Friday, December 19, 2014

The Joys and the Dangers Untold: Suicide & the Holidays

In 2011, I lost a close friend to suicide due to relentless online attacks that were thoughtless, hateful and unwarranted. The target of the attacks wasn’t my friend but me, and it became very personal and caused much stress for myself and those close to me for a very long time. I never knew how personally some of those around me took these attacks until it was too late.

I’ve written about these attacks on many previous occasions. Although these hateful activities began in 2002, the first time I spoke publicly about them was May 2007 . I didn’t say anything more about these matters publicly until October and November 2009. More recently, I’ve been blogging about these problems and related issues at Read Indies. My posts on these matters include:

Unethical Competitors, January 2013
Authors Who Trash Competitors, March 2013

Authors Who Are Trolls, September 2013

Whoever said time heals all wounds was wrong. Absolutely wrong. It’s only now some three years later that I can look back and let myself truly mourn the loss. But the wound created by the loss? It’ll never be gone. Such a tragedy should never have happened—and those responsible are still at large, likely seeking other targets to harass and terrorize simply because they believe they can get away with it without consequences. 

This wasn’t the first friend I’d lost to suicide. I’d lost another years before. She’d taken her own life on Christmas Eve. You’d think that it couldn’t be possible for anyone to kill themselves during such a joyous occasion or the holidays in particular, but you might be surprised to know that instead of declining during the holidays suicides actually spike.

The holidays are a joyous time but they can also be a stressful, strenuous time. Losing someone close to you to suicide is something you never get over. You wonder what you could have or should have done. You wonder if the pain of loss will ever go away. Take it from someone who has searched and searched for the answers, I don’t think the pain ever really goes away because I still feel it as acutely as I did before.

Some suicides I think are utterly avoidable, especially those related to online attacks. The online world makes it all too easy for bullies, trolls and other hateful persons to make anonymous attacks on anyone for any reason or none at all. But all it takes to stamp out hate is kindness, compassion, consideration.

Show kindness for any reason or no reason at all. Show compassion simply because you can. Show consideration because it reveals the truth of your humanity. For those who can’t manage kindness, compassion or consideration, at the least try to show empathy. A little empathy and common courtesy go a long, long way. They really, really do.

This holiday and every day, make sure those around you know what’s in your heart. Don’t be afraid to share and care. Don’t be afraid to give and receive. And don’t ever forget that during any occasion, joyful or sorrowful, holiday or not, there may be those around you who are so torn up inside with pain and hurt that suicide seems the only way out. For them, your simple act of kindness, consideration or compassion might be what gets them through the dark hours of the longest night of their lives.

Thank you for reading,

Robert Stanek

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Lots of Books Require Lots of Effort: Writing & Releasing Books Into the Wild

Often, it takes a very long time to work books through the writing, editing, review, and publishing processes. Recently, my publisher and I re-did the interior layout of all the Bugville books for new digital editions to accommodate the improved standards of today's e-readers.

There are 100+ Bugville books. They re-released at the same time to all markets after 18 months of hard work from a dedicated team.

I started work on the Bugville books 20 years ago. Most of the Bugville books are created from full-size watercolors (paintings). No one created thousands of original watercolors in a few days or wrote 100+ stories in a few days, but when we released the new editions, we released them to all markets at the same time.

Even with the original releases, many of the Bugville books ending up being released at the same time. Why?

In 2005, I was finally able to publish the first two sets of books, 15 in all, after years of work and waiting. Although the books were written and illustrated over a period of years, the digital rendering, text layout, editing, review, and final publishing processes all came together at close to the same time.

Over the next 9 years, I've published the original works I created over many years along with new ones until finally I caught up and released everything I'd created. 100 illustrated books created over 20 years is a rate of 5 a year, but many of the books came out in batches because that's how they worked through all the processes to get to official release dates.

Over the years, there have been many readers favorites. Here are a few of them, as well as a few of mine:

Bugville Critters Explore the Solar System was a runaway hit from its first release. In the Book, Buster has a dream where he pilots a rocket ship through the solar system. I often hear from readers about how much they love the story and its beautiful watercolors.
Talking about healthy eating habits doesn't have to be a bummer and it's one of the reasons Bugville Critters Visit Garden Box Farms was been a reader favorite for years.

Bugville Critters Go to School is another perennial reader favorite. Kids love the story of Buster's first day of school and how he overcomes his jitters.

Pirates Stole My Booty is laugh out loud fun, complete with a pirate dictionary. It's always been one of my favorites and a favorite of readers.

Another reader favorite is Start Summer Vacation. This book tells the story of Buster's last day of school before vacation.
Hope you enjoy these favorite reads!

Robert Stanek

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Tragedy, Hope and New Beginnings: A Story That’s Not in My Military Memoir Stormjammers But Perhaps Should Be in My Next

My wife’s second miscarriage was a clue that something was terribly wrong. I thought it was the stress of being a combat flyer’s wife, constant deployments, or the subsequent ever-changing schedule when I worked inside the secretive underground facility known as the Tunnel. I never imagined that it was due to the air we breathed, the water we drank or the soil beneath our feet, but it likely was as lead from lead-based paints had leached into the soil we used for gardening and other toxic substances were throughout our base housing and the places we worked.

No one tells you when you join the military you’re risking not just your life but your health—and that of your family and even your unborn children. As Newsweek said in its July 25, 2014 cover story, the US Military is supposed to protect the country’s citizens and soldiers and not poison them.

Throughout the United States, there are 141 military bases and related Department of Defense facilities on the Environmental Protection Agency’s superfund list and the National Priorities List for cleanup—and that list of 141 isn’t all inclusive by any means. It is simply a list of the worst of the worst, bases and facilities with toxic contamination so bad that the EPA has assigned them its highest priority for cleanup due to unacceptable risks to human health.

Many of the worst facilities are closed or closing. However, it’s not like the toxins in the soil and ground water are going to stay where they are. They’re going to continue to pollute and contaminate adjacent facilities until they are cleaned up once and for all. What’s waiting beyond the 141 highly toxic bases and facilities? Well, the Department of Defense has identified 39,000 contaminated locations so far, from areas as small as a building to as large as an airfield, and those locations are spread across many of the 4,127 DOD installations located in the United States.

As a soldier who was deployed overseas for many years, I was stationed at Department of Defense facilities all over the world and I can’t help but wonder what toxic nightmare is lurking at the thousands of Department of Defense facilities that are located outside the United States. What I suspect is that there are likely as many contaminated locations and highly toxic sites at Department of Defense facilities located outside the US as there are inside the US.

All those years ago, I didn’t know about these issues or that toxins were possibly changing my life and my family, but I guessed there was something going on beyond stress. I started asking questions, and a healthcare worker who treated my wife suggested I look at environmental factors in our home and workplaces.

In our pre-World War II base housing, lead paint often was prevalent and possibly other toxic substances. We dug up the garden which was alongside the house, stopped drinking the tap water, and made other changes. With these changes, our overall health seemed to improve. Months later, my wife got pregnant again and this time, she carried the pregnancy well and my son, Will, was born.

Will arrived a few weeks early, but healthy. For us, it was a new beginning and a hope for the future of our family.

Until next time,
Robert Stanek

Monday, July 14, 2014

Diversity in Children’s and Young Adult Novels: Making a Difference and Taking a Stand

This post is dedicated to Walter Dean Myers who inspired and guided me through his writing. As a writer, I’ve always seen it as my responsibility to infuse my work with diversity. After all, we live in a world of color and diversity, a world of many peoples, beliefs and religions – and writing, especially children’s writing, should mirror, reflect and embrace this diversity. Sometimes my embrace of race, religion and belief systems has made my work controversial, but controversy hasn’t changed my views or my writing.

A few months before his death, Walter wrote a blistering essay about the lack of diversity in children’s books, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” And I wanted to reply to my old friend: That there are many diverse books in print. That there are many books that present diversity honestly and compassionately. Though clearly, not enough, and perhaps not in ways some expected, and yet perhaps also because books that embrace diversity can come in many forms.

Can a contemporary fiction or nonfiction story embrace diversity? Yes, it can—but so can other types of writing from children’s picture books featuring cute little critters to fantasy, dystopian and science fiction novels.

Anyone who has visited Bugville, the BIG little place where my more than 100 Bugville Critters, Bugville Jr and Bugville Learning picture books take place, knows Bugville is as diverse as our own world. Not only is Bugville a place where the real problems of our world exist, it is a place where light shines on darkness, a place that invites children and their parents to discuss important issues and our natural world.

The critter friends are of many races, religions and beliefs and come from all levels of socioeconomic standing. There are many different types of bugs in Bugville, which do in fact honestly and compassionately reflect the peoples of our world:

* The Ladybug family is upper class, with a mom who is the CEO of her own company, a dad of color who is the mayor, and children who are from different marriages.

* The Bee family is working-class, with a blue-color dad who is a factory worker, a stay at home mom, and three children.

* The Dragonfly family has an unemployed working-class dad, a mom and two children.

* The Caterpillar family has a single mom who works at the Post Office and a special needs daughter.

* The Silkworm family, who recently emigrated from Japan, has a daughter who is having trouble adapting to the cultural changes of her new home and difficulty learning English as a second language.

Anyone who has visited the Magic Lands, where my Ruin Mist: Magic Lands stories take place, knows that underlying themes relate to race, color and the rights of indigenous peoples. Ray and his people are people of color. Their lands, beliefs and rights are being encroached upon by outsiders. Ray faces difficult decisions when his spirit journey takes him into the outsider’s world and cultures clash.

The themes in Magic Lands aren’t overt, rather they are subtle, integral parts of the story that reflect the challenges of a diverse world. A world that is just like our own, whether you are on the inside looking out or the outside looking in.

The world of Ruin Mist is in fact a very diverse place. The Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches and In the Service of Dragons books, peoples of many different backgrounds, religions, beliefs and nationalities are central to the story. The characters thoughts and actions reflect their heritages, belief systems and religions. The people's of the southern kingdoms are peoples of color. The elves of Greye are as well, as is Uver, the father of modern elves.

There often are racial and other prejudices at work.The ancient hatred between the Men of the Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches. The banning and burning of books. The purges to cleanse the world of all that is magical, be it creature, man or device. The clashes between beliefs and religions.

Though a character’s prejudices and preconceptions can shape his or her thoughts and actions, preconceptions and prejudices can and do give way to understanding and tolerance. Again, these themes aren’t overt, but they are integral parts of the story that reflect the challenges of a diverse world. A world that is just like our own, whether you are on the inside looking out or the outside looking in.

After reading this, I hope you’ll look at Walter’s works. Read Monster, Hoops, Dope Sick or my personal favorites, Fallen Angels and Sunrise Over Fallujah.

Until next time,

Robert Stanek

Monday, March 10, 2014

Ruin Mist Movie Option Expires. 6th Time Wasn’t the Lucky Charm After All.

Well, Ruin Mist fans, I’m terribly disappointed to say the movie option expired today. As principle filming has not begun, it means the 6th time wasn’t the lucky charm for Ruin Mist after all. Those who have been following along know I’ve been in this crazy business for a few decades now, and am not quite ready to give up the Hollywood dream just yet. The silver lining, as ever: I get to keep the option money. This is, of course, an update from my post from way back in October 2012.

Still, like I said back then, you know you’re doing something right when Hollywood comes knocking six times in a row. Way back in 2002, the first two times Hollywood came knocking, I was  awestruck. Now I’m fine with whatever may and may not happen, so no more dancing on clouds. :-(

BTW, this most recent flirt with Hollywood was thanks to the Ruin Mist prequel and the Ruin Mist graphic novel.

If you’re new to the world of Ruin Mist, books set in the world include:

Kingdoms and the Elves of the Reaches #1, 2, 3, 4:
Winds of Change
Seeds of Dissent
Pawn of Dragons
Tower of Destiny

In the Service of Dragons #1, 2, 3, 4:
A Clash of Heroes
A Dance of Swords
A Storm of Shields
A Reign of Dragons

Guardians of the Dragon Realms #1, 2:
The Dragon, the Wizard & the Great Door
A Legacy of Dragons

Dragons of the Hundred Worlds #1, 2:
Breath of Fire
Living Fire

A Daughter of Kings #1, 2, 3, 4:

Magic Lands #1, #2
Journey Beyond
Into the Stone Land

As ever, thanks for reading,

Robert Stanek

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Big Books, Big Contracts: The Road to Success is Paved With Potholes (Or Alternately What It’s Like to Write 150 Books & Still Have to Give 150% Every Single Day.)

I'm Robert Stanek. Last year, I signed an 8-book six-figure contract with my long-time publisher. In the past, I’ve had contracts for $70,000 and up for 3 or 4 books, but nothing so substantial. It was a wonderful confirmation of my commitment to the written word and it felt great to have a publisher back my work so strongly, especially in the uncertain landscape of today’s publishing reality.

Since I’ve been talking about the contract and the books lately, I often hear from people who congratulate me on “my quick success” and “my rapid rise to acclaim.” I am, of course, a critically and commercially acclaimed author of more than 150 books. I also am one of the world’s leading authorities in the subjects I write about and the more than $200,000,000 in retail earnings for my books easily put me in a class of the top 1% of authors in the world. I am, however, anything but an overnight success. I’ve been a writer for 30 years and only 20 as a published professional.

I earned my stripes in this crazy business when I wrote for many years for the simple pleasure of writing itself. It wasn’t until 1994 that I signed my first contract. It wasn’t until 1995 that my first book was published. It wasn’t until 1996 that I was able to write full-time.

My full-time work as a writer is as a technology journalist and nonfiction writer. In those early days, I wrote articles for leading publications like PC Magazine and Dr. Dobbs. I also wrote books for leading publishers like Macmillan, Pearson, McGraw Hill, Microsoft, and O’Reilly Media. For articles, I often received $1 or more a word. For books, I often received solid five-figure advances. That was, of course, success, and I did in fact rise quickly, becoming a recognized world leader in my field in only a few short years.

Success, however, can be short lived. In publishing, a writer’s last success doesn’t necessarily pave the road to the future. A writer’s future is determined by his or her next book and often also by factors the writer cannot control. The world changes every day. Trends and tastes shift. Yesterday’s media darling can be tomorrow’s nobody.

I’ve lived the change firsthand. Between 1995 and 1998, I signed more than a dozen contracts, wrote books as fast as I could write them for readers who couldn’t get my books fast enough. I was on fire. In those few short years, my books earned over $50,000,000 at retail. I thought the ride would never end, until it did.

The market changed. Trends and tastes shifted. The hot topics of the day were flooded with a smorgasbord of offerings. There weren’t just 10 or 20 books on that hot topic, there were a hundred. Eventually, this oversaturation cannibalized sales of all similar books. Thus, even as my success and career were hitting new highs, I was left scrambling.

But unlike many of my contemporaries at the time, I saw the light of that oncoming freight train. I knew my options. I knew what I had to do.

I could continue to write books in an oversaturated market, try to live with sales that were a tiny fraction of what they had been, or I could look to new opportunities. I chose plan b—the new opportunities. I risked everything, left my old publishers who weren’t interested in my new ideas, and went out looking for publishers who were interested in my new ideas.

The change meant I had to rejoin the working world. I took a job with a tech company in Seattle and joined the ranks of the marathon commuters, driving 140 miles round trip every working day. I continued writing in the evenings and on weekends. I continued to pitch my new ideas to new publishers.

Days and weeks passed. Months too. By the sixth month, my wife and I were seriously considering our options and wishing we’d sold the family home and moved to Seattle months ago.

But I didn’t give up. Instead, I polished my ideas yet again and sent them out via my agent to a new publisher who I heard was looking to do something different. I just hoped that the “something different” they wanted would be my radical idea for a new series of books.

The wait to hear back from the publisher was agony because at this point it was make or break. If I heard back from the publisher and it wasn’t good news, my writing career likely was over. If I heard back from the publisher and it was good news, there was hope, but no certainty.

Thankfully, I heard back from my agent within a few days and the news was good. The publisher wanted to meet with me. The publisher wanted to discuss my ideas.

During the meeting, it was clear that the publisher liked my ideas but I’d need to provide sample chapters, expand the series details, have more face-to-face meetings, and generally do more to convince them. The hard part that followed required a leap of faith. I couldn’t do all that was required of me, in the time that was required of me, and keep working full-time elsewhere. I had to quit the day job and proceed, or keep the day job and let the dream die.

I chose the dream. I gave notice, worked my last two weeks while I continued developing the materials needed. A few weeks in, I learned the publisher had one idea for the series and I had another. Worse, the concepts were radically different.

I thought for sure disaster was ahead. Thankfully, the publisher did eventually sign me to a two-book contract. A contract to do things their way—and not my way. 

However, the sample chapters I’d written over the past weeks were for my series concept and not theirs, so I kept writing the books my way. For this publisher, it was something unheard of for any writer to go outside the standard or to deviate from fixed standards. But my editors loved the final chapters I submitted, and I completed the work in its entirety ahead of schedule—so many weeks ahead of schedule they didn't quite know what to do, and this also was something else that was unheard of.

In fact, I was so far ahead of schedule, that the book’s publication dates were moved back several months. Those several months proved critical, as they allowed the publisher to showcase the books at a major industry event when the publisher otherwise would not have been able to. And the books done my way were smash hits at the event. 

The rest as they say is history. Those contracts were followed by two other contracts from other publishers that I’d contacted previously. Suddenly, I was back in the publishing business.

That little series I started? That series would eventually go on to become one of the biggest blockbuster series for the publisher, with $100,000,000 in worldwide retail sales—and counting.

Those first books I wrote in that series? They set the foundation for the entire series and became critically-acclaimed, award-winning bestsellers.

Not too shabby for ideas nobody wanted and no one but me believed in. Sometimes in life you must take that leap of faith. Sometimes you must believe in yourself when no one else does. Sometimes you must follow the wrong path to find the right one.

Thanks for reading,

Robert Stanek