Alan will take reader questions via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Because of space and time limitations, he can’t post and answer every question he receives. If there are duplicate queries, he’ll randomly pick one email to respond to. If your question isn’t answered, it isn’t because he hasn’t read it. Alan reserves the right to edit and rewrite all questions he selects. He is sorry he can’t reply to everyone by personal email.
Dear Saint Al,
I hope you don’t take offense at my calling you that, but that’s how I think of you. Your mention of “The Sweetener” in OAP#2’s THE BIZ BUZZ certainly changed my life for the better. The word has definitely gotten out. Now every work day is my birthday! I wake up excited and I practically skip to the office, eager to find the fresh crop of “Happy Faces” hiding in my slush pile. It’s so wonderful to see my fellow editors showing up with new clothes and hairdos, and the flesh is reappearing on their bones now that they can afford to eat regularly. Some are even planning families!
Okay, I know this sounds weird, but I’ve set up a little altar in a corner of my apartment with candles, incense, and offerings of organic fruit. I don’t have a picture of you, so I’m using one of your old DL books. Have you ever thought of getting a bobble-head doll made?
Name Withheld, from New York, New York
Dear Name Withheld,
No, honestly that never occurred to me.
Do you get royalties from your GE series books?
Just Curious, from Launceston, Cornwall, UK
Dear Just Curious,
As far as I know, all the GE series are writer-for-hire. That means the authors get a flat fee and no royalties. If any author is getting royalties from GE, I’d sure like to see him or her post a scan of a recent sales statement on the net. Royalty statements are not proprietary or confidential, so if you got ‘em, post ‘em—let’s see how many copies these books really sell! To my knowledge there are no royalties for the Graphic Audio versions, either. So, there is no financial incentive for anyone to write a really great GE book; in fact, the better the books do in the marketplace, the more soundly the writers are getting
Dear Mr. Philipson,
You seem like an intelligent, thoughtful, highly-educated person. Why are you writing that awful GE series drivel?
Dr. Lynn H., from Lincoln, Nebraska
Dear Dr. Lynn H.,
Thank you for your concern. When the market for recycled aluminum cans went tits, I really had no choice.
I love your entries into the Deathlands series. I've read all of your newsletter e-mails, and it seems you have some idiots either asking you asinine questions or badgering you how bad of a writer you are. I guess that must come with the territory, eh? At least, unlike alot of other writers, you have an open forum here to take both kinds of fans on. Good for you, Alan!
I think your 1st entry into DL, Skydark, was a fantastic adventure romp that made DL much better than it has been. You then followed it up with a breakaway duology, Shadow World and Breakthrough, giving what DL desperately needs—a facelift!
What changes can you make in your writings of such a standardized series? Are you limited to changing much because of editors? For instance, how can one writer be able to get rid of Dean Cawdor, but another can’t let the DL companions get newer and better weapons?
M. C., from Phoenix, Arizona
Dear M. C.,
Thanks for your questions. As I understand it, the decision to move Dean off-stage was made at a much higher administrative level than GE’s editors. Harlequin (GE is a Harlequin imprint) is a vast, byzantine bureaucracy run by faceless, nameless MBAs. The GE editors assigned one of the other writers to make that particular change; to my knowledge it wasn’t the editors’ or the writer’s decision. Why Dean went bye-bye has never been adequately explained to me; he seemed like a useful character (seeing DL through young eyes; coming of age in the Land of Scant Hope, etc.).
As to the companions’ hodge podge of weapons, you have to understand that in DL, as well as most other pulp action series, signature weapons are used in lieu of coherent character development. Doc IS his blackpowder Le Mat; J. B. IS his 12-gauge Smith and Wesson M-4000 (whatever that is; as far as I know the model number is b.s.); Mildred IS her .38 caliber ZKR 551 (again, whatever that is; no such revolver seems to exist), etc., etc. Like it or not, LJ’s collection of non-interchangeable-caliber, archaic, low-capacity and rate-of-fire guns is writ in stone.
My only freedom as a writer is to play around the edges of DL’s canon, looking for areas of story line and character that have been overlooked. For example, the duology I’m finishing up now (Empire of Xibalba [Shee-BAHL-bah], tentatively scheduled for 2008 release) postulates that the nukecaust impacted the northern and southern hemispheres differently—no missile strikes in the south, no hot zones, and potentially much shorter and weaker atmospheric impact (nuclear winter). If you think about it, none of the DLs to date have been set below the equator; it’s like the lower half of the planet never existed (LJ was a bit of a First World chauvinist, methinks.). Did you know that Brazil has a navy of 200 ships? I won’t spoil the fun, but comeuppances are on offer.
I am having a weird problem. I re-read all the old DL books you've written and I find I can't remember anything about them. It's like reading a new book every time. Did you plan it this way?
Snorkel, from Chicago, Illinois
Me? As I said in an earlier newsletter, I can’t remember any of my books, either. Reading DL reminds me of Chinese take-out: my brain feels full for about 30 minutes, then I can’t recall a damn thing. Until recently that had always troubled me—I couldn’t even remember my own best lines! Then an inside-the-box source gave me the total dope about DL’s, 20-year-old, ultra-secret, Selective Amnesia Program (SAP). Each DL book is designed to induce an hypnotic trance; not caused by the words on the page, but the carefully (computer-) arranged patterns of white space between the words. As you turn pages, the bits of white space do a cumulative number on your short-term memory. Obviously, if you can’t remember the books, you’re more likely to buy multiple copies of a single work. Readers who complain about the “similarity” of titles in the DL series are probably reading the same novel for the fourth or fifth time.
Deer [sic] Mr. Phillippison [sic],
I bean [sic] tiring [sic] to brake [sic] into writting [sic] game fur [sic] minny [sic] yeers [sic]. I knew [sic] your [sic] a ghoost [sic] writter [sic]. Wander [sic] if you farme [sic] out eny [sic] of plup [sic] werk [sic] to other some ghoosts [sic]? I writte [sic] reel [sic] good fites [sic] and love seans [sic]. You well [sic] lik [sic] them.
Vin Dildo, from Long Beach, California
Dear Vin Dildo,
I’m sure I will. As to your other point, of course I farm out my work. I haven’t actually written a book since 1986. The secret of my phenomenal “productivity” is letting someone else do it. If you dig beneath the surface of many of the so-called “giants of literature,” you’ll find writers just like yourself, with a profound and unrequited love of the craft, gamely pounding out deathless prose for little or no reward, and absolutely no credit. As to the particulars of ghosting for me: you should know that I require an explosive chip be placed inside your brain, with the understanding that, should you ever attempt to claim authorship of any of “my works,” your head will be instantly detonated by one of my lawyers. Now send me those samples.
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This essay combines both INSIDE STORY and WRITING TIPS—it shows how a particular story line was developed from a single factoid, and offers a look at an approach to plot construction that has always worked for me.
In Deathlands #49 Shadow World
(March 2000), I first introduced “the oozies,” a terminal brain-wasting disease similar to Jacob-Kreutzfeld/Mad Cow, and endemic to Deathlands’ roaming packs of cannies. I didn’t explain how, when, or why the oozies first appeared; I described some of the symptoms and the death-sentence prognosis, and offered the assumption (based on the companions’ anecdotal experience) that its spread was limited to the hellscape’s most loathesome, cunning, and fearsome bipedal predators—an appropriate, if delayed punishment for their evil deeds.
The construction of Cannibal Moon’s plot proceeded from that single premise: the existence of a cannie plague. I then framed a series of related questions and examined a variety of answers to see if they in turn led anywhere interesting. To put it another way, every choice derived from the opening premise determines a limited array of consequences, which can be itemized and evaluated. This may sound mechanical, even anti-inspirational, but this process actually facilitates inspiration because it helps me identify what I want to say, and allows me to discard dead-end or off-track plot threads.
Left unresolved in Shadow World was where the oozies came from. Was there an oozies’ Patient Zero (first victim)? If so who was it? Did the disease appear before or after nukeday? Was it naturally-occurring or humanmade? And to me the most interesting question of all: was the infection a byproduct of cannibalism, or did cannibalism result from the infection? These two possibilities have very different consequences. If eating infected human flesh transfers the fatal disease, then only cannies will catch it; and cannies will never be a threat to norm survival because the disease is a constant population check. If the disease, independent of diet, brings on cannibalism, then no one in DL is safe. Everyone is a potential oozies’ victim—and cannie.
Following this line of thought it occurred to me that if a “cure” for the oozies’ lethal downside ever materialized—much as the treatment for AIDS keeps infected people alive, but still able to transmit virus—all bets were off. Under those circumstances the cannie population would explode and finish what nukeday started: the extermination of DL norms, either by turning them into humaneaters or finger food.
If you’ve read the Cannibal Moon
first chapter excerpt posted on this site, you know Mildred is in big trouble. How did I come to choose her as the central character for this book? I used the process I’ve just described. I Q/A’d each of the companions with the same predicament to find the best dramatic fit. (Example: “If Ryan was infected with the oozies, what would happen?” “How would that choice limit dramatization of the progression of the disease?” “How would that choice limit the companions’ response to the threat?” Etc., etc.) Mildred Wyeth, a medical doctor and research scientist, is the only member of the crew who can fully understand and unravel this problem. She is unique among the companions—her moral sense (anti-cannibal) was formed in the late 20th century. Killing innocent people and eating them is Dr. Wyeth’s worst nightmare. If Mildred is infected it doesn’t cripple the companions strategically or operationally; and it allows me to use her point of view to simultaneously track the disease advancing in her body, her growing fear, and her whitecoat-mind at work on the problem. In other words, a slam-dunk.
This novel also gave me a chance to examine the broader nature of cannie culture. I realize some readers find these kinds of explorations annoying. Some didn’t like #36
Skydark, which delved deeper into the stickies’ life history—as if that wasn’t an appropriate subject for a DL writer to tackle. In my opinion, anything not contradicted by LJ’s canon is fair game.
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This opinion forum is meant for entertainment purposes only. Any resemblance to assertions of fact is unintentional and purely coincidental. (Whew!)
What’s love got to do with it?
If you’ve received a rejection notice from a literary agent recently, you may well have noticed a change in wording. Two examples (with emphasis) follow.
“For an agent to really get behind an author’s project, he or she must completely fall in love with it. Each person has a different vision, and I wish you luck in finding an agent well suited to your work.”
“Although your idea is interesting and has much to recommend it, I didn’t love it enough to represent it. This is a purely subjective decision. Someone else may have a different reaction.”
One reason for this shift in language immediately comes to mind. By not saying the submitted work is awful in a strictly business sense, the chance of being stalked by irate wannabe clients is significantly reduced. Emotional responses (such as relative gradations of love or enthusiasm) are something that can’t be helped, and perhaps can’t be explained in words. Even the office clerk/receptionist at the literary agency who’s opening the 40-a-day, slush pile submissions, taking out the SASE’s and stuffing them with a poor quality xerox rejection slip is capable of not-loving something enough. No further explanation required.
But does a widget salesperson really have to adore widgets? Does a pharmaceutical salesperson have to be infatuated with Viagra or Wellbutrin? What about plumbing fixtures? Where, you may well ask, is the love? Is this the dawning of a Stanislavski School of Salemanship? No, of course not. Literary agents don’t go to school to learn their job. They don’t have licenses to practice, either. Even Realtors have licenses. Not to mention taxi drivers, notary publics, etc.
Mention of the “s” word is also interesting. The reference to subjectivity appears to be an admission of inadequacy, of unpreparedness for the job at hand. If an agent has no objectivity, then what good is he or she to the client? Again this thinly couched disclaimer (someone else might love it) is meant to mollify and defuse. Translated, it boils down to “even though I am acting like God, I am really not God, so please don’t harrass me with follow-up questions.”
I realize that criticism is far easier than offering positive suggestions and viable alternatives. So here is the form rejection letter I would send if I was an agent:
My assistant Chico, an illegal alien who works for table scraps and sleeps curled up under my kitchen sink, found your query and sample chapters unreadable. His only comment was “¡No es en español!”
If I had a nickel for every bozo who sent me something this dimly conceived and poorly executed, I’d be living in the Hamptons, and Chico would have a bay in the three-car garage and a portapotty all to himself.
I wish you luck finding an agent for this project. You’re going to need it.
Jerkin, Gherkin, and Merkin Literary Agency
P. S.: Fair warning, I am strapped 24/7 and I always wear trauma plate under my cummerbund.