MICROSOFT BUYS INTO BARNES AND NOBEL!  Is this the beginning of the salvation for B&N?  Or is it the beginning of the end?  Indeed the shares of B&N surged on the stock market because of this deal.  However, what Microsoft was interested in was the Nook, and e-publishing--not the old fashioned novel with real pages that one holds in one's hand.

The second part of this equation is that B&N plans to spin off the nook as a separate company.   The nook will then survive, maybe even prosper, as its own company and/or as a subsidiary of Microsoft.  That leaves us with the question as to what will now happen to the original B&N as a seller of real books, and what will happen to their brick and mortar stores?

They will certainly have a better chance of surviving as an old fashioned book store by getting rid of the huge amount of space in their stores that they have devoted to the nook, and returning to the displaying of real books.  But it remains to be seen what they have in mind for their post-nook world.



When the Tucson Festival of Books first began a few years ago, both Barnes and Noble, and Borders were not only present with their large tents full of books for visitors to peruse, but they were enthusiastic sponsors.

By the time the 2010 festival rolled around both book store chains had dropped their sponsorship of the festival, but they did continue to show up with their tents full of books for visitors to peruse. 

Then came the 2011 festival, and as reported in an earlier column on this site, Borders failed to even make an appearance.  Based on those developments I predicted that Borders was dead meat and had already made the decision to cash it in.  That prophecy came true when Borders closed down all of their remaining stores.

However, equally disturbing in the 2011 book festival was that Barnes and Noble, though they did make a showing and had a tent set up in the University Mall, THE DID NOT BRINK A SINGLE BOOK.  It was all about the nook.

Fast forward to the Tucson festival of Books in March of 2012.  Barnes and Noble not only did not bring a single book, but they failed to even show up--not even to push their nook.

Based on these developments, and those covered in previous comments in this column, I now predict that Barnes and Noble will cease to operate as a brick and mortar book store by the end of January 2013.



Been in a Barnes and Noble lately?  They are now repeating the same mistakes that Borders made which led to the fall of that bookstore chain. 

Last summer when I wrote about the fall of Borders Book Stores, I compared their Business Plan with that of B & N, noting that one of the main reasons B & N survived and Borders didn't was because B & N was more book friendly.  You walked into a Borders and you saw everything BUT books on display.  There were precious few tables or racks for displaying new books--and you had to look hard to find them. 

On the other hand you walked into a B & N and the first thing you saw was table after table after table with new releases spread out for customers to ogle.  Right after Borders collapsed, B & N doubled the number of racks they had for displaying new paperbacks indicating that they seemed to have gotten the message from the collapse of Borders and were determined that it would not happen to them.

But then, about two months ago they completely reversed themselves.  You walk into a B & N now, and just like Borders before it fell, you see everything EXCEPT books.  The first thing you see are several racks displaying their "Nook."  Then you see rack after rack of computer games.  They have cut their room for displaying books in half!  And, you have to look long and hard to find those precious few books.

Been in a Barnes & Noble lately and seen anyone browsing the racks of "Nooks" and computer games?  Not a soul!  Everybody walks right past those displays until they find where they've hidden the books.

People who want to purchase a "nook" can do so over the internet.  People who want to purchase computer games can do so either over the internet or visit the numerous specialty stores that do specialize in those things.  When people go to a book store, they want to be able to browse books to find that special gem, and if you eliminate that feature from your bookstore you are done for as a business.

I am hoping that this recent move by B & N was just a temporary fling because of the xmas holidays.  But if it is not, and if this is the direction that B & N has decided to go on a permanent basis, then they are done for as a Book Store.  By January of 2013 they will be gone.  Doors closed on all their stores.  You can take that to the bank.



I guess I really am prophetic.  (Actually just a matter of reading the signs).  Just as I predicted in the first essay on THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE BOOK INDUSTRY PART I, published on 15 June 2011,  Borders Book Stores are throwing in the towel.  It was announced today that they are trying to auction off all of their assets and will be closing their doors on ALL of their remaining Book Stores.  There are rumors that the nations 3rd largest book seller "BOOKS A MILLION" (or something like that) might pick up at least SOME of Borders' assets. Whether or not that means that they might take over some of the physical brick and mortar book stores remains to be seen.  If they do, I hope that they come up with a better game plan than Borders had.  For details on WHY this is happening, please scroll down and read the above-mentioned THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE BOOK INDUSTRY PARTS I and II.



I must be prophetic or something.  Two weeks ago (15 June 2011) I posted an essay on this page entitled “The Decline and Fall of the Book Industry.”  Yesterday, 28 June 2011, I received in the mail the July issue of the independent monthly newsmagazine NEWSMAX, and inside was an article by Ted Rall entitled “WILL BOOKS SURVIVE?”

No, actually, I am not prophetic, but I do have the ability to look at trends, reasons behind trends, and connect dots.  Apparently, Mr. Rall does too.  In his article he repeated some of the points I brought up in my earlier essay, but he also added some additional points some of which I will paraphrase, or quote, here along with my own additional analysis and comments.


Mr. Rall’s article reiterated my contention that Border’s is doomed, although the reasons he gave differ from (i.e. are supplemental to) mine. According to Mr. Rall, beginning about 10 years ago the Border’s professional Book buyers became extremely risk averse.  They bought into the “Blockbuster mentality.”  In other words, they would overstock stacks of the “sure-thing” bestsellers by the big name authors.  You know, the guys (and gals) who are getting the 8 digit advances.  This left them little or no room for the midlist authors.  

The result of this is that Browsers came to find fewer and fewer surprises at Borders, so they stopped going.  Why buy a best selling author at Borders when you can get the same book cheaper at Costco or Amazon?


Contrast the Borders experience with the Barnes and Noble experience.  The browsing experience at B&N is much more rewarding.  Though B&N is also struggling to get out of bankruptcy, they will likely survive for the simple reason that they have continued to keep their shelves stocked with more midlist authors.  The browser can still go into a B&N and find that pleasant surprise tucked away somewhere in the stacks.   

For example, in B&N I have recently found valuable books on the Ancient Near East that you would be lucky to find in even the best of University Libraries.

B&N also does a much better job of displaying new releases—from both the best sellers and the midlist, and from both fiction and non-fiction.  


Perhaps the morale of this story is that if brick and mortar book sellers want to stay in business, they are going to have de-emphasize the overstocking of the same books that people can buy cheaper at Costco, etc., and re-emphasize the stocking of more midlist and obscure titles that give people a reason to come in and browse.


Outside of the marketing blunders that Border’s has committed (which have hurt the entire Book Industry), Mr. Rall also delved into the issues brought about by the electronic revolution.

Thanks to the internet and other electronic gadgets each of us are reading over 4 times as many words per day now than we did 25 years ago.  However, because 95% of all data is now on electronic media, we are in danger of becoming a post-literate society.  Libraries around the country are laying off workers, closing branches, and reducing hours.


And this, in spite of the fact that we are supposedly “reading” more than ever.  However, the more we read, the less we want to pay the people who write for a living.  Case in point.  I was on Amazon the other day and I saw them advertising E-books for free.  That’s right, for free!

Now, I suppose that Amazon will earn a few bucks by selling advertising on these E-books.  But guess how much of that the author is going to see?

To be sure, these were non-fiction books of short length.  But once this process has started, don’t think for a moment that it won’t spread into major non-fiction and fiction as well—if Amazon has its way.  That could well be the handwriting on the wall.  The death knell of the book industry.  

Yes, the more words we read, the less we want to pay the people who write those words. And, in the end we’ll be getting what we pay for:  garbage.


Another unintended consequence of the digital revolution may be lower memory retention.  In this regard Mr. Rall also reiterated what I had said about the quality of the reading experience of real books vs. the electronic gadgets.  But, it goes beyond “enjoyment.”  Studies have shown that people remember less of what they read on a computer screen than what they read in printed medium.  “The feeling of literally being in touch with the text is lost when your actions—clicking the mouse, pointing on touch screens, or scrolling with keys or on touch pads—take place at a distance from the digital text, which is, somehow, somewhere inside the computer, the E-book, or the mobile phone.”

In other words, this digital revolution will make us “read in a shallower, less focused way.”  “As Americans read more and more, less of it printed, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that we are losing something precious and irreplaceable.”

“It’s a frightening thought:  America’s intellectual future may depend upon the fate of a (single Book) superstore (Barnes and Noble).”


THE HISTORICAL NOVEL (posted 26 June 2011)

Before discussing the historical novel, we first have to answer the question:


My motto is that if it ain’t B.C. then it ain’t old enough for me.  However, that being said, I do admit to having fallen in love with Gone With the Wind and also love Michener’s and Rutherfurd’s multi-era epics which includes modern and near modern portions.  But, of course, it’s the fact that their epics always begin with eras that are B.C. that attract me to their novels and that also give their novels the great depth and scope that makes them best sellers.

As for the publishing industry, it seems that these days just about any sort of fiction that takes place at any time prior to yesterday morning is classified as “historical” fiction.  This would include everything from Prehistoric caveman epics to stories based on the 2008 presidential elections.  It could include everything from the well-researched historical “faction” epics of Michener, Rutherfurd, and McCullough to teenage vampire fantasies no matter how horrid and anachronistic the “history” in such “novels” might be.


Perhaps the world’s first historical “novel” was the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.  While both the Sumerians and the Egyptians had recorded epic myths that predate the Gilgamesh Epic, those myths were based on “gods” that were mostly stand-ins for forces of nature or some such, and should be classified as pure fantasy.

The Gilgamesh Epic on the other hand was based upon an actual historical person who is listed on the Sumerian King lists as ruler of the city of Uruk near the end of the Early Dynastic II period (2700-2500 B.C.), though the first edition of the epic did not appear until hundreds of years later.  Most of the other characters in the Epic are fictional, as are the plot, story line, and individual incidents.  However, much of the fictional material (and the fictional characters) was/were allegorical for actual historical events.  The plot and storyline by the way follow the format recommended for ALL writers of fiction in Vogler’s “The Writer’s Journey,” and is the same format that made the “Star Wars” Epics so popular (i.e Joseph Campbell's "The Hero's Journey").


Some of the stories in the Bible, particularly those about King David, Joshua, and some of the judges might be classified as historical fiction—when and if it can ever be proved that those characters were actual historical characters.  The stories about David, for example, are compilations of legends about several different leaders in the Hebrew past so that even if there was a King David that lived in the late 10th century B.C. as the Bible claims, the stories about him and Saul are largely fiction because much of the material was culled from earlier historical incidents and legends.


Many of the Ancient Greek plays of the 5th century B.C. could be considered “historical fiction” because they were about actual historical figures of the Greek past, Kings, Queens, and heroes.


Perhaps some of the songs of the “troubadours” during the middle ages could also be considered “historical” fiction.  “Tristan and Isolde” come to mind here.


Tolstoy stands as the giant that created the modern genre of historical fiction.  His novels, such as “War and Peace,” used a mixture of authentic historical and fictional characters and his stories revolved around actual historical events.  He set standards that future novelists tried (successfully or not) to emulate.


One writer who did so successfully was Margaret Mitchell in her Epic “Gone With the Wind,” the first great American Historical Novel.  Many people consider “Gone With the Wind” to be the first Historical Romance Novel, which it might well have been, but it was also much more than that.  While most of her characters were fictional, the Civil War that the events revolved around and that had such a dramatic and drastic effect upon the characters was a very real event.  

Many of the incidents in her story were undoubtedly drawn from stories that had been handed down in her family from the time of the Civil War, since they all took place in the same area of Georgia where she was raised.  More importantly, however, her depictions of the ERA of the Civil War, the way people acted, thought, dressed, and the physical descriptions of “things,” level of technology, tools and implements, houses, architecture, etc., was just so spot on it was 100% convincing.  And that is what made it such a great Historical Novel—and perhaps the most successful novel of any genre in the history of publishing.


In the mid-twentieth century there was a new development in the writing of historical fiction, and in the writing of novels in general.  There was a trend to veer away from the 500,000 word epics such as “Gone With the Wind” and the Tolstoy epics, in favor of much shorter (60,000-100,000) novels.  This was done for marketing reasons so that they could be mass produced in paperback, placed on racks in drug stores, and termed “pocket books” because in paperback form they were small enough to stick in your pocket.


This trend to the “short” pocket-book novel gave birth to a genre of historical fiction usually termed “swords and sandals.”  The prototype of this genre is the Gladiator story, or the Roman Army story, but came to include any male adventure story set in the Middle Ages, Ancient Rome, or before.

The godfather of this genre in its early days was Mika Waltari with his novels bearing titles such as “The Egyptian,” “The Hittite,” “The Etruscan,” “The Roman,” etc.  This genre is still very much alive as the success of writers such as Steven Pressfield and others attest.

These novels, for what ever their perceived weakness might be, generally portray their historical eras with a great deal of accuracy and make one feel that they are “there.”


As an offshoot of the popularity of “Gone With the Wind,” but following in the footsteps of the “Sword and Sandals” adventure stories in terms of length and formatting was the genre now termed Historical Romance most of which are set in Tudor England, or close by geographically and chronologically.   This is a genre that has taken the publishing world by storm in recent years and is reflected in the membership of the Historical Novel Society, 90% of whom are writing in this genre.


Another modern trend is to write a mystery novel and set it in Ancient Rome, Greece, or Egypt.  Some writers have used the thriller format set in Ancient Rome with varying degrees of success.  In addition you now have people writing vampire stories, alternate “history,” time travel where a modern person travels back in time to an historical era, and even “paranormal” stories being passed off as “historical” fiction.


In counter-point to these above trends (i.e. the short form genre fiction) is the continued survival (and extreme success) of Historical “Faction” epics in the Tolstoy tradition.  The modern godfather of this trend is, of course, James Michener.  Edward Rutherfurd and Colleen McCullough with her “Masters of Rome” series are other big names that continue to cash in on this trend.


Unfortunately, the proliferation of the subgenres of Historical Romance, Swords and Sandals, and mysteries set in Ancient Rome, etc., have given most of the “gatekeepers” of the book industry (Literary Agents and editors of publishing houses) the impression that “historical fiction” can mean ONLY one of the major subgenres of Swords and Sandals, Romance, or Mystery.  To these people, in the world they live in, the great Michenerian Epic no longer exists (even though those types of epics continue to sell much better than the subgenres in the real world that the rest of us live in).

This is why literary agents are all saying that “historical” fiction has to be under 120,000 words or they won’t accept it.  They are correct in that 120,000 words or less is fine for the historical romance, the mystery, the Swords and Sandals, or any of the other off-beat sub-genres (vampires, alternate “history,” etc.).

This mindset has in turn led most of the “gatekeepers” to automatically assume that if you have written an historical novel it must obviously be one of the sub-genres.  For example, at a recent writer’s conference I had a discussion with an acquisitions editor for one of the major publishing houses.  When I told him the title of my novel “The Last King of Babylon,” he automatically assumed that it was in the same vogue as previous Sword and Sandals adventures.

When I explained that my novel was more in the Michener, McCullough, and Rutherfurd mold, he was initially surprised, then admitted that those works have been very successful, and continue to do well in reprints.


One of the reasons that literary agents give for insisting that historical novels (from new writers) be under 120,000 words is that no publishing house will risk the expense of publishing a larger Michenerian-sized epic by an unproved author.

While I agree that there is a great deal of truth to that, I can’t help but think that the “mindset” and preconceived views that any and all “historical fiction” means historical romance, historical mystery, or Swords and Sandals is a huge part of the problem.  And, this is because there is just so much of that stuff out there: whereas the true historical epics can be counted on the fingers of one’s two hands.  so, the "gatekeepers" of the industry tend to forget about the marketing possibilities and long-term financial benefits of the great historical epics.

In this sense, I think that the “gatekeepers” are kind of cutting their own throats.  While the true historical “faction” epics continue to sell well in reprint after reprint, year after year, and decade after decade, the sub-genre swords and sandals, romance, mystery, etc., will do well for a month or two, then you never hear about them again, so the industry has to replace them with yet another outpouring of the same old same old for the same short-term gains.

For more on this issue of self-inflicted wounds that the industry is burdening itself with, please read the previous essay on “The Decline and Fall of the Book Industry.”


My views of what does or does not constitute historical fiction is as follows:

I see essentially three categories of “historical fiction.”  

One: There is historical FICTION, in which the emphasis is on fiction, telling a good story for pure entertainment purposes, while the history might be a bit sloppy and/or anachronistic.  Some of Hollywood’s recent regurgitations can be classed here.  A Prime example is their misguided attempt to do a remake of the great 300 Spartans story.

Two:  There is HISTORICAL fiction, where most of the characters may or may not be fictional, and the story-lines and plots might be just as good as the above, but the historical setting is portrayed so accurately, that the historical elements are accentuated.  The reader feels like they are really “there” in Ancient Rome, or wherever the story takes place.  This type of historical fiction (though not 100% accurate) is good enough that it can be used as supplemental reading in college history classes--as long as some explanation of where and when the history has gone astray.  The works of Ben Kane are examples of this type of historical fiction.

Three:  Historical Faction.  The prime example of this type of novel are the above-mentioned “Masters of Rome” epics by Colleen McCullough where most of the characters are real historical personages (with some fictional characters mixed in), and the settings and accoutrements are spot on and totally engrossing, whereas plot is weak to non-existent.  

Michener and Rutherfurd use fictional characters as their protagonists, but also mix in authentic historical characters—all in a milieu of actual historic events.

In Historical "Faction" novels, the author adheres extremely close to the actual history--even to the point of weakening, or eliminating, the plot--although the story-line is still adhered to.

A sub-genre of the Historical Faction novel is the Biographical novel.  If you are using a well-documented historical personage as your protagonist, then you as a writer owe it to that person, and to your readers, to portray that person as accurately as possible.  That means that you have to slot your novel into the Historical “Faction” category, because the “facts” are going to be a hell of a lot more important than your plot.  Otherwise you are going to get a lot of gaff from your readers—not to mention the bad reviews and lack of sales.

All forms of the Historical “Faction” novels also make excellent supplemental reading materials for college history courses.  For example if one wants to get a “feel” for Russia, read Rutherfurd’s novel “Russka.”

There are, of course, many examples of historical novels that have blended two or more of the above categories successfully.


As an historian and academic, I tend to take a hard-line position in determining what is, or is not, historical fiction.  What is NOT historical fiction (in my view) are the Alternate “history” stories, vampires, paranormal, magic Merlin stories, time travel, and others of that ilk.   In other words, if it does not fall into any of the above three (or 3½) categories, it is not historical fiction.


Alternate “history” is an oxymoron right off the bat.  Alternate “history” stories actually developed out of the Science Fiction culture.  I mean, after Star Wars, Star Trek, Asimov, Heinlein, Clark, Bova, Bear, Niven, and all of the other giants of SF, there just isn’t much material left.  I mean, what can a new SF writer do or say that hasn’t been done many times before by others?

It is desperation for new material that has driven a handful of SF writers into Alternate “History” stories.  It should be classified as SF and not as Historical Fiction.


Vampire and Zombie stories are so ridiculous no explanation is needed.  Then there are what I call the “Merlin magic” stories.  These stories are usually set in a Pseudo Middle Ages and are filled with wizards (often named Merlin), witches, and magic, and are loaded with anachronisms (and oh, yes, the dragons that spit fire).  Leading examples of this sort are the Ring Trilogy and the Harry Potter stories.  This type of stuff gives me an absolute leg ache.  The Ring Trilogy movie, however, did come with a wonderful sound track—even though the story sucked.


Paranormal can be used effectively in a “serious” work of fiction IF it is subdued and kept in the background.  For example, the holy man (or woman), soothsayer, etc., who has a vision that has some bearing on the plot.  Or the character who has a dream, takes it to be a vision, and then acts upon it.  These techniques can enrich a story.  However, when the “paranormal” becomes the entire story or is used to excess, it tends to give me the same kind of leg ache that the “Merlin Magic” stories do.

This is another technique (in its modern manifestation) that has grown out of the Science Fiction culture.  There are a handful of published writers of pseudo historical fiction that use this technique to start off their stories.  Instead of fully immersing the reader in the historical era that they want to write about, they cheat.  They use a modern character and place him or her back into the historical era they want to write about.  By using a modern protagonist to tell the story, (and doing it in a wimpy 1st person POV) they can use modern lingo, modern moral and social concepts, and modern thought processes without having to bother to learn, or help their readers learn, what it was really like “back then.”

The only writer I have encountered who was successful (i.e. convincing) in doing this was Jack London in his “Before Adam” written about a hundred years ago.  But of course, since the story took place not only in “prehistoric” times, but in an era prior to the rise of Homo Sapiens, it was more of an SF story—which is why it worked.  It didn’t try to pass itself off as “historical” fiction.

A more modern example that worked is the movie “The Three Stooges Meet Hercules.”  This movie worked on several levels, first and foremost of which was that fact it billed itself as comedy and made no attempt to pass itself off as “historical” fiction.  Nonetheless, the historical settings, clothing, level of technology, etc., was portrayed fairly accurately considering the day and age in which the movie was made.

The moral to this story is, unless you are the Three Stooges, don’t try to mix time travel with historical fiction.


THE MAKING OF A CHARACTER (posted 15 June 2011)

Using an historical person as a character in a novel can be a touchy subject.  If that person, or his/her immediate descendants, is/are still living you could be setting yourself up for a lawsuit if you aren’t extremely careful  On the other hand the amount of information available to you should be sufficient to allow you to paint an accurate picture of your protagonist.

I had just the opposite problem when building my novel around a Babylonian King of 2,550 years ago.  While I don’t have to worry about any lawsuits from his estate, finding any information at all about this individual, much less accurate information, might appear to be an impossible task to most people. 


And yet, regardless of which historical era your protagonist lived in, and/or how much information is available on that person, you, as an author, want to portray that character in the most accurate light possible.

So, how do you do it?  How do you build a protagonist out of the Last King of Babylon?


In the first place, there is more information available about this individual than might at first be assumed.  The trick is in knowing where to look.  First you start by reading general histories of the historical era you are working with.  You can consult with professors who deal with that subject era to ask them questions on minutia that are not dealt with in the general histories, and then you devour all of the specific original source material you can find.  In my case, this last point meant devouring every available translation of every clay tablet or inscription left behind by my subject as well as comments about him made by his contemporaries and those who came shortly after.  (Thank the gods for the University of Arizona Library).  (For those interested in more detail on the subject of my research, check out the bibliography page on this site).


Now, when reading the stele and inscriptions left behind by an Ancient ruler, you have to bear in mind that he is going make himself look as good as possible for posterity.  He is going to exaggerate his achievements and fail to mention any of his mistakes or weaknesses.  On the other hand, those writings left behind by his adversaries will attempt to be derogatory.  Nonetheless, there will be some areas where these opposing accounts actually agree, and you can latch on to those points as probable truths.  Where they don’t agree you have to split the difference and/or read between the lines.  And, then, where there are still gaps not covered by any of the original sources . . . , well, this is fiction you are writing so you just have to fill in the gaps by using your own imagination based on your gut instincts--but which will be highly influences by all of the research you have done.  In other words, you make educated guesses.


After doing all of this research on my subject, Nabu Na’id, what I found was the most interesting, enigmatic ruler in history that no one knows about.  That he was a religious reformer, and perhaps fanatic, along the lines of an Akhenaton, is agreed upon by nearly all sources (some of his religious concepts still hold sway over most of the western world, while the primary symbol of his religion still holds sway over modern Islam). 

It is also clear that he assumed the kingship when in his 60s and was still leading troops in battle at age 80.  He is also considered to be the world’s first true archaeologist.  While all Babylonian kings considered it to be a religious duty to dig up and restore ancient temples (yes, even more ancient than they were), Nabu Na’id appears to be the first one to enjoy archaeology for its own sake, for the sake of learning about the past.

It is well known that his mother, Adad Guppi, the most interesting and enigmatic female in history, lived an ascetic lifestyle because of her religious beliefs, so I am assuming that Nabu Na’id may well have been somewhat ascetic for the same reasons—though not to the same extent as his mother because of the various state functions and pomp and circumstance expected of a king.  He had to play that role.


While Nabu Na’id could be ruthless towards opponents and rebels (according to his own, and his detractors accounts), he also seems to have had a soft heart for the down-trodden.  While all rulers brag about their concern for the down-trodden, there is evidence that Nabu Na’id actually did something about it.  We have a series of letters sent between Nabu Na’id when he was in Arabia, and the temple of Ishtar in Ur concerning an unfortunate jobless fellow by the name of “Kalba.”  Nabu Na’id pulled strings with the temple to make sure that this Kalba was given a decent job and treated honorably—and he did this while hundreds of miles away in Arabia, such was his concern for this fellow. 


There is some evidence that generations after his death people in the Middle East considered him to be a “scholar king,” or “wise king,” and he might well be the source of some of the legendary attributes attributed to Solomon.


But the biggest mystery of all concerning Nabu Na’id was why he forsook the beautiful cosmopolitan city of Babylon to make far away Tayma, Arabia his capital for ten years.  Today’s scholars can only guess, and a number of explanations have been given.   The more I researched Nabu Na’id, the more I became convinced that there is a wonderful story there.  Actually, it turned out that there were three stories there—which resulted in “The Last King of Babylon” becoming a trilogy.


INTERVIEWING YOUR AGENT (posted 15 June 2011)

Most wannabe writers almost die of fright when they approach the literary agent they have been registered to meet with at a writers’ conference.  After all that agent holds the keys to the kingdom, he/she can either let you in, or keep you out.  Most writers feel that an interview with a literary agent is like a final exam.  In order to pass you have to have your “pitch perfect” and have to push all the right buttons or you will fail to impress Mr. or Ms. Big shot agent sufficiently for them to want to take an adequate interest in your work. 

While it is true that you want to have your “pitch” polished and you do want to make a good impression, if you fail to ensnare this particular agent keep in mind that it’s not the end of the world.  There are hundreds more agents out there and dozens of them might be looking exactly for what you have written.  Don’t expect to get lucky with the first agent that you meet.


Also bear in mind that while you hope that the agent you are interviewing is seriously evaluating you as a potential client, you should also be evaluating him/her as a potential working partner.  Is that agent really going to be the RIGHT agent for your project?  What about personality?  Do you really want to work with that person?

While most agents are wonderful people, there are a few sour pusses out there.  So, if there is something about the agent’s personality that turns you off, then just be courteous, complete your interview, thank them for their time, and then take your business elsewhere.

So, how can you tell when you’ve found the RIGHT agent?

Of course, the above-mentioned personality check is obvious, but next on the list is to determine how interested a prospective agent is in your work.

How do you tell if an agent is interested in your work?


There are five questions you would like your prospective agent to ask you during a pitch session (and you as a writer damn well better have quick easy answers to all of these questions):

One:  Why are you excited about your project?

Two:  How long have you been working on this manuscript?

Three:  Who has seen it besides yourself and/or close relatives?

Four:  Is this the first manuscript you have ever completed?

Five:  How long have you been actively writing?

If the agent you are talking to hits on all five questions, he/she is a gem, so try to latch on to him/her if you can.  By asking these questions, the agent is demonstrating an active interest in your project and is seriously considering you as a potential client, rather than just going through the motions of an interview.

If the agent fails to ask even one of those questions you might want to consider looking elsewhere for someone to represent your work.


I am also more inclined to warm up to an agent who becomes proactive and asks me questions about my book rather than sitting there waiting for me to spill all of my guts out before him/her.  That would demonstrate to me that s/he is interested in my topic and/or genre.  If the agent fails to show any intellectual interest in what I am doing, it raises serious doubts in my heart/mind as to how much enthusiasm s/he would bring to the table when it comes time to pitch it to a publishing house.

Likewise, if the agent makes any of the blunders mentioned in the companion essay “Literary agents say the damnedest things” you might want to consider someone else.  That agent just might not know the market for your project all that well.

Most wannabe writers are so anxious to find an agent that they will jump at the first one that offers to “take them on.”  But, you must remember that just because an agent “takes you on” doesn’t mean that s/he will ever get around to selling your work to a publisher.

Latching on to the wrong agent can derail your career for years, or even permanently, so be sure that you shop around a bit before you make your decision.  Make sure your prospective agent really knows the market for your genre or type of book, and make sure that s/he is actively interested in your project and that you can work with this person on a professional basis for a long period of time.  After all, it is YOUR writing career we are talking about here.


In the late 1950s Art Linkletter hosted a TV show that always ended with a segment entitled “Kids say the darndest things.”  And, the things kids said, had most of the country rolling with laughter.

Unfortunately, most writers have encountered literary agents who say things as bizarre and with the same level of unintended humor as did Art Linkletter’s kids.  In this column I plan to list some of the more bizarre and/or unintentionally humorous statements made by literary agents that I have either heard personally, read in a magazine or book, or that other writers have sent to me.  So, if you are a writer and have a cute gem handed to you by an agent in the past and you wish to pass it along to others, please feel free to e-mail it to me and I will add it to my collection if they are appropriate albeit with editing as needed.

This column, then, will be an ongoing project.  My approach will sometimes be somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  We don’t want to insult literary agents in general because most of them do their jobs well.  However, we, as writers, do need a little comic relief now and then in order to keep on trucking (writing, revising, and sending material out) even while getting the infamous rejection notes.  The names of the errant literary agents will not be given in any of these accounts.

So, here we go:


The set up:  Heard at writers’ conferences in the 1950s. 

The agent one-liner:  “If Margaret Mitchell were trying to publish her “Gone with the Wind” today it would never be published.  At 400,000 plus words it’s way too big.  Publishers in “today’s” market won’t take anything over 100,000 words.”

Why it’s funny:  And then along came the big black spider in the form of James Michener’s 400,000 word blockbuster “Hawaii” published in 1959 to eat up the curds and whey of the prevailing wisdom of all the literary agents and other publishing professionals.  Michener continued to publish a bunch of 400k blockbusters (the Source, Centennial, the Covenant, etc.) throughout the 60s and the 70s to the chagrin of those who believed that all novels must be pocket book-sized.  (In fact, that’s what paper back novels were called back in the 50s and 60s, “pocket books.”  They had to be small enough to fit into a person’s pocket in order to be marketable, or so the prevailing wisdom went).


The set up:  Heard at writers’ conferences during the 70s and early 80s. 

The agent one-liner:  “If James Michener were trying to break in today he would never get published.  His books are just too big.  Publishers won’t take anything over 150,000 words.”

Why its funny:  Along came Edward Rutherfurd, a man who had failed at a number of previous publishing efforts of the “required” word length, only to finally succeed by writing what he really wanted to write all along instead of what “the prevailing wisdom” of agents and editors said unpublished/new writers should be writing.  His first published novel, “SARUM,” was published in 1987 and weighed in at around 400,000 words (as do most great historical epics).  To the chagrin of all the “experts” it became an international best seller.  Like Michener before him Rutherfurd has continued to pump out the 400k word blockbusters throughout the 90s and early 2000s (Russka, London, etc., and appears to still be active as I write this).


The set up:  Heard at writers’ conferences throughout the late 80s and early 90s.

The agent one-liner:  “If Michener and Rutherfurd were trying to break in today with their over 200k novels, they would never make it in “today’s” market.

Why it’s funny:  Along came Colleen McCullough and her 400,000 word blockbuster “The First Man in Rome” (the glossary alone was 110 pages).  It was published in 1991 and became an International Best seller.  She followed that up with six sequels in her “Masters of Rome” series, each ranging from 250k to 400k words, throughout the 90s and early 2000s.  Each of them became International best sellers.


The set up:  Heard at writers’ conferences throughout the early 2000s, and printed in writers’ magazines.

The agent one-liner:  “Most agents won’t even look at a novel manuscript if the word count breaks 100,000, let alone double that.”

Why it’s funny:  Along came Ben Kane with his first novel “The Forgotten Legion” published in 2008 and which weighed in at well over 200,000 words.  And this book was not even an historical epic in the tradition of Michener, Rutherfurd, McCullough, et all, but was basically a sword and sandals adventure story.  Genre fiction.  Yet, not only did it get published but it did well enough on both sides of the Atlantic to win him a multi-book contract for additional novels.


Then there’s the story of Paul Sussman whose first novel “The Lost Army of Cambyses” published in 2002 weighed in at well over 200k words—and it wasn’t even an historical swords and sandals.  It was a modern thriller for godsake!  Yet, not only did he get it published but it became a huge International success and won him a multi-book contract.  In 2005 and 2009 he published two more thrillers—both weighing in at 200k-250k words, with each being more successful than the last.

Speaking of thrillers, has anyone seen a James Rollins novel that was less than 200k?  The last time I checked his books were all pretty successful.


The examples given above are not unique exceptions by any means.  They are more the rule than the exception—as anyone who has ever spent time in a book store can attest. 

The moral to this story would seem to be that if you have a big concept, it is more likely to be successful than a small concept, and big concepts require a big canvass to portray.  An historical epic, whether written by a first time author, or one with many books under his or her belt, will most likely fail if it weighs in at LESS that 200,000 words.  And, in fact, the more successful historical epics are in the 300,000 to 400,000 word range.

On the other hand, churning out novels in the 100,000 word or less range is a one-way ticket to mediocrity and oblivion.  Easy to write, easy to publish, easy to read, and easy to forget.  For more on this topic (how the book industry is dying from self-inflicted wounds, please read the companion essay “The Decline and Fall of the Book Industry”).

But for now, let us continue with the theme of unintended hilarity from the mouths of our beloved literary agents.


The set up:  An Interview I had with an unnamed literary agent in 2009.  I was discussing the 220,000 word first volume of my Historical Epic “The Last King of Babylon.”

The agent one-liner:  “Well, when you get it cut down to under 120,000 words I’d be glad to take a look at it.”

Why it’s funny:  See all of above.  Coincidentally this agent specialized in genre mysteries.  Apparently her world view on what constitutes the proper length for a book was shaped by her experiences in her favorite genre.  Unfortunately, that world view does not apply to historical epics.


The set up:  At a writers’ conference in 2009 another agent was looking at the first page of my historical epic “The Last King of Babylon.”  This was one of those seminar situations where the attendees turned in the first page of their novel to have it critiqued.  In this scene, in this particular draft version of my novel, the chief protagonist, Nabu Na’id, was noted as being 64 years old.

The agent one-liner:  “What poppy-cock!  A 64-year old!   Everyone knows that everybody died at 35 in those days, so I wouldn’t read this any further if it ever came across my desk!”    
Why it’s funny:  Assyriologist and historians are in agreement that Nabu Na’id was most likely in his 60s when he assumed the throne of Babylon in 556 B.C.  Life expectancy in Ancient Babylon was the same as is ours today, or perhaps even a bit better.  There is ample documentation of that throughout history.  For more on longevity in ancient Babylon please read the essay “Eat like a Babylonian” posted on the sister site


The set up:  The same conference in 2009, the same seminar, where a second agent was commenting on the opening scene of my novel “The Last King of Babylon” where the chief protagonist Nabu Na’id was engaged in his favorite pastime of archaeology.

The agent one-liner:  “How ridiculous!  Here we have a scene that is already in B.C. and they are digging up something even older!  That turns me off immediately!  Besides, archaeology is something only modern day people do.”

Why it’s funny:  All the kings of the Neo-Babylonian Empire dug up ancient temples (i.e. temples that were ancient to them, from their perspective) for the purpose of restoring them.  They considered it to be a religious duty.  Nabu Na’id, however, was unique in that he engaged in archaeological work not just because it was a religious duty, but because he actually enjoyed it, enjoyed rediscovering the ancient past of his culture.  That was a part of who he was as a character.  Last time I checked characterization was important in a novel. 

While his culture might seem ancient to us from our perspective, from his perspective his culture was quite contemporary, and thus his love for things ancient drove him to dig up ruins that were ancient from his perspective—and thus “too” ancient beyond “too” ancient to the loony literary agent that made the above comment.


The set up:  Heard at writers’ conferences all over the country.

The agent one-liner:  “Your protagonist must be under 35 years of age or your readers will never be able sympathize and your book will never sell.”

Why it’s funny:  Literary agents, the vast majority of whom are well over 35 themselves (and double that), seem to have the idea that the reading public is Juvenile.  And, yet, the demographics of our country as shown by the Census reports make it clear that the greatest bulk of the U.S. population is in the “Boomer” age.  There is no other age group that even comes close.  Furthermore, people in the Boomer and above age groups are much more likely to read than those in the under 35 age groups.  Anyone who has ever visited a bookstore can attest to that.   

So, it would seem to make sense that any protagonist whose age falls into the “Boomer” range would be well received by the vast majority of the reading public and would actually do better in the market place than stories featuring under 35 protagonists.  


The set up:  Read in the bios of 90% of the literary agents in the U.S.

The agent one-liner:  “Since 90% of the reading pubic is female, you better have a strong female protagonist or I’m not interested.”

Why it’s funny:  Again, I ask, have any of these people ever actually visited a real brick and mortar bookstore?  I visit book stores several times a month and each time I see as many men as women.  So where do these figures come from that only women buy books?
Maybe all the men who visit book stores have to leave empty-handed because 90% of the books on display are female oriented?  The self-fulfilling prophecy. 

And yet, the last time I checked, the thriller market (which is male-oriented) was booming.  It is probably the biggest single market among genre fiction categories with the exception of the romance category.  The historical epics by the above-mentioned Michener, Rutherfurd, and McCullough also appeal primarily to the male audience, and yet, they continue to sell so well that new editions are always being printed and displayed on the bookstore shelves.

However, there are only so many copies of the “The First Man in Rome,” “The Source,” or “Russka” etc., that a guy can buy.  So most of the time we have to leave the bookstore empty handed—which literary agents then interpret as lack of interest in reading by the male population. 

For more on how the age and gender misconceptions are helping to destroy the book industry, please read the companion essay on “The Decline and Fall of the Book Industry.”


The set up:  I picked this gem up from a writer at a recent conference.  This writer (who shall remain names to protect her privacy) is of Indian extraction.  Initially she wrote historical fiction dealing with Indian history, before switching to other topics.

The agent one-liner:  "Hindi names are just too foreign for readers.  It'll never sell."

Why it's funny:  Anyone ever hear of Shogun?  All of those strange Japanese names and terms, yet it became a smashing successful best seller and an even more successful TV series.  Incredible profits for the agent and the publishing house smart enough to pick it up.  And then there are all the SCI-FI and Fantasy novels loaded with names even more bizarre than Hindi names are.  Anyone ever hear of the Ring Trilogy?  Maybe I'm missing something, but the last time I checked it was was even more successful than was Shogun.

This column will be continued when new material becomes available.


BOOKS FOR WRITERS (posted 15 June 2011)

“Nobody can tell you how to write a novel.”  That statement was made by a former writing teacher of mine.  His message was that there is not ONE right way to write a novel, but several—and the only way to find the “right” way for you is through trial and error.  In other words you have to write, write, write, and then learn from your mistakes.

That being said, however, people continue to churn out books on different aspects of writing almost as fast as our home values in Tucson are dropping (I am writing this in 2011).  Out of the hundreds of available books on writing, I have read several dozen of them, and out of those dozens, there are a handful that really stick out as being not only accurate in most details, but very beneficial in terms of helping you avoid some of the pitfalls writers fall into, and in terms of setting you on the right path for constructing  good fiction.


The first book I would like to recommend is “THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: Mythic Structure for Writers,” third edition, 2007, by Christopher Vogler.

When Vogler began this project in the early 1990s, he was focused mostly on providing advice to aspiring screen writers.  However, in this expanded third edition what he has to say applies equally well to novel writers. 

Vogler’s approach was to take Joseph Campbell’s “THE HERO’S JOURNEY” and apply it to the writing of modern fiction, whether movie scripts or novels.  In his explanations, he uses constant references to the “STAR WARS” movies, because, as everyone knows, they were patterned after Joseph Campbell’s mythic structures delineated in his “THE HERO’S JOURNEY.”


The moral to the story is that there is something about the structure of myths (which are eerily similar across different cultures and different historical eras) that resonates in the human soul, so if your story, or your script, adheres to that structure it has a better chance of becoming the next “STAR WARS” than it would if you ignore these structures.

I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my novel “THE LAST KING OF BABYLON,” the first several drafts of which I had completed BEFORE reading Vogler’s book, followed his mythic structure to the letter.  In other words, I was not consciously trying to follow anyone’s concept of mythic structure.  It just happened naturally as I pounded out the words on my computer.


As a matter of fact, virtually every successful story from the time of the Gilgamesh Epic to the Karate Kid and Harry Potter have used this structure.  All, or at least most, of the elements of the mythic structure will be there, perhaps not in the exact same order as noted by Vogler, but they will be there:  The inciting incident that turns the protagonist’s world upside down.  The calling, or summons, that forces the protagonist to make a choice.  He/she has to give up something he/she loves/needs in order to answer the calling.  The meeting with the mentor.  Friends, allies, enemies, and tests.  The innermost cave.  The ordeal.  The reward.  The Road Back.  The Resurrection, and so on.

Reading this book might help you to conceive of stories that would fit into the novel format while at the same time providing the essential elements that make a story interesting.


The second book I would like to recommend is “THE MARSHALL PLAN FOR NOVEL WRITING,” by Literary Agent Even Marshall.  This is “a 16 step program guaranteed to take you from idea to completed manuscript.”

This book should be required reading for all those beginning a novel for the first time.  Following his guidelines will save you a lot of time and grief.  It also makes for a good review for more experienced writers even if you already have a few novels under your belt.  It is always good for us to be reminded of what we SHOULD be doing—even when we think we already know it.


The third book I would like to recommend is not really a book, although a small book is included in the package.  It is a collection of videos.  The title is Gary Provost’s “VIDEO NOVEL WORKSHOP.”  It is now available on DVD for $129.00.  It includes over five hours of instruction covering just about all aspects of writing, a small workbook, and a small paper back (at least it did when I purchased it 20 years ago) entitled “100 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR WRITING.”

The Video Novel Workshop, like the other two books above, should be experienced before embarking on the adventure of writing your novel.  This program is especially crucial for those writing in the thriller, mystery, sci-fi, and fantasy genres—but Gary’s advice applies to all genres of fiction.


The next two books I would like to recommend are slanted to the more advanced writer.  After you have mastered the concepts outlined in the above materials, and maybe have a couple of failed manuscripts under your belt, you should read:

“HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL PART II,” by James N. Frey.  Make sure you get part two, and not part one, since the author changed his view on a few things.  In part I he talked about the importance of the narrator being “invisible.”  However, after further study of best selling classics, he came to realize that the narrator must not be “invisible” and in fact, a strong narrator voice is essential to a strong novel.

“WRITING THE BLOCK BUSTER NOVEL,” by Albert Zuckerman (another literary agent).  Zuckerman stresses the importance of striving for big concepts while noting that big concepts require a big canvas.  And, like Frey, he also stresses the importance of using an omniscient multiple third person POV to provide the scope and depth that your big concept needs.

These two books are by far the very best books I’ve read on writing.  If you can master the concepts expressed in these two books, you will be able to separate yourself from the crowd.


Now that you know how to write your best-selling novel (and maybe even have a completed rough draft in hand), it is time to do some editing.  To this end you need some basic reference books.  Everyone should begin with the classic “THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE,” by Strunk and White.  While this is a good primer, it is only 85 pages and therefore rather brief, and in fact, leaves a lot of gaps.  For example, they completely ignore the subject of capitalization.  As everyone knows, the question of whether to capitalize or not to capitalize is totally bizarre in the English language.  There are no discernible rules, which is why Strunk and White ignored the subject.

Therefore, in order to fill in the gaps, every writer must own “THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE.”  This is a 738-page monster desk reference work, and obviously, provides much more detail than does the Strunk and White.  On the issue of capitalization, rather than trying to provide you with non-existent rules, they give you a myriad of examples so that you can always find a match for whatever particular situation you come across in your writing project.


Every good writer needs a good dictionary—and I don’t care how many spelling bees you may have won when you were a kid.

When most people think of dictionaries they think of Webster’s.  Unfortunately, Webster’s sucks.  There are too many words that it just doesn’t have.  Even the huge five-inch thick hard-copy unabridged Webster’s sucks.  It has exactly the same entries, and the same gaps, as does the Webster’s Handy College Dictionary in paperback form.  The only difference is the size of the print and the size and thickness of the pages. 

I have learned to rely instead on an Old “Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of the English Language,” International Edition, which I purchased in the late 1960s.  It is much more complete.   


Now that you’ve got your manuscript completed, edited, and it is being looked at by your writing partner(s) and/or critique group, it’s time to learn about the business of writing before you leap without looking.

In this regard, I can recommend “WHAT WRITERS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PUBLISHING,” by Jerry Simmons.  In this book Jerry will show you what happens to your manuscript from the time you submit it to an agent until it ends up on the display shelves (you hope) of Barnes and Noble. 


Now that you know what you are getting into, and you have completed your final revision after your critique group has shredded it, you are ready to begin submitting it in hopes of finding an agent.

By this time you should have purchased the “WRITER’S DIGEST GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS.”  Before submitting your baby to any agent, do your homework.  Read that agent’s bio where he/she explains what he/she is looking for, what genres they prefer, etc.  If they state that they are looking only for Christian, Children’s picture books, and Christian YA, then don’t send them your pornographic novel.  Likewise, if they say they are only interested in “chick lit,” erotica, and historical romance, then don’t send them your Christian YA novel or children’s picture book.   

If that information is not available in their bio listing in the Guide to Literary Agents, then go to their website.  You should do that anyway, just to verify that what you think they are looking for, still holds true.  You should also check their websites for submission guidelines.  Do not assume that every agent is looking for a synopsis and the first 50 pages.  Some of them are, but others want to see only a query letter with your first contact.  Others will ask for any combination and/or variation between those two extremes.  So, again, do your homework.




As a writer, I am deeply concerned about the future, or lack thereof, of the Book Industry.  As an historian, I am interested in the processes that are bringing about the decline and fall of the book industry.

Jerry Simmons, in his wonderful little book “WHAT WRITERS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT PUBLISHING” covers many of the problems (often self-inflicted) that are ailing the publishing industry from the standpoint of an insider.

Not having the insider’s expertise that Jerry Simmons has, I will, in this essay, approach the problem from the view point of a reader, writer, and a frequent visitor of bookstores, primarily the big chains of which there are only two left, Borders and Barnes and Noble.


The fates of the bookstores and the publishing companies that provide them with product are of immense concern to all of us who love books because as they go belly up it will have traumatic consequences for all the writers, agents, and editors who depend upon them for survival.

By now I am sure that most people in the industry, as well as all of the wannabes out there, are aware of the fact that both Barnes and Nobel and Borders are in bankruptcy.  Borders has already closed one of their two stores in my town (Tucson), and we can expect many more closings across the country in the near future.  Many of their woes are self-inflicted, which we will cover later in this essay, but there are other developments outside of their control that are playing a role in bringing down the book industry as a whole.


There is an impression among much of the public that trees, and therefore paper, are a finite resource and that we will soon be running out of that resource therefore we had better hurry up and find a replacement to use as a reading medium.

Then along came the electronic revolution.  First there were computers and then came these itti-bitty electronic gadgets that you can hold in your hand—yet can contain several books that you read at your leisure without lugging around a suitcase full of real books.

To many people this appeared to be the answer to their prayers regarding the tree/paper dilemma, and so, like lemmings, everyone connected with the book industry, both publishers and readers, jumped on the band wagon.


Many publishing companies, as well as Literary Agents, are now insisting that literary works submitted to them (whether fiction or non-fiction) be in a format that will allow it to be sold via these itti-bitty electronic gadgets that you can hold in your hand.  This will in turn force writers to change the way they write books and inflict irreparable damage to the reading experience we readers used to be able to enjoy.  This is also one of the techniques with which the literary agents, publishers, and major bookstores are using to commit suicide (i.e. bringing about the death of their own means of livelihood).


This electronic revolution has led people to assume (the “everyone knows” syndrome) that the future of ALL book publishing is electronic.  Indeed, the percentage of the market gobbled up by the electronic mediums has gone from zero a few years ago to 15% today.  Therefore, people automatically assume that the same rate of growth in the electronic market share will continue until it has taken over the entire market within 20 or 30 years.

If these assumptions are true, that is, if the electronic media do indeed take over the entire book industry, then there will be no further need for any of the Literary Agents, publishing houses, and bookstores that are currently helping to feed the electronic frenzy in their pushing of this trend and giving credence to it.


If these dire predictions come true then all a writer will have to do is to write his/her book, get an ISBN number, publish to the web in a downloadable form, and get listed by Amazon.  Individual writers will then sell their books by means of connecting with potential readers via the social media on the internet.  Since there won’t be any Borders or Barnes and Noble anyway, potential readers will simply go to the net to download items into their little hand-held devices whatever it is they want to read.

There are a whole bunch of things wrong with all of these assumptions and scenarios.  So, let me count the ways:


First, while getting rid of the Literary Agents, publishing houses, and bookstores will level the playing field making it easier for all of the wannabes to get “published,” the financial returns for everybody will be much smaller.  The sheer volume of materials available will make nearly impossible for any writer to gain a large enough market share to make writing financially worthwhile.  But even without the competition volume, the mere fact of publishing electronically rather than by the traditional methods will reduce financial returns for the writer.


Second, the assumption that trees and paper are a “finite” resource is wrong.  American logging companies generally plant two or more new trees for every mature tree that they cut down to provide us with our paper and other products made out of wood.  Logging companies are the last people in the world who would want to see THEIR means of livelihood depleted.  Trees are a renewable resource if managed correctly (and if we continue to replace the atmospheric CO2 that they gobble up each day).  While it may be true that some logging companies in some countries do not manage their forested lands correctly, that can be fixed via education and applying the policies and practices that are in effect in the U.S.


Third, virtually all paper products are recyclable (although I would balk at holding a book in my hand made out of someone’s used toilet paper).  Newspapers, magazines, and books are all much easier to read, and much easier on the eyes, when printed on recycled paper.  This reduces the demand pressure on the logging and lumber industry to produce ever more paper products.

So, if the ecological reasons for switching from paper to electronic media is not as severe as once thought, and if the financial returns are not there, that leaves us with the issues of convenience and desirability.  The book industry will be taken over by the electronic media only if these itti-bitty electronic gadgets are truly more convenient and more desirable than are real books.


When one reads a real book, one of the pleasures is being able to instantaneously flip back to the front cover and look at the art work.  The art work on the front cover of a book sets the mood for the reader and helps to orient the reader into the time and geographical location that the novel takes place in.  This is especially crucial for getting the right “feel” in historical novels, as well as Sci-Fi and Fantasy.

With a real book readers can also place paper clips on the pages where maps are located and at the end where the glossaries are located.  Thus, with a real book the reader can instantaneously flip back and forth to maps, glossaries, genealogical charts, etc., to reorient themselves, and flip back again to where they were reading without missing a beat—and without losing their place in the book.  All of this enhances the reading experience for the reader.


But by switching to electronically based publishing and reading apparati the reader is deprived of those enhancements to the reading experience.  Can you imagine how long it would take to scroll back on one of those little things to try to locate the map you saw on page 14?  And, then, to try to scroll back forward in hopes of finding the place where you left off reading?  Lots of luck.  By the time you found your place once again you would have forgotten what the book was about in the first place.

Oh, I know, there are probably tabs and things that the ultra-skilled computer geeks know about that will allow them to “mark” certain pages that they might want to refer to later.  But no matter how high a level one’s computer skills are it will still take at least a hundred times longer to “flip” back and forth between “pages” of one of those itti-bitty electronic gadgets than it does the totally unskilled person to maneuver his/her way through a real book.  Therefore people will not take the trouble to “flip” back and forth on an electronic gadget like they do with real books—thus a portion of the reading experience is degraded.


Most people these days, especially people who are educated enough to be likely readers, spend a good part of their working day staring at a computer screen as a part of their job.  The last thing they are going to want to do when they go home is to do their “pleasure” reading by staring at yet another computer screen not matter how “itti-bitty,” or “cool,” it is supposed to be.

This issue is probably the number one issue why electronic readers will never take over the market place as predicted.


A real book is semi-permanent.  Only fire, or centuries of time, can destroy a real book.  But digital information contained in the electronic media will last only until the next change of system.  How many of us had manuscripts filed on 5-inch floppy disks that suddenly became obsolete and are now unreadable by any device?

But you don’t need to wait until the next change of system to lose data from electronic devices.  That novel you were reading on your itti-bitty hand held device is good only until your dog puts his paw on the delete button.

How many of us have lost manuscripts on our computers because we accidentally touched one of those stupid keys Microsoft’s geeks put at the bottom of our keyboards to irritate writers?


As hinted at above, were these electronic reader gadgets to really take over the market it would force writers to curtail the content of their novels and works of non-fiction.  There would be immense pressure from the “gate-keepers” of the electronic media for writers to down-size and dumb down everything they produce. 

To a certain extent, that pressure already exists in the real book publishing world, but it would only increase to a debilitating extent if current trends continue towards adopting the fad of the electronic readers.

And this brings us to the topic of:


Earlier in this essay I hinted that some of the problems the book industry is having are self-inflicted.  The book publishers, editors, and agents who are helping to further the spread of electronic readers are part of the problem and are signing their own death warrants (economically speaking).  

And so are the writers themselves.  I was shocked to learn at a recent writers' conference that the vast majority in attendance have purchased one of those itti-bitty electronic gadgets and actually purchase books to download and read on them.  "It costs so much less," one of them crowed.  Okay.  But think about that for a moment.  If reading an electronic download costs just a fraction of what a real book costs, guess how much money authors are going to be making if the prophecy of a bookless world comes true?

To phrase this a little more bluntly, any writer who purchases one of these electronic readers and purchases cheap rate "books" to be downloaded onto it is tantamount to a Jew in 1933 Germany contributing money to Hitler's Nazi Party.  A self-inflicted injury.  Contributing to your own demise as an author.

Furthermore, by insisting (as most agents and publishing houses are beginning to) that writers make their novels amenable to the electronic “readers” they are in fact already asking writers to dumb down their works—even more than before.


And this dumbing down for the sake of the electronic readers dove-tails with the book industry’s pressure on fiction writers to dumb down their novels for the sake of Hollywood.  In other words, since movies tell a story in two hours or less (half of which is likely to be car chases), and since TV programs are geared to IQs under 75, and because of the constant blitz of “entertainment” available to the public via the internet, cell phones, texting, etc., the “gate-keepers” of the book industry believe that the book industry must also follow suit or die. 

So, writers are pressured to dumb down their novels with a dead body, car chase, or the equivalent every other page or so, and to keep their novels under 100,000 words “or it just won’t make it in “today’s” market place.  We have to compete with all of the fast, easily available entertainment on TV and the internet or we just won’t make it.”


What the gate-keepers (publishers, editors, and agents) of the book industry fail to understand is that when people turn to books during their leisure time they are doing so precisely because they want an experience that is DIFFERENT than what they can get from the fast and easy electronic media.  They want to learn something while they’re reading.  They want to participate in the creative process by allowing their minds to conjure up the scenes suggested/described by the words—as opposed to being spoon fed by TV and the movies.  They want to get to know, and live with, the characters of a novel for several days, or weeks, rather than the 2 hours or less Hollywood gives them.

By trying to imitate (compete directly with) Hollywood and the internet, the book industry gate-keepers are, again, slitting their own throats as well as the throats of the writers.


Just as the gate-keepers of the industry have misread the fad of the electronic reader, they have misread a number of other fads.  First, as for the electronic readers, they assumed that because of their recent rapid growth from zero percent to 15 percent of the market that this trajectory would continue indefinitely until it reached 100%.  But they are wrong, for all of the reasons mentioned above.  My guess is that the market share for the electronic readers will max out at 30 to 40 percent of the market, and then fall back to the 15 to 20 percent level once the fad begins to wear thin and people begin to realize how utterly un-cool these things really are. 

In other words, real books will always command the greater market share, but by putting all of our eggs in the electronic reader basket (as too many of the “gate keepers” are doing) sets us up for oblivion.


Another dead-end fad is “children’s fiction” and “YA.”  How many agents have you seen who are looking ONLY for “children’s” and YA?  Quite a few, and there’s more everyday.   Gosh, when I was in grade school nobody ever heard of “children’s” literature, or YA.  I went from comic books to encyclopedia articles and thought nothing of it.  Now they have categories for every two or three years of childhood.

Marketing literature for those younger age groups is one of those politically correct “feel good” things, which, I guess, is one of the reasons so many agents and writers are following the herd into that category.  Anything to encourage children to read more has to be a good thing, right?

Problem is, people aren’t having children anymore.  Just look at the demographics.  I’m not saying that slanting fiction for the “children’s” and YA market is a bad thing.  It’s just that from a demographic standpoint, and therefore an economic standpoint, it’s a dead-end market.  Oh, I’m sure that it looks like an upward curve to many people, just like the electronic readers.  When you are starting from zero, and then suddenly begin to direct literature into that specific age group market, you are bound to see what looks like exponential growth—at least for awhile in the short term. 

But what happens now that the market is saturated with every other writer and his/her brother writing children’s and YA?  And every other agent is enthralled only with children’s and YA?  And, this saturation comes at just the exact time in history when the populations of those age groups are beginning to fall off dramatically?  That’s when the “sell through” falls through—and then you get these statistics showing “book sales falling off” and “book sellers returning 80% of inventory” and all the “gate-keepers” of the industry automatically assume that over-all interest in reading (even among adults) is falling off when it is not.


A similar situation has arisen with regards to “women’s” literature.  J.A. Jance likes to tell the story of her being rejected from a University creative writing course because she was a female.  See, in those days “everyone knew” that females don’t read, and that since therefore the entire reading public was male, only male writers could write to that market so women had no business wasting their time in a man’s business. 

Now, of course, we have just the opposite situation which is just as foolish.  Males in university creative writing programs are treated as “second-class” citizens if allowed in at all, and the population of “gate-keepers” of the industry (agents and editors) is dominated by women who are openly enthralled only with “women’s” literature.  And, regardless of genre, writers are constantly told by these “gate-keepers” of the industry “if it doesn’t have a strong female protagonist I’m not interested in your manuscript.”

This situation has arisen because it is the same old story when a “new” market is established.  You start from zero and then someone suddenly begins to tap into that market, and of course sales will explode (for awhile).  Problem is, that once again, the “gate-keepers” of the industry make the assumption that that initial explosion upwards represents a trend that will continue indefinitely into the future.  That in turn skews the marketing of product into an unsustainable channel.

This situation has also led to the self-fulfilled prophecy.  Everyone who has ever attended a recent writers’ conference has heard the refrain that the vast majority or readers today are women, therefore you as a writer MUST slant your novel to the female audience or you won’t sell at all.

Well, you don’t suppose that the reason that the vast majority of readers in today’s market place are women is because the vast majority of front-line “gate-keepers” (agents and editors) are women who are looking for specifically “women’s” literature because that’s what they themselves most like to read?

And yet, whenever I go to a bookstore I always see as many men as women.  Problem is, there just isn’t anything for them to read (in the fiction area) because of the above biases, so they go home empty handed (how many copies of “Red October” or “The First Man in Rome” does a guy have to buy in order to prove that we exist?).  And, this in turn lends support to the adage that “the vast majority of readers are women.”  The self-fulfilling prophecy.


Here is a story I heard from another writer at a recent writers' conference.  This writer attended a mass pitch session with seven other writers with an agent (who shall remain unnamed as will the writers).  These eight writers were composed of four women and four men.  When the pitch session was over, the agent requested the four women to send her portions of their books.  The four men were ignored.  Self-fulfilling prophecy.


The “requirement” that ALL fiction have a strong female protagonist has not only skewed the market in the same way that “children’s” and YA have, but has also infected the genre of Historical Fiction.  The problem is, virtually all societies across the face of the earth prior to the 20th century were extremely misogynist with the possible exception of ancient Minoan Crete and maybe certain areas of pre-Islamic Arabia.

So, the demand for “a strong female protagonist” in every piece of historical fiction produced has led to the mass production of silly anachronistic fantasy tales that are peddled to the public as “historical” fiction. 

This phenomenon has also led to an over-saturation of the female-oriented “historical” novel, and a dearth of material that the general public (including the women) wants to read.


Just as misconceptions have led to imbalance in gender oriented lit, there is a similar imbalance as represented by what I call “age discrimination literature.”  How many times have you heard a literary agent say “your protagonist must be under 35 or no one will be able to feel empathy with him/her.  Nobody will be interested and your book will fail.”  The implication being, of course, that people over 35 aren’t interesting enough to become the main feature of a novel, or they are too incompetent to be much of a believable hero or heroine.

But worse than that, this bit of misguided bias stems from the ignorance of demographics and the misinterpretation of the true trends of some of the short-term fads mentioned above, and the mistaken believe that we (writers and the book industry in general) have to compete with Hollywood or we can’t survive.


Whether or not Hollywood is right in marketing their (mostly) drivel to the under 35 crowd, they do so in the belief that movies are the primary destination for those who are dating.  I mean what else are you going to do on a Friday or Saturday night when you ask your girlfriend out?  You take her to the movies. 

Then, from that assumption, Hollywood makes the further leap in faith that since the movies are a major destination point for young dating couples, young dating couples make up the vast majority of movie goers.  So they produce dumbed down movies to appeal to the under 35 crowd and create yet another self-fulfilled prophecy.

This idiocy is then compounded by the book publishing industry with their mind-set that we (writers) have to imitate Hollywood because we are competing with them.  To show how ridiculous this is, just ask yourself when was the last time you saw a young man take his date “to go read a book” instead of going to the movies?


The pressure to write protagonists that appeal to the under 35 crowd is rendered even further asinine by the facts of demographics.  By far the largest single demographic block is the boomer crowd, those 45 to 65.  But when one adds to that group the over 65 group, the fastest growing segment of the population and the only group more likely to enjoy reading books than the boomer group, the push for younger protagonists and for novel plots that imitate Hollywood’s juvenile tastes become even more ridiculous.

So, let me get this straight now, we have a book industry that strives to eliminate its largest potential market via an age bias, and then strives to eliminate half of what’s left via its gender bias.  And they wonder why they are all going out of business?   


Unless you’ve been living on Mars you know that Borders and Barnes and Noble are both in bankruptcy.  Part of their problem stems from the above issues and those listed by Jerry Simmons in his above-mentioned book.  These are issues that they have no control over and it has resulted in having fewer total book titles on display (i.e. reduced midlist) in their stores while holding excess copies of the big name authors and the genres that the publishers and industry “gate-keepers” deem to be hot. 

This in turn has led to reduced total book sales by the book stores, which in turn means lower profits for them as booksellers.  As a result they have been forced to sell other things than books, such as calendars, greeting cards, CDs, DVDs, and various sorts of nick-knacks in an attempt to stay afloat.  (And all of these things are items that are taking up space in the store that once went to midlist authors).


The big bookstore chains, namely Borders and Barnes and Noble, have also been seriously hurt by the internet, particularly Amazon.  Borders has made no serious attempt to compete with Amazon on the internet and their days are numbered accordingly.  Barnes and Noble does have an online sales presence, and they are trying to compete with Amazon in that respect, but their website isn’t quite up to snuff.  Unless and until they make their website as nimble as Amazon’s they will continue to fall behind.

When a customer wants to look up a title, it is just so much easier to do so on Amazon.  And it is easier to make the purchase, than it is on the Barnes and Noble site.  Also, when you look up a book on Amazon they  provide you with a list of similar books many of which you may not have known about.  This increases their sales dramatically, and is also a great service for the reader because it lets us see what else is out there that we might like.  The remaining brick and mortar stores need to imitate that somehow if they want to stay in business.


When I want to purchase a book that I may have heard about, or read about that is not available inside the Brick and Mortar store, I will go home, look it up on Amazon and then drive the 10 miles back to the nearest Barnes and Noble and order it through them using the information I printed out from the Amazon site.  Of course it would be much more convenient for me, and a whole lot cheaper, save gas, etc., were I to just go ahead and order it through Amazon.  But I don’t want to see the brick and mortar book stores die, so I try to give them as much of my business as I can—even though it cost me money, time, and convenience to do so.  Other potential customers are not as kind-hearted as I am.

But then, to make matters worse for themselves the brick and mortar bookstores have inflicted upon themselves the gravest wound of all, the one wound that would prove to be fatal even without all of the other above-mentioned problems.


At first glance the idea of adding a coffee shop to a bookstore seems like a good idea.  It will increase foot traffic to your store and it gives people a place “to hang out” in the vicinity of books.  But the hope that this increased foot traffic and “hanging out time” inside the doors of the store would translate into increased book sales has proved to be a false hope.

By adding a coffee shop to your store, what you have done is added a large number of chairs where people can sit and read your books and magazines without paying for them.  In other words the addition of the coffee shops to Borders and Barnes and Noble stores has converted them from the status of booksellers into libraries.  Every time I walk through the coffee shop area of a Borders or a Barnes and Noble I see people sitting at each of the tables reading a book or a magazine that they have lifted from the racks.  After they finish “hanging out,” or pretending to sip their coffee, they return the book or magazine to the rack it came from and leave the store without purchasing anything from the bookseller.


Borders has taken that game plan one step further by placing soft, cushy, extremely inviting easy chairs among their non-fiction racks.  So, every time I go to Borders I see every single one of these easy chairs occupied by someone (almost always a male) reading one of the books they’ve taken off of the racks (maybe that’s the hole that all of the missing male readers have fallen into?). 

Does anyone seriously think that these people are going to purchase one of those books?  Why should they when they can read it for free?  They will just come back the next day and pick up reading where they left off the day before.   

How can any business stay in business that way?  Can you imagine a movie house allowing people inside their store just to increase “foot traffic” and then letting them slip into a screening room to watch a movie for free?  Or, imagine what would happen to car dealerships if people showed up on their lots to “test drive” one of their vehicles, then used it to do their shopping and run errands, then returned the car saying “sorry, but I want to keep looking.”  And, then, when it’s time to run more errands they walk to the car dealership and take another “test drive” in another vehicle.

This is why the brick and mortar bookstores are going out of business.


To glimpse the near-term future of “books” one only has to look at recent developments in the Tucson Festival of “Books.”  The first two years of its existence it truly was a festival of books.  Borders and Barnes and Noble were both there to help anchor, and sponsor the event, and both had huge tents set up where they displayed hundreds of examples of their wares.  

However, in spite of the fact that attendance to this festival has sky rocketed throughout each of its three years of existence (proving that the public still hungers for books) there were very few books on hand during the third rendition of the Tucson of Festival of books in the spring of 2011.  Not only did Borders and Barnes and Noble fail to help sponsor the event (to be expected with both being in bankruptcy) they failed to put a single book on display.  Borders did not show at all, indicating that they’ve thrown in the towel and have no intention of digging out of bankruptcy.  While Barnes and Noble did set up a large tent of their own, there was not a single book in sight.  Instead they were pushing their own version of an electronic reader.

In other words, Barnes and Noble sees its future not in the selling of real books, but in the selling of one of those itti-bitty electronic gadgets in direct competition with Amazon, while turning their back on the 80% or so of the population that prefers real books.

The electronic gadgets do have their uses.  For example people that fly from continent to continent like the idea of being able to download several novels onto their reader which saves considerable space in their carry-on bag for other items.  A few other people might hang on to them because they think they’re cool.  But the greater majority of readers, in both fiction and nonfiction will, in the end prefer the feel, the smell, and the greater convenience and facility of use offered by the real book. 

So, after the fad-driven sales of electronic readers reaches its peak at about 40-50% of the market (at best), it will slide back down to 15-20% of the market.  Real books will continue to hold the remaining portion of the “book” market.  However, by this time I would expect that Borders and Barnes and Noble will have both completely imploded for the above reasons, leaving us for a time with no major booksellers except the on-line booksellers.

The entertainment conglomerates who currently own the major publishing companies will also jettison their mainstream publishing companies at about the time that the electronic readers approach the 40% market share.


However, the decline and fall of the major publishing houses will in turn open the door for the small and independent book publishers to fill the niche left by the current big boys—which in the long run might be a good thing for writers and for literacy in general.  (Actually some of the current “big boys” in the publishing industry may be able to reinvent themselves as independent publishers after being spun off by the entertainment conglomerates that currently own them).


The loss of Borders and Barnes and Noble will be a serious blow to those of us who love real books.  One of the pleasures of life is to stroll through a B and N and browse through all their titles on display—especially the new ones.  But there are other, more practical advantages to being able to hold a real book in your hand rather than ordering it online.  You can flip to the inside back cover and read the author’s short bio (i.e. credentials). 

Before I purchase a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, I want to know if this author is qualified to write this book.  Does he or she know what s/he is talking about?  I can also check out the glossary in the back (essential for serious historical fiction) which will tell me even more about the author’s credentials.  I can not do these things when purchasing a book online—at least not without a great deal of searching.  Holding a real book in your hand makes it instantaneous.   

There are many other people besides myself who love the experience of browsing through a real bookstore and who like to hold a real book in their hands before purchasing.  This will lead to a renaissance in the independent bookstores.  Initially most of these independent bookstores will be genre oriented (many of them exist already).  But as Borders and Barnes and Noble go out of business these independent bookstores will not only proliferate like rabbits but will expand their offerings until all literary interests are served.  Perhaps new B & N type bookstores will emerge, but most likely on the local and regional level.

The proliferation of independent bookstores will in turn re-open the doors to the midlist authors and open the nearly closed doors a tad wider for new writers.  There will be more total titles printed each year and displayed by the more numerous locally owned independents than is currently the case where the world is dominated by the two book superstores.  In today’s world, the top ten percent or so best-selling authors who demand the 7 and 8 figure advances account for a disproportionate number of books printed each year.  The so-called 90/10 rule applies here, meaning that the top 10% of authors drive 90% of the sales. 

That will become a thing of the past once the entertainment conglomerates have jettisoned their publishing houses and the industry is once again dominated by smaller, but more numerous publishing houses and smaller, locally owned, but more numerous bookstores.  The end result will be more variety for the reader to choose from.


In this brave new world of book publishing and book selling, the gate-keepers of the industry will be forced by economics to take a closer look at the country’s (and the world’s) demographics and realize that the age and gender biases that currently dominate their decision making (in terms of which books they choose to push) are self-defeating.  This means that the 70% or so of the population that is over 35 and the nearly 50% of the population that is male will no longer be forgotten.

Perhaps this has already happened on a limited scale.  Colleen McCullough’s “The Last Man in Rome,” featured a 50-plus year old male Gaius Marius as the main protagonist.  Not only did this book become a best seller in its day, but continues to sell well in reprint after reprint.  To be sure there are other examples that make the exception to the rule, but in the Brave New World of Publishing that sort of thing (the Gaius Marius syndrome) will become so common that it will no longer be considered unusual.

Yes, the women’s lit and the YA and Children’s lit will always be with us, as they should, but they will no longer be able to crowd out books of greater interest to the male and boomer populations.  “Gate Keepers” who continue to play by the old rules will be left behind by economics.

In other words, the market for books will become more equitable and more realistic and more sensitive to actual demographics rather than being held hostage to perceived fads.

All of this may sound a little utopian, but I do believe that the market forces (if allowed to operate freely) will force the issue.  However, all of us, writers, booksellers, agents, and editors will have to go through a lot of pain before we get there.



MUSIC FOR WRITERS (Posted 09 June 2011)

Music can stimulate parts of your brain that are usually inactive when you are analyzing things—such as when doing revising or editing on your work.  Different types of music can effect your mind in different ways so your selection of music will depend upon the type of scenes you are writing. 

Of course, the quality of the recording and the quality of the performance will have an effect on how much inspiration you can get by listening to it while you write.


Before purchasing any CD make sure it is a recent digital recording, not something that was originally recorded back in the 50s on vinyl, and then transferred to a tape and then to a CD for modern sales.  Also, give preference to the better known major orchestras.

The recordings and symphonic works mentioned below are not an all inclusive list.  They are only my personal recommendations at the time of this writing.  I am sure that others may find other recordings that suit their purposes just as well.


For pure intellectual stimulation you can’t beat the symphonic works of HAYDEN and MOZART.  According to several scientific studies their music actually stimulates the growth of brain cells.  (Speaking of stimulating brain cells, be sure to read the “pumping brain cells” essays posted earlier on this page).

While some writers prefer the mantra of “silence is golden” when writing a first draft, I often find that Mozart and Hayden help stimulate that creative process.  At this stage, the first draft stage, be sure, however, to avoid anything that has vocal passages in it as this will distract your thoughts.  The symphonies of Hayden and Mozart are pure intellectuality.  They are mathematically perfect, have no vocal portions to distract and have no abrupt tempo or volume changes which can also distract one’s thoughts when one is in the first draft stage.

Next on the list come the Beethoven symphonies.  These are also great brain boosters, although the 9th, which does contain some choral works, is a bit heavy and is perhaps more conducive to your revision and rewriting stages—especially with regards to the climax of your novel where the hero/heroine is overcoming all obstacles to emerge victorious.


For your subsequent rewriting and revising stages just about any of the great symphonic works, Shubert, Bruckner, Mahler, Sibelius, Dvorak, and of course the five great Russian composers of the late 19th century.  Heading this list is Tschaikowsky.  Buy all of his symphonies.  All of these will help you to add color and details to your rough draft.


If one wants to get into an “ancient” mode while writing historical novels, then Respigni’s the PINES OF ROME and the FOUNTAINS OF ROME are hard to beat.


Another important source of musical inspiration for writers comes from the sound tracks of certain movies.

One of my favorites in this category is ALEXANDER NEVSKY scored by Sergei Prokofiev, and as performed by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic orchestra.  There are a number of choral passages in this recording, but they are all in Latin and Russian so do not really disturb one’s thoughts that much—unless you speak one of those languages. 


If one is writing a Medieval or Ancient battle scene, try writing while listening to “The Battle on the Ice” from the Alexander Nevsky score as it comes complete with the sound effects of swords clashing with swords.  The music leading up to the fight scene skillfully conjures up the image of two opposing forces rushing at each other.

Another great sound track is that of GLADIATOR scored by Hans Zimmer.  There are a couple of great battle scenes on this recording done in ¾ time, of all things.  It is absolutely brilliant, and provides an interesting counterpoint to the usual straight forward 4/4 time and 2/4 time usually used for battle scenes and the movements of military units.

There are a number of other passages in the CD that are inspirational for other types of actions besides warfare.


Other inspiring sound tracks include: 
ALEXANDER scored by Vangelis
KING ARTHUR scored by Hans Zimmer
THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY (includes 2 disks)
KINGDOM OF HEAVEN scored by Harry Gregson-Williams
HENRY THE FIFTH scored by Patrick Doyle


If one is writing a religious scene for their fantasy novel, or historical, you can’t beat BACH’S TOCCATA AND FUGUE with Hans-Christoph Becker-Foss at the organ.

The whole idea of using music to aid your writing is that you want to find the particular recording, or portion of a recording, that creates the right mood you want for the type of writing you are doing.  For a love scene you would not chose the same music that you would for a major battle scene—although most classical “romantic” era symphonies and epic movie sound tracks contain some very tender scenes appropriate to a love scene, as well as sections more apropos to a battle. 


Classical symphonies of the Romantic era (beginning with Beethoven’s 9th and continuing through the 19th century and the five great Russian composers towards the end of that century) were composed with the intended purpose of instilling particular visual images in the human mind.  The 20th and 21st century music scores of movie epics are the intellectual offspring of the 19th century “romantic” symphonies, and they too, are composed specifically to reinforce the visual images we see on the silver screen.  It behooves writers to use these images to aid one’s writing since we too are trying to convey visual images into the minds of our potential readers.


PUMPING BRAIN CELLS (Part I)(posted June 2, 2011)

By Barry Webb

As writers our number one resource is our brain.  The ability to create, the ability to remember the color of eyes we gave a minor character in chapter two when that character reappears in chapter thirty, the ability to do pertinent research, and the ability to organize our writing projects so that the points we are trying to make or the plot we are trying to follow makes some sort of logical sense—all of these processes require a well-functioning brain.  Recent research has proven that the old Greek adage of a healthy mind in a healthy body is so very true.


It has long been known that long bouts of sitting is fatal to the human body.  It leads to the break down of numerous vital functions in our bodies.  But what was not known until recently is that long bouts of sitting can also destroy the human mind—and we writers are forced by our very past time/profession/hobby to sit for extended periods of time banging away at the computer.  The purpose of this essay will be to suggest ways to counter the mental (and physical) deterioration that the process of writing engenders.


But first, this note from the 2009 Alzheimer’s Association International Conference:  A research team from the University of California, San Francisco, followed more than 3,000 people aged 70-79 for seven years.  A variety of cognitive tests were given at the beginning of the study, and again at the end of the seven year span.  The researchers reported that the consistently sedentary test subjects had the worst mental skills and had deteriorated most rapidly based on their standard mental tests that measured overall cognitive function, including memory, attention span, and problem-solving.  Those who had stable, increasing, or fluctuating activity levels scored much higher.


The solution then, if we are to preserve our mental functions, is to engage in a regular exercise program, preferably one that offers a little variety as well as increasingly vigorous activity.  That is, firstly, you should make a resolution to do something physical nearly every single day of your life, whether walking, running, jumping, lifting weights, playing basketball, or whatever—and then try to increase the intensity and/or duration of the exercise each week.  Devote yourself to a program of exercise as if your life depended upon it—because it does.  We spend 7 to 9 hours of each day totally inactive as we lie in bed sleeping, or at least trying to sleep.  Ideally, the remainder of the 24 hours of each day, or waking hours, should be spent moving as much as possible interspersed with occasional bouts of rest. 


Secondly, even when you are writing you should get up from the computer periodically and pace around your room, or stroll through all of the rooms of your house and then come back to the computer.  According to some studies you should not remain seated in the same place for more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time.  Your body’s ability to burn fat and other bodily processes began to deteriorate after 15 or 20 minutes of inactivity.  I have found that during these short stints of “pacing” sandwiched in between my writing sessions my brain is still working on my writing project and I often come up with solutions for how to transition into the next scene, or how to flesh out a character a little better.  So much for the so-called “writer’s block.” 

Be sure to check out the companion essay where we will take a look at some (legal) biochemical substances that can help improve the function of that grey organ inside your skull.



PUMPING BRAIN CELLS part II (posted June 3, 2011)

By Barry Webb


In the previous essay we discussed the importance of physical exercise and its correlation to improved mental functioning.  However, in addition to using physical exercise to stimulate increased mental activity, biochemical/nutritional help is also available on an over-the-counter basis.  I am speaking here of the substance called “creatine.”  Creatine occurs naturally in the body and is manufactured by the liver and kidneys from a chemical reaction involving three amino acids arginine, gylcine, and methionine.  Creatine’s primary job (to put it very simply) is to suck sugar (or glucose) out of the blood stream and pull it into the muscles where it assists in the firing of ATP.  ATP is the cell’s energy molecule and creatine increases its availability.  In other words, it enhances the power of your muscular contractions and increases endurance.  It is the primary legal substance that all athletes take to enhance their workouts and their performance and is available in a variety of forms at your local health food store and online.


Creatine monohydrate is the most commonly used form and consists of one molecule of creatine attached to one molecule of water.  Creatine got its name from the Greek word for flesh KREAS.  It is interesting to note that the building blocks for the body’s natural production of creatine comes from meat.  Vegetarians are notoriously lacking in creatine so supplementation is highly recommended.  But even meat eaters show lower levels of muscle creatine as they age, so supplementation is highly recommended for that group as well.


However, creatine is not just for the muscles of the body.  It seems that it also helps the mind.  A recent study examined the effects of creatine on intelligence by administering five grams of creatine daily to a group of 45 young adults for a period of six weeks.  The results showed that creatine supplementation had a significant positive effect on both working memory and intelligence requiring the speed of processing information.  Another placebo-contained double-blind experiment on vegetarians showed that those who took five grams of creatine per day for six weeks showed a significant improvement on two separate tests of fluid intelligence, Raven’s Progressive Matrices, and the backward digit span test from the WAIS.  The creatine group was also able to repeat longer sequences of numbers from memory and had higher overall IQ scores than did the control group.  A subsequent study found that creatine supplements improved cognitive ability in the elderly. 


Do you think that any of those above-mentioned cognitive skills might be beneficial to a writer?  Think of CREATing with CREATine.


Extensive research over the last decade has shown that oral creatine supplementation at a rate of 5-20 grams per day appears to be very safe and largely devoid of adverse side affects.


Creatine supplementation has been, and continues to be, investigated as a possible treatment for muscular, neuromuscular, neurological, and neurodegenerative diseases such as arthritis, congestive heart failure, Parkinson’s disease, disuse atrophy, gyrate atrophy, McArdle’s disease, Huntington’s disease, muscular dystrophy, and various other mitochondrial and neuromuscular diseases.


Another substance worth considering is Nitric Oxide (NO).  NO supplementation first came into use during the 70s and 80s in gay “bath houses” because homosexual males discovered that by inhaling it they could get an almost instant erection and maintain it for hours.  What made this possible was that NO caused the blood vessels to dilate and relax and thus greatly increased the flow of blood—hence the long lasting erections (Viagra and its pharmaceutical clones do essentially the same thing for about a hundred times the cost and with a host of unpleasant side effects). 


A couple of decades ago bodybuilders and powerlifters have more recently discovered that NO gives your skeletal muscles a bigger pump when working out and allows you to lift more weight and do more repetitions with heavier weights for the same reason that it enhances erections (i.e. increased blood flow).


The last time I checked, the human brain also requires an efficient circulation and an ample flow of blood in order to perform adequately.  As we get older, circulation to all parts of our body, including our brains, tends to decrease in efficiency.  Physical exercise by itself can, of course, alleviate some of that problem, but when done in conjunction with the supplementation of a NO releaser the positive effects are two-fold.


NO, like creatine, is another one of those elements that exist naturally in the human body, and like creatine, our bodies tend to produce progressively less of it as we age.  So the trick is to get your body to release more NO by itself (which is considered to be healthier than inhaling pure NO).  This is accomplished by taking the amino acid arginine.  Pure arginine can be purchased over-the-counter in either capsule form (tablets are inefficient), or in powder form (the easiest for your body to metabolize).  Better is to take a creatine and arginine combination powder.  A couple of good products available at most health food stores include NOSBLAST and the slightly more expensive N.O.-XPLODE.  Both of these products contain other elements, such as vitamin B-6, B-12, and Folic Acid (B-9), and other amino acids which help to augment the effects of the arginine and the creatine. 


However, as with any supplement new to you, proceed cautiously by starting with small doses at first and then gradually increasing the dosages until you find the dosages that are optimal for you.  The doses recommended for a 275 pound football player may not be appropriate for a 100lb. senior citizen.  Were you to take too much at once, you might experience some bloating in your stomach.  Be particularly wary of NO production.  NO is a gas and if you get too much of it in your system at once not only will your stomach bloat out but you might end up making embarrassing sounds later in the day.

If you have serious health conditions such as heart problems, consult with your health care provider before making any radical changes in your diet and nutritional programs.



All of you writers and historians out there, I have just posted (May 1, 2011) an essay on the History of Writing on the sister site.  Please check it out at:



(Posted 18 April 2011)

We are constantly told that if you ever want to get published, you have to have a website.  Problem is, if you are not tech-savvy, setting up a website can be a total nightmare.  I hope that my experiences presented below may save other writers, or other non-business, non-techie people, lots of time, money, and frustration.

My attempts at setting up a website to promote my books began three years ago, in 2008, when the Society of Southwestern Authors (SSA), of which I am a member, presented a workshop on setting up a website.  During this workshop a local geek and former SSA member showed us all the wonderful things one could do by setting up a website using Go Daddy's software. 

Poor naïve me, I assumed that all of the large commercial web hosting companies offered similar software.  So, all enthused and full of wonderful ideas for setting up my website I googled website hosting companies and compared prices pertaining to all of the so-called “top ten” web hosting companies.   I found one that was about half the price of Go Daddy which also offered more storage and more pages.

I signed up (to One-and-One internet), paid my one-year registration,  paid for my domain names, and began to set up my websites—or at least I tried to.  What I found was that I was restricted to using only one of their canned templates they offered—all of them dedicated to business.  Connected with this issue was the fact that you are forced to use only the page widgets that they offer in their templates.  What this means is that instead of being able to have your website have a page widget that says ABOUT THE AUTHOR (that visitors to your site can click on to be taken to a page that gives your bio), it must say ABOUT THE COMPANY.  And instead of being able to have a page widget that says ABOUT THE BOOK, you are only allowed to have a page saying ABOUT OUR PRODUCTS, and so on.

There were also issues with removing the stupid banners that they offered in their websites.  I’m trying to promote a novel about Ancient Babylon in the mid sixth century B.C.  And it’s all I need to have some A..H… in a 21st  century business suit staring out at visitors to my site.

So, realizing that this was a dead-end I tried to get my money back.  That was an adventure itself and took a lot of haggling, but I finally got them to give me a refund.

However  because of my ill-fated experiment, my domain names were tied up meaning that I was unable to set up a website using those domain names anywhere else.  Theoretically it is possible to take your domain name with you wherever you go, but I did not know that and do not have the computer skills to even contemplate doing that—even if it is possible.  .

So, I had to wait a year until my domain names expired making them publicly available again.

After that year and several additional months had passed  I tried an outfit called web hosting hub.  They were nice in that they allowed me to “practice” setting up a website before buying a domain name or paying them a dime (although I had to request that service since they do not offer it openly).  And, their software allowed you to upload text directly into your website.  Unfortunately I found the same problems as with the One-on-One internet:  Canned templates, canned page widgets, or page names, with no way for YOU to use the page names YOU  would like.  They were better at uploading photos of your own to replace the atrocious ones on their templates, but I found that there was some bleed over into the areas where the text is supposed to be.  The main issue, however, was the canned page names.

So, after having spent some time fooling around with Webhost Hub, I gave up trying the cheap and easy route and made a decision to fork over the big bucks for Microsoft Publisher.

The reason for this move was that in January of 2009 the SSA (with the same local geek SSA member as above) had given  another seminar on the setting up of a website.  This time there was no mention of Go Daddy.  Instead there was nothing but glorification of Microsoft Publisher.  We were shown all the wonderful things you could do with Publisher.  Set up your own page widgets, upload text directly onto your site, upload photos, make all the mistakes you want to and then publish only when you were satisfied, etc.

First I shelled out big bucks for a new computer with Microsoft office small business software preloaded on it because I was led to believe that this package contained Microsoft Publisher.  As it turned out, I was not able to get down to setting up my website at that time because I was in the midst of a revision of my book and I knew that I would have to give the website thing my full concentration if I were to be successful.  Oh, poor naïve me.  After reaching a stopping point on my book revision project, I turned my attention to the website issue once again only to find out that the copy of Publisher that they gave me was only a 30 day trial.  So I had to rush out and fork over another $150.00 for the publisher software and another $35.00 for a book on using it—which turned out to be worthless.

Unfortunately, by this time, the only copy of Publisher available was Publisher 2010.  Certainly, I thought, since the older versions of Publisher had that nifty website wizard that provided  non-geeks like myself the software necessary to upload things and create a website by using your own page title widgets, certainly the newer version of Publisher would have the same features. 

Poor naïve me.  Somehow the geeks at Microsoft must have found out that non-geek writers like myself had been using their website wizard in publisher to set up their own websites, and so wanting to make things difficult for writers (as they have done with their word processing systems) they removed the website wizard from their newest edition of “Publisher.”

Since that time, I have been given a lot of well-meaning, but totally useless, advice about this system or that for getting your own website up and running. Among these are the above mentioned Go Daddy once more.  On the plus side, Go Daddy, unlike all of the other big name commercial hosting companies, allows you to use your own page title widgets.   The problem is, they only allow you 5 pages (or 10 pages if you pay for the more expensive program).  That is not sufficient for a serious author’s website.  But an even bigger problem with Go Daddy, is that they have no 800 number and they have no e-mail address.  Can you imagine an internet company with no e-mail address??

They do have a local (Scottsdale) phone number that you can use, but unless you live in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area, it will cost you a fortune to get any sort of technical help.  And, believe me, you are going to need technical help no matter how good the hosting company’s software is.

So the moral to that story is, never sign up with anyone that you can’t contact for free.

Next, several different well-meaning people recommended a bunch of supposedly free sites that allowed you to build your own website from scratch for free.  These included such things as blogger, tumblr, coffee cup, and wordpress.  I tried them all and failed with all of them.  Coffee cup was a total joke, as their software could not upload either text or photos.  Can you imagine having a “browse” function and designing it so it is incapable of uploading anything??  Perhaps if you knew computer code one might be able to manage, but I quickly gave up on Coffee Cup.  Tumblr was also a total joke.  Couldn’t do a thing with it.  Wordpress appeared at first to be a little better but it was extremely clumsy and tended to scramble your text and also caused photos to bleed over into the text area, and vice-versa.  Blogger was about the same.  (Oh, forget trying to get any technical help from any of these “free” sites.  So, unless you are super geek, don’t even thing about going there). 

Finally, in March of 2011, after having polished my novel to the point where I thought it was ready to send out to agents, I committed myself to making another serious attempt at setting up a website, no matter how long it took.  I googled website hosting, and “free” websites, website software, and website wizards, and tried every possibility on the internet from big companies to small—and none of them were workable for an author’s website.  Then, in April I finally stumbled upon YOLA,  a commercial web hosting company that allowed you to set up a free website.  Unlike most of the other commercial outfits (and some of the “freebies”) they allowed you to set up your website without first purchasing a domain name.  In fact, you can sit and practice on their free software for as long as you want, and make as many mistakes as you want, until you are satisfied with the way your website looks—and do all of this without committing to a domain name.

The first thing that I noticed right away was that they have an e-mail address, so you can contact support and get written instructions on how to solve whatever problem you are having—even if you are a non-paying customer.  The second thing that I noticed—and I really liked this—is that their software, though it is based on their templates, allows you to add your own page titles.  And you can have as many pages as you want, twenty, thirty, whatever—as long as you don’t go over the allotted gigabyte space you are allowed which would be pretty hard to do unless you are adding videos and music to your site.

Yola also allows you to replace their banner photo with one of your own.  They are very good at uploading photos, and unlike all of the others I’ve tried, resizing and placing your photos in the right spot is a snap even for someone with my meager computer skills.

The only problem I had was when I tried to upload text, all I got was an icon.  (Again, I was amazed that they would offer a “browse” function and yet not be able to upload a Microsoft Word document).  But here is where support came to my aid.  They instructed me that in order to get a previously written text document from your hard drive to show up on your website you have to first copy and paste it into “notebook,” and then copy and paste it onto your website.  The downside to this is that in the process any words that you have rendered in italics and/or bold type will be reconverted back to regular type.  Why that is the case, who knows.  But, hey, at least you can get your text to show on your webpages without learning code of typing everything in from scratch.

To sum up, ALL web hosting softwares, and all “free” website softwares have serious drawbacks.  And Yola also does have drawbacks (as mentioned above), but Yola had by far the fewest drawbacks of any system I looked at.  In fact it turned out to be the ONLY system by which a computer illiterate like myself could set up a workable website, one suitable for an author.

INDEX:  (Visitors, in this column is a list of all items posted to this page.  Please scroll down until you find the essay you desire to read)