do about it.

At least when it comes to ancient history, it's hard to avoid falling into faux-Shakespearean flowery. Unfortunately, much of our preconceptions about the tone of historical fiction comes from the movies, accents aside. Although it's been over 50 years and I still can't forget the masterful work Tony Curtis did bringing a little bit of Brooklyn to
Spartacus.

Myself, I strive for a cross between Derek Jacobi and Peter O'Toole. (Only partially kidding.)

Any writer of books about ancient Rome is bound to get it wrong. Unless we're writing in Latin and have a burning need to sell in the single digits. Here's my take: if it's a whopping great tale, getting the tone 'right' is less of a concern. Slightly.
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Boulders and Elbow Grease

calvin writers block

The Universal Utility of "asdf"
Does this sound familiar? You're writing merrily away on your next great oeuvre when you suddenly realize a particular word in the sentence you just wrote does not quite fit. There's a better word. You feel it in your bones, but you just can't quite put your finger, or your overworked and overworded brain on it. Roget has been thumbed, the ceiling has been scrutinized, the pacing has been aerobic, but all to no avail. Before you know it, it's time for lunch! And you're stuck. Patience, I am about to digress.

Many great writers have weighed in on this topic, notably
Gustave Flaubert, who led a never-ending search for le mot juste. "When I discover a disagreeable assonance or a repetition in one of my sentences," he said in 1876, "I can be sure that I'm floundering around in something false. By dint of searching, I find the right expression, which was the only one all along, and at the same time the harmonious one. The word is never lacking when one is in possession of the idea." All right, Gus, watch your step or you might fall off that lofty pedestal on which you've deposited yourself.

In The Real Thing, Tom Stoppard said, “I don't think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead.” This I buy. To do less is to do a disservice to the reader, who is to the writer what water is to a fish, what chocolate chips are to toll house cookies, what obfuscation is to politicians.

My favorite teacher on the art of writing, however, is none other than Mark Twain. Mr. Clemens had quite a bit to say on the subject. For instance: "To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself...Anybody can have ideas--the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph." - Letter to Emeline Beach, 10 Feb 1868

"I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English - it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don't let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don't mean utterly, but kill most of them - then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice." - Letter to D. W. Bowser, 20 March 1880

Sounds like he was talking to Hemingway, doesn't it?

Here's more: "Substitute "damn" every time you’re inclined to write "very." Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be."

And finally, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is really a large matter — it's the difference between a lightning bug and the lightning."

But we were talking about what happens when that one glittering phrase, that one perfect distillation of thought that needs to fly from brain to paper just won't leave the runway. That's when I haul out good old asdf. Here's a sentence, spoken by the ancient and cantankerous Alexander as he narrates Book II of The Bow of Heaven: "The short lines, a poem of excess, asdf my reluctant attention back to the rash and idiotic blunder I had committed only hours before in a moment of irretrievable optimism."

I could not think of that one perfect word, not for love or money. So I left it, and kept going, working on another scene altogether. Later, when the muse decided to plop her elegant derriere down beside me for another five minutes, she whispered in my ear, "gulled." Brilliant! I cried. (I can say it was brilliant, you see, because I didn't think of it, it was that lady draped in enough stone-washed linen to make Tim Gunn exclaim, fingers pressed with sincerity against his chest, "Dear, at all costs you must discourage the judges from using that word that is the absolute kiss of death: 'costumey.'")

There have been times, when, in order to keep writing, I have had to leave entire scenes for another day. Which is why I write
asdf in bold to help me find the places that need polishing. Excuse me, a young lady has just entered the sanctum sanctorum, which in my case is our laundry room (seriously); she is whispering something Alexander just told her. It's perfect, and I have to go write it down before I lose it.
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Somebody find the ground so I can put my feet on it!

I am humbled and extremely grateful to the Historical Novel Society, the venerated, prestigious British journal of historical fiction, for the following review, published in their February, 2012 edition. To see the entire page, click here.

Historical Novels Online

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The Noncorporeal Author


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I was at the "Un-Named Bookstore" yesterday buying shelf space for my novel. This forward-thinking store allows indie writers to get their books seen in a brick and mortar establishment without being vetted by agent, publisher or editor. From there it goes downhill. The charming employee who took the 5 copies of my paperback with something less than disdain, something greater than apathy, said this: "Tell me your three-minute elevator speech; no, I don't have time for that, do it in less than a minute." I complied, trying to control a pesky facial twitch.

Then she inquired, "How are you marketing your book?" I replied with the usual, "I do nothing but market - website, blog, twitter, FB, email, phone; I hardly have time to work on the next novel."

She tapped her paperwork on the table surface to square all the corners and, in a tone of conspiratorial comradeship said, "Yes, even real writers have to do that now."

I loaded up my verbal 12-guage, my imitation of Captain Queeg now complete save for the metal balls (is that significant?), but in the end smiled as if she hadn't just slapped me hard across the kisser. After all, I didn't want her throwing my books into the incinerator after I left.

What's a poor indie author to do? Like another maligned Caesar and his followers, played to a fault by Andy Serkis, our day is coming. Ooh-ooh.

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