Thursday, August 21

The Choices We Make

Time to wax.

Winnie the Pooh probably would have said, "Blogs are a nice sort of thing to have on a blustery day."

And why not? Everybody wants to be heard - even those of us who prefer not to declare ourselves from a soapbox in the village square. On a blog, you can say your peace at length, and not have it disappear at the bottom of the 'timeline' in three hours. On the other hand, you may end up just talking to yourself.

I choose to talk to myself, except that I ascribe names and personalities to the voices in my head. It's not psychosis. It's writing.

Well...it may be both. They go well together.

Sitting about listening to this little gem of a soundtrack, a topic comes to mind. The topic of choice. We've all heard that life isn't a game and there are no 'do-overs'. I partially subscribe to that notion, but only insofar as it applies to the same life (an entirely different topic). Choices are a part of life, and it can be said that living from moment to moment depends upon making choices.

So? Are you the type who reflects on the choices you've made? Or do you throw more coal on the fire and move full speed ahead through life? Perhaps some of both?

Two choices I've made come to mind. For one, the choice to leave Japan. Of course at the time I was a student on a limited visa with a finite bank account, but I could have worked my way towards returning. Though I enjoy all of the following aspects, I can say I didn't go there just for the people, the culture, the land, or the history. I went there because it felt like the place I wanted to be. A connection I can't really put into words, that made me want to spend my time sitting in a quiet place to relish in the joy of just being. Not that I have any disrespect or lack of love for my roots, but something about it felt like home. Yet, I didn't go back, and now I believe that ship has sailed. There are too many people and too many circumstances binding me to the states, and these are important enough that they must take priority. I am not unhappy - far from it. But, there are times when I find myself sighing with nostalgic melancholy all the same. What would have awaited me had I gone that route? Is it even really worth thinking about? My desire to be there was simply one of existence. Those who know me are probably aware I care little for the pursuit of wealth and power; preferring to enjoy my days at my own pace. I doubt I could have joined a monestary, so would I have been any happier chasing the yen than the dollar? I can't say. What I can say is, there are things I have now that I would miss. My relationship with my wife, I believe, is a rare type of love in this day and age. We are close enough to nearly be extensions of the same person, and though we have as much our share of bickering as any healthy relationship, she has my complete faith and trust. Many people in this life never obtain that - even those who find romance. My children? Well, if I had built a life for myself across the Pacific surely they would be different people, if they existed at all. I like the little people they are now. My books? Considering the circumstances upon how I come across most of my ideas, I doubt any of them would have been written by now. No matter what becomes of them in the future, they will always be a part of my legacy - even if that legacy never reaches beyond my own house.

The other choice is one of career. There was a time some years back where I had an opportunity to pursue a position at a local elementary school. I chose not to - preferring instead to chase the dollar. Uncharacteristic for me, but I learned some very important life lessons from that choice that have shaped a lot of my values today. Had I taken that job, education for my children would have been easy - go to the school I work at, graduate to the one across the street, and graduate again to the next building over from that. But, my first daughter wasn't even an apple in my eye at the time, and even though I do say I don't like money, I do recognize the need for it - I make twice what I would have made at that position now, and I don't have to look for supplementary summer work. Was it the right choice? Hindsight is 20/20.

So, I've made my choices, and now I am a devoted father of two who has chosen to put life on hold until my young ones can stand on their own, as opposed to a Buddhist otaku who may (or may not) have done the same.

It helps to put things in perspective from time to time. I am happy. Perhaps that's all that really matters.

Now then, back to the stories in my head. To whomever may be listening, I invite you to reflect on your own choices. You're more than welcome to share.

My next book? It's already written, but is on hold for a bit to prevent conflicting releases with
Everywhere the Road Ends. The topic is a secret (unless you really want to talk about it). Here's a hint:

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Thursday, August 14

Akiba's Trip: Undead and Just a Game

I recently acquired a rare and unlikely import on my Playstation Vita - a quirky little modern culture romp called Akiba's Trip: Undead and Undressed.

For those that don't know, Akiba's Trip (or 'Akiba Strip', as you like) is a video game featuring an open city environment recreated from modern day Akihabara. In it, you are tasked with exposing undead monsters hiding amongst the populace. Since you are a normal person and not some soldier of fortune hero type we all can't relate to (a refreshing concept), you accomplish this by attacking your targets and stripping off their clothing, while they try to do the same to you. Once they are sufficiently exposed to the sun they disintegrate, much like a vampire.

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I must say, I'm quite entertained. Though I never visited Akihabara while I was on study abroad in Japan, I did frequent enough shopping districts on the Keian line between Kyoto and Osaka for the environments in this game to feel nostalgic, right down to the pitiable street walkers whose job it was to divert attention to the store that employed them by whatever means necessary. I consider myself a rather agreeable person, but as I was very obviously foreign they tended to leave me alone (and made a habit out of directing me to the handicapped toilet).

Me: (in broken Japanese) "Excuse me, but where is the ________?"
***HANDICAPPED TOILET***

I found many handicapped toilets in Japan. Oh well.

Back to subject at hand. When I purchased this game, the salesperson commented that he was surprised it was ever imported. I had to agree with him, though lamentably so. My original interest in traditional Japanese culture went as far as a major in college, but considering my background, it was only a matter of time before I discovered pop-culture about 17 years ago. I haven't looked back, and I suppose that may have to do with why I would immediately gravitate towards a game like this, and not see it as the slightest bit odd. But, the salesperson did have a point. Here's one of the reasons.

The Most Despicable Game Ever.

Before I make my point, I should hope I don't have to bring up the fact that I'm as much a supporter of equality of the sexes as any other forward-thinking, reasonable-minded person. Those who know me should already be aware of that, and those who don't, well, I just told you. I'm proud of the business my wife has built and have every intention of encouraging my two little girls to be all they can be when they grow up. I'm still going to say my peace.

Obviously there is no full nudity in this game (underwear is as far as it goes), nor is there any blatant sexuality apart from a few innuendo comments on the level of primetime TV, but as you can see the game has received criticism on our sexually immature side of the globe through claims that it exploits women, since there are a few screenshots circulating showing a male character removing articles of clothing from a female character. From even a short time playing it, I find it quite clear that as usual, the criticism can mainly be chalked up to ignorance. Despite the concept, the game has very little to do with titillation. It's more a mix of action and comedy, and you strip as many men as you do women (if not more). Later into the game you can also choose to actually play the game as a female character. I suppose the aforelinked article would find it acceptable if said protagonist went around tearing the clothing off of hapless men.

Haters who are just looking for the next cause, I offer you this thought: Calm down, unplug from the social networking for a few hours, go get some coffee or something, and let the people with interests that differ from your own enjoy themselves, as you would like us to allow you to do the same. I might also advise you to explore cultural diversity. Japan's history is centuries longer than that of the United States and was not built upon rigid Puritanical morals. People bathe together. People are less afraid of their bodies. People also expect you to be responsible for your own conduct, rather than feeling a need to police you and save you from yourself. As far as the exploitation/objectification argument is concerned, I'll fight that battle right alongside you - but I won't open fire without a legitimate target.

Peace said. Clicks bated.



(In case you're wondering, I believe Akiba's Trip is rated 'mature'. That should be helpful enough for most of us, but if you're really worried about your kids getting hold of this title, not to mention the oodles of titles portraying extreme violence that are only rated 'teen' (which for some illogical reason we seem to be more accepting of in the states), try doing some parenting now and then, rather than letting society do it for you. A million points to the first person who can explain to me why even taking about, much less providing education on, parts of the body we all have is so taboo, while extreme gore, violence, murdering of people in all walks of life, genocide, etc is considered a 'must-see' film, or perhaps a cop drama.)


Sunday, August 10

Digital Content and E-books - How Much is Too Much?

While this is certainly not a new topic in the world of modern publishing, I recently received a very interesting message from Kindle Direct Publishing, that I felt a need to share.

Bear in mind that this message only represents one side of a particular argument, and I always encourage the formulation of an opinion based upon analysis of both sides of an issue. It does include an expected amount of 'fluff' designed to sway reader opinion, and at the end it becomes so patronizing as to tell the recipient what to do and how to do it, but I believe the core point being made is considerable. I encourage indie authors in particular to give some consideration to this issue and share your thoughts, considering many of us don't have the publishing power to charge exorbitant prices for digital content. By the same token, perhaps higher prices will divert more interest towards non-traditionally published works?

To be fair, here's an article in defense of the opposite side of the issue:

Bestselling authors take out full-page New York Times ad against Amazon


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The message reads as follows:

Dear KDP Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book. This was a time when movie tickets cost 10 or 20 cents, and books cost $2.50. The new paperback cost 25 cents – it was ten times cheaper. Readers loved the paperback and millions of copies were sold in just the first year.

With it being so inexpensive and with so many more people able to afford to buy and read books, you would think the literary establishment of the day would have celebrated the invention of the paperback, yes? Nope. Instead, they dug in and circled the wagons. They believed low cost paperbacks would destroy literary culture and harm the industry (not to mention their own bank accounts). Many bookstores refused to stock them, and the early paperback publishers had to use unconventional methods of distribution – places like newsstands and drugstores. The famous author George Orwell came out publicly and said about the new paperback format, if “publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them.” Yes, George Orwell was suggesting collusion.

Well… history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Fast forward to today, and it’s the e-book’s turn to be opposed by the literary establishment. Amazon and Hachette – a big US publisher and part of a $10 billion media conglomerate – are in the middle of a business dispute about e-books. We want lower e-book prices. Hachette does not. Many e-books are being released at $14.99 and even $19.99. That is unjustifiably high for an e-book. With an e-book, there’s no printing, no over-printing, no need to forecast, no returns, no lost sales due to out of stock, no warehousing costs, no transportation costs, and there is no secondary market – e-books cannot be resold as used books. E-books can and should be less expensive.

Perhaps channeling Orwell’s decades old suggestion, Hachette has already been caught illegally colluding with its competitors to raise e-book prices. So far those parties have paid $166 million in penalties and restitution. Colluding with its competitors to raise prices wasn’t only illegal, it was also highly disrespectful to Hachette’s readers.

The fact is many established incumbents in the industry have taken the position that lower e-book prices will “devalue books” and hurt “Arts and Letters.” They’re wrong. Just as paperbacks did not destroy book culture despite being ten times cheaper, neither will e-books. On the contrary, paperbacks ended up rejuvenating the book industry and making it stronger. The same will happen with e-books.

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We've quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

But when a thing has been done a certain way for a long time, resisting change can be a reflexive instinct, and the powerful interests of the status quo are hard to move. It was never in George Orwell’s interest to suppress paperback books – he was wrong about that.

And despite what some would have you believe, authors are not united on this issue. When the Authors Guild recently wrote on this, they titled their post: “Amazon-Hachette Debate Yields Diverse Opinions Among Authors” (the comments to this post are worth a read). A petition started by another group of authors and aimed at Hachette, titled “Stop Fighting Low Prices and Fair Wages,” garnered over 7,600 signatures. And there are myriad articles and posts, by authors and readers alike, supporting us in our effort to keep prices low and build a healthy reading culture. Author David Gaughran’s recent interview is another piece worth reading.

We recognize that writers reasonably want to be left out of a dispute between large companies. Some have suggested that we “just talk.” We tried that. Hachette spent three months stonewalling and only grudgingly began to even acknowledge our concerns when we took action to reduce sales of their titles in our store. Since then Amazon has made three separate offers to Hachette to take authors out of the middle. We first suggested that we (Amazon and Hachette) jointly make author royalties whole during the term of the dispute. Then we suggested that authors receive 100% of all sales of their titles until this dispute is resolved. Then we suggested that we would return to normal business operations if Amazon and Hachette’s normal share of revenue went to a literacy charity. But Hachette, and their parent company Lagardere, have quickly and repeatedly dismissed these offers even though e-books represent 1% of their revenues and they could easily agree to do so. They believe they get leverage from keeping their authors in the middle.

We will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices. We know making books more affordable is good for book culture. We’d like your help. Please email Hachette and copy us.

Please consider including these points:

  • We have noted your illegal collusion. Please stop working so hard to overcharge for ebooks. They can and should be less expensive.
  • Lowering e-book prices will help – not hurt – the reading culture, just like paperbacks did.
  • Stop using your authors as leverage and accept one of Amazon’s offers to take them out of the middle.
  • Especially if you’re an author yourself: Remind them that authors are not united on this issue.

Thanks for your support.

The Amazon Books Team

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***Message ends***

Thursday, August 7

A Frozen One for the Boys

You know what I want to see?

I want to see somebody remake Frozen with exactly the same script, except with all the characters gender-swapped. All the same words, except for a change in gender related pronouns and terms ('king' vs 'queen', for example). I wanna see young prince Aaron pining for a girlfriend, and King Elrik change into a blue and white tuxedo during a rendition of 'Let it Go', after being taught by his mother the Queen all his young life to conceal his powers. I wanna see a tall and strong Princess Hannah of the Southern Isles sweep Prince Aaron off his feet and propose to him. I wanna see Kristina riding to the rescue atop Svetlana, like a pungent reindeer queen.

I wanna see Olga the snow-woman who likes warm hugs get impaled.

...or maybe I just want to hear somebody insist that all women pick their noses and then eat it.

Either or.

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In all seriousness though, I think the world could use a Disney princess movie for the boys. I bet you'd be surprised how popular it would be.

-The Journal of Ord's two cents.


Wednesday, August 6

F7 at Your Own Risk

Do you 'spell check'?

Of course you do. 90,000 words later, when you've finally dotted all the 'I's and crossed all the 'T's of your pièce de résistance, you can't take the chance that you overlooked some little faux pas that might give your readers the impression that your command over the English language isn't up to par. So you reach for the F7 key and let fly. What you get should be familiar in one form or another to any user of modern word processing programs:

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The options are straightforward, but it helps to be careful. A three-hundred page novel can be a joy to write, a challenge to edit...and an absolute bore to spell check. The options are as follows:

  • Ignore Once: Selecting this option will tell the program to ignore this one instance of a potentially misspelled word.
  • Ignore All: This option tells the program to ignore ALL instances of this particular spelling quandry.
  • Add to Dictionary: You are now God, and this particular word, which was once not a word, is now a word, because you say so. Use this to tell the program to treat any further instances as a correctly spelled word. You should be using this frequently for character names.
  • Change: See that window at the bottom with all those words in it? Those are the program's suggestions - what it thinks you're trying to say. If you like one of them, select it and choose this option. The program will use the word you selected.
  • Change All: For the bold - this option will change EVERY instance of the potential misspelling throughout the entire document as whatever word you select from the suggestion list.
  • Autocorrect: Be careful here, as now you're letting the program make the decisions for you. It will change the potentially misspelled word to whatever the first choice on the suggestion list is.

First thing's first. Make sure you not only understand what every option does, but that you're taking more than half a second to choose the right one. The 'all' options are bold selections. Are you absolutely certain you want every instance of the word in question to change, throughout your manuscript? There are a few things to bear in mind:

  • Your word processor only speaks one language at a time. Parlez-vous français? may make perfect sense to you, but to your word processor, it has more to do with parleying vows from some guy named Francis, and lord knows Francis isn't an easy guy to parley with.
  • Your spell-checker has never read Tom Sawyer. Neither have the tiny grammar police living inside your motherboard. Try typing in "Ach lad, iffn ye did nae know what’s happenin’ next then I’ve a bridge to sell ya, I do!" and see where that gets you. Consider the fact that at least one of your characters is speaking this way throughout your book, and I dare you to use an 'all' option.
  • If you want your word processor to recognize the names of all of your characters, I hope you're ready for the John Smith brigade.

That last one leads us to the poor case of Jervis Castradé up there. As you can see, if we're getting sick of telling the computer what every last little colloquialism means and we accidentally bop the wrong button, Jervis will be the unfortunate recipient of unintended complications.

I had just such a head-scratcher not so long ago. Those who are familiar with the Traveler of Ord saga will doubtless be acquainted with the riding animals of choice in the Goldenwealth -- horned, horse-like creatures with extra legs called escarots (chariots and Judas Iscariot notwithstanding). Just before The Goldenwealth Light first hit the shelves back in 2012, a kind-hearted beta reader (my father of all people) bemusedly asked me just what kind of appendages I was talking about. I checked the text, and there was indeed a single instance of an escarot with 'sex legs'. I got lucky, as I'm sure I would have been the scourge of mothers and preachers everywhere if that one had made it to the local library shelves. I'd also like to add that contrary to what you may have heard, Chapter Twenty-Sex of Everywhere the Road Ends, Book II of the Traveler of Ord Saga, will only be included in the adult version, scheduled for release sometime in the winter of 200never.

Long story short - be careful when you spell check. You'll want to avoid this:

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Somebody should make a T-shirt. "Do YOU F7?"


Monday, August 4

Fading Away in the Writer's Cup

I've shared this tip before, but I find it to be sound advice to the point that I'm about to put it out there again.

To those writers who find they never quite have time to get anything down on paper, I submit to you that any amount of time you spend on your craft, no matter how insignificant, is still an accomplishment. There's no shame in nickel and dimeing, especially if your willingness to work at all is on the line. It's easy to sink into the assumption that if you only have half an hour a day to write its not worth your time, and you might as well wait until tomorrow. Then tomorrow comes, the weekend comes, vacation comes, and you find that by Christmas you're still right where you started, justifying why only a little time is not enough.

Do you like coffee or tea? I'm partial to Earl Grey myself. No matter how busy your day is, I find it somewhat difficult to accept the fact that you have so little time on your hands that you can't at least sit down to a cup of your choice and the paper (or tablet as the case may be) once a day. If you're so tied up with life that you don't even have time to drink something, that's an entirely different issue. Use that cup as your timer, and instead of whatever you normally do while enjoying your drink, write. When the drink is finished, so are you.

It may not seem like much, but even if it's fifty words (or just a brainstorming session), at least you accomplished something today. That goes a long way towards keeping your eye on the prize and your head in the game. A project never worked on will only fade away.


Thursday, July 31

Never Blocked He Who Writes

Waxing nostalgic, I recently had cause to reminisce over writing experiences in my distant past. In elementary school we were given a marble notebook, and for half an hour every day, we were instructed to write.

"Write about what?" We asked.

We were told it didn't matter what we wrote, so long as we kept our pencils moving.

"What if I can't think of anything else to write?" One student would always voice the thought on many of our minds.

"Then write, 'I can't think of anything else to write'," Came the same response, every time.

I'm not certain what became of that notebook, but the last time I paged through the dubious handwriting and doodles of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the margins, I can say I cannot recall never having anything else to write. Little did we realize what our instructor was trying to instill in us. I wrote stories. I wrote about my day. I had conversations with the doodles in the margins, or drew word bubbles to give voice to their comments on my piece for the morning. Time slowed until the notebooks were opened, then it sped along at a frustrating pace, rocketing towards English or math class on the heels of an inevitably (and regretfully) unfinished sentence. A month later when I was asked to write a three page work of fiction about anything I wanted, I never found myself staring blankly at the wide-ruled looseleaf, wondering if somebody had substituted in legal-sized paper just to mess with me. All the material was already right there waiting for me.

Today I cannot tell you what I wrote about, but I can tell you about the experience. This was my first lesson in 'stream of consciousness' writing; a technique I still use today and wholeheartedly recommend to others. Whether it be journalism, storytelling, or technical drafting, at some time or another one is always presented with the conundrum - 'I can't think of anything else to write.' What to do?

Keep writing, I say. Grab a blank sheet of paper and scribble down whatever you're thinking right now, whether it seems relevant to your project or not. Ever start thinking about how your mind arrived at a commercial jingle from thirty years ago when you were only thinking about what you had for dinner last night? Move your pen the way your semi-conscious mind moves, like the guy behind the curtain operating the stage rigging. You've seen him and you know he's there, but you don't actively acknowledge his contribution to the play. Glance at a billboard, write a word from it, and see where your mind goes. Need a story? Need a plan? Grab that notebook out of your back pocket (you DO have a notebook in your back pocket for sudden muse attacks, don't you writer?) and jot any random thing down. Move your hand for ten minutes, then look back over the amorphous mass of words you just disgorged and see what you now have to work with. Never a writer was blocked who writes.

In short - when it doubt, just write.