Monday, November 28, 2011

Any idiot can self-publish... and many DO

Okay, the title seems like an awfully rude thing to say, which can be taken in several offensive directions, depending on who you are and how easily offended.  The problem is, on its face, it's true: literally anyone can self-publish. That's what self-publishing is.  And, thanks to Amazon, it's no longer even cost-prohibitive to do so.  This is not to say that self-publishing is inherently bad. Quite to the contrary! Both as a writer and a reader, I've been appreciative of the avenues available in self-publishing. Not only have many friends been able to get work out quickly, and begin to make names for themselves, but I've found and enjoyed many great stories that would otherwise have still been sitting on the author's hard drive, useless and unread.

DiY is a great thing, but it comes with its own set of perils, of which many authors are unfortunately either unaware or else simply not careful enough. Issues of this kind can be anything from a veritable grab-bag of grammatical misuses and spelling errors, to massive issues of character and plot development. But all of these problems, great and small are mistakes every author makes. Every. The difference? Successful writers don't fly entirely solo. Amateur authors, perhaps too confident in their own abilities -- or else not confident enough, perhaps -- often skimp on the basics. The result: what should have been a decent to excellent book is self-published before it's ready for public consumption, and reads like it was written by a fifth-grader with a condensed thesaurus.

The first of these pitfalls is the unwillingness of the author to "kill his darlings." That is, to eliminate a passage, character, or other part of the book, with which the author is particularly enamored, but does so little to advance the actual story, that it actually succeeds in degrading the overall experience. Believe it or not, a good publisher will actually do more than sell your books. See, because it is their business to sell these pesky things,  it is in their very best interest to make sure they don't suck. And, unlike you, the author, they don't have an emotional attachment to the things you wrote. You can do this without going through a traditional publisher, but first you're going to need a third party to tell you to do it. That's the thing with our darlings: we just don't see how bad they really are.

Which brings us to issue the second: getting an editor. Yes, a decent editor will cost you money.  Editors cost money for a reason: they're better at what they do than your random friends and beta readers are. Their job is not to scan through it, correcting a few grammatical issues, and generally making you feel good about your prowess as a writer. Your friends? Even the honest ones are gonna lie to you a little. Even if the editor is only proofing it, he or she will at least correct the grammatical and punctuation errors, problems with word usage, and glaringly problematic syntax. An excellent editor will even help you work through problem areas in your storytelling. Here's the thing: I don't care how good you are, or how good you think your story is, you need an editor. Preferably one with whom you are unrelated, and who you pay specifically to be critical.

If you're looking here for tips on how to improve your own work yourself, without availing yourself of a professional editor, you're not going to find them. Chances are, we've read the same books, and you're doing everything which can reasonably be expected of you. The simple fact is, you cannot make your book everything it could be. Not on your own. Beta readers are a good start, but ultimately, you're not going to get all the help you need from people with a vested interested in your happiness (that is to say, your friends). Many a tone-deaf hopeful has walked arrogantly into an audition, only to walk out again in tears, all because of well-meaning friends and relatives who didn't want to tell hard truths.

Friends are great. But if you want a professional opinion, you're pretty much stuck either paying for one or finding a patient publisher who'll help you with it.

Once again, I'm not saying not to self-publish. Who knows: maybe it really is as good as you think. But you'll never know how good your story really is if you deny yourself the same tools upon which even Stephen King relies. You could be the next Steinbeck, but if the reader can't get past the syntax and plotting, you're book's just another piece of crap; and you're just another name for readers to avoid.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Walking Dead Mid-season Finale is Tonight

Sad fact of life: Morning DJs don't get out much, and we go to bed early. If you've read this blog -- pretty much ever -- you know I am pretty much in love with The Walking Dead on AMC, but don't generally get to watch it the night it airs. It's on past my bedtime. All that to say: I finally got around to watching last Sunday's episode on Friday.

(I should mention, the following contains a spoiler or two for the comic series, as well as spoilers for anyone who hasn't seen episode 206.)

It was excellent, and worth looking forward to, but I'm not going to write a review. Instead, since apparently everyone and his mom is writing previews and spoilers, I figured I'd look at where we are in the narrative, make a few educated guesses about where we're going next, and approach the show as though I were writing it myself. That is to say, every writer is different, and there's a good chance that my guesses will be way off; I'm hoping to offset my inevitable inaccuracies by saying, "I meant to do that."

Really, I'm not sure it can get any more clear than that.
To begin, a word about the show itself. I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but it seems some people won't shut up about it, why should I? The single biggest complaint about the show (now that everyone has gotten over that whole "it's not a scene-by-scene retelling of the book" thing) is that there aren't enough zombies. A Clear case of Missing The Point. People with this complaint have either not actually read the books, or else didn't really get what Rick was saying at the end of (hardcover) Book 2.

The Walking Dead isn't about zombies any more than Rescue Me was about fire. It is a story about survivors. An understanding of this basic concept is pretty much vital to an appreciation of both the books and the show. As the series progresses, we see that it is, in fact, several stories, intertwined. Just like life itself. It is the story of individuals -- of each of their strengths, weaknesses, and desires -- and of the group as a unit. Learn this fact. The producers, no matter how much you bitch on their facebook page, will probably never turn TWD into a Romero movie.

And, let's face it, as much as I am a fan of zombie movies (my wife would call it an obsession), at some point the monsters themselves start to run together -- to look the same -- and ultimately, it really is the human story which is more interesting.

As it turns out, discovering you wife is pregnant AND
is trying to abort it, all at the same time,
IS a little disappointing.
So, to the human story that is The Walking Dead. By now, we're starting to see the cracks in Rick's armor -- and what makes him such a strong lead. Rick is a man who really wants to see and believe the best in everyone. He lives under the constant (and naive) assumption that, at their core, all people really want to do the right thing. While it is this quiet leadership that brings out the best in characters who, like Darryl, really had little going for them in the way of redeeming quality, it also blinds Rick to potential dangers -- particularly when those dangers come from people he has trusted.

Rick, to his credit, refuses to blame either his wife or his best friend when he finds out they had slept together during his absence. "I know," he says. "You thought I was dead. Didn't you?"  He's hurt, but is trying to understand. At the same time, it is not the nightmare in which he and all the other survivors live, but all these disappointments (great and small) in his fellow man, which are going to erode his sanity.

Same old story: Boy meets girl. Girl almost gets
eaten bya zombie. Boy discovers will to live.
Glenn, meanwhile, is slowly gaining confidence in himself as a leader. His uncertainty in himself this season has been a little weird, as, ever since we met him in episode one, he has been the epitome of walking, talking competence. In his own way, he's every bit at home in this new, apocalyptic world as Daryl seems to be. But he's also among the youngest of the adults (eluded to in Episode 205, by his and Maggie's place at the "Childrens' Table" during the dinner scene), and still unable and unwilling to make decisions that would affect the group as a whole.

Maggie is going to temper Glenn's willingness to risk his own life and also bolster his confidence in himself  as a contributing member of society. Glenn's character arc is far from peaked, though, and he's due for further testing.

Hype for tonight's show centers on a "shock" ending, which makes sense for a finale -- even a midseason. By now, anyone paying attention understands that the show is using the comic books more for character development and a very basic plot guide. But the producers have (rightly, in my opinion) decided to keep the show fresh by deviating from the book series in major ways. What this means is that viewers should probably prepare themselves to lose some characters early, who would otherwise have stayed with us for a while.

Crazy? I went crazy once!
Dale has a few more secrets to tell, and the real question is whether or not he's going to get to tell them. If he is killed off, it will be at the hands of the increasingly nuts Shane. This could be the shock AMC has in store. It would force Glenn to rely more upon himself and Maggie, though isn't entirely necessary to that dynamic. It would also further ostracize Shane, even if he did manage to tell a semi-convincing story to cover himself.  Two deaths with Shane as the only witness is going to drastically change the dynamic.

New story or no, Shane is himself on a death spiral. He will probably survive the midseason finale, and may even live through the season. But ultimately, he's going to die. While many would like to see some redemption for Shane, as he selflessly runs interference so somebody else can live, I have a hunch that, as in the comics, it will ultimately be a member of the Grimes family who puts him down. It may or may not be Carl, but I think it certain that it will be either him, Lori, or Rick.

Speaking of Lori, I have the feeling she'll be dead before the baby is born. The producers could choose to add the infant to the mix and see how it changes the dynamic, but I don't think they will. This means, most likely, killing off mom and daughter like in the comic books (which will come much later in the series), having Lori miscarry, or killing Lori and the baby in or before childbirth. If Darabont were still writing, I almost wouldn't put the first option past him (seriously: have you seen The Mist?). But he and the producers alike have to know how poorly that will play with American audiences.  The second option is possible; it's even possible that after such an event, Lori would commit suicide -- the emotional impact for Rick and co. would be pretty much the same. It's even possible to write it in such a way that her aborted abortion attempt could come into play. Still, it's exactly because of that attempt that I think such an option unlikely. The third option is most likely. It honestly wouldn't shock me too much if it were Shane who was ultimately responsible for it. For some reasons, while Audiences would have a strong reaction to such an event, it wouldn't be a wholly negative one.

There is also some speculation around the web that Sophia will finally be found in tonight's episode -- inside the barn, already a Walker. If it happens that way, it also drastically changes another character dynamic that's been in the works: that between Daryl and Carol.

Guess we'll wait and see.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Best Case Scenario: Superintendent Marc Winger is a Pandering Simpleton

See, this is what happens when I ignore the news for a while. Generally, I like to keep an eye on educational news because, children are, after all, our future. But, I somehow missed news over last weekend about this 11-year-old kid being suspended for comparing somebody to Obama. And it wasn't even Hitler.

Now, if you don't have time to hit the link, allow me to sum it up: a local celebrity (a newscaster for the local tv station, actually) went to have lunch at his daughter's school. Chris Schauble, the newsman, happens to be a person of color, and, for his job, is generally dressed in a suit. He also has short-cropped hair, a huge, friendly smile, and is tall and thin. I think you can see where this is going.

5th grader Grayson Thomas noted the similarity between his local newsman and President Obama, and, according to Grayson's dad, told a friend that, "President Obama’s here at our school."  

Somebody heard the comment and told Chris's daughter, who was interviewed by the principal, who then told the Superintendent, Chris Winger. Oh - but this was after the Principal was told by all the witnesses (except the girl who told Schauble - and who evidently doesn't like Grayson anyway) that the statement was simply a joke, referencing the fact that the two men have a similar appearance.

Now, the Superintendent has gone on record saying that it wasn't exactly what the boy said, but how he said it, that was the problem.  According to Grayson's father, when Winger explained the situation to him, the issue was that "what he was saying is that all black men look alike and that is racist.”

But let's take a step back for a second.  Winger wasn't there. He has no idea how Grayson actually said anything. He wasn't even the person who interviewed the witnesses - that job fell to Principal Candace Fleece.  The result: He said/she said, in which Grayson and his friend told her what he said and meant, one girl said what she thought she heard, and one girl had nothing but hearsay from the other. So, not only was Winger acting on a third-hand account of what actually happened, but it was a third-hand account with two completely different interpretations of the event. 

(photos from The Blaze)
This is enough evidence to expel a student?

I'm not suggesting the kid's an angel. What kid is? He got into trouble earlier for stealing, and was accused of making inappropriate comments to another girl (an unproven accusation, as it turned out, and one for which no action could be taken because witnesses all said it didn't happen that way).  No matter: even if the kid had punched another kid in the mouth, if he was punished for that incident, there is simply no way you can make the case that he should be expelled for this one based on two completely different interpretations of an event, and no evidence.

But the issue is far more troubling, to me, than a simple case of bad school policy.  On the surface, I'd say you could make the case that Winger is simply pandering to a local celebrity and trying to save a little face for the school.

The real problem here is that what we seem to be looking at is a school that not only will punish kids for having unsanctioned thoughts and feelings, but also for a mere inference of such attitudes as interpreted by other students. In other words, at this school, a kid can be punished for being a racist. But, since that tends to be open for a bit of interpretation, the school will use what other students and faculty think you think as the basis for discipline.

The very idea that a child can be expelled or in some other way punished for what somebody perceives as racism is, as I said, troubling. For starters, racism is, itself, subject to interpretation. Somebody like Jeanine Garofalo would tell me I'm a racist just for having a fundamental difference of opinion with a person of color.  Others will say I'm a racist simply by virtue of having been born white. So whose version of racism is the school going to punish? 

Ironically, the school seems to be worried about their actions in this matter being misinterpreted. According to a press release: 

The Newhall School District regrets that untrue statements have appeared in the media. 

And by now, of course, there are those who will have noted this fundamental irony in this very post. "You are being unfair," they are declaring, shaking their fists at their computer screens. "You weren't there, and cannot possibly have all the facts! How dare you rush to judge this school, based only on hearsay and on just one side of the story?!" 

To which I can only humbly reply, "Good point."

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Reading (and writing) with the senses (fka Sensual Reading)

(originally posted elsewhere, years ago, but since edited and updated)

I'm imagining myself sitting in a little dive just off the highway. It's one of those places in which you can smell the grease in the fries, and have to wring out your hamburger bun. It used to be an ice cream parlor. And though I rarely find myself at one of its corner tables anymore, it is still marked in memory as one of my favorite places to write.

As I sit at my kitchen table imagining, I remember the view from where I sat: old men discussing the weather, and its effect on their joints; the ladies in the back, spooning mashed potatos -- the kind with the dark, dark gravy -- and Superman ice cream.

I never brought my laptop to this little diner, prefering always the feel of pen against paper. In fact, as I write this now, I am ever mindful of not smearing my ink -- quite a task for a left-handed writer.
But there is method, as they say, in this madness. Writing is an experience of the senses. If the senses -- all of them -- are not involved, then you can only find half the story.

But perhaps I am old-fashoned.

I have in my posession an illustrated edition of Tennyson from 1885. It is well-worn. Okay -- it's in tatters. It is unlikely it would fetch much on Ebay. But it is the pride of my collection.

Reading, you see, is also an experience for the senses.

My Tennyson has layers: a path to travel before reaching the contents. You first blow the dust off the cover: it's an image so old it's a cliché, but it is no less necessary. You lift the book to your nostrils. The musk of age travels to your brain, and the smell gives the words context. And, finally, you turn the first page.

There is a feeling elicited by a bound book that an eBook -- even as they become slimmer and more convenient -- will never touch.

Not that there is anything wrong with eBooks -- anything that gets more people reading can only be a boon to society.  And I'm not saying I don't have a weird sort of love affair with my kindle. Let's face it: it's handy to have around, and sometimes, the words are all you need.

And sometimes, the book, itself, is part of the experience.  I think of Elizabeth Kostova's "The Historian."  Much of the book takes place in libraries, with the main character poring over old diaries and papers and various bound histories. Is it an enjoyable read on the Kindle? Probably. But, to me, to read such a book in an electronic format is to lose some of that feeling of "there-ness."  

When I read "The Historian," I'm holding a thick volume, and smelling that scent that hides just beneath the cover. It is as if I, too, am sitting in that darkened room, reading the account of the main character, in the form in which she left it. I'm there with her, turning page after page, feeling the grain of the paper beneath my fingertips. Hearing the scratch of the page as I turn to the next.

That sound; the weight and smell; the edge of the paper, digging ever so slightly into the creases in my fingers: All of it, the book's way of making its presence known. 

Think of your closest friends -- not the people you know from chatrooms or internet forums; the people with whom you can enjoy the quiet moments. Is it their words that bring you comfort and joy? Or is it their presence? Is talking on the phone the same as walking together through a park?  The words may be the same -- but that sweet, blessed companionship can only come, at its fullest, when you are together.

The obituary for Print has been written more times than I can count. The book, we're told, is dead. It just doesn't know it yet. Book stores are allowing now-empty shelves to gather dust, as the owners head off to more certain pastures.  What a shame.

I love words. I could read words, sentences, stories all day. And for that, certainly, the Kindle, or my laptop, or even, occasionally, a recording will suffice. But for the best a story has to offer, in those quiet moments of reading and reflection, I'll take a the weighty presence of a hardcover every time.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The (second) coolest SPAM ever...

This is the FIRST.
I like it grilled or fried, on a bun
with tomato. Try it. You'll thank me.
Some time last month, an acquaintance of mine sent a mass email asking for our support for his MOvember activities.  (Movember, if you don't know, is when men grow out their mustaches to raise money and awareness for mens' cancers, like Cancer of the Junk). Today, I received the note below; the second best SPAM I've ever seen. (note: I removed my friend's name, but left the company name, since it's technically for a god cause, even if it IS shameless self-promotion in the name of Cancer of the Junk.


Hello CIBC'ers and friends of [redacted]:
*[redacted] was kind enough to leave your personal information up for grabs and available to an opportunistic business person like myself!
*Rather than just blatantly solicit my service to you, I figured I would offer up an opportunity for you all to help [redacted]and Movember.
*Simply "like" BodyNetix on facebook and claim your free week of FitCamp.
*Attend 3 classes and upon completion send me an email with your full name and letting me know you completed your week.
*BodyNetix will then donate $10 on your behalf to [redacted] for his Movember movement!
Good luck [redacted]!
Live Long, Live Strong!
Chris KetchBodyNetix Professional Fitness Training

Daryl Oates hates
Junk Cancer. Do YOU?
I'm a fan of Movember, but don't generally participate, largely because it requires the shaving of all facial hair on October 31, which I have not done in over 5 years.  Although, for the sake of awareness and funds for Junk Cancer, I AM considering it for next year.

But seriously, I love getting email with a sense of humor. Not -- and I repeat, NOT -- forwards and emails featuring post turtles, cats going to heaven, or Redneck golf jokes; I just appreciate people who don't take themselves too seriously.

And if you know anyone who is participating in Movember, show them your support today.