Complaining Pays 0¢ per Word

A pair of friends are putting together an anthology of short horror stories written by Connecticut writers. To that end, one of them posted a submissions call for the anthology in the r/Connecticut subreddit. She provided the guidelines as well as the compensation: $20, a contributor’s copy, and a free PDF of any future books the editors produced under their imprint. Sounds harmless, right?

But this is Reddit we’re talking about. Immediately my friend was swarmed by keyboard Bolsheviks indignant at such exploitation. Only $20 for a short story? Outrageous! Nevermind the fact that token-paying markets (defined as paying 1¢ or less per word) are common in the genre world and nothing about my friend’s offer was unusual. One little Lenin claimed she had friends — close friends — who were HWA members and they would laugh at such an amount. “Your ancestors were probably slave owners as well,” snarled another self-styled Che Guevara. And thus a blow was struck against my friend, the capitalist pig-dog. Writers of the world unite!

You can certainly make money as a writer but writing fiction is probably the worst way to do it. A 2022 survey of nearly 5,700 members of the Author’s Guild revealed that the median pre-tax income for authors — both full-time and part-time — from their books was $2,000 a year. Yet their earnings jumped to $5,000 when all writing-related income was considered; according to the survey, “56% of respondents reported that such activities as journalism, conducting events, editing, ghostwriting, and teaching more than doubled their income.”

Not all of these authors are fiction writers, of course, but the survey does jibe with my own experience: the most lucrative writing is the unglamorous stuff. Copywriting. Technical writing. Journalism. Over the years, the best-paying gigs I’ve had involved ghostwriting, editorial work, or writing short nonfiction articles.

So if there are better ways to make a buck by writing, why write fiction? There are a few reasons. One, I enjoy it and take great satisfaction when a story or book comes together. Two, some readers seem to like what I write. And three, I own it.

It’s almost unheard of for a writer to sell their copyright to a piece of fiction, whereas journalism, ghostwriting, and the rest is often work-for-hire. That means you sell the copyright in exchange for a one-time payment. Meanwhile I can theoretically publish and republish a short story an infinite amount of times because I always retain the copyright. Same with novels and novellas. Should A Season of Whispers go out of print, I can republish it with another publisher or self-publish it myself — hardly worst-case scenarios. It will be mine until long after I’m dead and it joins Jay Gatsby and Mickey Mouse in the public domain. I should add that this goes for book-length nonfiction too, like Smedley.

A writer may not make a lot of money from an individual sale of a piece of fiction but those sales can accumulate over a lifetime; and obviously the more works one has to offer, the more sales he or she can potentially make.

While I would never write in exchange for that dubious social credit known as “exposure,” I’ve mentioned before that I believe there are circumstances in which it’s OK for a writer to sell their work for less than what they might otherwise expect. For example, I have no problem contributing a free blog post or article that advertises a bigger project of mine, like a newly released book. Or, for reasons of ownership mentioned above, selling first-time rights at a bargain rate may be in your interest if your goal is to create a body of work that you can hustle forever.

Likewise, should you feel called to write lesbian steampunk poems, then you probably shouldn’t expect whopping sums in return. But if your goal is to become the preeminent name in lesbian steampunk poetry with all the fame that it brings, then token markets may be solid stepping stones toward achieving your vision.

The key is to examine a given situation and ask, Who’s making money here, if anyone? If the publishers are earning substantial profits from the project, then you should absolutely receive a piece of that, either upfront or as a royalty. But many projects operate on much leaner budgets, like, say, anthologies of horror fiction meant to showcase the talents of Connecticut writers. I assure you my friends did not embark upon their collection as a money-making scheme.

In that case, it’s up to you to determine if receiving $20 in exchange for a short story is worth your time and energy. Ask yourself if it aligns with your goals and the ultimate vision you have for yourself. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a writing career — and all of them are right.

Kickstart My Heart

Editor extraordinaire Sara Crocoll Smith is preparing a third volume of her anthology series, Love Letter to Poe, this one themed around Poe’s story, “The Tell-Tale Heart.” For this entry she’s using Kickstarter to fund its production. It hasn’t launched yet but you can follow the Kickstarter to be notified when it does.

In related news, the previous volume, Love Letters to Poe, Volume II: Houses of Usher, which includes my story “The Last Stand of Sassacus House,” has been nominated for a 2023 Saturday Visiter Award. Winners will be announced in October.

The initial book in the series (which also included a story of mine) won the 2022 Saturday Visiter Award in the category of “Original Works Inspired by E.A. Poe’s Life and Writing.”

You can purchase copies of Volume I here and Volume II here.

How to Win Frens

A few weeks ago I was approached by a potential client to write a project. The client was very specific about what she wanted — always a good thing — but her biggest demand had nothing to do with deadlines or my previous credits or, in fact, anything to do with writing.

Said client was a big fan of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. She only wanted to work with a writer who’d read and internalized the book.

I bluffed, of course, but clearly I failed to win or influence her: she went with someone else. Yet by the time the rejection came down the intertubes I’d already grabbed Carnegie’s book from the library. So I went ahead and read it anyway.

First published in 1936, the book should be more properly titled How to Win Clients and Close the Deal because so much of it is aimed at how to sell yourself and whatever product you’re peddling. The original foreword was buried in the back of the edition I read, and the revelation that Carnegie based it on a public-speaking course for businessmen that he taught at a YMCA is not at all surprising.

This isn’t a book about being the best bestie you can be. It’s a book about hustling.

Still, How to Win Friends launched the modern self-help genre, notoriously known for its bestselling fluff. Carnegie hit a nerve writing when he did. As the Chautauqua movement gasped its last in the 1920s, Carnegie stepped in with his seminars, which eventually morphed into a line of books. Nowadays Chautauqua lectures have been reincarnated as TED Talks and Nantucket Projects, but in-between there’s been Rich Dad Poor Dad and The Secret and entire dead forests of flimflammery, all of it inspired by Carnegie.

Cracking open its covers, I wanted to be cynical about How to Win Friends. But I confess I don’t disagree with everything Carnegie wrote.

Carnegie starts with a pair of truisms I already knew. Don’t criticize or complain to others because it never changes their behavior, he says, and be sincerely grateful for others.

I say I already knew these things but they took me the better part of four decades to learn. I wonder how much trouble I would’ve saved myself if I’d read this book and started practicing them earlier. Put another way, it took me a long time to recognize that simply being nice and appreciative of others costs me nothing, and while that attitude is usually paid back immediately, even when it isn’t it makes the vexations of life much more tolerable.

Damn it, Carnegie. I couldn’t help warming to him.

He goes on with further advice. People are flattered when you remember their name. Be friendly. Soften bad news with good news first. In business relationships, convince others that what you want is beneficial to them. And so on. Basic tenets everybody knows but worth repeating in black and white.

Some other suggestions are tougher to stomach. Smile a lot, writes Carnegie. Don’t argue. Respect other people’s opinions.

Hoo boy. I’ve lived more in the past five years than I have in the preceding 45 and let me tell you, these days my bar for horseshit is real low. Sitting here watching the Select Committee hearings about January 6, wondering if in 2025 I’m going to be a private in the First Connecticut Volunteers of the Union Army, does not make one open-minded and tolerant of every opinion. I have zero patience for your crackpot conspiracy theories about elections and masks. You don’t want to get vaccinated? Fine, as long as when I roll into the emergency room I go to the front of the line and you and your case of covid goes to the back.

I’m not in the mood to smile and not argue and respect whatever fever dream the five neurons in your rhesus-monkey brain have conjured. I don’t want to be everybody’s friend.

This, I think, is the big flaw in Carnegie’s system: he dances around conflicts, and when they invariably occur, he approaches them indirectly. His strategy is one of avoidance rather than straightforward resolution. There’s an unspoken implication that when a disagreement reaches loggerheads, the participants are not friends, they remain uninfluenced, and they part ways as indifferent to each other as Bengal tigers. I much prefer a system that allows one to navigate conflict deftly but directly.

Some of Carnegie’s method is outright manipulative, like his technique of seeding others so they believe your idea is their idea, which is then pursued with all enthusiasm. Both Charles Manson and the Nazi Party were fans of How to Win Friends. But such is the nature of salesmanship: you can use it to push an order for 5,000 oil gaskets or a cult ideology. It’s not Carnegie’s fault some people are suckers.

There’s definitely something quaint about How to Win Friends and Influence People, something historically funny in the countless anecdotes of Bill Smith of Poughkeepsie selling typewriter ribbons or Janey Jones of Rancho Cucamonga convincing the bank president to promote her. But there’s some useful insight too, not the least of which was buried in that foreword-turned-afterword.

“The way to develop self-confidence, [Carnegie] said,” wrote Lowell Thomas in the original 1936 preface, “is to do the thing you fear to do and get a record of successful experiences behind you.” Carnegie doesn’t talk much about self-confidence in his book but it’s certainly the subtext: what holds most people back is not a lack of technical skill at their profession but rather social awkwardness. By equipping them to navigate the social sphere, Carnegie helped his readers and lecture-goers better realize their goals and dreams.

In a lot of ways, How to Win Friends and Influence People is about conquering social anxiety, something just as prevalent in our current era. Maybe it’s due for a post-pandemic edition.

David Riley

Earlier this month I realized I hadn’t heard from David B. Riley in a while, and after seeing that his most recent blog post was from December 26 of last year, I searched around to see if he was OK. That’s when I discovered he passed away in January.

I reached out to Julie Campbell, who worked with David on several projects including the magazine Steampunk Trails. She told me that David succumbed to long-running health issues on January 3. His body was cremated and his ashes scattered in the desert. She didn’t know much more. Julie spoke to David shortly before his death and he didn’t mention any illness, so whatever happened occurred suddenly and, let’s hope, without pain.

David was a prolific writer but I knew him best as an editor and anthologist. He was, above all, a champion of weird westerns. He worked almost exclusively in the genre, with some dips into sci-fi.

I’m not sure how he felt about straightforward historical westerns but David could certainly tell you the difference between a sheriff and a marshal. At the same time, he really wanted the weird in weird west. Speculative-fiction markets these days either publish bespoke literature or, more often, have pretensions to do so. David wasn’t so snobby. He loved westerns mashed up with aliens and dinosaurs and lizard people. The more incongruous the ideas, the better.

David published three of my works. The first was a pretty mediocre early effort called “Glorieta Pass;” and the last was an experimental epistolary piece called “Red River,” set in the aftermath of The War of the Worlds. Both appeared in his magazine, Science Fiction Trails.

He also published the horror western “Realgar” in the anthology Low Noon. It’s a favorite of mine and I know it was a favorite of David’s. When he posted a review of my collection The Dead Ride Fast on Amazon, he called out “Realgar” specifically by name. I’ll be forever grateful for his publication and endorsement of that story.

David could be a little ornery — do you expect anything less of a western writer? — but I’ll miss his gonzo energy. The weird west has never had a more enthusiastic contributor and advocate.

Reading the On-the-Nose Apocalypse

It may not come as a surprise that I didn’t read a whole lot of post-apocalyptic fiction in 2020.

Or did I? The endless doomscroll of my Twitter and news feeds, of spiking graphs and preposterous statements by politicians at every level, has been ten months (and counting) of life imitating art.

We’ve struck every cliché: the ominous foreshadowing over Wuhan; Chinese journalists, scientists, and medical professionals pleading for help, then suddenly vanishing; lockdowns and morgue trucks and mass graves on Hart Island; leaders lying or obfuscating when they’re not actively blocking relief efforts; civil unrest; denialists and ignorant contrarians of every ideological bent; opportunistic wingnuts derailing trains or concocting outlandish kidnap schemes; and all-around confusion “increased by a spate of new and conflicting regulations, and by the arbitrary way controls were imposed or lifted,” to lift a quote straight from Anna Kavan’s Ice.

And of course the deaths. 2020 was a year in which 3.2 million Americans died, the most in US history. In the past 12 months, one out of every 100 Americans dropped dead — 1 percent of the population — and of those deaths, 10 percent were from covid. Clearly none of us needed a V8 Interceptor to become Mad Max. To live the apocalypse we just had to wake up in the morning.

This year, rather than sticking to a theme, the books I read were randomly pulled off the shelf or my Kindle. I wasn’t actively seeking plague stories. I was just looking for distraction.

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The Night of the Long Knives by Fritz Leiber

My initial excitement at discovering a little-known 1960 post-apocalyptic novella called The Night of the Long Knives (free for Kindle) by Fritz Leiber, author of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, was blunted by its banal premise.

Set in a post-nuclear irradiated American Midwest, the Deathlands are the haunt of solitary marauders and psychopaths exiled from the vestiges of civilization that still exist beyond its dust-bowl borders. The kill-or-be-killed ethos of these wastelanders prohibits them from forming lengthy bonds, so each aimlessly wanders the desert in a never-ending death stagger, briefly uniting for some common purpose before turning on each other.

Amazon is littered with self-published ebooks with this very same concept: survivalist porn written and consumed by white gun nuts who imagine themselves self-sufficient murder machines but who, in a true endtimes scenario, would keel over as soon as the insulin and Narcan ran out. Suspecting Long Knives was similar, I nearly DNFed early on.

But it’s a testament to Leiber’s plotting and fast pacing that I kept reading what turned out to be a decent story. Protagonist Ray is high-plains drifting when he encounters Alice in a very 2020 meeting —

She looked slim, dark topped, and on guard. Small like me and like me wearing a scarf loosely around the lower half of her face in the style of the old buckaroos.

— but before they go too stabby-stabby on each other, an oldtimer named Pop and a crashed pilot sweeps them into a conflict between the remaining civilized city-states. Pop is himself a reformed murderer who roams the Deathlands as an evangelist for nonviolence. He finds much opportunity for conversion in Ray and Alice, so the book’s action is spliced with long dialogues about killing, justified and otherwise, both martial and personal.

One intuits that the author, like others from the World War II generation (Leiber was a pacifist who worked for Douglas Aircraft on their troop and supply transports), was trying to reconcile his actions with his beliefs to develop a kind of Cold War ethos. This probably resonated with readers of Amazing Stories, where the novella first appeared. While it never blooms larger than those midcentury roots, Long Knives is nevertheless a quick and fun read.

Jack McDevitt’s Eternity Road (1997) epitomizes 1980s and 90s science fiction: a fat mass-market paperback 400 pages long, where nothing happens for the first 100.

We are introduced to an early industrial society rebuilding after a global pandemic centuries ago; we learn of a failed expedition to locate a repository of ancient Roadmaker knowledge in which everyone but a single survivor perished; we meet a cast of characters mumbling about embarking on a second attempt.

It’s right there in the title: this book is about a journey, and yet readers must first slog through 25,000 words of watching the protagonists make sandwiches and fill their Thermoses. Much like the relics they search for, Eternity Road is in some sense an artifact from another era when books were sold by the pound.

The story entertains once the characters get off their asses and set out, and as I read, I kept checking Google Maps to follow the group’s progress based on the landmarks noted in the text. The America that collapsed was a more advanced version than our own, and many of the obstacles the party faces involve AIs and automation still purring among the ruined cities and towns. This, combined with the RPG collection of characters — a wizardly scholar, a woodsman tracker, a healer, etc. — strongly reminded me of the 80s game Gamma World minus all of the mutants and monsters, doubling down on the book’s nostalgia factor.

Eternity Road is a throwback on another level, too: it’s optimistic sci-fi. Commonly post-apoc ends with the protagonists adapted to their new world but rarely is the world itself changed. McDevitt instead returns to a rosier view of America and mankind in general, believing in science and rationality and technocracy — in his future, rediscovered technology will be accepted by people and put to beneficial use. While the past few years give me reason to doubt that’s always the case, such idealism is a cozy campfire in the long dark wilderness of 2020.

Ice by Anna Kavan

It’s hard not to read Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967) as a parable of addiction and obsession, although who is the addict and who is the anthropomorphized drug is difficult to suss. One pursues and the other is pursued, begging the question of whether it’s the junkie who chases or is chased. At the very least, the two may be interchangeable.

The slipstream plot, reminiscent of JG Ballard at his most New Wavey, features no proper nouns, no clear actors, and very indistinct geography. An anonymous narrator, recently returned to his homeland, goes to visit a young woman who rejected him for another man; when he arrives at the house he discovers the husband alone and abandoned. By chance the narrator discovers the woman is now prisoner of a petty foreign dictator known as the warden, whereupon the narrator schemes to liberate her, following the couple from place to place. Yet his goal is nothing more than to imprison her himself.

All of this is set against a backdrop of world war and impending glaciation: harbors freeze, snowstorms blanket roads and ruins, food and warmth becomes increasingly scarce. Whether the war precipitated the climate change — it’s suggested some kind of nuclear attack or accident has affected the poles — or vice versa is never clarified. Further complicating things is the narrator’s seamless launching into dreamlike fantasies of the girl’s death or abuse, with him taking a savior’s role, before returning to the point of divergence and continuing.

While not the most enjoyable book I’ve ever read, Kavan does a laudable job of fixing mental illness down on paper. Throughout, it’s clear the story nothing to do with love. Kavan’s fever-dream chronicle is a tale of possession: the narrator only wants to her so that no other man does; and the woman, who understands this, resents him for it. This in turn confounds him, too lacking in self-awareness to grasp his own blundering. Like a contemporary incel, he never realizes his problems are of his own manufacture or that his goals would be more accessible if only he shed a drop of his narcissism and self-importance.

As with all my post-apocalyptic reads, it’s easy to draw parallels with current events, and with Ice, especially current leadership.

When the Tripods Came

Bonus Track: I included this book last year when I read a bunch of UK post-apoc, but if one novel could summarize 2020, it’s John Christopher’s When the Tripods Came (1988).

Though ostensibly about an alien invasion, the otherworldly bad guys remain largely offstage for most of the book. Tripods is more precisely a novel about social contagion and civilization’s dissolution from within. Employing a divide-and-conquer method, the aliens prefer to let humanity overthrow itself by inflating xenophobia and regional and national prejudices. People who come in contact with the pro-alien Trippies soon become Trippies themselves, and while not necessarily violent, their growing numbers make it increasingly more difficult to avoid or resist them. As borders are sealed and paranoia skyrockets among the noninfected, the protagonists find themselves clinched in ever-tightening bear traps.

With one fell swoop of a story Christopher managed to consolidate both the concepts of viral contamination with ideological estrangement. No issue is so small or simple that it can’t be polarized into extremes, and it’s precisely this splintering that prevents organized resistance to the Tripods or, for that matter, covid-19. If only everyone could meet in the middle — hey, let’s all wear masks but agree that draconian regulations are counterproductive — then the enemy could be easily beaten.

But nope. It would take the humans of Christopher’s Tripods series three more books to defeat their alien overlords. Meanwhile here I am ten months later, getting my brain swabbed just so I can drop my son at college, delivering meals-on-wheels to retirees because the senior center is shuttered indefinitely.

Often the problem isn’t so much the problem. It’s the people.

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That’s it for 2020. If you want more apocalyptic suggestions, I read a bunch of Brit books in 2019, some rando novels in 2018, and end-times fiction about the US in 2017. Until next year, stay safe, be kind to others, and wear a fucking mask.

A Season of Brook Farm

The Hive was the communal heart of Brook Farm. During his stay, Nathaniel Hawthorne lived in the front right room.

On Thursday, my novel A Season of Whispers drops in print and ebook editions.

Season is set in 1844 in a fictional transcendentalist commune called Bonaventure, located in eastern Connecticut. Bonaventure was influenced by two real-life transcendentalist communities, one of which is Brook Farm, located in the outskirts of Boston.

Brook Farm was founded by George Ripley, a Unitarian minister, and his wife Sophia as an experiment in societal reform. Both had been inspired after visiting at least one intentional community founded by German immigrants (in Ohio, IIRC) and after spending the summer of 1840 on a farm in West Roxbury reading about the French socialist Charles Fourier.

The Ripleys sought to establish a communal arrangement that ensured “a more natural union between intellectual and manual labor,” separate and apart from “the pressures of our competitive institutions.” Their sense of socialism was much less rigid or ideological than what we may think of. Brook Farm was organized as a joint-stock company, in which members bought shares (at $500 a pop, equivalent to about $13,900 in today’s money) in exchange for three hots and a cot and a dividend from the profits. Only a very few Brook Farmers actually paid that much, however, and it’s doubtful anyone saw a penny in return. Brook Farm was also nondenominational, notable as most utopian settlements usually required subscribers to uphold a specific religion or creed.

For a few years, Brook Farm became a kind of sun around which the transcendentalists orbited. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, editrix of The Dial (which was The Atlantic or New Yorker of the movement), declined to join but were frequent visitors.

Nathaniel Hawthorne joined in April 1841 after purchasing two shares, the other for his future wife Sophia. Hawthorne soon became disillusioned with farm work, particularly with all the manure, and found the labor left him too tired to write. After vacationing in Salem for a few weeks in September, he finally left the farm permanently in November — without ever receiving a refund of his shares. A decade later, Hawthorne fictionalized his Brook Farm experience in The Blithedale Romance, a comical novel I can’t recommend highly enough.

A Season of Whispers

One of the issues the Brook Farmers struggled with was how exactly society should be reformed. What would a perfect society look like? What did “reform” mean in practical everyday terms?

Although the farm grew crops with middling success, Brook Farm supported itself mainly through the day school run by the Ripleys. By 1844, the enterprise was successful enough for them to shift into a new phase, in which they leaned heavily into Fourierism, costing them several members as a result. Fourier was quite specific how people would live under his system, even down to the architecture; and so the Brook Farmers embraced austere poverty in order to build a Phalanstery on the property, a sort of communal dormitory constructed around a common green space. Construction continued until March 1846, when the nearly completed Phalanstery burned to the ground.

The disaster ruined Brook Farm, and while the Ripleys eventually recovered — George Ripley went on to become a successful journalist and editor of Harper’s Magazine — it took them 13 years to pay off the debts accrued by their utopian experiment.

Today you can visit the Brook Farm Historic Site but you may be disappointed as nothing from the era remains (the oldest building is a print shop built in 1890 or so). Still, you can roam the area, which includes a cemetery, and get a feel for the land.

You can read more about Hawthorne’s stay at Brook Farm here.