The itch is returning

First off: Happy Holidays! Enjoy your movie and Chinese food, or whatever festivities you have planned!

(Is it OK for me to make that joke? I'm not actually Jewish. But the Church of Paranoid Christians has been putting up signs where I live saying that if you don't say "M---y C-------s" every single time, you are an Evil Satanic Communist, and I really want to join that group now that the Illuminati has vanished. (Or has it!?!))

Anyway, I've been increasingly having the itch to write lately--to just sort of write anything. I think that after the visiting relatives decamp next week, I'm going to start in on the young-adult fantasy novel I've had outlined for ages.

Without question, I will be getting back to the Trang series--Trials is partially written, both books are outlined, I even have covers!--but right now it's simply too hard. Basically there's a really unfortunate combination of where I was in writing the book (just where things got really depressing) and life circumstances. To seriously mix a metaphor, I can't pick up the thread of the one without touching the third rail of the other.

The young-adult fantasy novel is not nearly so focused on grief and loss, so hopefully it will be more doable (and hopefully I'm not killing the urge by making this post). I want it to be fun and cute (while also being deep and meaningful, of course! I iz broody artiste!), and something I will really enjoy writing.

ETA: Oh, and according to my last Amazon statement, I've sold copies of Trust in France, Germany, and Japan!

The telenovela thing, some more

I was just going to respond to Jim Self's comment here, but then the reply just got longer and longer, and I figured I might as well make another post out of it. We were talking about how, now that Netflix lets people watch television shows however they want, they seem to want to watch them pretty much the way you read a novel.

Jim wrote:

What I find interesting about this is that people are now consuming other kinds of media in the way they always read books. When you discover a new series of books and love the first one, you immediately go out and get the next, and next, and so on. Now we do it with TV shows.

You know, come to think of it, that doesn't just apply to TV shows themselves: If I really like a show, I'll look for other shows by the same author. Obviously that's been a thing with movies for a while (and certain television producers, like Norman Lear, have always had name recognition), but Netflix makes it so you can click on a name and get the person's other work, just like you can with Amazon or a library catalog. So I wonder if authorship is going to become more important in branding shows--it seems likely that it would, especially as television becomes less focused on mass-market ratings.

So, at least anecdotally, it seems that people prefer to consume lengthy stories all at once. That can cause people to put off a show they'd otherwise watch weekly, though. I keep meaning to continue Breaking Bad now that it's complete, but I never do.

Yeah, I feel the novel form has been around for some time now, and now that they can people are kind of molding television-watching into a video novel, so maybe the format just appeals to our psyches in a way that episodic media does not.

It's definitely a challenge to the industry. One thing I've noticed as I've shifted to Netflix is that, in the past, I might watch an episode of a show and not like it. And then a year or so later, assuming the show was still on, I'd check it out again, sometimes to find that it had improved considerably. Then I'd start watching it regularly.

With Netflix, though, there's no way--a bad first episode or a weak first few episodes, and I'm gone. If it takes a show a season or two to hit its stride, I'll never know, because not only am I not going to sit through all the bad episodes, I'm also not willing to skip the first 20-odd or 40-odd episodes to get to the good part--which is new. Before I didn't feel a need to start at the beginning and watch every single episode, but now, interestingly enough, I do.

So I think that as television shows are consumed more like novels, first episodes will become extremely important, the way the first chapter of a novel (or really, the first chapter of the first novel in a series) is.

Shouldn't the cure match the disease?

I'm a hard sell with romance, I know, and I think a big part of the problem is that I can't get behind a relationship if I don't think it's actually benefiting the people involved--I just don't think relationships are automatically good things.

Likewise--and this probably doesn't come as a shock--I don't buy into the notion that a woman's problems can all be solved by having some kids. In recent years, my sister had a couple of kids, and it's remarkable how much her life and career continued unabated--she did take time off when they were very young, but she also worked part-time, went back to school, and is now working only slightly less than full time in her new field. Children, while quite demanding especially when small, are not the eternal time-sink that people sometimes make them out to be, and having them is no substitute for figuring out what you want to do. Indeed, I would argue that if you are having children in order to avoid getting your shit together, you're probably going to be a lousy parent.

It's interesting because in older books and movies, characters do sometimes basically prescribe having children as a cure for a woman's problems--but some of the time, it's really obvious from the way the story is written that those characters are full of shit, so it's not like people in the past were all blind to the complexities of human nature or anything.

But I recently saw a movie--made well past the time where anyone would seriously recommend relationships and children as a panacea for women--where the characters themselves seem to think the whole have-a-relationship-and-have-kids thing is a solution. The female character is stifled in a dead-end job because she is afraid to move out into the world and figure out what she wants to do. The male character realizes the situation she's in, and his solution is to have her quit her job, move into his place, and . . . just kind of hang out all day. Doing nothing. Except having sex with him sometimes because she's got nothing else to do. And maybe someday all that sex will lead to kids, who will of course will fix everything.

It's very bizarre because the guy knows what the problem is--he's explicitly aware of it! He talks about her need to go out into the world! He just doesn't seem to see how this should apply to their actual life! It's like watching a movie about a brilliant doctor who correctly diagnoses a patient who has a particularly sneaky form of lupus . . . and then tries to cure the lupus by applying leeches. I don't get it.

Not shockingly, the relationship has! a! big! crisis! and the woman moves out of the guy's house and into the world to, you guessed it, try to figure out what she wants to do. It's a real blow to the guy, but it's hard to have sympathy for him, you know? Like, how did he not see that one coming?

More to the point, it was hard for me to be invested in the relationship itself when it was obviously precisely not what the woman needed. They did get back together in the end, but they never explicitly hashed out how they were going to accommodate the woman's ambitions to be an adult, so it was hard for me to care. I guess I was supposed to take it on faith that the guy finally made a trip down to the Clue Shop and got one, but who really knows?

More telenovelas!

Netflix released a bunch of information on how people watch shows when they can choose how many episodes they watch at a time. From the Wall Street Journal:

For one serialized drama, 25% of the viewers finished the entire 13-episode season in two days, while it took 48% of them one week to do so. The pace was pretty much the same for a very different kind of show—a sitcom with a 22-episode season: 16% of viewers finished the season in the equivalent of a weekend, while 47% completed it within one week.

That pattern—especially the apparent sweet spot of polishing off one season in a week—was similar across various styles of shows in the sample, including those with audiences that skew male or female, younger or older.

Another finding: The majority of viewers only immersed themselves in one show at a time, rather than juggle several at once. . . .

[A Netflix spokesperson said,] "We're just now getting to the stage where we can come up with some basic truths about how people behave when they have control over how and when they watch stuff."

I find it fascinating just how much people are treating television shows like novels: They do one show at a time, and they focus on it to get it done within a relatively short period of time. I wouldn't be shocked to discover that it took most people about a week to polish off a longish novel.

It's funny because right now, I'm showing You're Beautiful to my sister. I have Netflix and she does not, so she has to come here, and with her schedule she can only watch an episode or two a week.

(Speaking of her house and my house, I should note that I did indeed find a house near her, and should close in January. But I can't move in right away, because of course I bought a fixer-upper. It's like a disease.)

Anyway, my sister finds it pretty frustrating that she can't binge-watch that show, because it's harder for her to keep track of who knows what about who (which is pretty complicated in that show). She would probably love to be able to watch the entire series in a week. And I've been feeling like I can't start watching another television series until we're done with You're Beautiful, for pretty much the same reason I usually finish one novel before starting another. So even though we're not following the one-season-a-week rule, we're still like little case-studies for Netflix here....

After the egg breaks

One of my favorite movies is Last Tango in Paris. I should note that it is also one of THE MOST disturbing films I have EVER seen--if you're going watch it, you should be prepared to get extremely upset. But I have tremendous respect for that movie. Likewise I have a lot of respect for Belle de Jour, although I don't think it's as good.

These are movies that are about sex, and they're both French (kinda), so as result, there's a lot of tittering nonsense about them--the assumption is, if they're about sex (and they're about kinky sex! And have I mentioned that they are both French!?! Sort of?), then they must be porn. You know, just like Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita is porn. (And the title is French! There you go!)

The idea that there could be a serious movie about kinky sex--a person has a problem, and they try to work it out sexually--just seems to be beyond people. The fact that neither movie ends well (nor does Jules et Jim, for that matter) kind of flies over everyone's heads: Marlon Brando can claim that Last Tango in Paris was simply the director's crude sex fantasy, but I'd argue that most men's sexual fantasies don't end with the woman deciding that the guy is a TOTAL loser and then killing him.

(And in fact, a lot of non-Americans criticize those movies for being too moralistic. That's got to be a sign you did a good job, right? Half the people are complaining that your movie is porn, and the other half are carping about your moralizing.)

I'm going to just go ahead and generalize irresponsibly here, but I think part of the problem with the American perception of these films is that in an typical American movie about, say, a troubled relationship, the buildup is often to the question of whether someone will cheat or not. Will a transgression happen? That's the climax of the film, so the transgression is extremely significant: If the answer is no, the person will not transgress, then the relationship can be saved. If the answer is yes, then the other person can leave the relationship (and most likely end up in a better one).

It seems to me that a more typical approach for a French movie about a troubled relationship would be to have the cheating happen, and happen early. It's not the big pivotal climax; it's often more a precipitating event: This person has transgressed. Now what? What does it mean? What are the consequences?

Obviously there are plenty of French (and American) movies where the consequences of transgression are pretty minimal (except you get to see boobies, which for me is just not that big a thrill), but in the better movies the transgression is highly significant, even though it's not the climax of the film: Why did it happen? Now that's it has happened, what do people do about it? What does it mean about the person who transgressed?

I think if people could get over the FRENCH!!! thing, they could see that both approaches are valid. After all, it's really just the age-old question: Do you make the drama about whether or not someone will cross a line, or do you make it about what happens after a line has been crossed?

Harry Potter and moral choice

One of the things I've wanted to do for some time was read the Harry Potter books all in one go. I started reading the series when it was about half out, and I just wasn't going to go stand in line at the bookstore at midnight or anything like that (I did actually buy two of the books--both in paperback at airport bookstores--but other than that I used the library), so I wound up waiting a year or two between books, at which point I'd forgotten who half the characters were. So I thought it would be worthwhile to re-read them all at once.

It's interesting how different an experience that can be. One of the things about reading Harry Potter the first time around was that I didn't know whether it was just a bunch of cute kid's stories or if it would turn out to be the plotting wonder it actually was. It's clear re-reading it that it is really just one HUGE book, and knowing that, the ups and downs are far less pronounced. I got a lot more enjoyment out of the first couple of books in the series this time around because I knew what they were setting up. Order of the Phoenix annoyed me much less this time, because although that book doesn't really have much of a plot payoff by itself, it does set up the later books. On the other hand, Goblet of Fire, while enjoyable, wasn't the absolute kick in the pants it was the first time I read it and realized that, as the character of Harry aged, the books were going to get waaaaaay more sophisticated.

I do kind of feel more ambivalent about the ending. (This is going to get VERY spoilery, so if you haven't read the books yet--hey, my sister hasn't--go do that first. Really.)

A number of people argue that Neville Longbottom is the most important character in the Harry Potter books, and I can totally see that--Neville has a great character arc, and as a writer, I think there's a lot to be said for having tertiary characters that have discrete arcs, even if we only see those arcs in glimpses. It's really intriguing to realize that something's going on elsewhere, plus it gives the reader the sense that this is a real world, not one in which all the other characters exist for the sole purpose of serving the main plot and main character. (The fact that Ron and not Harry winds up with Hermione is another example of J.K. Rowling making her world more robust and realistic, and less of a fantasy-fulfillment thing. In lesser hands, Hermione would have been the prize that Harry wins, and Ron would have accepted it because, you know, Harry's the main character.)

But I think Rowling kind of slipped up in the end, because in his final confrontation with Voldemort's snake, Neville is simply more heroic: He withstands torture, breaks a curse, summons a magical object, and without hesitation slays a powerful semi-magical creature.

Harry has also been extremely heroic, of course--he's been tortured and has actually died, on purpose, in order to defeat Voldemort. In addition, he has delved deeply into the world of wand lore and has uncovered vital knowledge that will allow him to overpower Voldemort.

But at the very end, what does he do? Harry uses a disarming charm, and Voldemort's own curse bounces back on him, killing him.

At least it's not explicitly an accident, but that's pretty weak, isn't it? If had been made explicit that this was an effect Harry could expect from a really solid disarming, I'd be OK with it, but it just seems like a bit of a cop-out, especially compared to all the other stuff Harry has both suffered and done. (And he's done quite a bit--Rowling is not shy about having Harry & Co cross lines and do things they once though shockingly immoral, which is something I really like about the book.)

The Harry Potter books are actually better than most: The whole thing where heroes have to kill the evil villain, but of course they can't just murder someone, because they're the good guys!!! is rarely handled well--more often than not, the death of the villain is explicitly accidental. That's supposed to make you think that the good guys are still good (I guess because they are unsullied by sin), but I hate it--it smacks of Pontius Pilate washing his hands to me. Heroic people--hell, just plain old decent people--do not go through life abdicating responsibility and trusting on chance to set everything straight. When the choice is between doing something unpleasant or allowing something genuinely horrible to happen, the person who preserves their precious purity by doing nothing is NOT a hero.

The one time where I saw this handled really well was in another story that is supposedly for kids but actually quite gratifying for adults: The television series (NOT the movie) Avatar: The Last Airbender. In that series the main character, Aang, is so opposed to killing that he is a vegetarian, and yet he's put in a position where he is expected to kill the main villain (who is very, very bad). What I like about it is that Aang's opposition to killing is a real choice with real consequences--the writers don't just have a rock fall out of the sky and solve Aang's problem for him--and Aang has to stand up for his choice and find an alternate solution in an environment where that is very difficult. What makes it heroic is the moral courage--Aang must take action, and he must do what's right, not just for him, but for everyone else, too. And it's a much more realistic take on what being a decent person is actually like: The stars don't magically align for you because you try to do the right thing; you have to do the right thing even when it's difficult.

Evil marketing, good marketing

Today's Wall Street Journal has an interesting pair of compare 'n' contrast articles about on-line marketing.

The first is about the sleazy world of fake Twitter accounts--you can pay people to create huge blocks of Twitter accounts that will follow you and reTweet you and generally make you look more popular than you are, at least to people who give a crap about Twitter.

"If you're not padding your numbers, you're not doing it right," [Ethically-Challenged Rapper] says. "It's part of the game."

Can you guess that I disagree? I mean, if "the game" is to impress some idiot gatekeeper, OK then, but if your goal is to actually reach readers, I don't see how this helps, especially if you are a novelist. If you're not positioning yourself as a non-fiction expert, social media in general isn't all that helpful, and having a bunch of fake followers...? Plenty of real people are already ignoring you on Twitter, trust me. And I'm not even getting into the fact that if you pay for a bunch of fake Twitter accounts to follow you, you have absolutely no guarantee that Twitter won't shut them all down 30 seconds after you buy them.

Ethically-Challenged Rapper's argument in favor of doing this is that it's more cost-effective than advertising on Twitter. I don't know what that says other than that you probably shouldn't bother to advertise on Twitter, either.

(And can I just take a moment to note that it infuriates me when people assume you have to cheat to win. You don't. Remember how people were arguing that paid reviews, while bad, for some reason should be the norm? Remember how that blew up? Nobody likes a cheat.)

Article #2 is about asking fans to give you their e-mail address, so that you have a database of people who already know they like your stuff. (Lindsay Buroker has a lot of useful things to say about this strategy as well.)

Oh, and look! Actual numbers indicating value!

A fan who gives Arcade Fire his or her email address spends, on average, a lifetime total of $6.26 to buy music, merchandise and tickets directly from the Canadian indie-rock act.

Meanwhile, the Icelandic band Sigur Rós boasts an email base of fans worth an average of $10.91. And followers of the progressive rock band Umphrey's McGee generate an average $32.96.

Industrywide, the average fan email address has a value of about $3.78 in direct purchases from artists over the owner's lifetime, according to new data from Topspin Media Inc., a six-year-old Santa Monica, Calif., company that manages online stores for more than 70,000 artists.

That may not sound like much, but it is nearly four times the price of a single from Apple Inc.'s iTunes Store.

Also, as a manger for The Pixies points out, when you've got a mailing list of existing fans, advertising to them couldn't be cheaper--you just shoot out an e-mail, and you're good. The cost savings means that your profit margin on purchases is even better.

The bands that really maximize revenues offer unique (and pricey) goodies exclusively to fans--totally something writers can do. And freebies are always good--according to the article:

Fans who get free music in exchange for an email address are 11 times more likely to make future purchases directly from a band than fans who get nothing for forking over their contact details, Topspin's data show. 

And November begins with . . . a random dispatch!

I've decided against renting. I looked at a couple of places, and they were fine as far as they went, but OMFG I had completely forgotten what landlords are like to deal with. Many thanks to them for calling me first thing on a Saturday morning, as well as selling my telephone number to marketers who also enjoy calling me at the crack of dawn! It appears that it's not just a regional thing--landlords across the country are retarded douchebags. (And before you start muttering, I've never had a problem with paying rent. I do, however, have a problem with people who confuse the right to rental payments with droit du seigneur.)

Anyway, renting close to my sister would be more expeditious than waiting for a suitable house to come to the market. But the prospect of inviting some stupid asshole to break into my apartment while I am taking a shower because the shower was not, in fact, waterproof (happened) has reconciled me to the virtues of patience.

What else? Well, as I mentioned, in July Amazon rejiggered its science fiction categories, and at this point I think I have enough data to say that being on the free Science Fiction: First Contact list really blows. I'm keeping my ranking and my front-page status, but I'm giving away far fewer copies of Trang and selling far fewer copies of Trust than when I was on the front page of the free Science Fiction: Series list. The fact that I'm in roughly the same position as far as rankings are concerned just reinforces to me that this list has far less appeal to people than the other list.

So, it's a problem worthy of a science-fiction writer: When I finally get back to work on Trials and finally finish it and finally publish it, I will have to push to get on the general science fiction list (or on whatever more-promising list exists at that date in the faraway future).

Another random dispatch

So, I've pretty much decided that I am going to move--not to Dallas, but about 20 minutes away from where I live now to be closer to my sister and her kids (and not incidentally, to get the hell out of my ghetto-ass neighborhood). I'm going to look at a rental tomorrow, and if I like it, I'm gone. I know a move is going to be a huge time suck, but it has to happen sooner or later, so why not now when I'm being unproductive anyway?

Wow! It's just like a Kris Rusch post!

You know how Kris Rusch has, like, a thousand horror stories about publishers deliberately killing the sales of a book because the author is out of favor or because they want an excuse to fire a particular editor? And of course you might think that wouldn't happen, because it's in the publisher's best interest to sell as many books as possible, but the fact of the matter is that short-term considerations and politics often take the fore, in publishing as in other businesses.

Fascinating reading, of course, but pretty much not my problem, what with my being indie and all. Sure, sometimes Amazon glitches up, but I never thought I'd actually witness this kind of thing happening myself.

Except that, you know how I run that Block B Web site? I have a page that lists where you can buy their music. They just released a new album (under their new management company), so I was updating the site and thought I'd make sure that the retail links are all up to date.

Guess what? Their last album, which sold quite well when it was released under their old label last year (you know, the label they sued and quit), is not nearly as available as it used to be. Indeed, it looks like pretty soon you'll only be able to find it among the Amazon resellers and maybe on eBay.

Interesting, isn't that? I mean, it would seem a no-brainer to have their last album out and available for purchase, since a new release typically stirs up a lot of interest in whatever you call a musician's backlist, and backlist is so profitable.

Given their label's track record, I'd say it's a coin toss between incompetence and spite. And it's just more evidence that, in any industry, handing over all the business power to someone who isn't you is probably a mistake.

If you won't sell it to me, I can't buy it from you

It's fall, which is apparently the time when Korean groups release music (whereas an American artist might release an album with 20-odd songs once every two years, Korean groups tend to release smaller "mini-albums" more frequently).

Anyway, at this point I'm familiar with a lot of these groups and have favorites, which means that I'm coping once again with the frustration of having music released--complete with videos and all kinds of expensive marketing--that I cannot buy, even though I want to.

Why not? Well, digital music is really big in the United States, but it's less big (or regarded simpy as a form of piracy) in Asia. In addition, Korea really exists in an alternate universe when it comes to the Internet--I assume because the market is small and wasn't really a priority for the big Silicon Valley firms, different companies have established themselves in Korea as the default Web sites. Koreans don't Google things, they Naver them. They don't socialize on Facebook, they socialize on CyWorld. Making things even more insular, in some cases you can't access entire Facebook-like categories of sites unless you register with your...Korean Social Security number! Which of course you have, because there are no non-Koreans anywhere on the planet!

So, yeah, you can rock marketing and selling to a Korean audience and be completely pathetic at marketing and selling to everyone else. You know, kind of like authors can rock at reaching other writers and suck at reaching readers--it's those "affinity group" blinders.

In addition, there's what looks an awful lot like "windowing" going on--the practice of not selling music (or books) in all formats right away on the theory that doing so will cannibalize sales.

Bullshit. Like I said before, if it ain't digital, I don't listen to it. I'm certainly not going to buy it, especially not at the prices they charge for import CDs.

As a result, there's been album releases that I really wanted to buy the moment they came out. (coughcoughZionT'sRedLightcoughcough) I'm sure other people did, too, and that might have led to some nice chart-topping visibility of the kind Jay Park recently experienced.

But nooooo. I had to wait months to buy Red Light, and of course I didn't know when it came out digitally, so I bought it when I found it (and it's lucky that I remembered to buy it at all). There goes your surge of buyers and your bestseller-list visibility.

And I'm sure this is a self-reinforcing thing. Zion T's label (the musically very fine Amoeba Culture) is going to look at his digital sales and say, "Well, that's not worth pursuing." And they'll never realize that the problem is that they're not doing it right.

Who is doing it right? You can imagine how much it pleases me to say that not only is Block B back, but they're doing it right! (Whoo!)

What are they doing? Well, they've pre-released a song off their upcoming mini-album, and they did it like this:

1. They offered it as a sponsored free download.

2. It's on sale at iTunes.

3. It will be on iTunes again, I'm sure, once the mini-album is released.

So if someone grabs the free download and then buys the mini-album, or they buy the single now and the mini-album later (since there's usually a discount on an entire album), Block B gets paid twice for the same song.

Do you think they read Joe Konrath's blog? Because this looks familiar. And the added bonus is that they're maximizing revenue in a way that does not make fans feel like they're getting ripped off--it's a free song! What's not to like?

POV, editing, and family fun

I mentioned a while back that my sister wrote a Sherlock fanfic. It was good, but it was a script, so pulled it (it turns out that they don't take scripts).

She liked the feedback of that site and wanted to keep her work there, so she decided to take her script and turn it into a narrative story.

I liked the script very much, but the story she first gave me was just unreadable. It was a kind of half-script/half-narration, where the writer took:

SHERLOCK: Where's my violin?

MOLLY: Where you left it!

And turned it into:

Sherlock looked around. The urge was upon him--he needed his violin. Was it there? No. There? No! What was there was just stupid, stupid Molly, oblivious to his need.

"Where's my violin?" he asked her.

She looked up, annoyed by his brusque tone. He always treated her like a servant--like it was her fault he was so disorganized. "Where you left it!" she snapped.

I'm making that up, but that's what it was like--at every freaking line of dialogue, the point-of-view shifted. I'm not exaggerating when I say it was unreadable: I gave up a couple of pages in.

Then I was in a pretty pickle, wasn't I? She's my sister, people, and I love her very much. In addition, we really count on each other--I don't take our harmony lightly.

On the other hand--she asked for an edit, didn't she? In addition, she's a good writer. The script she produced was very good (so, you know, good plot, good dialogue, properly-motivated characters), she's written good stories before, and she clearly was willing to put in the work to extensively revise it. Given all that, would I be doing her any favors if I told her, "This is fine!" when it wasn't?

She knows how I feel about editing, so I very carefully gave it to her straight--this was great, now it's bad, here's why and what you can do to fix it. Please don't hate me.

Later on, she gave me a revised version, but I was just in no hurry to read it. What if it still sucked? Finally, last night I read it--and it's great!

Of course I am proud of my sister--it's not easy to take a harsh edit, and I'm impressed by how she went from not appearing to understand point-of-view at all to really wielding it quite handily.

But I'm even more impressed by how much consciously choosing a point-of-view improves a story. This thing went from just unreadable to a proper story, which is already a big leap. In addition, in some ways the story is better than the script, because by using point-of-view, my sister was able to give the reader insight into the inner lives of characters in a way you really can't with a script.

I should note that one of the keys to her using point-of-view was to let go of some of the dialogue. Think about it: When you're Sherlock, do you even listen to what anyone else says? Half the time, it's just a kind of yapping....

Cutting self slack

If you look on my home page, I've just deleted the dates on the third and fourth novels of the Trang series. I'm still planning on writing them (in fact, I had some great ideas for Trials today during my walk), but having deadlines was freaking me out. Grief is proving to be a hard emotion for me to work with; attaining the level of focus I need to do novel-length writing is tough. Yes, I can crank out blog posts, but kicking out 800 words for a stand-alone piece is an order of magnitude easier than kicking out 800 words as part of a 100,000-word novel.

Another value in free

This is interesting (via PV): Netflix looks at piracy sites to figure out what shows are popular and worth carrying.

Yeah, I love it--I've never BitTorrented anything because it's a hassle. Not shockingly, I subscribe to Netflix. As with Amazon and iTunes, the main value of Netflix is convenience, and I'm happy to pay for that. It's not like BitTorrent doesn't have costs--costs in your time, costs in risks to your computer. If people are downloading from there, they're motivated to get over that hump--they want the work.

And I can completely see doing something similar with books--do a couple of freebie short stories/novellas in different genres or series, and see what catches on before deciding which one to pursue.

My Other Blog

I've decided to start a blog that's just going to be completely self-indulgent--it's called My Other Blog. Partly, this was because I want to have a place to post about things that I can't manage to force into this blog (surprise, surprise, today's post is about Korean rappers). And partly it's because I feel like I have less to say about self-publishing--you know, do it, don't get ripped off, is there anything else? I'll still post about what I'm doing, of course.

Uh, that's work, too

A few days ago I read an oldish article on b-boying (that's breakdancing to ancients like me) in Korea, and it really stuck in my craw, so I thought I'd vent.

This is what bothers me (emphasis added):

At events or clubs in Seoul, Chon regularly spots unknown b-boys taking out experienced pros. “What happens is they practice on the lowdown until they’re up at a level where they can actually come out and shock somebody,” he says. “They practice in the shadow.”

Cho “C4″ Chung-woon of Rivers says through a translator, “We’ve been praised for our technical skills, but that’s because we would practice head spinning all day long. That’s what sets us apart.”

Still, the old “Asian work ethic” explanation is just part of the story. When Koreans first emerged, Americans praised them for their power moves — the highflying crowd-pleasing spins, freezes and gymnastics moves — but criticized the Seoul b-boys for lacking soul. They were thought to be mechanical, unable to rock with the beat, and lacking in “foundation skills,” such as the top-rock and footwork moves that form the historical roots of the dance.

“What the Americans said really influenced them,” says Charlie Shin, Chon’s business partner and a Korean b-boy advocate. “They went back in the lab. It changed them.”

They mastered routines, the choreographed ensemble moves that are essential parts of a showdown. They immersed themselves in the music and the rhythms. They studied the history of b-boying and hip-hop culture. Three members of the Rivers crew — Born, C4 and Red Foot — are now affiliates of Mighty Zulu Kings, a crew whose lineage can be traced back to hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa’s Bronx River Project dances in the early 1970s. Even their crew name, Rivers, was chosen to capture an aspect of the hip-hop aesthetic.

“You know how rivers flow? Rivers flow swiftly, and that’s also how we move and how we think,” C4 says. “B-boys in other countries do it as a hobby, but to the Korean b-boys, our life is b-boying.”

Yeah, wow! It sure sounds like they abandoned that pesky work ethic there!

What really annoys me about this article (even more than the implication that a work ethic is some kind of racial attribute) is the underlying assumption that creative work is not hard work--that talent cannot be learned or improved upon.

I mean, look at what that story says: The b-boys were able to able to become gymnasts by dint of hard labor. But their b-boying lacked soul--that artistic element that separates real dancers from mere athletes.

How did they get soul? Did they and the Americans all drop groovy acid together until the Koreans' consciousness was expanded and soul could enter? Did they sit around and wait for the Muse of Soul to descend?

Um, no. They worked at it. There's not really any difference between what took these b-boys to the level of acrobats and what took them to the level of world-champion dancers.

The fact that the article can say It Wasn't a Work Ethic! while at the same time pointing out how these guys worked day and night to quite successfully obtain soul just demonstrates how deeply ingrained this whole belief is that the Muse just kind of grants higher-level artistic skills upon this or that lucky individual.

That's bullshit. Do you know why I analyze humor? Because I want my books to be funny. Why do I pick apart dialog? Because I want my books to have good dialog.

Why do I re-work and re-work the openings of my book? Why do I go to the trouble of dumping a third of my copy? Why?

Because I want my books to be good. I want them to operate at a high level. I'm not interested in being a hack.

The article is deeply wrong on another level as well: Without good foundation in acrobatics, the Korean b-boys never would have become good dancers. NEVER. What makes b-boying a distinctive form of dance is its heavy reliance on gymnastics--you can't just wave your arms around prettily and become a champion. Likewise, you can't just ignore the "technicalities" of spelling and grammar, because you think your "higher" literary skills are so fucking awesome.

Good writing, like good dancing, gives the audience an impression of effortlessness. It makes it seem like the story was there all along, simply waiting to be told. But if you're the one doing the writing, it takes a hell of a lot of work.

Good limits, bad limits

After thoughtful consideration yesterday, I decided that the best way to deal with my story problems was to have a raging bout of insomnia that would leave me unable to so much as read a book. (Although, granted, my current book is John McPhee's Annals of the Former World. Guys, this may be the lack of sleep talking, or it may be because The New Yorker has so thoroughly adopted his prose style that I feel like I could finish his every sentence, but I am getting to be of the opinion that McPhee is overrated as a writer. At one point he lists a bunch of different geological ages because he thinks the names are kind of cool. I'm looking forward to the page where he just starts listing names out of the phone book--you know, because they're kind of cool. And his stories just never seem to climax. I get the feeling he was probably a pretty boring person.)

Anyway, today I read Kris Rusch's post on how nowadays she can write what she wants, YEAH! Screw publishers and their schedules and their little minds!

And on the one hand, I am delighted that e-books mean that short stories and novellas and little genres can flourish once again, and Rusch certainly brings up some examples of publishers being really arbitrary about stuff.

On the other hand--well, I also read this today. It's about a Web site I happen to enjoy called Eat Your Kimchi, which is by two Canadians living in Korea. Initially they started making videos about life in Korea so that their families could see what was going on with them, but then they started getting traffic from people who were curious about Korea.

And then they started getting traffic from really oversensitive Koreans who HATED them and wanted them deported! Things got extremely unpleasant, especially when they would criticize K-Pop groups, because Korean pop fans are notoriously insane.

The thing is, as awful as it got and as unfair as it certainly was, I've watched a lot of the old videos, and I have to say that their newer ones are much better. Why? It's not the production values (although those have improved), it's the fact that they no longer offer up knee-jerk negative reactions to things that they don't know anything about ("ERMAHGERD, this food has TENTACLES in it!"--uh, you've never had calamari?).

You could say that they've become more careful, but I would argue that they've become more thoughtful--and that's a good thing. It prevents them from falling into the whole Ugly American (Ugly Canadian?) rut, where they just run around shrieking, "ERMAHGERD! Why are things DIFFERENT here? It's like we're in some kind of foreign country or something!"

In addition, when they do get critical (which they still do), they are either very thoughtful about it (like this) or they come up with something hilariously funny. Remember those crazy K-Pop fans? Instead of just bitching about these lunatics who desperately need to get a life, they came up with the immortal character of Fangurilla.

The line between being true to your vision and just being self-indulgent is a fine one, and I think it's harder to draw a lot of times because 1. criticism is never pleasant, and 2. sometimes it is delivered in an entirely malicious and dishonest fashion. But even the worst form of criticism can have some value--at least if you take the right lesson from it.