29 Aug 2012, 7:32am
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What’s wrong with PARANORMAN?

My wife spent a few years working in the film and TV industry in NYC, and I know that she’ll want to see a movie if there’s beautiful animation. So when I heard that PARANORMAN had been made in true stop motion animation, I knew she’d want to see it.

And it was good. It’s full of beautiful choices, including slightly translucent ears. It made my son laugh several times. The pacing was quick and the performances worked.

Which doesn’t change the fact that I left vaguely dissatisfied. Part of the problem is that Norman’s world is filled with ghosts, right up to the point that he could use their help. Then the movie complete forgets that the whole town is crowded with kindly dead folks. Weirdly, there’s a scene specifically to set up his grandmother’s spirit as his protector, but then the movie forgets all about her.

The other problem is the way the antagonists lose their potency mid-story. Until the final final baddie shows up, one antagonist after another is essentially disarmed through the power of reasonable discussion. Nothing builds. It just keeps fizzling out, and the threat the main baddie represents doesn’t become concrete until the last few minutes.

All of those choices steal urgency from the story. Still, it’s a fun movie and gorgeous to look at. There’s even an Easter egg at the end showing a stop motion of the creation of the main character. I’m tempted to buy the DVD just for that.

28 Aug 2012, 11:33am
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Money = Visibility

It’s no secret that SCOTUS has declared that money is a form of speech. I’m no constitutional scholar, but it seems to me that money is the volume knob on the megaphone you speak into, not speech itself, but maybe that’s not a valuable distinction. At least, the top court in the country didn’t think so.

But money is visibility, too. It’s common for creative types to talk about obscurity as the biggest threat to our… well, I guess the word would have to be “careers” even though it makes me want to go back to bed for the rest of the week. Writers obsess about getting the word out about our work; yesterday’s post about the best seller letting her husband, assistant, and readers harass reviewers for low ratings is one example. Another was my own obsession with sending Child of Fire to every blog reviewer I could find.

People buy ads in magazines, on blogs, in Google search results. They make bookmarks, keychains, and other swag. They plead for positive reviews on Amazon.

And so on and so forth. Anything to spread the word. Even if it’s not ethical.

This week, the news came out that self-publishing success story John Locke boosted himself out of the long tail by purchasing reviews on Amazon. He paid a service an even grand for fifty reviews (to start); each reviewer also bought his 99 cent book, so the reviews would show up as ‘verified.’

Now, he claims that he didn’t demand the reviews be positive, but surprise surprise, they were. He also couldn’t have made the Kindle 1 million seller list if he hadn’t had something in his books that made people want to read them. Have you read any of this work? It’s not good, but it has a quick pace some readers want.

Still, the dude rose out of obscurity by lying to readers. That’s a shitty way to build a career and not only is it deadly to his reputation, but to the entire system of reader endorsements. Customers are still enchanted by the idea that the best stuff will naturally accrue positive attention; game that, and you leave us with nothing but paid ads and publisher PR campaigns.

Worse, the review vendor outed in the article is treating it like a PR boost, which I suppose it is. Quick tip for Mr. Rutherford: he should stop identifying his clients to journalists if he intends to stay in business.

Salon touched on this, too. Here’s a quick quote: … employing a service that dishonest and cynical demonstrates a bizarre contempt for the reader. It casts the writer as a producer of widgets and the reader as a sucker who probably won’t complain if the product doesn’t live up to the hype, because hey, at least it was cheap. Books, in this scenario, become flea market trash — wind-up toys you buy on a whim and expect to break.

The comments on that Salon article are the usual hash of self-publisher ranting. It doesn’t matter what charge you lay on any self-publisher anywhere, publishers are always worse in some unspecified way.

But it comes down to one thing, really: Don’t lie to people. Don’t try to trick them into liking you or your work. It’s not that hard.

27 Aug 2012, 10:50am
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Four ways to use YOUR social networking skills to build a large community of assholes

This weekend’s entertainment (aside from seeing PARANORMAN–review upcoming) was yet another author (and surrogates) behaving badly. The Readers Digest version: after passive-aggressively complaining that her wonderful readers hadn’t pushed her to #1 on a best seller list (apparently she landed on the #2 spot for the nth time) her husband, assistant, and readers began writing outraged notes to people who had posted negative reviews on Amazon.

Eventually, they dug up the phone number of one of the reviewers and began leaving scary messages on her voice mail. When the author heard about this, she suggested all this would blow over if the reviewer would just take down her critical post (and boy, she sure must love all this attention).

But hey, maybe YOU would like to have legions of assholes willing to bully and threaten readers who leave negative reviews. Maybe you would like to be surrounded by people who think it’s romantic when your spouse calls a reviewer a “psycho.”

If so, here’s a four-step method (because the internet loves lists!) for building your own community of bullies:

1. Be yourself but not, you know, your actual self.

Your bullies will expect you to share your authentic self but will be put off by your actual self. Your actual self might acknowledge ambiguity, might equivocate or feel uncertainty.

You don’t want to show that. Simply talk about your enthusiasms, your goals, and your belief in a fairer, better world. Try to avoid any kind of self-doubt and reserve your negative or critical remarks for your chosen out-groups (See below).

2. Your assholes need regular feeding.

And nothing feeds an asshole quite like unequivocal praise. Tell them you love them. Tell them you could never succeed without them. Thank them profusely. You “owe” it all to them, don’t you? Bullies love to be told they are important

Even better, if possible, is to share “inside” information with them. How publishing works, how TV production works, how Congress works, whatever. Let them feel they’re getting the inside scoop that out-groups are not getting (the poor, deluded fools). Insider info can limit your community to people with an interest in the insider topic at hand (rather than the more diffuse praise-devouring mobs) but it can also intensify the bullies’ attachment. Use your judgement to decide which is best.

3. Can you believe the cruelty of [out-group]?

Assholes love the rush of power that comes from bullying people online, but the ones who use their cruelty solely for the rush are not numerous enough for your purposes and they are difficult to control; what if they turn on you??? Best to avoid them.

What you want is a mob of closeted bullies, people who think of themselves as essentially good people but are willing to bully and insult people at the proper instigation. And there is nothing that pleases a closeted asshole quite like a Just Cause.

This is why it’s important to identify an out-group who are the essence of cruelty, who believe themselves intelligent and authoritative but are in truth utterly deluded. Your chosen insider information will be useful for this: Are you sharing tips on successful self-publishing? Advocating for a return to the gold standard? Pushing for single-payer health care? The out-groups suggest themselves.

If you’ve decided not to narrow the focus of your community with insider info, you’ll want to turn them lose on more personal enemies. Remember in point 1. where you were told to share your dreams and goals? Well, this out-group threatens those dreams with their negative reviews, personal attacks, and nasty schoolyard rumor-mongering.

4. Where ever you’re standing, that’s the high road.

You can’t turn your personal assholes loose on your chosen out-group without a Just Cause. You yourself must maintain the appearance of fairness and honest dealing while hinting at personal attacks you’ve hidden from the community. Also, every negative review or disputed fact must be attributed to personal attack and/or a secret agenda. If you’re going to insult your out-group by, say, calling them “pinheads” be sure to insist that “They started it.” In fact, no matter how nasty or ugly things get keep asserting that the out-groups are the ones making everything awful.

Never directly ask your bullies to go bully. It’s much more effective talk about your personal pain, caused by someone on a particular site. Don’t be specific and don’t link directly, but make sure the assholes can easily find it on their own.

Talk about how much it hurts to get a negative review, and how obviously personal it all is, and that you suspect this is the same person sending (undefined) awfulness to you privately. Your assholes, seeing a threat to their steady diet of praise, will do their best to drive that negative review off the internet, and the person who wrote it as well. After all, you’ve convinced them that you “owe” them, right? They will feel a powerful urge to protect their emotional investment.

It’s possible that you will feel the faint urge to ask them to stop–perhaps you’ll think there’s something vaguely wrong with calling a woman’s home and threatening her–but you should squelch that urge. Ignore it until it goes away. Remember to always act as though you and your bullies are only responding in kind, and that the whole kerfuffle would stop as soon as the other person stops.

Finally, you may be asking yourself: Why the fuck would I want this?

I have no idea. People do, apparently. I’m convinced they don’t do it consciously. They take their offline behavior and bring it online, where it creates this awful crowd of self-justifying creeps and bullies, and they convince themselves it’s what social media success is supposed to be.

Personally, I’d never go online again if my own readers started doing this.

21 Aug 2012, 8:49am
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A Most Excellent Documentary on Monster Movies

Here’s the Kickstarter promo video:

I’m not sure if that will work, so here’s the direct link.

The docu is called MEN IN SUITS, and its about the actors, often never named, who wore the monster suits in classic horror, science fiction, and fantasy movies. The filmmakers are the same guys who made my book trailer and who won an award at SDCC for their Lovecraft documentary.

Anyway, watch the video, please. It’s a fun project that will bring some attention to people who deserve more time in the limelight.

18 Aug 2012, 2:02pm
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You may have noticed that the blog has grown quiet

In truth, I’m a little under the weather. It’s nothing serious, but while I’ll probably be skimming through my social media whatevers, I’m not sure I’m up to an actual blog post.

Besides, I have a bunch of work to finish this month, not least of which is to come up with a worthwhile title for EPIC FANTASY WITH NO DULL PARTS.

I hate titles.

People love when I review stuff.

Except when they don’t.

Yesterday I posted about my disappointment with the Pathfinder Beginner Box and it prompted quite a bit of conversation online.

First was over on my LiveJournal account. (Because of their spam filters, I’m happy to leave comments open there.)

Second was on Twitter. Game designer Rob Donoghue kicked off a discussion about bringing new people into gaming. I tried to use Storify (for the first time) to preserve that conversation here, but that looked like a pain in the ass so here’s a couple of screen caps. Of course they’re behind the cut. more »

12 Aug 2012, 8:44am
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Pathfinder Beginner Box

So, my 10yo wanted to play some fantasy rpg, and after looking around a bit, I found this video

Looks pretty terrific, if you asked me. Best of all, it has an introductory adventure using simplified rules and pre-generated characters to teach you the game. This is a good thing, because we can not be coming to this cold. My wife has zero interest in rpgs and will only play as a family activity. My son is still learning the rules, and I just don’t have time to read through a huge game rulebook. I wanted something quick and fun.

So we open the box, the materials are beautiful, we pass out character sheets, and we start the introductory campaign.

And it’s a fucking dungeon crawl.

Okay, it’s a cave crawl, where you go from one chamber to the next, fight goblins here, defuse a trap there, fight this fight that. Sure, each room has something a little different: the spider shows how to do poisons and saving throws. The “goblin king” and the cliff you’re supposed to climb do skill rolls.

But there’s no story. No hook. Four generic characters on a generic crawl. You start by reading the situation aloud from the book (as is traditional) and then they drop you right at the entrance to the cavern.

Now, look, if this was 1981, that shit would be fine. No one expected better. But at this point, when you’re trying to reach new players, you need to pique their interest. You need a little narrative.

Why not start the adventure in the town? Role-play a neighbor complaining about some lost sheep, and a crowd bullying the mayor into arranging a tournament. Use a bit of the contest to teach the game. Maybe the PCs win, or maybe someone else wins and they go off in the wrong direction looking for the Big Bad.

How about establishing the stakes? What if the fighter (described on his sheet as having a liking for pretty women) is trying to impress a farmer’s daughter, the most beautiful milk maid in the valley? What if the cleric is frustrated that none of the locals come to his teacher’s temple, and decides to make a big show to draw in worshippers? What if the rogue needs to get some information from the local goblin bandits but they just drive her away? Give each character something to do besides kick down doors and fight random crap.

What if the local crowds blame a disreputable family at the lower end of the valley, and the heroes are sent there first. Yeah, they’re all bad guys, but their innocent of this particular crime. If the PCs drive them out, they end up killed in the dragon’s cave. If they spare them, they anger the locals who sent them there.

What if the quest is not to find the monster, but to find the sword that will destroy the monster? Then, mid-way through the adventure, something goes wrong and they discover they’ve been in the dragon’s lair the whole time.

What if? It’s the most important part of the game. Do you want to hook new players? Give them actual dilemmas to deal with, not just monsters to stab.

Look, it’s not as though I need yet another creative endeavor to fill up my days. DM-ing for my wife and son would be exhausting, and might even slow down my new book. But this was armor classes, dragons, magic missiles, the whole deal! It could have been fun as hell.

Instead, it’s just going to be another box on the shelf. Disappointing.

The worst four-letter word in the whole fucking world.

Occasionally, I suffer from hope.

See, I write these books that some readers (and me) like, but I occasionally get this idea that this or that particular story is going to be a big hit with a very large readership.

That’s hope, and it’s an awful thing. It distracts and disappoints. It makes me take my eye off what matters most. It tricks me into thinking there’s some external standard that I need to meet.

I was just discussing this elsewhere in another author’s private space: there’s this sense that we’re writing the wrong thing, and readers turn away from us and our work as if we were beggars shaking a tin cup at them. We get a few sales, a few reviews, then our books fade away because everyone moves on to some other thing they’re excited about. It goes without saying that no one “owes” a writer anything, but it also goes without saying that we can’t help but give in to that four-letter word when we release something new.

I can say from experience that it is incredibly painful to put a year of work into a book only to have it widely ignored. It’s not as painful as that time no kids showed for my son’s birthday party, but it’s still pretty bad.

But there’s one thing I can’t compare it to: I have no idea how it feels to write something because you think it must be “the right thing” for commercial success, and have it fail anyway.

Here’s a true story that I’ve talked about here once or twice: My editor wanted me to change the ending of Game of Cages. Specifically, she wanted me to change The Sentence (if you’ve read the book you know the 500+ word sentence I’m talking about). She knew it was a powerful scene, but it was not a commercial choice at all. Too dark.

She suggested, quite sensibly, that I revise it so the protagonist could be more of a hero. Readers like heroes.

Now, I was seriously torn over this. Child of Fire wouldn’t come out for months, so I wasn’t even a published writer yet, who was I to disagree? Besides, I loved that scene–the whole book was aimed to create it.

My agent (who is awesome) said my editor was right about that creative choice being anti-commercial, but she was ready to support whatever decision I made. The truth is, I could have changed that ending, and no one would have known by my editor, agent, and me. No one would have had a clue.

But what I told her, finally, was that I was afraid that I would replace that dark, harsh scene with something more Indiana Jones-heroic, but the book would fail anyway. Then I wouldn’t even be failing with my book.

It was almost certainly a stupid decision, career-wise, but I made it and I’m still living with it. You know what else I’m living with?

Hope for the new book I’m revising.

Check this blog post out: An Unexpected Ass Kicking. It’s worth reading, for real, especially if you use computers and/or care about elder wisdom. The OP’s takeaway is:

1. Nothing is withheld from us which we have conceived to do.

2. Do things that have never been done.

Me, I’ve tried to be original in my work, but I’ve never felt I was original enough. I’d really like to do better in that area.

As for what I “have conceived to do,” I have conceived to be my own marketing category, to write books are are uniquely mine, and to have a large readership who want to read them as soon as they’re available. Not because those books make the smart commercial choices or they are about the right subjects, but because I think they’re cool.

But seriously, read the linked post. It’s short.

Anyway, I have to pursue this stupid goal of mine, but I have to do it without killing myself hoping it will come true.

8 Aug 2012, 4:39pm
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I’m on Marketplace APM

Yesterday I volunteered to be interviewed for a story for American Public Media’s radio show Marketplace. Today, that story is online.

It’s about weight loss apps, and as I expected, they used the segment in which I admitted to being ashamed of my weight.

6 Aug 2012, 11:28am
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Fans and “Gatekeepers”

A short while ago, a friend sent this link to a mailing list I’m on: Patton Oswalt’s Letters to Both Sides: His keynote address at Montreal’s Just For Laughs 2012. I enjoyed reading it but I wasn’t sure how to respond at first. Now enough time has passed that I think it’s too late, if you know what I mean.

So I want to talk about it here. If you didn’t click the link, you should. Oswalt’s a funny guy and he brings a historical precedent to the changes in the arts and entertainment biz: the last upheaval in the stand-up comic world was when Johnny Carson retired, and what that meant.

Anyway, the piece is broken up into two parts: the first is addressed to other comedians, telling them they don’t need to worry about pleasing “gatekeepers” anymore, and the second to the supposed gatekeepers, telling them that they are welcome to remain part of the process if they change their relationship to the artists doing the actual work–instead of approving/disapproving/demanding changes, they should become “fans.”

Now, on one level, this speech is the same thing you hear from everyone else nowadays, with the bit about Carson thrown in to give it weight. Boogedy-boogedy gatekeepers! Hamina hamina reach your audience directly! Woogity woogity [name of person who found success this way]. Those who did a runaround of the system and hit it big draw our attention the way iron draws a magnet, but the ones who struggled and failed are ignored.

Now, in TV and film–where Oswalt works when he’s not touring–your big break gets you the chance to work on the gatekeeper’s project. You write a spec script, they love it, they have a project they want your take on. With actors, it’s always someone else’s project unless they’re the producer, too. (See “The Room” and “Jake Speed.”)

For a novelist, you make your work and you send it into the world. If you self-publish, you hope readers like it and tell their friends, creating a snowball effect. If you other-publish, you hope you make fans among the people with access to good distribution and excellent production staff, at which point they turn it over to readers.

That’s what it is, and what it’s always been: making fans. Look at this post from Jennifer Laughran, in which she addresses a question I’ve seen authors bring up for years: Why do agents have to love a book before they represent it? Aren’t they salespeople? Can’t they just take the product and sell it, the way my cousin does with window blinds/radio airtime/insurance policies?

But as Laughran says in the post, she has to love it before she will invest her time and energy into it. What Oswalt is asking for in film and TV already happens in the book world. When you see those lists from self-published authors showing how many times this or that debut best-seller was rejected, they always try to pass it off as The gatekeepers don’t know what they’re doing and never have.

What I see when I look at those lists is this: those other places looked at an early draft and they didn’t fall in love.

Of course I’m talking about my own experiences here, and I’m not exactly an industry veteran. I’ve heard the stories, like everyone has, of books that are picked up because a publisher needs to fill a slot in a popular genre, or that a writer with a great first book (or few books) falls into a slump. It would be ridiculous to suggest that an industry as large, diverse, and complex as trade publishing always did everything one way.

But Oswalt is asking TV/film people to become fans of the artists they work with. Publishing people have already done that; it’s on us as writers to show them work they want to love. So, Oswalt’s speech is great, but I’m glad it doesn’t apply to me.

5 Aug 2012, 11:16am
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One of the most dangerous things I do, productivity-wise

One of the most dangerous things I do, in terms of my productivity, is leave my house with the wifi still live. I always mean to do work, but somehow I get caught up in email/Facebook/Twitter, and Twitter is the worst of all. It’s not just that the messages keep coming, prompting me to load new ones; it’s also that they are usually full of links to completely awesome things elseweb.

That means a 50-character leads to a long Kate Beaton cartoon, or an article Olympic drama, or health care politics, or that excellent “How to Kill Yourself and Others in America Slowly” essay I linked to everywhere last week.

Today it was the Readercon public statement, a couple of articles about sexist coverage of the Olympics, a change in the comments policy of a popular writer’s blog, and…

Really, does it matter? All that matters is that I’m not at work on my book. So I’m going to do the grown up thing now and turn on Freedom for a few hours.

1 Aug 2012, 7:34am
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Guns, Germs, And Private Equity

I’ve been pretty busy–too busy to do a lot of blogging–but I thought I should point this out:

I didn’t realize that, for some time, Mitt Romney has been quoting from Guns, Germs, and Steel to explain his view of the world and the way to develop healthy economies.

Normally when I talk about a book I put up a buy link for interested readers, but not this time. While Diamond’s book is interesting, it’s not something you want to base an economic policy on.

 
  • The prequel to Child of Fire: see here for more details

  • Starred review from Publishers Weekly

  • Starred review from Publishers Weekly

  • Named to Publishers Weekly's "Best 100 Books of 2009" list. Get the audiobook here.

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