Summer Reading Plans

So, on Friday, John Scalzi linked to the new blog home of an old column he used to do called “The Weekend Assignment” that gave a weekly topic for writers to blog about over the weekend.  This week’s assignment is about our Summer Reading plans, and what we look forward to most.  So, I thought: “hey, this is cool, and as a writer it’s a nice challenge that would give me something to write about regularly, and this topic in particular is one I can actually say something about.”  So, I’ll be trying to do these “Weekend Assignments” going forward.  Assuming I’m able to keep up with it, they’ll usually post on either Mondays or Tuesdays.

So, what am I excited about reading this summer?  Well, I’ll surely be spending time reading some textbooks and/or business cases for class.  But that’s not what I’m excited about.  Actually, it’s kind of sad to admit what I’m excited about: I’m excited about finishing The Gathering Storm over the summer.  I say it’s sad because I got this book as a gift from Dear Wife over Christmas 2009 (Thank You Dear Wife!), and I’ve been reading it ever since then.

That’s right: I’ve been reading this book for nearly four monthsWhat has happened to me?  When I was a younger man, and still in either High School or College, I used to be able to devour one of the “Wheel of Time” books in a matter of a couple of weeks.  I’ll tell you what didn’t happen: it’s not that the book is boring.  It’s been an enjoyable read so far (I’m on chapter 20), especially when the book has focused on Egwene.

After I finish The Gathering Storm I have several choices for what book I will read next.  The two options I am considering are either A Clash of Kings, the second book in George R. R. Martin‘s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, or Elantris, Brandon Sanderson‘s break-out novel.  I’m interested in exploring Sanderson’s own work outside of what he’s done with Robert Jordan’s latest book, so I’m most eager to read one of these books.  On the flip side, I’ve been hearing about how great Martin’s books are for ages.  I did read the first in his Ice and Fire books already, but it was an odd experience.  While well-written, and while his world is interesting and detailed, it was also a very dark world.  I found myself lacking any serious rooting interest in the book, because all of the characters were either cold and hard or outright villainous bastards.  Even the good-guys (so far as I was able to identify a good guy) had a bit of a nasty streak.  Still, I’m curious to find out what happens next, but I don’t think I’ll ever be as big a fan of Martin’s books as I have been of Jordan’s.

That said, I’ll probably pick up the next Ice and Fire book after finishing The Gathering Storm.  That will probably take up the rest of Summer and beyond.  When I finish that book, I’ll probably put down the Ice and Fire books again and move on to Sanderson with Elantris.

In the future, besides the Sanderson and Martin books, I’ve cued up a hefty list of “To Read” books on my Amazon wishlist.  Most of these are books I’ve learned about since I started following the blogs of a few other writers.  These include Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan, Mainspring by Jay Lake, The Adamantine Palace by Stephen Deas, The God Engines by John Scalzi, Crystal Rain by Tobias Buckell, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin, His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik, Spellwright by Blake Charlton and possibly Seth Grahame-Smith’s latest, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

So, that’s not a very short list.  Not a short list at all.  That is sure to keep me busy and reading well into the foreseeable future, and beyond.  What’s on your reading list?

Happy Reading.

Ten Books That Moved Me

 So, apparently there’s this game going on in the “blogosphere“, started, as I understand it, by Tyler Cowen on the blog “Marginal Revolution“: name the 10 Books that influenced your view of the world.  I first saw this on the blog of T. S. Bazelli, who’s commented here a few times.  So, at first I had a bit of trouble with this.  I didn’t come up with ten, right away.  It took a little thinking about it, but I did come up with ten.  And the list is a little surprising to me: they’re not all fantasy and science fiction novels (in fact, there’s comparatively little science fiction at all, which may make sense considering I’ve read very little sci fi as compared to fantasy), though they almost all are.  Further thought caused me to consider a few others that impact that list – additions I’d make or possibly substitute if I wasn’t going with the first ten influential books I thought of.  So, here they are:
The Book of Three Cover

The Book of Three

  1. The Chronicles of Prydain” by Lloyd Alexander: starting with The Book of Three and concluding with The High King.  Originally published in the 1960s, and the conclusion of which is a Newbery Award winner, these are books written and intended for a children and adolescent market, and that’s the age at which I discovered them.  I’ve blogged about the influence these books had on me before.  Suffice to say, I’m not certain I’d be a writer today – or an aspiring author, rather – if not for these books.  If everything else in my life were stripped away, this still lies at the heart of who I am, and it is these books that started me down that path.  The final book, if I had to choose, is of particular note in my memory.  The books concluded with such a tangible bittersweetness that writing that emotion has been a sort of quest of mine ever since.

    Picture of an Open Bible

    An Open Book of Scripture

  2. The Bible and other books of Scripture: In some circles (including among many of my friends), claiming the “Bible” or any other book of scripture as one of your biggest influences is by definition a cliché.  The fact is, through most of my life, I’d read and had read to me bits and pieces of the Bible, but I’d never read the whole thing.  Still, I was taught about its importance and preeminence among books, just as a matter or religious instruction.  However, when I was about 19 years old and in college, as I was finding my religious beliefs challenged in unexpected ways, I undertook to read the book, from cover-to-cover as part of a separate religious-studies class looking at a different religion from my own, at that time.  What I discovered there was interesting and exciting.  It challenged some of my long-held beliefs, re-affirmed others, and made me think more about the nature of christianity than I had before.  Was God, for instance, a benevolent and merciful being?  The Bible doesn’t always suggest that he is!  And yet, it concludes with a resounding affirmation of those very traits!  What to make of all that?  In the end, it lead to a profound shift in the direction of my life.  I can honestly say, were it not for that change, I would not be where I am today, I would not have met my wife, and I would not now be bringing a new life into the world with her. 

    The Lord of Rings in Hardcover

    The Lord of the Rings in Hardcover

  3. The Lord of the Rings” by J. R. R. Tolkien: starting with The Fellowship of the Ring, of course.  These are the books without which no list of “the most influential books” is truly complete, making it a cliché of its own.  But, of course, there are reasons the books are so influential.  It’s hard to imagine a world without these books: half of popular entertainment and pop culture would be radically different if so.  But this is about the personal influence these books had on me.  As a writer, this can’t be understated.  Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books were what made me a writer, but it is these books that made me think more deeply about my writing.  I find myself turning time and again to the indices at the back of The Return of the King, and to companion books like The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion for inspiration in the way that I approach writing fantasy and world-building.  I find Tolkien’s influence in my work so strong that I have come to consider that “novel-I’ve-been-working-on” (cue obligatory reference to “blathering”) not so much a novel, or a pending novel-series, but a work of Mythopoeia.  While it is, perhaps, pretentious, that is nonetheless my aspiration – and why I’ve put the book aside until I can develop my skills as a writer sufficiently to be able to tackle such a daunting task. 

    The Hobbit Cover

    The Cover of "The Hobbit"

  4. The Hobbit, also by Tolkien: Another publisher of such a list might classify this as part-and-parcel with “The Lord of the Rings”, but I have to list them separately.  Even before I eventually read this book – which is a children’s book, as opposed to a work for adults such as “The Lord of the Rings” – stories from The Hobbit formed the backdrop of my childhood (along with other tales).  Before I ever read the book, I’d seen the Rankin/Bass animated version of it.  As a story of heroism and adventure, it sets a very different mood than the later books, and have different inspirations. It was only later, with the writing of “The Lord of the Rings”, that Tolkien tied the world of The Hobbit together with the world he’d been creating since his youth that we see in The Book of Lost Tales and The Silmarillion.  It’s another part of the mythopoetic process that’s well worth reading. 

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

    The Cover of "Dragons of Autumn Twilight"

  5. The Dragonlance Chronicles” by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman: which begin with Dragons of Autumn Twilight.  Long before I discovered Role-playing, or took up “adventuring” in Dungeons & Dragons, I read the Dragonlance books.  And those books were perhaps the first books that nearly brought me to tears because of the death of a character (I won’t share which one, so as not to spoil it).  It was heart-wrenching.  Of course, that’s besides the epic scope and incredible fantasy-milieu at the heart of these books (and the companion series, The Twins chronicles; read those two trilogies but the rest of the “Dragonlance” books, most by other authors, are extraneous to these two series).  Again, really, these books skew to a slightly younger audience, but they’re still fantastic, in my opinion, and were the beginning of a long and fruitful collaboration between Weis and Hickman that continues to this day. 

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

    The Cover of "The Eye of the World"

  6. The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan: which begins with The Eye of the World.  For all its flaws and detractors, “The Wheel of Time” has earned a place as one of the best epic fantasies every written, and this is especially true if we narrow our focus to the first three books of the series.  These books are among the most thoroughly-researched and richly-detailed fantasy books I’ve ever read, and even during the long slog in the middle, I always found myself eagerly anticipating the next book in the series (when I started reading them in High School, there were six of them).  Even the flaws – and yes, even an ardent fan of these books such as myself must admit that there are flaws – are a source of inspiration to me: I ask myself, as fabulous as Robert Jordan’s books are, what did he do wrong?  And how can I avoid those mistakes in my own writing?  In a future blog posting (after I finish reading The Gathering Storm), I will likely go into greater detail about the series as a whole, what I perceive the flaws to be, and how this all influences my writing. 

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

    The Cover of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"

  7. The Harry Potter Series by J. K. Rowling: which begins with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, as per the U.S. title.  These books changed my opinion of YA literature (or at least of YA fantasy and science fiction literature).  I had staunchly refused to read the Harry Potter books, believing them to be a fantasy-light that was unworthy of the attention of someone like me who was interested in serious, adult fantasy (such as the “Wheel of Time” books above); and I held out reading these until after the first movie came out.  Of course, I had to eat my words: these books are really well-written and enjoyable, regardless of what age you are when you read them.  In retrospect, it was silly, naive, and frankly stupid of me to hold the books in such contempt: some of my favorite books were written for the juvenile market (see “Chronicles of Prydain” above).  Can you spell hypocrite?  Regardless, I also learned a thing or two about writing fantasy by seriously considering just what made these books so darn popular in the first place (and by extension, caused Ms. Rowling to become the richest woman in England).  One part of the answer, I surmised: the role relationships between characters play in these books.  I also discovered, after reading these books, how annoyed I was at the U.S. title-change.  It smacks of pandering to the lowest-common-denominator, or of assuming the general stupidity of the American reading public.  The fact is, Ms. Rowling obviously did research on folklore and mythology in writing this series, but you wouldn’t know it by the American title: there’s really no such thing as a “Sorcerer’s Stone”.  But the British title has it right: there’s loads of interesting things in folklore and mythology about a “Philosopher’s Stone“.  

    The Cover of "1984"

    "1984" with the same cover as used in my High School

  8. 1984 by George Orwell: 1984 is easily the best book I have ever had to read for school.  It’s also the most darkly chilling, and most culturally, socially, and politically relevant I’ve ever had to read.  Basically, if you didn’t have to read it in High School like I did, then you should go read this book right now.  Seriously.  I mean, how do you even know what the rest of us are talking about whenever we snidely suggest that “Big Brother is watching you”?  Anyway, 1984 is the science-fiction (yes, it’s science fiction, even if they made you read it in school and even if Orwell didn’t know he was writing science fiction) dystopian-future magnum opus from before dystopian future sci-fi was the cool thing to write, and is the touchstone from which all other dystopian futures ultimately draw their inspiration.  And it is a book that continues to warn us against the dangers that lurk in our futures – dangers of our own making and born of our own complacency. 

    The cover of "A Wizard of Earthsea"

    The Cover of the same edition of "A Wizard of Earthsea" as was owned by my parents

  9. A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le GuinLe Guin’s books are deceptively simple to read, and belie their deep exploration of complex themes.  My parents had a huge collection of books from my childhood, and buried in that collection was a box-set of the first three Earthsea books.  Pressed into the pages of the books were dried flowers: flowers I can only assume were given to my mother by my father.  I did my best to take care not to damage the dried, pressed flowers when I read these books.  I included these books on my list because I think there’s something deeper or more meaningful here than in many of the other fantasy and science fiction books I’ve read.  Also, I think Ms. Le Guin’s campaign to protect her copyrights from corporate take-over are worthy of note. 
     
     

                                                                  

  10.  A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    Cover of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"

    This is a very surprising, non-speculative fiction item on my list.  Dear Wife very much enjoyed The Kite Runner by the same author, which she had read before we met, and when she got her hands on this sophomore novel by Hosseini, she convinced me to read it to.  Later, we saw the film version of The Kite Runner.  These stories were deeply disturbing and eye opening, and reading A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me a new understanding of evil that goes beyond the simplistic sense most often understood in fantasy fiction.  And it made me ponder such a situation in which “the good guys”, as my preconceived notions understood it, existed in a world where there were no “good” options, where every choice, every action conceivable would lead to more death, destruction, and evil, no matter what the intentions of “the good guys”.  Indeed, I was forced to ponder a world in which “the good guys” were a force for evil and ill in the world, simply as a consequence of their existence.  That is a stark reality to face, and it is one that A Thousand Splendid Suns made me face.  Also, this book has a fabulously enticing title!  

Honorable Mentions 

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: At once instructive, iconic, enduring, and immortal.  Plus, it’s about my favorite time of year!

 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: Adventure! Treasure! Pirates! And a boy in need of a father.  A bildungsroman that still delights young readers to this day.  This book is beyond being a mere classic.  Plus, may I say that this book began my love affair with maps?

 The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells: Veritably the grandfather of science fiction (alongside Mr. Verne, the genre’s other grandfather).  As far as I know, it’s the first time aliens invaded and conquered Earth, and also the first time they were a metaphor of something deeper.  What I read was an illustrated, abridged version for children, at a fairly young age.

 The 1,001 Arabian Nights: While I’ve never read them, the existence of this book nonetheless has a profound impact on my world, and my conception of a heroic tale: from the voyages of Sinbad, to the tale of Aladdin, to Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, these are adventures and stories that were a part of my childhood and formed the backdrop for my early development as a writer.

 Fairy Tales: From Mother Goose to the Brothers Grimm and everything in between.  My childhood was steeped in fairy tales – many of them from children’s books recounting the tales in question.  Others came from movies and television, still others were related as bed-time stories. 

 Wikipedia: It’s not a book.  But it is my one-stop-shop, where all of my more in-depth research begins.   (Which is to say, I know Wikipedia’s not where my research should end, but it’s a great place to begin!)

Happy reading!

Reading

While I was working on my Undergraduate Degree – so many years ago, now – I got involved with a program intended to help promote literacy.  It was called Time-to-Read – it’s a program sponsored by the Time Warner company.  So, twice a week I woke up at 7:30 in the morning – earlier than any self-respecting undergrad ever gets up – and hopped on my bike to ride a couple of miles out from the campus to an elementary school on the underprivileged side of town.

There, I worked with a couple of students – a different pair on each of the two days I went – using the Time-to-Read readers – little pamphlets with kid-friendly news stories and word games – to give the kids a little time to practice their reading in a more private, personal setting, for about a half an hour outside of normal class.

It was a humbling experience.

And it put my own experience and history into perspective.  We were never wealthy, growing up.  Our family clung tenaciously to the underside of the Middle Class, trying to climb up during the good times, but never letting go during the tough ones.  Through all my years in public schools, I don’t recall a one where we didn’t qualify for Free or Reduced Lunches.  But there were two advantages we had that so many others lacked that made us children of privilege: a mother with an unwavering devotion to the quality of her children’s education, and books.

During our primary school years, my Mom never failed to take an opportunity to be a part of our education.  She volunteered at school.  She helped with and checked our homework.  She and my father went to every Parent-Teacher night.  During the summer, she had us read and practice math, reading, and writing from a set of educational books they’d bought for us.  We thought it was pretty draconian to make us do homework during the Summer, but in retrospect I have to thank my mother for that.  It set me up not only for a lifetime of learning, but a lifetime of over-achieving in my education.

But I’m especially grateful for the books.  No, not those education books we had to read out of over the summers.  I mean the novels.  Several dozens of them, maybe hundreds in all.  I never took a full count.  Even if you count out all the romance novels on my mom’s shelves, there were more than enough books to fill my childhood with fantasy, science fiction, and adventure.  And I’m thankful for my parents’ examples.  My parents read.  My dad less so as the years went by, for lack of free time, but by then there were so many books that it didn’t matter.

I always credit Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles with starting my love affair with Fantasy (I’ve blogged about that before), but that’s most probably because those books were the most accessible to me at a young age.  There had always been fantasy and science fiction books in my family’s house.  (I think it’s a genetic thing.  I have an uncle who collects statues of dragons.)

My history with books, and with reading, and with education all were starkly different than that of the kids I was working with on Time-to-Read.  Where my family clung to the underbelly of the Middle Class, the families of these kids reached for it in vain.  Where I was a white boy in a white-dominated society, these kids were not.  Where I had loved to read from a very young age, these kids struggled with it.  By the end of the year, I felt like my efforts had been for naught.  Their reading skills seemed no better by the end of the year than they had at the start.  I felt like a failure.

I didn’t participate in the Time-to-Read program a second year.  Partly, I was dismayed by my apparent failure to have a positive impact on these kids’ lives.  Partly, I was profoundly uncomfortable being confronted with the stark truth of the twin liabilities of race and class: of being the “wrong” race or of the “wrong” class.  I thought I understood what it was to be poor, but I began to suspect that I did not really understand it at all.  Today, I wish I could go back, and find some way, any way, to help those kids improve their reading skills.  What a difference that could have made, if I’d done a better job?

I was reading in Parenting magazine recently (which my wife and I now subscribe to) that reading skills are perhaps the single most important indicator of future success.  Literacy changes everything.  It really isn’t hyperbole.  Reading has made me who I am.  I love to write because I love to read.  And now that I write a blog, it’s hard to express just how much I appreciate my readers. 

Reading will continue to be important – in my life, and in the life of my children.  I already spend time reading to my B.T., my as-yet-unborn child.  Not every night, unfortunately, yet.  It’s a habit I need to get into.  But every few nights, we pick one of the children’s books we’ve begun collecting off the shelf and I read to him.  As time goes on, I hope to make reading to my children at night, before going to bed, a regular part of the evening ritual.  Because it matters.

Perhaps that’s a long, rambling post.  But it’s something I’ve been thinking about, lately.  I hope you’ll promote literacy in whatever neck of the woods you find yourself. 

Happy reading.

What I’m Reading & Googling Myself

So, I thought it would be a little interesting to talk a little about what I’ve been reading of late.  Over Christmas I had gotten the latest in the “Wheel of Time” series by Robert Jordan (and Brandon Sanderson), The Gathering Storm.  I’d promised a review of the series so far, once I finish that book, though I’m only a third through.  This is the longest it’s ever taken me to read one of these books, but never when any of the other books came out have I had a full time job, a wife, a baby on the way, and been working on my MBA taking evening classes.   So the fact that I’ve been able to get a third of the way through (and still finding time in between for writing a tiny bit as well) is maybe worthy of commendation.  Well, since I’m commending myself, I can say it is worthy.

What I thought was particularly worthy of mention, related to yesterday’s post about feeling a bit ill earlier this week, is something that happened to me Tuesday evening.  Despite not feeling terribly well, I spent all day at work.  I’ve been saving up my sick leave, such as it is, for the birth of our son.  Needless to say, by the end of the day, I was exhausted.  I had barely eaten all day.  (I blamed that slice of pizza I ate during class on Monday, even though I’d already eaten and wasn’t hungry, for my ill feeling.  I couldn’t turn down free pizza; it’s like if I was Superman, free pizza is my kryptonite.)  So when I got home that evening, I was weak and tired.  Dinner was a piece of toast.  But before going to bed that evening, I wanted to feel like my time wasn’t totally wasted.  I didn’t have the energy for homework, but I had just enough to pick up a book.  So I read a chapter from The Gathering Storm.  What was funny was that I was so physically weak, and the chapter I was on was sufficiently dramatic, that it left me feeling weaker and shaking just a little for having read it.  This isn’t really a commentary on the quality of the book so much as the state I was in by the end of the day Tuesday, but I did enjoy the chapter.

In unrelated news – but related to the title of this post – periodically since starting this blog I’ve googled my own name, just to see what happens.  I was actually content for my blog to remain buried on Google’s search results for my name, because it gave me a sense of the insulating safety of privacy.  A few weeks ago, though, I noticed that this blog’ was rising up in Google’s ranking.  A week or two ago it appeared on the second page of search results for my name.  Last week, it appeared on the first page, near the bottom.  Today, I am the third-ranked hit for searches on my name.  Ahead of me is an Australian guy named Stephen Watkins who does graphic design and some guy named Stephen H. Watkins (H is totally not my middle initial, though I didn’t search with a middle initial) who is the CEO of some company called Entrex, and seems to do some stuff related to small-cap/venture cap and entrepreneurial ventures.  In my virtual dust, now, are a number of LinkedIn, Facebook, And Twitterers named Stephen Watkins, but of unknown provenance, and an English Cricketer.  And, oddly, a comment I made on another author’s blog.

I’m not quite sure what to make of my new-found pre-eminence in the Google ranking.  However, I’m also not sure it really means anything, right now, since I don’t expect people will often be Googling my name, at least for the foreseeable future.  I do realize there’s a chance that will happen at some hypothetical future point at which I am applying for jobs.  Be that the case, I hope this blog reflects well on me.  If nothing else, it should demonstrate my ability to write lucidly.

The Christmas (Book) Haul

I did a tidy business this year for Christmas, with respect to books.  I received four books as gifts, starting with The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson.  I also picked up Mistborn and Elantris, also by Brandon Sanderson, and The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.  (Besides that, I also got a hot chocolate pot with frother and a cold-weather running outfit, among other things, which I’m also excited about, but they’re a little beyond the scope of this blog.)  My son, meanwhile (though he has yet to leave the womb), got a shiney new copy of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

I’m very excited by this bounty of books.  I’ve not been reading nearly as much as I’d like this past year or two, due in large consequence to my MBA program eating most of my free time for a hearty breakfast.  I enjoy advancing my education, but I do miss leisure reading.  Most of these books aren’t new – the newest, The Gathering Storm, was released in October of this year – so any reviews I do on them will hardly be timely.  But I’ll probably post my thoughts once I am able to delve into them.

Of these novels, Elantris is a stand-alone book, while Mistborn is the first book of a trilogy and The Name of the Wind is also the first in a series.   The Gathering Storm, on the other hand, is the twelfth book of the long-running “Wheel of Time” saga – so a review of this book is of limited worth outside the context of the series as a whole.  If you’re already a “Wheel of Time” fan, you’re already familiar with The Gathering Storm, and there’s a fair chance you’ve read it already, so any review, positive or negative, is unlikely to have a substantial impact on your likelihood of picking it up.

This all got me thinking about the tendancy for fantasy novels, in particular, to come in a series of books, and of the trend in mainstream fiction, generally, either toward or away from serials and series.  It gives me a wonderful opportunity to segue into another short essay on the topic of novel series and serials, critiquing the pros and cons on the matter, and perhaps providing a little food-for-thought for other aspiring writers.  Stay tuned tomorrow for my short essay on novel series.  Until then, happy writing.

Buying Your Name

Book buyers these days are an increasingly fickle lot and, anecdotally at least, an ever-shrinking pool of the population at large.  I don’t have data to support these assertions, and they’re not really mine in the first place.  Myself, I love books as much as ever, and I find myself recently developing new interests in new authors based solely on the awesome premises of their books.

But there is evidence that the book buying public has more narrow criteria driving their reading habits.  There is a reason that Stephen King and Dan Brown and their like consistently sell large numbers of their books.  There is a reason that virtually everyone who picks up books to read has either read the Harry Potter series or the Twilight series or has had to make a conscious decision not to read them.  The reasons for the first example and for the second are subtly different, but linked.

The latter is tied to the impetus of a cultural moment.  This is how legends are made.  I admit that, initially, I was reluctant to pick up the Harry Potter books. They were marketed as children’s novels, and I like my fantasy to take itself seriously.  Something intended for “children”, I figured, could hardly take itself seriously.  But at last I relented, and was glad I did.  For all the “silly” trappings of childhood fantasy – flying broomsticks, magic wands, and ridiculous nonsense magic words – there was a maturity and depth and seriousness to the work.  It treats its target audience with respect, and for that reason it is equally good reading for an adult (and it opened my eyes to the possibilities of young adult fiction).  Why, however, did I finally relent?  By the time I read the first book, the series was becoming a phenomenon.  Virtually everyone I know had read it, and the number of positive reviews from people I trusted left me little choice but to investigate their claims.

I have yet to pick up the Twilight books, and can say that I currently find it unlikely I will.  While it, too, has reached the epic status of a publishing phenomenon, I have a few holdups.  It’s clearly marketed toward females, which I am not, and it is about vampires.  To date I have not developed a deep interest in the vampire romance genre.  Be that as it may, the forces that drove the Twilight books to success are the same as those that drove Harry Potter. 

Both books became part of a cultural moment.  I suspect that neither was initially supported by a significant amount of promotional spending on the part of the publishers.  But something about the books was truly good – and it struck a chord with readers.  When sales started to pick up, in spite of low promotional support, the marketers took notice, and the ad dollars began to flow.  Once that happened, the books broke the ceiling, and the skies were the limit.

That promotional efforts took what would have been modestly successful books without and made these books stratospherically successful is part of the same equation that keeps the well-known authors who have been writing for decades churning out bestseller after bestseller.  These authors can bank on their past success.  Readers, who know they enjoyed the last work but that author, have a reasonable amount of confidence that they’ll enjoy the writer’s next book.   Marketers know that, and so they work to make sure that anyone who may have enjoyed one of that writer’s books before is made fully aware that he or she is releasing a new book.  That effort takes a lot of promotional money, and not much is going to be left for the as-yet-unproven author.

Those of us in that category face an uphill battle.  We want to be a household name.   We want to be part of the cultural moment.  But how do we get there?  How do we convince the powers-that-be that investing in us will pay dividends?

Frankly, if I had the answer to that, I’d be using it as we speak.  But what I can say is this: it’s clearly not easy, and if you’re going to make it, it will take work.  The people who are making these investment decisions are usually not doing so based on a narrow set of tastes and preferences.  They are making business decisions, and they want their investments to succeed.  Convincing them is going to take proving in no uncertain terms that a failure to invest in you would be a financial mistake.

That sets a high hurdle.  To meet that bar, you must have more than determination and motivation to succeed.  You need more than just talent and a finely honed skill.  You can’t be just a good author.  You must be great.  You must be among the best.  You must be so good that, once readers get a hold of your books, there cannot be enough printed to sate their demand for it.  Mere rhetoric will not sway the decision-makers.  There must be action behind your words: the action of a reading public clamoring for your books.

That’s the question that keeps me up at night: I know I’m a good writer.  But am I great?  And even supposing I am great, how would I prove it?  They are questions I have yet to answer.