Rewarding Noise, Drowning the Signal

You may have noticed a certain lull in my social media presence. A dialing back on the number of tweets. Fewer quips sent to the facebook feed. Maybe even the less regular appearance of my little nuggets of wisdom here on the blog (or bullshit, depends on your perspective).

As I mentioned before, the main reason is my frantic attempt to finish the current Work In Progress. I’m a few months behind a self-imposed schedule, but the good news is that this may very well break into two books. A duology if you will. (‘Cause I seriously can’t do anything normal, like, say, a trilogy.)

The other reason is that after nearly a year of tracking social media stats, I’ve started to re-evaluate how I approach things. Social media is a great way to keep in touch with an existing fanbase. Unfortunately, it is nearly useless for sales or even building a true fanbase.

Why? The signal to noise ratio is VAST.

Despite this, now there are rumblings that many of the major platforms – Twitter, Facebook and even Google+, are going to start looking for ways to monetize posts made by authors.

Honestly, this is absurd. And mostly for the reason listed above: Social Media in itself does not sell books.

Due to that signal to noise ratio, the conversion rates are terrible. If you slap up a post linking to your sales page, you might get a response rate somewhere less than 2% and usually under 1%.

On Facebook, you already have to pay fees to actually serve posts to all of your fans. Your posts show only to a small fraction of those that have “liked” your creative efforts. The rest are kept in the dark until you shell out some cash.

Not only are the response rates low,  in the process of learning the ropes about self-publishing and marketing, I determined that the money I did spend on social media was not even close to recovered in either sales or exposure. I saw in pretty, color-coded detail on my Excel spreadsheet how my activity levels on the various platforms had no correlation to sales figures. There is simply way too much bullshit floating around social media for you to be heard, paid post or no.

Yet, in the near future, simply having a presence on social media may start draining my shoestring pocket book. In 2015, Facebook plans to launch changes that could charge automatically for the following kinds of posts:

  • Updates about a new book release.
  • Updates about a book launch and/or event.
  • Updates about Rafflecopter and other giveaways.

They won’t however, charge for these:

  • Updates about blogging articles that interest you and your connections.
  • Updates that pose questions.
  • Updates that share quotes.
  • Updates that share cartoons and memes.
  • Updates that ask for opinions. (This one may be cloudy, especially if the opinion solicited is in regard to a book cover. I just don’t know.)

(List courtesy The Write Conversation.)

In other words, the more “noise” I have on my page, the less I will pay. Any relevant posts which actual fans might want to see? Well, that’ll cost money. And since I know the conversion rates? I know it’s a waste.

Rumor has it, the other social media platforms are looking at the same.

As much as I love to share cat pictures, videos of guys taking a shot to the groin, and sensationalized comments about whatever Upworthy shocker happens to be making the rounds, I don’t think my pages should exist simply to add to that already lopsided signal to noise ratio. I want people who visit my sites to find exactly what they are looking for: my books.

I may occasionally Tweet, or Like, or Pin or Tumble or +1, but that is entirely secondary to my desire to make shit up and have other people read it. I entertain with pixelated words or ink on dead trees. I sell these for ridiculously reasonable prices and if you feel inclined, you can buy them so I can keep making more.

What I won’t do is pay for the privilege to mention those books to an audience my efforts have cultivated. Especially if those platforms where I built those audiences reward so much pure noise that my message will be instantly lost on their feeds and my fan’s time ultimately wasted.

In the meantime, the absolute best way to find out when my books are released is by signing up here.

The Short Bus to Hell

CardsAgainstHumanity

Mad Libs for Sociopaths

I spent a night last week hanging with some truly shady characters. Spies. Betrayers even. Well, except the kids with ass cancer. They weren’t all that bad.

As you might have guessed, the evening started out with a round of Cards Against Humanity. If you’ve never played, the title pretty well sums it up. This is Mad Libs for sociopaths. You’re given a hand of cards with some of the most horrible, foul, racist, misogynistic, disgusting phrases you can imagine and you use these to complete a sentence or set of sentences. The person at the front of the short bus to Hell, the one who can make the most horrible combination, wins.

Cards Against Humanity is a good/disturbing party game which you can’t really win or lose. It’s also a fun game to play in public (and should have a disclaimer for any violence that happens to you as a result of this.) If you have seriously twisted friends with equally twisted senses of humor, check it out.

After debasing ourselves to the crudest level possible, we were warmed up to bluff and cheat our way to victory. Resistance follows along with conspiracy style games such as Werewolf and Mafia in which you have an undisclosed number of “spies” playing against the goals of the rest of the table.

By the second mission, I had two of the spies pegged. In part, I’ve just played too many games with some of these guys and they’re really damn easy to read. The third spy at our table of seven was a bit harder to figure out. I had it narrowed down to two possible players but we’d not turned down enough missions to get a good feel for exactly who it might be. In the end, the spies tanked the game, joining the winner of CaH on that bus.

Next, as previously promised, I gave Dead of Winter another go.

There are so many things I want to like about this game. I enjoy BattleStar Galactica and this has a very similar style of play along with great thematic elements. The “betrayer” element is random and not always guaranteed, but this time we did have an evil-doer in our midsts, so I finally got to see how that would affect game play.

Answer: Not that much.

While the betrayer element did lead to a very interesting table event where we finally got to exile someone from our colony of survivors, it was quickly ruined by the die of instant death.

Things were shaping up to be really interesting – we were barely scraping by, the betrayer was revealed and suddenly we have a tense race to the finish. But the betrayer decided to make the fatal mistake of MOVING. And died. This led to the betrayer no longer being positioned to win in a “these game mechanics are fun” sort of way, so the betrayer simply slapped his new character down on a spot that forced a loss for everyone.

Look, I realize the chances of this insta-death thing happening are one in twelve. You roll a 12-sider and if that one particular side shows, you’re dead. True, you can use gasoline to avoid having to roll the die-of-death for simply moving around the board. However, in every game I’ve played, there has been a rash of fuel crises that completely depletes everyone’s supply.

Would I play again? Sure. I’m not that guy that refuses to play a game if others want to. For instance, I’ve subjected myself to an untold number of rounds of Dixit, but so far Dead of Winter hasn’t found it’s way onto my favorites list.

If I were to name a winner of the night, I’d call it for Cards Against Humanity. At least when the “Kids with ass cancer I came back with from Mexico” lost horribly to the “Smithsonian’s new interactive display on child abuse”, I was still having fun in an I-need-to-go-to-confession sorta way. (Sometimes, that’s the best kind of fun.)

Good Pulp in a Digital World

strictly_analogLet’s face it: there is a lot of self published material out there that should have never seen the light of day. Self-pub can be a digital slush pile where you, the reader, are expected to pan for the gold. But I think the gold rush mentality is changing. People are finding out that slapping a book together and posting it on Amazon isn’t a get rich quick scheme. Being an author is actual, honest to goodness work.

The book world is learning how to deal with the influx. Better review systems and policies are always being developed. Book services are popping up to connect readers with titles that fit their preferences and these services are getting more picky about which books they let through the gates.

And then there are sites like Immerse or Die, which are culling the herd with actual critical reviews of self-published books.

Submitting your book to Jefferson Smith takes some fortitude. The schtick is that he hops on his treadmill for his regular 40 minute jog and will read your book – for as long as it keeps him immersed. If you can write a book that keeps his mind off the physical drudgery, you’re in the winner’s circle. If you can’t? Well, after three “WTFs” he’s off the treadmill to write up a report about what went wrong.

His health is in your hands.

It’s a fun concept and he’s proven to be brutally honest. Not many books survive, though some do.

Thanks to Jefferson, I’ve expanded my own reading list and recently finished the hard boiled near-future sci-fi, Strictly Analog by Richard Levesque.

The story takes place in the city of Los Angeles at a time when the country has been torn apart by civil war and economic collapse. California, now led by an elected corporation, has seceded. Other states followed, inducing a full scale meltdown and border skirmishes between the states which an overstretched federal government could do little about. All of this intriguing world building is the backdrop for Private Investigator Ted Lomax’s tale of betrayal and conspiracy.

Ted has a disability – an interface problem if you will. He lost an eye in a firefight on the Las Vegas strip and has a handy, plastic replacement. This makes using the advanced ocular interfaces which the world now relies on for all of their social and entertainment needs a bit tricky. But Ted has turned this to his advantage and has shunned the tech to keep his business “strictly analog”.

The world building and premise for Levesque’s book are a solid hook. The writing, as I’ve learned that you can expect from all the books which survive Jefferson treadmill, is also well executed. Levesque successfully captures a neo-noir feel by updating the dark and shady alleys to the experience driven spaces of a world caught between pixels and pavement.

My one nitpick is that there was a tendency of the story to rely too heavily on exposition. In Levesque’s defense, this is a common feature of hard-boiled fiction. However, there were some key elements which I feel would have benefitted from a more direct treatment. The distancing didn’t maintain mystery as I think was the intention, but alternately telegraphed a few plot points and obscured key characters that begged for more screen time.

That small quibble aside, Strictly Analog was an entertaining read which I recommend for anyone looking for an inventive genre mash-up. World building was excellent, the futuristic tech was familiar in an “I could see this coming to a store near me” sort of way that heightened the near future feel. The story also gives enough of a hard-boiled vibe to provide an intriguing mystery and entertain without dipping too far into imitation. Job well done, nugget appraised – there be gold in them there Hollywood hills!

Zon! Zon! Zon!

gorilla_takes_all

Pathetic worms! She better be gluten free…

Well, I finally surrendered to the big, hairy gorilla. I was scared he’d drag me to the top of the Empire State Building and leave me there to watch him smash planes and news helicopters buzzing around us. I could have lived with that – honestly, I could use the publicity. Him, wreaking havoc. Me, waving a Crimson Son poster and checking my sales figures.

I said I was going to stop blogging about writing and my process, but I’m shelving this under “consumer alert”. Things my customers need to know if they want to keep reading my fiction.

I dropped Smashwords. As of now, the Crimson Son eBook is only available through Amazon. (A moment of silence for all the irreparably broken links I’ve scattered about the ‘net.)

If you love paperbacks. If you need to feel a book between your fingers – the soft caress of the pages along your thumb, the pulpy vanilla scent as you fan the delicate layers, then this means exactly nothing. No change. My paperbacks will still be available at most major online outlets and a couple of select Dallas Fort Worth merchants.

If you enjoy the super-powered feel of wielding your entire book collection with one hand. Of having access to untold amounts of data quite literally at your fingertips and don’t mind never having to stuff a kleenex (unused) into a book to mark your place ever again, then this might mean you have to deal with the gorilla.

I know. I know. I’ve crossed to the darkside. I’ve submitted to the will of a vengeful tyrant of books, and accessories, and clothes and…

But you know what? So have you.

90% of my eBook sales have been through Amazon. And while the 10% is not insignificant, my connection with the other resellers and ability to market to their customers has been tenuous. I had chosen to use a distribution service as well, and it could be that middle step that hampered sales. In the future, I may return to other resellers with my eBooks, working directly with each, but for now I want to try a new approach.

If you need Crimson Son in a format other than Mobi (the Kindle format) I suggest using the free program Calibre. You can convert between eReader formats fairly easily and it doesn’t take much time or technical expertise. I know this isn’t an ideal solution and I apologize to any readers this may inconvenience.

In other news, you may have noticed less posting traffic here on the blog. My Free Fiction Friday is on hiatus for now and I’ve slipped to one or two posts a week while I try to knock out the next book. Or should I say books.

The plan is to have two books ready to go next year, either spring or summer 2015. First Song (working title) is a fantasy tale about a bugman, a whore, and a clockwork man in a world being unmade. The intent was to write one book but it has a very natural flow into two volumes. I’m still hammering out the details but I’m very excited to share this world with you.

After that, who knows? Maybe a dude in a Crimson Mask will need to swoop in and rescue me from the top of that skyscraper.

Tried putting gravy on it, but still no good.

No, not That Turkey

not_this_turkeyLike everyone else from coast to coast, I was busy last week stuffing my face with food. Turkey, dressing, ham, pie, some kind of green, squirmy, jello-thing. Whatever was set before me, I ate.

Unless it had green beans.

My mom makes this casserole which apparently people that like green beans think is really amazing. I’m sure it is. If green beans don’t make you want to vomit.

Then my wife created this abomination the day after.

This is your brain on Tryptophan...

This is your brain on Tryptophan…

Sort of like a Thanksgiving dinner afterbirth.

Which she ate.

I was both horribly revolted and incredibly proud of her.

Speaking of desecrating holidays, I had the chance to pretend to be a Nazi this weekend. My nephew brought his copy of Axis and Allies along with him. Yeah, I know, there are better board games but this classic feels like a rite of passage perfect for little geeks-in-training.

This particular version was what I call 1941 Axis and Allies “lite”. They’ve removed cruisers, artillery, AA guns and placeable factories. They’ve also altered the IPC table and unit costs.

I think the aim was to create a faster paced game, however, while setup takes less time, the problem we ran into was due to the lower income and higher unit costs, sustaining any kind of campaign was difficult. Play still took hours to complete as you got into later turns with fewer and fewer units to make things happen.

The first game I followed the typical strategy of crushing Russia with Germany early and then having Japan play defense, skipping the opening Pearl Harbor move. This led to a decisive Axis victory. History changed.

Next game, I decided to go super aggressive and try new things. An early invasion attempt of the U.S. and Panzers on the streets of London wasn’t quite enough to change history. Russia, left unchecked, became a constant thorn and Japan’s invasion was turned away somewhere off the California coast.

While I was proud of my nephews beating back my invasion, I was also pleased with my extended family and friends. During the Thanksgiving break, my social media feeds were pretty damn quiet. In fact, even the holiday sales stumbled a bit. Nationwide, the focus seemed to be more on the actual holiday.

This is good. Great even. Though it did spur something I’ve been debating for a bit.

You may notice a few of the eBook markets for Crimson Son slowly disappearing. After reviewing my figures for the past five months, I’ve decided to take a new direction. I’ve decided to sell the eBook exclusively at Amazon through Kindle Direct.

You can still find the paperback at local retailers in the DFW area and at numerous online outlets. I don’t plan any changes there. But so far, the vast majority (90%) of my eBook sales has come from the ‘Zon. Between that and a few spats with Smashwords (who distributes to the other markets) and I’m ready for a change.

I may return to the other markets after giving Amazon exclusive a shot. If so, I’ll probably upload to select retailers individually so that I have more control over pricing and product details. Either way, I plan to keep providing great stories for fans and family alike. Nazi invasions, Thanksgiving abominations and wrestling with the 800 pound gorillas of the world, we’ll keep things interesting here for ya.

Fat Man and Little Boy

Normally, Free Fiction Friday is when this stuff shows up on my blog. But this Friday, I’ll be stuffing my face at Thanksgiving Part Deux. This story is for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction challenge. I rolled “Noir” (yes, I broke out the ten-sider). I’m not even that familiar with Noir so I gave it my best shot and exceeded the target by ummm…a few words. Shamelessly, it is set in the same universe as my superhero novel, Crimson Son.

***

Eldon stood in the gravel driveway feeling the approach of the car. Four tires on the ground, no tracks, lightweight. Closer and he could tell by the rumble of the V-8 that it was a sedan. Probably the government issue kind.

A Ford DeLuxe crested the hill. Black, coated in road dust like a layer of ash. Ash, falling like snowflakes.

He turned and raised an arm, motioning toward the house. Small. White. A two bedroom farmhouse his grandparents built. He’d grown up here. Every time he saw it, he was amazed it was still standing.

He stepped gingerly from heel to toe up the porch steps. An awkward thing, but the house needed to last. On the wooden, above the floating foundation, the tingle of the car on the gravel left the soles of his feet.

Pointed ears and cheeks trotted into view through the haze of the screen door. A pink tongue lolled. Eldon opened the door and reached down to pet the dog’s velvet fur.

“Keep your ears open, Nip. This could get ugly.” The dog nuzzled its damp, black nose in his hand.

Eldon glanced over his shoulder toward the car and waved again. The dust-streaked sedan crunched to a stop. He stepped inside, leaving the door open and letting the screen door fall partly ajar as it was want to do. He’d fix that. Someday.

He crossed through the living room, light spilling in through the picture window. On good days, he’d sit on the porch. On bad, he’d sit on the couch. He could watch the world outside, a dusty road and a stand of trees. Mountains painted in the distance. Birds and smaller critters foraged in the abandoned garden out front. Several times he’d shot a deer or a squirrel right from the porch. He didn’t need to go far from here to live. Never again. They couldn’t make him.

Nip whined.

Eldon took a breath. “It’s all right.”

He continued into the kitchen and pulled open the fridge. He grabbed a beer from the shelf, started to close the door and stopped before reaching for another. He felt the wood under his feet vibrate with each step from the porch stairs. Felt the motion ride the coils in the fridge and through the handle.

“Come in.”

The screen door creaked open.

Eldon walked into the living room, his head low. He motioned with one of the beers toward the recliner closest to the door. The young man, dark suit, baby-face, closed the screen door as though it were a fragile thing. It was, really. The boy, why’d they send a boy, was still standing when Eldon settled into the couch.

“Beer?”

His visitor was trying to look anywhere but his direction. He wouldn’t find much. Nothing on the walls. Grandma’s plate collection, family photos, everything was packed away. That was how it had to be. Just the furniture, the old upright piano his mother used to play, and a television covered in dust and foil.

Eldon motioned again. “Have a seat.”

The young man sat. Eldon waved the beer again and the man shook his head, his cheeks coloring. All men acted differently when they were scared. Flushed. Tongue tied. Fidgeting. Screaming to their false god. Eldon shrugged and opened his beer to take a long swig. Nip padded into the room and curled at his feet.

“Don’t worry about him. He don’t bite.”

The man licked his lips. “What kind of dog is he?”

“Akita.”

“What’s his name?”

“Nip.”

He went quiet again but at least he made eye contact. “Sargent Griffin, I’m Special Agent Crawford. I’m here to talk to you about an…incident.”

“Not in the Army anymore.” He took another swig. “Neither were you.”

“Okay, sir.” Crawford cleared his throat and paused. Now that he was finally looking, Eldon saw doubt cross his face. “You are Eldon Griffin, correct?”

“That I am,” said Eldon. The doubt lingered in Crawford’s eyes. “Expecting someone fatter?”

Crawford’s face flushed again. “No, sir.”

“Don’t you G-men travel in twos. You know, for safety.”

Eye contact wavered. Crawford ran his fingers through his hair and reached into his jacket. Nip whined. The floorboards creaked and groaned. A resonance rode through the strings of the piano.

Crawford froze and withdrew his hand from his coat inches at a time, his pale fingers vivid against the suit. He held a small notepad. The room settled. With two fingers, he carefully produced a pen from his front pocket.

“My partner called in sick.”

Eldon huffed. “You sure you don’t want that beer?”

“No. Thank you. I won’t be long, sir. I don’t want to take up your time.”

“Suit yourself.”

“I was wondering if you’d heard what happened down near Kooskia.”

“Oh?” Eldon kept his eyes on the man and tilted the beer bottle to his lips. “Don’t keep up much with people.”

“I was told given the proximity, you might have known.” He hesitated. “Might have felt it.”

“That so.” Eldon looked long and hard at the young man. Sweat dimpled his brow. Pupils dilated. Rookie with the short straw – he hadn’t pissed himself yet. But he was asking questions. Engaging. The fear was more about what he didn’t know, Eldon decided.

“Sir, one quick question is all I need to ask. Where were you on the night of October 14th?”

“Why do you need to know?”

“There was an earthquake. Out near an internment camp. On the books it was closed, but there were families out there caught up in the transfer.”

Eldon leaned forward, dangling the beer bottle between his fingers. “Mother nature can be unpredictable.”

“USGS said there weren’t any fault lines in that area. No previous activity.”

“What do they know?” He drank the last of his bottle and reached for the second. “You think their little boxes and spools of paper can tell you shit about what’s under there? Do you?”

He felt a wet muzzle on his hand. Nip was standing, his face pressed between Eldon’s arm and knee. Coal black eyes looked up at him, pleading.

“I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. That’s just what they told us.”

“Then what are you? What do you think you are?”

“A guy trying to do his job. That’s all.” The young man set the pen down and reached for his breast pocket, raising his eyebrows in askance as his shaking hand revealed a pack of cigarettes. He shifted and drew a lighter from his pants. “You mind?”

“Yeah. I mind.”

The man let the pack disappear into his pocket and raised his palms, clutching the lighter under a thumb. “One answer and I’m gone, sir.”

“I was a guy doing a job.” Eldon stared at the chrome lighter. Light from the picture window flared on the surface. “We both were.” He tried not to imagine the flame clicking from the top. “You ever serve?”

“No sir. War ended too soon.” Crawford swallowed. “Thanks to you, Little Boy, and the rest of Augment Force Zero.”

“Thanks?” Eldon snorted and dug his hands into Nip’s tawny fur. “I already had my parade. Streets burning. People running out of their paper fucking houses with the skin melting from their backs.” He released the fur. His gaze drifted out the window to the car powdered in gravel dust. Whole city blocks had been like that. People. Ankle deep in the slough of whatever had been sent up in the air, consumed by flame. “Little Boy, that’s all he could say. Laughing the whole damn time. ‘Them’s houses made of paper!’”

His guest had gone silent again. Nip had started to nudge his leg.

“Little Boy burned them, I buried what was left. That was my job.” He focused on the young man. “Why’d they hire you for your job?”

“I guess I had the right education.”

“I bet you did.” Eldon smirked. “So did we. Little Boy burned his way through his childhood. Hell, he was wetter behind the ears than you when they took him into the program. They say the Augmentation process is random, you never know what kind of powers you’ll get. That’s what your scientists say.”

“Maybe I can come back another time.”

Eldon jerked forward. “You ain’t coming back here.” Crawford sunk into the chair. “You gonna do your job? Get your answers?”

Crawford nodded.

A damn kid, like Little Boy had been. But this one was scared shitless, unlike Little Boy. Joy had burned in that pint-sized monster’s eyes as the city burned to ash around them. A terrible fire consuming something inside of him, fueling him. Eating him alive.

“Let me tell you why they hired me.” He stared up at the ceiling and blew out a fermented breath. “I hated every last one of those slanty-eyed cocksuckers. Watched them feed a naked G.I. to dogs. Saw them cane a strung up man until his flesh was a foamy mess of blood and dangling skin. They were goddamn animals and they all needed to die. And I was ready to cleanse the motherfucking earth of their kind. That’s what they wanted me to do when we dropped into those city streets. Men. Women. Children. Buried and gone until they knew their tiny god couldn’t save them. Until they were ready to understand who the real rulers of this Earth were and which damn God they needed to answer to.”

The foundation shook again. Nip whined and scratched at the wooden floor. He sunk his teeth into Eldon’s pants and tugged, his whine turning into desperate growls. A cacophony of notes rattled from the piano. Crawford stood, eyes wide and the patches of red had drained completely from his cheeks. He backed toward the door and stumbled on the recliner.

“You gonna ask me where I was?” Eldon stood, letting the beer bottle fall to the ground. It bounced and rolled leaving a trail of beer to seep through the floorboards. He took a step and the house swayed. “Are you?”

****

Special Agent Crawford arrived at the office late. He’d missed the briefing with his supervisor. This wasn’t uncommon when doing field work in the boonies – an agent got back when he got back. What he didn’t know is if his supervisor would smell the Bourbon on his breath. He’d made a stop on the way from the Eldon Griffin lead.

Even this late, it wasn’t uncommon to find the offices lit. His supervisor’s door was open. He leaned on the frame and knocked.

“Crawford!” A cigarette dangled from his supervisor’s mouth as he spoke. Sleeves rolled up, he waved a folder at a chair next to the door. “Come on in, have a seat.”

Crawford pressed further into the frame. “Naw, been driving all day.”

His supervisor set down the paper and ground his cigarette in the ashtray on his desk. “What’d you find out?”

“Nothing.” Crawford watched the stem of ash smolder in the tray. He risked taking a step into the room and slid his report across the desk. “He wasn’t home.”

“You wait for him?” His supervisor flipped the report jacket open.

“A while.”

“Let’s see. Survivors talking about buildings falling, trees swaying. One mentioned a dog barking. Why the hell’s that in there?”

“They don’t allow pets at the camp. No guard dogs.”

“Interesting. But look, kid, you gotta focus on relevant facts. You don’t gotta write down every damn thing.” His supervisor smirked. “Don’t burn yourself out, kid.”

“Yes sir.”

“Nobody saw Fat Man there?” He muttered the question as he flipped through the pages. When he reached the last page he peered at Crawford over the red folder. “Earthquake then? Legit?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Sweet Jesus, that’s a relief.” His supervisor tossed the report to his desk. He popped the mangled cigarette back into his mouth and leaned back. “Gotta wonder with the way he left the service as soon as he landed on American soil. We owe them boys of Augment Force Zero a hell of a debt but by God, one of them goes off the reservation, I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Crawford nodded. He didn’t know either. “Gonna head home. Long day.”

“You do that.” The supervisor fished another cigarette out of his desk. Crawford reached into his pocket and tossed him his lighter. “Thanks.” He flicked the lighter and Crawford watched the flame swell. Thought he could feel the earth beneath him shift. His supervisor started to return it.

“Keep it. I’m trying to quit.”

Crawling Up Your Own Wormhole

The Power of LOVE, baby.

The Power of LOVE, baby.

I’ve seen two movies lately, Fury and Interstellar. They both have similar problems which, as a writer, disappointed me. I didn’t know this going to either movie, but when the credits rolled and I considered the uneven experience I had with each movie, I noticed that they were both written and directed by the same person. In Interstellar’s case, the writing credit was shared with Jonathan Nolan.

Sometimes that works and works well. Other times, you can tell when the director is too blind to his own writing to see the Gargantua plot holes. So enormous, nothing worthwhile escapes them.

I’m a spec-fic guy so I’ll focus on Interstellar.

Haven’t seen it? Go see it. Then come back here if you feel confused. Don’t come back if you are shitting rainbows. This movie can do that. Despite the rant to follow, there are parts of this movie that are the best damn thing I’ve seen on screen. The following love / hate review might ruin that.

Turn back now if you don’t want to see spoilers.

Nolan makes good film.  Visually stunning, timeless stuff. There is no doubt about that. But there are thousands of really talented science fiction writers out there. He should hire one.

Throughout, I felt as though I were watching two movies. There was this mind-blowing, epic, hard science fiction movie I’d been dying to see on the silver screen. Well-executed theoretical physics provided the fulcrum for pivotal, compelling plot moments. In the face of this, people made human errors. Seriously bad-ass reimagined robots stole the scenes. Drama ensued.

You have to see that movie.

Then there was another story which ran underneath the first. This was not a seamless combination. Places where the “other” intruded waved giant banners and flags to proclaim their importance and tear you out of the amazing spectacle that was taking place. They marred the surface of a thing of beauty and, in the end, had you looking behind the curtain.

You never want to make people look behind the curtain.

By the climax, I was already ignoring a bunch of these elements. People shouting “He’s going to solve gravity!” like that meant something. Sick of hearing Michael Cain drone on with the Dylan Thomas’ “Do not go gentle” line. Annoyed at the “I’m too clever for you” references to They or Them. 

Then we got sucked into plothole Gargantua, where Nolan started jumping up and down going “SEE! SEE! I TOLD YOU THAT STUFF WAS IMPORTANT! DAMN I’M CLEVER!”, the whole miraculous dream started to fade.

Even then, the screen was just SO DAMN PRETTY I wanted to believe. I wanted to ignore the giant story fail which I was spiralling deeper and deeper into. I wanted to give them the “nobody knows what happens in a black hole” license to imagine the possibilities.

But they break the one fundamental rule – they create a maddeningly absurd paradox. Or do they?

Forget all the “love is the fifth dimension” sap-fest which, if you examine things closely, has no relevance whatsoever on the outcome. Forget the fact that super-advanced humans who already built shit inside the black hole MUST already have the data which Cooper and the robot presumably “had to” retrieve. Data “They” should have sent along with the wormhole coordinates and all the other communications which had NASA smirking at Cooper’s “ghost” story earlier in the film. Even gloss the fact that with all that advanced tech, the best “They” could do was build a multi-dimensional space that served to allow a character to push books off a shelf to communicate. Forget all that. Sweep it under the rug with all the dust.

I had to put on the science hat (which is itchy and not nearly pointy enough) and do some serious research to understand what angle they were coming from. Since the film included some great hard sci-fi elements, I wanted to be sure I understood the principles before I tore into this. Noted theoretical physicist, Kip Thorne was their expert consultant for the film. Tracking down his work led me down some interesting closed-timelike-rabbit holes on the ‘net.

Normally, my hatred of time travel plots is that they require the postulation of alternate realities. You can definitely write amazing sci-fi using that theory, but it doesn’t support the linear narrative everyone always chunks it into specifically to solve their problem of having a crappy plot.

Thorne’s theoretical physics employs a B-Theory of time which, through other principles, theorizes a closed time-like curve wherein time travel is possible but the future is guaranteed, hence you can’t change the past. Hence, there can be no paradox. It’s complex, crazy deep on the hard sci-fi scale, and, by the way, doesn’t mention a thing about the power of love…

Fuck, I give up.

Yes, you can also tell a compelling and interesting story with string theory and multiple dimensions or even closed-time curves. But simply using it as a shortcut DOESN’T WORK. Nor does relying on the fact that probably 90% of the audience won’t “get it”. You have to know how to balance the explanation with the end result. For instance, the story did a great job explaining, through natural dialogue and visuals, the time dilations for the planet outside the black hole. That’s why that middle section was so engaging. But once we fell into the time-curve, B-Theory, and Novikov Self-consistency Principles that a robot summed up in a two sentence delivery, it all went to shit.

The cure? Write a solid plot that doesn’t need to be miraculously rescued in the end or rely on technobabble to succeed. Whose threads tie up nice and neat and aren’t stitched in from the ass-end of your wormhole. Consult a scientist for the details, sure. But find a professional writer to tell the story.

River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay

From One White Dude to a Bunch of Other White Dudes

River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay

River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay

I listened to Kay’s River of Stars as an audiobook on my trip to World Fantasy in Washington D.C. With a 20 plus hour drive ahead of me, I needed a super-sized serving of literature to fill the time. 656 pages and a Chinese dynasty fit the bill.

Audio isn’t necessarily the best way to review a book. I’ve had many times where a narrator has either ruined an experience or even improved otherwise lackluster prose with an amazing performance. For Kay’s polished work, the narrator was top-notch, so you’d think there wouldn’t have been any distractions.

However, there was one thing.

Simon Vance is clean, precise, and has a wonderful tone. He is however, unapologetically, unequivocally, British. Rough and tumble soldiers and bandits of the Song Dynasty became cockney laborers. Venerable Prime Ministers sounded more at home in the House of Lords than Emperor Wenzong’s palace.

With all due respect to Vance’s incredible talent – please, trad pub decision makers, stop casting audiobooks like Hollywood movies. From one white dude to a bunch of other white dudes, diversity ain’t a bad thing.

Okay, got that off my chest – onto the story.

I came into this not knowing Kay or the Song dynasty and the legends which this book borrows so heavily from. The picture Kay paints of his version of that world is so detailed as to be indistinguishable from any real world counterpart. The subtleties were ones even a learned expert in the field could appreciate (his go-to Historical China expert Professor Anna Shields, testified to that in a panel at the convention). In that, the book is a triumph of historical fantasy.

Kay also does a masterful job of weaving a large cast of characters into this complex historical backdrop. He drifts nearly seamlessly between an omniscient narrator into tighter points of view.

I say “nearly” because while I listened, I did find myself a few times wanting to skip the more detached history lessons and return to the characters. The information felt too repetitious or even too “prologue-esque” which gave those sections a feel as if they had been written as a serial installment and not a single novel.

In the end I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where those sections didn’t add to the overall story (this might have come from listening and not reading). I will say if you hate prologues or slept through history class, this book isn’t for you.

Even with all the solid grounding, there is enough legend and a taste of magic which sets the book apart from an academic exercise. Spirits and demons and emissaries of the Other are not a common occurrence, which adds to their mythic feel. When these encounters do happen, they are described in such a way as to be unreliable but also retain their vividness which I found refreshing.

The one place the story does definitely stumble is with the characters.

As a story about how reality crosses into legend, I’d like to have seen a more human, vulnerable side to these characters. They seemed to mostly fill the archetypal roles they were born to. The more interesting characters, for me, became the ones on the fringes. And maybe that was the intent?

My biggest beef here was the inexplicable character transplant of Lin Shan which happened midway into the book. She begins as a fascinating, perceptive character who is bold on the page and stands out in the patriarchal society around her. But once she finds her true love, she slips maddeningly into stereotype. Her perception is blinded. Instead of deducing and acting she passively waits for answers and begs for explanations. One scene late in the book attempts to redeem her but falls flat.

Which brings me back to the white dude plea above…ahem.

Regardless, River of Stars was the perfect companion for my drive and I was drawn into the world Kay so carefully crafted. Overall, I prefer a tighter focus on characters than a plot-driven, world building focus but I enjoyed my time in Kay’s Kitai and feel it is worth a read for fantasy and historical fiction lovers alike. Though, maybe a bit more for those history types.

Where Have All the Readers Gone?

I need a reader! And truckload of aquanet...

I need a reader! And a truckload of Aquanet…

I’m going to need to put Free Fiction Friday on hiatus while I focus on my work in progress. I’ve been so busy marketing Crimson Son, that I’ve fallen a couple months off schedule and for someone whose only deadline nazi is, well, me, I need to exercise some serious discipline. Today though, I want to write a post about something that I took from my World Fantasy Con trip last week.

Not long ago, I mentioned I was retooling my site. That I was going to stop posting articles about the writing process and my self-publishing adventures (and mis-adventures). I wanted to focus on hobbies and diversions. Review some books. Share my inner geek and connect with like-minded souls.

I still plan to continue that trend. I want my site to be more than just a marketing platform. That and there are SO MANY sites out there peddling writing advice, whether it be business or craft, I didn’t feel I had that much to add to the noise.

Coming back from D.C. though, I found myself wondering about the state of the industry as a whole.

At the convention I met exactly three “fans”. Not my fans (no club yet though you’re welcome to start one…) but attendees who were solely readers interested in learning more about their hobby. (Actually, I suspect there were four and should include the guy who literally stooped and shoved his face into a conversation so he could read my badge and then scurried off with a rolling bag full of books. )

This shouldn’t be a surprise. The convention was billed as a professional event. A time for writers, editors and industry pros to mingle. The attendees ranged from the unknown (me) to the legendary (Straub, Haldeman, Kay, Datlow, etc.)

However, these three fans had been coming to the convention for years. All middle aged and older, they spoke of a lost time where the event drew readers and not solely writers. A time when they didn’t feel like the “odd man out”. One confessed that the next year would be her last due mostly to that unwelcome feeling.

Locally, I’ve seen the same thing. Our own cons appear to be run by an ageing “fandom” and attendees along with panels have all shifted toward the “you can be a writer, too” perspective.

I have a problem with this. You should too – if you want to sell books.

Look, I’m taking full advantage of the self-pub craze. I realize that. And since I’m not traditionally published, the argument could easily be made that I’m here, doing this, because I simply can’t make the cut as a writer. But I do feel that there are WAY too many people identifying as writers and not enough content to simply be fans.

So why can’t we be both? Why can’t we write and sell our own books while continuing to read and geek out about the Gaimans and the Kings of the industry? Why can’t we sell fiction and on the side run a cottage industry that plugs manuals and workshops on how to become the next big thing in the literary world?

Anyone who wants to take a shot at writing should. I don’t want to discourage that at all. Self pub has opened the doors for everyone to try and I’m a big fan of that kind of demolishing of traditional barriers.

Yet, I think the problem begins when we start to cannibalize our own market. When we push fans, potential buyers, out of our space. When pitching and celebrating in our closed circles becomes the focus and not finding those who want our work and sharing.

The ugly truth is I most likely won’t make it with this endeavor. None of us will. But the promise is being sold much like a bag of beans. Instead of being inspired by great fiction to become uber-readers, we’re being told that we too can claim the prize.  And everyone is trading their cow.

What exactly is the effect of all this? In short, I don’t think we’re doing enough to nurture the consumer. Writers are readers, for sure. However they aren’t fans. They aren’t even good potential customers for a new writer. While you describe your latest work, they are waiting to tell you about theirs. There might be an exchange, maybe an assumption of a literary handout or trade, but in most cases you aren’t cultivating a lifelong fan. You’re building a business relationship which is entirely different.

At the heart of this is what amounts to a lie. A promise that can never be kept. You too can’t be a writer. We all won’t make it. Thousands of dollars spent at a convention, seminar, or workshop and hundreds tossed at “How To” manuals won’t buy a magic ticket. You need to work your ass off every day, every hour. If you can’t do that, be content to read. Enjoy my lies about faraway fictional places – but I won’t lie to you about the here and now.

For the Old Souls and the Young at Heart

Red Dragon by Larry Elmore

Red Dragon by Larry Elmore

Last night I got the chance to get back to my roots. I headed out to the Sci Fi Factory and jumped into an ongoing Pathfinder game. Okay, I was there to promote the signing this Saturday, but when in Freeport…

I’ve been pretty critical of Dungeons and Dragons lately. In blog posts, on message boards, in heated discussions with friends. I played DnD almost exclusively for twenty years. I ran a Dragonlance campaign that spanned four of those and a homebrew campaign that ran over a decade. ADnD, second edition, and finally ending with 3.5.

I tweaked rules, tossed out annoying ones, made on-the-fly decisions to keep games running. Eventually, I hit a wall. Rules fatigue set in. I tried for months to craft my own version of a system I’d first bought as a kid doing door-to-door sales to earn the red-box Basic set. Pathfinder, for me, fixed many of the issues I had with 3.5 but introduced a new set of problems. I wanted something cleaner.

I branched out and explored dozens of other systems. FATE became a favorite due to the strong sense of narrative the rules-light system encourages. I even developed a hybrid DnD / FATE alternative which we used briefly for a fantasy campaign (and planted the seeds for my upcoming novel, First Song.)

Classes? So passe. Attribute checks? Saving Throws? Seriously, pick one. Pages and pages of spells with increasingly complicated descriptions? Too much. Alignments? C’mon.

But all the way home from my gaming session, I kept coming back to one thing – I had missed it.

Twelve players crowded the table. Ages ranged from tweens to some that had a few years even on me. Many of the younger kids were there with their parents – a new generation brought in by the old. All of them were there to craft a story.

Watching the cleric huddled over her player’s handbook, flipping through those overly complicated spells with a sense of wonder and discovery. The party waiting with baited breath to see how the paladin (me) would react when my Detect Evil caught an aura of some strange symbiotic artifact attached to the sorceress’ arm. Feeling for the DM as he juggled a dozen players all running separate directions around the city like kids on a playground.

It was messy. Crazy. Hectic. And damn fun.

Sure, call it nostalgia. One of the players even felt the need to tell me “you came on a good night.” (I know what those bad nights at the gaming table are like.) But that diverse group, veteran players and new. Young and old. Everyone sharing a make believe world and making the story distinctively theirs. Somehow that clunky rules system provided the glue for a fantastical experience.

It’s where I came from. Where my own narrative began. It embodies what I want to do with my fiction – speaking to the old souls and young at heart. It was a joy to go back and see others getting so excited about a hobby that transcends all the “fixes” that have been applied over the years.