Manuscripts Burn


"Manuscripts don't burn"
- Mikhail Bulgakov

Hi, I'm horror and science fiction author Steve Kozeniewski (pronounced: "causin' ooze key.") Welcome to my blog! You can also find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and Amazon. You can e-mail me here, join my mailing list here, or request an e-autograph here. Free on this site you can listen to me recite one of my own short works, "The Thing Under the Bed."

Friday, September 30, 2016


I think it's fair to say at this point in my life, with all the conventions and signings I've attended, that I've met a pretty good number of celebrities, particularly literary celebrities.  There are precisely three of those who left me starstruck.  The good news for you is that I'm now going to break down, in exquisite detail, precisely how I approached each of those estimable gentlemen.

1.)  Brian Keene - I walked up to Brian and said, "Hello, Mr. Keene, my name is Steve and I'm a big fan of your work, particularly THE RISING.  You've been a big influence on me, particularly my first novel, and if you're interested, I'd like to give you a copy."

2.)  Jonathan Maberry - I walked up to Jonathan and said, "Hello, Mr. Maberry, my name is Steve and I'm a big fan of your work, particularly ROT AND RUIN.  You've been a big influence on me, particularly my first novel, and if you're interested, I'd like to give you a copy."

3.)  Kevin J. Anderson - I tweeted Kevin and said, "Hello, Mr. Anderson, my name is Steve and I'm a big fan of your work, particularly of DARKSABER.  You've been a big influence on me, particularly my first novel, and if you're interested, I'd like to send you a copy."

I know, there's a lot of wheeling and dealing to get through in each of those stories, but I think the point is clear: toadying, ass-kissing, and just general starfucking is the best way to approach any celebrity you're interested in meeting.

Even better, of course, is if you can avoid approaching the celebrity directly altogether.  See if you can find out who the celebrity's friends are, or, even better, their spouse or significant other.  Rather than approach the celebrity directly, mollycoddle up to their friends and loved ones.  Laugh loudly at their jokes.  Tell them they're clever.  Then, when the time seems right, strike by asking for an invitation to contact the celebrity.

Celebrities treat such invitations as golden tickets, and their spouses and friends are inevitably flattered and surprised by your knowledge that they know the celebrity.  Once the friend has granted you an audience, you are now in a special position to get favors out of the celebrity.  You can effectively ask the celebrity if they can rub some of their fame off on you.  Celebrities don't mind this, are absolutely capable of it, and are always flattered to hear the request.

The actual process of the celebrity rubbing some of his or her fame off on you is a little bit more complicated, so you may want to do things like follow the celebrity around at conventions, especially back to their room if you can.  Celebrities love having fans follow them up to their rooms.  It shows a level of dedication that regular fans (or "normies" as they're known in the parlance) simply don't aspire to.  If you're not able to just follow the celebrity back to their room, try talking to them while they're in the bathroom, particularly if they're in the stall.  Think of them as a captive audience at this point.  If they didn't want to talk to you, why would they be in the stall with you outside in the first place?  Such stall talk will inevitably lead to that much desired invitation back to the celebrity's room.

Once in the celebrity's room, you will be allowed to have sex with them, which is, of course, what both you and the celebrity have always wanted.  Celebrities love having sex with strangers, otherwise they wouldn't have gotten into this business.  While smoking cigarettes during pillow talk, you'll be able to regale the celebrity with your own clever insights, which will naturally cause them to find you irresistibly attractive, and will result in both another round of lovemaking and the beginning of a lifelong friendship.  Most importantly of all, though, the celebrity will now be relaxed enough to unclench their cloaca and spray you with their celebrity juice.  A warm spritz of celebrity juice will make you more famous, just like the celebrity you admire.

Above all, though, remember never to approach celebrities with honesty, earnestness, and genuine feelings.  Certainly do not treat their friends and family members like they are independent entities who you can interact with just like any other human being.  They hate that shit.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

What Happens to a Twitter Account Deferred?

Did you ever wonder why my Twitter handle is "@outfortune" instead of the more prosaic (and presumably still untaken) "@kozeniewski?"

I don't know if people know (or care) that my Twitter account used to be a gimmick account. For years I put off getting on Twitter because I couldn't think of a reason to.  It seemed to me that Twitter was a stage for people who could come up with clever ideas like "Shit My Father Says" or the imaginary Mayor Emanuel.  Then, one day, my friend Rick from work (who you may know as the inspiration for "Maverick, LCSW") and I went to the Chinese buffet for lunch.

At the end of the meal we opened our fortune cookies and read out some of those lame, latter-day fortunes that you get nowadays.  "Follow your heart" or "Open yourself up to new ideas" shit like that.  And the discussion centered around how lame fortunes have gotten.

See, back in the day, I found fortune cookies genuinely appealing.  I don't even eat them now, because they're so lame.  But back in the day fortune cookies would make bold statements, like horoscopes.  "You will find love with a redhead tonight" or "Money will come your way if you don't yell at the landscaper."  I mean, they were stupid, but they were conversation starters, as any good bit of prognostication should be.  Will I really find love?  Are fortune cookies just stupid?  It was something you could sit around and discuss at the end of the meal.

Now, though, they're completely bowdlerized.  Who's going to have a conversation about following your dreams or staying true to your heart?  I mean, I guess I understand.  Maybe the fortune cookie companies got sued.  Maybe they just realized peddling predictions was a bit unsavory.  I don't know.  But they have changed significantly in recent years.

And then it struck me.  An actual idea for a Twitter account.  Old-fashioned fortune cookie fortunes, except they would be wildly inaccurate, sometimes physically impossible.  Outrageous Fortunes.  It all came together almost instantly.  And I went home that night and wrote out about ninety outrageous fortunes. 

This was all in 2011.  For two, maybe three solid years I clung to the Outrageous Fortunes concept.  I was sure it was going to catch on and be the next big thing.  I tried to make topical jokes.  I tried to use hashtags to get them trending.  But most of all, I figured that quality product will find an audience, which in those days was always told to me as gospel.

I still think it was a quality product, but it never caught on.  Most of my books haven't caught on, to be frank, and I know those are quality products.  The people I can wheedle into actually reading them are pretty universal that I have talent.  So I don't believe a quality product will find an audience any more.  I don't believe that just slaving away, making something good in obscurity will ultimately lead to fame.  I think you have to go out there and find your audience, shake them down, stalk them as time stalks us all.  Waiting for something to catch on worked for Emily Dickinson and Franz Kafka, and they both died before ever knowing it.  I don't want to take that risk.  Do you?

Anyway, that's a bit of an aside.  So what happened to Outrageous Fortunes?  Well, BRAINEATER JONES happened. When I got published I knew I should try to get the word out any way I could about my novel.  So I tweeted my 200 or so followers that BRAINEATER was out, even though I had sworn Outrageous Fortunes was going to be a novelty account and would only ever tweet, well, outrageous fortunes.

And then tweeting once for release day turned into tweeting once for a sale.  Then into sharing my friend's work.  Then into signing up for Thunderclaps because I didn't want to clutter up my personal Facebook feed.  Then people started responding to me and I started responding to them.  And, gradually, my novelty account was taken over, whole cloth, by my burgeoning writing career.  And that's why I have such a peculiar Twitter handle.

It's sad to think that Outrageous Fortunes is gone.  That it's evolved into something no longer recognizable as what it once was.  But I reached a point after a few years where there was just no more juice to squeeze out of the lemon.  I don't think I could have kept coming up with outrageous fortunes if I'd tried.  Of course, that's not to say I don't have another novelty account, quiescent, waiting in the wings...

Monday, September 26, 2016

Making the Sausage: Judging a Small Press

The inimitable Jake Bible inspired this post when he posted some rather cringeworthy language on Facebook from a small publisher's website.  This got me to thinking: how would a brand new author tell the difference between a reputable small press and some outfit I just started in my basement the other day?

Readers do not give one wet goddamn about the reputation of the publishing house that published the book they're buying.  Odds are they'll never even check to see who the publisher even was.  Which is all very well and good for the democratization of publishing.  It means that whoever you are, wherever you are, if you're producing a quality product, in the minds of readers you can compete with the Big 5.

But for a brand new author, it means you're swimming in an ocean bobbing with fins, and only a few of those are friendly bottlenoses.  So if you've received an offer on your manuscript here are a few things I recommend you research to determine whether the small press is a shark or not.  (You should probably run through the first few steps when you're even considering submitting to them to avoid wasting everyone's time, but it's probably a little labor intensive to go through the whole list until you have an actual offer in hand.)

1.)  Are they overtly and rather obviously scammers?  By this I mean, have you done your rather basic and, I would think, fucking obvious research?  Have you googled the name of the publisher?  Do they come up on the bad boy list on either "Writer Beware" or "Preditors and Editors?"  Worse, do they come up as pending litigation or on Better Business Bureau websites?  After you've checked "WB" and "P&E," which, I assure you, are absolutely indispensable for this purpose, if you like you can also drill down into the "Absolute Write" forums, where I guarantee you will able to find more information.  However, I have to caveat that "AW" is's say personality-driven.  I mean, you can imagine a forum where jilted writers all gather to complain about the people who rejected them.  So there can be a metric fuckton of information there - down to even dates and times of rejections - but remember to take it all with a grain of salt.  Some people will just be complaining to complain, so there may be some spirited differences of opinions, but if a publisher seems universally reviled on "AW," that should set off the warning klaxons for you.

2.)  Is there ominous silence?  The flip side of doing your research is that you may just come up with nothing.  If the publisher is not even listed on the three sites I've mentioned above, the odds are they're brand spanking new.  Now brand spanking new is not necessarily a bad thing, but common wisdom states that most small presses fold within a year, and your book will fold up and disappear with it if you weren't careful at contract time.  So it's best to wait until a publisher has been around for at least a year before submitting to them.  Now, I know, that's not going to stop a lot of you from striking while the iron's hot or getting in out the ground floor or whatever.  (It sure as shit didn't stop me from signing with Red Adept in 2013.)  Just at least remember that you're basically signing up with an unknown quantity, so make sure you get a serious warm and fuzzy from the publisher before signing with them.  (Which, yes, I did.)  Don't just go with them because they're the first (or only) people who accepted your manuscript.

3.)  Is their web presence professional?  Look, I use Blogger.  I like Blogger.  I've never felt a need to shell out the ducats to get my own domain.  Maybe I should; I dunno.  But I'm not really asking people to trust me with their business.  My blog is just one moving part of my greater social media presence.  It's a place where I write shit that doesn't fit into 140 characters.  And I know my blog isn't even the nicest in terms of how it's set up.  But it's kind of like I put some effort into it, isn't it?  There's a toolbar up top.  There's a masthead.  Now, when you're looking at a small press, knowing that they are, in fact, a business, are they using Blogger/Wordpress?  Or did they actually get a website?  Is their website nice and professional and easy to navigate?  Does their Twitter account similarly look professional?  Does it have followers?  What about Facebook?  No, social media metrics do not necessarily equate to quality or sales.  But look, the main thing a small press brings you is a cover, editing, and marketing.  So if they look like a chimpanzee could market them better than they can market themselves, how well do you think your book is going to sell in their simian little hands?

4.)  Are their covers high quality?  There's an old saying never to judge a book by its cover.  Cool, cool, and yay for ugly swans and all that lovely hippie shit.  But you, as an aspiring author, had goddamned well better judge a publisher by its covers.  If their covers are ugly, pug ugly, fugly, pug fugly, or even ugly ugly, then guess what?  That's the kind of cover you're going to get.  And you don't want that.  Because covers sell books.  Sorry, dudes, but nobody listens to that nice old saying in its most germane context.  The last time you went browsing a bookstore I guarantee you the books you picked up to even look at the back cover were the ones whose covers caught your eye.  Same thing online.  Same thing with every reader.  A quality manuscript will have real trouble overcoming an ugly-ass cover.  Now what if the small press doesn't have any covers?  Well, go back and treat them as though they're brand new as in #2 above.

5.)  Are their books getting sales?  (Bullet points 5, 6, and 7 are best executed simultaneously, so if you're the sort of person who is following this list point-by-point, make sure you read all three first before proceeding.)

If you've gotten this far, you're seriously considering going with this small press.  There are no obvious red flags.  They look and feel and talk like an actual publisher, and not some fly-by-night Mickey Mouse hokum.  So now the rubber meets the road.  Go to Amazon and search for the exact name of the press as it appears in the "Product Details" section of one of their published books.  (Hopefully it's not something like "French Press," because, ugh, then it's going to be all books about coffee.)  Don't know what I mean?  Here:

So you want to search for "Red Adept Publishing, LLC."  In quotes.  And all of their books should show up.  You can take a look at each book's Amazon Best Sellers Rank to get a feel for individual sales.  So what kind of sales are good?  Well, it's a little bit like dowsing to tell.  You can use a Kindle Best Seller calculator like this one to make an educated guess.  But Amazon's ranking algorithm is proprietary and they're not sharing exactly how it works, so take any such calculator with a grain of salt.  Beyond that your rule of thumb is that a Kindle e-book with a rank of 100,000 (like the example above) has had one sale today.  And books with better sales in the past tend to retain a higher ranking.  So if you come across a book that's been out for four years and is ranking 9000 overall in the Kindle Store, this is a book that has had lots of sales.  If you come across a book that's been out for two weeks and is languishing at a million, well, that probably sold one copy to Mom once. 

6.)  Are their books getting reviews?  Reviews can be an indicator of sales and vice versa.  Or they can not.  It's hard to say.  But remember what I said about small presses having to bear some responsibility for marketing?  Any good small press should have at least a few trusted reviewers who review all of their books.  They may even have a blog tour company or a publicist of some sort on retainer.  That'll help ease the burden off of you a little bit.  So you want to check and see if their books have reviews.  So how many reviews are good?  Well, EVERY KINGDOM DIVIDED has been out for about ten months and has fourteen reviews.  BRAINEATER JONES has been out for three years and has 93.  I can't tell you what "good" necessarily is, or what level of success you're willing to accept.  But if a book's been out for five years and it has two reviews, yeah, that's shit.  If it's been out for six weeks and has two hundred, that's sizzling.  And because sales and reviews vary by author, you want to look at a couple of books from a couple of different authors in the small press's stable.  Maybe some are shitty but others are good.  Are you overall getting a warm and fuzzy?  Or are you overall thinking these people may look professional but they can't move books for shit?

7.)  Is the writing in their books high quality?  As long as you're perusing the books on Amazon, make sure to click on the "Look Inside" feature on a few of them that catch your interest.  The thing is, small presses do pick up a lot of good authors who are simply squeezed out of traditional publishing by the vagaries of fate and a cluttered industry.  One thing I can say unreservedly about Red Adept is that I've never read a bad novel from their house, not even in genres that I normally avoid.  They're genuinely seeking quality writers who have been overlooked, as the best small presses do.  But small presses can also be paper mills that pick up as many crumbums as possible, hoping that by sheer volume one of them will pay out.  I mean, a single bestseller can underwrite a dozen crapfests.  So the question is: are you all right with your publisher treating you as a commodity?  Or do you want them to consider you a partner?  Because if they're a paper mill, and all of their books are garbage, they're going to treat you more like a robot arm making a product than a creator making art.  If you're opening up all of their books and they're all utter dreck, you can probably guess that they either have a terrible eye for manuscripts (in which case do you want to be working with them anyway?) or they're just throwing all the spaghetti against the wall and hoping it sticks.  Another element of this is that the fellow authors in your stable are going to become an important resource to you.  You're going to be doing favors for them and they're going to be doing favors for you.  So do you want to be promoting some drivel?  Or do you want to be working with other authors you genuinely respect?

8.)  Do their authors speak positively about them?  In the social media age it's not hard to tell what authors think of their publishers.  I talk about all of mine routinely on this blog.  So you can probably do some googling and see if people are complaining about their publishers.  But this is a little indirect, and most authors are not so indiscreet as to air their dirty laundry in public.  So you should reach out to some of the authors in the small press's stable and ask them directly what they think.  A reputable small press will even encourage you to do so, and give you the names of a few of their authors.  My recommendation?  Don't ask the authors the small press names.  Because the small press is probably going to give you the names of their most successful and/or most satisfied authors.  The ones who've already drunk the Kool-Aid.  You've already done your research.  You know who writes for them.  Reach out to some of the low men on the totem pole.  If you're scared or nervous about doing this, don't be.  Cheryl Guerriero, who I don't know from Adam and who lives in California, reached out to me when she was considering signing with Red Adept and I immediately called her and we had a nice, 45 minute conversation about it.  I've even reached out to some big names in the industry with these sorts of question and not a one of them has blown me off.  Part of being an author is paying forward the good stuff people have done for your career.  So just remember this in a few years when some n00b comes knocking on your door, asking about your publisher.

9.)  Have you asked your friends in the industry?  And, yes, I count as a friend in the industry.  Okay, so you've done your dummy research and you've done some deeper research.  You've reached out to a bunch of authors in the stable who you were shocked to learn were not as intimidating as you thought.  You've got warm fuzzies right up and down the line.  Now the last thing to do is ask advice from your friends in the industry.  Why would you do this?  Well, because you can rely on their experience.  They may be familiar with the small press you're looking into.  Even if they're not, you can at least rely on them to be slightly removed from the situation.  You're all excited because you've had a nibble on your manuscript.  But your friends are going to be able to ground you.  Okay, so what if you don't have any friends in the industry?  Well, guess what?  If you're reading this blog, you have at least one.  All my contact info's in the "About Me" page up there.  Reach out to me.  Please.  I mean it.  I make this offer every single time I do a panel on this subject, and my blog readers are at least as deserving of my time as my panel audiences.  I would much rather that you ask for five minutes of my time now than regret your choices for years and years to come.  Trust me, it's just part of me paying back all the good folks who did this for me.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Re-Animated #12: God, The Devil, and Bob

What would become the United States of America was colonized by weird, puritanical nuts about four hundred years ago.  I'm talking about the kind of people who when they passed by, the other illiterate peasants of the late Middle Ages looked at each other and whispered, "Those guys are a little too churchy." 

It's hard to get past that.  As much as we've advanced in four centuries, compared to Europeans we're still a little bit...too churchy.  Here in Pennsylvania you can't buy liquor on Sundays and you can only buy it from the state the rest of the week.  Our laws about sex and marriage are...well, let's just say weird and leave it at that.  Things in 2016 are certainly better tan they were in 2000 (yay, gay marriage!) but it's hard to say we've changed that much.  Mocking religion doesn't really get big play in the public sphere.  It doesn't play in Peoria, as they say, but what it really doesn't play in is the Bible Belt, which is both the metaphorical and the physical center of our country.

What has changed since 2000 is the way we consume our entertainment.  Entertainment has balkanized so that if I'm not finding a TV show I want to watch on the networks, I can probably find a cable channel to suit my needs, that is, if I don't prefer Netflix or, hell, even just YouTube.  In 2000, not so much.  A nascent version of how we understand cable today existed, but original programming was pretty much bargain basement.  "The Sopranos" had only started the year before, even "South Park" was only three, and we were still a solid decade and a half away from "Preacher."

It's strange, then, from a business standpoint, that ABC took the risk of putting a show like "God, The Devil, and Bob" on the air.  I was excited when it first came on, because yay adult cartoons, but I also knew, even as an inexperienced teenager, that it was only a few weeks away from cancellation.  I don't know if ABC was gambling that this would be their version of "South Park" and that the controversial nature of the show would at least generate some ratings. 

It did not.  I have to say, all things considered, the actual content of "GTDAB" was not nearly as controversial as the religious groups that immediately jumped to condemn it imagined it to be.  It was fine as a sitcom, but the only real reason it had to be a cartoon was because of the expense that would have gone into making all the Heaven and Hell special effects.  It had some funny moments, but otherwise it was a bit subdued.  "South Park" it certainly was not.

If anything, "GTDAB" was more respectful of religion than most shows even by default are.  Basically it posited a world where God and The Devil were real and were real characters, playing their Biblical roles, but well aware that it was the turn of the millennium and not the Bronze Age anymore.  Played by an avuncular James Garner, God was a bit wistful, perhaps more Jerry Garcia than vengeful demiurge, but loving and genial.  The Devil was less of an existential enemy to all that is good and right and more of an old friend of God's who finds himself disagreeing with him.  In their many scenes together they act more like an old bickering married couple than true antagonists, or perhaps a better comparison is the coyote and the sheepdog clocking in in the old Warner Brothers cartoons: they're aware of their jobs, but feel no special animus towards each other.

Bob Allman, as you can probably already guess from his surname, is the everyman who strangely becomes a sounding board for both God and The Devil.  The plot of the show, mostly a Maguffin except for ensuring that the main characters have a reason to interact, is that God is considering destroying the universe unless a human being can prove to him that they're worthy of existence, and having agreed upon Bob as our exemplar, The Devil constantly works to seduce him to the dark side in some way.

As I had predicted, the Bible Belt actively shunned "GTDAB" and the rest of America pretty much just shrugged.  Probably the show suffered from the problem of being neither fish nor fowl: religious types instantly thought it was mocking religion, and the sort of sarcastic types who might have enjoyed that found it entirely too prosaic and, if anything, pro-religious. 

Fortunately for posterity, those three episodes ABC aired in early 2000 were not the last we would ever see of the show, thanks to both the magic of DVDs guessed it, my friends, the largesse of adult swim.  Overall, GTDAB is pretty good, though I couldn't tell you if it's survived the test of time, having not watched it in a solid five or six years.  But if you're looking for something for something that's pretty funny and mostly straightforward despite its pretensions to being groundbreaking, give it a shot.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Friday, September 16, 2016

On Sex Crimes

I'm not usually one for trigger warnings and that sort of thing, but you can probably guess from the title what the subject of today's post is, and whether you wish to abstain from reading it.

One of my favorite shows, "Law and Order: SVU" opens by stating that sexual crimes are considered "especially heinous."  Which they are, and not just in a legal sense.  The general public considers sex crimes "especially heinous."  Rape and molestation are considered worse than assault or robbery, and often worse than even murder.

I suppose its because for the most part assault is a once-and-done kind of thing.  Certainly, you could suffer long term consequences, including medical and psychological ones, but for the most part an assault or robbery happens, then you recover, then you go about your life.  But after being raped as an adult you may never get over that.  And for children it can be a profoundly life-altering experience.  In fact, most child abusers were themselves abused as a child.

I've often heard the argument that no punishment is too severe for a sex offender because the victim's punishment will never really end.  And there's some truth to that.

Sexual assault is, in particular, a very emotional subject.  I've never met a parent that wasn't vehemently, passionately against child abuse.  I can't even really say I've encountered much of a spectrum there, as you usually do regarding people's opinions.  It's usually very close to "I hope we torture them on Earth and then they get tortured in Hell.  Nothing's too bad for them."

I'm not a woman and I'm not a parent and I'm not a survivor of sexual abuse, which puts me in a uniquely privileged position to not really have to feel very passionately about it.  I mean, sexual assault offends my sensibilities, as it does any right-thinking person's, but it's all purely academic for me.  That visceral, bone-deep reaction that I hear almost across the board from parents - I don't feel it.

Which is all kind of a lot of prologue to get to the point of today's post.  There is a person who I am familiar with who is a convicted sex offender.  I've never interacted with him, but I'm aware of his story and I'm aware of his existence.  I usually take great pains to give him a wide berth.  I'm not going to tell you a whole lot more about him here because I don't really want any readers intuiting or even guessing who I'm talking about.  It is a true story, but I'd rather just discuss this entirely under a blanket of anonymity.  It's not even really fair that I discuss him at all.  I doubt he has any idea who I am.

So this sex offender and child abuser was jailed for his crimes and served his time.  And that's an interesting turn of phrase, because we often talk of criminals paying their debt to society, and while (and this could be the subject of a whole other blogpost, let alone book) most criminals are allowed to leave their crimes behind them except for the very real burdens society places on ex-cons, sex offenders carry their crimes around like a scarlet letter.  I'm signed up through my work for an identity protection service.  Mostly it only ever e-mails me to inform me that a sex offender has moved somewhere within my town.

And, again, I'm able to talk about this all very dispassionately, perhaps robotically, but it just doesn't really affect me personally.  Anybody could be raped but I haven't and I probably won't be, because I'm pretty well off and I live in a safe area and I don't really have any children and it's all very abstract to me, beyond being a normal, empathetic human being.

But there are people, and I don't begrudge them this opinion, who think sex offenders should wear a scarlet letter, should be ostracized and hated and never properly let back into the society which they have injured so "especially heinously."

Now this particular sex offender is interesting to me, because about 50% of my friends swear up and down he's the best guy in the world, he's paid his debt to society, and it's time to start forgiving.  And fully about 50% of my friends are in the other camp, the let him burn in Hell camp, the never forget his crimes camp.  And every once in a while I watch the two camps explode at each other, and feelings get hurt but nothing gets resolved, and both camps remain intractable.

I was reminded of this story when the sex offender reached out to a friend yesterday.  I could instantly tell from their interactions that she didn't know his story.  And I felt conflicted.  I don't really want to throw fuel onto a fire when, again, I don't really know what happened or what he was convicted of, and maybe he's just trying to live his life like any of us, but then again there's the whole issue of being associated with a sex offender and then that tarnishes you for the rest of your life.  I mean, good on my friends who defend him tooth and nail for their loyalty, but they're also painting themselves with the same brush in the eyes of the "let him burn" camp.

So I warned my friend that I don't associate with him, and she probably shouldn't either, or at least she should be aware of his baggage before doing so.  Certainly I didn't expect him to say to a random acquaintance "Oh, BTW, I'm a convicted sex offender."  But I felt she had a right to know.

And this raises all kinds of questions and concerns for me.  Like, should I hate sex offenders more?  Is there something wrong with me that it's not my kneejerk reaction?  Am I genuinely being even-handed, or am I just so privileged being an able-bodied wealthy white male that I'm actually supporting rape culture by not deploring it harder? 

On the other hand, are my squicky reactions appropriate?  Did I have any right to jump in the middle of what appeared to be a perfectly amicable interaction and essentially scream "Don't talk to him, he's a sex offender!"?  Am I doing the right thing by going out of my way to avoid a guy I don't know from Adam just because I'm vaguely aware he committed a sex crime once? 

In the movie "Horrible Bosses" Charlie Day's character was unable to get a job because of the "sex crime" he had committed of urinating in a playground.  Not to mention that an eighteen-year-old could carry the scarlet letter of a sex offender for the rest of his life just for having sex with his seventeen-year-old girlfriend.  But it's perfectly legal for me to marry my fourteen-year-old cousin in Virginia and then fuck her rotten.

I mean, there are genuine issues with our justice system in general, and with our justice system in regards to sex crimes in particular.  The United States comes from a very puritan tradition, which means that we're in the strange position of being a modern, first world country that still has sodomy laws and places where oral sex is a crime.  Do you know that having any kind of sex except for missionary style with your spouse is a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice?  Adultery?  That's a crime for a service member.  Pre-marital sex?  That's a crime.  Doing it doggystyle?  That's a crime.  I'm not even making this up.

So there's a part of me that worries about the witch hunt aspect of it.  And then there's a part of me that worries that I'm not being vehement enough.  That I have no idea what it's like to be a victim of sexual abuse.  Those little kids will be fucked up for the rest of their lives, will never really be right again, and here I am intellectually pondering the equitable treatment of their tormentor.  Since I don't have kids, since I don't have that paternal instinct, I can't understand what it would be like to see my children threatened with harm, or, even worse, harmed.  Maybe there's nothing better in the world than Meghan's Law.  Maybe it's the only thing that lets ordinary mothers and fathers sleep at night.

I don't know.  I don't know why I'm conflicted.  Maybe the answer is simple and I'm thinkfucking it.  In a way I wish I hadn't written this post, hadn't even exposed my thoughts on the matter, because in doing that I open myself up to all kinds of abuse from people who are sure they know the one true answer.  And maybe they do and maybe I should hear from them.  But I'm committed to being more honest on my blog and being more forthcoming because I think that's the only way I can develop as a writer.  By leaving my blood on the page.  I did it when I laid bare my feelings about my jealousy of other authors and I'm doing it again now.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Are You Scared to Write a Review?

Every once in a while I feel compelled to write a post about why reviews are vital to independent authors such as myself.  Let's try a listicle this time, where I run down some of the important points of why I need reviews and why you might not be writing them:

1.  Reviews sell books figuratively.  In the figurative sense, readers tend to think that a book with more reviews is more popular, and therefore has more merit and is worth buying.  Readers also read reviews to determine whether they'll like a book, because they know that the stuff on the back jacket flap is basically a commercial, and commercials lie.

2.  Reviews also sell books literally.  Online bookstores and marketing sites have algorithms that determine which books will be recommended to their patrons.  Reviews figure prominently in determining this algorithm.  So to get recommendations or to purchase advertising I need reviews.

3.  Anyone can write a review.  Some readers think their opinion doesn't matter or that reviews are best left up to professional critics.  Actually, in the social media age, the opinions of average readers are much more important than those of critics.  A book's overall rating is based on an aggregate of all the reviews it's received.  So instead of Roger Ebert saying "three stars" and that being the end of the matter, we're relying on hundreds, possibly thousands of people just like you to say what you feel, and then averaging out the results.

4.  A review does not have to be hard or long.  As I mentioned in point 3 above, leaving reviews leads to an aggregate score, so writers need as many reviews as possible for buyers to accurately gauge a book's quality.  Not every review is going to be 1000 words, or some kind of in-depth analysis.  Amazon used to have a twenty-word limit on reviews, but not even that is true anymore. You can literally write "I liked it" or "I hated it" and that's enough.

5.  A subjectively "bad" review is good for the author.  One reason readers cite for not leaving reviews is that if they didn't like the book and they don't want to hurt the author's feelings (or, worse, invite the author's wrath.)  While we may weep over a one-star privately, every author worth his or her salt knows that bad reviews drive those algorithms I mentioned in point 2 above, and they also drive readers the way I mentioned in point 1 above.  The classic example would be leaving a one-star review and saying "every God-fearing conservative will shun this book" will drive progressive readers to actually buy the book.  And while I can't promise anything for every idiot out there, I can promise for myself that no review you leave will make me hunt you down, online or in person, or in any way treat you unkindly.

6.  You don't have to buy a book on Amazon to review it on Amazon.  There are several sites where you can leave book reviews: Goodreads, Barnes and Nobles, Booklikes, etc.  But let's be blunt: Amazon is where most book sales are made, and Amazon is where reviews do the most good.  Some readers don't like to leave an Amazon review, though, if they bought the book at a bookstore or on another site.  Well, there is actually no limitation on doing so.  Amazon has "verified" reviews meaning they know you bought the book through them, but they also allow anyone with an account to leave a review on anything.  Again, because the goal is to aggregate scores, Amazon is hoping that wherever you bought the book, you will nevertheless leave your opinion on their site.  For good or for ill, Amazon is the review site of record these days.

7.  Leaving a review is easy.  Some readers complain that leaving a review is too hard, or takes up too much time, or is hard to remember to do.  Well, I can't speak for anyone else, but I just made you twelve little easy buttons.  Click on the cover below of any of my books that you've read and you can leave a review just like that, lickety split.  And I hope you will.  :)  Thanks, everybody!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Re-Animated #11: Mission Hill

I've talked a lot in this series about the importance of adult swim in modern adult animation, as well as the importance of "The Simpsons."  In today's entry, those two pre-eminent entities collide in an unusual and unexpected way.

For "Simpsons" die-hards, it's a genuinely accepted opinion that seasons 3-7 were when the show reached its apogee.  In retrospect, season 1 was weak as Hell, season 2 had a few highlights, but season 8 was when the show started to go off the rails.  Fans generally point to "Homer's Enemy" or "The Principal and the Pauper" in season 8 as when the show stopped being what it once was.  Of course, there are still incredible episodes in seasons 9 and 10, and vague flashes of brilliance ever since, but for simplicity's sake, let's just agree that seasons 3-7 were the show at its apogee.

One of the main reasons for that level of quality during that time period was the writing time of Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, who penned countless classic episodes before finally being appointed showrunners for seasons 7 and 8.  Oakley and Weinstein were "The Simpsons" at the time of the show's greatest success.

And then they decided they wanted to do something different.

One of the complaints that Oakley and Weinstein had about working on "The Simpsons" was that it was basically a show about kids and middle-aged adults, with no real ground in between.  Springfield was remarkably fleshed out with hundreds of supporting characters, but almost every single one of those characters fell into two categories: Bart and Lisa and the schoolyard or Marge and Homer and their friends and co-workers.

"The Simpsons" was also a suburban show.  Springfield, for all of its wild vacillating between being an apparent one-horse town and a major metropolis depending on the needs of the plot, was nonetheless always portrayed as suburban.

So Oakley and Weinstein wanted to write a show that was about teenagers and twenty-somethings, who in all of Springfield were basically represented by Otto and the squeaky-voiced teen.  They also wanted to do a show about living in the city at that formative age.  And thus was born the brilliant "Mission Hill."

"Mission Hill" was a brilliant season of television.  It was, in many ways (and for obvious reasons) the true spiritual successor to the greatest seasons of "The Simpsons."  The story focuses on two blue-haired brothers, Andy and Kevin French.

Andy is what we would today call a hipster: someone who is ultimately nothing but proud of being poor and hip, yet is deeply insecure even about his own coolness.  Kevin, meanwhile, is an unabashed nerd, and while he makes occasional protests that he is really just normal, is comfortable in his skin playing role-playing games and watching "Babylon Five."

The two brothers never got along growing up in the suburbs, and so Andy is happy to be rid of his dorky little brother when he moves to the Mission Hill district of the fictional Cosmopolis.  But when the elder Frenches decide to move to Wyoming - and Kevin insists on moving in with his brother instead - the sparks really begin to fly.

"Mission Hill" really made a go of being a show with two genuinely equal protagonists.  In Kevin-centric episodes, Andy could often take on an antagonistic role, and the reversal was true to some extent.  (Honestly, how much of an antagonist could an annoying younger brother be?)  And occasionally the episodes were dual-hatted, featuring both brothers sharing the spotlight, as in the episode when they fall in love with the same girl or the episode when an inexplicable news event turns the city into a latter-day "Dog Day Afternoon."

Overall, "Mission Hill" had all the elements for greatness: great characters, genuinely funny jokes, a killer cast, smart writing, and tons of room to breathe and grow.  It was also surprisingly well- realized.  The worldbuilding was phenomenal, even down to the importance of who drank what brand of beer.

But we can only guess about what "Mission Hill" would have evolved into, because it had the singular misfortune of being placed on The WB.  And, like "Home Movies" before it, The WB had precisely zero time or interest in promoting "Mission Hill."  And, like "Home Movies" before it, "Mission Hill" found new life on the early days of adult swim, which really should be viewed as something like a museum for all the detritus of late '90s attempts at adult animation.

So check out "Mission Hill."  It's available on DVD and I believe some adult swim streaming.  At only 13 episodes, it is redolent of lost opportunity, but what is there is brilliant, and deserves to be seen.  You won't regret it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

I'm Gonna Wreck It!

"Wreck-It Ralph" is one of my all-time favorite movies.  I still remember getting chills down my spine the first time I saw the trailer:

What more could a millennial video game fan want?  I even remember sitting down in the theater and saying, "Please just don't let this movie suck."  And it didn't.  It was everything I could have hoped for.

What it also was, and this rarely gets commented on, was a masterful lesson in storytelling.  Yes, Pixar and Disney pretty much have a handle on how to make these tear-jerking, fast-paced movies without being maudlin.  And, yes, movies are a collaborative process, and there were probably script doctors, and an animated movie in particular has to be polished to a shine before anyone will shell out the cash on it.

But knowing that, let's set that aside for a minute and look at the story as though it were a novel.  When you boil any story down to brass tacks it requires two things: a protagonist and a goal.  Sure, an antagonist is nice, and a love interest is nice, and a setting is nice, but you don't really need any of that stuff.  

Think of your most beloved children's books.  THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR had nothing but a protagonist and a goal.  Ditto THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD.  That's all you need for a story at its most fundamental.

Now when "Wreck-It Ralph" starts out, Ralph is feeling restless.  His game is thirty years old and no one appreciates him.  He even attends a weekly Bad-Anon meeting for the first time.  Ralph's real goal, if I can just rip the Band-Aid off at the start, is to be happy.  But he doesn't recognize that for almost the entire duration of the movie.  Instead, he decides that his goal is to be a good guy.  For him, this means winning a medal, because that's what good guys do.  He thinks winning a medal will earn him respect, which is what he thinks will make him happy.

Now basically two parallel stories start.  The real story is about Ralph trying to find his happiness.  But since he doesn't understand that that's what he wants, he sets out to become a good guy by winning a medal.  This is doubly ironic because a medal is simply an acknowledgement of an achievement, and Ralph doesn't even achieve what he's supposed to in order to win it.  He cheats, essentially, scaling the building and taking the medal.  He was even willing to just take one from Tapper's lost and found.  He thinks he's on a quest for one thing, but he's really on a quest for another thing, and even when he gets what he thinks he's questing for, he doesn't understand that it's just a symbol for what he really wants: satisfaction.

So what happens next?  Ralph ends up in Sugar Rush and he still thinks he's after his medal, but now to get his medal he has to help Vanellope make a car and learn to drive and enter the race.  Ralph's goals are like a damn Matryoshka doll at this point.  He really wants to be happy, but he thinks he wants a medal, and he thinks to get the medal he has to help out Vanellope, which is genuinely making him happy, but he's lost sight of what his real goal is, if he ever even knew it.  

Now enter King Candy, who literally hands Ralph the medal he's been after.  Two times now Ralph has gotten what he thought he wanted without going through the proper steps to earn it.  And two times now he's failed to learn that lesson.  

At this point King Candy gives Ralph a speech where he explains that sometimes doing the right thing for somebody means not giving them what they want.  Now this is actually one of the most interesting parts of the movie, and, in a sense, I'm sorry that it turned out to be a cop-out.  It was almost retconned when it turned out that King Candy was the villainous virus Turbo all along.  But, I mean, again, it's a kid's cartoon so I understand why they did it.  But can you imagine if it had turned out that King Candy was being earnest?  If it had turned out that Candy was secretly looking out for Vanellope the whole time and that in helping her, Ralph was actually hurting her?  That's some heavy fucking stuff right there.

But, okay, it was a children's cartoon so it didn't go down that route.  Ralph returns to his own game and realizes that while he's accomplished what was ostensibly his goal - winning a medal and living in the penthouse - through his selfish actions he's endangered the lives of everyone he cares about.  And, perhaps worst of all, he's betrayed the only real friend he ever had, Vanellope.

Now his goal shifts again: to right the wrongs he's caused.  At this point, we've actually stripped away one layer of self-deception, because Ralph's aspirations to be a good guy never had any damn thing at all to do with winning a medal.  A person's status as a hero or villain is determined by their actions.  King Candy, for instance, is certainly the good guy (protagonist) of his game, but his actions clearly make him a bad guy (antagonist.)  Meanwhile, Ralph, who is ostensibly the bad guy, has actually been a good guy up until now because he's shown up to work every day to do a vital job, in spite of the jeers he receives because of it.  Admittedly, the Nicelanders shouldn't have been jerkoffs, but it's only when Ralph goes off the reservation that he becomes a genuine bad guy.

But all is not lost and this is a Disney movie, so, of course, Ralph saves the day by heroically sacrificing himself - the very definition of what it means to be a good guy - while reassuring himself that it's okay because he's just the bad guy.  And then the final layer of self-deception is stripped away, because good and bad - as the zombie said in the very first scene - are just labels.  And Ralph gets to be happy, which was his goal all along, if he had ever been willing to just admit it to himself, by having friends.

It's all very complicated, twisty stuff from a storytelling perspective.  But while the movie has a lot to say about the nature of good and evil, happiness, and real friendship, it never feels like a Dostoevsky novel.  It keeps all of its shifting goalposts in plain view, so the kids are never confused.  

So, like I said, the storytelling lesson we can take away from "Wreck-It Ralph" is to look at your characters' actual goals, and the false goals they tell themselves will get them there.  It can add a whole other level of depth to your story, because people really do deceive themselves about what they really want.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Don't Road Rage on P.O.W.s: A Public Service Message

I had a real Patton Oswalt "Christmas Shoes" moment a few weeks ago.  Pop music has a very...complicated relationship with the military.  AC/DC, for instance, is the unofficial band of the army.  But by and large I heard a lot more country when I was in the army than I necessarily preferred.  Every morning the commanding general of Ft. Sill greeted us with "Brought to you Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue," which is just an unbearable song at the best of times, but to have to hear it every morning just compounds its grating awfulness.

Well, anyway, this blogpost isn't about that.  This blogpost is about a picnic I was at a few weeks ago.  Every year the commander of the Navy base I now work at throws a picnic for the employees.  Of course, this being the military, you can't just call it a picnic or even field day.  No.  We need an unnecessary acronym for it, just as we need an unnecessary acronym for literally everything.  So this picnic is known as ERAC, Employee Recognition and Awards Ceremony.

So I'm sitting there at the ERAC, and as is often the case at such picnics, there was music blaring over the speaker system, and as is usual in the military, it was some country music.  For some reason I started listening to the lyrics of the song and I nearly shit myself.  To be fair to the artist, let's just reproduce them here and I'll go over my thoughts on the matter.

I was flying down the highway
Weaving in and out of traffic
I was racing time

Okay, so the narrator's being an aggressive driver.  The good news is, in retrospect, he realizes he was being an aggressive driver.  Okay.  Everybody gets that way on the road sometimes, but it's important to recognize it.

An old man pulled out in front of me

Oh, yeah.  Old people.  Old people driving slow can really fuck you up on the road.  Especially if you're already in that ragey place. 

And I went crazy as can be
I lost my mind

Wow, okay, so at this point I think I know where this story is going.  The narrator starts out in a rage, he even recognizes he was being an asshole, some old guy pulls out in front of him, probably not meaning to do anyone any harm, but the narrator loses his shit anyway.  Which we've all done.  So probably he realizes that you shouldn't road rage on people, and shows some contrition, and, yay, song!

But wait!

I blew my horn till I got close enough to see
And what was on his car-tag sure convicted me

So this is getting a little strange.  Is this like a sitcom where the character is yelling about his boss and then it turns out his boss is standing right behind him? So this guy raged out on a guy on the highway and it turned out he was somebody important?

P.O.W. 369

Wow.  Damn.  Dude rolled out the hellcome wagon and the little old guy was a vet, and not just a vet, but a prisoner of war.  So, now, here's the chorus:

I should salute you from this heart of mine
And thank you for placing your life on the line
For me, I'm free
I pray that the rest of your journey is a peaceful one
And may you take your own sweet time
Mr. P.O.W. 369

So, the song continues, but that's basically the whole gist of it.  There are no other lessons learned.  Just, dude was raging, little old man pulls out in front of him, dude rages even more until he realizes the little old guy was a vet...then suddenly he feels like he has egg on his face.

It's like there's zero self-reflection here.  It's not like, "Oh, you know, you probably shouldn't road rage on anybody, and I learned that lesson when I road raged on a vet this one time."  No.  It's not that at all.  It's like he's saying, "Road rage is okay...unless it's on a vet, you bastards, so keep an eye out on those bumper stickers.  P.O.W.s can take their own sweet time and shit, but everybody else GTFO of the way!"

I mean, in doing my research (read: Wikipedia) for this blogpost, I learned that the guy who sings this song, Darryl Worley, is most famous for that godawful "Have You Forgotten" song, so I'm not surprised that he's not big on self-reflection and taking life lessons away from his experiences.  He's more about being maudlin and oversimplifying shit.  In which case, I guess "Fuck with everybody but P.O.W.s" tends to err on the more introspective side of the spectrum of messages.

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