Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Dog Dancing

Lately I’ve been struggling with a vague, undefined feeling of discontent, but then Natasha did a post about it and gave it a name: The Gap.

This began when I determined to start sending my thriller novel out again, but ultimately decided not to after reading the first chapter over and discovering it was, well, not very good. There was a time when I thought it was good, and there was a time when it was as good as I could do, but that time has passed.

What I began to ponder was the talent that people like Ian Rankin and Stephen King have, which allows them to write such sterling prose, while people like me sorta suck. How did they get it? Where does it come from? What do I need to do to develop it? Can I, in fact, develop it?

Then I saw a movie called 31 North, 62 East. This movie was made in Sussex and Horsham (and a bit in Lebanon) on a budget of about a quarter million pounds and was shot in a matter of weeks. Also, it was the production company’s first attempt at a major motion picture, or a motion picture or any kind, for that matter.

Filming in Sussex. They managed to find enough cash to hire a chopper for the day.

On a purely artistic level, it was rubbish, but when you take into account all the mitigating facts from the previous paragraph, you cannot but admire them for pulling it off, and pulling it off rather well. (Again, all things considered.)

The acting was wooden, the plot contrived, the set unnatural and obviously staged; in all it was like watching an amateur theatre group doing a movie, which in a large part it was. But there was a story there, and the clever devices they used to suggest climatic battle scenes without actually having to spend the money on them won my grudging admiration. (It also showed that people like Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep may demand huge fees, but they have that “something” that makes them worth the price.)

So what do we do, us people writing sub-stunning prose and producing movies that are so bad reviewers go out of their way to find good things to say them because anything less would be like tripping a crippled child? How do we bridge this gap? How do we go from thinking, “Okay, I wanted to produce something great, but this is crap,” to “this is what I had in mind, and I’ve pulled it off”?

These people actually got their moving into some prestigious cinemas. They are making no secret of the fact that this was a stepping stone to the next movie; the one they really want to make. So even if watching this movie was like watching a dog dancing—the amazing thing isn’t that they are doing it well, but that they are doing it at all—they may be closer to the mark in their next effort.

So, taking my cue from them, should I continue to try to publish my thriller novel, even though I know I have outgrown it already? Would it do me any good to get it published and have reviewers trash it? Or should I just call it a stepping stone and, by standing atop it, reach higher next time.

It’s sort of galling that these folks got their “throw away” project some major attention while my book, which took me longer to write than it did for them to conceive, script, film, edit, produce and release their movie, is consigned to the dead file. But if publishing it at any cost would mean people might start comparing me to a dancing dog, I think it might be best kept there.

Sunday, September 20, 2009


I’m in Craster, Northumberland with no phone signal or Internet connection. Without warning, I’ve found myself plunged into 1979. It was awkward at first, and I went through the usual stages of denial, anger, bargaining, etc. before arriving at acceptance. The thing was, I had plans to keep up on my e-mails and do some posting to my blogs in real-time while I was here, and instead I’m going to disappear without a trace. How is everyone going to get along without me? I soon realized, however, they would do just fine, and that my anxiety stemmed merely from an exaggerated sense of my own self-importance.

So I learned to embrace my solitude, and came to understand just how ephemeral the Internet is, which leads into what I wanted to talk about in the first place: E-Books.

Craster Castle: no toilets, no Internet Café.

There is a lot of talk about e-books being the wave of the future and taking off in a big way. I have my doubts--I think they will become more popular, but I do not believe they are the future of literature--and my conclusion is based on the very argument people have in favor of e-books.

VHS, they say, took off only after a format (i.e. not beta) was settled on. DVDs followed, and MP3 players. So the current reticence in adopting e-books is only temporary until a format is settled upon. But people who watch TV like to be able to choose when they see a show, and listening to an MP3 player is a lot more convenient then carrying around a phonograph. People who like to read, however, also tend to like books.

I know; I'm one of them. I like the texture, the feel, the weight of a book in my hands. I like to be able to write in the margins if it pleases me, and to throw a £7.99 paperback into my rucksack and take it camping with me, something I would be hesitant to do with a £400 Kindle.

I like browsing books, collecting books, and seeing them on my bookshelves. I like lending books to others or leaving them behind for others to find. I like the fact that there are no batteries required or technology that can fail. An e-book is not better than a book, it is a poor, ephemeral substitute.

I've heard it said that if you publish something on the Internet it is there forever. Define forever. We have clay tablets from the Babylonians, manuscripts from the middle ages--that is the closest we are going to come to permanent. The Internet is there only until, as my plight at the moment demonstrates, the plug is pulled.

The Internet is the most laissez faire, unpredictable, temporary thing every invented; and it is made up of a loose collection of privately owned servers all over the world that will be there only as long as the owners decide they want to keep them. If everyone suddenly got tired of it, it would disappear in an instant.

Also, and this is my own prejudice but I don't think I'm alone, once material is put into an electronic format, its value depreciates.

If someone "publishes" an e-book, it is not regarded as a real book. If someone writes for the web, they are paid (if at all) a fraction of what they would get if they were published in a printed magazine. Electronic words do not, in a literal sense, exist, and are therefore not as highly valued.

If you want something dependable, you get a real book, because technology can fail. And as I’m sitting here with no Internet connection and no way to contact anybody or download anything to read, I think I’ve proved my point.

So I think I’ll spend my time enjoying the solitude and appreciating the lessons this week of non-connectivity is teaching.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

My Day. Thanks for Asking.

My Day Job

I work with computers, and while I make it a point to not talk about my office life, I feel it is my duty to try to illustrate to you non-computer people what working with computers is like; it may keep you from making a serious career move error.

To keep it simple, let’s equate any of the myriad of simple tasks I have to perform during the course of my work day to something that you can readily relate to: your task is to come home, hang your coat on the hook in the hallway and eat dinner before going out with your friends to the pub. That’s it; a sequence of two simple tasks followed by a reward.

So you enter your home and hang your coat on the hook.

It falls on the floor.

You pick the coat up and check it. There is nothing wrong with it. You hang it on the hook again.

It falls on the floor.

You check the hook; there is nothing wrong with it. You hang your coat on the hook again.

It falls on the floor.

You try to hang your coat on the second hook, instead.

It falls on the floor.

You take a scarf off of the third hook and hang it on the second hook.

It stays in place.

You hang your jacket on the second hook.

It falls on the floor.

You hang the scarf on the first hook.

It falls on the floor.

You put the scarf back where you got it on the third hook.

It falls on the floor.

You now methodically try hanging your jacket and the scarf on each of the three hooks and watch as they each fall to the floor every time.

You mumble to yourself for a while, then do a Google search on the specific style, brand and version of the hooks.

You find there is a “known Issue” with this type of hook which causes anything hung on the first hook to be ever after unusable on any hook.

After an hour of perusing help forums and technical blogs, you come to understand there is nothing you can do about this. You are advised to not try removing the hooks and replacing them in a different order because it won’t help.

You remove the hooks and replace them in a different order.

It doesn’t help.

You remove the hooks, throw them away and go to the nearest hardware store.

It’s closed.

You go to the next one.

It’s closed.

You find an open one in an industrial estate 20 miles away. The man says you should have kept the hooks; he knows a way they can be fixed.

You buy three different hooks and return home.

The new hooks are not compatible with the base board the original hooks were installed on.

You return to the hardware store and buy a multi-functional baseboard.

The new baseboard needs modification before going onto the wall. This causes the hooks, which now fit, to be fastened upside down. They work fine, but you can’t hang anything on any of them.

You pick up your coat and scarf, fold them up and put them in the linen cupboard.

You try, but fail, to convince yourself that this is a better solution than the hooks anyway.

By now your friends are having a great time at the pub and you have not actually completed your first task. Still, you might just be able to make last call if you cook and eat your dinner quickly.

You head to the kitchen, take a ready-meal out of the fridge and put it in the oven.

The oven won’t light . . .

Posted by Mike
Somewhere in South Wales

PS: Just as I attempted to post this, the train went into the longest tunnel I have ever seen. We're still going through it; I think it must come up near Swindon.

PPS: We finally came out of the tunnel and, after I got my signal back and attempted to log on again, we entered another one.

Not. My. Day.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The Wealthy Writer

My publisher recently sent me a copy of “The Wealthy Writer.” Not because they thought I needed a prod to assist me in making more money, but to review. It’s their book; they wrote it. You could do worse than read this book-—the marketing tips alone are worth the cover price—-but if you have aspirations akin to mine, you may come away more disheartened than before.

The book is part pep-talk, part practical advice from a duo who have been successful on both sides of the publishing game—-being publishers and self-publishers. This puts them in a unique position and makes their guidance worth heeding. The most impressive thing about the book is, even though they are publishers, they advise self-publication as the best way to make money with your writing. And they have real-life examples to back that up.

As they point out, if you self-publish your book, you stand to make a profit of £7 to £10 per book instead of £0.45. If you flog your book unmercifully and sell 3,000 copies, you make £30,000. If that sounds too good to be true, it isn’t. There are hard truths to back that up, but there are also mitigating factors.

The Hard Truths:
     - Even if you go with a major publisher, you are still going to be responsible for most of your book’s marketing, so you save little here and give up a lot.
     - If you go with a major publisher, you would have to sell over 66,000 books to give you the same amount of money you could make selling just 3,000.

Mitigating Factors:
     - You are not not going to sell 3,000 books.

The other, oft-visited issues I have with self publication are:
     - No matter how hard you try, your amateur product won’t be as good as what a professional would produce. I can personally attest to this.
     - You still have to face that "self-published" stigma.

All that said, self-publication is clearly a better option than it was just a few years ago. The advent of POD and computer graphics means you really can put out a (nearly) professional looking product, and get it printed, for a nominal fee. No more stacking boxes of unwanted books in the garage or laying out thousands of dollars for a print run. And as the option becomes more and more viable, the stigma appears to be shrinking. Even in its self-published form, I was able to get “Postcards” into a few books stores.

After reading this book, I am convinced you can make a decent living writing and publishing and flogging your own books, just as I became convinced you can make a decent living writing service articles after I read “How to Become Embarrassingly Rich by Writing Service Articles,” or something like that. In each case, however, it presupposes you are doing this full-time. Now I have nothing but admiration for people with the courage, conviction and drive necessary to quit their job and devote themselves to full-time self-employment, but the vast majority of us simply are not in the position of being able to walk away from a steady pay check. And take it from me, there comes a time when you simply cannot devote more of your non-work life to marketing.

But all of this is academic; self-publishing is not for me, and neither is it—-if you have writing ambitions similar to mine—-for you. This book, as well as “Aiming at Amazon” both state plainly that this model works only for non-fiction. Novelists, short story writers and humorists need not apply. Now, you are certainly welcome to publish your book yourself, but they practically guarantee you won’t sell many. A non-fiction book provides something tangible that people want: “How to Live on £0.37 a Day,” “Three Steps to a Better Orgasm,” “Eat All You Want and Still Stay Thin—-a Bulimic’s Guide to a Beautiful Body,” . . . really, I could do this all day, but you get the point. With non-fiction you have a built-in customer base; with fiction you have a story.

This isn’t a gripe, I’m simply pointing out the facts. And, personally, I’d rather have the stories; I just wish there was a way to make some money with them.