Sunday, June 30, 2013

Going To School With Monsters

The term "game changer" gets thrown around a lot these days. It's kind of like the word "classic" in that everyone wants whatever it is they've done to be an "instant classic" (an oxymoron if there ever was one) and a "real game changer." The truth, though, is that there are very few "game changers" out there no matter how much we like to throw the term around. For instance, in my lifetime, the only real game changer has been Apple, first with the personal computer, then with mobile devices. As far as society goes, there haven't really been any other real game changers except, maybe, mobile phones, which was not Apple but probably contributed a lot to what Apple did. Everything else is pretty much as it always was.

Of course, you can narrow your field and look for game changers within specific areas, so let's look at movies. What have been the "game changers" in the movie industry in the last four decades?
1. Star Wars. Star Wars changed the way people think about movies and the way movies are made. Within that, we can just say George Lucas, because he has continued to change movies with what he's done through ILM and digital technology which was, again, ushered in through Star Wars.
2. Blade Runner. This one isn't so obvious, but people within the film industry will often point at Blade Runner as bringing a pervasive look and feel to all movies that have anything to do with the future. You can see the influence of Blade Runner on everything from Minority Report to The Matrix.
3. The Blair Witch Project. Unfortunately. It started a whole new kind of movie making, and, while it's not saturating the marketplace, lots of people feel the need to dabble in it. Like Abrams with Cloverfield.
4. Pixar. Toy Story changed the landscape of the film industry, and Pixar rode that change for over a decade, producing some great and, even, classic films (Classic in that they are are the oldest examples of those types of movies, like Toy Story). Pixar's release of Toy Story in 1995 has probably had the largest effect on movies since the release of Star Wars in 1977. (Interestingly enough, Pixar was a company created by George Lucas and owned by Steve Jobs at the time that Toy Story was released. (It makes me want to say that the greatest shapers of culture in the last four decades can be traced to Jobs and Lucas.))

From the looks of things, though, it may be that it would be more appropriate to say that it was John Lasseter was the real "game changer," because, since he has moved on to other Disney-related projects, the daring and "game changer"ness has gone out of Pixar films, and they have moved to a more standard film formula. Monsters University is no exception.

I loved Monsters, Inc.; it's still one of my favorite Pixar movies. It's a touching movie about friendship and the lengths one monster goes to for a friendship even when he doesn't necessarily agree with his friend. And the relationship between Sully and Boo brought a tear to my eye in his willingness to let go of something that he loves to do what is best for that something. That something being Boo. However, it's the challenging of the norms that make the film standout. It's the demonstration that we ought to be constantly questioning the status quo and tradition so that we know whether there are better ways, now, than there were when those traditions were established that make the film really shine. [And I would bet money on it being a subtle jab at Disney, whom Pixar had fight every step of the way to get Toy Story out in the form we saw it in, because Disney wanted a more traditional story.]

But there is none of that in Monsters University. It is, in every way possible, a standard Disney film. Well, okay, maybe it's not standard Disney, but it's certainly standard. Two guys, rivals, have to learn to work together to overcome some great obstacle and, in so doing, they learn they are great partners. And, because of that, friends. It's the plot of virtually every buddy cop movie out there. Except Monsters U is in a school setting. There is nothing in the movie that is beyond typical.

Which is not to say that it's not enjoyable, because it is. Very enjoyable. It just doesn't feel like Pixar; it feels like Disney. Safe. Traditional. And that's disappointing. Because what we learned from Pixar is that traditional, for them, was challenging tradition. But that was before Disney. Don't get me wrong, Disney can make great films, but they are hardly ever challenging.

All of that said, Monsters U was enjoyable. It was fun to get to see Sully and Mike again and, even, Randall. Dean Hardscrabble was a great, new character, completely freaky, and Helen Mirren was excellent in the role. I wouldn't have wanted her paying any kind of personal attention to me. No, not even to tell me good job, because even "good job" from her would seem to carry some kind of menace.

Visually, the movie made no improvements over its predecessor. In fact, the animation seemed flatter. More plastic. But, then, it has been a while since I watched Monsters, Inc. so there may be some amount of idealization going on in my head as far as that goes. Still, after more than 10 years, you'd expect some amount of improvement, especially after the richness of the animation in Brave.

Many people say that it's unfair to judge Pixar movies by their previous endeavors, but I don't really agree. That's kind of like saying you shouldn't judge a McDonald's cheeseburger by other McDonald's cheeseburgers. Pixar did, after all, establish what a Pixar movie should be like. They are also the ones that have allowed Disney to mess with their recipe, which it's hard to fault Disney for since they own Pixar, now. However, these new Pixar burgers don't taste quite the same, quite as good, as the old ones. So, it may be true that Monsters University is a fine a movie, which it is, but it's not a fine Pixar movie. Of that, it falls short.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Doc: A Review

I grew up on Westerns. My Saturdays, when there was no one available to play with, were full of them: The Lone Ranger (yes, I will go see the new movie, but I'm already thinking they should have called it Tonto), The Rifleman, The Big Valley, Rawhide, Bonanza. I also watched Gunsmoke, The Wild Wild West, and Alias Smith and Jones (which I loved enough to show my kids not too long ago), but those weren't in the Saturday lineup. None of that translated into reading Westerns, though; I don't really know why.

With that in mind, I was quite excited about Mary Doria Russell writing a Western.
And I wasn't disappointed.

As may be obvious from the title, Doc is about Doc Holliday. Well, obvious as long as you know the book is a Western. After all, what other figure is there from the American West who is called Doc? What you may also think is obvious is that the book deals with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, perhaps even uses that as its climax, but you would be wrong.

So much of the "history" we know about Doc Holliday is centered around that one gunfight, a gunfight that lasted approximately 30 seconds, but it doesn't tell us anything about Doc. About why he was there. It doesn't tell us anything beyond the persistent legend that says that Doc Holliday was a gambler, gunman, and scoundrel. That he was just shy of a villain. Which was the belief for nearly a century after his death (helped in no small part by the sensationalized stories of Bat Masterson who believed in the story more than the truth).

Doc: A Novel does tell us why he was there without bothering to actually deal with the shootout itself. Heck, it's not even set in Tombstone. Doc tells the story of what was probably the only happy time Holliday had once he moved west to fight his tuberculosis. It deals with how he fell in with the Earps and, specifically, Wyatt, because you can't really tell a story about Doc that doesn't include Wyatt. The interesting thing about that is that it wasn't really Wyatt who was Doc's friend. Not that he wasn't, but it was Morgan Earp that Doc was close to. Once you know that, you can understand everything that happened in Tombstone and, more specifically, what happened after.

At its heart, Doc is a character piece. There is a plot, but it's very soft. The book isn't about the plot, so to speak; it's about the characters. Russell excels at characters, and, I have to say, this book is about as close as you'll get to feeling like you were right there with Wyatt and Doc and all the other Earps. I don't think you necessarily care about what's going to happen in a book like this; you just want to know what's going to happen to the characters. And there's a real difference in those two things.

We hear a lot, these days, about starting in the middle of the action and getting on to the story (the action) and keeping things fast-paced (action) and all of that, but, when I think back about my favorite books, I never remember the action; I remember the characters. It's the characters that captivate me. Sure, books that are full of action can be a lot of fun to read, but, if there's no connection with the characters, then those action (plot) oriented books are (for me) like candy. There's just no substance there, and they don't stay with me. Or, even, interest me much anymore.

If you want to walk the dusty streets of Dodge City with Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, listen in the conversations they're having, watch Doc do his dentistry during the only time in his life when he was really able to practice it; this is the book for you. If you just want to get to the gunfights and the shootouts, you should go watch Tombstone.

Note: This is probably the best written of Russell's books, which is a considerable accomplishment considering the books she's written, but I think The Sparrow is still my favorite. In fact, I'm sure it is. However, that may all change when the sequel (currently called Epitaph) to Doc comes out; that one will deal with O.K. Corral.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Religion of Writing: Part One -- Religion

Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be offensive in any way. It's about an actual experience which will serve as an example to my actual point in this series. Having said that, though, and knowing that religion is a touchy subject, as is writing, I know that this post is opening to door to people being offended. Just know that when I write this, I'm not really condemning anyone else's beliefs or belief system. I am condemning people that are condemning of others' beliefs, though, because that's just wrong. People ought to be allowed to believe whatever crazy thing they want to believe no matter how wrong it is without the fear of other people coming along and damning them for it. You know, as long as those beliefs aren't hurting someone else.

I started working at my church at a pretty young age. I don't mean just helping out in VBS and stuff like that, although I did do those things, too; I mean I was actually on staff and getting paid. I was 15 when I started being in charge of things like the gym and being left to supervise various recreation programs we ran. By the time I was in college, I was actually in charge of the youth and recreation programs.

One of the things we did was rent out our gym building (which had the chapel in it (as opposed to the sanctuary, which was the bigger building where we had "big" church)) to other church groups that didn't have a gym at their church. The most common reason other churches wanted to rent our facilities was to hold lock-ins. That meant I had to be there for the duration of any given lock-in. [Sometimes, during the summer, we would have a lock-in every weekend.]

There are a few things here you need to know:
1. My church was Southern Baptist. I have always liked to refer to the Baptists as the Pharisees of the Protestants. They are as tied to tradition and "how things are done" as the Catholics.
2. That being said, there are "worse" denominations (by worse, I mean even more strict and legalistic). One of those is the Pentecostals (and the Pentecostals really liked to rent out our gym).
3. Sometimes, to have something to do during a lock-in, I would invite some of my friends to hang out in the office with me. Seriously, it was important, because it was hard to stay awake otherwise. Just sitting and watching people skate and play basketball isn't all that entertaining.

4. You also need to know the basic fact of Pentecostalism: you only get to go to Heaven if you speak in tongues. [Yes, I'm boiling it down to its very core essence, but there's really not room, here, to elaborate.]

[The issue with the speaking in tongues thing is that it doesn't say that in the Bible. Not explicitly. There are some passages they base this belief on, but they create a logic trail you have to weave all through the Bible to come to that conclusion, and there are just as many passages that knock the foundation out from under that belief.
And, now, the plot is set for you.]

So... there was this lock-in, and I had invited a couple of my friends from college, both ministerial students, to come hang out for the night. I mean, it's free food which is pretty close to the Holy Grail for college students. All the pizza you can eat is a pretty big draw, and, in all actuality, getting invited to come to one of these things with me was pretty highly sought after. These were my two best friends, and it wasn't the first time they'd done this.

At one point, I was in the office working on something; I don't remember what but something to do with the lock-in. The guys had wandered off to the lounge where the TV was; one of them to work on a class assignment, which happened to be a sermon. He had his Bible out and open. The two of them were alone in the lounge. For a while.

But a group of the women (moms and such (chaperons)) who had been setting something up in the chapel for later in the evening came out into the lounge and found my friends there, one of them with his Bible out (maybe both of them, I'm not sure). One of the women asked them what they were doing, and the one working on the sermon responded that that's what he was doing...

And the group of women began telling my friends about how they were going to Hell.

It was the noise of the arguing that drew me down the hall. My two friends were surrounded by about half a dozen Pentecostal moms, one of the scariest things on the planet, I'm pretty sure. One of my friends was holding an open Bible with which he was refuting statements by the women. Now, here's the interesting part of that:

One of the women would say something like, "Well, the Bible says blah blah blah."
And my friend, with the Bible in his hand, would look up that passage of scripture and say, "That's not actually what it says. It says," and he would read it, "blah blippity blip blah."
To which the woman would reply, "Well, that's wrong, because my pastor says it says blah blah blah."
Did I say that my friend had his open Bible in his hand?
But the Bible was wrong because of what some woman thought her pastor had said about what was in the Bible. And none of the women had ever read the Bible. Many of them had never actually physically read any part of it because they had been indoctrinated to believe that they shouldn't read it because, you know, they couldn't figure it out for themselves, so it was better to just let the pastor tell them what was inside.
Even if it wasn't.
[I'm not making that part up. Several of them made statements to that effect.]
It didn't matter that my friends had the book in question in their hands, the proof, so to speak. The proof, the actual data, was "wrong."

That's what I walked in on. I was no less offended than my friends, but I was offended because they were in my church telling us we were going to Hell. My only question was why they wanted to rent our building if they believed we were a church on the way to Hell. With or without the hand-basket.

Since I was in charge, though, I had to break the whole thing up, so I sent my buddies down to the office to cool off for a while.

I'll be explicit here:
Many writers are just like those women in the way that they treat writing. In all sorts of ways. Things like traditional publishing being god. Agents being priests carrying the Holy word that can't be questioned. And all sorts of other things that I'm not ready to get into, yet, because we'll get to them in good time. Just be thinking about the ways you might be like that group of women. Believing without questioning what's being handed down to you.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

This Is The End

Okay, so it's not really the end, although, I suppose, it could be. I mean, we never know what's going to happen, so it's possible this is the end... the last post I will ever write...
But that's not the plan.

At any rate, my wife and I went to see This Is The End, and you can just shut up right now, because it was funny. In all of its crudity, it was just funny.

Not that I'm recommending it for everyone, because I know a lot of people are offended by this type of humor, and This Is The End takes it to Kevin Smith levels of crude and, probably, even beyond. Really, you have to see it to know what I'm talking to about, because I can't talk about it without spoilers.

First thing, you really need to have seen Pineapple Express to get some of the jokes in This Is The End. In a lot of ways, TITE is the real life sequel of Pineapple. So, if you've seen Pineapple and liked it, you'll probably like TITE. If you didn't like Pineapple, you definitely shouldn't bother with TITE.

The idea is that the end of the world is happening and a group of friends are hiding out together. Let me say that again: a group of "friends" are hiding out together to escape the end of the world. Except one of the guys (Jay Baruchel) really doesn't like any of the other people, and none of them really like one of the guys (Danny McBride), especially since he (McBride) wastes half of their food on the first day. It's one of those "what would happen if you were locked up with your best friends" kind of scenarios. How long would you maintain?

And it all starts with a party where no one notices that the end of the world is happening, which is a joke in-and-of itself and pretty priceless, if you ask me. The Emma Watson bit (which is shown in the trailer), because she's at the party, too, is hilarious. As is Michael Cera.

The thing about a movie like this is that the cast, who all play themselves, really has to be able to make fun of themselves. Parody themselves. Make all the things we think about them larger than life whether those things are true or not. And who knows how much of any of it is true other than those guys, but they were brilliant at it in this film. Especially James Franco. I don't care what people say about him, I'm convinced the man is one of the smartest actors in Hollywood. Hmm... that may not be saying much, so let me say he's just pretty freaking smart.

The best part, though, is the writing. What you expect is just some pretty straightforward crude humor, and it's full of that. I mean, the f*c& count is pretty high. [Did you know that wikipedia has an entry for the movies with the highest uses of that word? I do, now.] However, there's some pretty complex and subtle writing going on, too, which is pretty awesome if you can see it under all of the depravity of the movie. But, again, I can't talk about it without giving it away.

So, here at the end, let me just say that if you like this kind of humor, even if it's a guilty pleasure kind of thing, then you should go see this movie. Or, at the very least, plan to rent it. You know, as long as the End doesn't come beforehand...

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Shadow Spinner, the Serpent, and Keeping Your Serial Crisp

What kind of cereal do you like? For me, right now, I like Grape-Nuts. Mostly, I like Grape-Nuts because I don't like Cheerios. When you only keep non-sugared cereals in your house, it kind of limits your options. Actually, though, I do like Grape-Nuts. My grandfather, I suppose, taught me to like them as a young lad.

My grandfather didn't have any teeth. As long as I knew him, he didn't have any teeth. No, I don't know the story behind that, and, now that I'm thinking about it, I want to know. As a kid, though, it was just one of those things: my grandfather didn't have teeth. He also didn't have most of his right index finger (I do know the story behind that). Let me be clear, here: my grandfather didn't have teeth, and he didn't use dentures. My great-grandmother and one of my aunts also didn't have teeth, but they wore dentures, so we, as kids, didn't think of them as not having teeth. They did; they could just take theirs out. My grandfather didn't have teeth. At all. But he loved Grape-Nuts.

If you've ever had Grape-Nuts, you'll know that they're rather like they sound, except for the "grape" part; no one knows where that came from. Seriously, there are competing theories as to the origin of the name, none of which I'm buying. But, anyway, Grape-Nuts are hard, and I can't actually imagine trying to eat them without teeth. It would be like walking across scattered Lego with your bare feet. [Interesting fact: did you know "Lego" is the plural of "Lego"?] To get around this problem, my grandfather would let them soak in the milk long enough to get soft, which is the first way that I liked eating Grape-Nuts (I like them crunchy these days, though).

All of this to say that, even after 20 minutes in milk, Grape-Nuts still retain their structure; most cereal has turned to mush by that point.

I kind of went on with that longer than I mean to.

The real question, here, was me wondering what it's like for my readers being on part 24 of Shadow Spinner, but, then, I looked up some of Dickens' stuff, and people waited on the piers for the ships to come in with the newspapers that had his stuff serialized, and his stuff had, like, 60 chapters, so I'm not going to worry about it.

Well, I'm not going to worry about it beyond this:
If you're ready, RIGHT NOW! DANG IT!, to find out how it all ends--because there are another 10 chapters to go--well, you can, because Shadow Spinner is now available as a physical book! Yep, it's out there! And, remember, not only do you get Shadow Spinner, but you also get Bryan Pedas' story "Like An Axe Through Bone," available exclusively in the physical copy of Shadow Spinner. Also, what a great cover by Rusty!

If you want to keep on with the serialization, today is the FREE! release of "Part Twenty-four: The Serpent"! Let me just say, things are getting bad for Tib. Seriously bad.

Here is the list of the FREE! offerings for today, Monday, June 24:
"Part Twenty-four: The Serpent" (also available tomorrow, Tuesday, June 25)
"Part Twenty-three: The Harlot"
"Part Twenty-two: The Undying"
"Part Twenty-one: The Chase"
"Part Seventeen: The Tree of Light"
"Part Sixteen: The Dark Tree"
"Part Fifteen: Food of the Garden"
"Part Fourteen: Anger and Laughter"
"Part Thirteen: The Clearing"
"Part Eleven: The Kiss"
"Part Ten: The Broken Window"
"Part Nine: The Shadow of the Tree"
"Part Eight: The Cold and The Dark"
"Part Seven: The Moth and the Shadow"
"Part Five: The Police Car"
"Part Four: The Cop"
"Part Three: The Bedroom"
"Part Two: The Kitchen Table"
"Part One: The Tunnel"
So that's 19 of the 24 parts for FREE! this week. And you should grab parts 1-5 for sure, because, if all goes according to plan--and I'm not saying it will, because I have three kids at home on summer vacation--those will not be available in this format two weeks from now.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bait and Switch

Back in the summer of 1989, I was walking out of the most ginormous superhero movie ever made. Actually, it was the most ginormous movie release ever, at the time, bringing in $40 million its opening weekend. All of my friends were ecstatic and cheering, and my cousin wouldn't shut up about how the Joker had pulled that three feet long pistol out of his pants and shot down the Batwing, a moment I'd thought was especially stupid, and I wasn't really happy.

Yeah, I know. I hear all of you out there being oh so shocked.

But, see, the thing I kept thinking, the thing I still think today, was, "Maybe, if Burton had just been honest and called the movie The Joker, I would have liked it." [And I could go into a whole thing of all of the things wrong with having Burton make that movie to begin with and how the Joker was the only character he found interesting and how he didn't (and doesn't) like the movie nor, even, the idea of making it--he just wanted to be a part of what he expected to be a vast pop culture phenomenon. But all of that is for some other time.]

And that's how I feel about Man of Steel. If Nolan wanted to make a movie about General Zod, he should have just called it General Zod. As it is, I'm left with feelings of dissatisfaction because Superman was only included as what amounts to an afterthought. He's the guy that's going to defeat Zod, and there's only just enough information in the movie to let us know who he is.

Which brings me to what I think is the biggest issue with Man of Steel, which includes Nolan's abuse of the title (and let's not fool ourselves into thinking that this was not Nolan's movie, even if Snyder directed it. The story and style was Nolan's, which makes it his). Nolan exploits our outside knowledge of who and what Superman is to skimp on the origin, which he then changes. It's sloppy storytelling. Worse than sloppy. And I don't like feeling exploited. The truth is, if I didn't already know Superman's background, I would have had a difficult time with the movie.

For instance, my sister-in-law is a Marvel girl, so she doesn't really know about Superman, not the details, anyway. Her entire exposure to Superman was the godawful Superman Returns, so there were parts of Man of Steel that she didn't get. Like why we should care about Perry White. Within the context of the movie, the fact that we spend so much time watching Perry and friends run away from falling buildings makes no sense. We have no reason to care about that character UNLESS we already know about who he is from the comics (or previous movies or whatever). And she didn't feel any real connection to Clark because the whole reason we care about Clark is we know the Kents took him in and raised him as their own. They accepted him. But what we get from the movie is Jonathan Kent constantly telling Clark what an outsider he is. And don't get me started on the ridiculousness of Jonathan sacrificing himself to the tornado to "protect" Clark's secret. All of this includes the lack of context for calling the movie Man of Steel, which does not come from the movie. Unless you know that Superman is called the man of steel, there's no reason to understand the title, so, again, outside knowledge. Also, the name the "Man of Steel" was given to Superman when humans thought Superman was actually human. They never think that in the movie, so that particular moniker becomes inappropriate, so, in effect, it's a stupid title for the movie and something only chosen to distinguish it from the other Superman movies. He should have just gone with Superman or, even better, General Zod.

So, with all of that in mind, no, I did not like the middle of the movie. I thought the origin part of the origin story of Superman was very poorly handled. We have no idea of who this new guy is, no idea of the strength of his character, no idea of why we should trust him. Other than, well, he says we should, and that after trashing Metropolis (at least, I suppose it's Metropolis--the movie wasn't explicit with that). What we do know is that, when he was a kid, he saved a busload of kids and got in trouble for it. Later, after having a fight with his dad, he allowed his dad to be killed by a tornado.

Also, the idea of Clark having spent 15 years as a drifter while looking for his origins is... well, it's dumb. Why didn't he ever stick that key into the spaceship in the barn? The technology should have been exactly the same. Or is it that the spaceship was "broken"? I'm just not buying that explanation. And why would he even expect to find anything else on Earth from wherever it was he was from? There's no good logic for any of that. It's just a contrived way to bring Lois into contact with Clark and not a very good one at that. And I have nothing to say about the "symbolism" of having Clark be 33 when Zod comes to Earth. That, also, was just dumb. As was Clark learning to fly, basically, because daddy left him a super suit. For which, by the way, there is no good reason for it to have been on a spaceship buried under arctic ice for 20,000 years.

The beginning of the movie, though, I liked. Mostly. It was good to have a back story for Zod beyond "space criminal." The swimming scene and the codex being a skull, though, was, again, dumb. As was depositing the codex within the body of baby Kal-El. The rest was pretty cool, even if it was rather like watching Star Wars what with the big battleships while Jor-El flew around on some kind of giant insect. Yes, I'm overlooking the part where, basically, the entire population of Krypton chooses to stay on Krypton and die rather than evacuate despite having the technology to do so. [I'm also overlooking the fact that, evidently, every single Kryptonian colony failed despite having huge world engine terraforming machines.]

So... we open the move with Zod, and we end the movie with Zod. It was a movie about Zod. And the end of the movie just went on and on and the destruction was beyond my ability to accept. See, here's the thing, we, as viewers, accept that Superman is a good guy, because, well, we know he's a good guy. We have 75 years of prior knowledge that tells us he's a good guy. But the people of Earth in the movie have no such prior knowledge. They don't know who Superman is any more than they know who Zod is. What they do know is that two aliens showed up and destroyed a major city and tried to destroy the world. But, yet, they just accept that Superman is a "good guy," and Nolan gets away with it because he bases that on our knowledge of the character, not what's revealed of the character in the movie (who, remember, allowed his human father to die because of an argument).

But how was Zod? So much of the focus is on him, so how was he? Michael Shannon was, actually, very excellent as Zod. If you've seen him in Boardwalk Empire, it's apparent why he was chose, and it was a good call. He brings just the right amount of zeal to the role to make it believable.

Russel Crowe, whom I generally dislike, was pretty good in his role as Jor-El. Well, except for the hide-and-seek bit in the spaceship, but that was hardly his fault. Seriously? The virtual Jor-El is going to play hide-and-seek with his son upon being uploaded? Another bit of contrivance to get Clark out of the way so that Lois could injured. [And, um, just why didn't Clark hear her coming down  the tunnel? It's not like she was being quiet. Or that that should have mattered at all.]

Henry Cavill was adequate as Superman, although I think he really got the part due to his resemblance to Tom Welling from Smallville. They have the same "farm-boyish" grin. I liked Costner as Jonathan, even if I didn't like the part, much, as it was written. I don't have, however, have strong positive feelings for Diane Lane as Martha. I also thought Amy Adams was good in her role. The rest were non-spectacular.

The final result is that I have a lot of mixed feelings about this newest Superman, which is a far cry better than how I felt about the last Superman. This new one is just too much Nolan for me, who seems to be more concerned on an ongoing basis with what seems cool rather than what makes a good story. Seriously, I didn't need more of the Inception-type building collapses. I am interested to see where Nolan is going to take the story, unless this just ends up being a setup for the JLA movie that DC and Warner Brothers are still trying to get off the ground, at which point, I will decide that DC needs to scrap all the previous movie history it's developed and start over, just like they keep doing with their comic book world. Maybe, someday, they'll get it right.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

What Your Blog Says About You: Part Four -- Presentation

This post is coming out of the original idea (almost two years ago) that spawned this series in the first place: presentation. Now, when I say presentation, I do not mean of the actual blog itself; I mean the posts. The look of the blog, the decoration, is a completely separate issue and one that I don't feel qualified to speak about as I barely pay attention to what a blog looks like. Maybe some people do, but that's not me. In the same way, I try, at this point in my life, to pay as little attention to the cover of a book as I can (but that's a post for another day (and something I've talked about before (somewhere))).

For most people, the number one thing that will affect whether someone will give your blog the time of day is post length. And, if you've been around my blog for longer than, oh, a couple of seconds, you'll see that this is something I completely disregard, but, in that, I'm in the minority. Most people want short posts. Short posts with, maybe, a list involved and, even better, pictures. And, if you really want to grab people's attention, it should be a picture of a cat being weird or spazzing out. But the real thing is length. People want to glance at your blog and think, "Oh, I have time to read that." If there is anything to make them think that they will have to come back later, most of them won't bother. So, yes, if you're really trying to bring in followers, I think it's good advice to keep your posts between 400 and 600 words.

Personally, I prefer longer posts with more substance, and I will keep a post open all day in order to finish it if I need to (as I sometimes do with some of Briane's longer posts). As such, I also prefer to write posts with actual substance rather than talking about talking about that substance as most people do. I'm more of the essay test rather than the multiple choice option. As such, I'm okay with the fact that some people skip over my posts as being too long. But it's something to be aware of in the way that you approach the way you post and has everything to do with the personality of your blog.

The next thing is a big one for me, something I hate and mentioned in part three, and that thing is constantly apologizing for not having posted recently. Seriously, just don't do that. So many people have what amounts to a running blog of apologizing for not having posted and promisings to do better. Especially those people with posted schedules. That's the worst. First, I'd say, just don't post a schedule. Do what you do and let that be it (sort of like letting your yes be yes and no be no without making promises you may break). But, really, I think most of the people that post schedules for what and when they're going to blog do it for themselves--to try and impose it on themselves--rather than to inform the reader of what's going on. At any rate, people with posted schedules seem to be the worst about actually following those schedules or posting in any consistent manner, and, then, every time they post, it's an apology for being behind or having not posted in three weeks or three months or whatever. Honestly, I don't care why you haven't posted. Whatever it was that caused you not to post was something that was more important to you than posting on your blog, and, actually, that's okay. You don't actually owe anyone anything. No one is paying you (probably) to be posting, so don't apologize for not doing it. Because, honestly, I don't care about your apology. And, especially, I don't care about reading an apology from you every few weeks. Tell me something interesting. So, unless there is some really interesting reason as to why you didn't post (other than that "life has just been SO busy!"), just get to the interesting and skip the apologizing. Really, people understand that there is a life outside of blogging (except, maybe, Alex, who I think may actually be a computer program that goes around commenting on blogs).

And, then, here's the thing that started this whole idea: If you are going to have a blog, especially a blog about writing or if you're writer with a blog about something else but as a representation of you're writing, LEARN HOW TO WRITE!

Having said that, I will say this:
If you're not a writer and have no aspirations to being a writer, it's not such a big deal. Which is not to say that you can be all slapdash with it, but I know I'm not very critical about the writing of people that just have a blog for fun-ish type reasons. I mean, most people don't read and write at that high a level (last I checked, it was 4th grade, but it's been a while since I've checked), which takes us back to the math thing: If you're not in a math field, I don't expect that you should be able to do advanced algebra or anything like that. Basic arithmetic, yes, but not the more complicated stuff. English is the same way. So, if you're not a writer and not trying to be a writer, I don't expect more than the basics and am not going to be... distressed... when that's all I see.

However, if you are a writer, learn to do it. Learn how to use proper grammar and punctuation. And practice it on your blog. Your blog should be a reflection of your style, and, if your style is not knowing the difference between "than" and "then" or "accept" and "except" or "site" and "cite," words that have distinct definitions and should not be so easily confused, then I'm not going to have much interest in reading any books that you write. And, well, probably, will not have much interest in following your blog for very long.

Just to be clear: I'm not talking about typos here; I'm talking about consistently using the wrong words. And, maybe, it's elitist, but, if it is, I can't help it. Learn your words. Especially "than" and "then." I hate reading through posts that use "than" every time "then" should be used. It makes me want to pull out my red grading pen, but, well, that doesn't work out so well with my monitor, so I have learned restraint.

And, really, if you're writer and most of your posts have to do with writing, I will have no respect for you if you can't manage to do it correctly while telling everyone else how to do it. The writing, that is.
[As an example, during a-to-z, someone had a post about the proper usage of semi-colons and, then, had a handful of incorrect usages in the post. Yes, I pointed it out only to have my comment deleted. The only thing that upset me about that is that blogger had at the end of the post something about letting her know if she'd gotten anything wrong. All I can say about that is "don't ask if you don't mean it."]

Having said all of that, yes, I do know that I probably have an unfair advantage in the whole grammar department, but I also view it as a writer's job to know, well, how to do the whole grammar thing. Especially the things that have hard and fast rules, like the definitions of words. I'm not necessarily going to get all picky on the commas. Not all of them, anyway, because, sometimes, comma usage is subjective and is dependent upon what the author wants the sentence to say. Sometimes.

So there's my rant. But, seriously, if you're writer, even if it is just a blog, you ought to have your best face on it. Sure, some people can't tell the difference, but is it worth the risk? [I have quit following more blogs because of the bad writing on the blog than for any other reason.]

All of that to say: how you present yourself is important. There are probably other things I could mention here, but I think these are the top three. Which wraps up what your blog says about you... at least for the moment.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Comic Shop Girls

Way back a long, long time ago, a girl in a comic shop was... I can't even say it was rare, because it just didn't happen. I mean, it was almost the equivalent of a sign of an impending apocalypse. And, if you believe in apocalypses (apocalypsi?) the way Joss Whedon does, maybe they were signs of various impending dooms all headed off by some special group or another. At any rate, it just didn't happen. I didn't know a single girl that read anything beyond Archie comics (or the equivalent) until my mid-twenties, like almost two decades ago.

Let me make it clear that I had had pretty extensive experience in and around the comic's industry by that point. I started collecting comic books during middle school. All the way through the end of high school, I never once saw a girl in the shop I bought comics at except for the one time I took one with me, and, although she agreed to go, it was more out of boredom than anything else, because her other option was to hang out at our church alone (not alone, alone; there were adults there, but there were no other teenagers). During college, I worked in a comic shop, and we had no female customers. At all. Ever. The only girl that ever came in was the girlfriend of one of my friends and only because he always trapped her into it. Then, I had my own comic business and worked in another shop, and neither place had any female customers.

The last shop I worked in in Shreveport (while also running a kind of sub-business under that shop (yeah, it was complicated, but it increased the owner's circulation, so he was good with it)) had a total of two female-type people that came in with any regularity. One of them was a girlfriend of a guy that had been one of my students (this was my last year in Shreveport, and I wasn't teaching at the time), and she always looked like she'd rather be at the dentist, especially since one of the other employees, Mark, would always try to hit on her while her boyfriend was busy talking comics. Yes, I do say that he tried hitting on her, because he never actually quite succeeded. He just made her uncomfortable and followed her around the shop as she tried to avoid him. The other was an "older" woman (to us) around 50(?) that actually played Magic and came in for tournaments. She sort of creeped everyone out, especially since she often "went home" with Boogie (and, yes, he had earned that nickname), and, if you can't figure out that euphemism, there may be no hope for you. That was it...

Until The Day...

It was a Wednesday, and I was shelving the new comics for the week (I was in charge of comics and CCG stuff), and a girl walked in. Alone. Not a mom (okay, she was a mom (of a not-quite toddler), but she wasn't a mom looking for a gift), not a girlfriend, just a girl walking into the comic shop. Alone. I took note of her, but I was busy, and I kept doing what I was doing. However, one-by-one, every other guy that worked in the shop made his way over to her and asked her if she needed any help. Every one of them: Mark, Rick, Scott, Tony. She turned each of them down, browsing through the comics until she made her way over to me and asked me if I could help her. Hmm... and that's a story for another time. Anyway, her ex-boyfriend (the father of her child) had been into comics, and she's picked through them occasionally, so she was looking for some suggestions about comics that she could get into. After listening to the types of she was into, I suggested The Sandman and Strangers in Paradise. She became our first (and only) weekly female customer, coming in to see what new comics were in and trying things out every now and then.

Flash forward to last week. I was sitting in the local comic shop (editing and reading) waiting for a Magic tournament to start up. At one point, I glanced around the room and noted the number of -- hmm... my wife doesn't like it when I call them "girls," although I'm certain some of them must have still been in high school -- young ladies that were hanging out in the store. I mean, hanging out on their own because they wanted to be there. There was one that was definitely a girlfriend, but the other more-than-half-dozen were obviously there because they wanted to be there. Some were playing Magic, one was browsing the comics, there was even grandmotherly type that was obviously looking at things for herself rather than looking for a gift (yeah, you can tell the difference when you've been in the environment). I was struck by the difference a couple of decades had made. Sure, it was still 80-90% guys, but, two decades ago, it would have been 100% guys.

I mentioned it to my wife, and she noted to me that there are a lot of guys that are against girls being in this kind of environment. It's like some group of 10-year-olds with a clubhouse and big "no girls allowed" signs stuck all over it. No girls in comics. No girls in gaming. Of any kind. Evidently, girls shouldn't play Magic and the certainly shouldn't play video games. According to these guys.

Which brought up the whole SFWA thing that happened a couple of weeks ago where a group of male sci-fi writers was proclaiming how writing science fiction is no place for women.

And I just don't get it. I mean, I really don't get it.

Maybe, this is me thinking as a retailer (from back when I did that), but the goal, then, was always to try and figure out how to open the doors of comic books to girls. It was an ongoing thing with Marvel (and other companies, but Marvel talked about it the most) in the late 80s through the mid-90s: How do we get girls interested in comics? And I was all for that, because, well, more business. So this idea that girls don't belong there is really puzzling to me.

And, well, my favorite sci-fi book was written by a woman: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. And you can't discount The Doomsday Book, a more than excellent sci-fi novel also written by a woman: Connie Willis. I'm sure I could go on, but I don't think there's a need.

At any rate, the idea that some of these things are "boys' clubs" just doesn't make sense to me. Why would that be so? I never had a "no girls allowed" clubhouse as a boy; maybe, that's because one of my main playmates as a kid was a female cousin; I don't know. One of my best friends was also a girl; we started kindergarten together and went all the way through to the end of high school, the only person I did that with, and we're still friends, today (well, you know, the kind of friend that only speak to each other every few years, because you don't live anywhere near the other person, but, still...).

And, well, despite the fact that I did a lot of what were pretty exclusively "guy" things when I was younger (like comic books and gaming), I would never have even thought that girls shouldn't be there, because, hello, I spent most of time hanging out with guys, and having some girls around would have meant, well, having some girls around.

So I don't get the attitude that women shouldn't be involved in gaming or comic books or science fiction. Or politics or science or math. Or whatever. I'm glad to see that there are girls hanging out in the comic store, and, after my wife told me about all of the hate that women get online about that kind of stuff, I'm glad to see that the dudes in the store seemed totally at ease with the fact that there were girls. I mean, there weren't lines of guys trying to hit on them or pick them up. They were just part of the environment, like everyone else. Maybe, there is some hope for the future.

I hope...

Thursday, June 13, 2013

What Your Blog Says About You: Part Three -- Frequency, Consistency, and Participation

Just as personality and content go together, so do frequency, consistency, and participation. Really, these things could be clumped together into how active you are, but each needs to be dealt with individually, too, so we're gonna do that. Activeness, though, is critical if you want your blog to be successful, especially at first. Unless you're famous that is. Most of us, though, are not famous, so how active we are can be a determining factor in whether anyone pays any attention to what we're doing.

This is something my cat knows pretty well. When my cat wants attention, he knows exactly what kinds of things he needs to do to make sure I'm paying attention to him. This is especially useful in the middle of the night. For him, not for me.
He plays music. Or he scratches on doors. Or, well, any number of things. And, yes, we do keep the piano closed, now.

So... let's talk, first, about frequency.

How frequently you blog will have a lot to do with the amount of traffic you get to your blog. Of course, the obvious reason is that the more often you blog, the more often people that want to read your blog will have to stop by to read what you have to say. But it's more than that. How often you blog keeps you in the minds of your readers. It helps them to remember who you are, and that's important. When you're starting out, if you blog less than once a week, it's quite possible for a "follower" to see your post in their feed or reader or whatever and say, "Who the heck is that?" You don't want a "who the heck is that?" response to your posts. Here's a good example of how this kind of thing works:

Let's say you participated in the April a-to-z challenge, which is just that, a challenge. I won't argue that. So you did a pretty good job during April, maybe even completed the challenge but, at least, did, say, four posts a week. Then, in May, because you're feeling rundown or overwhelmed or whatever with all the blogging you'd been doing, you take a break. I know, many people do. But you'd picked up all of these new followers who don't know anything at all about your actual blogging style and, then, you don't post...
Until June. And the response is, "What the heck blog is that?" [And you probably even start with an apology about how you haven't been posting, which is a completely separate reason for people to roll their eyes (but we'll get to that next time).] Yes, some of them won't even click through to find out what the heck blog that is. Or, maybe, said person added so many new blogs during April, people that kept up posting frequently, that he's, now, uninterested in your blog. The amount of posts a person can read in a day is, after all, finite. [Unless you are Alex, but I'm beginning to believe he actually lives outside of time.]

Which leads us to consistency. Even if you can't post with great frequency, being consistent can be just as important. Let's say you're going to make 24 posts in the next year: It's much better to post twice a month than to post seven times the first month, five times the second month, skip the next two months, then post seven more times... Unless you have some exceptional content, people just won't take you seriously with that kind of routine. Which is why all of this is important, anyway. When and how you post tells people about the kind of person you are.

So, wait... let's go back to the whole having a successful blog thing. This is an important consideration and it goes back to that whole "what is the goal of your blog?" question I mentioned in an earlier post. If your goal is to just have a blog and you're really doing it for yourself (or whatever) none of this matters, BUT, if you're goal is to have a "successful" blog--and by successful I mean a blog that gains followers, gets comments, and people want to follow--then these things are important. Vitally important.

And, now, let me address just the writers out there, because I know a lot of you have blogs with the goal of building a platform. If your goal is to gain readers, your readers need to have a certain level of trust. Trust in you and trust in your writing. If your blog exists to say to readers, "hey, look at me; I have a cool blog with lots of interesting stuff; come see how I write so that you'll want to buy my book" [There's nothing wrong with having that blog, by the way. It's completely valid to want people to know who you are so that they will want to buy your book.], then your blog needs to reflect your writing ethic. If you blog inconsistently (either in frequency OR content), people will view your writing that way, too. If your content is inconsistent, people will think your writing is inconsistent. If your frequency is inconsistent, it won't matter how good a writer you are, because people won't trust that you can deliver the material. [And let me just add, if, on your sidebar, you have listed about eight WiPs AND you can't manage to blog more than every three or four months, people will completely dismiss you as a serious writer. Well, I will, anyway, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one affected that way.] The point here is that your blog is a reflection of you. You as a person and you as a writer. So, if you're going to have a blog, you have to take it seriously.
If you're a writer.

All of that brings us to participation. And, oh, man, what a sticky one this is. When you're starting out, especially, it doesn't matter how good your content is, how frequently you blog, or how consistent you are if you don't participate in the blogging world. It's only by visiting other blogs and commenting that people even know you exist. And you can't just run around saying "come visit my blog" on every blog you run across, because that is a sure way to keep people away. Participation comes in three ways:
1. Your posts.
2. Commenting on other blogs.
3. Responding to comments on your blog.
The thing is, you are, by putting your blog out there, asking people to come in and listen to what you have to say. And, really, why should anyone do that? Unless you're going to do the same, that is. No one wants to hang around the guy that just talks all the time, you know, and never listens. People start to avoid that person. And they'll avoid your blog, too, if that's the way you handle it. And commenting on a blog is not the same as being the one talking; it's a way to demonstrate that you've been listening. So is responding to comments. I'm sorry, but, if you're not Stephen King, you can't expect people to just walk in and pick up the bread crumbs you're sprinkling on the ground.

So here's a personal peeve:
I really hate it when people complain about how they don't seem to be gaining any followers, and I say, "Well, do you spend any time reading other blogs and commenting?" and I get the response, "Oh, no, I don't have time for that." Well, then, that's your answer. If you can't make time for that, why should anyone make time for you? Seriously. Unless you're words are literal gold falling to the ground (that will also pop out of my monitor as I read your blog), why should I spare the time for you that you will not spare for me? That's just how that works. And I don't mean this in any "let's trade back scratches" kind of way; this is how you form a relationship. A relationship is not me showing up to "listen" to you for half an hour every few days while you ignore my existence.

But, then again, it's all about the goals for your blog. If your blog is just for you, and you don't care about followers or readers or anything, then none of this matters, but, if you do want a "successful" blog, you can't do it in a vacuum. You  have to participate.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Rewards of Failure (an Indie Life post)

As I've mentioned before, I had a non-standard educational experience. At least, it was non-standard for when I was in school. Much of the experimental stuff they did with us when I was in school is standard now. We were part of what they called a "pilot program" to see if what they did with us would work on a broader scale. Yes, I was a guinea pig, me and my friends.

The specific thing I want to talk about right now is algebra. When I was a kid, the belief was that algebra was a high school specific class. Kids younger than about 15 just could not understand it or retain it, so it wasn't taught below the high school level. My friend "Parker" and I presented them with some amount of difficulty, though. Here's a rundown:

  1. Sometime after Christmas during the fourth grade, our teacher took the two of us aside and told us that she had nothing she could teach us; it wouldn't be fair to the rest of the class. Therefore, she gave us our math books and told us to just do whatever. We finished that math book almost immediately. She gave us the fifth grade math book. We worked through that one, turning in the assignments (all of them) as we went. We finished that one. She gave us the sixth grade math book, and we did the same to it. She dug up some alternate sixth grade text book, and we started to work on  that one, but, alas, school ended. We did all of that within a few months.
  2. We were moved to a different school for fifth grade, one with a brand new special program for kids like us from all over the Parish (this was in Louisiana, not a Catholic thing). However, they still didn't know what to do with the two of us in regards to math because we were so much more advanced than any of the other kids. So they, um, just stuck us in the sixth grade math class, which didn't win us any friends, because we had to be singled out of the class, a couple of fifth graders, and given special work that none of the other kids could do. Mostly, though, we were just left to ourselves, because, again, the teacher didn't have time to spend on just two kids with special needs (it sounds bad when I say it like that, doesn't it?).
  3. For sixth grade, they brought in a special teacher for us and grouped us with the other sixth graders in the special program we were in. They, also, were too advanced for the regular sixth grade math class. We worked through a couple of seventh grade math books but, still, no algebra.
  4. Things changed, again, for seventh grade. There was a restructuring of the entire education system in Caddo Parish (maybe all of Louisiana, but I don't know about that). Sixth grade was moved from elementary school to middle school (in fact, it was that year that they switched from calling them "junior highs" to "middle schools") and a new middle school was opened, a Magnet school (following a couple of years behind the opening of the Magnet high school (the first one in the state and one of the first in the country)). The program we were in was going to be located at the Magnet school, and they were going to try us (all of us in the Gateway program) in pre-algebra.
  5. Eighth grade. They were going to try for the very first time (at least, in Louisiana; I don't know about anywhere else) teaching algebra to middle schoolers. One special class of eighth grade algebra students in the whole of Louisiana. And this is where it gets interesting and is the point of all of this.
See, there was a catch to this special, trial algebra class. Not only did we have to pass the class for it to count for high school credit, we had to pass an algebra proficiency test at the end of the year to show that we had retained enough of the information for it to count as high school credit. Otherwise? Well, otherwise, for anyone not passing the test, algebra would have to be retaken. No one thought much of that test during the school year. Standardized tests were easy, right? I mean, we were a group of about 30 high achieving students and standardized tests were... snacks.

The test took place on a Saturday after school had ended for the year. Yes, we had to go take a test during summer break. [But, then, my creative writing class was horrified recently to learn that I had assigned summer reading, too, so taking a test during the summer wasn't that big a deal, I guess.] A couple or few weeks later, I got the results in the mail. I had passed. But, not only had I passed, I had aced the test. Not a single incorrect answer. "Parker" was the same.

Then we got the call. I know about the call, because I was the one that answered the phone, and my parents weren't home, so they just talked to me about it. In retrospect, I'm not sure how wise it was for them to talk to a 14-year-old about all of this, but it is what they did. As it turned out, not only were "Parker" and I the only two students to get 100% on the test, we were the only two students that passed the test. Which is not what they called to tell me, not exactly, anyway. No, what they called to tell me, so that I would not be upset about it, is that they had decided that they were going to throw out the test and just go off of the class grades to determine who would get algebra credit and go on to geometry. They were worried that I would find out that other people had not passed the test and, yet, were in geometry with me, and they didn't want me (or "Parker") making an issue of it. They didn't want us to talk about it.

Fortunately for them, at the time, I didn't much care and just shrugged it off with a "sure, I won't talk about it or tell anyone my test scores" (except for "Parker," because he and I had already communicated about it, so, when they told me I was one of only two kids to pass the test, I knew the other one was "Parker" without them having to tell me anything else). Since then, though, I've developed quite a bit of ambivalence over the whole situation.

On the one hand, I understand the "everyone failed; our standards must have been too high" mentality. We just dealt with a similar kind of thing with my oldest son in his history class. There was an essay assignment with a fairly specific instruction set. If any particular student did not follow the instructions, s/he received a 0 on the assignment. That's pretty hardcore, but I understand that. So my son's classmates started getting their papers back, and everyone was getting a 0. Everyone. That went on until everyone had gotten their papers back... everyone except my son. All 0s. My son was kind of freaking out, especially since it took nearly two months for him to get his paper back. I can only assume it was because the teacher actually had to read and grade my son's essay, because he was the only one in the classroom to follow the instructions. He got a 95. Not just the only "A" in the class, but the only grade that wasn't a 0. So, on the one hand, I have to think the teacher wasn't quite doing his job if more than 95% of the class failed at the task. On the other hand, if my son can follow the instructions, a boy who can't remember from week to week where to put the trash cans when he moves them down to the curb for pick up, any of those students should have been able to follow the instructions. So, you know, I get the board (or whoever it was making the decision about the algebra class) deciding to do away with the test and just going with the class grades.

But, on the other hand, I have an issue with lowering the bar to meet the standards of failure. It was made clear to us going in that we had to both pass the class and pass the test to get credit, so it seems wrong on some fundamental level to shrug and say, "oh, well" and allow in everyone that only passed the class. Which is not to say that I know what they should have done instead. Maybe, the test was too hard; I don't know.

All of this does remind me of the current state of independent publishing, though. Which is not to say that I think we should go back to the artificial gatekeepers of traditional publishing; I certainly don't. I do think that we've adopted an attitude of accepting failure as normal, though. As a community of independently published authors, I think that is totally what we've done. Part of it is because we've, basically, decided that no one should fail because, if people were to fail, nearly everyone would fail. We've lowered the bar to meet the standards of failure. We've lowered it so far that in many cases it not even okay to say, "Hey, this doesn't measure up. You need to learn to spell and punctuate or you need to hire a (good) editor."

Here's the thing: While it's true that some of those kids that were passed up into geometry did just fine and went on successfully through their math classes, many of those kids also failed the geometry course and, because of that, failed out of the school completely (about half of the freshman class each year failed to maintain the requisite GPA to stay in the school). If those kids had been required to re-take the algebra class, not only may they have been successful in geometry when they got to it, but they may have also been able to keep a GPA that would have allowed them to continue on at the Magnet school.

In the same way, if we would have the strength or courage or whatever it is we are generally lacking in the self publishing world to say to some of these authors who are throwing their... efforts... out into the world via the Kindle (and I say Kindle, because that's where most of them go, but, you know, whatever platform), "Hey, this piece of work fails the grammar test; you need to go back to work on it," or "Your story structure in this piece is really rather flat; maybe, you should spend some time study the way a plot works," or, just in general, pointing out where work needs to be done, well, maybe, more of these people would start putting out stories that "pass the test."

Really, this world of independent publishing is not like the algebra class thing in that, if you failed the class, it only affected you. However, pumping the indie world with works that don't pass reflect badly on all indie authors. In that, we should stand up and say, "Hey, we want people to respect indie publishing, so take this back until it's ready."

And, sure, I hear a lot of you getting ready to tell me how subjective it all is, but, when it comes to grammar and punctuation, it's not subjective, and, as a writer, if you can't learn to actually do the math, so to speak, you need to go back and take that algebra class again. Or get someone that can do it to help you out. That's all there is to it, really, because it doesn't matter how good your story is if people can't find it due to the piss poor writing.

So... I know it seems somehow kinder when we just cheer everyone on and tell each other what an amazing job we're all doing, but that kind of thing just brings us all down in the end. It lowers the bar until failure is success, at least to us. All those other people looking in from the outside just see a pile of steaming crap. Raising that bar up above the fumes helps us all. It lets other people know that there is something valuable in indie publishing. There is good to be found there. And helps those beneath the bar to become stronger writers as they strive to "pass the test."

This post has been brought to you by Indie Life.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

"Like An Axe Through Bone" and "The Harlot"

It's an interesting thing to see what other people will do creatively with something you've come up with. It's also interesting to see how you, yourself, react to those things. All you have to do is watch a couple of kids playing with one of those kid's toys to know what I'm talking about. Because my daughter has a giant dollhouse and because we recently had an issue around this that relates, let's imagine two five-year-old girls playing at one of the girl's houses with her dolls and dollhouse. In most circumstances, you will not have to wait long before you hear the owner of the dolls and house proclaim, "You're not doing it right!" A well-meaning parent will run in and try to explain that there is no wrong way of doing it, but the owner will continue to protest, "She's doing it all wrong," and, eventually, the girls will get banished from the dolls.

What's not being understood by the other people involved is that the girl (who owns the dolls and house) has an entire world created in her head around her dolls and the house they live in. When the playmate comes in and starts asserting her version, it pushes the girl that owns the toys out of the world she's created. Unless it's something you're prepared for (and what five-year-old is prepared for something like that?), it can be difficult to allow someone else to play in your sandbox. I mean dollhouse.

[Note 1: This is nothing like what happened with my daughter. That involved actual breakage of her stuff when she wasn't in the room, but the dollhouse makes a good example.
Note 2: Girls are actually able to learn cooperative play much earlier than boys, so the whole "you're not doing it right" is something that is much more common from boys.]

All of that to say, when you invite someone to play in your world, you have to be okay when they change the rules. Especially since it's the way that the rules get changed that makes the stories interesting.

Bryan Pedas, in his story "Like An Axe Through Bone," has "changed the rules" of the House Universe. It's no longer 1983; it's the now. The Howard family has been moved forward in time to accommodate a contemporary setting. With the Internet and e-dating. The Howards are in the story, but they're just there to support the actual story, the story of a man who has lost his wife too soon and has allowed his imagination to become his only escape from the pain.

Or is it just his imagination?

It's a great story with goblins and dragons, but those things are not the story; they're just in the story. There are barbarians and lots of fighting and dying, but those things are not the story, either. The story is one man struggling against himself and the pain he's wrapped up in.

I think you all should read it.


By the end of this month. I mean, that's when it will be available: by the end of this month.
Shaodow Spinner -- coming soon!

Today, though, is part 23 of the serial release: "The Harlot" FREE! today, Monday, June 10 (and tomorrow, June 11)!
Here's today's complete list of FREE! parts:
"Part Twenty-three: The Harlot"
"Part Twenty-two: The Undying"
"Part Twenty-one: The Chase"
"Part Twenty: The Sword of Fire"
"Part Sixteen: The Dark Tree"
"Part Fifteen: Food of the Garden"
"Part Fourteen: Anger and Laughter"
"Part Thirteen: The Clearing"
"Part Twelve: The Gash in the Floor"
"Part Ten: The Broken Window"
"Part Nine: The Shadow of the Tree"
"Part Eight: The Cold and The Dark"
"Part Seven: The Moth and the Shadow"
"Part Four: The Cop"
"Part Three: The Bedroom"
"Part Two: The Kitchen Table"
"Part One: The Tunnel"
There you go! 17 out of 23 available parts! Grab them while you can >ominous music!<

[Note 3: If you're interested in watching the excitement with my A Game of Thrones 1st edition, you can see the auction here.]

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What Your Blog Says About You: Part Two -- Content

Closely related to the personality of your blog, is the content. One informs the other to a certain extent. I mean, if you want the personality of your blog to be humorous, you don't want your content to be about death or terminal illness or human trafficking or climate change or... I'm sure you get the idea. Although, now that I think about it, a humor blog about death could be, well, funny.
Don't eat the salmon mousse, right?

Your choice of content is the biggest factor in determining who's going to read your blog. In that respect, choosing a topic like "writing" is going to significantly decrease your potential audience. Sure, there may be lots of people out there that think they can write a book and many people with some scribblings, but most people don't want to spend a lot of time reading about how to write. And if your specific topic is grammar... well, good luck with that. No matter how funny you are [See, grammar is one of those topics that most people don't relate to humor, like history. Or quantum physics.], you are not likely to be attracting the masses.

So, then, it's important to look at whom you want your audience to be before you settle on what you want the content of your blog to be. When I started my blog, I knew I didn't want to just talk about writing, because I didn't want to just have other writers reading my blog. Again, as many people as there are out there writing, it's still a small audience, relatively speaking, especially since most people who are out there trying to be writers do it without bothering to really know anything about how to write. (The overall quality of self-published works wouldn't be so piss poor if that were not the case.) And, well, there are so many bloggers that will tell you in excruciating detail the way to be successful as a writer that I didn't want to get mired in all of that.

Which brings us to goals. You have to know the goal for your blog before you can figure out what the content should be. Who is it you want reading your blog? Do you just want other writers? Fine, focus your blog on writing related topics. Do you want your blog to be informational? Focus on the data and post links. Do you want to moms to read your blog? Talk about kids and how to make your house function more efficiently. [Yes, I know that that is somewhat sexist, but it's also mostly true. Hey, it is what it is.] Do you want Republicans? Or Democrats? Talk issues and bash the opposing party. As often as possible. Do you want the whole universe reading your blog? Post silly pictures of cats.
Oh, wait, look!
No, I do not know what went down the drain.
And if you're trying to get readers? Well, one thing you shouldn't do is spend nearly every post you write badmouthing readers. Seriously, this one guy I follow (and, no, I don't know why I still follow him other than that it was a subscription thing and comes into my email and I haven't taken the time to make it stop (Make it stop!)) spends almost every post (and thank goodness he doesn't post frequently (which is another reason why I haven't gotten around to unsubscribing)) complaining about how readers are just bunch of cheapskates that can't even spend the price of a mocha to buy his books. Or, like in his latest post, he published an email from a reader (I'm assuming without permission, because I can not imagine anyone giving permission for this) and went on to "defend" himself against the allegations the writer of the email had put forth against him. I'm not thinking this is going to help win him any new readers.

So, yeah... What is your goal for your blog, and do you have content to match it?

For example, one of the things I believe (and from comments I've received from people, I'm pretty sure I'm correct) is that people that like Star Wars will like The House on the Corner, so I talk about Star Wars. A lot. Not posts and posts about Star Wars, but I make sure it comes up in conversation. So to speak. See what I just did there?

Once you've decided on your audience and your content, stick to it. People will come to your blog to deliver the type of content you've said you'll have. For instance, I tend to stay away from political stuff and religious stuff and sports stuff. Mostly, that type of content just causes controversy, and I carry enough controversy around with me to want to delve into topics already filled with the stuff. Which is not to say that you can't make the occasional exception, like I did back in this post, but, mostly, you need to keep your content pretty consistent. Do the kinds of posts you do and stay away from the kinds of posts you don't do.

Oh, let me just add that I don't stay away from any topic because I'm scared of controversy. Anyone that's been around here for any length of time ought to know that I have strong opinions, and I don't mind sharing them. However, I dislike getting involved in arguments that aren't (ever) going to go anywhere, and any time you start talking about politics or religion or, even, sports, people already have their minds made up and no amount of talking about it is going to change anyone's opinion, which I talked about back in this series. See, I'm a Cowboys fan--I have been since I was a kid--and no amount of arguing with me about it is going to get me to change my mind. Fortunately for you all, I don't really care about football, so saying that I'm a Cowboys fan really isn't saying much. But I'm still not changing my mind.

All of this talk about content has made me look up at my heading (you can look up at it, too). That's the stuff I decided I'd be talking about when I started up my blog. Yes, that hasn't changed since the blog started. That's still the stuff I talk about: writing, reading, movies, pop culture stuff. I've branched out just slightly from that in that I now talk about my pets and kids and whatever general kind of thing might come to mind, but the core of what I blog about is still that stuff at the top.

All of that to say, or to wrap up, or something: Your content is important. There are a lot of blogs that I have given up on because they never say anything. Wait, no, because the blog doesn't say what it says it's going to say. How many of you (those of you that do) would continue to follow Alex if he started talking about his guitar all the time. Every post. It was all about how great rehearsal was or how he'd learned some new song or whatever. He's established a particular type of content, and, if he morphed into only talking about guitar practice, people would quit stopping by. And what about Matthew? What if he quit doing his query letter thing and started talking about his love for ping pong? All the time. I'm guessing not many of you are that interested in a blog about ping pong.

Content may be more important than personality where blogging is concerned, and I almost used it as part one, but I'm gonna guess that most of you never thought specifically about the content of your blog and just let it develop from your personality, which is fine. As I said back at the beginning, the two things inform each other. I chose the topics I chose because I like those topics, so it makes it easy to have things to write about (as opposed to choosing grammar and trying to make gerunds funny (and I think there's a very in-poor-taste joke there about Richard Gere just waiting to happen, but I'm not going to try and figure out what it is)). So, if your content has flowed out of your personality, it may be worth giving it a think, figuring out what your goals are, who you want your target audience to be, and making some adjustments to your content. Or not. It's just one of those things you should at least think about.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Breaking the Blogging Bubble (an IWSG post)

I think blogging is somewhat essential for a writer these days. Well, non-literary, non-bestselling writers, anyway. I'm sure Stephen King has no need whatsoever of any kind of blogging or anything else. But it is probably especially essential for new writers. That's the theory, anyway. And it's what publishers and agents seem to be saying to writers. Get online. Okay, so maybe not necessarily a blog, but some form of online presence, and, as far as I can tell, a blog, tied with twitter or facebook or whatever, seems to be the best way of doing that.

But blogging seems to also create a... bubble... around the blogger. Not a soap bubble, either; a hard, impenetrable, survive-out-in-space kind of bubble. Initially, this bubble is a good thing, because it does allow the blogger to survive out in space, which is what it feels like when you start blogging. Like you're out in space and no one can hear you scream. Or talk. Or type. Or whatever. But, after awhile, if you do it correctly (check my "What Your Blog Says About You" series), you'll actually wrap yourself in a bubble of other bloggers. A nice, comfortable, safe bubble.

Now, if you're just a blogger, this bubble is kind of cool. You have friends. People that know you. People you can count on to comment when you post. Whatever, you know. It's all good. As they say. However, if you're a writer, this bubble can be kind of dangerous, because, basically, whatever it is you're writing will just stay confined to your own personal blogging bubble. However big that happens to be.

For me, at this moment, that's not really all that big. For most of us, it's probably really not all that big. Also, it's not gauged on how many "followers" you have but on how much interaction you have going on. If you have 700 followers but no one ever comments, you probably don't really have 700 followers, just 700 people who, at one time or another for one reason or another, clicked your follow button. If you have 700 followers, but your only getting a couple of dozen page views a day, you don't really have 700 followers. Your bubble isn't as big as you think it is.

But that's not really the point. The point is, as a writer, if you're just depending upon your "followers" to support you and your book (or whatever it is you write), then you're not going to get very far. The truth is is that most people that read books do not also read blogs. But it's those readers you need to get to. Those readers you need to make aware of your existence. And, somehow, you have to break out of your blogging bubble to get to them.

I do know what this is like as it's happened once or twice, like I talked about back in this post when I got listed on a site that suggests books to readers. Readers who are not bloggers and who do not read blogs. It's a hard thing to do, though, to get past the confines of your bubble and make other people aware of you.

I think some people are satisfied with their bubbles, but I'm really not. Nothing against you guys that stop by here and read and my stuff and comment and all of that, but my real goal is to burst my bubble. To get past it. Out of it. To get to the point where Neil Gaiman was at when he said "my job had become answering email, and I had to stop doing that." Not that I want to not have interaction with people or to say "well, I don't have time for you guys anymore," but, if you want to be successful as an author, that's the place you have to get to. And I want to be successful as an author, not as a blogger.

So, yeah, I love all of you guys, but my plan is to... go beyond. Break my bubble.
As soon as I figure out how.

Monday, June 3, 2013

"Let Down Your Hair"

Just a short post today.

Recently I mentioned that I joined up with a group that would be posting short stories on the Out of Print blog. My short story, "Let Down Your Hair," is up this week. Those of you who have read The House on the Corner may recognize it from the end of the book where I stuck it in (it will be coming out of the book, though, when I release the revised edition, in favor of a story written by someone else (see yesterday's post)). If you haven't read House, this little 1200 word story will give you a tiny taste of the theme of the book. Imagination. Pop on over and check it out, and follow that blog while you're there. I feel fairly confident in saying that there should be some interesting stories coming up in the future.