Saturday, April 3, 2010
The iPad: Is it medium or is it the message?
Scott D. Parker
The iPad drops today. In case you haven’t heard, it’s the Savior of the Publishing Industry. Or so you’d be led to believe (and the publishers hope). The iPad’s e-reading capabilities are one of the top selling features of the machine as well as the new iBookstore. Marvel Comics has a comic-reading app I seriously want see. I could easily envision myself reading more comics using a device like this. The same for magazines. And, yes, I would pay for subscriptions.
For all the acolytes of the iPad, there are a number of doubters about the e-reading capabilities of the iPad. Stephen King, in his column for Entertainment Weekly, thinks that there’s a “not-thereness” to e-reading. Cory Doctorow doesn’t like the device too much, not for the e-reading aspect, but for the closed-shop nature of the iPad.
All of this chatter about e-reading and e-books and e-magazines and e-comics got me to thinking about something fundamental. Both Chris and Mike commented on it last week. Lots of people want the artifact, the proof of purchase, if you will, the proof that you’ve experienced the Whatever (i.e., the reading of a book; the watching of a movie; the hearing of music).
When you buy a book and read it, you have the proof, right there on the shelf. The more books you read, the more artifacts you have on your shelf. For many people, myself included, a home isn’t a home until I have bookshelves full of books.
In one way of looking at it, however, books are like the t-shirt you buy at a rock concert. When a rock show really thrilled me, I used to buy the t-shirt (the medium) and wear it the next day. Then, folks would see my t-shirt and ask about the show. I’d extol them with every guitar lick, brass line, and light trick (the message). The shirt (along with the ticket stub) was my artifact, my way of remembering the experience of the concert.
The internet in general, and blogging in particular, changes this equation and the medium. My “concert t-shirt” is my review of something I experienced. It’s a way for me to explain why I liked/disliked something. Likewise, when y’all read my stuff, we can get into a conversation and discover new ways to think about common things.
Blogs are not published (in a traditional sense). They are published in a new sense. They are posted with a time and date stamp. They’re out for everyone and anyone to read. They are digital, etherial, not there. I can’t autograph a particular post I wrote that you really liked. All you can do is tell me you liked it and why and then tell others. Coming up on Tuesday here at Do Some Damage, we have a flash fiction challenge. Those stories will be published but there will be no artifact for your bookshelf. And you’ll be reading them on your computer. There’s no way around it. I’ll guarantee you that you’ll read at least one story that’ll make your day.
Folks who frequent libraries don’t have artifacts either. I’m a library power user. Like some who commented on my main blog this week, I know the librarians’ names and they know mine. It’s wonderful. I can assuage my thirst for wide variety of tastes in music, movies, and books. I can try something before I decide to it. More than once, I’ve purchased something that I first read from the library.
But if the story you’ve experienced (by reading/watching/listening) is something special, having the artifact isn’t always required. Is it? I just finished reading China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station. It blew my mind. It’s going to go down as one of those pivotal books in my reading life. I don’t have the artifact. I checked out the book from the library and listened to most of it as an audio file. Yet, I still have the experience. It’s internal and special, only to me. I can share why I liked it so much but I don’t need the artifact to do that.
This is a ironic post, to be honest. Here I am, a yet-to-be-traditionally-published author, one who hopes you’ll buy my books in the future, talking about why physical artifacts are not really necessary. I don’t think they are. The story is the key. Who cares about the delivery device? I think the savvy author in this decade and this century needs to be fluent in different delivery methods. Up until the internet, books had cornered the delivery device market. Now, in the 2000s, the delivery devices are expanding and also fragmenting. We writers have to write a damn good story. Period. That’s the fundamental rule. It’s only later we’ll have to figure out how to get it to the eyes and ears of all our readers. Some readers will want the artifact. For them, there are books, a medium that will never die. Some won’t care. For them, e-reading or audiobooks are the way.
Despite what Marshall McLuhan says, the medium (i.e., the artifact) isn’t always the message. Sometimes, the message (i.e., the story) is the message.
But not today. Today, with the iPad, the medium *is* the message.
Friday, April 2, 2010
Everyone's a Critic
Those of you who don’t know, as well as writing short stories, when I started out in the crime fiction world, I also did a lot of reviews. I still do, although my style of reviewing is very particular and rather detailed, so I tend not to go as fast as I did in the days before my own deadlines.
But reviews are funny things. When I first started out, I was very kind. I swiftly realised that even when you try to be nice, you still get in trouble. Like the author who wrote what was probably one of the most clichéd and appalling serial killer books I ever read. Who I was very kind to in the review (this was when I was starting out) all things considered, but took me to task because I said that her serial killer was no Hannibal Lecter. “He’s not supposed to be – he’s Ted Bundy!” came the outraged reply along with a piece about how some reviewers just “don’t get it”. Just as well I never put in the parts about the clunky dialogue, the unbelievable sentence construction and the horrendously clichéd plot. From any angle, these were problems with the work, but back then I was too young and timid to acknowledge that I was probably right on these matters.
Actually, this experience taught me to be more honest in my reviews, to find an approach that felt natural for me and to hell with people’s egos.
I approached the idea from a slightly academic standpoint. What I was taught during my postgrad in philosophy about reviewing was this: try and understand what a work is trying to do, and then argue whether it is successful.
It’s a maxim that informs all my reviewing. I have my personal tastes, but what I try to do is remain objective. I try to figure out what the author was trying to do and work from there, give over my honest reaction as a reader who wanted to engage with the text, to lose themselves in the author’s world.
A successful approach?
I like to think so. Of course, sometimes it gets me in trouble. A few people pulled me aside for a review I once gave that said the author was a fine writer but came unstuck with a frankly unbelievable conclusion to what had been a very grounded tale up until the implausible third act. I said, “But I fully admitted in the review that the book was well written, and the characters developed, but this ending just felt so out of left field and unlikely that it left a slightly strange aftertaste; I didn't believe it because of the set up that preceeded.”. But, no, I was being critical. And this, for some folks any criticism is a no-no.*
The truth is that these days I will rarely review a book I hated. Just because there’s no point. I will criticise novels, of course. I know – especially after that early experience – that trying to be relentlessly positive isn’t my bag. And I think if you wear your heart on your sleeve, readers - and its for readers that reviewers review, not neccasarily the authors - react to that, and know when to take your word and when they'll probably disagree with you. I have been emailed by a few authors thanking me for an “honest appraisal” of their work, and its true; if there are faults, I will point them out, but I try to remain balanced while doing so. The worst thing a reviewer can do is be spiteful. Yes, you can say a book is bad, but only if you can come up with genuine reasons why. One of the trends I hate in certain revioewing circles is the self-congratulatory put-down that is intended to show the reviewer's wit rather than honestly appraise the novel.
A couple years back a reviewer friend of mine got into trouble for doing a semi-negative review of a book everyone loved. Some nasty things were said over the review which was – while I didn’t agree with it – a valid review. It was not nasty for the sake of it, and every time a negative point was made it was backed up with examples and readings of said examples. Again, I didn’t agree, but I could understand the other reviewer’s point of view. But then, maybe you have to be or have been a reviewer to understand that. I am amazed by how many reviewers, at least in my circles, email each other asking, "Am I being harsh?"
Here’s the thing; if we can’t, as writers, take professional - or even semi-professional - criticism, how the hell are we going to deal with those readers who don’t like our work? The ones who post those incredible one star reviews on Amazon? Who shout from the rooftops (and the blogs) their insane unformed opinions? Or even the professional reviewers who are genuinely unhinged?** God forbid, how will we deal with editors, as in the ones who do their job?
Criticism is a necessary part of the artistic process, of the continuing conversation between artist and observer, writer and reader. It is not always going to be pleasant. But it should be informed, civil and freed from the ego of the reviewer. I am, of course, talking ideals here, and even I probably don’t always meet them, but I try my best and that is all we ask of any reviewer. That they react honestly to a text.
And, hey, if you do get a few stinky reviews, laugh it up. Brad Meltzer's clearly got the hang of dealing with his critics:
*I review for at least one market who asks for positive reviews, but my arrangement there is that any book I can’t be positive about, I don’t review. Its simple as that. I won’t lie just to increase book sales. And in fact, I believe that lack of honesty in some reviews is what leads to jaded readers.
**Like a certain reviewer who has taken on 2 members of DSD and taken swipes at them in the most ill-informed and idiotic manner fuelled by genre prejudices and personal hang-ups.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
I have a theory.
From what I've seen written and heard said, people who are successful rarely remember the good teachers they've had. They remember the teachers who tried to "hold them back" or suggested they couldn't do something.
They remember the bad things. And they use that motivation to get to where they are now.
But in order to get where one is in life, you have to have good teachers. Someone has to help guide you through life, preparing you for what's coming, and teach you something you didn't know.
In my life, I'd say I had more good teachers than bad teachers. I learned a lot in school, and have been inspired and pushed to do something special by more than one. Even the bad teachers I had taught me something. They all helped turn me into a productive member of society.
I teach now. I'm trying to give back to the community as well.
And if there's one thing I know, it's this: Teachers are important.
They are not a group that can be walked over and stepped on, despite the fact people try. People in the private sector like to say we don't work hard or enough, and we're paid too much.
People in the private sector have no idea what we go through. School has changed, and most of us are not the teacher that you hated. We're the one that you've forgotten. The teacher you loved.
Most of us try to get to each and everyone of our students. Most of us try to get students motivated, get them to look at life a new way.
We are not in it for the paycheck.
That's not to say we don't deserve a paycheck. Because we do. We helped make you what you are now. There should be a price tag on that.
Cops help. They should make more money.
Fire Fighters help. They should make more money.
Teachers influence and inspire.
I know the economy is rough right now. I know this is a bad times to be asking for this. But when the economy turns and people in the private sector start collecting bonuses again and making money hand over fist...they'll still believe cops, firefighters, and teachers are paid too much.
There are people who are bad at every job. There are bad teachers, cops, firefighters. Bad writers. Bad governors. Bad businessmen. Bad athletes.
But the majority of people try hard, work hard, and earn their money.
So, I'm sorry if this isn't specifically crime fiction related today. But I have to say, without teachers, I wouldn't be a crime fiction writer.
Without teachers, I wouldn't know what to do.
Teachers are not a blight on society. They are not the dredge of society. They should be honored for what they do.
I hope you pepper the comments section with memories of your favorite teachers.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
East Coast - one
I spent most of last year working as a story editor and writer on the TV show The Bridge which is now airing on CTV in Canada and may air this summer on CBS in the US. It’s also been sold to about 70 other countries, so it’ll show up in those places soon, too (I don’t know if the UK and Australia are included or not).
While I was doing that work I had a few ideas for other TV shows and when The Bridge finished production my agent suggested I put together a couple of pitches and we’d take them to producers. So I did.
And we had meetings and we did ‘development’ and we talked and talked and talked but it looks like we’ve taken them as far as we can. My agent has asked me to give it a little longer, so you never know, nature of the buiness and all that, but in the meantime I’ve taken the pilot episode script I wrote for one of the TV show ideas, East Coast, and I reverse-adapted it to a novella that I’m going to serialize here every Wednesday for the next month or so.
Here’s the “one-page” that went out as part of the pitch:
Sgt. Jerry Northup works to keep his narcotics squad motivated in the seemingly unwinnable war on drugs while at the same time raising three kids with his wife, Isobel.
The USA’s multi-billion dollar war on drugs sent a lot of smuggling up through Canada. The local dealers have stepped up to become a more important – and more powerful – stop on the trip from South America to the big east coast cities of the United States; Boston, New York, Philadelphia.
East Coast is The Wire in a rural and smaller city setting straddling the border; Moncton, Halifax, Bangor, Providence and thousands of miles of unprotected border between them. But the days of the small-town hick are gone. The drug trade brought with it lots of money and organized crime from Columbian cartels to bikers to good old-fashioned mafia.
Like Southland, we’ll also see into the personal lives of the cops. These will be character-driven stories about the deeper effects of police work and crime on the people involved – how the locals get drawn into the more violent world of organized crime and the effects on the families of the men and women charged with fighting crime.
East Coast is about moral dilemmas, it’s about the grey areas between the rules. How far will cops go to catch drug smugglers? Will they use the same methods and the same intensity if the smugglers are international criminals or local fishermen desperate to feed their famies? And what about those locals, how innocent are they, how much have circumstances beyond their control left them in desperate situations and how much is simply greed?
And now, what we called ‘the teaser,’ the bit before the opening credits:
They called it the New England States-Maritime Provinces Narcotics Officers Drinking Club, a couple hundred cops taking over the entire Days Inn off the I-95 just outside Bangor for the weekend. By Saturday night they had a barbeque set up by the pool, the no glass rule was long gone and the saunas were co-ed. Music blasted, country mostly, a little R’n’B when the Fed from Boston got near the system.
The idea was an informal exchange of information. Rumours, innuendo, which dealers were on their way up, who was bringing in larger shipments, who was the biggest pain in the ass, who was most likely to get killed. All that stuff that couldn’t go in official reports, stuff that wouldn’t ever see the inside of a courtroom but stuff that would be good if the cops on both sides of the world’s longest unprotected border were aware.
In room 202 Staff Sergeant Jerry Northup, the highest ranking RCMP officer on the trip, laid his cards on the table and said, “Even in Canada we call that a full house.”
“You got a lot of time up there to play cards, don’t you?”
Northup pulled in the chips and winked at Sherriff Cousins from Worcecster, saying, “Oh yeah, you know us, we’ve got no crime we just sit around in our igloos practising moose calls and playing poker.”
“You’re in my backyard now.”
Jerry said, you know it, and dealt another hand. The room’s bed had been pushed out into the hall to make room for the table brought up from the restaurant, six cops sitting around it, maybe a thousand bucks would change hands. It was all in fun.
One floor down a naked Constable Evelyn Edwards was on top of a DEA guy from Portland, both of them very close, and her phone started beeping and the DEA guy said, “Whoa, you’re not going to answer that,” and she said, yeah, I have to, “I’m on duty.”
“You’re five hundred miles out of your jurisdiction, you’re in another God damn country.”
She was beside the bed then pulling her phone out of her jeans in the pile of clothes on the floor saying, we couldn’t all get the weekend off, then into the phone, “Edwards... Yes, un-huh, wow, really?” She shook her head and the DEA guy knew they weren’t going to finish any time soon.
Edwards pulled on her sweatshirt and jeans and took off barefoot out of the room saying she’d be back and the DEA guy saw her bra and panties on the floor beside her running shoes and thought, hey, maybe they would finish.
In the poker room Sherriff Cousins was raking in a pot, a big one, saying he knew his luck was going change when Edwards walked in out of breath, all the guys looking at her messed up hair and and she said, “Sergeant Northup,” and Jerry said, “Hey Ev, you looking to lose some money?”
“No sir, it’s about, it’s Superintendent Bergeron.”
Jerry looked at his cards and said, Henry? What now, “Did he lock himself out of the office again?”
Cousins laughed like he knew all about that kind of boss and Edwards said, no sir.
“He died, sir.”
Jerry leaned back in his chair and looked at her. Shit.
Part Two is here.
Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Waiting For The Great Leap Forward
By Jay Stringer
I’d like to start off with two things. Firstly, a thank you. Mr Chuck Wendig did a great job of raising the level of discourse in this slot while I was off taking care of bidness. It’s good to have Chuck as part of the DSD family, and we’ll see him again.
Secondly, an apology; I had said that today would be a follow up to Russel’s blog about Batman. I’ll get to that in a couple weeks, honest.
So, anyway. I’ve had an issue scratching away at my noggin for some time now, we touch on it in our most recent podcast, but I’m like a dog with a bone when something is tapping away at me.
Today's furrowed brow; Making money as a writer in the modern age.
Firstly, it might be worth watching this video by Mark Thomas, a UK comedian and activist and someone I admire quite a lot, about digital laws. Plus it has Billy Bragg, just for you.
Okay? Quick recap; Mark is talking about the stand off between the film/TV industry and the Internet. Not news really, anyone who’s lived through the last fifteen years knows all about that.
There is legislation at work that will enable people to be banned from the net for illegally downloading content. There’s a clause in it too that allows the kind folks in charge a hell of a lot of discretion as to what content deserves a ban.
Billy Bragg raises the idea that the age of freely exchanged data and music is helping the ‘smaller’ artists. Its also helping the lineage, as he points out, when he was a teenager and heard Dylan was inspired by Guthrie, he had no options. In this day and age the same teenaged William of Bragg would type a name into a magic box and have a whole wiki history to read as well as a shed load of recorded music to listen to. Would this pimply balladeer have paid for anyone of it? Probably not. But would the artists message be getting out to new ears? Definitely.
Uh oh. Grey area alert. Move on, quick.
That great prophet of our time, the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT, said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”
But times are changing. Frank Turner, who is also well worth checking out, raised the question last year of whether musicians will soon be required to give away their recordings for free, making a living from touring and merchandise. Funny thing is that aside from the top 10% of musicians, the ones who sell enough records to actually make a dime from their contracts, you’d probably find that this version of business wouldn’t make that much of a difference to the income of the jobbing ‘smaller’ musician.
In fact, as Bragg suggests in the video, it’s quite easy to see the record industries mistrust of the internet as fear for themselves. Because the artists are still there and the customers are still there, its just the model that’s changing.
Okay, so, since I long ago gave up my attempts at being a jobbing musician, why is this scratching away at my noggin?
Well, music, film, TV…books. We’re ALL writers. A butterfly starts giving away recorded content for free in New York, and a writer may be expected to do the same in Glasgow. I’m sure some chaos mathematician said that.
If one industry moves to a new model, and the value of the content changes, what’s to say all content won’t follow suit? Who’s to say that we don’t need to come up with -pretty damn quickly- a way to be able to write to a professional standard AND still earn a living. I know I’m not alone in working full time at a ‘real’ job, and then coming home to spend all night doing the hard and rewarding task of writing. And I also know I’ll always being doing that writing, regardless of money.
I can’t speak for filmmakers or musicians (though I will, at length, if you buy me a drink), and I can’t really speak for any writer other than myself. But we’ve been conditioned that the films and the albums and the books are products. And that they are what the customer is paying for, and what the artist is being paid for. Again, don’t know about others, but for me that’s not what I’m looking for in my early steps to professional writing. I’ll always be doing that anyway, and in some possibly misguided way it’s my art. It’s not a job. So the books that I’m writing (two and counting, hey, how did that happen?) are not what I want to be paid for, they are not products that I want to wave at the world as a thing. They are something that I care about, and get a lot of fulfilment from. What I want to be paid for are all the things that I can’t do when I’m writing.
The jobs that would pay bills, all of that. It’s more of a sponsorship than a business deal, to my mind. Being sponsored to have the time to write, and to have ever more time with each passing story so that I can develop and change and hopefully entertain.
Having this time to give to the writing, and to social niceties like bathing and talking to my partner, would be my priority, and I do wonder if we need to start having more and louder discussions on how we’ll do that in the years ahead.
A case I’m paying close attention to is Steve Bryant over in the wonderful world of comic books. Steve writes the second best pulp heroine, Athena Voltaire, and she is his labour of love, in an industry that doesn’t really indulge such things these days. As he himself says on the website, he has to try and steal an hour here or there just to draw one panel, and a year can go by before he has a finished issue. Commercially that’s not viable, artistically it’s wasting and it just doesn’t put food on the table. He has worked out he needs $7,000 to produce his next mini-series. That’s the figure he has put not just on the printing and packaging, but also on the time he needs to devote to doing the work. He’s asking for people to sponsor the project and, as I understand it, he is working on ways to reward the sponsorship. So for he has raised 2,000.
This seems somewhat close to McFet’s Co-Op discussion, which you can go and join in on here. It’s not quite the same, but it’s along the same lines, trying to find a different workable model.
So what would be the model for us writers? And how will we continue to collaborate with the people we need; editors and agents? Sure, I could have stumped up some cash when I finished draft one of book one, and printed it up myself to sell my opus to the world. But I’m not sure that would have made me a writer. Opening myself up to the process of submission, rejection and advice made me a writer. Working with editorial voices that I trusted elevated my work above the mess that first tumbled out of my head. And having an agent in my corner who knows what I’m trying to do, even when I sometimes forget, is what keeps the books on track. So we still need to factor in the idea that, as much as writing is about sitting your ass down in a lonely room for hours at a time, it’s also about collaborating and needing guidance.
So here’s pretty much where I’m at.
We can’t go down the route that 90% of jobbing musicians may well find themselves in. Because the work and the material is different, even though the march of progress and the buying public might not agree. So where do we go?
What is the next step? Or is there some great advance in technology that we haven’t even thought up yet that will make all these questions irrelevant?
I’d like to see what you think. Let me know in the comments, and even better, head over to the Co-Op discussion.
“The revolution’s just a t-shirt away”
Monday, March 29, 2010
Deputy A Go-Go: The Victor Gischler interview
Sunday, March 28, 2010
You never talk politics in polite company. Thank God we aren’t polite.
I’m not really going to talk politics. Well, not exactly. But I have to admit that the current political upheaval over the Healthcare Bill has me thinking. Yep…smoke is coming out of my ears from the effort. I have lots of friends whom I talk to on a regular basis be it on the phone, in person or through e-mail, Twitter or Facebook. Most of these people are stable, rational human beings. (There are lots of creative types amongst my friends, so I use the word stable loosely. The jury is still out as to whether that word applies to me.) On a typically day, I can count on these people to be kind, funny, snarky or disgruntled. They make me laugh and sometimes they make me cry. They’re normal (yeah, qualify this one, too) people.
Until politics come into play.
Last Sunday night the Healthcare Bill was passed and all hell broke loose on Facebook. People who I believed to be rational suddenly started foaming at the mouth. Words that I never dreamed my friends had rolling around in their heads were suddenly spewed forth. I learned some ugly truths about some people I like. Some are racists. Some are bad losers. A few are incredibly bad winners. All of them would make really great characters in a book.
Some of the best crime fiction involves every day normal, even boring human beings. A catalyst, like the political issue we are currently experiencing, suddenly pushes them from their rational state into a frenzy of action. People who sit next to you in church or whose kids play with yours are suddenly throwing bricks through windows and contemplating much worse. It is the reason so many of us are drawn to reading and writing crime fiction. The unexpected happens to a mundane person and a fascinating tale of morality unfolds.
The movie Nothing to Lose (with Tim Robbins and Martin Lawrence) is a great example of a perfectly normal guy who spirals out of control. Tim Robbins' character thinks he sees his wife having an affair with his boss. He holds it together and leaves in his car where he then gets carjacked. Now he’s a man on the edge. Instead of doing what the carjacker wants in order to preserve his life, he decides he doesn’t care and turns the tables. Suddenly, he is the kidnapper and he is out for revenge.
The movie isn’t a stellar example of cinematic brilliance, but it isn’t hard to believe that a normal guy would go over the edge so easily. We see it every day and, if you’re like me, you’ve seen it a lot this week when people talk about the Healthcare Bill. No matter how you feel about the bill itself, you might find some inspiration for your next book or story. Heck, that Dan O’Shea guy might even turn it into a flash fiction challenge. And after this week I definitely understand why people say not to talk about politics over dinner. There are too many dangerous implements at the table. Someone might end up dead.