Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page

I’m Just Talkin’ Bout Spaghetti

In Uncategorized on November 30, 2011 at 8:00 am

Michelle Moore and Reesa Herberth are two awesome writers with a website called Michelle And Reesa Write, where one of their features is the Random Interview Generator.

The Random Interview Generator is a genius idea where they accept interview question suggestions from the public at any time (you can ask your own here) and then shuffle them around, using a few randomly selected questions to interview authors for their site. They invited me to interview with them a while ago, and then waited very patiently while I got my act together enough to respond.

So I am very pleased to link to the Sam Starbuck Random Interview, where I talk about the hubris of youth, the tragedy of history, and why all my characters tend to eat spaghetti. Thanks, Michelle and Reesa!

Any Resemblance Is Purely Coincidental

In Uncategorized on November 28, 2011 at 8:00 am

I was reading the other day about writers who model characters on people they’ve known in life, and the reasons they do it. It’s not always easy to guess the motivations of writers, particularly since as storytellers many writers take delight in lying or being coy in interviews, but there seem to be only a handful of essential reasons people do this: revenge, inspiration, or entertainment.

Despite talk I’ve encountered over the years as a mystery fan, most writers don’t seem to put real people in their stories in order to torment or murder them. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, but I don’t think it’s as common as is believed. The writers I was reading about seem to simply have drawn inspiration for a character from someone they knew. Even JK Rowling, whose notoriously negative portrayal of a real-life teacher of hers resulted in Severus Snape, seems to have designed from the start to make the dour, mean-spirited man a hero.

I don’t know that I could imagine putting a person in a book for vengeful reasons. I don’t think there’s anyone I hate enough that I would want to bare them to ridicule anytime someone picked up my book, even if they didn’t know and the reader didn’t notice.

As a writer, and I think I speak for most writers, when you meet someone who leaves a lasting impression your instinct is to try and figure out why, but that doesn’t always carry over into the work. Possibly the writers I was reading about were just hard up for interesting characters to fill their books; I can better imagine doing this, though it’s still nothing I’ve ever done, at least as far as I recall. Whenever I find myself drawn to characters in books I try to decide what it is about them that creates an impact, so that I can eventually re-create that impact in my own work, but it seems sort of invasive and presumptuous to try and figure out enough of a real person’s personality to rebuild them in a book.

In Lewis Carroll’s case, writing stories about Alice for a girl named Alice was clearly done to entertain her. On the rare occasions I’ve put someone in a story, I’ve done it for Alice In Wonderland reasons — on their request or in order to entertain them.

I don’t think putting a real person in a book is an inherently negative practice, whatever the motivation, but I think it’s a fine line to walk. JK Rowling’s “real life” Snape was hurt by the link, but it also led him to a self-evaluation. Dorothy Sayers reputedly based Lord Peter Wimsey on a man she was in love with who didn’t return her affections, which I can only imagine was awkward, but eventually the character also took on a deep emotional and spiritual life of his own. Grace Metalious, whose novel Peyton Place was a bestseller about the sordid secrets of a small New England town, based her story on several towns in New Hampshire. The residents of Gilmanton, the small town in which she lived, took offense at her portrayal of their lives, and by all accounts made life very hard for her.

I don’t think writers, as a set, are particularly vengeful or vicious, but like most creative people they have access to an especially powerful weapon if they wish to use it. Art and literature engage their audiences by stimulating their imagination, and it’s easier to persuade someone of a particular belief or concept if their minds are already opened.

If you take as a given that a particular person isn’t “real”, you allow the writer to build a very specific portrait of that person in your mind, especially since the vast majority of books are written from a semi-omniscient or at least presumedly-honest viewpoint. If you then find out that portrait is based on a person, your first instinct is to apply the portrait to the person rather than the other way around. If a literary portrait is nasty and cruel, that can influence the public view of the person being portrayed. Even if you know going in that the book is satirising a person or group of people, you’re likely to do this if you don’t know much about them, especially since culturally writers are assumed to be the intelligensia. This is one of the reasons the various *isms are so dangerous in literature, because the printed word is one of the most hardcore ways to perpetuate a stereotype or myth.

It’s also easy, because writers mostly use their imagination to tell stories, to forget that a real person, the real person, may read the result and react to it. Most of the time writers don’t need to worry about the consequences of their prose within the book, because they’re running the show and what happens to made-up people doesn’t matter. When the made-up people really exist, it matters a bit.

And books are very permanent: they’re printed and distributed, and don’t easily go away.

At any rate, the upshot is that outside of deliberate satire, linking books to specific individuals is a pretty major handle-with-care situation. Writers who are drawing characters from life need to cultivate as part of their skill set a consideration for the relationship between literature and reality, and be cautious of the way in which they mediate that relationship.

Individualism and Steam

In Uncategorized on November 14, 2011 at 3:07 pm

I’ve been reading an anthology of Steampunk short stories recently (more on this later, when I’ve finished) and I’ve been turning The Dead Isle over and over in my head, with the same result I always have. Inevitably, when writing Steampunk, I come back to the issue of its definition, of how to elevator-pitch Steampunk as a genre.

An Elevator Pitch, for those unfamiliar with the term, is a short summary of a concept or plot that you could pitch to someone in the time it takes you to ride an elevator together. Presumably more than two or three floors, but the point remains, elevator pitches are short and sharp, and I’ve been told in the past that I’m pretty good at them, despite being dreadfully incapable at Twitter.

Steampunk is hard to define as a literary genre in particular, because it’s such a visual aesthetic: the boots and breeches, the goggles, the gears, the top hats and waistcoats, the bustles, the parasols, the tubes and vents. Someone once brilliantly described the visual Steampunk as “Goths discover the colour brown”.

In terms of literature, the lines blur. I haven’t actually read that much contemporary work in the genre, but the interesting element to literary Steampunk is that we have in-era examples of it. A lot of Steampunk evokes nostalgia for a bygone Victorian age, but there are novels written in the Victorian era which can easily be considered Steampunk — the works of Jules Verne being the most notorious, but also those of HG Wells and other early science-fiction writers (for more on this, I can recommend a very thorough book about the pre-modern history of Scifi called Different Engines). Oft-quoted real life examples include Babbage and Lovelace (the people, not the comic), who were some of the earliest tinkerers-about with computers.

One writer in the anthology talked about how a vital element of Steampunk is the steam engine, which restricts the setting of Steampunk to a very narrow geographic band of the Victorian era, but I think that’s erroneous. The “steam” of Steampunk originally, to me, spoke of the steam era, the era of industrial revolution, not the steam engine; still a Western, Victorian concept, but not quite so precise. And at any rate, there are records of steam engines as far back as Hero of Alexandria, twenty-two hundred years ago.

It seems to me that a better definition of Steampunk, and one which most of the writers in the anthology have consciously or unconsciously used, concerns that razor’s edge where science and history collide, and the individual’s place in it. Steampunk literature at its core is mainly concerned with people pushing the boundaries of their contemporary technology, or with how to build modern devices such as computers and futuristic devices such as time machines out of less technologically advanced materials.

For the West, the last true century of the Renaissance Man was the 19th century, as historically inaccurate as that sounds. Individuals could know a machine back-to-front and build their own out of ingenuity and a basic working knowledge of physics. The leaps and bounds that technology began to take in the 20th century made it difficult for a single person to grasp every thread of a machine; even most mechanics need a computer to help them diagnose car trouble these days. Steampunk is about technology, but simpler technology that one could understand thoroughly — and it’s about the ability of the individual to push that technology to its limit unaided. Steampunk heroes are ship builders, submarine designers, mad scientists, time-travelers, and futuristic warriors, but they are rarely team managers or build supervisors. They don’t have co-workers; they have sidekicks.

So that’s my elevator pitch for Steampunk: a genre of literature concerned with pushing the boundaries of simple technology to a complex futuristic conclusion.

Also, “mad scientists build stuff with lots of gears.” That works too.

The Eternal Newspaper

In Uncategorized on November 11, 2011 at 8:00 am

It’s so hard to know how to introduce a post about men’s fashion on a website about writing.

Blogging can be a topic, a genre of writing (possibly a subset of journalism, though I don’t subscribe to that myself) and an activity in its own right, but it can also be an aspect of some other activity or topic. If you’re into fashion, you can be into fashion, wear the fashion you prefer, and also…you can blog about fashion. Of course one could always talk about the things one does, but blogging is a little more persistent. It creates a locus around which a permanent discussion orbits, a hard record of that discussion, and a circle of participants much, much larger than brickspace is generally capable of.

Since nothing gets advertisers happy in their pants like positive word of mouth, especially when “word of mouth” involves several million people on a social media platform, the quest continues for the best possible way to harness the internet to one’s bidding. How to start a meme or send a post or video viral is something nobody one hundred percent understands — definitely not me, and I’ve had journal posts go viral twice. With The .doc File Of J Alfred Prufrock I’ve almost broken out the formula, but only because of specific circumstance. Lacing a massively beloved poem with injokes that people who love the poem will understand — so that they get to experience both the poem and the jokes in a new light — naturally hits a broad range of readers. But I didn’t design it to do that, it just happened, and I can’t recreate the effect intentionally.

It is nearly impossible to reproduce the conditions that cause a viral video in a lab.

That said, there was a recent and very successful attempt at harnessing brickspace and the internet together for PR purposes: the Paul Stuart Window Project.

Here’s what happened: Paul Stuart, a clothing company specializing in high-end menswear, has a flagship store in New York, on Madison Avenue. This autumn, they opened up some of their windows to outside decorators: the Fashion Director for Esquire, the Social Media Editor at Park & Bond, and two of the top menswear bloggers on the internet. As The Coe Journal pointed out, they essentially got into blogging without getting a blog. What they ended up with, in fact, was four blogs.

The Coe Journal has some really interesting things to say in that post about how to execute this properly, both in the world of fashion blogging and in the virtual world at large. The nice thing about the internet is that it’s much more easy to measure how much concrete influence any given “personality” has, because you can gauge pingbacks, hits, friends, and other scales of how many people Point A is sending to Point B. So this is a reasonably sound strategy: find someone with influence in your sphere and engage them in discussing your product. It appears to have had good results for Paul Stuart.

I like what it says about where blogging is heading, too, because any alliance between brickspace corporation and virtual hobbyist is going to imply a certain degree of respect (even if it’s only based on self-interest) and, deriving from that respect, the ability to effect change. The internet can be looked at as the place where Op-Ed and front page meet: when someone screws up on the internet there’s no longer time to plan spin. You can’t wait till the morning to respond. You can’t wait more than an hour to respond, if that. And that gives the people with the #fail hashtag an enormous amount of power to guide corporate policy.

It’s not a fast process, but inch by inch corporations are democratizing their patrons because they can’t afford not to. When a representative of your company is rude or unhelpful to someone with a readership in the hundreds of thousands, and you don’t respond to their complaints, that story will probably circle back to you pretty fast on the wings of emails from people who are now aware that they have better places to spend their money than yours. When you run an ad that’s thoughtless or offensive, you can’t assume “no publicity is bad publicity” anymore, because it’s like a zillion newspapers just ran nasty articles about what you did and those articles will be pinned up on public noticeboards forever.

I hope that tons of companies see what Paul Stuart is doing and emulate it, preferably following the guidelines The Coe Journal lays out. I would love to see a commercial space where intelligent, coherent writers who have spent time and thought on the products they represent are given an opportunity to work with those products creatively and promote them in more substantial fashion than a simple endorsement or banner ad. It seems like a win-win to me.

The Arbiters Of Taste Also Sell Ammunition

In Uncategorized on November 7, 2011 at 9:00 am

There was an interview recently in New York Magazine with the author of a new book: The Last Testament, A Memoir Of God. It’s a spoof on religion written by David Javerbaum, former exec for The Daily Show. I’m not generally that interested in interviews but the lead on the story was very interesting indeed: Wal-Mart has decided not to put The Last Testament on its shelves.

Now, that’s interesting in itself, though not exactly unexpected. Wal-Mart’s shoppers tend to skew older, more conservative, and poorer than other similar stores like Target. I would imagine their purchasing department thought the book wasn’t risk-to-payout effective; people weren’t going to buy this book, but more than that they were going to be overtly offended by it. So I might not like Wal-Mart, I might not like what this move says about this country’s beliefs when it comes to having a sense of humor about religion, but in an economic sense I get where they’re coming from.

What really interested me were some of the comments to the article, like “Wait, Wal-Mart sells books?” and “Do Wal-Mart shoppers read?”

Yes, Wal-Mart shoppers read. In fact, Wal-Mart and Target are two of Amazon.com’s biggest competitors. Earlier this year, Wal-Mart was fourth in sales as a distribution channel behind Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon.com. Their sales stats have been dropping steadily (in 2004 they could account for as much as 20% of a book’s sales) but they’re still right up there. Wal-Mart outsells all independent bookstores in the US collectively.

As of April this year, Wal-Mart was the fourth-largest distributor of books in the United States.

And that means that when Wal-Mart refuses to sell a book, it’s a pretty big deal. What stores like Wal-Mart and Target (and Sainsbury’s and Tesco across the pond) stock alters the reading habits of casual readers and defines the reading selections of avid readers. Moreover, as a major sales outlet, its purchasing demands define what books publishers are willing to print. If large sales outlets won’t sell a certain kind of book, or a book about a certain topic, then publishers aren’t going to publish it.

These stores have an enormous cultural impact, an impact that pretty much nobody sees because it is assumed that the kind of people who shop at Wal-Mart or who buy books in grocery stores don’t matter, that they don’t impact or help to define our culture.  Until recently, the New York Times bestsellers list didn’t even factor in sales at “stores like Wal-Mart and Target”.

Oops. It does now.

I’m not necessarily rallying a call to arms against Wal-Mart or a protest against what books they choose to sell or not to sell. But I do think that people who are interested in books, people who read and people who want a diversity of books on their shelves, should be aware that supermarkets and chain retailers have clout — even if they sell novels next to ammunition.

At the moment, Wal-Mart’s clout has possibly cut sales of what looks like a pretty funny book by a significant amount — which doesn’t just mean less money for the publisher and author, but fewer people who will get to experience it.

Trace is here!

In Uncategorized on November 5, 2011 at 10:01 am

Trace has arrived.

It’s been a little over a year since I started work on Never Leave A Trace, the story from which Trace emerged. It seems apt; last year I posted Never Leave A Trace on Halloween, and this year I’m posting its bigger, weirder brother on Guy Fawkes Day.

Trace has been many things to me: a meditation, a lesson — something of a theft, but then I think that’s appropriate. I’m writing this the night before it will post, and I’m surprised at how far I’ve come, not just in literary terms but in personal terms. The night before Nameless went live I was an absolute wreck, even though I was only making one sales-post page on my livejournal. Currently I have eleven webpages open that will need to update tomorrow at ten: eight on extribulum.com, three Lulu pages for the paperback, ePub, and PDF copies, and one on Dreamwidth which will propagate to my other journals. Despite a minor snag this evening with the PDF copy (now fixed — you can find it under the Free Books section of this website) I am remaining relatively calm. Things could still go Terribly Wrong, of course, but they probably won’t. I hope.

So yes: Trace is live and for sale. Buy my book! I hope you like it as much as I do.

(I hope you like it way more than I did when I was editing it.)

Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

Things Go Terribly Wrong Sometimes

In Uncategorized on November 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm

Trace goes on sale this Saturday, and I’ve been making lists.

I have a template, of sorts, for the sales post that goes up, but I also have to make sure that the website gets updated, Lulu.com actually has the book publicly available, I make a post here so that it gets tweeted, and nothing goes terribly wrong.

Fear of Things Going Terribly Wrong is a neurosis that is not peculiar only to writers and theatre professionals, but it’s abnormally common among our kind. I think they fall at opposite ends of a single spectrum, the Going Terribly Wrong spectrum.

Writers know that once they’ve sent the last draft of the manuscript off, the next time they’ll see their book will be in a print run — where any errors, once committed, are committed eternally. Granted, if I find a typo I can fix it before my next patron pays for the book, but I didn’t grow up with that concept; it’s a totally new one and will never properly take root in my generation.

Actors and designers, on the other hand, work in the ephemeral, and have to rebuild everything flawlessly every night. In the moment, there’s nothing more humiliating and tragic than effing it up onstage.

One of the nice things about blogging is that my journal is basically a chronicle of Things Going Terribly Wrong, because as Charles Schultz says, “Happiness isn’t interesting”. Not that all I do is complain, but more entries than not are about the unexpected. Usually the unexpected and mildly disastrous. It has taught me to be at home not just with these things in real life, but especially so online. Messed up a link? Ah, crap, well, let me go fix it. Borked my code? I’m just giving people an opportunity to use their critical HTML coding skills!

You get the idea, anyway. I’m fortunate to be something of a walking disaster, I suppose.

At any rate, I’ve learned to live with it, but I still feel the fear of Things Going Terribly Wrong. I just have to remind myself I can proofread all I want, but nobody’s perfetc.

(I totally didn’t think of this until after I’d posted, but “Things Go Terribly Wrong” would be an awesome title for a book. If you’re looking for inspiration to write, this is my gift to you.)