Monday, February 17, 2014

The sweet smell of a surprise summer day

They say you should never start off a story by talking about the weather; true or not – I’ve never really understood the premise – I think there must be one exception to that rule: when the story is about the weather itself.

In that case, I could still be accused of being too “on point.” But so be it: because in Edmonton today, the weather was wonderful. Above-zero temperatures and six hours of solid sunlight in the middle of February? More please!

For those who do not know, Edmonton is north. Like, way up there in Alberta, half way to Alaska from everywhere else. We like to joke that we have four seasons: winter, just before winter, just after winter, and ‘winter’s coming’. It’s freezing here for seven months of the year, or so says the legend.

In truth, the weather here is just screwy. It once snowed in June, leading the Northern Pikes, of neighboring Saskatchewan, to name an album “Snow in June.” In February, the temperature usually hovers around -25 C, which for American readers is -13 F. The snowbanks are four feet high on the roadsides, the black ice on the road could sink the Titanic and periodically, Abominable Snowmen from the Canadian Plains known as “Wendigo” will swoop into the city and steal someone’s Chihuahua. Well, that or hungry coyotes.

In Summer – alt.indie.can.rock notwithstanding – it usually doesn’t snow and gets quite hot, up into the 30C-plus range, or about 95F. But in February, it’s usually cold enough to freeze your toes and your nose as soon as you step outdoors.

So today was a blessing, a slice of Indian Summer in and around the City of Champs, including my haunt in the delightfully charming suburban town of Beaumont. The pets were enjoying the back yard, as were my wife and I, sitting in a broad ray of sun that cut across our back step, warming the stone to the touch. The icicles on the upper storm gutters dripped methodically onto the brick below and our cat, who has been fighting cancer for a year, watched it all with a detached bemusement from atop a two-inch thick fence line, a feat of either amazing balance and pose or immense stubbornness. 

Knowing the cat, it could have been either.

In all, as I said, it was marvelous. But trust the dichotomous nature of human existence to ensure that there are two sides, even to such idyllic circumstances.

The first side is obvious, the good side; to enjoy a sunny day is to revel in the distraction its comfort provides, to separate from stress and worry, to relax in the wonderful glow, the orange hue that protrudes like a soft backdrop over back fences and yards. It’s a chance to stretch out and run your toes through the cool grass – or in Edmonton’s case today, along the emerging patio or deck; and, without a doubt, it’s an excuse to share a sacramental glass or two of wine or beer  -- which is, in truth, pretty much how we deal with the rest of winter, too.

Sunny weather is hallowed in song, carved into cave walls millennia old, a cure-all for everything from vitamin-d deficiency to the working man’s blues. One of my favorite writers, John Steinbeck, once managed to both praise summer and provide solace to winter in the same paragraph, asking “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?”

So when we get a day like today, we appreciate it that much more because it comes in the middle of winter. We appreciate the sound of kids laughing and playing in the neighborhood, and the wind blowing warmly through the leafless tree branches and the flourishing evergreens alike.

Ah, but as I said, there are two sides to it. We appreciate a warm day for all its endless distractions … but when you own two large dogs, as my wife and I do, a warm day also means their mountain of poop has unfrozen in the backyard and been uncovered from under the top layer of snow … and we have to pick it up.

There’s probably a broader analogy and lesson in this, but I’m too busy holding my nose right now to figure it out.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

A blatantly unfair Amazon policy

If you sell books on Amazon for any length of time, it can become an exceptionally frustrating exercise, particularly if you have some success at it.

For all you may have heard about Amazon’s incredibly screwed up reviewer platform, you may be laboring under the impression Amazon will be on your side, should the policy be abused to damage the reputation of your book.

Let me dissuade you of that notion.

On Saturday, my book “Quinn Checks In” received its first one-star review after being posted for nearly two years and selling more than 10,000 copies. Normally, that would be mildly depressing, but no big deal. People are entitled to their opinions, and I’m entitled to disagree with them.

But in this case, it wasn’t the number of stars that was the problem. It was the content of the review:
“The book was reading well and was enjoyable then some sort of defect caused the pages to not be in sequence and I was unable to figure a way to correct. “

Now, clearly, that’s a complaint about the formatting of the Kindle .mobi file that the man has downloaded, something I, as the author, have absolutely no control over. And yet, Amazon feels it’s okay to let its mistake tar my product. In any other department on Amazon, this would be considered an issue with its shipping and handling. But not for Kindle books.

No one else has made such a complaint about Quinn …  although it’s not the first time this has happened to one of my books; “Revenge in Ronda” sat unpurchased for six months because its first reviewer was also complaining about a technical file problem. Thankfully, two reviewers have since left quite nice five-star reviews pointing out that there's nothing wrong with it at all, although from a perception perspective the damage is done: the three reviews average out to a 3.5 star book, even though that does not reflect its content according to those who reviewed it.

Amazon’s incredibly inept response? To suggest I should leave a comment under the review. As anyone who uses Amazon is aware, these comments don’t show up unless clicked upon, which few do.

I sell at least  a few hundred books per month on Amazon and it’s incredibly disheartening to have work slated for Amazon’s mistake. Believe me: having a one-star review as one of the first things people see when they scroll down the product page DOES hurt sales. As someone who writes for a living, that means this stupid policy is literally taking food out of my family’s mouth.

I think it’s egregious.

In the end, it may be moot, as the book will be going to ‘free’ soon (assuming a few people point out that it’s free on Smashwords) as a promo for the rest in the “Quinn” series. But it was a point of particular pride that not one reviewer hated the book enough to give it one-star, a point that is no longer valid.

What do you think? Is it fair for Amazon to allow reviews about the technical nature of its products, and not the actual literary content of a book? Should Amazon remove the review? Writers and readers opinions greatly appreciated!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Everyone's got an opinion that's worth something. It's just usually not much.

In the two years that I’ve been selling books, I’ve noticed a trend that I’m sure a lot of other indie authors pick up on: there are as many people out there trying to make an easy buck off authors as there are authors.

There are people who legitimately have a service to offer, to be sure. But for each, there are ten people offering you something a) without the knowledge to provide the service properly, whether it’s editing or covers (a particularly rocky field) or proofing; or b) with the proper knowledge … but it’s just something you don’t really need.

Ask yourself this question before you plunk down some money: if all of these people are so good at marketing you and your book – or at helping your writing improve – why are none of them on the best-seller lists? Why don’t their books show up in Amazons top 30,000 (where best seller lists kick in for most at the low end) or on the print charts?

The answer is invariably that they’re not good enough to get there, either as writers or promoters. Some are just waiting for their big break (it doesn’t work that way) or to be discovered (keep writing; one or two books won’t do it, usually).

But you’ll learn more about how to sell as an Indie by talking to authors who are going through the experience than ANYTHING a pitchmeister tosses your way. Need a good proofreader? Ask a best-selling indie author who they use. Need a good cover artist? Ask someone selling books, not someone who tells you how popular their service is.

And for pity’s sake: when someone starts an ‘advice’ thread on a site about how to sell books or market yourself, LOOK THEM UP. See if they have any credibility to be offering you that advice in the first place. If they have multiple titles themselves but can’t sell them, then whether they’re good at their approach or not is irrelevant, as that approach does not work.

Last year, my title “Quinn Checks In” spent about three months in the “Hardboiled” mysteries best seller list on Amazon. Yes…I realize they have a lot of best-seller lists. But at its peak, it sold 800 copies in A DAY. Even months later and with that initial buzz gone, my books are selling enough to provide a healthy paycheck each month, if not a total salary replacement. For two years in? I’ll take it. I know what I have to do to improve those sales (and it involves hard work, not cheating. It can be done.)  and will work hard to improve my social profile as well. But if someone wants me to pay them for help, they better have a portfolio that says they’re worth it.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Why King Kong loved Fay Wray

Ultimately, we like stories because we fantasize about a less mundane existence. Whether it’s action and adventure or literary wordplay designed to broaden and engage the mind, we choose the books and stories we love the way we choose people: because we mesh together. We relate.

It’s one of the elements of plot development and story that I’ve really had to work hard on and learn as my writing has developed. When an antagonist, for example, isn't human and with related human problems, it can destroy the ability to craft conflict and to raise the reader’s level of tension.

Really? THAT'S your antagonist?
Want a great pop culture example? The failure of the Green Lantern movie is a recent one. Likeable star, great effects, good actors … and a principle villain who resembles a big, angry cloud, swooping towards the Earth.

Oooh. Scary.

The main threat was so thoroughly disengaging that they had to throw in D.C. Comics Grade-C baddie Hector Hammond as another foil.

Without Fay Wray --  or Jessica Lange in the ‘70s version, or … I can’t remember, Naomi Watts? … in the recent, forgettable remake -- King Kong is just a big ape who eats people. He’s humanized in the story by a love that may not move mountains, but can certainly climb buildings. At the end, when he crashes to the street, we feel awful for this poor creature … that kills almost everything it sees.

It’s a common problem, too, for a central character to take on monstrous proportions -- to become so dominant in the story line that side character development is lost and great potential, with it. Some pulp fiction authors – ahem, ahem, yours truly – try to get around this to some degree by expounding on characterization over the course of a series. But really, I’m trying to improve all the time as a person and a writer, and a big focus on my work in future will be improving side plotting.

The story I’m working on right now – a western mystery based on real characters from Texas history – is coming together a lot more solidly as a result of my efforts to reign in characterization. The baddies are bad, but human, flawed in ways we know and understand. The good guys are flawed, too … but not to the cynical degree some writers seem to feel necessary these days. It’s become almost a cliché for writers to make their entire cast of characters utterly irredeemable. I’m not sure it’s either realistic or fair to the audience, their readers and viewers, who sometimes want the good guy to actually be a good guy, and for him or her to save the day. Elmore Leonard knew this, which is why even his warped protagonists like Chili Palmer and “Maximum” Bob Gibbs had their sweet sides, which usually came to the fore when the chips were down.

Hey, even Han Solo drew first on poor ol’ Greedo … but even after he’d been paid, he still came back at the end of the story to save Luke from Darth Vader during the Death Star trench run. Redeemed!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The impotence of being honest, or how I'm learning to shut up and play nice

   The question was simple, and posed by the ever-engaging Rick F, founder of the James Mason Group on But, boy oh boy, it was a stumper: what current books or films would you recommend?
   It’s a pretty typical question, you have to admit. For most people.
   I have Asperger’s, a rather interesting developmental condition; I’ve never really written about it before, but then I don’t socialize or write publicly much at all. I’ve decided to try to get out there a little more lately for a variety of reasons – not the least of which that it’s hard to get your books read and reviewed if no one knows who you are -- and so I logged back into Goodreads after nearly a year away and started looking around at various discussions.
   And that’s where it gets difficult. Although I enjoy being social and enjoy companionship, I have had so many bad experiences trying to get along with normal people that I shy away from it. You see, my brain simply doesn’t process information the way a normal person’s does; I didn’t recognize this and get help for it until I was in my thirties, and wasn’t correctly diagnosed until age forty-two. So life has been difficult.
   I have an almost singular focus on human behavior via social interaction and historical perspective, and fitting it into my worldview. So if you want to talk about politics, religion, history, sociology – anything that makes the human condition what it is – that I can talk about.
   If you want to talk about an entertaining diversion like movies and games, I can do it, but someone else has to take the lead, because it’s hard for me to remember specifics, unless it’s one of the few series about which I’ve been briefly fanatical. In the above-referenced frame of understanding, these things aren’t very important.
   If you want to talk about things that are of a personal or emotional nature – particularly a passion or something where your emotional content might overwhelm objectivity – I flee in the other direction as quickly as my rapidly aging legs can take me.  Unfortunately, this makes me something of a hermit, missing out on regular contact and interaction, as people consider that emotional content integral to so many of their relatoonships.

   Despite what others think, people with Asperger’s can be immensely caring and emotional. In fact, we seem to have a poor ability to handle emotion generally, so we tend to shut it away rather than face it. Consequently, when something does go wrong and the emotions can no longer be held in check, they result in explosions of anger , tears, depression, sorrow. But to experience those extremes in the first place only happens because of how much the individual cares.
   However, living in a largely irrational world populated by – I really don’t mean to offend, it’s just a biological reality – people who are regularly emotionally clouded and biased, I come into conflict with people’s beliefs and opinions constantly. People take things so personally, when they’re just facts. They’re emotionally vulnerable to elements of reality that challenge their pre-existing image of themselves and the world, and so they lash out. Worse, others understand and empathize with the emotionally-damaged-but-completely-wrong passionate person; they don’t naturally sit down, look at the issue and decide who’s right or wrong. Even if they know they should, they’ll defer to maintaining the relationship and the sense of security and acceptance it provides.
   That makes hearing about things that are very personal to them a minefield for someone like me. It is hard to be tactful when you’ve spent years understanding why we behave the way we do, and then someone lays a belief or opinion on you that is nonsensical or for which they cannot provide a foundation.
   It’s also hard to be humble. By taking a more rational approach, I’ve found it easier to learn and to retain information than others.  And yet I’m also flawed, prone to bias (though less often), prone to wanting an easy answer to lower my own anxiety. So I make mistakes. It took me three decades to learn how to just admit them and move on, not to tie my accuracy to my own (false) sense of security. But I can be arrogant, of that there is no doubt.
   Socializing is hard, then. Very hard. It’s rewarding, but my brain doesn’t really register the rewards for me to recall later on, as it doesn’t register the socializing as necessary in the first place. So I have to force myself to come back to it, and fight through my own combination of bad experiences and arrogant misjudgment until I’m getting along with others again, and at the very least absorbing what they have to offer in the areas upon which I can focus.
     If I do a bit of quick research and see what was actually released in the last eighteen months (as I always wait until a movie is released digitally before I see it), I’d say my favorites in no particular order were Silver Linings Playbook, The Campaign, Seven Psychopaths, Pitch Perfect, Dredd, Total Recall,  The Dictator… meh, that’s about it. I’ve reviewed some indie films in the last year but most qualified as docs, not feature films, and I watch too many docs to even try to categorize them.
And with all that going on, just from asking myself the question “What is a current book or film that you would recommend to fellow members,” you can perhaps understand why my answer is typically “how the heck should I know? I’m under a fair amount of pressure, here, people.”
   I will say that the Big Bang Theory is still my favorite TV show, largely because I understand Sheldon; the producers have stated a few times that they didn’t deliberately make him similar to Aspies; I have a hard time believing that, unless he was based on someone specific who has Aspergers and it was unbeknownst to them. I notice this season the writers have started asking the other characters, in script, to try to see the world more from Sheldon’s perspective, and I rather like that.
  Most of the new shows that have impressed me recently have been British. I don’t know if that’s a personal bias – I spent my formative years there – or if they simply write better drama, but the police show George Gently has been a favorite, along with the insanely funny The IT Club. Again, there are a lot of choices out there.
  So that, in a nutshell, is my list. Comments welcome on any of the weird tangents above. A blog on my actual writing tomorrow.