“How to Argue the Constitution with a Conservative” audio book now available

I really couldn’t have someone else read my book — it’s just too personal and, let’s face it, parts are definitely written in first person.

So I bought a nice microphone and recorded in my room. The quality may not be as good as I would have liked, but it’s not bad and Amazon said it was good enough for them, so now my Constitution book is available for you to listen to!

This is not my first audio book — the Baker Street Irregulars anthologies (co-edited with NY Times Bestseller Jonathan Maberry) had wonderful actors reading the stories. However, that was all arranged by the publisher and I had no control over it. They did an excellent job!

But this is the first that I got to read my own work. And, if you know me, you know I’m a ham. Give me an audience and I’m happy. I hope I did a good job!

The advantage of this audio book is that you can listen in your car or while jogging or otherwise doing something else. You also have the advantage of an updated copy, since I added a few bits here and there as the law changed (such as discussing Trump’s two impeachments which occurred after the publication of the original book).

The disadvantage of this audio book is that you’ll miss all the great cartoons from Pulitzer-Prize-winning artist Darrin Bell. So clearly, you’ll need to buy a copy as well. (And if you want many of the cartoons in color, you’ll also have to get the ebook version).

Hope you enjoy it! Here’s the link.

When the prose gets in the way of your story

I often find myself yelling at the screen during certain movies and shows. “Just hold the damn camera still, you moron!” Hand-held cameras that jiggle all over the place make me wonder how a director can afford top-notch stars and special effects but not, apparently, a tripod.

On the other hand, I also sometimes find myself going “Wow, that Kubrick camera movement is wonderful. It’s just so beautiful to see.”

And in some ways, both extremes are bad, because instead of paying attention to the story, I’m seeing the process behind the scenes.

The same is true of fiction. “What’s the big deal if there are a few misspellings or grammatical errors?” someone recently asked me. “Isn’t the story more important?”

Well, sure. But if I am thrown out of the story because of the bad spelling or grammar? That’s the last thing any author wants. I want my readers to be lost in the story to the point where you’re not even consciously thinking “Hey, I’m reading a book right now.”

And just like the movies, it can work against you to go too far in the opposite direction. If you’re trying to show off how clever you are by using words that make people run to the dictionary to figure out your meaning, then you’ve lost them. If you’re so enamored with your flowery writing that your readers are spending their time admiring your poetry instead of caring about your characters, then it’s going to be a lot easier for them to put your book down and not pick it back up again.

Mind you, there are plenty of authors who disagree with me on this point. Maybe it’s just because of the type of books I like to read (and write). When I see the zippers on the monster’s costume, I’m no longer scared.

Don’t let them see the zippers.

Interview with author and editor Ira Nayman

Today, I’m pleased to be interviewing Ira Nayman, who has devoted his life to writing humor. As the proprietor of the Alternate Reality News Service (which sends reporters into other universes and has them write articles about what they find there), he has self-published 11 books (with two, or possibly three more coming in 2021). He has had six novels published by Elsewhen Press.

For two and a half years, Ira was also the editor of Amazing Stories magazine. 

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Humor is so subjective, so how do you know you have written something funny that someone else would like to read?

IRA NAYMAN: I actually rarely laugh at my own writing as I am writing it. I often laugh when I first get the idea (because surprise is such an important element of humor, and that is the most likely time that a joke will surprise me). I sometimes laugh when I reread something I have written months later (because surprise is such an important element of – oh, but you already know that, don’t you?).

In some ways, I am a very intellectual humorist. I studied humor as an undergraduate at university and I have read a lot about different theories of why humor works. In addition, I know a large number of comic devices. Because of this (and the fact that I have been doing it for over 50 years), I largely trust my instincts about what will work and what won’t.

Don’t be like me. My advice to people who are starting out on the path to writing humor is two-fold. First: experience a wide variety of humor in as many different media as you can find it. Look at this experience with a critical eye: what makes you laugh, and how does it work? Apply the lessons you get from other practitioners to your own writing. Second: find a couple of people who have a similar sense of humor to yours and whom you trust, and run early drafts of your writing by them. A good reader can really help you hone your craft (and give you confidence that you are on the right track). Third (to, uhh, hide the stain on the second fold – you really should be more careful with my advice!): write as much as you can as often as you can. The more you write, the more quickly you will develop your own unique voice and talent.

VENTRELLA: How has the publishing industry changed for the better and the worse over the years?

NAYMAN: As it happens, my PhD dissertation was on how digital publishing was changing the nature of publishing. This was written in 2000, so some of it may be dated, but I find that most of it is still relevant to today’s publishing ecosystem.

The main advantage to being able to publish online is that anybody can do it. You don’t have to go through the gatekeepers of agents and/or publishers. The main disadvantage to being able to publish online is that anybody can do it. Over a million books are now published every year. How are you going to be able find readers for yours?

New media proponents argued that social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al) was going to level the playing field, allowing writers to grow fan bases and readership. This undoubtedly happens, but it has not been my experience. Social media is good at maintaining a writer’s relationship with their existing fan base, but it isn’t usually that great at helping writers find new readers/fans.

One major change in publishing that has been going on for decades is that the major imprints are becoming smaller and smaller cogs in transnational corporate conglomerates. Because of this, they have dropped a lot of mid-list authors to concentrate on blockbusters. In this environment, it is harder (although not impossible) for new writers to be published by a major house; and when they are, if they do not immediately produce financial results, they are quickly dropped (as happened to somebody I know).

On the plus side, Publishing on Demand (POD) has made it possible for small publishers to thrive, so writers have a much larger pool of smaller publishers to approach. It also means that there are far more anthologies being published than ever, which is a good entry for writers of short stories.

VENTRELLA: You were the editor of Amazing Stories, the first all science fiction magazine, for two and a half years. How did that happen?

I’m always looking for ways to promote my work. I forget how, but one day I heard of the Amazing Stories web site. I volunteered to write book reviews and the occasional opinion piece for them, which I did for a year and a half. At that point, the publisher, Steve Davidson, told me that his wife had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness and that he had to take some time away from the web site; he asked if I would be willing to edit the web site in his absence. I agreed, with one condition: if he ever revived the print magazine (which he had talked about doing every now and again), I would like to have an editorial position.

I worked on the web site for another year and a half, at which point Steve announced that he was ready to start the magazine and asked me to be editor. I was a bit surprised: he had talked about some pretty heavy hitters for the position, and I thought I would be working under one of them. However, I’m not one to run away from a challenge, so I said yes.

And I’m so glad I did. It was a challenge, at times, as any major undertaking will be. However, it was an immensely satisfying experience, and I am very proud of the magazine (not to mention side-projects like Amazing Selects and AmazingCon) of what Steve, Kermit Woodall (the art director) and all of the contributors were accomplished.

VENTRELLA: What does a magazine editor look for? What are ways to impress an editor? What are ways to not impress an editor?

One of the things I learned about editing is that every magazine takes on the character of the person who decides which stories will go into it (usually the editor, but sometimes the publisher). For this reason, it’s hard to generalize about what editors are looking for. The best thing a writer can do (and most guidelines pages recommend this) is to read an issue or two of the magazine, and deduce what the editor is looking for from what the editor has previously accepted. (I was never shy about saying that I was looking for what I look for in my pleasure reading, and what I hope I write: surprise and delight. Or, put a different way, stories should be original and fun.)

The best way to impress an editor is to follow the guidelines. If the guidelines say that the editor wants stories in 24 point Palatino (yes, it is a typeface – don’t argue: I used to read font books for fun), submit the story in 24 point Palatino. Yes, it is weird. Yes, it means more work for you (if you have to submit a story to a dozen different publications until it is sold, accept the fact that you may have to format it a dozen different ways; it comes with the job).

How to not impress an editor? Need I say it? In the Amazing Stories guidelines, we wrote at least three times that we used an anonymous reader system and that manuscripts should be submitted with nothing that would identify the author. Roughly one quarter of the submissions had identifying information on them. They were immediately rejected without being read. Do I really need to tell you how not to impress an editor? Really? (We weren’t that hardass about it. Writers could resubmit stories that had been anonymized; I would then assign them to a different reader. My thinking was that I didn’t want to risk missing a great story because of an easily fixed technical matter. However, not all editors are so easygoing.)

There are many ways to alienate editors, but I will limit myself to one more: never argue with a rejection. In my time as editor of Amazing Stories, only one person responded to a rejection with: “You don’t know what you’re talking about. This was a great story! You’re an idiot with terrible taste who is going to be sorry he passed by this great opportunity!” That was one person too many. You cannot win an argument with an editor who has rejected your story; all you can do is ensure that that editor will never want to work with you. Ever. As hard as it may be, the best thing you can do is suck it up and submit the story somewhere else.

VENTRELLA: You are currently working on a Kickstarter campaign. Can you tell us a little bit about the project, and how crowdfunding platforms like it have changed the business?

NAYMAN: It is for an anthology called Shapers of Worlds. Canadian speculative fiction writer Ed Willett runs a podcast called The Worldshapers, where he interviews SF writers. Last year, he produced an anthology of short stories written by people he had interviewed in the first year of the podcast. The Kickstarter is intended to raise funds for a second volume, which will feature authors he interviewed in the second year of the podcast. I was one of those authors, so I am scheduled to have a story in the volume.

If it funds, Shapers of Worlds Volume II will feature new fiction from Kelley Armstrong, Marie Brennan, Helen Dale, Candas Jane Dorsey, Lisa Foiles, Susan Forest, James Alan Gardner, Matthew Hughes, Heli Kennedy, Lisa Kessler, Adria Laycraft, Ira Nayman, Garth Nix, Tim Pratt, Edward Savio, Bryan Thomas Schmidt, Jeremy Szal, and Edward Willett, plus stories by Jeffrey A. Carver, Barbara Hambly, Nancy Kress, David D. Levine, S.M. Stirling, and Carrie Vaughn. Among those authors are winners and nominees for every major science fiction and fantasy literary award, plus several international bestsellers.

I have had about 20 short stories published, most in anthologies, most of which I am proud to have participated in. But, man, oh, man, that lineup is stellar! And many of the writers have donated books or other things as premiums. Even having been around as long as I have, I’m still stoked to be a part of this project.

But, ah, ahem, I mean, yeah, if your readers would like to, you know, check out the Kickstarter and consider giving a little something to it, that would be cool cool.

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of anthologies are being published these days. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and GoFundMe are an important potential source for funding them. Sites like these and Patreon (which employs a different funding structure) also allow for authors to get paid for self-publishing.

The real people in “Big Stick”

My steampunk novel BIG STICK obviously features Teddy Roosevelt (as seen on the cover, drawn by Hugo-winning “Girl Genius” artist Phil Foglio). But I tried to incorporate many other actual, real people into the book as well. Doing so was tremendously fun. If I needed a doctor for the story, I’d research who could possibly fit that actually existed at the time. I read biographies and articles to try to get their personalities down.

So for those who have read the book and are interested (and for those who haven’t but find this interesting) here are some of the other real people who appear in the novel. Warning: Some minor spoilers ahead.

Mark Twain: Of course, I had to include one of my favorite authors. I don’t think I have to explain who he is. Since the book takes place in 1898 (when Teddy Roosevelt was Commissioner of Police in Manhattan), Twain is quite old. That doesn’t stop him from helping, of course, with his riverboat that turns into a zeppelin. (Hey, it’s a steampunk novel. Zeppelins are required). He also assists in pulling a trick on the bad guys which, well, gets weird.

Harriett Tubman: Tubman was the hero who helped slaves escape to the north with her “underground railroad” before and during the Civil War. Since the book’s publication, she’s been the subject of a mostly-fictional movie about her life and will soon be featured on the $20 bill. In BIG STICK, she is quite old, travels around in a steam-powered wheelchair, runs a secret organization dedicated to fighting injustice, and doesn’t take guff from anybody.

Edward Bouchet: Bouchet was a scientist who was the first African-American to get a doctorate from Yale. After graduating, however, he could not find a job because of racial discrimination and ended up teaching at minor schools and even becoming a High School principal. In BIG STICK, unable to find work, he gets recruited by Tubman’s secret organization as their device expert (sort of like “Q” to James Bond). I probably made him a bit more “mad scientisty” than he actually was…

Anthony Comstock: Comstock was a Christian moralist who headed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which, like all such moralists, he got to define. In BIG STICK, he gives speeches against places he thinks support vice, only to have those places struck by lightning from clear blue skies soon thereafter, making people think he has God on his side. Our heroes are convinced there is a scientific explanation, which leads to the grand adventure…

Eliza Grier: Dr. Grier was one of the first black women to get a medical degree but, like Bouchet, had trouble finding employment afterwards. She ended up as a teacher and died young. In BIG STICK, she is employed by the secret organization and tends to the wounds of our heroes, even when they don’t want it, but she knows her stuff and they deal with her. She’s another tough cookie — you have to be when you try to enter the white man’s world in 1898.

Melville Fuller: Fuller was the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and was responsible for the terrible decision Plessy v. Ferguson which upheld Jim Crow laws and established “separate but equal” provisions in our laws, making racial segregation completely legal. He was a rabid conservative who struck down many progressive pieces of legislation he didn’t like. As you may guess, in BIG STICK, he’s one of the Bad Guys.

Henry Lowrie: Lowrie was known as a kind of “Robin Hood” figure pre-Civil War, where he would attack, rob, and kill slave owners, leading to what became known as the “Lowrie Wars.” He’s a fascinating character. He was reported to have died in 1872 but many people thought that was just to allow him to go into hiding. In BIG STICK, he’s quite old and serves as Tubman’s personal bodyguard, though he longs to participate in the adventure our heroes are on.

William Stephen Devery: Devery was a corrupt policeman in Manhattan who was fired by Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, out to clean up the department. In BIG STICK, he sees Roosevelt as his sworn enemy and does everything in his power to bring him down. He gets a job as Comstock’s bodyguard but uses it for nefarious purposes. In real life, he appealed his firing, got rehired, became Chief of Police, and was just as corrupt the second time.

Other real characters are met only briefly or in mention, such as Thomas Edison, President William McKinley, Nikolai Tesla, George Washington Carver, and Grover Cleveland… and then there are a bunch of characters that exist only in my imagination.

If you haven’t read the book (from Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press), follow this link to read the first few chapters, check out some reviews, and order your copy.

“Arch Enemies” reissued

My first novel was ARCH ENEMIES. It was released by Double Dragon 13 years ago and got some pretty good reviews.

But I have to admit — I didn’t really know what I was doing. ARCH ENEMIES was a young adult fantasy novel featuring a teenage bard. It was over 130,000 words, when YA novels are supposed to be no more than 70,000.

Oops.

So, as the rights reverted to me, I decided to do what all authors want to do: Make it better! I added some scenes that had been deleted (yeah, it was originally even longer), moved scenes around, made it so that there wasn’t so much exposition early on, changed a few words here and there, and split it in two at the perfect point. Viola! Two young adult novels, each under 70,000 words.

I had the idea for the book when I got tired of the old cliche of the “Chosen One” in fantasy, where some kid finds out they’re special and by the end of the book, is the world’s greatest wizard or swordfighter and saves the day. “What if they got the wrong guy?” I wondered.

So this series involves Terin Ostler, who matches the description of the Chosen One in a prophecy and is told that only he can prevent the evil gryphons from escaping from the magical Arch, dooming everyone.

Here’s how my new publisher (Fantastic Books) explains it in their press release:

He is the chosen one.
Chosen for what?
No one will tell him.
Chosen by whom?
No one knows.
Chosen for a good reason?
Even that is open to debate.

When you’re a young bard on the road, and an 847-year-old prophecy hurls these slings and arrows of outrageous fortune at you, life is going to get very uncomfortable very quickly.

Terin Ostler was living a happily anonymous life when two squires grabbed him out of a tavern and brought him before the Duke of Ashbury. Told that he was the object of a prophecy—but that no one would tell him what the prophecy says—he is forced onto a quest in which his life will be threatened by the enemies of the Duke, and by the Duke’s allies. His quest is to save the world from an apocalyptic war, which started nine centuries ago, and seems to be on pause. Terin Ostler is a man on the run… if only he could figure out where he’s going.

Reviewers comment often on the surprises and twists in the plot, and I hope you will want to check it out for yourself. The books are available as paperbacks and through kindle and nook. More details and reviews can be found on their specific pages here:

Terin Ostler and the Arch Enemies

Terin Ostler and the War of the Words

Coming soon is the reissue of the third book in the series, Terin Ostler and the Axes of Evil.

Writers are not in competition

Someone on Twitter posted “HARSH WRITING ADVICE: Your writer friends are also your competition. Sorry.”

This is ridiculous.

I am in no way in competition with the majority of writers who write books nothing like mine. You write moving stories about families torn apart by internal conflict? Your readers aren’t mine.  Someone who writes only horror novels is not my competition.

And neither are writers who write the same kind of stuff I do. 

Those writers who write like me are friends I encourage, and do you know why? Because when their readers are looking for something else to read, here I am. Here’s my similar stuff. You like Philippa Ballentine and Tee Morris’s steampunk novels? Well, while you’re waiting for their next one, here’s another fun steampunk novel you may be interested in. Oh, you prefer the humorous high fantasy of Alan Dean Foster? Well, look what I’ve got here.  Oh, you would rather read a fun political thriller about vampires like Jonathan Maberry might go for? You may consider something of mine…

These people are my friends — I support them, they support me, and we all win. 

It’s not like there are only so many books that can be published or read, and therefore we’re all fighting over a finite resource.

Support other writers; they are not your competition. They are your allies.

A bunch of writers at a convention getting along great. (Ian Randal Strock, Daniel Kimmel, Hildy Silverman, Gail Z. Martin, me, and my wife Heidi Hooper)

The Shared Desk

I was a guest on Tee Morris and Pip Ballentine’s podcast the Shared Desk recently, where we discussed the Constitution and specifically how it applies to writers. (And also why I wasn’t impressed with “WandaVision”). It was a lot of fun, and there are a lot of laughs! Check it out!

Hook, first line, and sinker…

Some writing advice will tell you that the very first line in your story is tremendously important.

That’s not true at all.

What is important is your first page — you need to grab your readers and make them interested enough to continue reading. You want to get an image into their heads with a question that needs answering, and which can only be discovered by turning the page.

That doesn’t have to be done in the first line. Some of the greatest stories ever written don’t do that in the first line. Don’t feel so pressured by the thought that you have to grab the reader quickly that you give up, frustrated at a near-impossible goal. For that matter, don’t pressure yourself to have such a powerful first line that you put one in that doesn’t fit the feel or theme of the story just because you think you have to hit your reader over the head the second they start.

However…

… if you can grab your reader in the very first line, you’re a step ahead of everyone else. It’s a great feeling when you read a story and the very first line makes you go “Whoa. This is cool. I have to keep reading…”

So I decided to look back on the anthologies I have edited and co-edited to pick out my favorite first lines. Mind you, these aren’t necessarily my favorite stories in those anthologies. But you have to admit, these make you want to keep reading, don’t they?

George was absolutely certain he hadn’t been holding a sword a moment ago. – Kenneth Schneyer, “Foursomes,” Across the Universe

In the investigation that followed, it was determined the entire affair might have avoided if the mission planners had been a bit less clever in programming Bai Juyi’s AI network. – Allen Steele, “Come Together,” Across the Universe

It was still two days before the next big storm would hit, but the artificial islands that could afford to come in already were taking all the best sound-side spots, all along Seattle’s drowned edge, and surrounding the Space Needle’s raft settlement. – Cat Rambo, “All You Need,” Across the Universe

Hello, I’m Paul, and I’ve died 62 times. – Patrick Barb, “When I’m #64,” Across the Universe

Katie Spillane took the elevator down to the front security desk at 2:00 a.m. with a cup of coffee in each hand and her ulterior motive in the front pocket of her hoodie. – Matt Bechtel, “Cracking the Vault,” Release the Virgins!

I questioned my life choices when the address I arrived at for my job interview turned out to be a Dunkin’ Donuts. – Alex Shvartsman, “The Coffee Corps,” Release the Virgins!

The first thing Watson noticed was that the victim’s eyeballs had exploded. – Derek Beebe, “A Study in Space,” Baker Street Irregulars 2: The Game is Afoot

Normally, finding a dead cat is a bad thing, especially when it’s nailed to your front door. – Bernie Mozjes, “The Mystery of the Dead Cat in the Darkness,” Tales of Fortannis: A Bard Day’s Knight

Other than the guest of honor, everyone enjoys a good hanging. – Mark Mensch, “Thieves Among Honor,” Tales of Fortannis: A Bard Act to Follow

Of the stories I’ve written, I guess my favorite opening line is from a story that has yet to be sold, but maybe I’m biased because it’s the most recent thing I’ve written:

Killing Jesus was an accident; deciding to take his place was the mistake.

But most of my short stories have first lines that are not quite as catching:

I knew that expression.

Irad poked at the lifeless body.

“Braaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnsssssss.”

I felt seasick.

Darvin stared at the floor.

The novels seem to be a bit catchier for some reason.

Stage fright consumed me as I peered through the curtain, fist clenching my lute. – “Arch Enemies”

The shock of hearing one’s own name conspiratorially whispered is a great awakener. – “The Axes of Evil”

Cool water rolled slowly down her neck, curving between perfect breasts, caressing her
stomach.
– “Bloodsuckers: A Vampire Runs for President”

“God has no need for dynamite!” – “Big Stick”

The point is this: If you can come up with a great first line, wonderful. But you don’t need it. Don’t stress over it.

Eating Authors!

Writer Lawrence Schoen has gathered 100 science fiction authors and asked them to write a short essay about their most memorable meal, which makes for a fascinating collection! It includes my story about a memorable (and funny) anniversary dinner I had with my wife and our encounter with a very apologetic yet clueless manager of a Red Lobster.

EATING AUTHORS is now available as an e-book or a paperback.

And better yet, all the proceeds go to charity (fighting cancer).

The collection includes famous writers like Steven Barnes, Gregory Benford, David Brin, Myke Cole, Gregory Frost, Chuck Gannon, Laura Anne Gilman, Sally Wiener Grotta, Joe Haldeman, Sharon Lee, Jonathan Maberry, Jack McDevitt, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., James Morrow, Robert J. Sawyer, Alan Smale, Bud Sparhawk, Allen Steele, Michael Swanwick, Harry Turtledove, and many more (including me!).

Order your copy here!

The Eye of Argon (50th Anniversary)

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first publication of The Eye of Argon in a small, mimeographed fanzine, ConTinual asked me to moderate a panel to discuss what many consider the worst fantasy story ever written.

Well, come on, it was written by a kid, so give him some slack.

Writers Keith R.A. DeCandido, Gail Z. Martin, Hildy Silverman, Ian Randal Strock, and I discussed The Eye of Argon — But we came to praise, not bury.

We shared hilarious stories about its performance at various science fiction conventions and talked about the history of the story and its creator.

At the end, each panelist reads a section and the viewer can read along as well to enjoy it and see all the mistakes and typos. (If you want to try to read the whole thing, here’s a link.)

Watch and enjoy! (And if you want to see a performance done at a convention years ago with guest author Peter David, click here.)

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