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November 20th, 2012


08:01 am - insomnia

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

(Part of the ongoing Noirvember series. Click on the tag to see more)

While Memento gets more plaudits for its inventive storytelling, and the Batman series earned him his chops, I think Insomnia is Christopher Nolan’s best entry into the noir genre. It proves that, even without the framing device of Memento, Nolan can still tell stories of tension, uncertainty, and redemption in a gray world. Add to that an unorthodox setting and a phenomenal cast and you have a story that embodies one of the classic tropes of noir: a man struggling with a moral dilemma, alone in a sea of friendly faces.

Pacino makes a return to the restrained intensity of his Godfather days, saving the occasional raspy yell for emotional climaxes. He plays Will Dormer, a legendary Los Angeles police detective who’s out of his element, investigating a murder in an Alaskan town during a season where the sun stays up for 24 hours. His dislocation and his fatigue cause him to make a tragic mistake very early on in the assignment – a mistake that the murderer witnesses and exploits. And Dormer’s helpless against it, because he knows that the truth in a case like this isn’t as important as the perception of the truth. The perception can take on a life of its own, an image that detaches from the object it reflects until it becomes a hallucination. In this way, Dormer becomes a prisoner of everyone’s perception of him: the fellow officer, the suffering insomnia victim, the exemplary investigator.

Robin Williams – who should honestly give up on comic roles – astounded me as the murderer. Given his background, the temptation must have been strong to play Finch like a megalomaniac or an unhinged lunatic. But it’s the smarmy calm that makes him a perfect villain. He’s spent his whole life constructing neat little murder narratives, and now one’s been handed to him like a present. He shares observation after observation about the nature of death, killing, and crime. His benign pedantry sounds harmless, almost profound, until you remind yourself that he’s talking about something he’s actually done. It helps that he has the rasping, businesslike Pacino to play off of. “You’re my job,” Pacino observes. “You’re what I’m paid to do. You’re about as mysterious to me as a blocked toilet is to a fucking plumber.”

Hillary Swank walks a line that’s tough for younger actors to manage: coming off as enthusiastic without being cloying. She clearly has a spine to her, and Nolan does a good job setting her up as a woman apart, isolated from her colleagues by the devotion she applies to the most mundane tasks. She worships Dormer, but as a source of wisdom, not with the infatuation of a child.

Given the wordiness of Nolan’s later films, it’s amazing how much of Insomnia gets by with wordless shots, especially considering that it’s a police procedural where everyone acts alone. Dormer has to cover up his crime by himself; Burr (Swank) has to investigate the one unresolved detail by herself. Yet there are no voice-overs, no self-narration to bring the audience along. We reach every conclusion at the same time our protagonists do, or perhaps a second afterward. Like them, we have no one to bounce ideas off of. We can’t comfort ourselves with the sound of our voice, or another’s voice, and so we’re left with an icy riverbed, an apartment hallway, a dead dog in an alley.


 

November 16th, 2012


07:00 am - no country for old men

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

Taking part in Noirvember, a retrospective on noir films that have influenced me. Click the Noirvember tag to see more.

Watching this movie in 2007, with Eric and Hannah Pope and Matt Tucker, resulted in one of the most memorable cinema experiences of my life: a packed theater simultaneously holding its breath. It happened in the scene where Lew Moss (Josh Brolin) wakes up in a hotel on the Mexican border and realizes that his nemeses must have some help in tracking him. He sifts through the satchel of money under his bed and finds an electronic tracking device. Then he hears something downstairs.

It’s so rare to find a room full of strangers who are as caught up in the movie watching experience as you are – who don’t defuse their anxiety with nervous giggles or cheap attempts at humor, but who let raw terror wash over them. This had a lot to do with the audience, no doubt: the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, MA, as snooty of an art house crowd as you’ll find in America. But it also owed a lot to the genius of the Coen Brothers in crafting a scene of such perfect, fragile tension.

Why does it work as well as it does? Four reasons.

(1) The reliance on auditory cues over visual. There’s the silenced gunshot from downstairs (not replayed here) that gets Moss’s attention. There’s the soft creak of footsteps. The lack of any musical score. Sound tends to be scarier than vision: it’s harder to focus on and there’s so much room for ambiguity. If you see something weird in the closet, you can always get closer and verify whether or not it’s your shirt. If you hear something scraping outside your bedroom, getting closer won’t help you figure it out.

(2) Playing on established fears. We’ve already seen Chigurh slaughter a hotel room full of armed Mexican gangsters with no difficulty. And here’s our hero in a hotel room! Sure, he’s aware, while the other guys weren’t. Will that be enough?

(3) Also, unlike some anonymous Mexican gangsters, we like Lew Moss. He’s got a loving relationship. He’s generous enough to go back and give a dying man a drink of water. He’s demonstrated cleverness and pluck, two traits that audiences admire in underdogs. We want him to triumph over adversity.

(4) Reversal of expectations. The shadows of Chigurh’s feet pause outside Moss’s door, forming two columns. Here comes the blast – except not. Chigurh steps away, walks down the hall, and unscrews the light bulb. Now we’ve backed down from a climax, stepped up the stakes, and returned.

In addition to its superb construction of tension, there’s also the essence of noir – existentialist philosophy played out through action. In No Country for Old Men, this is personified through Anton Chigurh, an unstoppable hit man who contemptuously rejects the human attempt to impose order on a chaotic universe. “If the rule you followed brought you to this,” he asks of a man he’s about to kill, “of what use was the rule?”

Of course, in a notable and excellent deviation from the novel, it takes another character, Carla Jean Moss, to point out Chigurh’s own hypocrisy in this. By tying the fate of his victims to something like a coin toss, he’s making his own rules and thereby engaging in the deckchair shuffling that he declaims. “The coin don’t have no say!” Chigurh, heretofore unflappable in his deadly pursuit, pauses in reflection after hearing this. He then, as if to drive the point home, gets hit by a car.


 

November 12th, 2012


09:03 am - skyfall

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

I loved Skyfall, if you were curious. I thought it was a better Bond than Casino Royale*, which would make it the best Bond in ages**. If you want to know more, listen to the other Overthinkers and I discuss it on the Overthinking It Podcast, episode #228, “That’s Some King’s Quest 2 Level Detective Work.”

________________
* Casino Royale still being phenomenal, but suffering from narrative and plot pacing issues in the third act, whereas Skyfall is a more expertly paced blockbuster.

** The next great Bond film prior to that, in my ranking, is The World is Not Enough.


 

November 9th, 2012


07:00 am - I owe my soul to the company store

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

Scott Kurtz, author of the successful webcomic PVP, has a bug up his nose about comic creators’ rights. It first came to my attention with a weirdly argued post in May, a peevish response to the outcry surrounding Marvel’s neglect of the artists and writers who created The Avengers. Kurtz’s argument, as best I could understand it, was that Jack Kirby wasn’t the only guy behind The Avengers – an argument which nobody had made, an argument which Kurtz rebutted by saying that donating any money to the estates of these impoverished writers and artists was “slacktivism” and “cynical.” My man Leonard demolished these arguments better than I could, so I won’t pick at the ashes.

Kurtz returned to the subject this week, with a post that’s more coherent and thereby more reprehensible. He doesn’t call out any creators or causes this time, as he did with The Avengers in May, but I’d bet a Krispy Kreme this post was inspired by DC’s ongoing battle to wrest undisputed control over the rights to the character of Superman from the estates of Siegel and Shuster. Or maybe he clarified his thoughts and wanted to make them public. Or maybe he just felt like revisiting the old well.

In any case, Kurtz’s new post is a great object lesson in victim-blaming. Victim-blaming is an ugly behavior most commonly associated with racism and sexism (“well, if you hadn’t been in that part of town …”). But Kurtz proves admirably that you don’t need to be racist or sexist to engage in it.

He outlines a scenario in which “[a]n artist is screwed over, usually by a larger entity like a publisher or other corporate entity” and concludes that “[o]nce a creator has allowed themselves to be exploited the battle is already over.” So you have an artist who is presented with a contract by a producer – DC, Random House, Berry Gordy, whomever. The contract’s terms are a little extreme – the rights never revert to the creator; the compensation is an infinitesimal fraction of what the producer will recoup from the product, and the like. Is the artist a fool for signing it? Perhaps. But is the producer a villain for even offering such a contract?

Crickets.

That’s what victim-blaming is: focusing on the choices of the victim, and assigning culpability to them, while treating the choices of the aggressor as a given. Kurtz does this expressly: “Publishers [...] are businesses who survive when they maximize profits and minimize costs.” The contract came from a business: a faceless mass of suits and desks and fax machines. It fell from the sky pristine. It wasn’t written by an actual human being – a person who needs just as much air and food and shelter as Jack Kirby did, and yet earned significantly more of it by structuring a lopsided deal. You know: that’s just the way these contracts are.


Not only is Kurtz’s viewpoint wrong – the producer is just as much an actor as the artist is, and is therefore just as damned for drafting a shitty contract as the artist is for signing it – but it’s ugly. He’s hearing the grievances of men who’ve been discarded by the companies they trusted and he’s not saying, “That ain’t my problem.” He’s saying, “That’s precisely what you deserve.” He’s siding with the great against the powerless. That’s a tone from which nothing good ever emerges, save “the laugh in triumph over a defeated foe.” That there’s an audience for this sort of shit worries me.

Now, I don’t think Kurtz is doing this to be spiteful or oppressive. Kurtz has an opinion on creators’ rights that comes from succeeding in the digital age. As a successful webcomic creator, he’s never had to put himself in hock to give his wares an audience. Kurtz is smart, talented, and lucky. As such, he’s guilty of the blindness that many smart and talented people share: presuming that anyone who isn’t as successful wasn’t as smart or talented. He’s right that signing away all your rights to a publisher is not the route to fortune. But there are thousands of other failed artists who would swear that trying to go it alone on a webcomic, relying on nothing more than a Wacom tablet and a dream, is not the route to fortune either! Just because Kurtz got it right, in other words, does not mean Kirby got it wrong.

Let me go one further: as a writer, I had the choice to solicit representation and publication for Too Close to Miss, or to publish it myself. I went the latter route. The experiment’s too early to call it a success or failure yet, but I’m happy with the results and I stuck with it for the second book in the series. I avoided signing my birthright away for a mess of pottage.

However, if I learned of a writer who was in poor straits, who had signed a contract granting her measly royalties, withholding the rights to her work until the publisher decided to be quit of them, and even claiming rights to publish the work in any formats that had yet to be invented forty years in the future, my first reaction would be sympathy. As a writer, how could it be otherwise? Even if I thought that the company she dealt with had acted fairly, the least I could do would be to say, “Wow. That sucks. I’m sorry that’s happening to you.” To cross my arms and sneer that she deserved it would make me an asshole without peer.

Kurtz closes his post by declaring, “As long as there are artists, there will be entities looking to exploit them. It’s your choice to allow them.” While this is true, it’s also the publisher’s choice to exploit them. It’s possible to make a healthy profit in this country without screwing over the people who work for you – but not so long as attitudes like this prevail.


 

November 6th, 2012


07:00 am - electors

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

I had a variety of different election day posts drafted in my head, ranging from the infuriatingly arrogant to the nakedly pleading. Ultimately, I hated the tone of all of them. Look, vote for whoever. It’s bigger than one person anyway.


 

November 5th, 2012


07:00 am - in a lonely place

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

(Retconning this post to be part of Noirvember. Click the tag to see more)

I’ve been catching up on film noir over the last few weeks, with Sunset Boulevard first and, just last night, the Humphrey Bogart 1950 classic In a Lonely Place. Sunset Boulevard deserves all the plaudits it receives, but I don’t think enough people know about In a Lonely Place as well. It’s just as melodramatic, if on a more intimate scale, and a rare heel turn from the 20th century’s least likely leading man.

Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a passionate, cynical screenwriter who’s accused of murdering a hat-check girl. Though he can provide explanations for everything – why, I was just asking her to read me the plot of a book I was adapting, Detective – he’s still the prime suspect until his lovely neighbor, Laurel Ray (Gloria Grahame), gives him an alibi. Recognizing her fascination with him, Steele pursues her and they begin a relationship. He begins writing again at an inspired pace, and she falls in love with his genius. But unanswered questions keep cropping up, and Steele’s occasional flashes of possessive temper set Laurel to wondering.

The movie romanticizes Steele’s emotional instability. It’s easy to get away with, especially in the hands of Bogart, a man whose eyes can flash from tortured to enraged in a hot second. And the cynical lines he delivers with such a lazy drawl convince you he’s a world-weary genius instead of an asshole. “Why didn’t you call for a cab? Isn’t that what a gentleman usually does under the circumstances?” the police captain asks of the murdered girl. “I didn’t say I was a gentleman,” Bogart replies, “I said I was tired.” You see such a flame, on the verge of being snuffed out by the soot of Hollywood, and you want to protect it. You can almost excuse his agent defending his temper to his terrified lover: “You knew he was dynamite – he has to explode sometimes!”

And yet the movie only works because Bogart is, in fact, terrifying. While the audience knows from the beginning he didn’t kill the girl he’s accused of murdering, there are other mysterious incidents in his past, and other flare-ups that Laurel witnesses as well. The movie paints her as a woman in an impossible situation, when in fact her response is the only rational one. Dixon Steele is a violent man who can’t forgive a slight. His friends keep things from him for fear of setting him off, but he’s smart enough to see through them and then immediately suspects the worst. When she trembles at his knock on the door, or feigns a smile to ease his nerves, how else should we expect her to react?


 

October 15th, 2012


07:00 am - Too Hard to Handle – On Sale

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

The next book in the Mara Cunningham series, Too Hard to Handle, is on sale now at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. $3.99 for an instant electronic download; paperback version coming soon.


Running for the rest of your life isn’t a plan …

The last time Mara Cunningham saw her older brother Jimmy was ten years ago, when he jumped bail after robbing a bank in Salem. Tonight, he showed up on surveillance footage at the scene of a police officer’s murder.

Now every cop in Boston wants his head. Every gangster in the city wants the money he stole. And Mara wants answers to the questions Jimmy ran from. But she’ll have to find him first.

Too bad Jimmy Cunningham has plans of his own …


 

October 5th, 2012


07:55 am - Too Hard to Handle: Sneak Preview

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

If you want a sneak preview of the first chapter of Too Hard to Handle, the new Mara Cunningham novel, look just a little further! The entire first chapter is below the cut:

Read the rest of this entry »


 

September 7th, 2012


04:48 pm - one more thin gypsy thief
By the way, I'm done with Livejournal. Haven't even logged in to check it for over a month and I'm not likely to do so again in the future. If you have something to tell me, there are other means.

 

September 6th, 2012


01:08 pm - shama lama ding dong

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

I really shouldn’t write about politics, so deep in book promotion season and so close to the election. But some items demand comment.

From Foreign Policy (the SERIOUS blog/magazine), a Rosa Brooks article on the ‘wildly overblown’ case against Predator drones:

Let’s review the case against the drones.

1. Drone strikes kill innocent civilians.

This is undoubtedly true, but it’s not an argument against drone strikes as such. War kills innocent civilians, period.

[...]

2. Drones strikes are bad because killing at a distance is unsavory.

Really? If killing from a safe distance (say, Creech Air Force Base in Nevada) is somehow “wrong,” what should be our preferred alternative — stripping troops of body armor, or taking away their guns and requiring them to engage in hand-to-hand combat?

[...]

3. Drones Turn Killing into a Video Game.
[...]
But are drones more “video game-like” than, say, having cameras in the noses of cruise missiles? Those old enough to remember the first Gulf War will recall the shocking novelty of images taken by cameras inside U.S. Tomahawk missiles, the jolting, grainy images in the crosshairs before everything went ominously black.

Ahem.

But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg – isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!


 

August 27th, 2012


07:00 am - it’s just that demon life has got me in its sway

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.


I
don’t know that a reasonable conversation1 about guns will happen in the United States any time soon. It doesn’t help that there’s documented dishonesty by intellectuals on both sides of the debate. Attempts at divining the founders’ intent on the Second Amendment are equally fruitless. Has the clarity of the First Amendment blocked laws that contravene it? The Fourth? The Sixth?

For as long as I’ve been politically conscious, I’ve believed in the right of civilians to own firearms. This belief has followed me from my conservative days through my more libertarian period and into whatever pseudo-progressive niche I’ve dug out now. I believed this when I thought rights were endowed in Man by a Creator; I believed it when I thought they were logical outgrowths of objective human nature; I believe it today, when I view the whole notion of rights with skepticism2. I (hope I) would believe in the right of gun ownership even in the absence of a Second Amendment; I certainly believe in lots other rights without a Bill to enumerate them.

And yet I’m much happier living in a city where guns are hard to come by. Criminals who want to kill someone still find a way, despite some of the most stringent gun laws in the country (pdf). There are hundreds of factors that could contribute to a reduction in gun violence, and gun control laws are only one of them3. But I just feel better – while acknowledging that this feeling may be totally illusory – not seeing semi-automatics in every waistband.

I don’t want to live in a place where anyone who wants a gun can get their hands on one. But I don’t want to live in a place where cops are the only people carrying guns, either. The aftermath of the Empire State Building shooting (which inspired this post) serves as a reminder that superior training and good intentions aren’t enough to guarantee civilian safety. Where superior training and good intentions are absent, the record is worse. And a cop who shoots someone who committed no crime is unlikely to go to jail; civilians don’t get such protection.

I’m simplifying a lot of really complex issues for the sake of brevity, so I don’t mind if something in the above paragraphs set you off. My point in laying all that out: the definitive truth about guns in America isn’t clear yet. “No one has a good reason to own a gun” is as silly as “armed bystanders would have prevented that massacre.” The more nuanced views – allow these guns, ban those – treat symptoms but not causes. And neither side of the debate appears ready to relax their stance for the sake of compromise.

So maybe the truth about guns isn’t clear, nor will it be for some time. But we can say this with certainty: anyone who takes a weapon of any sort and wades into a crowd of civilians, slaying indiscriminately, has mental health issues. This is true for killers with ostensive political motives and for those without. This is a common denominator that unites all of them. So if we can’t make headway on the guns issue, maybe we can make some ground on mental health.

# # #

There is an immense stigma against mental illness. This is true enough that it barely merits argument. Imagine telling your significant other, or a prospective employer, or a police officer, “I have sciatica. I’m treating it with medication, and I’ve got it under control, but it may limit the number of things I can do.” Not a problem. Now substitute “schizophrenia” for “sciatica” and see what it gets you. If you think that’s too extreme, try “anxiety attacks.” Or “post-traumatic stress disorder.” We have a much easier time acknowledging physical illness, and treating the people who have it as real people regardless, than we do mental illness.

Stigmas aren’t enforced by law (though laws can certainly help them). They arrive through a series of unspoken understandings. Your mom tells you not to make eye contact with the unwashed man who keeps shaking his head. Your friends joke about the lady in the overstuffed coat who started screaming curses in the convenience store. We pick up enough cues, form them into a pattern, and pretty soon we’re crossing the street to avoid the ranting schizophrenic, instead of calling 9-1-1 to make sure he’s okay.4

If we want to cure a stigma, we don’t do it through new laws. We do it by talking.

# # #

Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve battled on and off with a mild form of depression.

I haven’t spent enough time in clinical contexts to have the official langage for whatever it is I’ve got. But David Foster Wallace gave a good rundown of the different levels of depression in Infinite Jest, and he’s as solid a layman expert as any, so I’ll let him do the talking:

One kind is low-grade and sometimes gets called anhedonia or simple melancholy. It’s a kind of spiritual torpor in which one loses the ability to feel pleasure or attachment to things formerly important. The avid bowler drops out of his league and stays home at night staring dully at kick-boxing cartridges [...] The devoted wife and mother finds the thought of her family about as moving, all of a sudden, as a theorem of Euclid. It’s a kind of emotional novocaine, this form of depression, and while it’s not overly painful its deadness is disconcerting and … well, depressing.

It doesn’t happen often, and it never lasts for long. But when it does, I struggle to do anything. I curl up in bed and shut the blinds. I stare into space, unable to focus. I can still go to work and make social engagements, because the human brain’s chief evolutionary advantage is running etiquette routines on autopilot. But I can’t care about what I’m doing5.

What convinces me that this is depression, and not just “the blues” or “exhaustion” or any of a handful of colloquialisms, is that sense of metaphysical wholeness that accompanies it. When I’m lying on my couch, convincing myself that none of my accomplishments mean anything, that none of the people I like actually like me, that everything in my life is cheap and foolish, I feel validated. I feel validated in a way that nothing else in the world can match.

When I’m deep in that self-hating torpor, I don’t recognize it as silly or temporary or wrong. On the contrary, it feels amazingly right. The puzzle piece that I spend ninety-nine percent of my waking hours missing snaps into place. It’s that level of revelatory, “Eureka!” rightness that a movie would score with a triumphant soundtrack, only I’m sitting there in yesterday’s T-shirt, unwilling to stir. I’ve found the hidden truth that gives life meaning, and it’s that I don’t deserve to be happy.

# # #

Of course, in my healthier moments6, I know that’s not true. I deserve happiness. And I know that my happiness is not purely a product of my circumstances, but of my attitude toward them. I was happy when I was making half of what I make now, when I didn’t know any of the people I know today; I’m happy now; I could be happy tomorrow if all of that changed7. At my best, the nutshell prison and the accompanying majesty of depression feel silly and foreign.

But it’s taken a lot of years, a support network of loving friends, a few therapists and the relative comfort of a middle-class income to get to this point. Not everyone in America gets all of the above.

# # #

Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. made headlines with his recent diagnosis of bipolar depression. Even if he wins re-election in November, it’s hard to imagine that his political career will last much longer or enjoy much more glory. And yet it shouldn’t be newsworthy that one member of Congress is bipolar. What would be more newsworthy is if no one else is.

The United States has a 4.4% rate of bipolar disorder. With 535 members of Congress, that makes decent odds that at least twenty lawmakers have it. Add to that the 2,650,000 federal employees, the ones who write and enforce the regulations that actually comprise the law, and the number of likely sufferers crests one hundred thousand. And yet Jesse Jackson, Jr. will forever be known as “that manic-depressive Congressman.”

No sitting member of Congress would admit to suffering from manic depression unless they absolutely had to, because it would very likely cost them the next election. And when nobody in power will willingly do something, no one who aspires to power will do it either. And so on down the line, in an uncoiling chain of disincentives, until we get to mothers telling their children to hush up and not bother the crazy man. Only the lowest castes are obligated to be honest.

# # #

Conservatives recoil from socialized medicine; liberals decry the rising costs of healthcare. But would a few thousand dollars in time, treatment and medication have been too much to pay if it kept Jared Loughner from killing six people? Or James Eagan Holmes from allegedly killing twelve?

Of course, all the free MAOIs in the world won’t help if people are scared to admit they need them.

I can’t come up with a formula that apportions guns to only those people who would use them responsibly. Even if such a formula existed, I couldn’t get it written into law single-handed. All I can do is talk about my experience. I can say: these are the things I’ve felt, and I’ve survived them. My hope is that, in doing that, I’ll encourage other people who’ve lived with some form of mental illness, however mild, to do the same. But even if no one else follows suit8, my other hope is that someone reads this someday, realizes that another human being has gone through the same thing they have and succeeded in spite of it, and is inspired to seek help because of it.

Or, at the very least, not do anything tragic.

_____________


1. Does “conversation” in this context mean anything other than “impassioned op-eds”? Never seen a better definition. (return)


2. Briefly: if you need to be told you have it, or if you need to tell someone else you have it, it’s not really a right. It’s a privilege, and the people who granted it to you will be looking for every chance they can to snatch it back. (return)


3. Per the Brady Campaign, Maryland is only a little less stringent than Massachusetts, and yet Baltimore is a much more violent city than Boston. Unless you think the corner boys are all picking up their .45s at gun shows in Hagerstown, a few marginal statutes aren’t going to make the difference. (return)


4. It doesn’t help matters that the American attitude towards mental health, in the 20th century alone, has waxed from “savage medical experiments” to “involuntary prolonged confinement” to “cut ‘em free and let nature run its course.” (return)


5. The ability of humans to continue doing something they don’t care about is either the great blessing or the great curse that the Industrial Age left with us; I haven’t decided yet. (return)


6. Which are 99% of my life; no one panic. (return)


7. It’s certainly easier to be happy at my current income level than it was at half this level, and I’d deserve a kick in the throat if I said otherwise. But it’s not impossible for someone making what I make to be miserable. Try hard enough and you’ll find a way. (return)


8. And I get that it’s a hell of a thing to ask, too. “Hey, you with the crippling social anxiety! Speak up!” Choose your own level of engagement, as always. (return)


 

August 21st, 2012


07:53 am - Too Hard to Handle: Blurb Preview

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

Hey fans – here’s a preview of the back-cover blurb for Too Hard to Handle, still slated for October release:

Running for the rest of your life isn’t a plan …

The last time Mara Cunningham saw her older brother Jimmy was ten years ago, when he jumped bail after robbing a bank in Salem. Tonight, he showed up on surveillance footage at the scene of a police officer’s murder.

Now every cop in Boston wants his head. Every gangster in the city wants the money he stole. And Mara wants answers to the questions Jimmy ran from. But she’ll have to find him first.

Too bad Jimmy Cunningham has plans of his own …

TOO HARD TO HANDLE is the second book in the Mara Cunningham series. It follows Boston’s most dangerous photographer as she solves mysteries, uncovers corruption and busts some heads. It’s dark, gritty and action-packed.

Praise for the Mara Cunningham series

“Strong, flawed, independent female lead [...] ? Check. Political intrigue and conspiracy? Check. Cast of characters that get just enough page time to whet your appetite for future stories? Checkmate. Somebody option this quick.” – Jeremy Lott, Splice Today


 

July 26th, 2012


09:46 am - Too Hard to Handle: Cover Preview

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

Echoing an announcement I made elsewhere (Twitter, Facebook): the next Mara Cunningham thriller, TOO HARD TO HANDLE, will be released in October 2012! As with TOO CLOSE TO MISS, it will be immediately available for Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook, with other platforms (iTunes) and print versions following soon after.

Because you’re fans (who else would be visiting this page?), you’ll get access to special previews in the months leading up to the release. For instance, here’s a first look at the cover, courtesy of Ryan Sawyer at Eight Ball Art.



 

June 20th, 2012


07:00 am - I’ve got a thick tongue, brimming with the words that go unsung

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but:

When idiots like Adam Carolla or Christopher Hitchens say “women aren’t funny,” they say it as if they’re ending an argument. They’re speaking from the mountaintop. In reality, they’re starting an argument, not ending one, because nobody thought women weren’t funny until idiots started saying it. People laughed at women for thousands of years – probably the entirety of human history – and thought nothing of it.

And the problem with the argument that these idiots are trying to start is that it fails to meet the basic criteria for an argument. It avoids, with the blithe ignorance of Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff, the glaring empirical evidence against it. If women aren’t funny, then why is it I find female stand-ups hilarious? What, am I laughing at their tits?

Unspoken in the assertion of these idiots is the idea that Kristen Wiig and Roseanne Barr and the like owe their jobs not to their merits but to, y’know, feminism. That some exec gave them a job, and some writer invited them to a brainstorming session, and tens of thousands of people watch them every week, because of a quota. And that argument has just enough merit to be engaged in any other venue. People assert, for instance, that liberal males are only into feminism because it helps them score with women. If you live in Brooklyn, San Francisco or Boston, that certainly seems plausible.

But nobody laughs as a posture. Not a gut-busting, eye-watering, copy it, paste it, put it in a GIF, repeat it to your friends at work the next day, helpless laugh. Nobody fakes that. I’m sure that, if you’re an embittered male who feels threatened by women, you believe that there’s a conspiracy working to promote women beyond what they deserve (as opposed to the meritocracy that held true for the last ten thousand years). But to believe that this conspiracy filters down to the biological level – that fellow-traveler males are not just saying women are funny, but actually laughing at their jokes, as a front – is deranged.

If it were so obvious that women weren’t funny, no one would have to assert it. It’s never a mystery whether someone is funny or not. But there’s a breed of idiot who thinks asserting ideas that fifteen minutes in a comedy club could contradict is bold. Or edgy. They stand athwart history, yelling “Tits.” We can comfort ourselves that, if the decline from Vanity Fair to the New York Post is any indication, they’re getting crappier platforms.

(P.S. Sorry this post isn’t very funny; I’m leaving that for the ladies)


 

June 13th, 2012


07:40 am - I’m not calling you a liar; just don’t lie to me

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

I can’t recall a steeper loss of interest in a series than the one I suffered after watching S2E1 of Sons of Anarchy.

Without spoiling too much, S2E1 ends with one of the stronger female characters on the show being sexually assaulted by the S2 villains. They do this as an intimidation tactic, to get to one of the male members of SAMCRO and convince them to back off their gun-running business.

As I watched this playing out on screen, I could feel my engagement in the show draining off me like water in the shower. I just had no interest in watching further*.

On the Great Wheel of Unfortunate Fates that writers spin whenever they need something bad to happen to a protagonist, there are several entries for men:


  • Losing a job or a source of wealth;
  • Getting hurt;
  • Getting scarred;
  • Losing a loved one;
  • Having a loved one kidnapped;
  • Having a loved one used as leverage for a threat;
  • Being arrested;
  • Being seduced by nefarious people;
  • Being betrayed;
  • Being watched by nefarious people;
  • Being lost far from home;
  • Etc.
If your protagonist is female, however, there are only three:

  • Sexual assault;
  • Kidnapping;
  • Pregnancy.
I’m exaggerating for comic effect, but not that much. Mad Men, a show widely and rightly praised for its nuanced treatment of women’s struggles in a male workplace, has inflicted an unexpected pregnancy on all three of its noted female leads. It’s also depicted women dealing with career ambition (Peggy) and women returning to work after taking time off (Joan). But it’s reached for the PREGNANCY card as often as any soap opera.

(Edit: because it’s the Internet, and anything that can be taken literally will be taken literally, I should add that there are lots of shows where women don’t suffer these fates. Downton Abbey is a popular example that springs to mind, where there’s lots of drama surrounding men and women without resorting to the Three Female Fates. Yet when a drama wants to get “edgy” or “gritty” or “real,” those are typically the fates a woman will suffer)

And let’s set aside for now the argument about popular depictions of women, or the notions of male vulnerability vs. female vulnerability, and reinforcing gender roles. That’s a whole other issue. I just want to address how boring this is.**

As soon as I saw that [name redacted] had been raped on Sons of Anarchy, I knew how the next few episodes would pan out. She wouldn’t say anything, out of a mixture of shame and fear. She’d grow increasingly distant and erratic. Eventually, she’d either snap and say something in a heated state, or she’d be confronted with proof of what happened and admit it. This might take all season; it might take a few episodes. Either way, one of the chief joys of Sons of Anarchy – that grim anticipation of what was going to happen next – had been lost. Why bother watching another minute?

I don’t think Sons of Anarchy‘s use of rape as a plot device was any more egregious than any other show’s. And I think the female characters on Sons of Anarchy are still richer and more interesting than in most other TV series. Maybe this was just the final straw. Maybe this was what burned me out after years of watching women shoved up against chain link fences, tied up in basements or covering their mouths as they look at pregnancy tests.

I wasn’t offended at seeing rape on screen. I was just bored.

To jump on another pop culture icon that’s making buzz recently: in the newest Tomb Raider game, Lara Croft is “turned into a cornered animal,” according to the game designers. She’s cut off from her friends and kidnapped. And then her kidnappers try to rape her.

Many, many other bloggers have tackled the immensely uncomfortable notion of “a game that rapes its protagonist” already; see Kat Howard’s excellent post as an example. I don’t have anything to add to that, other than, “yes, definitely.” Rather, I want to address the complete creative vacuum here.

From the Kotaku article:

“We’re not trying to be over the top, shock people for shock’s sake,” [says executive producer Ken Rosenberg]. “We’re trying to tell a great origin story.”

Picture the brainstorming session in which the new Tomb Raider game is being written. They want to show how Lara Croft got so tough. To do that, they want to tell a dark origin story in which bad things happen to her. She triumphs over these obstacles and becomes the badass that Americans know and love today. So what’s a bad thing that could happen to her? How about kidnapping? How about rape?

If you don’t yet get how reductive and stultifying that is, consider another pop culture icon who has a pretty dark origin story: Batman. Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered in front of him as a young boy. After withdrawing into brooding, adolescent obsession, Wayne travels the world, studying with masters of forensic science and martial arts experts. He hardens himself into a living weapon against criminals.

Note that he doesn’t get raped.

Here’s another kinda dark origin story: Iron Man. While touring a battlefield and demonstrating the weapons he’s designed, Tony Stark gets wounded by a hand grenade and kidnapped by terrorists. He’s presented first hand with evidence of the chaos that his life’s work has caused. Racing against the clock, he builds a suit of life-saving armor, with the aid of a newfound friend and colleague who sacrifices his life. Once he returns to the real world, his former business partners and customers turn against him as he tries to dismantle his weapons empire.

At no point in this sequence is Tony Stark raped.

Why is it writers** are never at a loss for bad things to inflict on male protagonists, but keep drawing the same three cards for women? Why are rape, kidnapping and pregnancy not just the worst things that can happen to a woman in drama, but the most frequent things?

When a writer inflicts one of the Three Female Fates on a woman, I can predict the next few episodes, scenes or chapters with ease. And that takes me out of the story. It shatters the immersion that a good writer should sweat to create. It’s a tired trope. And, to revive the argument that I set aside earlier, it limits women to a very narrow set of roles.

I’m not saying that writers can’t depict sexual assault or unplanned pregnancies. Let’s just add some other disasters to the mix. And yes, I said “let’s,” as in “let us”; as someone who writes books that people seem to like, I need to be the change I want to see in the world.

_____________
* It didn’t help matters that the writers took the huge conflict that they’d set up at the end of S1 – the simmering conflict between the President and VP of SAMCRO – and kicked that can down the road. “We can’t have this confrontation yet,” is almost literally a line of dialogue.

Why would I want to watch a show about people avoiding risky choices? I work behind a desk. I do that myself every day.

** As the author of a thriller novel in which a female character is sexually assaulted, yes, I’m fully aware of the hypocrisy here. I’m getting better.


 

May 16th, 2012


07:00 am - no two days are alike, except the first and fifteenth pretty much

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

I fight the temptation to turn this into one of those writer blogs that’s about nothing but the numbers. But this is an interesting enough development that it bears recording.

So: on April 30th, I made Too Close to Miss available on Amazon for free. It had been moving fewer than a dozen copies per month over the last couple months (B&N, still killing it), so I wouldn’t be losing much money by giving up sales. The shift from $2.99 to $0.00 wouldn’t take effect for a few days*, since I was taking advantage of Amazon’s price-match guarantee rather than their KDP Select program. So I lowered the price, checked in a few days later to see if it had taken effect (it hadn’t), and promptly forgot about it.

On May 7th, I saw that Too Close to Miss was finally at $0.00 on Amazon – the price-matching algorithms had caught up. I also saw that, through no work on my part, it had moved ten thousand free copies.

Fast forward a week. As of last night, Too Close to Miss has moved 60,000 free copies. It’s the #1 free ebook in the “Women Sleuths” category and, as of Sunday, was the #2 free ebook on Amazon overall.

When you get 60,000 of anything, you need to address it somehow. So let’s talk about the meaning of “free.”

I’ve been blogging for over ten years and I’ve never written something that 60,000 people have read. Even the occasional Overthinking It article of mine that found its way to the IMDb front page (and was fraught with errors) couldn’t match those numbers. And that’s free content too! So it takes more than just a $0.00 price tag – it takes a presence in front of an interested audience.

If I showed up in Times Square with 60,000 paperbacks, I couldn’t give them away in a week. And even if I did, almost all of them would end up in the garbage. The 60K copies of TCTM that have been downloaded in the last week all went to people who wanted something to read. A significant portion of them may have deleted it after the first page. But I guarantee I had a better success rate at connecting to readers with Amazon than I would have via any other means.

This is with practically no publicity effort on my part. I let my friends and the Overthinking It twitter feed know. But I do not have 60,000 friends, and OTI does not have 60,000 regular readers.

Then how did 60,000 people know this book was free all of a sudden? Amazon has created an audience expectation that plenty of Kindle books will be available for free at any one time. Sites and subcultures, like Kindle Nation Daily and Pixel of Ink, have sprung up around this notion: automatically and frequently updating subscribers on which ebooks are available for free that day. So there are people who will scoop every free ebook onto their Kindle like the lightning round of Supermarket Sweep. Given that, I’m not opening any champagne bottles yet.

And yet, presuming 1% of those 60,000 read the book and like it enough that they want to read more, that’s 600 new fans. All at a cost of the $20 to $30 that I lost in Amazon sales for May.

Final note: I would have been happy to end the experiment at 25K free copies. But, since this is a roundabout process (change the price at Smashwords, wait for it to get pushed to retailers, wait for the retailers to notice, wait for Amazon to notice the other retailers), it’s not fully under my control. Thankfully I’m not relying on this for significant income. And it’s not costing me or anyone else anything, so I’m left with this odd, inexplicable embarrassment as free copies keep pouring out the door.

Of course, the real test will be how many copies it moves once I start charging money for it again – or how many copies the next book in the series sells. Which should be any day now …

_________________
* Briefly: Amazon will not be undersold on an ebook if they can help it. If Amazon finds the same ebook at a lower price via another retailer, they will lower their price to match – all the way to zero if need be.


 

May 3rd, 2012


07:00 am - when the words don’t come

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

I will never again rag on a professional writer for putting out a bad book. Not after this week.

While the second book in the Mara Cunningham series undergoes its third round of edits, I decided to tackle another project. To challenge myself, I ran with an idea that had just come to me, rather than an idea I’d been brewing for a while. I was writing without an outline, sure, but I’d done a few novels that way and it hadn’t killed me yet. And I was aiming for 5000 words a day, just to keep it moving.

Seven days into the new project and I want to claw out my own brain.

What separates this project from my other (successful) ones? I have no idea where I’m going. In those other drafts, I had a strong sense of either character or plot, two of the essential ingredients for a novel. Here, I had a compelling vision for one character – and I was trying to write three. And I was making up the plot as I went. That led to my frontal lobes seizing up and grinding to a halt at about the 25K mark.

I’m pushing forward, anyway. I’ve decided to set aside the characters I can’t figure out (for now) and plunge on with the one person I can. This may result in a markedly shorter first draft. So be it! But it’s crucial that you finish the projects you start. A completed project can be remodeled, or salvaged, or at the very least harvested for parts. But an incomplete project will rust on your front lawn and scare the neighbors.

What valuable lesson have I taken from this ordeal? Will I reduce my daily page count to a more reasonable level? Will I go back to outlining projects before I launch myself at them, skull first? Will I study my characters with greater focus? Yeah, sure, probably. But most importantly, I’ve learned to forgive traditional authors their bad novels.

As a self-published author, I get to determine the arc that my work takes. The Mara Cunningham series could be two books long, or it could be twenty-two. It’s up to me. I don’t owe Random House their advance back if I can’t manage a fourth book in the series (TOO DRUNK TO SLEEP, coming September 2016).

Traditionally published authors don’t have that option.

61 hours I have enough faith in Lee Child as a craftsman to bet that he looked at the final draft of 61 Hours and thought, “This could have been better.” But he owed Delacorte a manuscript, so what choice did he have? He got that one out of his system, then turned it around with Worth Dying For and The Affair, his next two. So I forgive him 61 Hours.

And George R.R. Martin? Never again a complaint. I may not like A Dance with Dragons as much as the other books in the series. It genuinely isn’t as good. But you’ll never hear me rag on the man for taking so long to produce something sub-par.

Why not? Because through this creative battle, as I’ve let my daily deadlines wither by the roadside, as I’ve decided to shift focus away from the literary novel I’d hoped for to a more traditional thriller, as I stood in the shower this morning and thought, “Hell, maybe there’s a short story buried in there,” only one thought has kept me sane: it’s a good thing no one’s waiting for this one.

Enjoy the freedom to suck if you have it. And pour one out for those who don’t.


 

May 2nd, 2012


07:00 am - and I stay on target and refuse to miss, and I still make hits

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

Talking a little about reviews today.

Too Close to Miss has 12 reviews on Amazon, out of 257 ebooks sold (it’s also available in paperback, but it’s sold maybe 10 copies there, and Amazon aggregates the reviews anyway). It has 9 reviews on Barnes & Noble, out of 929 ebooks sold – 7 of which are anonymous. The Goodreads page indicates TCTM has been added to 55 shelves (“read”, “to-read”, etc.), out of which 27 people have rated it and 10 people have written reviews.

Some observations:


  • Goodreads has the highest reviewed/acquired ratio, which is especially impressive given that Goodreads isn’t a marketplace in itself. In fact, several people reviewed TCTM on Goodreads and Amazon. Is “hero” too strong a word for these people? Yes. But “champion” isn’t.

  • Amazon has a higher reviewed/purchased ratio than B&N, despite B&N allowing anonymous reviews. So having to sign your name to something isn’t a barrier to participation. In fact, that may be part of the appeal.

  • Not counting the Anons on B&N, Goodreads has the highest percentage of reviews by people I don’t know. This may speak more to the purpose of the site. Goodreads exists only to share information about what you’ve read with friends, whereas Amazon also serves that purpose, in addition to funneling goods to you at scandalously low prices. So a Goodreads user is, all things being equal, more likely to review a book that they added to Goodreads than an Amazon user is to review a book they acquired through Amazon. That’s the type of user the site attracts.


A little more on that last bullet: I suspect people review books on Goodreads to share information with friends (real or Internet), while people review on Amazon to share information with strangers (potential future buyers). The former encourages people to write more reviews. Or maybe reviewing is just a rare behavior – how many products do you review, out of everything you buy? 10% of them? 1%? – and Goodreads aggregates a lot of reviewers into a convenient clump.

A user who reviews my book is of value to me, almost regardless of how well they review it. A review tells future buyers what to expect. One of the biggest obstacles to purchasing a book is uncertainty: is this going to entertain or enlighten me? Yeah, the marketing copy looks good, but does it live up to the hype? Even a 2-star review that goes into detail (too much sex and violence) could lure a reader off the fence.

My conclusion: Goodreads is a worthwhile place to focus on to build buzz; Amazon is important to attract buyers; and Barnes & Noble can just keep selling in massive quantities for whatever reason they choose.

If you read Too Close to Miss and thought something about it, whether good or bad, please let your friends know via a review on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Goodreads.

If you want to see why readers call Too Close to Miss a “compelling, incisively smart, and witty thriller”, then pick up your own copy!


 

April 27th, 2012


07:57 am - now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

Neal Stephenson, in his excellent essay In The Beginning Was The Command Line, introduced me to the term “metaphor shear,” which he defines as when “you realize that you’ve been living and thinking inside of a metaphor that is essentially bogus.”

GUIs use metaphors to make computing easier, but they are bad metaphors. Learning to use them is essentially a word game, a process of learning new definitions of words like “window” and “document” and “save” that are different from, and in many cases almost diametrically opposed to, the old. Somewhat improbably, this has worked very well, at least from a commercial standpoint, which is to say that Apple/Microsoft have made a lot of money off of it. All of the other modern operating systems have learned that in order to be accepted by users they must conceal their underlying gutwork beneath the same sort of spackle. This has some advantages: if you know how to use one GUI operating system, you can probably work out how to use any other in a few minutes. Everything works a little differently, like European plumbing–but with some fiddling around, you can type a memo or surf the web.

This stuck with me because Stephenson has a gift for giving convenient mental hooks to abstruse concepts. But it’s also lasted because the tangible sensation of metaphor shear has taken more years off my life than any other source of stress.

When confronting the sensation of knowing I should be able to do something, yet being absolutely unable to figure out how, my body produces a fight-or-flight response stronger than anything short of an actual fight. Every square inch of skin flushes. My breathing and heart rate triple. I have been known to throw whatever is in reach – a pen, a mouse, a water bottle – into whatever is out of reach – the opposite wall, the floor, an adjacent office. It’s a childish and unforgivable display, and my only excuse is that the world stopped working. Someone rewrote what words mean overnight and didn’t tell me.

Scrivener threw one of those at me this week.

I have loved Scrivener for a while. For its fullscreen and cursor centering features alone, it’s well worth the $45 for a desktop license. But I also love the “project” concept that Scrivener is built around. Everything you might use for a project – your research notes, some images you’ve looked up, your various drafts – exists in a single file. Scrivener arranges the different folders in one sidebar and displays what you’re currently working on in the center. Jump between stages of your project without losing anything. And Scrivener automatically saves, backs up and assists you with version control.

Then I tried to compile a project into a novel.

When I write a first draft, I don’t insert scene or chapter breaks. I write everything in one undifferentiated hash. Chapter breaks, for the modern thriller writer, are best used to sustain tension. I don’t know which cliffhangers need to end a chapter and which can end a scene. When writing in Word, this meant inserting page breaks, lots of carriage returns, and chapter titles manually. It also meant updating all of them if I moved the chapters around.

In Scrivener: … hmm.

First, I broke out my one large file into several text files. No dice. Then I gave each text file its own folder, naming the folders after what happened in them and trusting Scrivener to recognize them as chapters. It did, but it subtitled each chapter with the folder name, which would diminish the reading experience (“Chapter Ten: Mara Finds Dead Body”). After a little bit of poking, I disabled the function that subtitled each chapter, and compiled the Scrivener file into a PDF once more. But now the centered lines that I had used to break up scenes within each chapter were too long for the file’s margins. UGH.

Eventually, I realized that I didn’t need to insert dividing lines between scenes. If each text file were its own scene, Scrivener would do that for me when it compiled. And then the organizing principle clicked:

Novel = Project; Chapter = Folder; Text File = Scene

That’s it! That’s how you’re supposed to use Scrivener. It’s like figuring out the subjunctive tense in French: suddenly, a whole new corner of the language makes sense to you. I could write out my first draft in one headlong rush, like I usually do. Then I could split the file into separate text files during review. Then I could group those files into folders to make my chapters.

So I didn’t break anything. I didn’t throw a temper tantrum. I kept experimenting, checking and unchecking features, until I got the results I wanted. It’s a process – perhaps more of a process than it needs to be – but that’s what happens when you interact with the world through colorful menus.

If you want to read the last novel I wrote without Scrivener, check out Too Close to Miss, available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or iTunes. Readers call it “… a briskly-paced, thoroughly entertaining thriller that lives up to the heritage of the noir genre.”


 

April 24th, 2012


06:49 am - not aware of the passing of time

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

Erin Petti, also a writer worth checking out, wrote this magical post last week that I’ve been too busy to link to sooner. It’s about the ability of writing to share experiences across miles or milieus or generations. It’s quick and it’s touching, so nip off and read it.

If the serious (!) writing I’ve done as an adult has any consistent theme, it’s “nobody knows anybody, not that well.” There is a perpetual gulf between Self and Other that we spend our whole lives dealing with. Some of us retreat to our side of the gulf and curl into a ball. Some of us risk balancing on the edge to extend our fingers across. But the howling gap is always there.

Writing – like all forms of art – is an attempt to bridge that gap. It’s our best effort at translating the personal into the universal. This is what it was like to be there, says Hemingway in For Whom The Bell Tolls, says Picasso in “Guernica,” says Landis in Animal House, says Beethoven in his Third Symphony. When the translation is pleasant, we call it “escapism”; when it’s somber, we call it “literary” or “serious,” but the effect is the same.

It’s easy to take the idea that “nobody knows anybody” and wallow in existentialist sobriety. It’s certainly easy for me; I do plenty of it. And yet the writing of mine that I’m happiest with also finds the happiness in that theme. If nobody truly knows anybody, then that means everybody has the potential to delight you. George Axelrod refers to it, in his arsenal of narrative devices, as “the duchess trucks”:

[T]he audience loves it when the sinister character turns out to be lovable: “The duchess breaks into a jazz dance.”

So it’s worth remembering that the purpose of writing is to reach across the gap – or, as Erin says by quoting King, to travel through time. And it’s worth making sure that that extended hand leads you somewhere worth going.


 

April 20th, 2012


07:00 am - and she only reveals what she wants you to see

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

You don’t release a book when it’s perfect. You release a book when it’s as good as you can make it OR the deadline arrives, whichever comes first. Since I published Too Close to Miss myself, I went with the former.

Don’t get me wrong: “good enough” is plenty good, if the reviews are any indication. But I struggled in turning my protagonist, Mara Cunningham, into a real character. I chose a female protagonist, and women remain a mystery to me, so that didn’t help matters. But I knew I could add more depth to her. I just wasn’t sure how. She was complex! She had clear motivations and she acted on them! She had doubts but she didn’t let them defeat her! What was I missing?

It wasn’t until I started in on the next book in the series that I realized what else Mara needed. In Too Close to Miss, Mara’s investigating a deep mystery: who killed the wife and son of the married man whom she was sleeping with? She’s a complicated but determined troublemaker, dealing with her own complicated and troublesome past. With, um, determination.

In other words, Mara doesn’t want anything that the plot doesn’t also want.

As far as tight storytelling goes, this isn’t a bad thing. There’s no extraneous business and it keeps the reader flipping pages. But as far as realistic characterization goes, there’s something missing. I honed Mara down into a whip smart crimefighting attack dog and set her loose. It makes for a compelling read. But what would you and Mara talk about at the corner pub?

What does the reader want? To uncover the mystery (“what’s going to happen next?”). What does Mara Cunningham want? To uncover the mystery. These two goals shouldn’t be in conflict, but I’m not surprised some readers wanted to know more about Mara than I revealed.

Fortunately, it’s possible to create a compelling thriller with plenty of characterization. And, fortunately, the next book in the series (of which I’m editing the second draft as you read this) has loads. Fans of the first book will be delighted to learn that Mara has a romantic relationship! She has trouble at work! She has friends who support her, and whom she supports in turn! Normal human stuff.

Of course, she also plunges headlong into a mystery that pits her against ruthless killers, corruption at the highest levels, and her own complicated past. You’d be disappointed if she didn’t.

What I’ve learned about writing: no one wants to read about a shark. Characters need more than just a relentless drive to keep the plot moving. They need the human concerns that all of us recognize. Find a way to evoke these concerns through action, especially action that complements the main narrative, and you have a great story.

If you want to explore Mara Cunningham’s world from the beginning, check out Too Close to Miss, which readers call “fast paced, taut, and gripping,” available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.

If you thought Mara’s characterization was perfectly all right, then let your friends know via Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, or old-fashioned word of mouth.


 

April 19th, 2012


07:00 am - living the dream

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

Sometimes I have to remind myself how awesome Meghan O’Keefe is. If you haven’t met her, Meghan is breaking into the comedy scene in NYC, the modern equivalent to a fourth tour of ‘Nam. She did this by moving to New York, getting a day job, and then doing something like five open mics a week forever (I don’t have exact figures handy). Now she’s got gigs at Peoples’ Improv Theater and UCB, as well as regular columns for The Huffington Post, Hello Giggles, The Hairpin, etc. She is Living The Dream.

I was reminded of the awesomeness of Meghan’s path when rereading Jon Acuff’s Quitter (which deserves its own post). Acuff talks about Jerry Seinfeld’s famous hour-long interview on comedy, in which he talks about his own apprenticeship in the NYC comedy scene. His method: to do two shows a night, every night, without a single night off, for eighteen months. That’s over a thousand stand-up sets.

I thought of these inspiring people because I’ve been struggling with the balance between a dream job and a day job. All of us have creative passions that inspire us. All of us also recognize the need to earn a wage and pay for health insurance. How do you balance those? When do you take the leap to pursue your dream? And is the dream that you’re about to pursue worth that leap?

I don’t have the experience to answer the first question or the financial sense to answer the second. But based on my experience, and based on what my friends (and Jerry Seinfeld) have gone through, I think I can field the third.

If you’re wondering whether or not a particular dream of yours is your true calling in life, ask yourself: how long would I be willing to labor in fruitless obscurity just for the joy of pursuing this dream?

If the answer is “weeks” or “months,” forget it. If the answer is “years,” you’re on the right track. If it’s “decades,” you have a winner.

That’s not to say that you couldn’t find overnight success. And I don’t want to perpetuate the myth of the starving artist shivering in a garret apartment. A person’s got to eat! You don’t have to suffer. You just have to be willing to suffer.

(Or, more importantly, you don’t count obscurity as “suffering”)

It’s process, not feedback, that will make your dream succeed. You have to pursue your dream with the discipline of a 40hr/week day job, only with fewer than 40 hours a week to do it in. If you’re chasing after an immediate fix, you’ll get discouraged early on. Even worse, if you find early success and don’t immediately start work on your next project, you can get distracted from your dream before it fully takes off.

Too Close to Miss has succeeded to the point that it’s paid for itself (editing, cover design, Createspace account costs). It continues to sell at a slow clip. I’m incredibly lucky in that regard. But getting to this point took a decade of experimenting with fiction, and five years of writing novels. I tell people Too Close to Miss is my first novel, meaning the first one I’ve published. In terms of manuscripts I’ve completed, it’s probably my sixth or seventh. But none of those others will ever see the light of day. They’re not marketable. I needed to write them in order to learn the novel.

Ask yourself how long you’d be willing to pursue your dream without getting paid. Not for fame, not for money, just for the joy and curiosity of practicing the craft. If the answer isn’t “a sizable portion of your life,” then it’s not your true calling. Don’t worry: you do have one. Just keep searching.

If you want to see whether my years of toiling in obscurity paid off, check out Too Close to Miss, the crime thriller that readers “stayed up way too late finishing,” available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.

If you read it and liked it, please let your friends know via Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, or old-fashioned word of mouth.


 

April 16th, 2012


07:00 am - big two-hearted racetrack

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

This past Thursday I went to a corporate event at F1 Boston in Braintree. The sales team had been meeting there all day; Managed Services was joining them for dinner, drinks, and kart racing, not in that order. We drove on F1′s “City Course”: an uphill slope, two ninety degree turns, a downhill hairpin, and another two ninety degree turns with a straight shot to finish. Over thirty of us were racing, so we were divvied up into qualifying heats.

To drive an F1 kart, you have to forget half of what you know about driving. The karts lack power steering, so they respond only to vigorous turns of the wheel, but they respond quickly. It’s easy to oversteer, especially if you accelerate into a turn, slamming into walls or spinning out. Add to this the nine other racers on the course with you, each with their own agenda. You not only have to drive with skill; you need the killer instinct to pass as well.

There’s something thrilling about whipping down a straightaway at thirty miles an hour, mere inches off the ground. There’s also the joy of a job well done, applying brake and gas in just the right rhythm to squeal around a turn on the inside. But then you realize you haven’t seen another driver for the last two minutes. They’re in a knot at the opposite end of the track, jockeying for position, and you’re fighting your hardest just to keep the kart under control. Then the race ends and you stagger out of the kart, forearms shaking from exertion, and wrestle your too-small helmet off. The other racers are slapping each other on the back, exchanging friendly taunts, or recounting stories of near misses and sudden reversals. It’s as if they were in one race and you, another. And there’s still another qualifier to go, and then the final bracket. You consider shrugging out of your jumpsuit and going upstairs for a drink, but you know you have one more run in you.

I didn’t expect to win any trophies. But I got better with each race, and now I can say it’s something I’ve done.


 

March 26th, 2012


07:05 am - turn prisons into prisms of the self

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

I talked about The Hunger Games (the movie) with the rest of the Overthinkers on this week’s podcast; check it out. But the podcast is (or tries to be) more of an objective analysis, less of a subjective review. So, for my own thoughts:

Several friends of mine have complained recently about the injustice of Bully, a documentary about actual problems with actual teenagers, being rated R, while The Hunger Games, a fictional movie about teenagers murdering each other, is rated PG-13. The argument is that children need to see movies like Bully in order to put a face on a problem that they might otherwise ignore.

While I don’t want to take anything away from the importance of The Bully Project, it is just as important that every teenager in America sees The Hunger Games on the big screen. They need to see a world where people accept income inequality as the just outcome of wrongdoing two hundred years ago. They need to see a world where young adults are marched off to death with no objection. They need to see a world where the voices and faces of media are tools of social control. They need to see a world where it’s the villains who call ritual slaughter a “sacrifice” that needs to be “honored,” not the heroes.

But, of course, it’s fantasy. It’s a world where children are told that they need to conform to recognizable roles as early as they can or they’ll be picked off at the fringes of the herd. It’s a world where kissing the boy that society approves of gets you rewards. It’s a world from which there’s no escape – from which the idea of running away, living off the land and ignoring the arbitrary annual bloodletting, is laughed off. It’s bizarro science-fiction; look at the haircuts.

Yes, the setup is brutal, and depressing, and pointless. But what are you going to do when they start pulling names out of slips? Not send a tribute to the Capital?


 

March 21st, 2012


07:00 am - folding paper

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

Two important book announcements!

First, my friend Gina Damico’s macabre YA fantasy novel Croak is now available at Amazon or other fine retailers. If you don’t want your kids reading about emo vampires, give them this fun little page-turner. I’ve tried about three times to write a good description for it, and I can’t come up with one as good as the back cover copy, so:

Fed up with her wild behavior, sixteen-year-old Lex’s parents ship her off to upstate New York to live with her Uncle Mort for the summer, hoping that a few months of dirty farm work will whip her back into shape. But Uncle Mort’s true occupation is
much dirtier than shoveling manure.

He’s a Grim Reaper. And he’s going to teach Lex the family business.

It’s dark, it’s goofy and nobody falls in love with a hundred-year-old. Why haven’t you bought it already?

In more personal news: for those of you who haven’t caught up with my 80-year-old great aunts yet and bought a Kindle, you can now get Too Close to Miss on paperback through Amazon. Same great content as the well-received ebook, but now on stylish plant matter. Enjoy!

If you own an e-reader and want to pick up Too Close to Miss now, you can download it off of Amazon, Barnes & Noble or iTunes and start reading it within seconds.

If you already enjoyed Too Close to Miss in electronic form, recommend the paperback version to a friend via Facebook, Twitter or old-fashioned word of mouth.


 

March 14th, 2012


07:00 am - it’s lethal but it’s living proof

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

Hey! Look what came in the mail on Friday:

After designing an awesome cover for my ebook version, Ryan Sawyer took a stab at formatting the image for a paperback binding. This proved maddening for several reasons:

1) Createspace has an automated review process that checks out any PDF you send them for a cover design. Ryan’s kept failing because the block caps of the title were too close to the bleed (that is, the edge of the printable image). That’s what we wanted, of course: we wanted to preserve the claustrophobic effect. But when Createspace flags your cover as failing, there’s no “override and print this anyway” option. So Ryan squeezed the title a bit and we pressed on.

2) Print layout is a science as much as an art. When you read a paperback novel, you’re accustomed to a serifed font of about 10-pt, with between 50-60 characters per line of text. Bigger than that and it looks odd; smaller than that and the eye tires out. Getting it exactly right took several tries, each of which meant printing, ordering and shipping another galley proof.

3) And every time I changed the font, I changed the page count, which meant I had changed the width of the spine, which meant Ryan had to do another cover.

4) Add to this the fact that Createspace didn’t always recognize the fonts I used in Word for Mac, meaning I had to save the file as a PDF, see how it rendered, make any changes, re-save as a PDF and re-upload, etc.

Maybe I’m spoiled, starting out in the era of ebooks, but page layout is a pain in the ass. Deciding what font my book has to be in? Or how many words per line? Why can’t I let the reader decide that? They paid for the book; it’s theirs to play with. And on Kindle or Nook, those options are available to you. In print, I have to govern the experience page by page. What century is this?

Having done the print layout myself (with a bit of help from Sylvia), I can see the value of paying for a professional. Not that I think I’ll need to next time: I have a template now that I can re-use for the next book in the series. But maybe a huge industry grew up around this process for a reason!

If you own an e-reader and want to pick up Too Close to Miss now, you can download it off of Amazon, Barnes & Noble or iTunes and start reading it within seconds.

If you have friends who don’t own e-readers, but would like this book once it’s available in paperback form, please tell them what you thought of Too Close to Miss via Facebook, Twitter or old-fashioned word of mouth.


 

March 12th, 2012


07:00 am - you can’t choose what stays and what fades away

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

Everyone else in the industry has seen this already, but here’s the WSJ last week with some bad news for legacy publishers:

The Justice Department has warned Apple Inc. and five of the biggest U.S. publishers that it plans to sue them for allegedly colluding to raise the price of electronic books, according to people familiar with the matter.

[...]

The five publishers facing a potential suit are CBS Corp.’s Simon & Schuster Inc.; Lagardere SCA’s Hachette Book Group; Pearson PLC’s Penguin Group (USA); Macmillan, a unit of Verlagsgruppe Georg von Holtzbrinck GmbH; and HarperCollins Publishers Inc., a unit of News Corp., which also owns The Wall Street Journal.

Hey, what’d I tell you?

When I first heard of this model, it sounded oddly familiar. Not because Apple had put it into practice already (for ebooks on iTunes). It sounded like minimum advertised pricing (MAP), a stunt that had cost music publishers hundreds of millions of dollars.

[...]

Telling retailers that you’d like them to advertise your products at a minimum price is not illegal in itself. However, the 43 states (and the FTC, in a parallel lawsuit) alleged that MAP was a tactic used to fix a de facto price floor.

I need to stress that I’m not loving this outcome. I had hoped that the Big 6 would recognize the danger they were in and back down from agency pricing without the threat of a lawsuit. The law is a blunt instrument, treating cancer with a claw hammer instead of a laser. Fortunately, per the WSJ article, it looks like the publishers and the Justice Department are agreeing on a settlement so that no one has to go to court.

What might the end of agency pricing mean for readers? Cheaper ebooks across all platforms. No more Kindle books at $14.99.

What might the end of agency pricing mean for authors? Mike Shatzkin speculated that this could be bad for indie authors, as keeping the $0.99 to $2.99 window free of legacy publishers gave indie authors room to stand out. I don’t know that I buy this. In the app market, for instance, both the small companies and the big ones compete in the $0.99 space. Angry Birds wasn’t locked out by the SimCity app. Consumer demand has a way of forcing cream to the top.

(I recognize that I may be committing the Texas sharpshooter fallacy, picking a successful indie game to prove that an indie game can succeed. But all we have is backward-looking data and experiments in the future)

What does this mean for the craft? For the moment, nothing. Keep writing, keep building a fan base, and keep your options open. The publishing industry has changed overnight in the past. We might have at least one more change coming.


 

February 27th, 2012


07:00 am - the best advice I ever had was: leave what was behind

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

I received a very sophisticated piece of phishing spam this weekend (see image). “Bank of America” claimed that they were “unable to verify my account information” during routine maintenance. I just needed to click on a link within the email to update my records. The email had excellent English and formatting, as well as a Bank of America logo. I have plenty of other emails from my bank that don’t look quite as nice.

This might have worked if I were a Bank of America customer. However, since you couldn’t pay me to do business with Bank of America*, I was suspicious.

click for full size

What impressed me the most was how the email avoided the common traps that security professionals warn you about. I wasn’t asked to reply with my password or SSN or mother’s maiden name. In fact, you’ll note that the email even warns me not to enter my password on any site without the SiteKey(r) logo! Phishers have grown more sophisticated, as they inevitably must. Countermeasures have arisen to protect against thieves, so thieves now devise counter-countermeasures. It’s a constant struggle.</p>

The threat you’re expecting – a phisher asking you to email your password – may not be the threat you face in the next generation. I was thinking about this after reading a post on the Passive Voice blog about Barnes & Noble, erstwhile scourge of independent booksellers:

While Amazon is considered a disruptor company for many of the changes today – hated by independent book store owners and publishers, especially after they promoted their price-check app over the Christmas holidays, in the 80’s and 90’s Barnes and Noble was considered the “brutal capitalist” of booksellers. And its history is extremely interesting, considering what has been happening in the book world of late. Barnes and Noble was the first major bookseller to discount books, by selling The New York Times best-selling titles at 40% off the publishers’ list price. In the eighties they bought up chain book stores like B. Dalton, Doubleday Book Shops, and Bookstop. In 1998 they tried to purchase Ingram Book Group Inc., the largest book wholesaler in the United States but were unable to do so because of antitrust concerns. Supposedly one reason Waldenbooks and Borders opened so many stores was to keep up with Barnes and Noble’s superstores.

[...]

In 1998 Barnes & Noble got sued by the American Booksellers Association and 26 independent bookstores who claimed that Barnes & Noble and Borders had violated antitrust laws by using their buying power to demand from publishers “illegal and secret” discounts and then in 2003 Barnes and Noble was the first bookseller to publish its own line after acquiring Sterling Publishing Co., the nation’s largest publisher of how-to books, competing side by side with Modern Library and Penguin Classics.

In the 80s and 90s, publishers and booksellers feared “big box” bookstores grinding out the mom & pop store on the corner. Now, in the 10s, those same forces want B&N to save them from Amazon. They’re rallying behind the big box, hoping that B&N doesn’t go the way of Borders, to prevent Amazon from slashing their margins.

I can’t blame them. Amazon has made no qualms about gunning for the Big Six; obviously they’ll fire back. But IT professionals know that you don’t keep your desktop secure by protecting against last year’s threats. As soon as your adversary shows that they’ve adapted to your countermeasures, you need to respond proactively. If you don’t, you start hemorrhaging users at the fringes until your system’s hollow on the inside.

If you want to follow my attempts to stay on the nimble edge of publishing, check out my debut novel, Too Close to Miss and meet Mara Cunningham, whom readers call “flawed yet gustsy, smart [and] driven.” Download it off of Amazon, Barnes & Noble or iTunes and start reading it within seconds.

If you want to send your friends a message that they’ll appreciate better than a password phishing email, please tell them what you thought of Too Close to Miss via Facebook, Twitter or old-fashioned word of mouth.

_________________
* A business model that might work better than the current one, where I have to pay them to do business with them.


 

February 23rd, 2012


07:00 am - 50 books: 2011

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

I didn’t think I made 50 books in 2011, but Goodreads tells me I pulled it off. Goodreads also makes it immensely easy to export my ratings into a .csv file, and that greatly simplified the year-end roundup.

Best Nonfiction: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, Barbara Tuchman. The most detailed, accessible and enjoyable history of the 14th century – and of medieval Europe – one could ever hope to read. Dense with detail, but also full of Tuchman’s mild irony and a real sense of having been present.
Runner-Up: War, Sebastian Junger.

Best Inspirational Nonfiction: Quitter: Turning Your Job into a Dream and your Dream into a Job, Jonathan Acuff. Acuff doesn’t give you a book full of checklists, worksheets and exercises. What he gives instead is clear entertaining prose that makes clear he’s been in the same place you are. He recounts all the same fears that you’re having right now (I highlighted more passages in this book than I do in most others) and explains how to live with them. This isn’t a manual; it’s a philosophy.
Runner-Up: Read This Before our Next Meeting, Al Pittampili.

Best Literary Fiction: Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison. Not just an important novel, but also a genuinely good novel, too – a page-turner, an engrossing adventure, a deep look inside one lonely man’s struggle for identity. Full of wit, passion and arresting imagery. Highest recommendation.
Runner-Up: The Magician’s Assistant, Ann Patchett.

Best Thriller / Mystery / Suspense: The Keepsake, Tess Gerritsen. Gerritsen writes better thrillers than anyone on the market today. The pacing cracks right along. The tension keeps mounting – I was reading this on the subway and still felt chills as the killer’s plan unfolded.
Runner-Up: The Enemy, Lee Child.

Best Sci-Fi / Fantasy: The Lies of Locke Lamora, Scott Lynch. The most entertaining fantasy novel I’ve read in nearly ten years. Not only does it have a compelling milieu, fun characters and high stakes, it’s a page-turner, too! I had a hard time putting it down! Considering the overwrought exposition dumps that we’ve come to expect from fantasy fiction, Lynch’s taut prose is like an oasis in the desert.
Runner-Up: The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie.

Biggest Surprise: The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins. Collins is a master at depicting a strange world – somewhat familiar, but still bizarre and dangerous – with a few throwaway lines. She makes her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, seem real without being frustrating: torn by conflicting desires but not paralyzed by them. The story thrusts dire choices at her in a constant barrage. Watching her deal with these choices is fascinating.
Runner-Up: The Rookie, Scott Sigler.

Biggest Disappointment: Three Felonies a Day, Harvey Silverglate. I wanted a collection of stories about regulators, law enforcement officials and busybodies targeting common people. Instead, I got a few overwritten anecdotes about the Feds going after local politicians, corporations, and junk bond traders. Sure, if these people were innocent then it’s a shame, but this isn’t going to arouse anyone’s sympathy.
Runner-Down: The Company We Keep, Robert and Dayna Baer.

If you’re trying to read 50 books in 2012, Too Close to Miss is a quick read – a neo-noir crime thriller set in Boston that readers say “opens with a bang and never relents.” Download your copy on Amazon, Barnes & Noble or iTunes.

If you read the book and liked it, or even if you thought it needed work, use Goodreads to write your own review! Word of mouth has been my biggest sales driver so far, and I value every write-up I get.


 

February 17th, 2012


07:00 am - but big heads with soft bodies make for lousy lovers

Originally published at Periscope Depth. Please leave any comments there.

Whenever a group of people do something terrible enough to make the news, whether it’s taunting a child into suicide, lying about the creditworthiness of mortgage-backed derivatives, or adopting the SS logo for their Marine Corps squad, I see a common reaction. As the news is being passed around, wall to wall and tweet to tweet, someone asks, “How can anybody act this way? How come nobody spoke up?”

My question: “why would you expect them to?”

At what point in the curriculum do we teach children to call bullshit on people in power? I know most course loads have a few sections devoted to critical thinking, but, as I recall, that’s mostly reading comprehension and word problems. The only lessons I got in resisting peer pressure came in the drugs and alcohol section of Health class. And compared to tormenting a kid until he hangs himself, weed is harmless.

In each of these newsworthy cases, here is what happened:

  1. Someone with a bit of authority, earned or granted, suggests doing something questionable (e.g., “let’s get drunk and drag race!”, “let’s sell credit default swaps to pension fund managers!”, “let’s adopt the logo of a Wehrmacht unit for our squadron!”).

  2. A bunch of people agree that it’s a good idea, either because they genuinely believe it to be – they followed the same chain of reasoning the originator did – or because they like power and want to be seen supporting it.

  3. One or two brave souls realize that this might not be a good idea (e.g., “what if we crash?”, “what if a statistically unlikely number of mortgages default?“, “hey, didn’t the SS implement the Reich’s ‘final solution’?”).

  4. Here we fork: these dissenters either keep their objections to themselves or voice their concerns. I couldn’t say what the breakdown is, but call it 50/50.

  5. If they voice their concerns, the originator and his supporters either shout them down (“pussies!”) or, even worse, acknowledge the logic of the objections and then water down their suggestion slightly, in bad faith, in a way that doesn’t address the core harm (e.g., “let’s only sell the derivatives that Moody’s rates AAA”).

  6. Everyone goes along with it.

  7. They get caught.

  8. A fraction of them feel no guilt for what they’ve done; a sizable portion are “sorry they were caught” and grapple with guilt for a while; the fraction who recognized the issues earlier and [did/didn't] speak up are mentally broken.


There’s no solution in the existing pedagogy. You can’t teach a lack of respect for authority: even if power-worship weren’t wired into the human genome, skepticism and iconoclasm run counter to the principles of instruction. “Never take anyone’s word at face value, except mine, and only about this!” Perhaps the solution is to stop teaching, or to teach a different set of skills that will grow into independent thought, or to accept these occasional outbursts of group monstrosity as the price of a civil society.


 

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