Saturday, May 26, 2012

Sherlock Who

The BBC series Sherlock airs on American PBS stations.

It just finished its second season here in the States and I thought it fitting to share my opinions. The show was created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Those names seemed familiar and I did some googling. Yup, those guys were big in the reboot of Dr. Who a few years back.

This is good news because the Dr. Who reboot has been wildly successful. It's also bad news because the biggest mistake made in the reboot was carried forward into Sherlock.

Any story whose protagonist is somehow special must soon acquire an arch-nemesis who is equal in every way to the hero, but evil.

In Dr. Who the arch-nemesis is another Time Lord named the Master. In the original Dr. Who series the Master was a fellow who looked sort of like a Spanish count. In Law & Order Criminal Intent the arch-nemesis was Nicole Wallace. She was delightfully evil and quite easy on the eyes. However, when they rebooted Dr. Who the Master was cast as a sort of nasty schoolboy. Cruel for no apparent reason, he acted immaturely and i found it impossible to take him seriously.

Speed forward to BBC/PBS Sherlock.

Writing when he did Arthur Conan Doyle did not know that he had to give Sherlock Holmes an arch-nemesis. When he wanted to kill off Holmes and go on to something else, he created Professor James Moriarty. In so doing Doyle created the pattern of the arch-nemesis.

People smarter than I have described the necessary prerequisites of an arch-nemesis. One necessary prerequisite of an arch-nemesis is that the reader (or viewer) take him seriously. I could not take seriously either the clown who played the Master or the other clown who played Professor Moriarty.

Evil, like truth, is complicated. You can't just take all the virtues and swap them out in equal measure with vices. Or you'll get some useless old sot shambling through scenes. For my money, the best villain I've seen in a while is The Operative. He's so evil, you don't even learn his name. In his case he believes in the Alliance and he believes the ends justify the means. HIS means generally consist of killing people with his katana.

He kills for his faith.

What made the Operative so effective was that he held all the virtues intact, but he was pursuing an agenda given to him by the Alliance. Years back I saw "The Day The Universe Changed." In the opening scene James Burke shows a witch burning and describes what could they be thinking to do such a thing. Clearly, the end of saving the girl's soul from eternal hellfire justified end means of burning her alive. Such thinking also motivates savages who fly airplanes into buildings.

But villainy is not one-size-fits all. One does not become a Nazi all in one go. Instead, small steps, baby steps are made one at a time weaving a cord of character that ends in evil and arch-evil. C.S. Lewis shows this in Perelandra and again in That Hideous Strength as reasonable, civilized individuals are transformed into demonic villains one seduced step after another.

I think that the reason why Dr. Who muffed the Master and Sherlock muffed Professor Moriarty stems from the fact that the grammar of virtue and vice, of good and evil, has been lost to this generation of Englishmen.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Lean Startup And Writing

There's a concept going around called "Lean Startup." Maybe you've got this idea for a better mousetrap: You invent the thing. You tool up a factory and produce a bunch. You open a storefront to sell them. And what's missing? Customers. You will have to make people aware of your solution. Not just any people, but those who can afford your mousetrap.

Lean Startup turns this line of thinking inside out. Start with the people you can most easily reach, offer them goods on a web page, and THEN invent, tool, and produce. The premise is that we make guesses about what folks want and we offer the goods as an experiment to confirm that guess.

If nobody responds, we're only out the cost of producing the "landing" web page. However, if tons of people hit that web page to get the goods, we know we've got customers. And if you've their email addresses, you can get back with them. It's revolutionary.

What has it to do with writing?

When some ink-stained wretch starts scribbling, s/he has to decide what to write. The answer may be "what I want" or "what my publisher wants," but a better answer is "what your readers want." How will I know that? Guess?

Suppose you take your N coolest story ideas. Compose the blurb you'd use to sell each story. Then drop that blurb into a web page. Put it up and try to drive traffic to it. If nobody ever visits, stop. You can't reach that story's audience even if the story is awesome and the audience is massive.

Conversely, if you get a few hundred visits, you know you can attract eyeballs to your story--a necessary first step. And if you get them to click on your response key, you know you have some real demand for that story.

I don't know about you, but I get 100x more story ideas than I have time to write up. I could use such a scheme to prioritize pending writing projects. This is reader pull, not writer (or publisher) push.

It's not that much different from setting up a Kickstarter project to score a fat advance for your non-fiction book on meat, or something--but I digress. I think this is how to proactively engage fears of the conveyor-belt and furnace. Instead of listening to some soon-to-be-downsized editor tell you what you should be writing, you'll hear readers expressing their preferences.

Sounds great, right?

I forget who wrote this: I suspect it was Jerry Pournelle who wrote that an an author is like a storefront. After I found out that I liked Exiles to Glory, I backtracked to find High Justice, Birth of Fire, West of Honor, The Mercenary, then I haunted booksellers for each subsequent book with his name on it. (I'd say the same about Clive Cussler and Tom Clancy, except it's complicated and distracting. I'll explore that distraction another day.)

That's how I read when I discover someone whose prose I adore. I drink up everything they've written and watch for new releases. The writer must protect his or her reputation and respect his reading public.

I ran this idea past someone who knows a lot more about writing than I do. She didn't like it because it is a bad idea to tease readers with something they want, but can't have. It creates resentment. She said it's like waving a candy bar in front of a two-year-old and going, "You can't have it."

This is a pitfall of what I'll call "Lean Writing" (until someone comes up with a better name). If you put up a landing page promising Ailurophages From Space" then you'll need to manage expectations of those who tell you they want to read about aliens eating kittens.

"No, it hasn't been written yet." "Yes, I'm waiting for N emails from folks promising to buy it." "Or yes, I'm X% complete with the I'th draft (where N, X, and I are numbers that'll vary)."

In the software world we have a term "vaporware" that we apply to cool software that someone promised, but never delivers.

Do you remember when I wrote about Heinlein's Five Commandments? Commandment #2 says, "You must finish what you write." Suppose you break it:
  • If nobody knows, then nobody gripes. 
  • If you're a traditional writer with a traditional agent and editor, they'll gripe. 
  • But if you put up a "Lean Writing" landing page, then everyone who clicks the "I want it" button will come after you with torches and pitchforks. And your writing brand will be likened unto the purveyors of "vaporware." 
Don't be that guy.

So, what do you think? Will "Lean Writing" work? Why or why not?

Friday, May 11, 2012

In Love With Linda Chorney

Linda Chorney
Yesterday I attended the TEDx Grand Rapids event. If you've ever seen a TED talk, you know they present stimulating ideas and I derive the most value from a talk when agree-or-disagree I get some new idea from it.

The talk I loved the most was given by a delightful woman named Linda Chorney. Her incandescent personality filled the auditorium and I was smitten. She is a musician who does not have a Record Deal.

She says, "she's so indie, she's an outie."

Just as there are zillions of writers toiling in obscurity, there are zillions of musicians nobody's ever heard of. But just because you've never heard of Linda Chorney does not means she's not insanely great.

There's an entire ecosystem of lampreys, remoras, and pilot fish swimming alongside the sharks of the Record Companies whose job is to make you hear of the artists they promote. They serve as gatekeepers keeping the riff-raff out. You want to stay on their good side, because they'll make or break your career. (Does this sound familiar to any of you writers out there?)

An Army Of Davids
She described how she used just a little bit of social media savvy to wage a successful Internet campaign to win a Grammy Nomination for her last album. (She played for the TEDx crowd and she sounded great.)

The main reason why I love Linda Chorney is that she demonstrated that someone that nobody's ever heard of can upset the apple cart. She managed to disintermediate all those middle-men by going directly to the members of the Academy and requesting their consideration.

But because she did so without the lampreys, remoras or pilot fish, they were not amused when she was nominated. In the words of Governor William J. Le Petomaine, "We have to protect our phoney baloney jobs here, gentlemen!"

Then they launched a campaign of hate.  (I think that the bipartisan effort to utterly destroy Sarah Palin was similarly motivated by her ability to disintermediate the legacy media and GOP apparatchiks, but I digress.) Ms. Chorney showed the TEDx audience some of the nasty things written about her.
She showed us the T-shirt she made and sells quoting the hate and turning it against itself.

I was primed for Linday Chorney's talk by a recent blog post by Sarah Hoyt describing the publishing industry going about its own process of destroying writers' careers to vindicate the opinions of traditional publishing's lampreys, remoras, and pilot fish.

If you've followed the writing careers of John Locke or Amanda Hocking, you know they've had good success through non-traditional publishing and they've also endured a lot of hateful "hrumphing" from traditional lampreys, remoras and pilot fish.

The bottom line is that the world is changing. If you listen to a lot of people saying, "hrumph" it is the end of the world as we know it. But if you're willing to be so indie that you're outie, you'll feel fine.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Heinlein's Five Commandments

They say that hacks copy, but geniuses steal.

So, here's some things about writing to keep in mind. Make a point to steal these ideas and make them part of yourself as a writer.
  1. You must write.
  2. You must finish what you write.
  3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
  4. You must put the work on the market.
  5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.
This is Robert Heinlein's advice. You should Google him and find the cheesy scan of the article that I copied stole this from. He envisioned these ideas reflecting a winnowing process that separates the masses from published novelists.

The process can be defeated if you have the will to keep on going and not stopping despite being sorely tempted to stop before you finish step number five.

It is easy to go for decades thinking, "I'd like to write a novel someday." I know, I have. It's something else to force yourself to actually do it. That's where NaNoWriMo shines. It forces a dilettante like myself to put his butt in a chair and start composing deathless prose. If you talk to many people who say they have a novel in them, only a few will actually sit down to write it.

It's also easy to start work on a project and get distracted. I've got a directory full of projects I've started but not finished. If you talk to many people who say they've started the Great American Novel, only a few will actually stick with the project to The End. For me, there's always something shiny to distract me, or a cool idea I'd like to explore. Wrong. It's a sad thing to hear one of my writer friends describe a project s/he's excited about, but years later it's been abandoned. It's sad to say you'll probably never get to meet Arthur Keyes or his protege Damien Washington. Other projects must be completed first.

When Heinlein was writing, the world was different. Jerry Pournelle hadn't invented the word processor yet and writing meant quality time with a typewriter, foolscap, and carbon paper. Yes, carbon paper. I can't imagine the tedium. NO, actually I can. When I was in college and grad school I got exactly ONE C. That was in Historiography. Everything I handed in to Dr. McGoldrick was graded an A. Except my course paper at the end of the term. He handed it back saying, "It has more than two typos. Retype it." And he gave me an incomplete. In the crush of the end of the term, I lost the paper and my incomplete became a C. No, I'm not bitter.

Heinlein's typewriter use probably skewed his thinking to make #3 a firm commandment. Rewriting at that time involved a lot of low-power brainwork. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to try to get your prose as close to perfect on the first pass. There's nothing so tempting as the urge to just rewrite a sentence here or rephrase something there. No, wait, I can improve that last sentence again. And you come back later and change it back. This is an infinite-capacity time sink. Though I'm not good enough to get things perfect on the first draft, I think I should aspire to make the first draft as clean as possible.

You'll never read my first novel. It's safely kept in a desk drawer. It's got some interesting, likeable characters and some neat ideas. Trouble is that I know my prose-quality today is a lot better than it was then. I understand story-telling much better and I know that putting it on the market would be a Bad Idea because it would give you gentle readers a false impression of the quality of prose you can expect from me.

But I hope you've seen The Aristotelian. It is a darned good story and I am not ashamed of that prose.

It's easy to finish writing a story and then never take it out of the desk drawer. It is easy because you use one set of skills to write a story, and a completely different set of skills to send it around to literary agents and/or editors. Heinlein could put his manuscript and a self-addressed stamped envelope in the mail with a cover letter then wait for a reply weeks later. Nowadays, you have to understand how to attach a file to an email message. Simple stuff, but lots of people never take that step.

Finally, let me tell you about the day after Thanksgiving many years ago: I went to my mailbox and I found 14 self-addressed stamped envelopes: replies from literary agents who said in different words: "Sorry, not for us." A week before I had sent query letters to a couple dozen literary agents offering the deathless prose of my first novel.

A finished novel must be sold and sales is a numbers game. Heinlein knew this and his prose was good enough that if he kept sending it around, there would be someone out there who'd buy it. The thing is to keep on trying. I quit after a couple dozen queries. With a better novel, I'd have sent more dozens. Or I'd have reworked the novel to make it better then sent more queries.

Those more worthy than I: