23 June, 2010

There Has To Be Another Way

A recurring theme in my writing is that whenever a character is presented with two options, he or she seems to find a third. One historical character, Caliph Al-Ma'mun, even finds a third way a coin flip can go. (though that, I admit, I cribbed from an old Batman story)

And so I hope there can be a third way for publishing in the 21st century, because I really don't like either of the options so far.

As I see it, what's brought us to this point is two factors. The first-- No One Buys Books Anymore. Some blame the economy: less money, fewer books. I blame the easy availability of free reading material. Case in point: you, Dear Reader, and this blog. The second--Everyone Is A Stinking Author. We all have computers, and access to every imaginable writing resource, like the whole world was one big round table at the Algonquin. This is the era that spawned a million teenage paranormal romances. This is the era that spawned, well, me.

And so we have--what I wouldn't give to know the number of unpublsihed, possibly unpublishable books out there. And fewer and fewer available publishing spots to put them all in. Used to be, if you were one of the few who was willing to bang out a hundred thousand words on a Smith-Corona and mail them to a publisher, you had yourself a published book. Now, well, you're one of the millions (and millions) who had a few English courses, posesses a working laptop, and have written yourself a novel. Which brings us to:


This has always been true in some way, but as the market for new books tighten publishers rely on a few proven brand-names. Names like Cussler, Grafton, Collins. The astute reader may realize that some of these brand names don't even write their own books anymore. Some of them might even be dead. I can't be bothered to find that out right now. But they are all still publishing new books. Perhaps this is why the undead are so big in fiction these days.

So, for the unpublished, much text is typed about Becoming A Brand. And it's true, those who already are a brand-name (Tyra Banks, Glen Beck, Pope Benedict XVI) can get ANYTHING published.) If you're not them, the pundits say... better start a blog or something, get yourself a platform. But anyone can do that, right? Which leads us to,


And yes, I know damn well that's not a posessive. I am making a point! It's ridiculously easy to publish a book, so long as you don't care about quality and you don't care if it's marketed nowhere other than by Twitter and Facebook. There are a lot of pretty good options for print-on-demand and electronic publishing is even cheaper. The entry barrier is low. Hell, I could publish right now. Actually, in a way, I am publishing right now, or will once I hit the 'POST' button.

What's wrong with that? Laura Miller puts it so well in this Salon article: "Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile?" If everyone publishes everything, how do you ever find the good stuff? Most importantly, if I self-publish and self-promote my Very Excellent Novel how are you going to find it in a sea of barely-disguised Twilight fanfic, fraught with error and tripe? With everyone else blogging and tweeting and worse?

You won't.


And so, I want another choice please. A third way. Books are too wonderful a thing for either of these fates to happen. I could even learn to like Kindle, I really could, if the quality of great Books were still there in the digital ink. But I see both of these options reducing the quality of the published works to the lowest common denominator.

I, for one, am not prepared to wade through the world's slush pile. Or read only the books that come from a Certified Brand on the marketing department's short list. There has to be another way.


16 June, 2010

Highlights of the Theological Discussion Between my Jordanian Cab Driver and Me

Points of Agreement

Jesus was, at the very least, a fine prophet and philosopher.

Fig. 1: Before

Picking me up at 5:15 would leave plenty of time to get to the airport, insh'Allah.

The practice of translating the Bible into many languages helps spread the Word, but engenders different views of Christianity.

The practice of not translating the Quran makes sure that everyone is looking at the same words. However, this limits the spread of Islam.

Whether or not one believes that the Quran is the infallible word of God, a lot of people will read the words but hear what they want to hear in them.

This is also true of the Bible.

Whiskey is a refreshing and healthful beverage. However, to fully appreciate the taste it's a good idea to dilute it with some spring water--never ice.

It was very interesting that on the same day we met, a giant statue of Jesus (pictured) was struck by lightning and destroyed.

It would have saved a lot of trouble if Jesus could have made a definitive pronouncement during His time on Earth regarding whether a statue of Him would, in fact, count as a 'graven image'.

Syria is not a neighbor you'd want to have.

Feta is a delightful cheese, and one should have it in a salad whenever possible.

Really, Caliph Al-Amin should have left well enough alone and kept the agreement his late father brokered regarding the succession, rather than getting into a ruinous civil war with his brother Al-Ma'mun in 810 AD.

Lamb is delicious.

Points of Disagreement

Whether the driver of a moving vehicle should have at least one eye on the road and/or one hand on the wheel at all times.

Whether a daughter should be allowed to live at home until she is married.
Whether a monarchial oligarchy is a viable form of government in the modern world.

Not Discussed

The proposed new Charter of the Anglican Covenant.

09 June, 2010

Writing the Fight -- Pacing

Legend has it that during times of foreign occupation in China, rebel fighters practiced their forbidden martial arts in the open and explained that they were only dancing. It's not that far-fetched. A fight has rhythm and pacing. Part of writing a good fight is making that rhythm of blows and holds come out in the words.

For pacing my fights, I have just a few cardinal rules. One of them is, Vary the steps. This ain't a waltz.

Alex hit Bob over the head with a two-by-four. Bob staggered, and then smacked Alex in the gut with his tire iron. That hurt Alex quite a bit, so he could barely lift the sack of potatoes high enough to drop it on Bob's toe.

Among the many things wrong with that sequence, every action is the same: one fighter hits the other with a one-step move. You want the notes to come in a surprising but sensical sequence, kind of like a Coltrane solo. A one-step here, a two-step there, a hold, a stop-hit, etc.

Wait... what did I mean by that?

ONE-STEP: a direct attack--a punch, kick, throw, gunshot or whatever. It could hit or miss, but you can describe it with one verb.

TWO-STEP: a compound action, either a two-step attack (Alex grabbed a fistful of Bob's hair and punched him in the nose.) or an attack with a defense (Alex swung the hammer, but Bob snapped his hand back just in time)

HOLD: A long action. It could be an actual hold (Bob tightened his grip on Alex's carotids. His face reddened at first, and then blanched white. It was in that moment that Bob realized he was on to something.) or maybe a pause ("I suppose you're wondering why I just punched you in the kidney," said Alex. "It's only because you should have given that kidney to your poor dead cousin! OUR cousin!") Anyway it takes significantly longer than a punch.

STOP-HIT: An action that interrupts another action. (Bob lobbed a wild hook at Alex's cheek, walking into a straight right. Bob wobbled and said, "Let me try that one again."

I like fights that are chaotic and unpredictable. Mayhem! When did a real fight ever go according to plan? So that's why I want the pacing to vary. A fight that beats one-two-three-four like my first example is just too predictable to thrill a reader. Go one, one, one-two, hold, one-two, hold, stop-hit and now maybe you've got something.

Bob's fist just grazed Alex's temple. He swung again as Alex stepped back, this time landing a hook just under his ribs. He struck again, but this time Alex intercepted his fist with a large unbound manuscript.

"Is that what I think it is?" Bob asked.

"That's right," said Alex, "It's my memoir: The Day Alex Kicked Bob's Ass"

"Memoir? Fiction, you mean!" Bob kicked the manuscript out of Alex's hands. The cloud of papers masked his next kick, straight into Alex's solar plexus. Alex doubled over, wheezing.

"You... you animal," Alex said. "I never numbered the pages!" He sprang up, fingers clawing for Bob's throat--but Bob dodged aside and kicked Alex's ankle out from under him. His face hit the ground like a flipped pancake and the pages of his manuscript settled over him in a pile of 8 1/2 by 11 inch futility.


Did I get the rhythm right in that sequence? One, one, one-two, hold, one-two, hold, stop-hit aaaannnd faceplant.

04 June, 2010

The Blown Call --OR-- Why I Love Baseball

Two outs in the ninth inning. Armando Galarraga has retired twenty-six batters on eighty-seven pitches and the eighty-eighth is a 1-1 changeup that Jason Donald hits on the ground to first. The pitcher covers the bag--catches the toss--and Donald is called safe by umpire James Joyce!

It would have been only the twenty-first perfect game in major league baseball history, although the third this season. But it wasn't. Donald is safe at first, and Galarraga finishes with a one-hit shutout.

The replays show it clearly, if by 'clearly' we mean that it's clear in a freezeframe. Donald should have been called out. Some say he WAS out, that it's a perfect game for Galarraga.

Why not call it a perfect game? It doesn't hurt anyone. You could even give Donald the hit and Galarraga the perfect game at the same time. Why not? It doesn't affect the outcome of the game, the Tigers win whether it was a hit or not. It's like a bad call in figure skating, right? Didn't that just make you cry when those meanie European judges robbed Canada's widdle sweethearts? Wasn't it right to just give everyone gold medals and make it all better?

Fig. 2: Awwww. Does everyone feel better now?

Because this is baseball, not figure skating. There is no crying in baseball. The umpire made a mistake? Part of the game. An act of God, if you will, and in the tiny world of dirt and grass bounded by chalk and the outfield fence, that man in black is the Supreme Being.

The Tigers' manager argued, but The Call was Safe, and verily the runner is safe!

But after the game, James Joyce reviewed the tapes and saw what everyone else already had: he blew it. Donald was out by a full step. That was a perfect game.

And then Joyce did something no god or umpire never does: he came down his throne on high and said, 'I blew the call. I'm sorry.'


And what did Galarraga say? What every baseball player says in every interview. It is what it is. Just out there to help the team. James Joyce is a great guy and a good umpire. It's a long season.


Next day -- because Baseball is played every day when the weather suits -- Joyce isn't the first base umpire. He's behind the plate in charge of balls and strikes now. And he walks out in front of that Detroit crowd. He robbed THEM of perfection. He robbed THEM of a hero. This is a sports town that riots when they WIN. And what happens? They stand and APPLAUD.


The Tigers send Galarraga out to perform the ritual of handing Joyce the team's lineup card. Joyce looks it over and you can see him start to choke up. He gives Galarraga a tough-guy-I-love-you shove, the man he deemed by his supreme yet fallible authority to have pitched a one-hit shutout last night. And then Joyce reaches under the brim of his hat and wipes his moistening--

Fig. 3 : Class.

Did I say there was no crying in baseball? Well, maybe it's OK, just this one time. Play ball.