Thursday, June 18, 2015

Writing in Media: The Divergent Courses of Archer and The Venture Bros

Warning: Spoilers for at least the first three seasons of these shows is most likely to occur.

Satire isn't a new genre in writing. As long as mankind's been able to look inward at his own absurdity, he has been making it a point to make fun of himself and the people around him. It's an act that goes back to man's earliest days. Hell, in 2000 B.C. the Egyptians were satirizing the hard work and employment that merely being an Egyptian required. Of course, you also have the satires that are considered Western classics. A Modest Proposal, in which Jonathan Swift argues that the Irish should eat their children as a solution to country-wide hunger, was actually a mockery of England's wealth and the habit rich people have always been in of ignoring the needs of the poor.

These satires, which were aimed at serious topics of employment and wealth, were replaced in the 20th century. Media grew at a blazing pace over the last century, exploding into forms of radio, television and film. As these forms grew, they took on tropes and tried to represent life in the form of straight comedies like Leave it to Beaver, Mary Tyler Moore and The Dick Van Dyk Show. Decades of this helped grow a huge wealth of material, tropes and patterns about what life should be like but what people knew life wasn't like. It shouldn't be a surprise that America eventually  made a habit of satirizing everything it could get its hands on. The turgid comedy Married... with Children was a satire of the classic American family comedy. Its lead, Al Bundy, was a deadbeat father who just wanted to work his shift at the shoe store, come home, drink a beer and zone out in front of the television. Of course, he wanted this done while expecting his wife, Peggy, to cook and take care of the home. That idea, that women were the housekeepers and men were the breadwinners, had been engrained in American society for centuries. It has its roots in social transformations that occurred in England hundreds of years before, and Married took the notion and spat on its grave. Al was constantly humiliated for his performance in bed, his meager income and his poor role as a father. Peggy's homecooked 'meals' were microwaved quick dinners. It was a complete inversion of the wholesome families of portrayed in earlier decades of television.

It was never incredibly witty, though it was probably a necessary part of American television. Sometimes you just have to take a hammer to social structures, and Married did that to the typical family that had been idealized for decades, one that never existed in reality. Satire found other sources to mine besides Americana, though. The 90s found pleasure in mocking entertainment that had come before it. James Bond, long a male sex symbol and a dashing representation of England and its spy network, found himself lampooned in the guise of Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. Mike Moore's original Powers film deserves an article all its own, but it was one of the original attempts at mining the vast source of pop entertainment that had developed throughout the 20th century. It varied between the worst toilet humor, to quick and witty repartee and chuckle inducing physical comedy. The film may not have won everyone's love, but it stands as one of the great satirical breakthroughs specifically because it mocked the great cultural touchstones that had developed over the last few decades. Better, it opened the door to even greater satirical pieces.

The Venture Bros. came to life in 2003 on Cartoon Network's late night broadcast block known as Adult Swim, which had been home to a long trail of decaying anime carcasses and the cheapest animation that American studios could produce. Venture Bros. was, from the start, something very different. First of all, it had the benefit of writers who actually had a theme that would unify the show: Failure. The fevered vision of genius creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, two names that most men can only dream of themselves inventing, Venture Bros. took the ancient Johnny Quest formula and, like its predecessors, subverted its entire source material. Where Quest had shown a triumphant Doctor Quest adventuring across the world with his son Johnny, while showing the triumph of Western society and the technological marvels of the Space Age, Venture dares to ask "What if Doctor Quest was a failure?" This lead to a show in which the lead scientist, Doctor Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture, is only making ends meet because he's been selling the inventions of his deceased father to the U.S. government for money. Thaddeus is, himself, almost incapable of inventing anything worth owning, and the great corporate and scientific empire his father had created (itself a mirror of Quest's own vast wealth, as well as that of other moguls such as Tony Stark) is rapidly falling apart. In this show, Thaddeus was what Johnny Quest would have been if he'd grown up humiliated, embarrassed and unable to step out of the shadow of his father. Thaddeus' own two sons, Hank and Dean, are Johnny Quest types themselves. However, they, too, mock the original Quest show. Young boys don't miraculously find their way out of one dangerous situation out of another without some scars, and the two of them end up dying in a (hilariously) fiery explosion at the end of Season One.

Archer, in contrast, had little vision to unite it as a show and instead chose to rely on quick gags, sex humor, and an endless mockery of the 'international spy' trope in a way that was similar to Austin Powers before it. Where The Venture Bros. attempted to develop, mockingly, a deep universe for its characters to inhabit, Archer was, from its inception, a show that relied on an endless series of gags. Archer, although an admittedly gifted fighter who can handle himself with a gun, is endlessly inept, unable to comprehend basic numeric and geographic concepts, and is outshone intellectually by his partner, Lana Kane. Yet Archer is the darling of the spy agency in many ways, largely because his mother owns it, but also because, despite his idiocy, Archer manages to survive an infinite number of dangerous situations while parading through a stream of sexual escapades. It really throws up James Bond's tropes in many ways, and it does remain funny. Whether it's agent Pam's addiction to Cocaine, or creepy scientist Krieger's holographic anime bride (yes, you read that right), Archer bombards the senses with endless mockeries, humiliations, gags, and sex humor.

And this is where The Venture Bros. and Archer largely divert as storytelling mediums and why The Venture Bros. is the superior show (which is not to say that Archer is a bad show by any means). Venture Bros. is now about to begin its sixth season while Archer is concluding its sixth. Let's work our way backwards, beginning with Archer. Faced with a boredom dilemma, writer Adam Reed introduced a number of changes at the end of Season Five and leading into Season Six. One change, which reduced Archer's spy agency to a drug dealing agency, was fitting with the overall tone of the show. It introduced new ways to use the characters in different situations. However, the show has essentially remain unchanged. It's still a constant parade of gags that runs wide, not deep. That lack of depth is why the second change, making lead character Lana Kane pregnant (and Archer's admission that he loves her), is undeserved. These type of deep character moments only mean something when depth has been applied to the characters over time. Archer is fast paced, ruthlessly mocking and essentially a Gatling gun of jokes, but it could never be accused of being deep. It's the lack of depth that makes the character admissions and changes so, well, meaningless. They're the sorts of things shows do to stay fresh, but they don't change the audience, characters or story in any way that feels like any of those elements will have a lasting impact.

The Venture Bros., on the other hand, spent years not only creating an increasingly deep mythology, but also using its unifying theme of failure to evolve its characters. Thaddeus Venture, at forty, is not suddenly going to become dad of the year. He's still obsessed with becoming greater than his father, mostly by making a horde of money and proving to his younger brother, Jonas, that Thaddeus is the greater scientist. It's shallow, sad and the ultimate demonstration of failure in the show. The thing is that it's true to the character, and you feel bad for Thaddeus when you see the way his domineering father treated him. People learn from the failures of others, though. Bodyguard Brock Sampson moved on when he realized his life had become stagnant working for Thaddeus. Brock, another version of the 'international man of mystery' trope, is a former spy himself that has fought, and fallen in love with, a former KGB operative named Molotov Cocktease. However, Brock has slowly pulled away from her and his stagnant bodyguard lifestyle, to reach a point where it seems he may even find love elsewhere. Venture children Hank and Dean, having been cloned, also grow. Hank has come to understand the world he lives in is incredibly absurd, embraced it, and grown into a daring young man that still makes hundreds of mistakes, but that is definitely not repeating the self loathing steps of his father. Dean, forever romantically obsessed with Triana Orpheus and beat down by his own fears, humiliations and sense of inadequacy, seemed the most likely candidate to grow into the same self hating man that his father Thaddeus is. However, Dean has slowly been asserting himself, rejecting his father's attempts to remake him into another 'mad scientist' type, and has generally become confident and assertive. At least, more assertive than he used to be.

That difference between Archer and The Venture Bros., the willingness to create character depth versus not, is why The Venture Bros. triumphs in a way that Archer has struggled with. The Venture Bros. makes for an almost nonstop laughfest. This isn't just a matter of personal opinion, everyone from Comic Con to The A.V. Club laud The Venture Bros. hilarity. However, the show has also slowed down to give its characters time to breath and grow. Rather than relentlessly make pot shots at each other's expense, Venture has sacrificed a few jokes for character development. That's also why, if someone got pregnant on Venture, it would feel earned in a way that Archer does not. Again, this isn't an argument that hopes to slam Archer. However, in ten years, when you think back on stories that had significant impact, Venture is going to stand out. It had the jokes to stay on television just as long as any other show, but also gave its characters the room to develop will make them memorable for years to come. It's also why the show has so much life left in it. That deep mythology it invested in, alongside its rich characters, give it ways to grow that Archer simply doesn't have available to it.

Hey, if you like my writing, don't forget to give my book FLOOR 21 a try! It's only 2.99 and it's basically the best dystopian piece you'll ever read.
http://www.amazon.com/FLOOR-21-Jason-Luthor-ebook/dp/B00UNLBJNI

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Gas Station Racism (and being shocked by it).

So, I'm a pretty angry guy sometimes.

What do I mean by that? Well, first of all, in my head I go through some daily battles with insulting people. That gets balanced against my conscience, which tells me I'm an idiot. Finally what comes out of my mouth is generally respectful. But that doesn't mean I ever skip the angry part.

If you ever went through a basic psychology course, you probably understand Freud's theory that we have three levels to our consciousness. You've got what's at the base: The Id. The Id is instinctual drives and urges that you can't control. Like me, I get angry at everyone almost right off the bat. Maybe it's the cost of living in a high stress town in a high stress profession.

Then you've got the Superego, which are all the rules culture and society teach you. Think of these like ideals. You'll never perfectly meet them, but they're the standards that get set for you depending on how you were raised. Finally there's the Ego, which satisfies the basic drives of the Id by balancing them against the realistic rules set by the Superego.

So, for instance. I get angry at someone (often for little reason; say they cut me off). I want to get out of my car and start yelling at him for being an idiot. My Superego intervenes and says that type of stupidty could get me locked up. And my Ego, still needing to satisfy my lingering angry urges, turns up some aggressive music for me to rock out to and get my impulses satisfied in a way that does no harm to anyone. According to Freudian theory, people go through this cycle on a daily basis, no exception. We all have some urge we realize isn't appropriate that makes us say to ourselves, "Hey, dumb dumb, quiet down with that nonsense."

A decal advertising E85 ethanol is displayed on a pump at a gas station in Johnston, Iowa.

Now let me tell you a story about how that Id-Ego-Superego thing can play out in real life. I've talked about this with other people so I know I'm not the only one that does this, but sometimes I'll mentally pick out something about a person's race and use that to insult them. I do that about white people, black people, Hispanic, asian, and on and on. Sometimes that means I'll get angry and think something like, "Asians should learn to speak English." At which point the other parts of my conscience kick in and say, "Hey idiot, your own grandmother didn't speak English." And finally it resolves itself in good social behavior where I try to treat everyone with some respect because, as my thinking mind points out, we're all humans facing our own struggles. 
 
Hell, my entire Facebook wall is a bleeding stream of angry rants against racism and inequality in America. So while I can think a huge jumble of positive and negative things about people based on race, color, creed, sexual orientation, and on, the arc of my behavior has always been on a trajectory of despising inequality and treating people with some human decency. And, much like the Good Book argues, I believe sin starts in the mind and leads to bad actions. So how do you get rid of negative thoughts like the ones I have? Well, meet more people not like yourself. Understand their struggles. Get to know them. This is like, basic kids stuff. They taught you this on G.I. Joe twenty years ago.

That leads us to the gas station incident of yesterday. Now, I've talked before about how I enjoyed writing a black female lead into my book, FLOOR 21 (which is selling quite nicely, thank you). Most of my friends are black, a happy consequence of living in Houston. I've also talked about how I had to drop a friend of mine after showing a picture of my ex-girlfriend to him. He might have been drunk, but when he said, "Oh, you like those n****r girls", that was the end of the friendship. Being my skin color and dressing nicely means I overhear a lot of stuff that's borderline, but when you can't even hide your racism, and don't even want to try, well we don't need to be friends.

And maybe it was me being naive, but I really didn't think talking bad about black people was that persistent. But, apparently, people feel like because I'm white skinned and wear a nice suit I'm the guy you feel comfortable sharing your racism with. And the weird part is, this time it was so subtle, I didn't even realize what had just occurred until I was driving away from the gas station.
Scenario: Me, standing in line behind a black man taking a long time at the counter. He tells his son he won't buy the child a particular candy because at $3.00 it's too expensive for its size. So, the father takes the child into the aisles to find another candy.

Thoughts: Your internal reaction to this could range from inoffensive to highly racist.
You could think
1.) Nothing. Oblivious to the situation.
2.) Man, it's just three bucks. Just pay.
3.) Well, this is a responsible adult teaching his son to choose wisely when buying something.
4.) Black people have no money and this guy shouldn't be here.

I highlight that last option because of what happened next. I've already gone through my rolling number of thoughts. I'm in a rush, annoyed, want this guy to hurry. I've done my, "Don't think negative thoughts because we're all humans who struggle and have priorities and this guy obviously loves his son." So I've put the situation behind me.
The clerk hasn't apparently. After the man walks back into the aisles, he says
Clerk: "This guy."
Me: "What's that now?"
Clerk: "I'm not surprised he didn't have money. Probably shouldn't have been in here. Looks like he's on the wrong side of town."
Me: (Not digesting what I've just been told) "I know right?"
My response was one of those things you do when you're not really sure you've heard a person correctly, or can't really understand what you've been told. So I'm pulling away in my car and thinking to myself, "What did that guy just say? Did he really say the black guy was on the wrong side of town?"

The black man in the store was wearing glasses, a nice pair of slacks and a nicely pressed shirt. Not that you should have to defend a black man's choice of clothing anyway, but this was the least threatening or offensive way a person could have been dressed. But the clerk still thought it was okay to tell me, a white dude, that this black guy was on the wrong side of town.

This goes back tot he Id-Ego-Superego thing. Somewhere along the way in society, a lot of people have apparently had the rules in their Superego programmed in a way that says it's okay to talk bad about black people or insult them. Maybe not with everyone, but this clerk's Superego obviously told him, "Hey, this nice looking white guy's going to appreciate me insulting that black guy in the back who didn't want to spend three dollars on candy."

Candy. He felt it was okay to make this insult over candy. I don't want to know what he would have felt justified doing if the situation had been even a degree worse. Because small thoughts, like that, if left uncontrolled, manifest in words. Words help shape our realities. And then we create environments where it's okay to discriminate against a segment of our society. Everything builds on itself. That's why it's important to keep having discussions and broadening your experiences, so that you get it in your head that those thoughts and actions aren't right.

AS AN ASIDE, now that I'm actually a published author I'll be doing a lot more writing. Probably a lot about race, since I deal with it so much in Houston and because my books revolve around portraying people of different races in science fiction settings. I previously wrote about black heroic leads here:
http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/05/28/1388577/-My-experience-writing-FLOOR-21-and-African-American-leads-in-Science-Fiction
And my next piece will be on interracial relationships. Until next time this is DAISHI, signing out.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

My experience writing FLOOR 21 and African Americans in Science Fiction

Indulge me for a moment while I rattle off a list of titles. Recognize any of them?

Guardians of the Galaxy
Godzilla
Lucy
Divergent
The Hunger Games: Mockingbird
Transformers: The Age of Extinction
The Maze Runner
Robocop
Jupiter Ascending
Ant-Man
Jurassic World
High Rise
Scorch Trials


This is a brief – and brief really is the phrase I must emphasize here – of science fiction films that have been produced from 2014 through 2015. If you bother to take a look at the film posters for these movies, you’ll notice the current trend of advertisement in film: stock poses by the lead protagonists, or demolished wastelands of the apocalypse. However, those are choices made by the advertising team. The creative teams behind these films and writing these stories are the ones choosing to populate the leads with one common thread: white leads.
Is that a problem?

I would never argue that our film and narrative leads haven’t become more diverse, if by diverse we mean that we’re seeing a rise in females. However, even that admission comes with the caveat that leads in these narratives are still overwhelmingly male. That’s an entirely different essay I could write, however today I’m focusing on the African American lead in science fiction. Let me create a new list for you, and I promise this one will be far more brief.
Men In Black
After Earth

I tried, I really did, to conjure up as many black leads in science fiction as I possibly could. I’m not talking about side leads. There’s always a Lando Calrissian that plays a side lead to Han Solo or Luke Skywalker. These roles are far more abundant for African Americans, and include heroic duties for a black actor, but never as the central role. General Stacker helps the hero Charlie Hunnam in Pacific Rim; Morpheus helps Neo in The Matrix; Lt. Uhuru serves under Captain Kirk in Star Trek; Mace Windu serves the Jedi Counsel in Star Wars, but the stars are Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. As the central character, though, African Americans rarely take the lead. The only exception is for Will Smith, in a phenomenon literally known as “The Will Smith Exception”, in which Hollywood finds him bankable and acceptable enough to white audiences to place him in the lead. This problem of color in leads exists in other media as well. Literature is more diverse but still dominated by white heroes. Television shows with science fiction bents either place black actors into the side roles or, worse, allow for only one strong black lead at a time. The Walking Dead is a perfect example of that last phenomenon, as the introduction of a new black male character to the show always signals the death of the previous one.

Science Fiction and Fantasy has been my genre of choice since I was a child. I also had the good fortune to be raised in a diverse environment and while I’m definitely aware of privilege and my built in advantages due to my complexion, I have tried to be an active part of my community. As a resident of Houston, Texas, I live in what is arguably the most diverse population in America. Indian food is as easily available as Nigerian, while the local population of whites and Hispanics still make up a sizable portion of the city. However, diversity doesn’t always equal access.

Houston is diverse, but it’s also incredibly divided. A central part of town, Midtown, is known for its combination of enjoyable restaurants, slightly overpriced living, and of course its drinking scene. That same drinking scene has led to report after report of discrimination when black patrons have tried to enter these bars. ‘Saggy’ pants is a common reason given for why a black American isn’t allowed inside, even if the pants are designer jeans and no saggier than the white person that just got into the bar. The level of division is strange to the degree that I could mark for you the street where Midtown divides into ‘black’ bars from ‘white’ bars. However, that same sense of segregation was something I found as a doctoral candidate at the university. In my years there, I met only a single black candidate that was also in the History program.

Why raise these issues of barriers to African Americans in a piece aimed at science fiction? Well of course, context is everything. I originally joined the program because I am a writer and feel my greatest impact is not in doing research, but in how I communicate. I tell tales, spin yarns, weave webs, and whatever other cliché you want to use to describe writing. Recently, I made it an issue to get my novel published, FLOOR 21. When I did that, I made a conscientious decision: My lead will be black.

To which some might ask, why? Do I have an agenda? Yes, I have an agenda. At this stage in my life, almost all my friends are black. Some are from Nigeria, some are from Liberia, and some are from good old American states like New York, Rhode Island, Louisiana and Texas. These are people I’ve spent time with at graduation parties, celebrating birthdays, sharing business success with, or toasting to over drinks. So, to answer what my agenda was: to give greater representation to blacks in the one field I love most, science fiction.

And so was born Jackie. Writing, as they teach you at the highest level, is about identifying your audience. I had a certain, ‘teenage’ voice born from a slate of films that fall from the ‘twee’ genre to more popular high school escapades like Juno. However, this voice was also based on people I knew, such as the younger sisters of ex-girlfriends I remembered. In the end I created a character that fit my personality, an amalgamation of diverse influences. Jackie was black in a post apocalyptic world, enjoyed playing baseball and basketball, was a mild genius as the daughter of two brilliant scientists, and desperately introverted due to her hard upbringing. I liked Jackie. I loved her, really.  So did a lot of other people.

Then came the day I released my artist rendition of her. I was formerly a comic artist and so I typically try to draw scenes from my book. In the climactic final battle of the book, Jackie, dressed fully in her baseball uniform and padded by body armor, battles a creepy monster born from people’s nightmares. It’s a great closer and a scene I was really happy with. The drawing came out excellent, and all was well.

Except not for those people that seemed to have missed the idea that Jackie is, indeed, black. Not that I spent tons of time trying to describe these elements, since I believe overly long descriptions of characters’ physical appearances to be boring. But her description was no less brief that that of other characters, and if nothing else, the description of her family should have clued in readers that Jackie was actually African American, if America still existed in the world of the book.

So, of course, while most people were fine with the character choice, there were those questions:
“Is she really black?”
“Why did you make her black?”
“Are you trying to be politically correct?”
“Don’t you think that makes it harder to identify with her?”
“She doesn’t sound black.”

The statement “She doesn’t sound black” is one of the most ear grindingly, soul crushingly, terribly irritating statements on the planet. My last girlfriend, a graduate of A&M and a reporter, complained constantly of being told by older friends and some family that she talked white. She complained that white people made condescending comments growing up about being well spoken. Even some current acquaintances of hers made the comments that she didn’t ‘sound’ black, a refrain I’ve heard other of my black friends complain about to this day.

For me, the objective was to create a character. She had a certain color of skin because I had an agenda, but that choice should say nothing about what she sounded like, what her interests were, what she enjoyed to do with her free time, how intelligent she was or her capabilities of being a hero. Fortunately, the negative comments I got back were disproportionate to the praise, but there’s always this niggling thought in the back of my head. Say, one day, the book were to sell so well that it became a movie. Would I have people not realizing Jackie’s black and trying to cast white people into the role? Would this become a situation of white washing, with a person of color being replaced by a white lead? That situation has happened in movies such as A Tale of Earthsea, Celopatra, Prince of Persia, 21 and Avatar.

I don’t know. That’s such a distant hypothetical that to me, it’s not worth wondering about. This is my first book to be published, I’m damned proud of it, and I hope that I can contribute to opening the doors to greater diversity in the lead roles of science fiction. Of course, science fiction by its nature is speculative, so for now I’m okay for settling with the statement, “Only time will tell.”  But then again, even my ability to say that might just be a result of my privilege. So instead I should say that we need to be asking for greater diversity in film and media together.

Friday, April 24, 2015

30 Days of Hell - The Road to Winning Kindle Scout and Getting Published, Part Four

My campaign closed on Sunday night, March 7th. I was notified by email that a review board would be reading my manuscript to determine whether if they felt it was something they could sell and that I would hear back within five business days.

In practical terms this means a person participating in the Kindle Scout program may wait a full week after their campaign is over to be told whether they will be published. In practice, my email came on Tuesday. The results?

Congraulations. You are being published.

A series of emails follows the initial contact email. A series of 'milestones' are set for you to accomplish before you get to talk to anyone at Amazon, and the first is getting your account setup, across multiple countries in the world, so that purchases of your book will be deposited to your account. It's a relatively straightforward process as information entered for the United States can be copied directly to forms involving other countries without an issue. Following the completion of this tax information, you are notified that you will receive an advance within 30 days. That was certainly the case for me, as my money was deposited by the first week of April.

After your tax information has been completed and a few days have been passed, you're finally presented the opportunity to speak with those running the Scout program at Amazon. While I won't divulge specific names here, all Kindle Scout winners (to this point) become well acquainted with the same names. The phone call itself, which takes place roughly within a week of your email notification, is to determine your plans, give some insight into Amazon's position, and to notify you of the rough timeline your book will follow before publication.

Of course, by the time of this phone call it's been a month since your Scout program began and an additional three weeks of email tag. That makes the waiting frustrating but in the end, quite worth it. Among some of the key information you're given is the fact that your book will be edited. While Amazon remains unsure as of now whether they will continue providing copy edit services to Scout winners, so far it seems they've been pleased with the results and the positive media that's resulted. One of the initial concerns with Amazon's Scout program was the lack of copy editing despite the massive retailer acting like a publishing label; the use of copy edit services helps dismiss that concern. Of course the edit won't begin until roughly two weeks after your phone conversation, and then will take somewhere in the area of a month and a half to complete. That means, from beginning to end, that the Scout program will take four to five months of your life before it's finally out of the door for publication. My current date is set for the first week of June, six months after I wrote Floor 21 and four months since I submitted it for consideration.

In writing this four part series, I've touched on everything from my writing process, the development of my book and finally, the obvious details of the Scout program. So what key points of advice could I leave for anyone considering submitting to the Kindle Scout program?

  • Be in it for the long haul. After writing your book and submitting it, it can be close to half a year before you're able to finally see your book out of the door and being read by buyers.
  • Be able to market yourself. A consistent trend among winners is their ability to get onto the Hot list for at least two weeks, and almost every winner I've talked to either has a following from past published works or has been able to effectively sell their current work to prospective readers. I myself generated a fandom by relentlessly lobbying my work to fans of the genre, taking out small advertisements and encouraging my readers to share the book and its general story with others.
  • Marketing is partly the ability to pitch your work and partly the ability to draw random viewers coming to the Scout website. What's the easiest way to do this? Create or contract compelling, high quality cover art that draws a reader's attention. Sales start with someone noticing your book. This goes for both traditional retailers and ebooks. Make your cover shine. 
  • On the same note, any good cover needs a good pitch. Cut and refine your two or three sentence elevator pitch until it's so good that you can sell the concept to someone in less than 30 seconds. If you have to take more than a minute to sell your book, you've lost the buyer.
  • Once again picking up off the last two points, a good cover and pitch won't help you win buyers and voters if your work is sloppy. I personally edit a book four times and sometimes five times before I feel it's complete, and did so with Floor 21. Amazon doesn't provide editing services until after you win, so if your readers are turned off by your terrible writing, the blame is on you.
  • Network. Social media is powerful if you use it wisely. Tweets thrown into the wind and Facebook posts that garner no responses are worthless. Post to places and writing groups with your idea first to see if you can garner a following. Cultivate that following by updating your fans frequently and engaging them in the voting  process. If they don't give you word of mouth, your book won't win and it certainly wouldn't sell. So make a compelling story people want to talk about.
  • You're not as good as you think you are. Listen when people voice concerns about your manuscript or campaign.
Over the years I've dealt with editors, publishers, agents and middlemen involved in the writing industry.  The common thread, from my time at Blizzard Entertainment, to my time as a sport journalists and my time in the Scout program, is that you have to write well and be aggressive in pitching your material. There are a thousand writers out there. Don't be the one that gets rejected, learns nothing, never improves and gives up. Maybe it's your writing that needs improving, or maybe it's your marketing, but either way get better and keep pushing.

Time's gonna' pass either way, whether you're working at it or not. So work.

I hope this series of posts has been helpful to all of you aspiring writers.

"You're gonna carry that weight."

Monday, April 13, 2015

30 Days of Hell - The Road to Winning Kindle Scout and Getting Published, Part Three

Kindle Scout took quite a bit of flack for posing as a hybrid publishing outfit. While claiming it was seeking to be reader powered publishing that would allow it to market indie authors whose works would go completely unedited, it was also posing partly as publishing outfit that would put its advertising power behind the books that were chosen (complete with a cash advance to published authors). This put Amazon into what was an awkward position in the press; it claimed its authors were independent yet they had the Amazon advertising budget behind them. That meant Amazon's brand was on the line, and that meant the sales giant felt the need to step in and provide editing assistance with manuscripts.

Not that the winners had badly written manuscripts. A brief survey of the winning authors revealed a number of previously published authors as well as novices with a fair amount of experience in other writing venues. In other words, almost all knew the rigors of self-editing and the value of a copy edit. It also became apparent that the winners were helped by previously established fan bases, since many were able to appeal to readers of their previously published books. In my case, having developed a fan base for Floor 21 through my various writing groups, I was able to multiply my votes by making simple requests to supporters who in turn passed those requests to others that were interested in the genre. I also benefited from taking out select advertisements. In this case I used Facebook to target friends of people that had already supported my author page; in other words, my ads were going to friends of supporters, and specifically they were targeted at fans of young-adult science fiction with a dystopian twist. This guaranteed the correct audience was being found and my click through rate was fairly decent. I never felt disappointed in my ad selection and responses.

The thirty days of voting was nerve wracking and I found myself checking my standing every hour of every day up until the final week. Over that time frame I never saw Floor 21 fall off the Hot List for more than hour before rebounding.

Books placed for selection on Kindle Scout are sorted into a variety of categories including Science Fiction & Fantasy, Mystery, and Romance. However, those books with the most votes on an hourly basis move into Amazon's 'Hot List'. The Hot List is important because it is the first set of books a visitor sees when they arrive on the Kindle Scout splash page. This is consistent with sales and marketing in general; be first, be loud and be present. People like winners and think they're sitting at the top for a justifiable reason. If a book's on the hot list, it must be because lots of people like it. This inclines them to vote for yours first. Even during periods when I wasn't advertising or wrangling my supporters into votes, I was constantly shuffling through the Hot List.

It's worth mentioning that the Hot List doesn't seem to be a 'ranked' list; books with the most votes aren't necessarily at the top of the Hot List. The sorting seems randomized, so generally it's just important to be on there. Being on the list shows you're getting votes, and if you're on the list even when you're not marketing it means that people are arriving at the Kindle Scout page, seeing your book and voting for you even if they've never previously seen your work.

You also don't need to be on the list every day of the week or even the entire month. While my book remained on the list for 30 days, other books that were on the list for perhaps two weeks were selected. This is because a flood of votes only fast tracks your book for consideration by Amazon's editorial board, which then makes decisions on whether to choose your book or not. Several books on the Hot List consistently for the majority of their time in the program were not chosen while other books that vanished after two and a half weeks were selected. The decision by Amazon's selection team is not only based on votes but also based on whether Amazon thinks it can sell your book.

At any rate, after 30 days you're notified that your book has finished its campaign and that now it's in the hands of the selection team. That began the next few days of waiting... days that created even more hell for me. 

An Englishman from Mexico

"I met you on the 13th of October, a date I shall remember forever but that you will never remember. If there were ever a more fitting metaphor for a relationship then I cannot imagine it. You were smiling beneath the crimson lights of the bar, washing away memories I would later find out were of your ex-fiancee and the relationship you'd left behind. I was there reluctantly, dragged at the pestering of my friends for an evening of revelry I neither craved nor desired. My heart had already been broken ten times over in the course of the past few years and my desire for marriage and a lasting relationship was thoroughly buried. Yours was just beggining. I was older. You were younger. I was remembering. You were forgetting.

We were, from the start, ships drifting in opposite directions.

So of course it was to my great surprise when a friend of mine dragged you to our table. In the ensuing hours the alcohol would flow, far greater for you than me, and we'd fill the evening with tales and confessions of lost loves and broken hearts. Somehow, in the midst of beer drenched conversations and tear filled admissions, we'd find a moment in which our two hearts were joined by our hurts. Which in retrospect was perhaps not the greatest way of beginning a relationship and yet, there it was.

You could barely remember me the next day while I remembered you all too well. You barely wanted to venture a date with me given the grounds of our first meeting. And yet we found ourselves having drinks and meals, sharing laughs and joys, yet our ships still sailed by two different winds. I was tired of trying to marry. You were still, unexpectedly to me, seeking it with passion.

How ironic that in the end you were the one person I wanted to be with more than I'd wanted to be with anyone in years and yet I could not give you the one thing you wanted. Our destinations were far too different, our journeys taking us into different waters. And so, one day, our ships lost communications. That day you were gone, and my first true happiness gone with the whisper of the wind.

Which is why I find it so strange now to sit here, my journey having come full circle. I've returned to the port I departed all those years ago. Of course you have long found your destination and vanished over the horizon while I linger, alone once more. And yet I find that, somehow and perhaps miraculously, I have found the will to again commit. It is likely on account of you. If I hadn't known the pleasure of your company and the warmth of your voice, I might never have found the desire to give myself to a person, utterly and completely, again. Such a shame it took the loss of someone so incredible to make me realize that."

James Pemberton paused as he lifted his thumb from the recording button on his phone. For a long moment he stared at its screen, his eyes pinned to the file shining at him from behind the illuminated glass: To Christina. Finally his finger slid over the file, illuminating it in red before striking a final button at the side.

"Deleted," he grumbled as the file was lost into the ether. "If only memory was so easy to discard."

Sunday, April 12, 2015

30 Days of Hell - The Road to Winning Kindle Scout and Getting Published, Part Two

I originally heard about the Kindle Scout program in early November and at that time decided to submit my book, The Dream Map, to see if it would get a shot. Unfortunately I'd already set it to sell through the standard Kindle system and so it was ineligible. Of course rejection wasn't a new phenomenon in the world of writing. Though I'd found success in academia and doing short stints for Blizzard Entertainment, a fully published novel still eluded me. As far as my experience with Kindle Scout, I assumed at the time that my relationship with it was over. Brief, experimental and completely nondescript, it was much like an unmemorable movie or inoffensive book. Simply state, it was not something that would stay in my mind either way.

I flirted in the halls of NaNoWriMo groups that November month, engaging with others in discussions of technique and style. I had more experience than some others, including time negotiating with agents, dealing with editors and the like. At its worst I was bored by repetetive questions and authors unwilling to understand the rules before attempting to break them. At its best I was intrigued by story concepts and found myself in lengthy discussions of 'why' we write.

However, it's important to remember that I never actually started writing a novel for NaNoWriMo. I had no reason to. After all, I'd never had any difficulties motivating myself to write and I already had books I'd completed, though they lingered unpublished. I had no reason that simply write another novel just for the purpose of saying I 'won' NaNoWriMo. No, Floor 21 started for completely different reasons.

It was a late Sunday and I was catching up on episodes of The Walking Dead when I saw a young woman rappelling down an elevator shaft. At its bottom awaited hordes of zombies but if she could only make it through, she'd find her way to freedom. The girl had been imprisoned by hospital authorities for weeks and this was her moment to flee. As I saw her working her way down into a pile of broken and zombified bodies, I wondered to myself: What if she had always lived in that building? What if this wasn't her returning to her group? Instead, what if she'd always lived at the top and had no idea what awaited on ground floor?

That was the initial inspiration of an idea, and I quickly typed out a 1,200 word 'recording' of Jackie. This writing exercise was experimental for me since I'd never attempted to write in first person, never attempted to write a female protagonist and was attempting to write it as if she was leaving recordings behind. That idea, of leaving recordings behind, was taken from a staple of horror conventions used in horror video games from Bioshock to Dead Space. But somehow it just worked and the premise was intriguing. I posted the sample to several writing groups, including my NaNoWriMo group. And you know what?

It exploded.

Just about everyone who read it had an overwhelmingly positive response to the material and the character. Inspired by the response, I worked furiously that week. It was Thanksgiving week and my workload was light since students were not holding classes (I run a small tutoring agency). Within the week I was done; I'd written 50,000 words in a week, finished the first draft of Floor 21 and inadvertently won NaNoWriMo.

Now all I had to do was get it published. Enter Kindle Scout.