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I'm so excited that my lifelong dream of becoming a published author has come true. If you'd like to go straight to excerpts, descriptions, and buy links for my books, click on the covers below on the right.

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Monday, May 30, 2011

On Process and Progress: Playing the Numbers Game

Three years ago, I joined a short story class led by a friend of mine who has published nine of them, but none for pay. I went on the first day, and when the teacher and other students asked what I wanted out of writing fiction, I gave them the honest answer: I want to do this for a living.

"Oh, that's going to be so hard!" one of the other students said, and (seriously!) wrinkled her nose as if to say, "Oh, that's so cute!"

The teacher* was even less encouraging. "There are three hundred million people in the United States," he said, "and less than four hundred of them are able to write fiction full-time without any additional support like spousal income or from another job."

US population map
(File by Jim Irwin on Wikimedia, used by general permission)

Well, damn. That means I have such a small chance of actually making it as a full-time, professional fiction writer that my computer calculator doesn't even want to give me the number without using scientific notation with a negative decimal point (1.333*10^-4%, or 0.0001333 percent). Giving that perspective, when I applied to a Ph.D. program in Clinical Psychology in 1998, the acceptance rates for those programs were between six and eight percent, which is, by the way, less than for medical school.

But this got me to thinking. That number is way too low considering the context. Let's break it down...

First, how many people actually want to write fiction? Let's start with how many people want or like to write. Okay, I'm pulling this number out of my ass, but as we all know, 36% of statistics (including this one) are made up on the spot. So, thinking of the people I know, let's say that one third of them actually write, and that's probably a generous representation of the general population considering I tend to hang out with other writers. That brings the starting number down to one hundred million. Forty percent of the book market goes to fiction (this seems to be a fairly consistent number across sources), so the starting number equals forty million.

So, 400/400,000 = 0.1% At least we're out of the scientific notation.

Let's go a step further. Of that four hundred million, how many of them are actually serious about writing? By serious, I mean putting regular time into it (better than I have been about blog posting) and learning about the craft. For guidance, I turned to magazine circulation for the three big writing magazines: Writer's Digest, Writer Magazine, and Poets & Writers. Yes, my assumption is that people who are serious enough to study the craft of writing will subscribe to magazines. Here are the numbers:

Writer's Digest: 110,000
Writer Magazine: 30,000
Poets & Writers: 60,000

Sure, I'm not hitting everyone, but I'm sure there are others like me who take more than one, so we'll make the assumption that non-magazine reading serious writers are covered by the overlap. The total is now 200,000, and thank you, statistics gods, for the nice, round number!

One more step: lots of people start books, but who is serious enough to actually finish a manuscript and go through the agony of submitting it? For this, I turned to the acceptance rates for M.F.A. programs. These are the type of talented, driven people I feel like I'm up against. According to the Almighty Google, who has been very helpful with this process, creative writing M.F.A. acceptance rates are between 2.5 and 5%. So, that brings our number down to a range of 5000-10,000. Going with our initial starting point of 400 successful career fiction writers, the chance of success then becomes four to eight percent. This was actually close to my chances of getting into a clinical psychology Ph.D. program, which I did. And took four semesters of statistics, in case you couldn't tell.

Skewness Statistics
(File from Wikimedia)

Am I making a lot of assumptions with this process? Yes. Do I know for sure what my chances of making it as a fiction author are? No. But I have time to find out, a supportive spouse, and a day job that I enjoy. By the way, the teacher who first handed down that dour statistic has since become one of my biggest supporters who has said that he thinks I have what it takes. I'm going to take him up on his challenge to become number four hundred and one.

The kind of math I like: dessert on graph paper plate at Chocolate by the Bald Man in Philadelphia.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Book Review: Pandora's Succession by Russell Brooks

It's hard to write, finish, and revise a book, and it takes courage and money to get it out there. Readers who are interested in self-published books but who don't want to waste their time on low-quality ones need a place to go for reviews. I'll post a review of a self-published book the first weekend of every month so that authors and readers can connect with each other.

If you're interested in getting your book reviewed, please email my assistant at bert{at}ceciliadominic.com

Title: Pandora's Succession
Author: Russell Brooks
Genre: Thriller
Publisher: CreateSpace (paperback), also available as an e-book from major outlets

First, apologies to Mr. Brooks and my blog fans for the delay on posting this one! Life has been hectic with all 2.5 jobs going full-tilt and some exciting writing-related news (see who's in first place). I also didn't want to post on Mother's Day.

Hero Ridley Fox was all set to leave the exciting life of an undercover agent to settle down with his fiancée Jessica when she was killed by the Arms of Ares, a Russian weapons ring. At the start of the book a few years later, Fox infiltrates one of their bunkers, where they are manufacturing Pandora, a nasty microbe that eats its victims from the inside out within seconds of exposure. The microbe is then stolen by Japanese pharmaceutical company Hexagon, which is under the control of a cult called The Promise, which wants to use the microbe for world domination. Or something like that. The head of the cult explains the entire plan like a good Bond villain when the hero is captured.

I almost designated the genre for this one as being "guy-lit." As opposed to chick-lit, where the single characters end up married, in guy-lit, you can pretty much predict the married guys are toast. It also has some of the hallmarks of my husband's favorite television shows and movies: a hero with a tragedy in his past that motivates him for revenge, bad guys with automatic weapons and good guys with handguns, women who tend toward uber-bitchiness, and lots of explosions, gunfights, and even ninjas.

The first two thirds of the book move quickly, and sometimes it's hard to keep the large cast of characters straight, especially since each of the evil organizations seems to have an unlimited supply of bad guys. The double-crossing is fairly clear, although sometimes the characters' motives aren't. The author does a good job of explaining a fairly complex set-up without dumping too much backstory in, and he keeps the action moving.

Everyone seems to have a tragedy or secret in their past, and one of the themes of the book is that people have a choice as to what they do with the pain. Fox uses it for revenge. Scientist Nita Parris is motivated by her past hurts to become an undercover operative. The villain decides that government and religion are behind his or her pain and moves toward an extreme solution (trying to avoid a spoiler, although the identity of the mastermind is revealed about a quarter of the way through the book). The Promise cult uses the pain of its victims as a psychological gateway for their brainwashing drug Clarity.

Characterization is one of the weaker aspects of the book. Although I applaud Brooks for trying to make his hero rounder than a James Bond or Jack Bauer, Fox's introspection can feel clunky. His eventual reconciliation with Parris, whom he dated and stood up in the past, seems awkward, and the final relationship between the two characters isn't clear. Parris also demonstrates some inconsistency in that she is obviously uncomfortable with the research she is doing at Hexagon, yet she's shocked when she discovers it's related to a cult. What else would she be brainwashing people for? I wasn't sure what she thought would happen to the research subjects after she was done with them.

Fans of action and adventure in exotic locales will brush aside character concerns for the fast-paced plot. The final confrontation, with ninjas battling Russian operatives for Pandora, and Fox having to defeat both to sabotage the disaster that Promise wants to unleash on the world is very well-written. Brooks' pacing is perfect, and it's easy to follow the complicated battle scene through the eyes of the two main characters and one of the bad guys.

I got this one from the author as a .pdf file, which I read on my Nook, so I can't comment on the physical book. There were a few typos and rare verb tense issues, but they weren't excessive. All of the plot threads tie up nicely at the end. Some of the descriptions of Pandora in action were a bit gory, but I think that's standard for the genre.

Bottom line: Not for germophobes, but thriller fans will love it.

Previous Reviews:
Gint Aras' Finding the Moon in Sugar
Perry Treadwell's From Sea to Shining Sea on U.S. 20
James Huskins' Silent Scream: A Groovy Mystery Caper
Laura Eno's Don't Fall Asleep: A Dream Assassin Novel
Donna Carrick's The First Excellence -- Fa-Ling's Map
Kenn Allen's The Golden Cockerel

Up Next: The Handbook of the Writer Secret Society by Carrie Bailey, et al.