Author and Computer Scientist, Hank Simon, Talks about Publishing and Writing

Hank Simon has been a wonderful asset to me as I began the writing, querying, proposal and publishing processes with The Zen of South Park. I wanted to bring him on as a guest blogger this Monday so that you could get to know him a little better and reap the benefits of some of his advice just as I have. Please don’t hesitate to leave questions and comments at the end of the post and he will return to answer them accordingly.

What do you do for a living?

I’m currently a computer scientist/engineer at a major corporation. I’m responsible for the long-term, strategic design of how information flows across the enterprise using Service Oriented Architecture approaches.

What book(s) have you written? What are they about? How do they relate to your day job, if at all?

I’ve written and contributed to 7 non-fiction books about technology. They relate to highly technical topics, such as XML, wireless, expert systems, and spectroscopy. I wrote them because, as a thought leader in advanced technology and R&D, I found a gap in information about these topics. So, as I gathered this information for a forward looking applications, it was natural to organize my findings as chapters in my books.

When were they published and with whom?

McGraw-Hill was my most successful publication in 2001, as well as a few smaller companies, ranging from 1999 – 2005.

Did you have an agent when you were trying to get them published or did you go straight to publishers?

I was very lucky in this aspect, because I was publishing many articles – more than 100 – in various trade journals, as well as making presentations at international conferences. This experience gave me lots of exposure to editors in various publishing houses, and they approached me with ideas for the books.

When you wrote query letters and proposals, what was the most difficult part?

The proposal is the most difficult part, because I had to get a feeling for the marketplace and clearly define my audience. I also had to defend my book idea compared to existing books already published. This was both a blessing and a curse. I found that the easiest way to slip into the market was to discover a gap or niche that I could fill. That niche is unique in all cases, and sometimes it is not a niche that I could fill. It was difficult to admit that.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors trying to get published?

Read a lot by authors that you like and topics that interest you. But if you don’t like authors, don’t choke on them. For example, I read voraciously, but I don’t like many authors who write more than 600 pages. That means I have never waded through War and Peace. In contrast, I do like some of the older authors, Thurber, Benchley, Twain, Shalom Aleichem, Hemmingway, Herriot, Asimov. And I also like Grogan, and Rowland for their straightforward style. When I write, I try to blend aspects of these authors in order to improve my own style. And, I try to write at least 1 hour everyday, saving the edit process until I have a completed piece.

Are you working on any projects right now? Can you tell me about it (the writing process/publishing process/etc.).

I’m working on a Dog book that uses my dog as the central character, to highlight his personality and intelligence, to show interactions with other dogs, and to use this as a canvas to paint the relationships of people and the dogs that they meet along the way.

What advice do you have when it comes to writing?

Write everyday in a style that you like to read. Don’t try to win the Noble Prize.
Write and create first, edit later. It is tremendously easier to create and then edit.
And it is more productive to write a complete work and then edit. If you keep editing, you will stop creating and will get discouraged.
Plan to take 2x or 3x as much time to cut & edit, as you do creating.
Plan for your first book to take about a year from start to publication.

Who is your favorite author? What’s your favorite book?

I like the Harry Potter books.

If you could write one kind of book that you haven’t yet written what would it be?

I’d like to write a book on “Managing Ignorance” to complement Peter Drucker’s classic on Managing Knowledge. I could see many Dilbert opportunities.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Writing is very hard and time consuming. And, it is a job that requires discipline to remain in isolation while you create. Non-writers don’t appreciate the long hours, and the hard work needed to turn a phrase and to chip away everything until only the finely crafted piece remains.

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Topical Tuesday: Fanfiction, Intellectual Property, Harry Potter and South Park

Every Tuesday, my fellow author and friend, Chandler Craig (chandlermariecraig.wordpress.com) and I will pick a topic and each discuss our thoughts about the matter. In the future, we will post the topic as early as Monday morning so that other authors and bloggers have the opportunity to write on their own blogs that Tuesday on the same topic. Don’t forget to read Chandler’s blog when you’re done here and leave your own thoughts on the topic in the comments.

So, today’s topic is about using other people’s work in your own (fanfiction). Is it okay to use other people’s characters in your own work? What if you never make money off of them and it’s all online? How far should intellectual property rights go? Can we really control – or should we even try to – what’s on the internet?

As many of you know J.K. Rowling has recently tried to stop certain people online from using her characters in their own stories. The question is, why. I’m not talking about her reasons in particular, but why I imagine it could be important for someone to restrict the use of her characters. In the first place, it’s her intellectual property. She created it and as such has the right to use it as she pleases. Okay, fine – that seems reasonable. Unreasonable, though, is the idea that once she created those characters, she had control over them. Harry Potter and the world around him is an idea and those ideas are in the public forum. The movement of ideas can’t be stopped and neither can our imaginations (watch episodes 1110, 1111, and 1112 of South Park about Imaginationland if you don’t believe me). If you write a poem, you don’t have the right to tell me how to interpret and understand it. Once it’s out, it’s out. And in a certain sense, the same goes for fictional characters.

We ask questions like, what would Harry Potter do in this or that situation and then we imagine how it would go and even argue with our friends about what Harry would do based on our understanding of his character. This is pretty natural and the basis for a lot of high school literature classes. Is that a violation of intellectual property? So we take it a step further. We go online and we write up this imagined scenario with a character that the public is already familiar with. Is that wrong? Well, it’s certainly trickier. Discussion in class or with friends is one thing but suddenly I’ve put pen to paper (though it could have been an essay for a teacher that I posted online?) or fingers to keys and I might have a lawsuit on my hands.

In fifth grade my class read The Phantom Tollbooth, an absolutely wonderful book (go to http://www.thezenofsouhtpark.com/Merchandise to purchase it now). We were asked to write an additional chapter to this book as an assignment and then we read our chapters aloud to the class. I wrote chapter 15 and a 1/2. How clever of me. What if I’d posted it online? What if we all had? Adorable, it certainly would have been, but couldn’t the author have found it problematic that we were using his characters and potentially, shall we say, defaming them? This, I think, could be the issue. If I wrote a graphic and detailed novel about Hermione Granger and Ronald Weasely making the hottest, kinkiest, nastiest and raunchiest sexy time imaginable (sometimes what I see in my head does not need to make it to paper) I would probably be defaming Rowling’s intellectual property by corrupting readers’ images of these characters (or showing them that Ron was more creative and interesting than we thought). I could see how an author might oppose me doing this. So if sex is a problem, what about Ron playing videogames all day? Is that defaming his character? What about Ron smoking crack? Who knows what Rowling could have a problem with us writing about and this, as I see it, is the issue.

As I’ve already said, I don’t imagine this scenario as one where people are trying to make money off of her intellectual property (save some Google AdSense ads, perhaps), but they are potentially messing up her creation and therefore causing her to lose money. Arguably, though, it’s free advertising for her since all of the collectibles and books and ideas in people’s heads all go back to padding her pockets. Since we can’t really know the net effects considering all of the other variables regarding the continued success of Harry Potter, maybe it’s best to leave well enough alone – especially when we remember that at best, shutting down a site doesn’t mean the content won’t appear elsewhere and that all advertising is good advertising so by harping on the doings of one or two people, Rowling is only publicizing their actions since she is the public figure and not them.

But this issue is a lot closer to my heart – and my own work – than the above would let on. I am writing, as many of you know, about South Park. That is someone else’s intellectual property (I’d like to say Trey Parker and Matt Stone but I’m going to go more with Comedy Central and Viacom) and I am using it. More than that, I’m using it to make money. Sure, it’s free publicity for everyone involved and I seriously doubt that anyone will watch South Park less after reading my book – probably more (at least I’d like to think so). After all, I’m agreeing with the show and fleshing out its ideas and supporting its methods. But maybe that’s the problem. By claiming that South Park is saying this and that I could actually be defaming the creators or their show in some way – that is, if they disagree. But the thing is, I’ve got it pretty spot on (I would argue that, wouldn’t I) and even if they don’t agree with my assessment, it all goes back to the poem issue I brought up in the beginning.

If you’re a poet and write a poem, I can interpret it however I want. Sure, it has a context and the way you feel about it and why you wrote it but it’s freaking poetry – if it doesn’t have multiple layers of meaning (and some the poet herself doesn’t see), it’s probably crappy poetry in the first place. And the same goes for a show like South Park. It’s a brilliant social commentary with multiple layers of meaning saying dozens of things at once. Like many writers, Parker and Stone probably only see some of the wider implications embedded in their work once they’re done with it and reread it. That happens to me all the time when I edit. I didn’t even know how deeply my thoughts were enmeshed in the work until I read back and saw what I was really getting at. With South Park I have just taken even more steps back than even they perhaps (and my friend who edits my own work, Kush – next week’s guest blogger – sees the big picture I’m creating better than I do sometimes) and looked at their entire compendium to really extract all of what is being said about religion.

And now I’m going to try to sell my collection of thoughts about the matter and make money of off their intellectual property. But hell, for them it’s free advertising and hopefully understanding that other people really do get, care about, and appreciate what they’re saying (pending I got any of it right).

I like to look at this as though it were academia. Academics take other people’s work all the time, whether art, historical sources, literature, or whatever, and write all about it and it’s meaning. It’s how we understand the period, the culture, the history, the authors and so much more. And no one gets sued for it (mostly) because we are allowed to write about what other people say and do. Journalists do it every day. It would be one thing if I just reprinted someone’s poems or published my own South Park DVDs but I’m not concerned with the images and the original product – just the ideas that are conveyed. I may quote the words said by Cartman in writing but I’m not showing him saying them. Of course, I’m not making fanfiction because I haven’t had Cartman say new things or created my own South Park episodes (though those are all over the internet). I have just taken what Cartman and Stan and Mr. Garrison and others really did say and explained why it’s meaningful and what larger implications it has and the lessons it can teach us.

So, this is clearly a complicated issue and people have a right to feel the way they do about protecting their intellectual property. Fortunately, I haven’t run into any problems yet and with other South Park books out there, I don’t expect to (until I put clips in a chapter by chapter format on my website), but J.K. Rowling has created her own issues by being upset with the use of her intellectual property. But how far should she go and is there a point to going there? I really can’t say, but I do know one thing – fanfiction is an internet based grassroots approach to utilizing ideas and with the globalizing world coming at us faster every day, there is no stopping that even if you tear down one website that talks about Hermione and Ron gettin’ busy behind the rows of mandrakes.

Do you agree? Disagree? How? Why? After leaving your comments here, make sure to check out Chandler’s thoughts at chandlermariecraig.wordpress.com.

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Read more about the writing process and other Topical Tuesday posts.