Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Value of Free ...

So I'm coming up on a milestone here. Among my freelance gigs, I'm the site editor for a website called I've been running the site for about six months now -- it started as nothing, with not a single word of content. This month, I'm within striking distance of 100,000 page views, or PVs in Internet-speak. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

But, you know, it's actually kind of bittersweet. Here's why. is part of the New York Times Company. It's a big aggregate website comprised of about 800 individual sites like mine, each on specific topics. I got houseplants because I've been writing about tropical plants for years, and houseplants are basically tropical plants grown inside. All told, is one of the 100 most visited websites in the world, which translates into about 60 million unique visitors every month.

On my website, 100,000 monthly PVs translates into about 30,000 unique visitors (each click is another PV).  

Here's the bittersweet part. One of the best-selling houseplants print books in the world is The Houseplant Expert by Dr. D.G. Hessayon. It's a pretty good book -- I own a copy myself. According to the cover sunburst, Dr. Hessayon has sold more than 1 million copies of his book since the first printing many years ago. 

You already know where this is heading right? 

The truth is, guys like me are putting guys like Dr. Hessayon out of business. I just don't see any other possible future. And that makes me sad.

But the economics of the situation are irrefutable. Check it out. Let's assume that Dr. Hessayon sold exactly as many books as I had unique visitors last month. Here's the math:

Total cost of user experience for Hessayon: 30,000 x $10/book = $300,000.
Total cost of user experience for my site: 30,000 x $0/PV = $0.

Zero dollars. I'm free. The whole dang Internet is free. All of it. Given away. For nothing. And I'm not just blowing smoke when I say that my content is every bit as good as Dr. Hessayon's. How can I be so sure? Because I do a competitive analysis against his book (and a few others) with every article I publish. 

I can pretty much guarantee I'm not making Hessayon-like money off my site. I'm sure his first 30,000 books sold netted him a rather lot more money than my Internet revenue from last month. 

I don't really know what the solution is for this. Content is king in today's media climate, but increasingly, content is free. In another two years, there won't be any need for new reference books on houseplants, because I'll have built a comprehensive site that offers all that nifty info for nothing. It'll be advertising supported, and I'll make a fraction of what the print authors make, even if I'm pulling in 12 million PVs a year (which is totally realistic). And how long is it until this trickles into novels? How long will it be before a Kindle file can be e-mailed around the web for nothing, just like an MP3 file today? 

I hear a lot about the future. How authors will have to develop alternative revenue streams because books just won't make any money. Already, old-line media companies are dying -- and trust me, I have firsthand experience in this. When the Tribune company declared bankruptcy, I was one of the unlucky bastards they owed money to. This means I find myself tied up in bankruptcy court for a few measly invoices.

It's depressing. No doubt about it. But it's also a little thrilling ... And tomorrow, I'll tell you why.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Gator Hunters and Duck Ladies

I used to live in New Orleans, and I worked as a political reporter in Slidell, Louisiana, and Pearl River, Mississippi. As a transplanted Yankee, it was an eye-opening experience. The food really is that good, and the politics really are that corrupt. But the stories ... 

I used to get my hair cut at this little barber shop, and I fell to talking one day with the guy cutting my hair. Turns out that barbering was just a side gig for him, just like his father and grandfather before him. In his "real job," he was a gator hunter on the bayou ... also just like his father and grandfather. Here's how he described it to me: he and his partner would go up the bayou and hang big treble hooks from tree limbs, about three feet over the water. Then they would stick whole, grocery-store chickens on the hooks. Over time, the chickens would start to rot and drop tasty bits into the brown water below. Naturally, this would bring the gators. The poor reptiles would smell the chickens, lunge for them, and get hung up. All that remained was for my hairdresser to collect his catch and sell them for skins and meat.

OK, let's unpack this whole story. Gross, right? And cruel. Totally. But, man, what a set of images and what a character this guy was! I can still remember how fascinated I became with his fingers while he cut my hair. He didn't have salon-ready fingers, if you know what I mean. These were the thick, square and gnarled fingers of a guy who's been hauling gator carcasses off fish hooks for 20 years or so, then skinning them in the bottom on his john boat. The image of his big fingers wrapped around those delicate scissors is still fresh in my mind. 

There was another woman ... she lived in the French Quarter and every day walked down Royal Street with her duck following behind her. I watched her for long enough to realize this wasn't a cute, touristy thing. This woman was the Real Deal. She loved those ducks dearly, and she used to get very upset when cars and tourists disrupted her routine. I don't know if she was mentally ill or not—I guess probably—but the way she loved those ducks in the midst of that mad carnival was almost beautiful to behold.

These are the people I like to write about. I like the oddballs, the neurotics, the characters who exist on the fringes. I like the people who write their own rules, and maybe they actively fight society, or maybe they exist so far outside of society that they hardly notice the way the rest of the world lives. Perhaps I'm drawn to one of these people because I'm partly one myself ... I've got a piss-poor record of following rules and bending to authority. Or perhaps I'm drawn to these people because I think they have something nearly magical to offer the rest of us: a truly original perspective. 

Take It With A Smile

This is no joke: I think my last book put more strain on my marriage than my last kid ...

My wife is a great reader, but she's tough. She reads very slowly, extremely carefully, and calls me on pretty much EVERYTHING. Every goofy expression, every line of bad dialogue, every loose sentence. It's actually kind of funny, because even now, when we're watching TV and some ridiculous plot twist comes up, I'll turn to her and say, "You would NEVER let me get away with that." (I'm thinking of you, Lost. Seriously, your time-travel logic is all over the place.)

These edits aren't fun for either of us. I'll sit there, stewing, a fake smile plastered on my face, thinking, "OK, already, I got it. I get it. Is there anything you liked?! ANYTHING?" I start to argue, and then I force myself to shut up, and then I give myself some time to decide she's almost always right, and then I start rewriting. 

But here's what I tell myself: she's just the beginning. I've also got a supportive-but-tough critique group to deal with, plus editors, and (hopefully someday, for fiction), readers. At times, it seems like the whole world has been given a free pass to criticize me pretty much whenever the mood strikes. Worse yet—at least for a guy like me, who lives to argue—there's no defense allowed. 

I get it when people talk about "staying true to their vision" and all that. But the truth is, I think that's usually a shallow excuse to disregard valuable input. The time to stay true to your vision is when you're developing and writing the book. Once it's done, and once you've put it out there for consideration, it's not precisely yours anymore. Everyone who reads it will take a piece. A writer disregards and disrespects his or her audience at their own peril ...

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why Not Four?

I don't want to wade back into the outlining vs. not-outlining question, but I'm curious ... how does everyone else do it? 

The project I'm working on now has many, many characters, plus magic, plus 141 individual dragons, long-standing families, several groups vying against each other, etc., etc., etc. I've got myself a black, three-ring binder with page dividers. And I'm slowly building it out -- profiles of all the characters, spell lists and components, dragon profiles, settings and maps, family histories. It's a lot of information, but my goal is to basically write a reference book about my story, and then start the actual writing. Or maybe write in bits and pieces as I'm going along.

I know how this sounds. Ick, right? The opposite of fun and creative. More like chemistry homework. But I really can't think of any other effective and efficient way to go about a project like this. So I'm really curious ... how would other people do it? How would you approach a story like this?

And another thing -- what's the deal with series always having odd numbers of books? Why does it have to be a trilogy, or five books, or seven books or even thirteen books? Why not four? The reason I ask, of course, is that I've got four books planned in this series, but I wracked my brain last night and I couldn't think of a single series with four books. Not one. Um, hello? Don't people like even numbers? 

Somebody, please help me out on this one.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Gut Checking

My wife often semi-enviously rags on me for having an iron stomach ... and I guess it's true. I can pretty much eat anything. Incredibly spicy Thai food? No problem. Picnic food that's been sitting out all day? Whatever. Organ meat? As long as it's fried in butter or bacon fat. Raw foods? Love it!

But I find myself relying on my gut this week for a whole new reason. I've been working on world-building and outlining a new story. There's a lot of material here to work with, and I know just exactly how it ends, but there are big blanks in the story itself. So I keep asking my main character what's going on, and I keep building out new chunks of the world. At each stage, I find myself gut-checking constantly. Does this fit? Will this be interesting and exciting? Does it support my overall theme and story arc? Is it logical?

In a lot of cases, I'm finding that I need to sit on new ideas for a day or so, sort of roll them around the old belly to see if they find a decent home. This creative process has been a little surprising for me: my last two books came to me very quickly. In both cases, I think I got the main story down in a few days or even hours. One thing led to another to another to another. 

This new thing -- slow revelation, many threads -- is just a bit unsettling. I can't tell yet if this means I'm forcing a story that isn't working, or if I'm simply dealing with a much larger and more complicated story arc than I've attempted before. I guess only time will tell ... But I'm curious. How does it work for other people? Near-instant revelation? A slow build? Is it different every time?

One last note: my cast-iron stomach, btw, does not extend to oysters. I had a bad experience with a raw oyster infected with noro virus. To this day, it remains the sickest I've ever been, and I still can't get near raw oysters. Which is a shame--they were among my favorite foods.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


I grew up in an enormous family ... there were five children at first, and then through divorce and remarrying, there were nine of us. That dropped back down to eight, and then bounced back up to ten. I'm near the bottom of this heap, so you can believe I learned pretty quick how to do two things: get away from people who were much larger than myself, and stake out my little bits of secret territory, just for me. 

For a few years, my brothers and I used to play this game. The name we used for it is utterly politically incorrect, so I'll just call it Kill the Guy. It was pretty simple: we threw a ball around the yard. If you caught the ball, everyone else tried to take it away. That was it. No rules. Full-contact tackling, gouging, biting, dragging, kicking, crying, telling parents, hiding ... it was all fair game. It was the most brutal game of hot potato ever invented.

There were two great lessons in this game. First, you could tell right away which brothers had no interest in getting the ball. 'Cause getting the ball meant you were the sudden object of a great deal of violent attention. It took guts for the littlest ones of us to hold the ball for more than a few seconds before some older brother pounded you to the ground. Second, we found out who was willing to go all-out, balls-to-the-wall crazy to bring down the ball carrier ... 

After one game, I asked a brother of mine if he'd let me bring him down one particular time. This brother was ten years older than me. He was an athlete who could walk across the yard on his hands and do flips with no trampoline. I figured he was being nice.

"No," he said. "I didn't let you. But you did anyway. Because you put in that second effort. You grabbed my heel on the way down, after I shook you off ..."

I've thought about that exchange a lot since then. I was probably eight when he said this to me, but it was one of those moments when someone else illuminates a quality you don't even know you had. At the time, I had no idea what the word "persistent" meant, and in my family, the word they usually used to describe me was "stubborn" (or just "obnoxious"). But later, I've learned that persistence may be the quality that, more than anything else, gets me through the day.

So it goes with writing. I'm a little stuck right now, flailing a bit with my new WIP. I'm still processing what just happened with my first book, and my nerves are a little shot with the second book about to go out. I'm raw as road rash. But none of that matters, because I can still feel a reservoir of persistence kicking around down in there. And I think maybe that's one of the most important qualities any writer can have. 

Monday, February 16, 2009

All About the Backstory ...

My brother and I have a long-standing discussion about nature vs. nurture. He's very much a nature person -- he believes that people are pretty much born as who they will become. Their character is in place already, and all that's left to discover is the way it will manifest itself. Will a naturally rebellious person end up reinventing modern society with some invention, or end up in jail? 

Having kids, I can say that my kids have changed surprisingly little since they were babies. My oldest has learned how to deal with the parts of his personality he's never liked, but it's all still in there. 

For me, though, I think the balance is somewhat more even between nature and nurture. Sure, a person might be born rebellious, but the trick is in teaching them how to direct that energy. It's like a jet engine. Once you fire that puppy, it's going to start generating heat and energy, but until you strap it onto a plane and point it somewhere, you won't get anywhere.

So it goes with my characters. I need to know where they have been and what they've done, and through this process, I learn more about who they are. Incidentally, this figures into my outlining process ... Ideally, the characters' histories are what drives the story forward, and as they are revealed as the people they are, we discover a hidden world of meaning in everything that went before.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dear Lurker, Why Are You Ignoring Me?

Dear Lurker,
I know you know who I am, so why are you ignoring me? My name is Jalen Rose, and you're about to spend who knows how long writing a story about my life. Remember? You've been working on it every day lately, my story? So, really, why are you ignoring me? I've tried to tell you—I don't know how many ways—that I'm OLDER than you insist on thinking of me as. Why won't you let me grow up? I'm not a baby anymore. I'm not a little kid. So, please, dude, get it through your stubborn, thick head, that I'm not a little munchkin. Thanks.

Dear Jalen,
Nice to meet you! Of course I know who you are. And I know how much you've been struggling to age yourself. You're all ready to grow up, and maybe I'm just having trouble letting you go. At least partly.

You see, if you're older, that means I'm writing for a different audience. It means this book isn't for middle-graders, but that it's true YA. And I don't know if I really want to write a YA book right now. Also, and this one is trickier, I've noticed that all my characters are aging along with my oldest son. You guys are always about two or three years ahead of him in age, so I'm wondering: is all this writing for him, in a weird sort of way? Is he my muse? So that's why I'm resisting. I want to establish myself as an author in MG right now ... I've worked pretty hard at it. And I don't want to hop around in demographics. Thanks for your understanding.

Dear Lurker,
Demographics? "Establish myself as an author in MG?" Your muse? Listen, nut job, just because you need therapy doesn't change the fact that I'm still older than you think. So as your friend Erica might say, BE with it for a while. Then live with it.

Dear Jalen,
Ugh. Fine. Whatever. You win.

Dear Lurker,
Of course I do. :)

Monday, February 9, 2009

World Building ... Is Coffee Still Coffee?

I'm working now to build a world (God Alert), and it's got me thinking. For those of you who write fantasy or paranormal, you know how much fun this is. It's when you get to sit down and say, "OK, so what spells are possible? Where does the power come from? How fast can they fly?" 

But I think to be really believable, there has to be just enough of the real world in there to 1) keep your readers interested and 2) give them something to relate to. So, you know, it's a tricky balance. You've got to leave enough to be recognizable, to hold their interest and to gain your readers' willing suspension of disbelief. But you've got to give them enough to make it fun.

Another question: if your character is from "our" world and introduced to this new world, how long do you give them to accept the rules of the world you've created? Personally, my thinking is the less time you spend farting around with this, the better. Especially with kids. Give them a page or so of doubt, and then get on with the story. Harry Potter would have been a totally different book if it took Harry three books to accept magic was real ... (a totally suckier book, btw).

My favorite way, of course, to do this is a demonstration of raw power. Let your character see the truth, accept it, and then spend the rest of the book learning the intricate rules you've set up. And have some fun with it, because if you're not having fun, no one is.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Shoving Off

Well, the new book is gone, off into the world all on his lonesome. Good luck, Murph. I'm pulling for you, buddy. 

A few thoughts (because it's not every day you send a new manuscript out on submission):

1) It is tremendously satisfying to send a new book out the very same week I got the big reject. Note to self: ALWAYS have a new book ready. 
2) This book, in many ways, is a direct response to the failure of my first one to sell. I consciously answered the criticisms that caused my first one to get rejected. Object lesson: Listen to what experienced editors and readers tell you. And then USE IT.
3) Can an author shop two books at once? I don't actually know. But I trust my agent. He'll handle it.
4) We are definitely going to submit this book to the same editor who just passed on the first one. She has invited it, and we've worked to establish a good relationship with her. She knows what to expect. Just like Dad always said: NEVER burn bridges.
5) To keep myself distracted and moving, I'm starting tonight in earnest on the next big project, the one I've been kicking around for a few years. Because I'd rather write than medicate.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Basking in the Self-Indulgent Glow of My Own Genius

Today is D minus 1, which means that tomorrow I'll be sending a new book to my agent, so it's off to the pony show again. This is a sample of the dialogue running through my head the past few days:

Me: "I really like this book."
Myself: "Me too! I think it pretty much rules!"
Me: "You do?! I couldn't agree more! You know, this might have the makings of a modern classic."
Myself: "That's so funny! I was just thinking the same thing!"
Me: "What about that one part, you know when—"
Myself: "Wait! Wait! Don't tell me! I know exactly which part already! It's genius! G-E-N-I-U-S!"

So am I fool? Am I deluded? Insecure? Drunk? An arrogant ass? Is this book really that good?

Who knows? I'm pretty certain the market will tell me soon enough. But I believe this deeply: you better love your own book with the fierce energy of a momma hyena with her cubs. Because once it gets out there, trust me, there will be plenty of opportunities to defend it. 

Now, I'm not saying it can't get better. I'm certainly not saying I wouldn't work enthusiastically with editors who know this biz better than me. But I am saying that if I don't passionately believe in my own idea, my own story, and my potential to knock this f*&$%# out of the park, then no one ... else ... will.

So how about you? Do you love your book? Then shout it from the rooftop ...

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Second Banana

If the main character is the heart of a story, I like to think of the secondary characters as the liver, spleen and kidneys. Sure, maybe you can lose a kidney and you'll be OK, but life sure would be a lot harder without these nifty organs hanging around. Why? Because they DO something all on their own, something completely independent of the heart.

That's one of the lessons I took away from my recent editing experience. We spent, to me, a surprising amount of time dealing with secondary characters. Not just in relation to the main character, but in relation to themselves. What did my secondary characters learn? What was their character arc? Did they have something to teach the main character, or something to learn from the main character? How do their stories support the theme?

Oftentimes, I see "stock" secondary characters. The needy spouse. The sarcastic best friend. The sadistic sidekick. This is OK, but I don't think it's enough if you want to write a really great book. It's not enough to have a character pop in simply to make a point about your main character, or just to give your main character an excuse to monologue or rage or whatever. 

Because, c'mon, life just doesn't work like that. My own life is filled with "secondary characters," but the truth is, I'm a secondary character in THEIR lives. The only real one-sided conversations happen when one of the sides is being paid to shut up and listen, reflect, or emote (I'm thinking of psychiatrists and hookers, naturally).

So it goes with secondaries. They are living, breathing, actual people who are in my story because they, too, are on a journey. And even if their journey is ... well, secondary, it is important nonetheless, because I will not have a complete story unless the reader can feel the deeper currents at work. Unless the reader can sense that once these people walk off the page, they will walk into their own stories, this time as the star.

Easier said than done, right? Yep, at least for me. And that's why I'm in mad love with the Find function. Here I am, at the end of this story, and I'm reading for secondaries. So what I do is plug the character's name into Find and go through the book from the beginning, reading the entire book told only through their scenes, from their perspective. And along the way, I adjust, I delete and add, and explain, and eventually, if all goes well, I end up with a complete portrait of an important person -- not just a collection of quirks who happens to be convenient to my main character. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Say Die

My first real impulse was to shave my head. My second was to get drunk. I ended up doing neither.

I wasn't sure I was going to blog about this, but what the hell, right? We're all writers around here. You'll understand.

Last night, I got the mother of all rejections. It's a long story, what happened, so here's the quick version. Last summer, I started shopping my first "real" novel--or at least one that felt ready and that my readers loved. The first company that looked at it called the next day and requested exclusivity. They ultimately passed, but I was excited. We had something cooking. You could feel it. Another big publisher passed quickly, but with a very nice note: "This author can really write, but it's not right for our list." And then on the third submission, we seemed to hit pay dirt. A Big Publisher was interested. In fact, THE Big Publisher was interested. We were going to acquisitions. 

What followed were the longest 18 months of my life. They liked the book, but not quite enough to offer a contract. They wanted revisions. So we went through two rounds of serious revisions, each round with a penetrating, single-space, multipage rewrite letter. I worked round the clock some weeks. I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. I've never worked this hard on anything. I deconstructed the book a dozen ways. 

I submitted the final draft last September. They had it for a long time, and in the meantime, the economy tanked, publishing ground to a halt, fads came and went, and we heard nothing. Slowly, painfully, I started to become convinced they weren't going to buy it after all. And they didn't. Ultimately, although there was much to like about the project, they said it wasn't character-driven, that it was plot driven. It was fun and fast and smart, but there was no transformation of character. Or at least not enough. 

So. What do you feel when something like this happens? My first reaction, when my agent told me they were passing, was something like shock. I was simply numb. I had prepared myself to hear the word NO, but hearing it in real life was still a hard thing. My second reaction, oddly enough, was relief. I could write again. I was out from underneath this massive stone that has been hanging over me all this time. Sure, I would have preferred to sell it, but I also needed this chapter in my writer's journey to end. Later, I thought the worst part would be telling my family and friends that the book got rejected. Many people have lived this drama with me. I'm so grateful to the people who were happy for me. My mom was so excited ...

But I can honestly say I never felt sorry for myself, and I never felt bitter. I never railed against the publishing industry, and I never said, "But so many other WORSE books get published! Look at the crap that's out there! Why not mine?!" Perhaps because I never thought the universe owed me this. And perhaps because, even now, the morning after, I can't say this was a negative experience. I learned an incredible amount about how to write a novel, and I'm not sure I could have learned it any other way. I might have missed the lesson had it not been delivered with the business end of a sledgehammer. Finally, because I think writing is about growth as a person. You can never quit if you're serious about it. So I've got a new book ready to go, one that I strongly believe in. And I'm working on another after that. 

So there it is. My story. I started this blog because I was at the end. I knew we were waiting for an answer, and some days, the pressure was just brutal. I virtually stopped writing because we were stuck. We couldn't shop the new book. We couldn't shop the old book. We could do nothing but wait, wait, wait ... 

All that's over now. I'm free again. Yeah, it pretty much sucks, but I'm really not back at square one. I'll never be the same writer I was last June, when my agent called and said, "I think we've got a sale!" And I remain convinced of one thing: my call is still waiting out there. I just have to find it.