East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

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The burgers always taste the same

I was talking with my friend Lucy, a few moments ago. We were discussing the first pages of a book we’ve both picked up and, alas, dropped real fast. The first pages are critical, and here, in two pages, we got such a distillation of elements done to death in the last thirty years, that we were both unable to go on. And we talked about this, comparing our reactions.

Now, I am not a big fan of gore-drenched slasher-fests, and so my distaste for the self-congratulatory tone with which the violence was portrayed in the text was somewhat natural. Lucy is more into this sort of books, and what she objected to was the cliché feel of the whole thing.

“We’ve seen it done better, a thousand times, since the ’90s”

she said.
And she is perfectly right.
And yet the book is selling like hotcakes, and it’s got a brace of rave reviews.
What the hell happened?

My take on the thing is, the book caters for the lowest common denominator, and that’s what the majority of the target audience is expecting. What they actually demand.

So a good strategy is to feed the audience a checklist of expected cliches, in the expected order, and with a language as commonplace and plain as possible.
Anything new, different and original might scare the target audience away.

And this, really, is the only thing that might convince me to go on reading this book – to see if the author is smart enough to hook his target audience in the first stilted throwaway pages, and then, once the readers have been hooked, reel them in and hit them with a few original twists.
It would be great.
But I doubt this is how it goes.

Talking with Lucy, we remembered the song Styx used to sing…

I like fast food
The burgers always
taste the same

Entertainment should be entertaining and, in this instance at least, it is not entertaining to me, or to Lucy.
We have been there already, now we want something more, something better.
I’d go as far as to say we’d be happy with a less-than-perfect story, as long as it goes someplace we’ve never been before, or throws a different light on ideas we are familiar with.
But we have to accept that to the majority of the readers, the lowest common denominator, the burger-like story that always tastes the same, is perfectly fine.

It’s a very unpleasant situation – both from a writer’s and a reader’s point of view.


Three novellas and the need for an artist

Because trilogies, right?
I have just delivered a chunk of work, finished an article and cleaned up the first edit of a 10.000 words horror story. I have still a ton of stuff to do, but I’ve hit on a nice concept, that I’d like to develop in the next few months, possibly as a self-publishing adventure.

I won’t discuss the details at this point, but I have two characters, one of which has a name, and the other is still looking for their handle, look and identity, and I am seeing a world emerge.
And I have a few notes. A beginning, and a nice beginning, if I say so myself.

And I have a cartload of other projects in various stages of development, but you know how it is, right?
You are busy trying to finish something, and there comes this big, shiny, fun idea to distract you.

But as I am piecing the first story together – the idea is to write three 15.000+ words novellas – I have started looking for a cover artist.
Or, better, I have started looking for places where I can look for a cover artist.
My budget is small, but I am willing to make a sacrifice, and send my brother to bed without dinner for a few weeks in order to get a cover for my book. Having a cover would certainly act as a great push forward – and would probably help me sell my book.

So, where to look?
The aforementioned brother suggested Fiverr, which probably explains why he’s going to skip a few dinners.
And I follow a lot of great artists on Twitter, but they all seem to be way out of my league.
So I am asking you – any suggestions?
Use the comments and help me.
Thank you!

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The hard part

Last night I spent (or wasted) a few hours trying to explain to a contact of mine why writing is hard.
Because this guy was like, “hey, I’ve got this great idea, the story will practically write itself!” and from there it was all downhill to the classic “you just got to sit down and write it, right?”

So I asked him to give me the short summary for “Casablanca”, the 1942 movie. Because it’s a movie everybody knows, and because it illustrates perfectly my point.
The short summary my friend gave me goes more or less like this…

During WW2, in Casablanca, Rick Blaine is the owner of a night club. When his former lover appears, together with her French Resistance husband, Rick needs to straighten his relationship with her, while staying one step ahead of the Nazis.

Which is a viable capsule plot for Casablanca, and it has all the “great ideas” – star-crossed lovers, war, political intrigue, exotic locale, Nazis.
Nice and smooth.
Now write it.

“What do you mean, write it?”

And I explained that a great idea is indeed a good starting point, but then you need to develop it.
You’ve got to find a way to present Sam, and the Peter Lorre Character, and the Sidney Greenstreet character… you’ve got to figure out the scenes, what happens when, what to show and what to imply. Write the dialogue. Create a sense of continuity.

“Let’s say I give you two hours. Can you write me two pages of Casablanca, your own version, in two hours?
I’ll be back later.”

And I went and watched the movie we’ll discuss tonight on our podcast.
When I got back, my contact told me it doesn’t work the way I said. Writers don’t do it like that.
One does not write like this, one has to wait for inspiration.
At this point I reminded him of the time when he asked me for a story, 6000 words in ten days – “all you have to do is write 600 words per day. Easy.”
What about my inspiration, then? What if I had to wait for the Muse to appear for one week?
“You’re the writer, that’s your business.”

A business a lot of people think they know better than we that do it.

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Rod Serling, and stories

One of the authors I always look up to in order to improve my craft is Rod Serling, of The Twilight Zone and Night Gallery fame. Apart from the awesome quality of scripts, it’s in his views on imaginative fiction and society that I usually find powerful, intelligent ideas. If you are not familiar with them, check out Youtube – a search for Serling’s name will bring up interviews and actual masterclasses he recorded, and are worth every minute spent listening to them, taking notes.

And today a friend posted this image on their Facebook profile, and it was another eye-opening moment.

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The usual problem, once again

Yesterday I mentioned how my system is currently clogged because I am working on a top priority project that takes up all my time, and haunts me with guilt when I am not working on it. The fact that I have a funny wrist does not make things easier.
And as it usually happens, when I am overworked, stressed and busy busy busy, I keep getting great story ideas.

Only today I got two, bot fun and attractive, and both are the sort of story that sell themselves – if you know where to mail them.

The first story comes from an illustration I saw this morning, from a game that’s currenlty being Kickstarted – you find the details here.

I was discussing the image with some friends, and we came to the conclusion that, had a certain publisher set their eyes on a buxom Cthulhu-faced piratess, the history of Italian fantasy fiction would have taken a different turn, probably for the better.
And this of course screams the question – why not write a story about a buxom, Cthulhu-faced piratess?
Indeed, why not?

The other idea comes – probably – from reading a recent interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, and some of my current more-jaundiced-than-usual views on the worlds of marketing and coaching.
It would be a science fiction story, about the collapse of the capitalist system, as witnessed by an overworked secretary and a zen monk. It would be a positivist apocalypse story – one in which the end of one system actually ushers in a better one. And it would be a lot of fun to write.

But as I mentioned yesterday, I am currently clogged, and crippled.

So I just jotted down a few notes, waiting for better days.


My first writing contest

I do not normally take part in literary contests – I’m too old to benefit from a newcomer’s award, and I am too young and too little known (and too alive) to run for a career or in memoriam award. Also, I had my fill, back when I was in university, of people that strutted around with a peacock tail of award certificates for their stories and poetry – usually awards handed out by the corner stationery shop or the local bakery.
I am also extremely wary of the “if you win we will publish you” awards from publishers – because that’s too often a publisher just doing their job (you know, publishing) but making look special what’s basically an open call.

Prejudiced, yes I am.

And yet, one of my works was longlisted for a major award a few weeks back (it did not go beyond the longlist) and today for the first time in my life I submitted a story of mine to a major writing award – the Baen Fantasy Adventure Award.
That is sort of a publisher doing their job but calling it special sort of thing.
But I did it anyway.

Well, basically because a friend posted on his Facebook profile the award announcement, and I happened to read it just as I had here on my desktop a short story, in the historical fantasy field, that might fit the bill.
There is no entry fee (which is good) and there’s a prize in cash.
And Baen is the publisher of a few of my favorite authors and books. It would be nice to be part of that.
And it would be silly not to try, right?

So here I am, at the tender age of 53 and with a good list of publications, waiting for the results of my first literary award.
It’s a weird world, uh?

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Buzz on Tint Journal

Tint Journal, is the online literary magazine for English as a Second Language (ESL) creative writers, and in the spring issue that’s just been published you will find my flash fiction Buzz, together with other 24 pieces by authors from all over the world. The map shows were we all come from.

I am very proud of being in Tint Journal, as my status as a bilingual writer has always been somewhat a gray area – something I am sure I have mentioned in the past.
But here we are, Buzz is here exactly because of my bilingual status.
And it’s a great thing being on Tint Journal, because this is my first “literary” publication. Yep, just like the real guys, I’m writing literature.
The story is illustrated with a very evocative work by Patricia Falkenburg, and if you are willing to run the risk, you can also listen to the story read in my own ugly voice.
The lot, for free – but I urge you to support Tint Journal on Patreon.