REVIEWS

[The Night Shifters is] a fascinating ride. The voice feels a lot like Neil Gaiman. This is a huge compliment in my mind, and one not to be taken lightly.” - Melinda VanLone Reviews

Friday, July 31, 2009

The Case Of The Sloppy Pincher


Funny how doing things wrong (or in this case, semi-wrong) can lead to a discovery. I bought some tomato plants this year, against my better judgement, and too late in the season. Furthermore, I bought seedlings instead of sowing my own seeds, which is ridiculously expensive. I’ll never get a big enough crop out of my plants to justify their expense, but at least a couple of things went right this year.

First, we had a freakishly cool June in Phoenix. Long-time vegetable gardeners around here will tell you it’s always tricky to get your tomato plants timed right – you don’t want a late frost to fry them, you’ve got to have them blooming when the pollinators are interested in them, and it’s all got to happen before the heat of summer sterilizes the pollen. I deserved to have a big failure in the tomato department this year, since I bought my plants in May (instead of late February). Happily, nature intervened and cut me some slack, extending spring far into summer.

But that’s not the only thing that went right. The other thing has to do with sweet basil. I planted some with my tomatoes in pots, in a spot that gets morning sun and afternoon shade. I figured the basil would shade the wimpy tomato greens and keep them from getting fried. And that’s what they did. But they did something else for the tomatoes as well, and that’s where the partial goof comes in.

I always pinch back blooms on sweet basil, because they spoil the flavor of the leaf. The plant puts so much energy into the bloom, it sucks all the flavor out of the rest of the plant. I also pinch because bees love those basil blooms so much, they’ll ignore other fruiting blossoms in favor of it. If you want your beans to develop, you may be disappointed if the bees are busy with your basil. So I pinch developing basil blossoms almost every day. But here’s the funny thing: I’m a sloppy pincher. So usually a few blossoms develop right at the bottom of the stalk. Because I planted the sweet basil in the same pots as the tomatoes, and because there were a few blossoms to attract the bees to that location, it looks like the tomatoes have benefitted from the close proximity. They came for the basil, and when they ran out of those flowers they moved on to the tomatoes.

I’m thinking I’ll try the trick with other fruiting plants. Mix ‘em up with sweet basil, and plant plenty of tansy too, because I’ve managed to have an entire spring without aphids, thanks to the tansy I planted in several places. I don’t believe in pesticides, I’d rather throw a plant away than squirt it with poison, but I don’t mind doing lots of companion planting. Butterflies and ladybugs love tansy, that’s good enough for me.

So, just to recap – I goofed, but the goof turned out all right. Maybe it steered me in a more productive direction. Next year I’ll mix more basil and tomato plants, maybe throw in some beans for good measure. And I’ll do the same sloppy pinching I always do. We’ll see if my theory is sound.

For the time being, at least, the Great Experiment continues . . .

Friday, July 24, 2009

Tough Noogies


The brick & mortar business where I work has made me sign a document stating that if I talk about them online, I can be fired, so I won’t mention them by name. But I’m not mad at them for making me sign that paper. Because they’re up the creek without a paddle, and I can’t blame them for being freaked out about it. They’ve got a right to look after their reputation. God knows the retail giants aren’t doing anything else very well these days.

Unfortunately, the way most retail chains have reacted to the bad economy is to decide that they’ve got to start harassing the customer from the moment they set foot in the store and not let them go again until they have their name, phone number, e-mail address, and shopping preferences – and woe betide the customer who doesn’t also have a couple dozen frequent shopper cards. Furthermore, at my store I’ve been ordered to address you by name, no matter how much that may offend you. And you need to know my name too. If it’s any consolation, I’ll try to use your last name instead of your first, and I only mispronounce it about 35% of the time. I’ll try to mumble it so you won’t think I’m hitting on you.

But all of that “customer service” will do no good at all in the end, because I work at a book store, and within a few years, most book sales will be done online or with a phone app. Yes – I know everyone is saying that, and I also know there tends to be a gold-rush attitude about new formats and technologies that often turns out to be exaggerated. But in this case friends – it ain’t exaggerated. People are underestimating how big the change is going to be.

Forget all that stuff about how much you like paper books and how you don’t want to change. Because that’s just tough noogies. It’s not about what you want. It’s about what they’re going to give you, what they think they can do to turn a profit. Controlling costs is the only way big biz can squeeze the bottom line right now, and shipping around tons of paper is expensive. Zapping electronic bits in your general direction is way cheaper, and if you put it on a reader you like, you’ll get used to it pretty fast.

Don’t get me wrong, I love printed books. But I have to admit, I’ve been appalled at the waste I see in the book biz. We manufacture astounding amounts of trash every day at our location, just in terms of cardboard boxes and merchandising lists, just so we can build displays of things we want people to buy. But after all that effort, after all that paper and gasoline, most of the books that make it to our shelves get packed right back up eventually and shipped back again. It’s very Sisyphus-ian. Move that pile of sand over here, then move it back over there. On the small scale, no big deal. But we’re talking gigantic, and without easy credit to make it look like actual moolah is being made, the losses are apparent much more quickly than they used to be. So the electronic medium will sweep all that away. And how could that help brick & mortar stores?

Not one bit, actually. So they’re in complete denial about it. That’s why I’m wondering if you’d like a bag for your items, Mr. Smith. What was that phone number again?

The funny thing is, even if the brick & mortar chains crash, I don’t think amazon is going to be the only game in town. Google won’t either, even if they end up selling their own gigantic library of e-books. I think writers are going to control the e-book market, mostly because we’ll be able to set our own prices. We’ll tend to keep them really low, because we don’t have a gigantic overhead to pay for. Of course, we’ll be plagued by pirates and we’ll have to compete with millions of other sites for the attention of shoppers, but that won’t stop us. After all, we’ve been treated like dirt for decades, we’re used to trouble. We’re not easily discouraged, either. In fact, it’s scary how hard it is to get us to give up.


So here’s my advice to shoppers: don’t pay a lot of money for books, or movies, or music. Pay something, give writers and musicians a reason to keep making the stuff that entertains you, but don’t pay a high price for it unless you can’t live without it. If you think someone’s price for an e-book is too high, tell them so. They may lower it. Believe me, if you tell a book store clerk the same thing, they’ll just have to refer you to Customer Care. And there’s just one way a call like that can end.

“Thanks for shopping with us Mr. Smith. Have a nice day.”

Saturday, July 18, 2009

My Dad The Time-Traveling War Hero


When I was about 8, I got caught in a really big lie, one so ridiculous there’s no way anyone would possibly have believed it – except me. It was a lie about my dad, and in my own defense, I have to say I told it because of something I honestly did not understand. And I don’t blame my mom for this fact, even though it was partly because she hadn't told me that she and my dad were divorced. My dad was in the Air Force, he was stationed in Viet Nam, so when I asked where he was, she always told me he was away fighting the war. What she didn’t realize was that I was too young to understand that the war was in Viet Nam. The war I saw on TV every day was the one in the movies, WWII. It was WWI, as well, but I figured it was the same difference. I loved those old movies, and I did not completely understand that they were about the past; in my mind, the 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s all blended with the present. The past was incomprehensible if it was more than a few years old, so I decided it must all be happening now.

If I had been the kind of kid who watched the news, I might have heard about the war in Viet Nam, but my favorite show was The Time Tunnel. It fed my delusion that the past and present were really the same thing. So one day in school, as we were trooping through a section on WWII in our history books, I pointed to a picture in the book of a fighter plane and informed the class, "My dad flies an airplane just like that! He’s in the war!"

The boys in the class immediately caught my mistake, they pointed out that current fighter pilots flew jets. But to me, a fighter plane was a fighter plane, I didn’t see the point arguing about props versus jet engines. And to make matters worse, I insisted that Dad was still fighting WWII, because that was the only war I knew anything about. So when the boys pointed out that WWII had been over for 20 years, and the gap in my logic became really apparent, I felt the need to fill it with an explanation. "My dad is part of a special force," I said, "they’ve gone back in time to fight the Nazis – because the Nazis figured out how to use the Time Tunnel! They’re using it to steal the plans for the atomic bomb so they won’t lose the war! And my dad is going to stop them!"

Nobody bought that story, and that really ticked me off. Even if it wasn’t true, they could have given me the benefit of the doubt, right? Could they be absolutely positive the Nazis weren’t engaged in time travel experiments? No they could not! And furthermore, attitudes like that just get you eaten when the monster really does come oozing out of the vents at the movie theater. That’s been proven a thousand times over, at least in the movies.

I gave up trying to convince people that my dad was a time-traveling Nazi-thwarter. After a while, I forgot that I had ever told that story – until I read a book by Dean Koontz titled Lightning. I got halfway through that book, realized the good guy was German, then understood exactly what was going on. Okay, maybe he didn’t use the Time Tunnel, but those nefarious time-traveling, bomb-stealing Nazis showed up, just like I said they would!

I’m not saying Koontz used his idea-sucking, thought-theft device on me. He came up with that idea because it was a good idea. Vindication!

When I was about 9, Mom told me she and Dad were divorced. Years later, I was finally able to see far enough past the tip of my own nose to realize there had been a war in Viet Nam, though the truth seemed almost as strange as my lie had been. Maybe we can never make up anything as weird as the truth is.

But we can try, can’t we? Those holes in logic have to be filled somehow. Pardon me while I fetch my shovel . . .

Friday, July 10, 2009

Yo-Ho, Yo-Ho, The Writer's Life For Me


At the risk of incurring the scorn of blogmasters and literary critics, the wrath of REALLY powerful talk-show hosts, the ire of authors of legitimate biographies, and the undivided attention of CNN, I’m going to call some of these blog entries mini-memoirs.

Okay, I suspect none of the personages listed above will actually give a rat’s ass what I call my silly blog entries, or that they’ll even be aware they exist, but in the slim chance any of that happens, I figure I’d better be up front with the fact that I’m a liar. And when I’m not lying, I have a really crummy memory. And when I’m telling the truth, I’ve changed names, dates, facts, and people’s hair color to conceal their identities, not because I’m concerned for their safety or privacy, but because I don’t want to be sued out of all my worldly possessions, which currently consist of a 1050-square-foot duplex and a ten-year-old Ford POS with one broken window.

So why call biographical blog entries mini-memoirs? Why not call them stories if they’re so full of hooey? After all, many writers base stories and novels on their own lives, not to mention the lives of their friends, families, and neighbors. Everything we see and hear, everything that happens to us, is weighed and considered as possible subject matter. But you’d be surprised how much of it changes when we run it through the Fiction Machine. Especially my Fiction Machine, which usually churns out Science Fiction.

On the other hand, I couldn’t call many of my blog entries straight biography either. Because frankly, straight biography would be kind of boring. I’ve never been an international spy, a movie star, or an ex- junkie with a really compelling story of redemption and hope. The only thing that makes me stand out from the e-crowd is that I’ve written and sold several novels. I’m a professional liar. And so is every other writer, even the ones who write non-fiction.

Have you ever noticed that when you share stories at family gatherings, no one can agree about what really happened? As I’m writing this, there are five different books about Abraham Lincoln on the shelf at the book store where I have my day job. Each of them has a different interpretation of Lincoln’s character, his mental health, his relationship with his wife, his style of governing, and even his sexuality. Granted, none of them have engaged in outright lying, as I plan to do, but look at it this way: you’re not going to lose weight using my diet, cure your health problems by referring to my list of natural cures that THEY don’t want you to know about, or become a millionaire by following my investment theories. I’ve got to come up with some way to hold your attention.

But I’m not totally without ethics. I’m not simply going to lie and not admit it. Though I won’t try to point out which parts were deliberately made up, as opposed to the parts that are false just because my memory sucks. If you write a lot of blog entries yourself, you already have some idea why writers lie, not to mention what drives us to write in the first place. This ain’t exactly redemption, but it might be insight.

Recently a new phrase has been coined, truthiness, meaning a lie you tell that you wish to be the truth. But I prefer fibbiness (much easier to say than lie-i-ness). Fibbiness is a lie you tell that you wish were true, but that you don’t expect anyone to believe. Only Mathematicians pursue pure truth. The rest of us tell lies all day long, to ourselves and to everybody else. The lies aren’t just a way to get what we want or to avoid trouble. They’re an attempt to re-shape reality into what we want it to be. Maybe that’s a good definition of a memoir. Or even a mini-memoir. Not to mention a blog entry.

And even if it isn’t – it’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

And While We're On The Subject



Here’s another awkward question people ask me: "Why did you change pen names so often?" And once again, I get a lot of blank stares when I give the honest answer: Because my publisher wanted me to. And not because they were trying to fool readers – at least, not at first.

The first time I changed my pen name, from Emily Devenport to Maggy Thomas, my publisher was trying to fool the book store chains. They had gotten into the habit of only ordering as many copies of a writer’s new title as they recently ordered of the last book. Think about this for a moment – we’re not talking about total sales for the last book. We’re talking about the order information for the last few months. So even if they sold 12 copies of your last title, if they only ordered 1 or 2 copies in the last few months before the new title was released, they would only order a couple of copies of the new one. Not only did that give you no opportunity to grow your audience, it actually caused your sales figures to shrink.

So it was time to become Maggy Thomas and write the book that readers liked the best, the one that got nominated for the Philip K. Dick award, Broken Time. Only my publisher didn’t do anything else to boost that book other than having me change my name. They didn’t make it a lead title or publish it in hardback, it was just another obscure mass-market paperback release for that year. So when it came time to sell the next proposal (for Belarus), my editor had to hustle to keep me on board with the company, and this time her reasoning was simple. She thought I could gain more readers if my name was "gender obscure," meaning that it could be a man’s name or a woman’s. That’s how I became Lee Hogan. So that time around, they were trying to fool the reader.

And that strategy worked fairly well. If the economy hadn’t started to slide the year Enemies was released, I might still be doing Lee Hogan titles. Instead, I and a bunch of other midlist writers got "remaindered" a few months after the 911 tragedy, which means the remaining stock for our titles was sold at a discount, reducing their value and screwing up our sales figures.

It’s not the saddest story out there – I actually managed to get 9 titles published and get my professional credentials, and I worked with great editors. I learned how to write novels, and no one committed suicide. But I have to say, having three pen names has been a pain in the neck. I made fans with all three names, and trying to direct them all to my new stuff could be a real challenge. Just trying to set up Facebook pages for each pen name makes my head spin – as of this writing, I’ve only done it for Emily Hogan and Emily Devenport, because I need a different e-mail for each pen name. I suspect the same is true for MySpace and LinkedIn, and I’m not sure it’s even necessary. I’m hoping I’ll only need two fiction websites, one for my adult fiction and one for my YA, because I’m pretty sure my head is going to explode if I have to remember even one more password.

I’d like to tell you I’d never get another pen name, but if I sell a book to a publisher and they want me to assume yet another pen name, I’ll do it. That’s the biz, folks. Sometimes you end up with Multiple Pen Name Disorder. God help me if I run out of e-mail accounts . . .