Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Amazon Publishing: whether and whither

The recent changes in Amazon's publishing arm have held some enlightening lessons regarding the way different types of books are sold.

While Amazon is backing away from big-name general interest titles, the company's stock is up and it's going to keep publishing genre fiction. (And which part of that statement is emphasized really depends on where you get your publishing industry commentary.)

The lesson seems to be that would-be mainstream bestsellers really do need a presence in physical bookstores to generate enough buzz, but that genre fiction lends itself to marketing targeted at niche audiences.

It makes sense. As someone involved in spec fic, I've heard a number of longtime fans and convention-goers say that the sci-fi/fantasy community is tight-knit and that there is a lot of crossover between consumers and creators. I don't know whether the links are as strong in other genres, but given the existence of conventions such as Bouchercon and Malice Domestic (for crime and mystery) and organizations like the very active Romance Writers of America, I can only assume that these principles hold true.

In any case, it will be interesting to see if the genre imprints at Amazon Publishing are able to survive in these niches and how (or whether) they can achieve a truce with traditional booksellers. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

"As sure as eggs is eggs"

Watching Amazon duke it out with brick-and-mortar bookstores has felt kind of like watching the Republicans and Democrats (in no particular order...) go after each other. At some point, I don't really care who's right or who started it--I just want a productive solution.

Amazon's retreat from mainstream marquee publishing (and Larry Kirshbaum's retreat from Amazon) made the news last Friday, and with the news came many exultations and lamentations. Whether the evil leviathan is Amazon or Big Publishing, almost everyone seems convinced that something has risen from the sea bearing the mark of the beast.

In the midst of it all, I appreciate Chuck Wendig's perspective:
I'm not saying that Amazon is blameless here. I don't want a future in which the only bookseller is an online retail giant, but I also wouldn't want to see a vendor with extensive resources and reach pushed completely out of the market. A world with more readers, and where readers read more, is the best possible outcome, and I think we need Amazon, large brick-and-mortar bookstores, and indies alike to make it happen.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Familiar advice

Writer and MFA juror Elizabeth McCracken posted a series of tweets with advice about applying to MFA programs. Most of it sounds startlingly similar to advice new writers receive about finding an agent.

A few tips don't apply (you don't submit letters of recommendation to an agent, you should query a completed novel rather than a short story, etc.), but here's the gist of much of her advice:

  1. Submit a strong, completed work that you've revised and edited.
  2. Follow submission instructions.
  3. Mention the right program/agent in your essay/query letter.
  4. Don't lie.
  5. Demonstrate professionalism.
  6. Explain why you want this program/agent and not why it/she should want you.*

Visit GalleyCat for the full Storified version.

*That's not to say that writers (or applicants) should beg or downplay their credentials, but there's a place in query letters (and applications) to mention why you're interested in this person or program, and it's an opportunity to show that you've done your research. The portion of the query that discusses your book is your chance to show what you have to offer.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Pocket litter

You can tell whether Spouse or I have driven the car last based on whether or not there are granola bar wrappers stuffed in the door pocket. If wrappers have colonized the cup holders, it's safe to say I haven't even been in the car in weeks.

It can be interesting to think about characters in terms of daily routines and mundane details, perhaps because these things can reveal other details about people. For instance, what's in their pockets? If he's a smoker, he probably has a pack of cigarettes. If he's trying to quit, he might have nicotine gum. Maybe she keep receipts and meticulously tracks her expenses, or maybe she throws everything away. Perhaps she always means to, but somehow forgets, and finds her pockets lined with months-old ticket stubs.

Mentioning what a character carries can demonstrate the extent of a particular habit or quirk--a rigorous dieter might keep a few packets of his favorite sweetener on hand. It could also reflect or contrast the way that character approaches larger issues. A relentless organizer might have a few paper clips stuffed in her pocket. If everything else in her life is out of control, they might be bent. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

What I've learned from modding

Not long ago, I re-installed my old copy of Neverwinter Nights to play with the Aurora Toolset, the game's level creation software.

I'd always been intimidated by the idea of trying to build a mod, but the toolset is pretty handy. With a little patience and a basic understanding of scripting logic, you can accomplish a lot.

Here are some things I've learned about the creative process:

1. When you encounter a problem, don't get stuck on the wrong solution. As a result of the way I'd built my area, I had a heck of a time getting the (optional) dogfriend companion to follow the player up and down stairs. I didn't want to rebuild it, and I didn't want to create a separate area to load, so I spent a few hours tinkering with the area transition scripts, experimenting with waypoints, and checking the dog's following scripts. None of those ideas were necessarily wrong-headed, but when I stumbled across someone else's ActionJumpToLocation script and set up a trigger that the player character would have to walk over, it worked.

All that is to say that my solution came much more quickly once I thought of other strategies to solve the problem (instead of just trying to pick apart the scripts when, let's be honest, my scripting knowledge is meager).

Also on that note...

2. Outside input is good. When I'm trawling the internet for scripting solutions at 1 AM, it's easier to be humble about my limitations. Still, whether I'm pulling commands from a community resource or getting suggestions about the story direction, I try to hold onto my enthusiasm without getting too possessive. It's a good mindset to bring to other fiction.

Which reminds me...

3. It's hard to know how others will interact with a project. Some readers skim for action, and others absorb prose word by word. Some viewers absorb a movie's style and composition, and others veg. With games, the breadth of interactions is even more diverse. Will players follow the trail of breadcrumbs I've sown for them interaction-by-interaction, or will they race to the end? The only way to know is to let them play and to accept that there isn't a "right" way to game.

It's important to create emotional stakes without forcing the player into one set of actions or responses.

4. Mario may never enter into a truce with Bowser, but RPG gamers want options and agency. What's the point in spending waaay too long customizing a character and reading dialogue only to follow a predetermined, linear path? Creating fascinating NPCs and quest lines is important, but so is giving players the option to rebel against them. If there's never a choice to refuse to aid an NPC, then the opportunity to help is meaningless. Besides, there's probably someone out there who just doesn't like Garrus Vakarian.

5. Sometimes the solution is easier than it seems. I was out of my gourd trying to figure out why two of my NPCs wouldn't actually talk when the player clicked on them. Oh, because I hadn't actually linked up their conversation files. This was, um, early in the learning process.

6. Recognize your goals, and recognize when your reach exceeds your grasp. My goal was to get practice writing story and dialogue for a short game that focuses on NPC interactions and gives the player room to make choices. To that end, I didn't bother with combat, and I accepted that my mod would have little visual gloss. Based on my goals, my time was best spent polishing dialogue, getting the mod out into the open for feedback, and moving on to the next project.

7. Timelines motivate. Once I was far enough along that I thought (ha!) I knew what I was doing and could see the end in sight, I set a deadline. The sense of purpose was useful when it came to tackling more complex problems, and it helped me finish something over a few evenings that could have dragged on for weeks longer.

8. Take joy in small victories. I spent hours on "Demon in a Haystack," yet players can run through it in 15 minutes. A successful buildtest is still worth getting excited about.

9. Test early and test often. It's easier to tackle problems one-at-a-time as they come up than in one big muddle at the end. Frequent testing can also help diagnose problems and avoid potential back-tracking.

10. Stop lists at 10. If it's good enough for Letterman, it's good enough for me.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Which story to tell?

In the wake of Gravity's critical and commercial success, quite a few people are asking how Alfonso Cuarón managed to make such a solid yet unconventional movie. My favorite article is this interview snippet from io9, in which he discusses some of the changes that various studio personnel recommended. 

The suggestions, which range from flashbacks to a Mission Control romance, indicate not that Hollywood is full of morons out to ruin good movies, but that they had different stories in mind. Those other stories might also have resulted in enjoyable films had they been written, acted, and directed well. It seems unfair to dismiss them outright except to note that those alternate versions might have felt less original and less contemplative.

I'm glad Cuarón made the film his way.

This divergence highlights just how much an individual artist's touch can change a project. The same premise in two different hands will likely develop into two very different books, movies, TV pilots, or what have you. 

Such a world of possibilities can make storytelling intimidating. If there are a thousand possible stories dwelling in one premise, or even in one set of characters, how do you know which one to tell? On the other hand, perhaps this means there's enough room for any of the versions we might dream up.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Spouse and I had looked forward to Gravity for months, and so we saw it last weekend with Nurse Sibling and Nurse Sibling's Spouse. It did not disappoint.

I appreciated a few things in particular about the movie (besides it being gorgeous and entertaining):
  1. The astronaut characters act like professional instead of space cowboys.
  2. Characters spend their time trying to escape the disaster rather than trying to get to the bottom of it (like Cloverfield). 
  3. Sandra Bullock does not appear to be wearing makeup.
  4. As written and portrayed, Sandra Bullock's character could have been played by a male actor, and it would not have seemed odd in the least.
I was trying to articulate point #4 to Spouse on the ride to post-movie beers, and it was easiest to describe what the character was not: a chip-on-her-shoulder Amazon, a sexy love interest, a damsel in distress. She just seemed like a normal person, and at no point did it feel like her femininity was being exploited or artificially emphasized. Alfonso Cuarón has said that he received pressure to cast a man in the lead role, and I'm glad that he didn't listen.

Alien's Ripley was similarly not subject to the usual lady treatment, and perhaps it helped that all of the characters in Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett's original script were "unisex"*. I look forward to the day when more female characters can be summarized as astrophysicists/parents/golfers/bankers rather than tough, smart, sexy astrophysicists/parents/golfers/bankers.

*Really, written as male but open to being played either way.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Fine distinctions

When I was really young, I had a hard time saying "animal." About half the time, it would come out "aminal." My parents would get excited when I got it right and sound it out when I got it wrong, but I still couldn't hear the difference between the two words.

Eventually, I grew out of it.

Writing can be the same way. There are often fine distinctions between being subtle and being obscure, between writing drama and melodrama. Some literary devices are great in moderation but awkward with overuse. And it seems that every rule can be broken by the writer who does it well. Unfortunately, there aren't clear-cut rules for managing these fine distinctions, but practice and attention are valuable (if not fast) teachers.

Friday, October 4, 2013

For shame

A new marketing study aims to help advertisers time their ads for women by pinpointing the times and days that women feel least attractive. 

Targeted ads are nothing new, but it feels particularly icky for marketers to take advantage of insecurities and vulnerabilities, particularly when the targets may not even be aware that they're particularly insecure or vulnerable at a given moment. Suggesting hotels when I've been researching vacation destinations is one thing, but trying to sell me on the need to change myself at a time when I'm statistically most likely to feel down on myself? Eew.

Education is part of prevention, so here's hoping that awareness of this sort of thing will keep people from getting caught up in it.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dear Ndugu

I saw About Schmidt for the first time a couple of days ago. It was funny, sad, and altogether charming. One storytelling element I particularly liked was the series of letters that Schmidt wrote to the Tanzanian boy he was sponsoring.

It's touching to see Schmidt, who's disconnected from most of the people in his life, awkwardly attempt to reach out to this child he knows little about, and it's suddenly humorous when his commentary on his life becomes too candid and impassioned.

Overall, it was a really clever mechanism for getting an emotionally stunted character to open up on what he really thinks and to expose the gap between his public image and his private thoughts.

That is all.