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Posts Tagged ‘publicity’

The Craft Of Manipulating Your Feelings

In Uncategorized on August 29, 2014 at 10:00 am

Last week I talked about the somewhat surprising frankness with which the Chronicle of Philanthropy has been discussing the art of manipulative storytelling. Most storytellers want to arouse emotions in their readers, and not all of them know how; I wanted to share some tips and tricks from this unusually open discussion of manipulation in storytelling. These articles, not being about for-profit marketing, are a lot less distasteful than a marketing manual might be; being about nonfiction narratives, they also come across as a little more ethical.

And honestly, I wanted somewhere to stash some of this advice.

Let’s begin with the very recent “Are You Really Telling Stories?” which focused on the essential task of making people care in the first place. This is the bare bones of the narrative, but because it’s so basic, it sometimes gets overlooked, even in writing classes. They asked four questions, three of which I’m going to hit up here:

1. Who is your protagonist?

The protagonist cannot be an organization or a community or a large group of people. […] The psychologist Paul Slovic points to research that says people become numb to social problems when too many individuals are affected.

2. What does she want?

When gathering or writing stories, ask yourself or your storyteller about her needs and desires. Listen for words like “love” or “angry” or “searching”—anything that indicates the journey she’s on and where she imagines it leads.

3. What obstacles does she face?

Many nonprofits leave us in precisely this sort of storytelling hell of no obstacles, no conflict, just smooth sailing to the end. I suspect that’s partly because they don’t want to reveal their own difficulties as an organization for fear of alienating their supporters. “No, we’re doing great–keep giving us money!”

In almost every instance (Haruki Murakami excepted, perhaps) these three questions form about 80% of your story. If you can answer these, you’ve made the bare bones of your outline. If your work is fizzling, then perhaps the reason is that the answers to these questions aren’t clear. This isn’t even about manipulation yet — this is just about good basics. Also about good basics comes the advice “Mix struggle and success” from How To Turn Audience Emotion Into Action:

…too many success stories leave out the struggles that the real-life characters go through to achieve that success. […] Leave out the struggles, and all you have are pleasant “examples” that nobody can connect with and act on.

This is something I often face in my literary work. I shy away from confrontation in my life, and because I avoid it in life, I tend to avoid it in writing. It’s a major issue I’m still working on.

All this leads nicely into an article about the Essential Elements of Storytelling, which mainly addresses storytelling from a non-prose perspective — ie, what you have to do on the back end to get a good story out the front end. It is in two of their four elements where we start to see the ways you can tinker with your reader:

Practice

We think in stories, we tell stories, we hear them and read them and watch them every day. So there’s a temptation to say that the best and really “authentic” stories are those that spring fully formed from someone’s heart. Sometimes that’s true, but most of us need practice.

An opinion piece that I’ll get to in a minute supports this, citing the 2008 Obama presidential campaign which used “Public Narrative”, a technique developed by Harvard professor Marshall Ganz, to strengthen itself and its message:

Volunteers would get together in groups and tell stories about what drew them to the campaign, how they identified collectively, and the challenges facing the country. Those stories were then used to help them connect personally to voters and build grassroots leadership. The method is now used by civic, student, and activist groups worldwide.

Practicing storytelling isn’t simply about increasing vocabulary, developing grammar, and learning how to write clearly — it’s also about working out how you structure a narrative, who you are as the writer, and what works (or doesn’t) when it comes to impacting a reader. Essential Elements went on to talk about understanding your reader:

Market Research

Suppose an advocate tells an audience that one in three black men in Baltimore is behind bars; that audience might not take that statistic as evidence of bias in the criminal-justice system but as evidence of the inherent criminality of African-American males. Research on public opinion would help inform what stories that advocate tells and to whom.

Knowing the beliefs held by those you address is important in activist writing; understanding the target audience for your story helps you work out how to impact them. Understand your genre or, if you’re not writing within a genre, identify who you are writing for, and learn about them. The more you know about who you’re speaking to, the more efficiently you can work out how to influence their reactions to your work.

Once you’ve actually begun work, there’s great advice from an article on small wins and long-term goals for constructing single scenes in large narratives:

Speaking of his “fireside chat” radio broadcasts, [President Roosevelt] said, “I want to explain to the people … so that they will understand what is going on and how each battle fits into the picture.” The president was confident that people could “take any bad news right on the chin” if they understood the larger story.

Brett Davidson […] cited the example of the marriage-equality work of the Human Rights Campaign. That organization, he says, “does a great job of highlighting small or interim victories and featuring individual stories at the heart of these battles, while maintaining a clear long-term vision.” The organization’s website features stories of victories and setbacks in individual states, and maps and other tools to show the big picture.

In a clear marketing campaign, or in a well-constructed linear narrative, every small scene, even ones that are complete stories in themselves, is part of a larger story — the ultimate goal is the large story, but the hook that keeps people interested is the momentary scene. (I am aware the HRC and its focus on marriage equality can be problematic, but lots of problematic organizations get to be big and problematic by having really well-crafted narratives.)

Now let’s revisit the fourth question from the earlier article on basic storytelling:

4. How does it end?

You owe your audiences an ending, something that gives meaning to what you’ve just told them. As story trainer Andy Goodman wrote for the Working Narratives blog, “By the time the last line is spoken, they should know exactly why they took this journey with you. Otherwise, you’ll have wasted both your time and theirs.”

I didn’t find the full answer entirely satisfying, so instead let’s leap to that opinion piece I mentioned earlier, on the purpose of storytelling in not for profit campaigns:

Last fall I attended a talk by David Simon [creator of The Wire]. I expected him to say he was drawn to his subjects by a desire to change society, but he said that’s not at all how he sees it. Instead, he’s drawn to “fault lines” in the culture. Not coincidentally, it’s at those fault lines where issues of social import lie. But social relevance is not necessarily the same as social change.

[…]

We must link personal narratives to political challenges; provide audiences with ways to take action; treat stories as one dimension of a larger effort to create change; and engage people who may be new to a cause or who disagree with us.

VanDeCarr has seen a lot of “tell your story!” and “awareness raising” projects fall by the wayside or fail to create direct action because they don’t point out a way to go or a solution to a problem. This is a dicey subject in social justice circles, because calling out the dysfunctions of our society should not require the person doing the calling-out to suggest a solution. But within a more narrow boundary, that of storytelling, your narrative will have more impact if a suggestion of action or resolution is made. Dr. Seuss knew this:

Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.
SO! Catch, calls the Onceler….

An ending, for an activist writer, needs to be a call to action. For a wider-band storyteller, perhaps not, but it still needs to do one of two things: provide a resolution, or challenge the reader with its lack. There’s a difference between a story that simply stops, and one that demands you provide your own resolution; the latter should cause readers to examine their beliefs as they work to answer their questions about the ending.

We always have something to learn from other disciplines, and I’m lucky that I get to learn a lot about my secret writer alter ego’s craft from my Clark Kent Day Job. The ultimate lesson of all that, above and beyond the visible, is to keep learning, and keep asking your own questions, whether or not someone gives you a resolution.

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Ethical Emotional Manipulation?

In Uncategorized on August 22, 2014 at 10:00 am

One of the websites I read regularly for my job is The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which runs news about the world of not for profits: who’s getting grants, what new fundraising techniques are being deployed, who’s changing jobs. It’s not the most informative site I visit (for professional purposes that would be Philanthropy News Digest, and for general Being An Adult purposes, Fortune Magazine online) but it often has a slightly offbeat take on the activity of philanthropy which makes it intriguing. This summer it’s been running a series of articles about storytelling.

In my “day-job” industry, storytelling has a different and more specific definition than in the world of publishing, or indeed culture as a whole. Nonfiction storytelling employed by charitable organizations is extremely goal-oriented. Nobody is telling a story for fun at a charity; storytelling in this sense is a tool, in the same way it’s a tool for marketing agencies and political campaigns. That stories are fun is one reason they’re used, but pleasure is not the primary purpose of the not-for-profit storyteller.

Storytelling, from a charitable organization, toes the lines that divide journalism, performance, and marketing. Stories that are told to raise money often focus on individuals or small communities because we relate to those; nobody cares about a story that involves the entire city of Chicago having sort of crap trains. But if a single train derails, and if the news shows one wounded child from that single train, people are more likely to agitate for increased funding and safety precautions. (It behooves me to note here that Chicago’s trains may be sort of crap and I hate the new carriage design, but they’re pretty safe, in relative terms. I’m just saying.)

It can admittedly feel a little creepy, because frequently another word for “marketing” is “manipulation”. As a culture we have a pre-existing story about charities, which is that they are run by the noble, the self-sacrificing, the honest, good, and true. And it is true that most people who work for charitable organizations aren’t there because the money’s good, since it’s not. Our former managing vice president made six figures, true, but he could easily have been making eight in the for-profit sector, and I am employed at a specifically very wealthy institution.

Nobility and frankness does not generally attract much in the way of money, particularly money that doesn’t see a tangible return in the form of goods or direct services. So, like any other company, the solicitation that a charity does is based in part on manipulating you. With strong integrity and the highest of goals, perhaps, but nonetheless, manipulating you.

Storytellers do this. Most of us want to make a point of some kind; even those writing without a social agenda generally want to inspire a feeling in the reader. Often the degree of fame a writer achieves is based on their degree of skill in emotional manipulation. I’m a big fan of Stephen King, but he’s not the greatest prose craftsman of our generation — just one of the very best at manipulating us into fearing what’s under the bed.

In the realm of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the articles on storytelling have been open, if not direct, about techniques for manipulation, because they are blending narrative and marketing. Bearing this in mind, they have provided excellent tips for writers of fiction who are looking to polish their emotional manipulation skills. Next week I’m going to be featuring a series of quotes from these articles; some will be fairly basic, but I’m hoping all of them will be helpful for prospective writers or for readers who want to understand the books they read with more depth.

And remember — just because I’m manipulating you doesn’t mean it might not be a fun ride.

 

Papa, Where Do Bad Books Come From?

In Uncategorized on April 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

In my last article about the power and ego of newspaper critics, I talked a little bit about a brutal review of a “bad” book. I don’t actually know the book is bad; I haven’t read it. But I have read bad books in my day.

I wanted to do a piece on bad books and how they get published — but I don’t work in the publishing industry, and I actually have a very superficial understanding of how publishers select books for publication or the pipeline process those books undergo.

When you research a question like this (and by “research” I mean “google”) there is one predominating answer: that “bad” is subjective, and that whether or not they’re good isn’t as relevant as whether or not they sell. You see this over and over, but it’s not just something of an insult to agents, editors, and readers, as bookendslitagency points out here.

This kind of comment makes me mad, and it tires me out. It implies that editors and agents, those of us in the business, have no taste and don’t know what makes good writing or a good book, and it implies that readers have no taste, because if we’re catering to them, obviously someone likes these so-called bad books.

It’s also essentially irrelevant to the discussion I want to have here, which isn’t about books I don’t like or one-off stinkers from acclaimed authors. It’s about objectively badly-written books. Say, first novels you can’t believe an agent bought, or the dreariest nonfiction books in existence — books that have material problems that could have and should have been fixed.

I’ll be honest: lacking any other experience, I had a theory that blackmail was somehow involved, or possibly sexual favors. I mean, I come from the theatre; we all know what the casting couch is. And while writers are not by and large the Beautiful People, we are frequently painfully earnest, which has a sort of charm, I suppose.

I’m sure there is some of that, though probably not as much as I’m envisioning. What it seems to come down to are two options — one a little more likely than the other.

One of the theories is the “pitch” theory, which I picked up from Bret Hartinger’s ruminations on the subject. He suggests that most books and movies are based on a “pitch”, and the ability to sell the pitch is perhaps often greater than the individual’s ability to execute it. While the concept of a pitch is pretty visible even to people outside the film industry, I know that for first-time writers, generally you can’t get away with it in publishing. If a publisher knows that you as an author are capable of following through on an idea, that’s one thing, but if you tell a publisher “I’ve had this great idea for a novel — but I’ve never been professionally published” you become the sad butt of a running industry joke. This might be slightly less common in nonfiction, but I know that when I was submitting manuscripts to editors and agents (oh, the bright-eyed days of my youth) they wanted an outline and/or ten sample pages with the guarantee that if they wanted they could see the entire finished text. So while this theory may be accurate, it also tends towards the “already published author” side of things, where we’re not going.

The second and more likely option, with which I’ve actually had some experience, is the “Boss Book” theory. KJ Charles talks about it here.

[Boss crashes into room, clutching sheaf of paper or self-published horror with garish cover. Heads rise and turn, like alarmed meerkats] Boss: I’ve found this. It’s fantastic! Remarkable! We need to get it out now. Lisa, I want it scheduled for March –
Editorial Director Lisa: Excuse me? I’ve never even seen this. Can we please bring it to the editorial meeting so we can discuss –
Boss: I’ve already bought it. Contract signed. Three-book deal.

I have an editor friend who occasionally emails me bemoaning the prose they have to read and attempt to make respectable. They sometimes get pushback from their authors, too — authors take note, “My friends think it’s fine!” is not a valid defense of your manuscript. When I asked why this book ever made it this far, my editor friend said, “Her [relative] was the acquisitions manager.”

But that’s not where the story ends, because as it turns out, the market actually supports all these terrible books. Charles goes on to say:

First: they were all bad. Whimsical nonsense, medically unsound alternative health books, tedious historicals. There was one fantasy novel so abysmal that I don’t think anyone made it to the end, and I include the editor and proofreader in that. Maybe the typesetter. Possibly even the author. For all I know, the last 100 pages were left blank. I don’t imagine anyone ever looked.

Second: Of every ten Boss Books, seven sank without trace. Two would sell 1500 copies. And one would go nuts. It would take off like a rocket, outsell the next four books on the list put together, and more than pay for the nine duds, because there was something about it that the market really wanted, which the boss saw and the rest of us didn’t. More fool us.

When you pick up a dreadful book by someone who’s not famous enough to get away with it, there’s a pretty good likelihood that you are collateral damage of a Boss Book.

On the bright side, some author had fun getting published, made a little money, and still contributed to the success of another book. Even if that other book was also awful — at least it was a wanted awful book.

Cruelty and Criticism

In Uncategorized on April 15, 2014 at 10:00 am

A while ago — actually long before I started this blog — a book was published called The Book Of Kings, by James Thackara. I haven’t read the book. I’d never heard of it until I came across a link to a review of it. I’m not even sure how I found the review. I think it must have been in some kind of “cruelest reviews ever” roundup.

That’s not actually a joke or an insult. I think that’s genuinely where I found it. And the fact that I clicked the link is something we’ll come back to.

The Book Of Kings was not James Thackara’s first novel, though the review claims it is. Thackara published America’s Children in 1984, Ahab’s Daughter in 1989, and The Book Of Kings in 1999. He claimed to have been working on Kings for over twenty years, so I suppose that’s where the review got the idea that it’s his first. It received some critical acclaim and some just plain criticism, but the Observer review (later reprinted in the Guardian) by Philip Hensher was a standout for nastiness. Given the praise the book received in other quarters, it’s possible Hensher was making an eye-popping attempt at pointing out the Emperor has no clothes on. Certainly his review is infamous even fourteen years later; it made it into Thackara’s wikipedia page.

Reading the review, two questions arose in my mind. First, what purpose do such book reviews serve? Second, how do terrible books get published in the first place?

I wanted to talk about reviews today, and bad books next time, because when you come down to it, they’re not really related. The function of newspaper critics rarely has much attachment to publishing or how it works.

If there are analytics of the functionality of book reviews, they’re very well hidden. I looked, but I have no way of studying the numbers to see if book reviews actually cause a boost or decline in the sales of the books they critique. Surely a positive review in a nationally-circulated newspaper, the kind that is read by people who have the money and leisure to buy and read a lot of books, can’t hurt. The newspaper has never been where I go to find out what books I should be reading, and in this digital age, where there are review blogs and sites all over the place, I don’t go there, either — but I don’t know if in this case I’m an outlier. Analytics regarding the percentage of readers who source their new titles from book reviews are similarly scarce.

Mind you, I’ve done blog tours promoting my books where I had my book reviewed on various sites; I’m not knocking internet book critics, most of whom keep their review blogs out of a passionate love of reading rather than because it earns them any kind of living wage. (The book business is the business of passion and poverty.) I review books myself, as well, though I don’t have a dedicated blog for it, and I use the reviews mostly as a way of tracking what I’ve read from year to year. But the point remains that aside from a given individual site’s statistics, we still have no real way of knowing how strongly a review impacts a book’s sales.

So what is the purpose of such an angry, cruel review? Hensher is presumably not stupid enough to think his review is actually going to prevent people from buying the book. Indeed, people probably bought it to see if they agreed with him, or just to own a book so infamously panned by a prominent critic. And Hensher is by far not the only brutal critic; the club of people who revel in that form of literary criticism isn’t a select one. There are yearly contests for nasty book reviews (this year’s Hatchet Job winner was AA Gill’s “critique” of Morrisey’s Autobiography) and googling “worst book reviews” comes up with a lot of relevant hits. It’s almost a cottage industry, of a sort.

Cruel reviews are only very rarely about the books. Once in a while I’ve been angry about a book, but a book that can inspire such passion is not ordinarily a bad book. I threw The Stand across the room when my favorite character in it was killed, but I can’t deny that however tedious the rest of the book was, King’s characters were compelling enough that I kept reading for them in spite of the plot, and was viscerally hurt when my favorite died. I can’t mock the book, I can’t be nasty about the book, when it caused such a strong reaction. Even when I’ve been bored by a book that is poorly written, I can’t summon the passion to be mean about it. It’s just a bad book. I’d say perhaps it’s permissible to be mean if you’ve bought the book and feel you’ve wasted money, but highly visible literary critics don’t normally pay for their own books — and I get mine from the library.

I think cruel reviews are about critics. Jay Rayner, writing about why people love bad reviews, believes this also:

…if there is one thing my dozen years as the restaurant critic for this newspaper has taught me it is that while people may like my restaurant reviews, what they really love are the brutally negative ones. […] It is why I have been asked to compile an eBook that is solely a collection of my reviews of bad restaurants. “My Dining Hell” is not even intended as a guide to where not to go; the vast majority of the places included have closed. It’s simply because there is an appetite for take-downs.

Even for the reader of the review, it’s not about the book, or in Rayner’s case the restaurant — it’s about seeing how deftly the critic can skewer it. Rayner believes this is because reading about someone else being horrible at something makes our day better, based on Oliver James’ theory of Social-Comparison.

While there may be truth in that, I have a different theory. I think cruelty attracts us. Cruelty involves passion and drama, and a well-turned nasty phrase, if nothing else, can garner admiration.  It’s the same reason we watch boxing matches or police dramas. Passion, drama, and artistry most frequently come together, for humans, in brutality. That sounds awfully cynical, but I don’t advocate it; I just have seen it enough to believe it.

After all, I read a phrase along the lines of “possibly the nastiest review ever written” and yeah, I clicked the link. If you take away the fact that Hensher is stroking his own ego and getting our attention by viciously attacking the creative work of another person — if James Thackara isn’t real to us, and if we don’t intellectually comprehend that this book is twenty years of his life — then it’s easy to enjoy watching a deft takedown.

(In theory. I think Hesher’s review isn’t all that great at being cruel; I think he was giggling to himself when he wrote it about how clever he was, which rarely makes for good writing.)

I don’t think it’s honestly incorrect to say that the publishing industry doesn’t need the brand of viciousness that Hensher employed in reviewing Kings (or that Gill, who talked a lot about Morrissey as a person rather than as a writer, employed in reviewing Autobiography). But Hensher and Gill didn’t do it for anyone else; not to inform the public of a badly-written book, not to enter into a dialogue on writing with the authors (heaven forbid authors and critics interact), and not to champion higher standards in literary gatekeeping. They did it to get attention. Well, after all, it worked.

But we don’t need self-aggrandizing critics in publishing. We need writers, we need readers, we need critics who are interested in the business of advancing literature and helping people find books they will enjoy. That brand of criticism isn’t about publishing. It’s about public spectacle.

Initially, somewhere in this essay, I was going to say the phrase I’m not suggesting we only review books we like. I’ve gone back and forth, actually, about whether I am suggesting that. Hensher’s style of negative critique is unimportant and unhelpful to anyone; if the purpose of literary criticism is to tell people where the good books are, why shouldn’t we review only the good ones? After all, word of mouth is still one of the most effective publicity techniques for fiction, so giving a bad book no word of mouth at all will only keep it out of the public eye.

But criticism, even outside of academic criticism, goes beyond publicity. Critics, the best critics, should be talking about not just what book are good but why bad books are bad, and how in their view as active, critical, constant readers, these pitfalls can be avoided.

Cruelty can entertain us. Particularly when it’s written down, it’s easier to enjoy it, because nobody’s being physically injured, and we presume no-one’s basic well-being is actively at stake. A good takedown, especially when it’s our “side” doing the taking-down, is thoroughly satisfying. But I believe it’s important to remember that cruelty and criticism are different things, and the former is rarely, if ever, about anything other than getting attention.

And, of course, punching up to get attention is okay; punching down to get attention is just bullying on paper. Always punch up, kids, if you have to punch anyone.

The Analytics Of Art

In Uncategorized on March 7, 2014 at 10:00 am

Recently, the Telegraph ran a news story headlined Scientists Find Secret To Writing A Best-Selling Novel.

My first thought on reading the headline was Well, there’s a genie that’s never going back in the bottle. It wasn’t even negative so much as…cynical.

I could pretty accurately predict the premise of the news story, because at my day job I work in a field that is very heavily analytical, a field in which analytics has created a revolution in the last five years.  I work for a not-for-profit entity in their fundraising unit, though I don’t do any fundraising myself. I manage operations for an office full of people who essentially perform one of two tasks:

— Providing actionable intelligence on potential donors that fundraisers are about to go hit up for cash.
— Discovering new sources of money by finding new potential donors.

When people began to apply analytical thought to the latter task, the whole industry changed. The idea was that you could look at, say, a sample of donors who had given over ten thousand dollars in a single gift, and from that sample draw characteristics that you could use to comb your database for similar people who hadn’t yet given you money. That’s grossly simplifying things, but at its most basic, that’s what it is. You could look at the way a donor moved through a set process from identification to solicitation to “reward” (anything from a thank-you letter to their name on a building) and predict how other donors would react to the process. They do this in the entertainment industry all the time, too — they pick a demographic and then figure out what that demographic wants to see. And if they don’t make something that demographic wants to see, they at least package something else so that it looks like it in a film trailer.

So I could see where analytics plus publishing was going: market-driven novels written to specification, new analytics divisions in publishing houses, and the homogenization of the novel. After all, the tools are already in place — your ebook reader comes with a host of analytical functions you may never even see.

But then I took a step back, because essentially that’s what I’ve been doing with extribulum all along — finding out what my readers want and giving it to them. There is a fine line between “give them what they want” and “give them something that looks like what they want” — not to mention “tell them what they want” — but essentially, I’d been doing market research all along anyway. The difference is, of course, that I’m not industrialised; extribulum dominates zero industry sectors.

Still, I was interested enough, and newly unafraid enough, to have a look at the article, and I’m really glad I did. Because what’s awesome to me is that these scientists, employing “statistical stylometry”, figured out that “bad prose doesn’t sell”.

Here are the elements of a good book according to the stylometry: complex prose (“heavy use of conjunctions”), descriptive prose (“large numbers of nouns and adjectives”), and thoughtful narration (“verbs that describe thought processes”). The analytics didn’t address the topics of these books, whether they had sad or happy endings, who their characters were, or what their plots were — just the use of language involved, the frequency of certain forms of word and what those frequencies indicated.

Now, on the one hand, this does rule out writers whose style of prose may not rigidly fit the statistics that Science has laid out for our convenience. And that may mean that writers who are experimental, who write in dialect or who have different things to say in different ways, may be in peril when it comes to publishing. On the other hand, I think it means we’ll have a few less true stinkers becoming bestsellers because a publishing house pushed them, and more books making it on their own merits.

So it is a genie, and it’s definitely not going back in the bottle — but where it does end up going we don’t yet know, and it’ll be fascinating to find out.

Professionalism and Creativity

In Uncategorized on February 5, 2013 at 9:00 am

Sam’s love of comic books strikes again…

For those of you who don’t read comics or who don’t read comics news, there’s been a lot of fuss lately about working conditions at DC Comics. Rob Liefeld, an artist mainly infamous for being terrible, left in a storm of angry, aggressive, and insulting tweets that in any other field of work would have made him 100% unemployable. Gail Simone, a well-known writer who was working on Batgirl, was fired by email and rehired in the course of about two weeks — she was a lot classier about the whole mess than Liefeld. Rumors abound that scripts are accepted by editorial, only to be returned with complete overhauls necessary when the “editorial brief” changes. The implication seems to be that the direction of the overall story they’re trying to tell keeps shifting.

Which is a shame on a number of levels, including narrative. Because I really want to like DC Comics, and I want to read their comic books, but I can see in every issue I read that the writers are confused by what’s going on and the time they’re given to make their stories work is compressed. It’s difficult to plan long-term because their plans keep getting knocked off-kilter.

Creativity is difficult to regulate. You can’t dole it out from nine to five. Artists have a notorious reputation as flighty flakes (somewhat undeserved, but occasionally true depending on the individual). But here’s the thing: this is professional art and collaborative art. You actually do have to be a professional because other people are depending on you, and most artists — writers included in that term — who work in comic books or television or mainstream film have figured out how to keep their shit together for at least long enough to get the story told.

At first I thought, well, can’t we figure out who is actually fucking all this up and tell them to stop? Because Superman is sucking right now. But in all honesty, this is not just a problem with micromanagerial editors. It seems to be an overall problem with DC, and it has a lot to do with the brand.

A while back I read an article about ways Disney is marketing Marvel correctly, which I wish now I’d kept around but didn’t because at the time it was about ten bullet points to illustrate only two concepts: strong vision and brand coherence. And you can’t really talk about one without the other.

Disney, through Marvel, has developed a very specific vision for its Marvel films, and perhaps less specific but still directed vision for the comics. I don’t know what it’s like to work at Marvel-Disney, but I suspect there is a very strong culture of adherence to the vision. What DC seems to be lacking is either a vision that lasts past the next big storytelling event instead of into it, or the discipline to keep its higher-ups in line with the vision it has. There has to be one page, and everyone has to be on it.

Which sounds a little fascist, I admit. And certainly general consensus seems to be that while Marvel is more coherent, and its books have voices that sound individual, it’s less diverse overall in terms of content. But Marvel is doing well, and telling engaging stories, so…

Well, I don’t mean to criticise DC, that’s not why I’m here. What I mean to do is illustrate that most creatives who want to earn significant money from their creativity have to do the same thing. They have to have a vision of where they’re going and what they want, they have to have a brand that’s going to carry them there, and they have to be consistent in both. It’s no different from developing a prose style, in all honesty. It’s one reason the “copper badge” I’ve had since 2003 is still around, because it’s a major part of my digital brand. That badge is my avatar nearly everywhere, and people know as soon as they see it that they’ve got the right guy. My brand itself has changed dramatically, but there comes a point where at last you want to know where you’re going and have a plan for how to get there.

Working on it.

YA Literature and DEEP IRONY

In Uncategorized on January 15, 2013 at 9:00 am

So, WordPress prepared a “2012 annual report” for me, explaining my most popular posts, my number of visitors, and various other factoids about my blog. Thirty thousand hits last year; not too bad.

You can see the complete report here.

Mandr, my hat is off to you, my little comment monkey.

What’s funniest about the annual report is that this is the year I released The Dead Isle, which could reasonably be considered YA lit, and my most popular post is about how I can’t write YA lit. Somehow I feel this is the story of my life.

I’m not objecting, really. Mostly I’m just confused.

Anyway, it’s an interesting read for me, and for you guys it’s a back-end look at what I do, the way my internet life works, the stuff I see that guides me. I don’t know how I ended up living such a feedback-driven life, but to be honest I’m kind of enjoying it.

The City War: Final Excerpt, #7

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2012 at 10:00 am

And here’s the last part of the full scene from The City War, my new novella from Riptide Press!

Find previous parts here.

***

“Your new horse-boy. Aristus implied he was offering more than his services as a groom. He’s handsome. Thinking of throwing me over?”

“For a horse-boy?” Brutus laughed. “I think not. I felt bad for him, that’s all. His father fought in the civil war. For the other side,” he added, and nudged Cassius’s thigh with his knee.

Cassius snorted. “You’d have thrown in with Caesar too, if you weren’t so damned ambitious.”

There was something testing in his tone, some question there that Brutus couldn’t name. Different from their usual banter.

He sighed. Cassius would come to it in his own time, he supposed. “It wasn’t ambition. I fought for Pompey because I thought he was best for Rome. So did you.”

Cassius’s eyes were dark. “I fought for Pompey because you did, Marcus.”

“That’s not true,” Brutus said, though he’d worried for some time that it was. “You know we’re responsible for the welfare of Rome.”

“Maybe, but you can’t deny Caesar was more charismatic.”

“But he was attacking Rome. I knew I’d have to defend her from him.”

“Caesar likes you.”

“And he’s Princeps, so I’ll follow him, because I’m better than he was.”

“Yes, you are. If you spoke out more—”

“I’m not interested in being Princeps, Cassius.” Brutus studied him. “Or in buying his mistrust when I’ve done nothing to earn it. You’re not as loyal to him as you could be, you know. Or you don’t come off as loyal as you could, anyway.”

“I’m loyal to you,” Cassius said softly, settling down, voice vibrating against his shoulder. He sounded disappointed.

“I don’t ask for loyalty.”

“You don’t have to.”

It was hard to tell, with Cassius, where speaking stopped and kissing began. He liked to talk into Brutus’s skin, into his mouth. The movements of his lips could sometimes be taken for whispered supplications, words Brutus couldn’t hear. Cassius spoke prayers into his body and he never knew what they were.

Of course, that was the least of what Cassius could do, he thought as the scratch of the other man’s jaw rubbed the sensitive skin above his collarbone, distracting him.

“We’ll talk more tomorrow,” Cassius said, body going lax against his.

“Talk more about what?”

“Nothing. I have to— Nothing we need to talk about tonight. Sleep now. Should I go?”

“There’s no reason. Stay and keep me warm.”

“Well, if the Senator insists.” Cassius’s eyes closed. Brutus watched for a few moments and then relaxed as well, drifting into sleep.

The City War: Excerpt #6

In Uncategorized on November 17, 2012 at 10:00 am

Things are heating up in this installment of a full scene from The City War, my new novella from Riptide Press!

Find previous parts here.

***

It was better, he thought, when they were face to face. He might have less leverage that way but he could feel the warm press of Cassius’s cock against his stomach, the hot wet rush when he came, the scratch of fingernails along his shoulders. But sometimes this was good too, with Cassius warm and sleepy, willing, his slight movements all Brutus needed as he thrust between his thighs, feeling the head of his erection brush up against the soft skin of Cassius’s balls. Small wonder the Greeks loved this; there was no feeling quite like it in the world. He spread kisses over Cassius’s shoulders, and Cassius reached out to cover his hands where they were braced on the bed, fingers caressing his knuckles.

He felt the low, tight curl of his orgasm building, the urgency of his thrusts grow more frantic. He bit down on Cassius’s shoulder, and when Cassius twisted a little and said, “Marcus,” he pulled back and pressed his cock to the swell of Cassius’s ass, coming all over his back. Cassius chuckled and stretched while Brutus panted through his release.

“Ten stripes for insubordination,” Cassius said, shameless, amused.

“Every time you make that joke and every time it’s still not funny,” Brutus chided, smacking him gently on the curve of one buttock. Cassius tightened the muscles there, propping himself up on his elbows and looking over his shoulder.

“I took a napkin from the table.” Cassius nodded at his tunic and belt lying on the floor. “Do us both a favor and make me presentable.”

“Nothing in the world could make you presentable,” Brutus replied, but he climbed off the bed and found the scrap of linen, wiping him down, a little reluctant to clear away the evidence of what they’d done. Well, he supposed the bluish bruise where he’d bitten him high on the shoulder would suffice.

Cassius saw him staring and touched it with a smile. “We’re not fooling anyone,” he said, turning onto his back as Brutus slid into the blankets. Cassius rolled and curled up around him, legs twined with his, one arm on his chest, looking down into his face.

“Perhaps not fooling, but at least not flaunting. We’re senators and patricians, Cassius. Powerful men.”

“Mmm, so you are.”

“And you.”

Cassius twisted his smile a little. “Well, perhaps.”

“Junia and Porcia don’t care, anyway, and Aristus wouldn’t smear my reputation.” Brutus traced the backs of his fingers down Cassius’s cheek.

“But we have to be discreet.”

“We are discreet. We’re here instead of at home in the city, aren’t we?”

“The servants, though.”

“You say this every time, and nothing ever comes of it. They’re servants, who would listen? Fuck them,” Brutus said, a little more vehemently than he’d intended.

“I wonder if you’d like to.”

Brutus turned to regard him more fully, a question on his face.

The City War: Excerpt #5

In Uncategorized on November 16, 2012 at 10:00 am

Here’s the fifth installment of a full scene from The City War, my new novella from Riptide Press!

Find previous parts here.

***

And he did like it, then and now. He liked the salty warmth of his skin, the thickness of Cassius’s cock in his mouth, and the way he cried out high and soft, one hand curling around the back of Brutus’s neck. His fingernails dug in slightly and Brutus jerked, swallowing convulsively, the motion making Cassius twitch in an aborted thrust. Brutus squeezed his thigh, a warning not to be too rough. He tilted his head for a different angle, and Cassius groaned.

“You’re so good,” he mumbled, head tilting back, the clean line of his jaw sharp in the darkness. “I miss you so much when we’re apart. I think of you when I’m with Junia, I think of you when I’m alone—fuck, Marcus . . .”

Brutus lifted his head, letting Cassius’s slick cock fall from his mouth, letting it lie hard and dark against his belly.

“Do you want it?”

Cassius arched his back, groaning. “Please.”

“It’s filthy,” Brutus said, kissing the sharp line where hip ran into thigh. “It’s improper. Swallowing you like a common street girl. If I do this, will you be good for me, Gaius?”

Cassius twisted again at the use of his given name. “Yes, I promise, I will.”

Brutus licked sharply up his cock, a long wet line from root to tip, and swallowed him again. Cassius grunted, trying to push, and Brutus let him just a little. He worked his tongue around the cock in his mouth, dipped his head to take more of it, then pinned Cassius’s hips tightly as the other man cried out and bucked, coming, forcing Brutus to swallow, the swallows themselves setting off little tremors that made Cassius moan, lying bonelessly in the blankets.

Brutus sat back, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and kissed the inside of Cassius’s thigh. Cassius was blissful and limp, laid out just for him, eyes closed and lips parted.

“Gaius,” he said quietly. Cassius twitched, but that was all. Brutus crawled back up his body, kissing him, and Cassius kissed back lazily. Clumsy fingers fumbled their way to the small of his back, clutching the swell of his ass.

“Roll over.” Brutus propped himself up. Cassius stretched and turned unhurriedly, hip brushing against Brutus’s erection, wringing a groan out of him. He’d been hard when Cassius had first settled into his lap, almost unbearably so since then. When Cassius turned onto his stomach and crossed his ankles together, Brutus ran a finger down the line of his ass, dipped it in between his legs, and fought another dizzy rush of arousal. Sweat-damp and relaxed, the channel of his thighs was perfect, warm, and just slick enough to give when he pushed into it. Cassius pushed back a little, tightening his thighs, and Brutus exhaled sharply.