Friday, August 30, 2013

Extendo Characters

This post was originally conceived back at the beginning of July. For some reason I kept putting it off, and off, and off--hopefully not because I knew on some level it was a bad idea!

Authors do a lot of things to promote their books. We see those efforts played out in the blogosphere with blog tours and giveaways, cover reveals and interviews, and it spills over into Facebook and the Twitterverse so that, some days, it seems you can't turn around without running into this person or that one promoting his or her book. Now, there's nothing wrong with this, except for the potential for burnout for both the promoter and the promote-ees, and let's face it, I hope to be one of those promoters myself some day. It's just part of how the book/author world works these days.

Now, I certainly don't mind this, and as I said, I hope to be on that ride myself one day. There is, however, one particular type of promotion that I don't think I'll do when I get to this point. I'm talking about the character interview and related types of posts.

You know how these go--maybe you've hosted one on your blog. Maybe you've done one for your book. In the character interview, you answer questions from an interviewer--as a character from your book. I've read some of them, and they can be fun, sure, but as I've read them, I've always found myself thinking, "Wow, that is so NOT for me."

I can't really explain why I feel this way. It's not like I don't like my characters. I do. I like them a lot, even the bad ones. They are my creations, I've lived with them in my head for months, maybe even years. I know them inside out and upside down. I know what they love and what they hate and what they fear. They are, in many ways, quite real to me while I am writing them, and I hope that some day, they can be quite real to you and thousands (hell, go big or go home, right? Millions!) of others. Stephen King is still asked about Carrie White. John Irving is still asked about T.S. Garp. Maybe twenty-five, thirty years from now people will still be asking me about Chris Burke or the Barton family, etc. It would be an honor to have that sort of impact on people that they would want to talk about my creations long after the fact.

Yet talking about them is different that what happens in the 'character interview' posts. There was a post Sophie Masson did at Writer Unboxed last month (Extending A Character Through The Internet And Social Media) where she talked about the success she had with this. Ms. Masson created blogs, Facebook pages--she even had musicians create music for a fictional band she wrote about in one of her books and did videos on Youtube! She had a lot of fun with it, and her fans (and publisher) loved it as well. In her view, it was quite a success, and I'm sure it was.

That's not for me, however. The thing that comes most quickly to mind is something Jerry Garcia said when asked why the Grateful Dead allowed (encouraged, even) audience member to tape the band's shows: "When we're done with it, they can have it." It's the 'done with it' part that sticks with me so much. Characters exist pretty much within the framework of their story; when the story is done, so are they. I don't spend much time thinking about literary characters and wondering what they would do in this situation or that, or if they like the same ice cream I do.

This is not to say in-character blog posts, interviews, pinterest, etc., is wrong--it's just wrong for me. What about you? How do you feel about Extendo characters? I'd love to know. Thanks, and have a great weekend!

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Unknown Commenter

When I started this blog way back in May of 2011, I had a lot of decisions to make. What would it be about? How often would I post? What would the blog look like? You know the drill, you've been there (most of you, anyway).

One of the easiest sets of decisions I made was how to handle comments. Embedded, because I like that more than pop-up. Word verification? Off. That was a no-brainer. Captcha is a barrier to participation, one that often drives me crazy when I encounter it on other blogs, so it was definitely going to be off. Besides, I didn't expect to actually need Captcha. With no followers, no history, no readership, what bots were going to come to my blog? Ditto for comment moderation. As a user, it's nice to see what other people have said before me, and to sometimes respond to them as well as the actual post. It feels more like a conversation, and I like that. And as a new blogger, I didn't want to have to work that hard (again, should anyone actually come by to comment).

There was only one aspect of comment management that bothered me: Anonymous comments. Yes or No? Hmm.
Who wouldn't want him visiting their blog?

I've been around the web neighborhood enough to know that things can get touchy in the comments section of blogs, and people may not always be comfortable posting with their normal ID. On the other hand, I could argue that you should be willing to stand behind your words; if you're not, maybe you shouldn't be posting them for the world (or my small corner of it) to see. In the end, I decided to allow it. There are legitimate reasons for not posting under your own name, and I want to foster discussion and conversation. "Let's see how it goes," I told myself when I enabled Anonymous commenting. "If it's a problem, I can change it."

It wasn't a problem. In two years I received no anonymous comments, and I was fine with that. We're civil folks here, and even when we do touch on controversy, it stays pretty cool. No one does anonymous drive-bys or snarking, and that's good. Lately, though, straange things have been happening. Last month I received my first anonymous comment (or at least, the first I remember).This month has seen a deluge.

You don't see them. The funny thing is, I didn't, either. The first one arrived in my e-mail last month, a necro comment (i.e., on a very old post). It said:
It's really a great and useful piece of information. I'm glad that you simply shared this useful information with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.
The comment also had a 'visit my blog' with an address linked in. But the bigger mystery was, where was the comment? I couldn't respond directly, because it was a 'noreply' comment. So I went to the post to see if I could reply there, and…it wasn't there. There was no comment. Over the next couple of weeks, I got more of these comments, some on old posts, some on new. All of them were flattering, all of them had links, all of them were 'noreply.' None of them turned up in the actual posts they were commenting on, and I was mystified. Until I discovered Blogger's little secret: anonymous comments are moderated.

They don't tell you this, as far as I can tell. I found it by accident while trying to figure out what was happening with these anonymous comments. And then I found it, under settings>comments>spam. The anonymous comments sat there, waiting for me to approve or delete. Who knew?

It wasn't the last anonymous comment. Since the beginning of August I've received 7 more anonymous comments, and many of them are like the one above: vague, yet flattering, with a link to a site that I will not go to, because…well, just because.

I'm not quite ready to zorch anonymous commenting. I do believe, as stated above, there are valid reasons for putting your thoughts out there without a name. However, I will continue to moderate, and if I see no real relevance to your comment, it will not make it through. In the event that any of you anonymous posters are reading this and are offended by my policy, I'm sorry. I do not wish to offend and I do not wish to exclude, but those comments look like thinly-veiled attempts at driving folks to a website that may or may not be legitimate, and I'm not about that. That is all.

Photo by Laser Burners

Friday, August 23, 2013

Goodreads Is Not Your Living Room

"Imagine that you are a reader who has shelved your own books in your own personal, idiosyncratic way, with shelf tags that amuse you and help you remember where things are, your own personal organisation of the way you think and read ...

And suddenly there is an author in your reading space complaining publicly about your filing system and where they fit in it.

That quote came from--where else?--Absolute Write, during a discussion of yet another tempest in the teapot that is Goodreads. Said tempest seems to be the result of a series of misunderstandings and mildly bad behavior that got blown way out of proportion, some of which revolved around a few unfortunate names some Goodreads user gave to her bookshelves, and a misinterpretation over what those names meant by an author. The usual charges of bullying were leveled, accusations were made, you know the drill.

I'm not on Goodreads, and I have no plans to be on Goodreads anytime soon. This post is not about Goodreads and its merits, it's not about authors behaving badly, or about the fact that everyone is so eager to call everything the other guy does 'bullying.' No, this is another 'What do you expect?' post.

When I read that quote in the particular AW thread mentioned, that was my immediate reaction. I was derailed for the moment from the rest of the discussion. Wait, I thought. You set up a space on the internet, invite a bunch of people to come in and look around, and then get upset when someone actually, you know, stops in and has something to say? What did you expect? And why is it creepy?

Goodreads is not your living room. It is not a private place. It is a public space where anyone with a password (and maybe not even that, I don’t know, I don’t use Goodreads) can drop by and visit. And because people are people, and the internet affords both intimacy and anonymity (or, more correctly, the illusion of both), people feel quite comfortable sharing their opinions on your space and everything in it. Creepy? Maybe a bit, but if you don’t want people coming and commenting, why have a public space? Why invite the scrutiny?

Look, I get that it would be strange to have someone come to your house and immediately start telling you that your couch is too old, your drapes don’t match the carpet, and oh, what a shame, you've got that one mismatched chair in your dining room set, what a pity. No one wants to experience that. In person, most people wouldn’t do that (though you can always feel it, can’t you? You can see people looking around in that particular way, and you just know what they’re thinking), but the internet plays by different set of rules. The Golden Rule should apply, but it doesn't (This, sadly, seems to be the standard rule for too many) it’s foolish at this point to assume that it does.

Well, hey, that was pretty downerific, wasn't it? On a more positive note, Meghan Masterson recently conferred on (upon?) me a Liebster Award! Thank you, Meghan. Somehow, the Liebster has morphed quite a bit from when I first did it; the poor thing seems to have been absorbed by the Ten Things thing that went around a couple of years ago. I appreciate the award, though I'm not in the most participatory of moods just this minute.

And that's it, we're out of time here, folks. Thanks for dropping by and have a great weekend!

Monday, August 19, 2013

Musical Monday: Birdhouse In Your Soul

They Might Be Giants--a quirky band if ever there was one. I remember seeing them on TV somewhere before I'd ever heard them on the radio and thinking, "Who are these guys?" They make me think, which is good, and they make me smile, which is even better. This song contains what may be the only use of the word 'filibuster' in musical history.

Now, I'm having one of those weird moments where I really feel like I've done this post before. I poked around and couldn't find it, so if it's an inadvertent rerun, you have my apologies.

Friday, August 16, 2013

On the Edge

Last week I heard an expression that I either hadn't heard before, or had and just forgotten:

"Upstate New York has four seasons: Almost winter, winter, still winter, and road construction."

The road crews are finishing up a project in town that's been irritating, inconsistent, and inconvenient. It's 45 degrees (F) this morning. Goldenrod is blooming, geese and starlings are flocking, and yellow-edged leaves have begun appearing on a number of trees. Almost any time I've stepped outside in the last three or four weeks (really, almost since the heatwave broke in late July), I've been reminded of fall--err, almost winter.

No doubt about it, we're on the transition from 'road construction' to 'almost winter.' There's nothing wrong with that; I'm not very good at picking favorites of things like colors or songs or seasons, but fall probably is my favorite. I've always loved it. I just wasn't expecting it so soon, is all.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Monday Musing: But Wait

Over the weekend, an article appeared in The Guardian about a self-published author who turned down an offer of publication from Amazon's Montlake Press. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with this. It sounds like she had a better deal, and more control, as an independent than she would get from Montlake. Currently, her book is available for Kindle and Nook, and as Print-On-Demand via CreateSpace. The deal she was offered would make it Kindle only. Turning down Amazon/Montlake seemed like a pretty good decision on her part. What struck me, however, was something she said in the interview:

It was hard for me to say no. Ever since I was a little girl I'd dreamed about being a 'published author'
Wait, what?

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't that what she is? The moment she hit 'upload' or 'publish' or whatever it is you do when you self-publish, she became a 'published author.' Or so I thought.

I threw that question up on the Absolute Write thread discussing this story not really expecting an answer. I suppose I was aiming for irony, the sort of mildly-amusing one liner you take note of and pass by. However, I got two answers, and I should have seen both coming. "Validation,"* said one. Then there was "some feel that 'published author' = 'actual books in actual bookstores,'" and things started churning in my head.

I understand those answers. Honestly, both are part of why I'm choosing the path of so-called traditional publication. I found myself drafting and redrafting a response, and then scrapping them, because I couldn't quite think of a way to express myself (some writer, huh?). I even went to the blog post of the author in question, seeking explanation, and I found another quote that just made things worse for me.

This deal was Kindle-only, so I wouldn’t be getting the benefits of paperback publishing, which to me is one of the greater advantages of a traditional publishing deal.
What I do understand from her post is that she's getting a better deal right now. Her book is available via Barnes&Noble and Amazon in e-format, and as Print On Demand. Financially, she's apparently making more money NOW than she would under the deal. It's all sensible. That stuff I get. What I don't get is this: If she doesn't consider herself 'published' because she's not 'traditionally published', why did she self-publish in the first place?

Please note this is not a knock against self-publishing. It works for many people, and it seems to be working for her. I guess I just don't get why a person who wants one thing, i.e., traditional publishing, would do something else. While 'discovery through self-publishing' is on the rise, it's not the norm, and it's not something you'd want to hang your future on. Or maybe I'm just hopelessly behind the times.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Fitting Ends

Every so often I see a blog post that dovetails nicely with something I've been thinking about. When it happens, I usually scrap whatever I was planning to blog about, if indeed I was planning anything. This week was one of those weeks.

On Tuesday, Jemi Fraser wrote about a disappointing experience with an author. Said author wrote a book that was working—things made sense, the story was good, she liked the characters, everything was working.

Until the last page.

What she ended up with was an ending that made no sense, an ending that undid all the work that the author had put in to that point, an ending that left Jemi quite disappointed. Everything she said clicked with something that I'd been musing on all weekend.

The something that started the musing in the first place was the news that the first half of season 5 of Breaking Bad had finally arrived on Netflix (just in time for AMC to begin the show's final installment of episodes, which started Sunday). I've been waiting for this for a while now, because I'm cheap and don't want to buy DVDs or pay premium rental fees. Anyway, starting Sunday I began watching season 5 and should be caught up pretty soon. (I'd be caught up already, but my wife, who has a hate/hate relationship with the show, can only watch one episode per night. It's probably better that way.).

I've written here about BB before, about how I think it's done a brilliant job of characterization and showing, not telling (yeah, it's a TV show, but it's still a great example of it). As the end draws closer, I've been wondering what kind of conclusion we can expect, and whether it will be a satisfying, fitting end to a great series, or if it will disappoint, like the book Jemi read.

Endings are hard to get right, and they are of critical importance. If your book ends poorly, it can ruin an otherwise-wonderful journey, as Jemi found. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it has to be the right ending. There's always pressure to get it right, but new writers have a certain advantage: we write our books, especially our first ones, in a vacuum. We write with freedom, unencumbered by anything except our own desires to tell the best story we can. We hope for success, we hope for readership, but when a reader gets your book, the ending has already long-been written, and you're hopefully already elbows-deep in the next one.

The folks running Breaking Bad, however, have tougher conditions to deal with. Not only do they have to wrap up the series in a way that makes sense within the confines of the world they've built, they also have to satisfy a rabid fanbase, and put up with intense media scrutiny. Series finales (and this goes for books and movie franchises as well as TV shows) have become Major Events, hyped up to the nth degree by network PR departments in order to capture as many eyes—and advertising dollars—as possible. The normal, week-to-week show structure is frequently thrown out of whack by having a longer episode. Or turning it into a two-hour movie. Viewers are promised something big and extra special, and it's often hard for the writers to deliver. (Some have suggested that this is why it seems to be taking George R.R. Martin so long to deliver the final book—or is it two?—to his Song of Ice and Fire series; maybe there's truth to it, maybe not). Sometimes, the finale lives up to expectations (M*A*S*H); sometimes it falls flat (Seinfield). Sometimes, no one knows what to think (The Sopranos).

I've been wondering what kind of end we'll see for Walter White and the people in his world, and I have no idea what we're going to get (I have two episodes left in the first half of season five, so please don't spoil anything for me!). All I hope is that it's the right ending. It doesn't have to be big, it doesn't have to be spectacular, and it doesn't have to make me feel good (and indeed, it's really hard to see a 'feel good' ending coming out of this series). It just has to be right. I have some ideas in my head about what 'right' is for this show, though I'll keep them to myself for right now.

Have a great weekend, all.

Image by Dwros89, used under Creative Commons license.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Monday Musing: Troublesome Omni

People talk about Point of View on a regular basis. One of the things folks suggest is that beginning writers have a tendency to use first person, because it's a voice that a beginner will find easiest to deal with (and there may be a tendency for beginners to write more personal stories, which might naturally come out in first person). But, they say, first person is hard to do well.

I'm not sure I'd say it's hard to do well; the trick is to remember that your character, your narrator, can't know it all. She doesn't know what's going on in the heads of others: she doesn't know the man she's going to meet is packing a gun and intends to kill her, she doesn't know what's in the letter that just made her best friend fall to the floor in a dead swoon. She doesn't know, she can't know, and the author, who should know (though perhaps you don't know when you write that scene), can't tell, at least not right away.

I don't find first person especially hard; what I find hardest is omniscient. It's funny, in some ways omni should be the easiest. You're the all-knowing, all-seeing viewer, a ghost hovering over the proceedings, the camera crew on the deck of the Time Bandit. You see all, know all, can report all. You can even inject your own commentary into the proceedings (see, Snickety, Lemony). It seems easy, right?

Yesterday I wrote a little flash piece in my writer's group, and it's one of those pieces that's really on my mind. I like it. I think with a bit of cleanup, it can find a home somewhere, if I choose to go through the submission process, which is every bit as arduous as searching for an agent, with far less potential payout (or so it seems to me). It won't leave me alone, and I actually shared it with my wife, who dubbed it both amusing and creepy. But I have a problem with Point of View. It's aimed at being omni, yet it feels like head-hopping. No one in my writer's group said, "Hey, you're head-hopping here." Neither did my wife, but it feels a little off nonetheless.

'They' also say the best way to learn about writing is to read more, and keep writing. I guess I need to find myself a good book written in omniscient and do some careful reading.

Do you have a point of view you prefer, or one that gives you particular trouble?

Friday, August 2, 2013

The Disappointing Dome

Once upon a time there were TV shows. These shows aired in 30- or 60-minute blocks of time, once a week, roughly twenty-six times a year between early September and mid-May. They took a few weeks off here and there, for major holidays, and were occasionally pre-empted for special events and other programming. Each week's show was a standalone episode, though on rare occasions you would get a two-part episode. The problem was presented, the crisis ensued, and all was wrapped up within the span of the time slot. With few exceptions, characters did not change a whole lot over the course of a program's lifetime--Barbara Eden's Jeannie was about the same at the end as she was at the beginning, and so was Tony Nelson, Major Healy, and Dr. Bellows. Yes, there were some shows that broke this rule (M*A*S*H was one that did it quite well, in my opinion), but they were the exceptions.

For character development, for real storytelling, we got the miniseries. The first mini-series I remember was Roots, in 1977. Roots was huge. It was an event. It ran for eight nights straight on ABC, 12 hours of programming time, and had everyone talking about it. While there had been miniseries before, Roots ushered in the Golden Age of the Miniseries: Holocaust (1978). The Winds of War (1983). 'V' (1983, not related at all to 'V' for Vendetta; this was more like an expanded version of The Twilight Zone episode, To Serve Man). The miniseries was the perfect way to bring some stories to life that were too big for both regular TV and the movies. As an added bonus, they often attracted talented people who were usually only seen on TV appearing as guests on talk or variety shows.

photo by papalars
When I saw that Stephen King's Under The Dome was getting the miniseries treatment, I was excited—and a little peeved.* Like those big stories cited above, the miniseries format seemed perfect for Under The Dome. King's book is full of interesting characters doing interesting (and typically despicable) things to each other, too dense to be easily adapted to a 2 or 2-1/2 hour movie, not without having to cut the character list way down. Could it be done? Sure, Hollywood can do just about anything. Should it be done? In my view, too much would be lost. But a miniseries? Yes, thank you.

And now that I've seen five—or maybe it's six—episodes, I'm not so thrilled. In fact, I'm quite disappointed. Maybe I've been spoiled by the kind of programming that exists on HBO or Showtime, where you get things like The Sopranos, or Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones. You just can't get that sort of grit on the broadcast networks. Yet you can get quality, and Under The Dome, despite King's name as executive producer, and despite being backed by the television arm of Steven Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment, is falling short.

This is not me complaining about how much it differs from the book, though I do that for the benefit of my wife, who scoffs at certain things that have happened (like Stephen King needs me to defend him). No, this is about the quality of the show. I expected better. The minseries format should allow for the story to develop at the right pace, and it's the pacing that feels all out of whack to me. The problem is that each episode should have been longer, either 1-1/2 or 2 hours long, like the miniseries in the days of yore. Under The Dome is only an hour, and on network TV, one hour means about 42 minutes of actual programming. The result is that each episode feels rushed, cramped like Drusilla's foot in Cinderella's glass slipper. Add to that the fact we're keeping track of so many characters (Barbie, Julia, Big Jim, Junior, Phil, Linda, Scarecrow Joe), we end up jumping so much that we don't get enough of any one of them. It's ironic that the miniseries could stand a trimming down of the character list, given that one of the strengths of the format should have been the ability to follow more characters.

Still, as unhappy as I've been with the production, I've continued watching. Part of the interest has been in seeing how it's going to end--I want to know. I figured I could put up with less than stellar acting, and with occasional, head-scratching bits of logic. Let's see how it ends. And then came the unexpected news, just the other day: it's not ending. Under The Dome has been renewed for a second season. Wait, what? How do you renew a mini-series? Oh, I guess it's not a mini-series after all, and never WAS a mini-series. It feels like a ripoff, like a bait-and-switch at a smarmy car dealer. Part of the appeal of the minseries is that you're going to get a full story, spread out over time, but that it's going to have a conclusion. Like the best books, a miniseries should end with us wanting it to go on, though we know it can't. Now that I've learned that Under The Dome has no end, I'm actually less compelled to keep watching.

Have you been watching Under The Dome? What do you think? Have a great weekend.

*I'll perhaps explain this another time.