Monthly Archives: February 2015

Mike Rowe: Best Writer in America

mike-rowe-bio-324x205“Dirty Jobs” Mike Rowe’s “Off the Wall” Facebook posts could be the best short columns out there right now.

He’s obviously got the gift of gab, blarney or malarkey … except it always makes perfect sense and has the ring of truth.

I just invested 5 minutes in Mike, and he managed to make Valentine’s Day real by highlighting a fan who was an Englishman settled in the U.S. who’d taken the chance of moving from the UK to the US to be with his true love, and who had also figured out that what he really wanted to do was be a powerline technician. I happen to be helping a start-up powerline construction/maintenance/repair business right now.

Then I read Mike’s thoughts about raising the minimum wage, which he compared to Ray Bradbury’s “Butterfly Effect.” In other words: every raise to the minimum wage will have other, unintended effects. I read about Mike’s early days working at a movie theater, doing work that’s now mostly done by machines. Machines don’t need to learn the importance of personal hygiene, kissing their boss’s ass, or tucking their shirt in.

This is all after I read his homage to the #2 Ticonderoga pencil . . . he recounted an 8 minute etude he created that got him hired as a QVC host in his first TV job. That was all about virtuosity. And “job qualifications” as opposed to competence.

Mike could easily be America’s bestselling author right now. There are 2.3 million people following this guy’s writings on Facebook. Every single one I’ve looked at is a direct response to something somebody has asked or said on his Facebook “wall” – hence, “Off the Wall” as the title.

This is right now “for free” and maybe it always should be. I honestly wish I could be Mike Rowe when I grow up. Because I am a dirty girl.

 

 

The Shape of Things to Come

“When was the last time a classic novel came out?” Bruce asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. I struggled to think of something more recent than the 70s. Most of the books on the Modern Library “100 Best Novels” list are older 20th century books. The newer ones have sold a fraction of the copies sold by the early to mid-20th century “classics.” Much of the “Readers List” are those placed there by diehard fans — nearly all Ayn Rand books are on that list, for example. It warms my heart to see Charles de Lint on there! But the reader list is clearly created by small groups of people naming their favorites. All the votes in the world for Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead won’t make them as enjoyable as The Hobbit or Huckleberry Finn.

james joyceAs to the official “best novels” list, and #1, Joyce’s Ulysses … let’s just say it’s on my shelf. Let’s just say, yes, once upon a time, I did read maybe 60 percent of it. Because I was told how great it was.

People understand things in terms of their senses. They perceive things primarily in the present.

Books aren’t like that. Even a book as opaque as Ulysses transcends both time and space. Books enable communication over vast distances; they cross language barriers; they bridge gaps between cultures, and they tell human stories that the reader creates in his or her own mind. They are the ultimate long-tail, long-term value product.

Writers are Indentured Servants

Consider the “indentured servant” concept, by which the time and effort of hundreds of thousands of writers, artists and others, is little-valued in our society. Has it always been so?

No. In the Renaissance, writers were not expected to starve. Machiavelli was supported by the Florentine state and the Medicis before he was exiled. His torture, exile and poverty were a result of politics, not his work as a writer. Before that, he worked, ate and lived well. Michelangelo lived a storied life, becoming the first artist to have a biography written about him during his own lifetime. He was not expected to starve or work for free to paint the Sistine Chapel or create any of his other masterpieces. Yes, both artists were in service to the state, and Michelangelo, in service to the church.

Today, writers and artists who work are primarily in service to corporations, whether they “self publish” or are traditionally published. They work to make money for others just as the original indentured servants were expected to give up vast amounts of their lives and effort to make life easier for the people who owned their contracts. The interest of the corporation, be it Amazon or Penguin Random House, is to earn profit for the shareholder. It isn’t to serve the state, as Machiavelli served Florence. It isn’t to serve the church, as Michelangelo served the Vatican. It is absolutely not to serve the betterment of the community or the world as a whole.

Therefore today, we have no Machiavelli, and no new The Prince. We have no new Michelangelo and Sistine Chapel. Those things stand and remain — they are for all we can comprehend — eternal. Because they were made humanely, with humane concepts in mind. Machiavelli, to discover the best system of governance (for all one may disagree with his advice to “The Prince”), and Michelangelo, to show all who entered that place what it is to touch the face of God.

Today, the writer is primarily held in indentured servitude to create temporary, consumable profits for shareholders. They work in order to provide a few with their “cake.” As we should all realize now, “the cake is a lie.” The benefit is ephemeral even to the proverbial “1 percent.”

The Metaphor

Henry Ford changed the world. He changed it far more than Hitler, Stalin or Mao. He didn’t invent the assembly line, but he perfected it. The first year Fords were mass-produced, more than 10,000 were sold. Eight years later, more than 15 million cars had been manufactured and sold in the United States alone. Cars enabled people to move much farther and faster than ever before. They provided physical freedom and launched a constellation of other industries and jobs.

Ford did not just figure out how to make and sell cars affordably, so that the “average man” could afford to own and use them, a group which eventually grew to include the “average woman.” He also revolutionized how employees were paid and treated. He, not any politician, determined that an eight-hour workday was the best for the employee and company. He, not any politician, and certainly not Karl Marx, who refused to visit any factory recommended by his writing partner Friedrich Engels, determined that it would be best all-round if employees were paid well enough to afford to buy the product they were making: cars. In one day, he raised the minimum wage for Ford workers from $2.83 to $5.00 an hour, and lowered their hours worked from 9 to 8. Others were forced to follow suit to compete. Eventually, U.S. labor laws came into effect that eliminated child labor, enforced pay for overtime, and set a legal minimum wage (that is still, in relation to Ford’s 1914 $5.000 hourly wage, extremely low). Those laws didn’t come out of nowhere; they were driven by Ford’s vision. Without Henry Ford, there’s a reasonable expectation that they would not exist.

Despite, Not Because

Everything good today that is written and published is done despite, not because, of the way things are. Michelangelo was given the charge to produce a masterpiece for the church (as were all of his other commissions) and he followed through. Writers today believe that they are given the charge to make money. Many believe that they are making money for themselves exclusively, not realizing that the equations are far worse than Ford’s original $2.83 hourly wage and 9 hour workday. Even the richest woman in England, J.K. Rowling, has not received compensation in accordance with the impact of her work. She achieved something remarkable: she interested and engaged millions of young readers in Harry Potter’s world, young people worldwide whose choices pre-Harry Potter were nowhere near as encompassing, imaginative, or adventurous. What she did, is worth more than even her amassed fortune. To me, she proved that a woman could tell an adventure story as compelling as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, or Robert Louis Stevenson ever conceived, and could sustain it far longer than any of them would have imagined possible.

Where We Are Today

Some self-published authors have discovered that the sales patterns for their work differ from the traditionally-published sales patterns that have accelerated to accommodate a vastly unhealthy, adversarial, customer-unfriendly market. They have found that their sales build up over time, and can sustain themselves over significant periods. Traditionally-published books today overwhelmingly have a brief shelf life of a few weeks. The great bulk of sales are made within the first three weeks of book publication. Sales then drop precipitously. Traditional publishers long-account book sales for the purpose of calculating and paying royalty payments, but in their planning, structure, and seasonal releases, they account as short-term as possible. What little marketing takes place isn’t reader-focused in the sense that eternal values (i.e. – do the wheels of the car go around? Does the engine work?) are ignored in favor of ephemerals (red upholstery vs. gray).

The desire to create is boundless. Otherwise, writing programs, writer conferences, and self-publishing and its support industries, would not exist. But because the motive is to earn profit for shareholders, the basic, underlying creative impulse is blunted and directed away from eternals.

Eternals like: “A good story, well-told.”

I cannot say how many analogies I’ve read that compare the writer to the “storyteller” or the “bard” in ancient cultures. Just as every village has its idiot, these analogies say that each village had its “storyteller.” Usually, the storyteller is described as a gray, Homeric sort of man, or perhaps a young man with a harp. Sometimes, it’s a wise old lady. The analogy is — so many people want to write these days because “in olden days,” every village had this type of person, but now that we can publish to masses, we only “need a few.”

What it is Today

We really are in pre-1914 as far as creative work goes. Only “special people” get to write and are chosen by ill-defined means to be popular, well-known, and paid attention-to. Special people who are of use to those whose business it is to make money off them, and make money from the whole system as it stands. Special people who are willing to work for less than Henry Ford’s original $2.83 an hour salary (in 1914 … so $66.45 today). The $5.00 an hour raise? That would be the equivalent of $117.41 today.

I have read so many frustrated expressions of despair and dismay from others who cannot fit the ever-changing definitions of commercially-desirable work which are constantly broadcast by the small group of literary agents and publishers who hold court. Imagine being ejected from your village because there’s a better idiot who does a better job of falling off the wall than you. Imagine the best thing you can aspire to even if you are the desired idiot, is to “entertain” people. Imagine a world where the village idiot is telling a story that encourages young women to aspire to a romantic relationship with a domineering, controlling man who physically hurts you and tells you it’s love. Let them spend their hours imagining how happy they will be in the arms of the ultra-wealthy, ultra-hot, ultra-complex internet magnate, Christian Grey (his real-world counterpart, Bill Gates, might not think all that Christian says and does is quite so sexy).

food incIt’s not just corporate food. It’s not just corporate clothing. It’s corporate “creativity.”

Ford’s assembly line and all of his ideas, including the 8 hour day, and pay adequate to enable those who made the cars able to also buy and use them, resulting in physical freedom made possible for billions on this planet.

The shape of things to come should be emotional, spiritual, and intellectual freedom for billions on this planet.

Stories, no longer made by a few, inspiring others to be “just like everyone else.” Ideas, able to live forever.

Michelangelo, painting that ceiling, was concerned only with portraying the eternal as best as he could. As best as has lasted more than 500 years. That is what he was born to do, trained to do, and that is what he did.

Five hundred years from now, of course few, if any, will still be reading 50 Shades of Grey. Today, people still are reading Don Quixote, and they are still performing Hamlet. According to Harold Bloom, a critic with whom I seldom agree, Shakespeare’s Hamlet did for the modern human what Henry Ford did for the physical freedom of everyone who owns a car and drives. Shakespeare was concerned with entertainment, of course, but he crafted all of his plays, from structure and scene to word, with humanity in mind.

He did not starve to do so. Even at the Globe, they paid the scribbler, and the actors as well. And if I’m not mistaken, Shakespeare was originally a 12.5% shareholder in the Globe; his percentage diminished to the now-familiar 7 percent figure (check out traditional book royalties sometime).

To move the dial, we have to move our hearts and minds and attitudes. One book, one project, one company at a time. The results are: limitless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Novellas: The Future of Publishing!

In 1982, Alice Walker published The Color Purple, a beautifully-written book which redefined the term “purple” as it applies to writing.

But that was Alice Walker. There is still such a thing as “purple prose.”

It’s kind of like this:

When the book wars sweep across the galaxy, and the blood of publishers runs down the gutters of every interstellar metropolis, the resource we fight for will not be paper, or ink, or even money. It will be time.

Yes, that’s Tor.com, announcing this great new idea Tor has to publish . . . wait for it . . . novellas.

That’s right. Novellas are the future of publishing. Jennifer Crusie’s not so sure about that, but what would she know? All she did was ask her readers (who are tending to agree with her).

A novella, I know from experience, has about the same amount of story as the typical feature film (I don’t mean 3 hour blockbusters, I mean the 95-120 minute average film). We already have about 200 major feature films released each year, and thousands of others – cable, online, network, etc. This amount of story works great in film/TV. People are used to it.

In addition, sci-fi has always been a novella-friendly form, as Dario Ciriello noticed with Panverse Publishing‘s all-novella anthologies.

Helen KellerIt isn’t that there isn’t a place for novellas … there absolutely is. And there always has been.

But hey. Helen Keller*. She did it, Tor. You can, too!

* * * *

* Jennifer Crusie is a writer with a big, enthusiastic audience. I’m not. I’m a publisher. So this is about the *way* in which the Tor.com post is phrased and the marketing/publicity. Helen Keller did do far, far better in listening to others. From the beginning, she wanted to communicate. And she got that this was a two-way street.

So, in a nutshell – the reason that people either read or do not read has to do with what engages them. They will spend all the time in the world — if they are engaged.

This Band is Called Boston

At Parrain’s in Baton Rouge, which would be a steakhouse in Kansas City or a rib joint in Austin, we order two dozen raw oysters. On these we may squeeze lemon juice or dribble Louisiana hot sauce. The horseradish comes in a plastic cup. It’s fresh and we greedily slather it on the slippery, pearl and gray oysters. I used to be afraid of raw oysters. Now I cannot get enough.

parrains baton rougeThe silky ocean oyster taste is unctuous; the bite of the horseradish races up my nose and into my eyes. I cry from joy and piquant heat.

“Kings ate like this in the old days,” I tell Bruce.

This is right because we are in the Kingfish’s city, where every man is a king.

They have had snow the prior week, but now it is warm and soft and damp beside the great river. Everywhere I feel the river’s wide, calm presence, whether I can see it or not. Baton Rouge is not a beautiful city, but in it is beauty all the same. Cypress and oak are everywhere, long hanks of Spanish moss draped from their branches like a woman’s hair after a hundred brushstrokes.

We leave Parrain’s in the hotel van. On the radio, “More Than a Feeling” plays softly.

Boston-the-band“This band is called Boston,” says the driver.

It’s dark in the van, and I feel Bruce smiling at my side.

I say, “Yes, we know Boston. A very good band.”

Our driver is a well-spoken young man from Nicaragua, who describes his mother’s cooking with great love and detail. He is nervous about his English but I let him know in my lousy street Spanish it’s excellent.

We are dressed and want to go to the casino. Bruce asks him which is the nicest: they are all housed in massive structures erected around riverboats along the Mississippi. He explains that the casinos once had to cruise along the river for 20 minutes every two hours, but now they are permanently anchored.

We go under the train tracks and emerge to see a casino which has been erected in chunks that erupt like brightly-lit mushrooms studding the dead fallen log of the riverboat in the center.

Other than this piecemeal construction, it’s a casino. Circular drive for vans, buses and taxis carrying the walking dead. We walk along the long walk filled with film posters – this casino has a Hollywood theme.

Sadness and exhaustion hang over the gaming floors like mosquito netting over a four-poster bed.

And this is the tropics; although it’s winter, it was over 80 degrees and 80% humidity during the day. The night is soft and cooler, but still damp.

We gleefully lose our small money quickly – these are the worst slots I’ve ever played. They gobble cash like the old bayou troll who lives under the bridge gobbles people.

But then, ah! Magic.

I win an absurd number of pennies on a loud, flashing machine – “Jackpot Party.”

Giggling like children, we are compelled to take the loot to an irresistible attraction: it’s not a slot machine, it’s an entertainment center with a massive padded seat and Dolby speakers. It’s all about Willy Wonka and the Oompa-Loompas. I can think of nothing better on which to spend these precious pennies. Bruce and I take turns letting this fiend consume our winnings.

We win a little, and laugh and kiss like fools.

The woman beside us is miserable, losing untold sums on another, much less fun film-themed monstrosity. She shoots sidelong glares in our direction, her eyes as poisonous as a Gila monster.

Bruce looks at me; we realize. And allow the smirking Willy Wonka to consume our remaining pennies.

We leave this place; his arm is warm around my waist. It’s like wading at the banks of the river – only the water isn’t muddy, it’s thick with grief and despair.

We are the only happy people in this forsaken place.

Outside under the awning, we stand and kiss beside a pole. I’m drunk on losing and love. My belly is full of oysters. The river smells like moss and frogs and moonlight fog.

Around us, the walking dead shuffle and stare. They could come alive as well, but it’s not in them – not just yet.

We wait and kiss and time stops. When the driver returns, he’ll be playing Boston.

It’s a good band. We know it well.

How Men Assure Their Posterity

I can no longer remember when I got the image of lifting a rock to find the creeping, twisting multi-legged creatures beneath scrambling to escape the light, nor under what circumstances I realized its analogy to seeing something painful, disgusting and true about human nature and behavior.

I’ve spent the last two or three years on a journey to understand why, although I really am not 100 times worse a writer than David Weber, nobody reads my crap.

Constitutionally, I’m just not capable of writing “the expected.” It only happens “by accident.” I was born a woman, so the things that drive men to tell stories are not what drives me. I now base stories on real people I know, which makes matters worse.

So I lifted that rock this morning. And out squiggled the Genghis Khan creatures, with thousands of legs and hideous, multifaceted, evil red eyes. Out wriggled thick-skinned, pasty earthworms, with open, slime-dripping toothed maws, like Shaka Zulu and Sultan Moulay Ismaïl of Morocco, “The Bloodthirsty,” who reputedly fathered a thousand children from hundreds of wives and concubines.

The greatest number of children any woman has ever had was 69, sets of twins, triplets and quadruplets born to the mind-boggling Mrs. Feodor Vassilyev — first-nameless Vassilyeva delivered babies 27 times to achieve this total.

I wrote about A Song of Ice and Fire, the “Game of Thrones” stories by George R.R. Martin, this a.m. These incredibly popular, addictive stories are as misogynistic as popular storytelling can get. Perversions abound. Sure, everyone “gets it” sooner or later, but the way they portray “humanity” is in its way, worse than any true WWII examination of Nazi psychology or Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. People say “the stories aren’t the writer.” No.

George RR MartinBut George R.R. Martin truly has done “The Sultan of Schwing” (Sultan Ismaïl). In this day and age, he cannot realistically father a thousand children. He cannot manage to ensure that 20% of western Civilization has his DNA, as Genghis Khan seems to have done in his genocidal, pillaging career of conquest and domination hundreds of years ago.

But he has successfully assured his posterity.

Hundreds of babies are now named after “Game of Thrones” characters. There are plenty of Khaleesis, Daenarys’s, Aryas, and even Sandors — for “The Hound,” a true douchebag of a guy. The fact that Sandor Clegane has somewhat of a sympathetic storyline speaks volumes about the relative “humanity” of the Game of Thrones stories. If he were a real guy, he’d be in Pelican Bay.

“Khaleesi’s” little romance with Khal Drogo (portrayed in the TV series by incredibly hot, cool Jason Momoa) is pretty hot unless you “get” that the character herself has just begun to menstruate – Khaleesi herself is played by the beautiful young adult Emilia Clarke. Everyone knows by now that the TV series had to be cast with adult actors, although the books themselves depict children and young teens in the adult situations (murder, mayhem, porn – violent and non-violent). In case you’re wondering, Theon gets his dick cut off by a total perving monster. In real life, that’s Jeffrey Dahmer.

Oh, but Amy — that’s the way it was in the “old days.” Women were traded like chattel and they totally got married or had babies as soon as it was physically possible.

It’s not like that now.

Guys that look like George R.R. Martin just get to have thousands of kids named after their characters ensuring their long-term posterity.

I guess the pen really is mightier than the sword.

Wish I had not lifted that rock. Wish I hadn’t seen what I’d seen. But just like some horrible scene in a show or movie — you can never “unsee” it.