Archive for February, 2013

REACHING READERS

February 26, 2013

“Doesn’t a lot of junk get published? Sure. But it always has. And now readers—not self-appointed arbiters of literary merit—get to decide which books are worthwhile to them.”

A while back I came to the conclusion that anyone who goes the old route of agent/editor/publisher through a big house is a sucker.  That they’re giving away money and working hard to get scraps that fall off the publisher’s table as their agent gets a bigger cut of the pie than they do.  I still believe this; if you have any doubts about that, many people have written about the topic, such as Robert Bidinotto at PJ Media.
The only problem you face as a self-published author in the new age of publishing is the same thing a blogger faces: getting anyone to notice you.  You can have the best book ever written with the most brilliant cover, title, and blurb conceivable by mankind and might never even get noticed.  The problem is, there’s a million million other books out there and you’re just lost in a sea of choices.  You might be the tastiest fish ever, but in that big a school, nobody is even going to notice.
I listened to a podcast recently from Your Guide to Book Publishing with Amy Collins as the guest, and Ms Collins pointed out a few things about publicity.  First, she noted that while non fiction authors benefit greatly from old style publicity, fiction authors do not.  A big tour on talk shows, interviews in the newspaper, radio spots etc are great for non fiction, because they publicize the writer, not their book.  You get to know about the author, you see them and might become impressed by them, and as a result wonder what they have to say on a topic or consider their expertise.
But with fiction, the author is really irrelevant to the reader.  Yes, you might have authors you like, but only because of their content not because of their expertise. I don’t really care what an interesting person and expert Loren Estleman is, I care that he writes really interesting, entertaining books.
So she argues that to publicize fiction, you have to find readers, not consumers.  You aren’t interested in publicizing the author, but the book its self, the fiction.  And the best way to do this, she argues, is reviewers.  Now, she says to get 500 copies of your book and fire those bad boys off to reviewers around the world, to eat the cost as a price of business.  And if I had that kind of money, I would do so without blinking an eye. 
The problem is, printing up 500 copies of Old Habits would run me about $5300 (with bulk and author discount) plus the 5 bucks or so to mail every book.  And I just don’t have $7800 lying around to spend on that kind of thing.  Like I said, if I had it, I wouldn’t hesitate, but that’s a pretty fair stack of cash for anyone to blow on their own book.
She points out that even if the books end up being sold to the local used book store, that’s still outreach for your book; you’re still seeing it show up on a shelf and that’s a plus for you as an author (she also suggests putting a bright sticker over the UPC barcode that says “Not for resale”).
However, there’s another option out there.  A lot of reviewers are electronic only these days.  Yes, you’ll miss the New York Times and so on, but that’s not necessarily bad.  There’s a success story recently where an author couldn’t get her book noticed by any old school reviewer, so she sent a copy of the e-book to a hundred of the top active reviewers on Amazon and became a bestseller based on their responses.
The truth is, there’s a lot of reviewing going on with just e-books now, and since that’s the place I expect to reach the most readers, that’s where I want to aim my sights.  I’m a bit hindered right now because I can’t get my book on Barnes & Noble to sell (soon, I hope), but once I get it on more platforms, I’ll try the same thing.
I won’t get the same results the woman I mentioned does.  My book is much more niche and not a popular genre.  Fantasy is a bit flooded right now, as every dork with an idea has written a fantasy novel like I did, but I do think it might help sales a bit.  I can hardly do worse than 1 sale a month, in any case.
I’ll keep you posted as I work on this, hopefully by the end of the year I can see more sales and maybe another book out there.  In 2014 I think my PublishAmerica Snowberry’s Veil contract lapses, which would let me put another book out then as well.  We’ll see.

A STUDY IN LINES

February 25, 2013

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
-1 Corinthians 13:11

There’s a cartoon going around the net which has a sort of gut level appeal to it, especially if you are younger.  It starts out with a baby being taught by an older man, probably an old man judging by the hair:
Baby doesn’t know any better, so he repeats what he’s been told and thinks along those lines, right?
So life goes on and he begins to meet other people and get introduced to new ideas, each one basically straight lines but of different patterns, and his thoughts begin to change.

The older he gets, the more varied and unusual these influences become, and his thoughts become more varied, more creative, and more challenging.  He’s thinking deeply now, exploring new territory.

Now, graduated from college, his thoughts are wild and unusual, filled with tangents and fresh concepts.  He’s free and unique, thinking outside the old lines of his youth!  And time goes on.

But as he gets older, he starts to become more predictable, more traditional.  All those exotic influences and creative ideas fade and his thoughts calcify.  Until finally as an old man…
He passes all those old ideas on to another child.  How tragic.
Now, if you’re in college, this probably seems like genius to you.  But there are a few problems with this entire scenario.  

First off, kids aren’t taught in their diapers by 50 year olds.  They’re taught by… guys in or just out of college, which fits the third picture in the series, which is all squiggly and exciting in thought, according to this entire scheme.  Grandparents and older people have some influence, but they aren’t the primary people to influence children.  So the entire sequence is in error and oddly presented.
Second, most of what young people get in terms of their thinking is not determined by peers, but by adults.  Yes, they are influenced in behavior and preferences by peers – clothes, entertainment, slang, etc – but their ideas and worldview are shaped by teachers and media, which is done by adults, even older people.  So the concept that young folks bump into each other and begin changing their worldview and ideas based on the clash and interaction of different ideas is questionable at best.  There is some degree of influence, but the bulk of ideas and thought come from teaching and authority, not from peers.
Third, look at the sequence.  The presumption is twofold here; that “straight line” thinking is bad and limited, and that creative squiggly line thinking is the realm of youth.  You’re at your best, then, around ages 13-25 or so, when you are most squiggly.  This is the age of the teen and the college kid, the target age for advertisers and popular media as well.  It is a time of great creativity and new thought – for the young person.
Young people around this age are first starting to really think for themselves, to question and analyze the world rather than just accept what they’ve been told, and that’s good.  It is the first step to becoming an adult and facing life alone.  Young people have to reach a point they are able to respond to and act up on events and ideas without help from others, so they can lead and teach young people themselves.
Here’s the thing – what they think is new and shocking and creative, isn’t.  Its new to them and it seems innovative, amazing, and world-changing, but it is nothing new.  All those ideas, all those concepts, all those solutions and plans were thought of and have even attempted in past.  Young people just aren’t aware of that yet.  Its like young lovers thinking they’ve come up with everything they do for the first time in history.
Those squiggly lines?  They’re traditional and historical too.  The library is full of books about them, all those ‘new’ ideas and fresh, creative concepts.  Its great the young people are thinking about them, its a good process to go through.  But its not new.
In fact, over time ideas are tried and examined and considered and tested and some survive, while others don’t.  New isn’t necessarily good or better than old – in fact, it usually is not.  Most of the time something different is more New Coke than IPod (which wasn’t actually new, but people thought so at the time.  MP3 players had been around for years).  But we do need new inputs, new concepts and ideas – or at least very old ones that have been forgotten, so the energy and creativity of youth is useful.
But the fact is, the reason people start abandoning those old squiggly lines as they get older isn’t boredom or lack of input or laziness or a mind that becomes calcified and loses its creativity.  That all can happen, of course, but the main reasons are experience and wisdom.
By the time you’re 30 you have tried all those ideas, read and learned about them and where they go, seen more of the world, learned what humanity and life is like, and figured out they don’t work.  Yes, it seems perfectly reasonable when you are 19 that rich people should just like pay for all the poor people and it would all be great.  When you’re 50 you understand economics and human nature better.
Its not that old people are innately better than young, any more than the opposite.  People tend to get bitter and colder as they get older, too.  Having been hurt one too many times, having seen failure and misery too often tends to make people into less happy and loving than they ought to be.
But the truth is, those straight lines are straight not out of a lack of excitement and creativity, but because all that has been shaped and forged into a useful, effective final product.  The stuff that doesn’t work or actually makes things worse has been abandoned.  Truths that hold through all times and events are cherished and honored.  Facts are embraced, hopeful nonsense is lost.  Wisdom takes the place of innovation.
This pattern shown is fairly accurate, as far as it goes.  The lines go from straight to wiggly and back, in a sense.  But the moral that is shown, the happy glory of all that wiggly stuff, that’s where it goes wrong.  The presumption is that its best to abandon tradition, wisdom, and truth for creativity, multiculturalism, and innovation.  And in the end, that’s simply not true.  We need both, but always tempered by truth and wisdom.
Yet in modern culture, this is the template: youth, hope, and wild innovation are better, even if they don’t work.  We need new and fresh and exciting, who cares if it is true or not?  Its soul-affirming and wonderful, truth is so cold and restrictive.  Wisdom is so stifling!  Youth is best, old people need to just shut up and go in a corner somewhere.  Why can’t you just die and get it over with?  That’s the message of our time.
What’s odd is that the people most promoting this message are getting quite old themselves.  Pete Townshend Roger Daltrey (h/t cthulhu in comments) is still singing “I hope I die before I get old” at nearly 70.  Mick Jagger is running around stage flapping his arms like a chicken still in the same age range.  The generation that said never trust anyone over 30 is over double that age now.
And instead of facing up to that and realizing maybe that was all childish nonsense, they’re trying to pretend they aren’t old at all.  As if by force of will, denial, and enough pills they can stay 20 forever.

Quote of the Day

February 25, 2013
“Nothing can take the sting out of the world’s economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues.”
-Billy Crystal, 2012

SIR HOLMES

February 22, 2013

“…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.”
-Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder

I remember some time in the early 80s, the Sherlock Holmes copyrights expired, leaving the stories and character open to the public.  This concerned me, largely because I liked the character and was worried more trash like The Seven-Percent Solution and would be written.
The last thing the world needed was more movies such as Without A Clue with Watson as the real genius and Holmes as a bumbling idiot, I thought.  I believe that some characters and settings should be treated with respect because they are ridiculous enough without needing to be mocked.  Still, some people just can’t leave well enough alone, and others are filled with such bitterness in their own lives they feel the need to spread it around.
Over the years, the canon actually has been treated with a fair amount of respect, however.  There have been some poor attempts, but for the most part it has been a set of tales people do appreciate and want to give justice.  Jeremy Brett’s BBC run as the great detective was so brilliant and iconic I doubt anyone will ever equal or come close.
There are still some stories which are under copyright, though.  About 10 of the stories are still protected and owned by the Holmes estate (mostly the Casebook of Sherlock Holmes stories) and will be released from copyright in 2022.  It has been nearly 85 years since the last Sherlock Holmes story – The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place – was published.
Still, people keep putting out various versions of Holmes, including two major television shows.  BBC’s Sherlock has been a smash hit with 8 episodes over two years, and Elementary on CBS appears to be doing well enough to be renewed next year.  Both are attempts to reimagine the detective in modern times, with different settings.  The BBC version is the more successful of the two, although Elementary isn’t as awful as it first sounded (a female Watson, set in New York, etc).  And, of course, there is the film version with Robert Downey jr doing his usual brilliant work.
Almost all of these new attempts to write Sherlock Holmes, however, are missing a key component to Holmes’ personality.  They get his brilliant mind pretty well.  They get his analytical ability, his observational skills, his deductive discipline.  They write his eccentricities, which range from the colossal rudeness and insensitivity (in Sherlock) to childish tantrums (in Elementary).  They portray his arrogance and confidence well.  And all the actors involved are talented enough to make these characters interesting to watch.
MISSING SOMETHING
No, what they miss is critical to why Holmes was a likable sort, a hero rather than just a very effective detective.  You can admire these Sherlocks for their skill and intelligence, and often they are even amusing.  But they’re missing something that Doyle brought to his character and few writers have been able to replicate.
To understand this, you have to dig a bit more deeply into the original stories and study the character. When you do so, you find a consistent pattern of behavior, a worldview that Holmes displays in each story.
Whenever Holmes is dealing with a truly weak, poor, and needy client or witness, he is incredibly gentle and soothing.  He seems to sense the delicate nature of these people and their need for compassion, and is careful to treat them delicately as well.
Examples of this in the books are numerous, but are most often when it is a woman in a position of little or no power mistreated by others.  The Case of the Golden Pince-Nez and others where a maidservant or woman in need comes to him are always shown where he has very patient and gentle with the helpless and seeks to soothe and assure them that all is in hand.
When he deals with the powerful, the rich, and the arrogant, it is the opposite.  He has little patience, no tolerance for their blustering, and cuts through their attempts to control the situation with immediate clarity.  Holmes has no fear of authority or position, and while he is respectful of due authority, he has no patience with arrogance.  When he deals with kings, he gives them their due titles and respect – but will not allow them to abuse their authority.
Consider A Scandal in Bohemia which he almost immediately forces his client to reveal his true title and position.  Or when he faces Lord St Simon in the Case of the Noble Bachelor:

“Good-day, Lord St. Simon,” said Holmes, rising and bowing. “Pray take the basket-chair. This is my friend and colleague, Dr. Watson. Draw up a little to the fire, and we will talk this matter over.”
“A most painful matter to me, as you can most readily imagine, Mr. Holmes. I have been cut to the quick. I understand that you have already managed several delicate cases of this sort sir, though I presume that they were hardly from the same class of society.”
“No, I am descending.”
“I beg pardon.”
“My last client of the sort was a king.”
“Oh, really! I had no idea. And which king?”
“The King of Scandinavia.”
“What! Had he lost his wife?”
“You can understand,” said Holmes suavely, “that I extend to the affairs of my other clients the same secrecy which I promise to you in yours.”

Respect for the position, but no tolerance for arrogance.

Holmes also is very dedicated to justice, if not always law.  He is merciless against the unjust, tireless to protect the innocent and mistreated, and will bring a case to a resolution that brings justice, if not always legal satisfaction.  In several cases, Holmes found the truth and did not bother to tell the police about it.  In The Blue Carbuncle, he lets the thief go because he believes the man is scared enough to never repeat the crime.  In The Three Students, Holmes declines to follow through punishment on the student, telling him instead “For once you have fallen low. Let us see, in the future, how high you can rise.” In fact, in the twelve stories that make up the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes book, only one actually faces criminal prosecution.

Meanwhile in all his cases, Sherlock Holmes is utterly fearless in facing any threat, any danger, any evil to find justice and solve the case he is on.  He does so not only out of a fear of boredom, not out of any lunacy, not out of a fixation with solving puzzles, although these do likely play a part.  He does so because he is seeking to finish his quest at any cost, and what happens to himself is irrelevant to the quest.  Holmes will face whatever he must to accomplish that goal, and the thought of any personal distress is meaningless to him, a mere distraction.

It isn’t that he takes no precautions.  He puts dummies up to be shot instead of himself, he cautions Watson to arm himself when he suspects danger, he disguises himself and uses the terrain and setting to his advantage.  Holmes does so out of a reasonable understanding that he won’t be able to finish the job if he isn’t there or is too incapacitated.  But his courage is almost overwhelming, he grins at the thought of facing down danger, even when he admits it.
Now, consider these characteristics.  Sherlock Holmes is reverent when it is fitting, kind to the weak, protective of women, honors authority but will not bow to arrogance, seeks justice and truth at all costs, shows immense courage and seeks out his quest at all odds.
JOUSTING AT DRAGONS
He’s a knight, following the code of chivalry like a knight from the round table.  When there is a damsel in distress, he immediate mounts his charger (the local trap or taxi) and charges to battle with the dragon, whatever the cost.  He seeks justice and right no matter what the danger or who the enemy might be.  He always acts with honor and dignity, treating each with respect until they demonstrate themselves to be disrespectable.
Holmes is a gentleman, but more, he’s a typical Arthur Conan Doyle knightly figure. It helps if you know more about Doyle’s other stories, especially Sir Nigel and The White Company.  This is a repeated theme in many of his books; the British Knight of outstanding honor and chivalry who is an unequaled figure in his field, but who uses his abilities for the weak and downtrodden, not personal gain.  Few are anything but humble and of modest means, but all strive for justice and right against any foe.
Now, consider this when you examine, say, Robert Downey jr’s Sherlock Holmes.  Yes, he’s brilliant, yes, he’s entertaining, and yes Downey is the finest actor of his generation, one of the best I’ve ever seen. And its not that you can’t enjoy the movies.  But look at the character, he’s basically a reprobate who tricks his friend out of jealousy (in the first film), and while he works to defeat his enemies, is rarely engaged in any quest for justice or truth, but out of curiosity or events that sweep him along.
Or lets look at Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes.  Again, very well acted, entertaining, and intelligent.  Again, the stories are interesting, entertaining, and often humorous.  In fact of all the three modern incarnations, the Watson in the BBC version is the best; the most true to the original character and yet capable and noble version.  Yet missing from this Sherlock is the chivalry.  Sherlock portrays the detective as a selfish, thoughtless jerk who cares nothing about anyone but himself and his fear of boredom.  This Holmes is driven more by a need to prove he’s great and solve puzzles than any desire to do right or fight injustice.  This Holmes is closer to the gentleman of honor but only by proximity – he is set in Victorian England and thus shows the trappings of the gentleman in order to seem appropriate to the time, not out of any personal affection.
And Elementary, this is the show that has most missed the entire core of the character.  The writers are far more interested in examining the relationship between the two characters, the psychology behind Sherlock’s actions, concepts of addiction and behavior, and analyzing Sherlock Holmes than they are the character, the stories, or even the mysteries.  Holmes in this story is again well-acted, interesting, intelligent, and often funny.  He’s just unlikable, immature, bizarrely irrational, often exploding with seemingly insane fits of rage and unpredictability that strikes one as psychopathic rather than quirky.
Holmes is portrayed by Johnny Lee Miller who is a very capable actor (although blonde??) but his Holmes is a dirtbag who sleeps with prostitutes, is covered with tattoos, struggles with heroin addiction, and is regularly disrespectful and insulting to people around him without real cause.  He treats every single person like trash and unlike the BBC Sherlock rarely has any cause let alone a reasonable and proper one.  This Sherlock is immature, even bumbling at times, with flashes of brilliance, but most of his work is not especially surprising or impressive.  And in no place does he show any slightest knightly persona or tendency. 
WHITHER THE MISSING KNIGHT
Why, you may ask, is this core characteristic of Sherlock Holmes missing in these new adaptations?  Why do they fail to make Sherlock the honorable gentleman, the questing knight?
Part of the reason is the attempt to make the character “fresh” and “new.”  Away with those Victorian sensibilities, that hypocrisy and nonsense about honor.  Our Sherlock isn’t a gentleman, he’s a scumbag!  Our Sherlock has 3 day old stubble and tats!  Our Sherlock is modern and edgy!  He’s in New York in the 21st century, viewers couldn’t connect with a guy who treats people with respect!
But that isn’t even a very large part of the problem.  I’ve written in the past about how modern writers just cannot seem to conceive of heroism or write real heroes any longer.  Its rare in a modern book or film that you see a true heroic figure – and when you do, its almost always from a very small group of writers or directors.  And similarly, they can’t seem to understand true evil or villainy, either.
In the place of the knight, we get the scruffy lunatic or the fixated game player or the likeable sociopath.  In the place of justice, truth, and honor as motivations you get selfishness, fear of boredom, ghosts of the past.  Psychology, not justice drives these men.  In a world where the popular culture has discarded any notion of absolute justice and right, appeals to these notions make no sense.  It isn’t that they’ve thought through this so carefully, its that they’re so immersed in relativism it never occurs to them to begin with.
So when they read Sherlock Holmes they think “what a lunatic!” not “what a gentleman!”  They see his behavior as quaint and dated, not critical to his persona.  Of course he scraped and bowed to a king, he was a Victorian (those perverts).  My Sherlock will have nothing to do with that!
And the knight is lost in the push for post modernity, a need to wreck all things related to the past and traditions that have come before.  The rethinking of Sherlock Holmes stole away from him all that made him an especially admirable character, not simply an amazing personality.  Holmes is more than a deductive machine with eccentric behavior, he’s a knight in evening dress tilting at dragons wearing monocles and bearing canes, not lances.
Honor, dignity, chivalry, and even being a gentleman are all things to be mocked, laughed at, torn down, and attacked, not revered or emulated.  These things shame us by comparison, they make us feel small when we are not honorable or gentle.  A man who behaves right and true in a culture of wrong and falsehood seems a lunatic and heretic, someone who must be silenced.
Its more than a lack of understanding of these concepts, it is an antipathy, a shunning of them.  The knight can’t just be ignored, he must be hated and mocked lest we all look poor by comparison.  So Sherlock Holmes loses his central defining characteristic, the ideal of British manhood which Arthur Conan Doyle so greatly admired and thought all should strive for.  And what’s left, while often entertaining and amusing, just does not measure up.  In 100 years, I expect almost no one will remember these Sherlock Holmeses, but the original will still be read and admired.
For more thoughts on the detective as a knight, I conclude with more Raymond Chandler from his brilliant essay I quoted at the top:

…but down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. I do not care much about his private life; he is neither a eunuch nor a satyr; I think he might seduce a duchess and I am quite sure he would not spoil a virgin; if he is a man of honor in one thing, he is that in all things. He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks, that is, with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness. The story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. He has a range of awareness that startles you, but it belongs to him by right, because it belongs to the world he lives in.


%d bloggers like this: