Go, Thief! Writing as Collaborative Piracy

 

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“A thief who steals from a thief is pardoned for one hundred years”—Eli Wallach as Calvera (Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai remake soon in theaters near you)

As a grad student taking creative writing classes, I did a lot of workshopping, but received little practical advice.  Most everything learned is earned, not given.  However, the best counsel I got was as an undergraduate toiling away in my Intro to Fiction course: “If you see something you like, steal it” (the professor/novelist who uttered these words will obviously not mind my failing to attribute to him here.)

There’s not much stealing of money by novelists, short-fictioneers, playwrights, and poets going on (we leave that to the publishing houses).  On the other hand, the best and worst of us do steal material pretty liberally from each other.   Some of this is unconscionable laziness, but I think those who take their craft seriously do hold themselves to a few self-imposed rules, which I’d like to codify here by supplementing my old professor’s advice with what I call the “Rule of Three O’s”: “By all means, steal: but try not to steal too often; nor too obnoxiously; nor too obviously.  Penalties exist for each.

  • Too often. No one likes to be labeled an unoriginal hack.  I mean, if you do this daily, you might as well become a television journalist and get paid well.  None of them seems to have recognized that Donald Trump has lifted most of his campaign platform from Adolf Hitler (“Make _______ Great Again,”) but you know that if one did, they’d all be parroting it.  Because there is no honor among thieves: they turn on each other.   Genre writers are in greatest danger of returning to the well too often, killing the golden goose, choose your cliché (a word-level version of this crime).
  • Too obnoxiously. You wouldn’t carjack a Corvette and then drive it around the same county without at least a re-paint, would you?  That’s just not right.  A plot, for example, needs to be sufficiently re-dressed to make it palatable.  Some recognize that the story of Jason Bourne is a retelling of Frankenstein, just as Blade Runner was (and to some extent the Wolverine and Deadpool tales): Scientist manipulates human limitations; scientist gets re-visited over and over by the subject of his experiment (“Why would he come back now?”)  It’s a good story with much psychological depth and breadth, as well as moral/ethical implications, which is why it gets told every five years.  Another version of obnoxious theft is a too-clever playing with familiar phrases.  Some writers get so good at this, they’re dangerous:  “Code of Dishonor,” “Twice Bitten,” “Can’t Stand In Heat.”  Seriously, why would you even crack the cover of a book entitled “For a Few Zombies More?”  Do you expect the writing to improve after that?
  • Too obviously. If last week’s marquee title is The Terminator, and you rush-premiere a B-movie called The Decimator, The De-resonator, or The Decaffeinater, even the trolls on the forums will crucify you (now there’s a story worth retelling,) without even watching it. And you deserve it.

Which leaves us with the question of how to do stealing right.  There are perhaps a hundred ways, so let’s “borrow” a few from the greats:

Allusions. Usually at the word level, these nuggets are on full display for those in your audience who may have read more than three or four books.  When John Steinbeck cribbed his novel’s title, In Dubious Battle, from the proem of John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, it was more than a pretty phrase he admired.  He wanted to signal, perhaps, that workers in contemporary America (the many and weak) were being warred upon by Satanic forces (the few and powerful).  Steinbeck, in fact, grifted several of his titles from Biblical or semi-biblical sources: The Grapes of Wrath, East of Eden, and other writers (Of Mice and Men).

Homages/parodies. In Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks wasn’t trying to get away with piracy, but instead to rely on the audience’s familiarity with both the story and previous remakes from Hollywood.  The result is wonderful: How I did It is the title of the Baron’s journal. The great danger I see, today, is that in a semi-literate culture, exposure to 2nd, 3rd, and farther-removed parodies takes the place of reading the originals, rather than supplementing it.  Children, of course, will claim they can survive on candy; and so it’s no surprise to hear twenty-somethings argue they can distill the important news from The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live.

Shakespeare, yes even he of the cranium enormous, raided the Plot and trappings of Hamlet, Julius Caesar, and probably Othello and Romeo and Juliet from earlier sources. Now, given what he accomplished with them, and the relative scarcity of masterplots, this is forgivable.  How many people recognize that The Terminator is a thematic retelling of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (by attempting to avoid predestined events, one can actually bring them to pass)?  Cameron simply converted prophecy to time-travel (two sides of the same coin).

Update/Remake for a modern audience. Emerson said that every generation had to reinvent its stories (here I’m paraphrasing—at least I’m giving the guy credit!)  Especially the out-of-copyright ones (wink to the publishers and movie studios there.)     I suspect 2016’s Birth of a Nation will not much resemble the original.  You did know that was first made by D.W. Griffiths in 1915, adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansmen (1905,) didn’t you?  Film and literary critics fascinate themselves with analyzing how remakes tell us much about the culture that produced them, by emphasizing and deemphasizing certain elements of the ur-story.

Recasting from a different perspective. Euripides is perhaps the most prolific of western writers here.  He recast much of Greek mythology from the point-of-view of “the other,” the marginalized characters: Medea, The Trojan Women, The Bacchae.  A very neat and risky trick.  How many Americans do you know that would enjoy a film about how the Russians sacrificed twenty million souls to defeat the Nazis in World War II?  And yeah, that did happen.

Which brings us to pseudo-history. Spielberg’s Amistad, Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, Stone’s JFK, anything by Michael Moore in a more documentary mode, are all masterful narratives.  They are not history, by any serious definition.  BUT, they weren’t meant to be: they ARE meant to raise the spirit of inquiry in the audience, to challenge them to learn more and seek the truth themselves.  Poe did this with his unreliable narrators, but the solutions lay within his stories themselves.  Here, the facts lie outside the story, in other accounts one would have to research.  Sadly, this is all too infrequently done, and the pseudo-history stands as the somewhat-removed Truth.

So writers, don’t worry so much about books getting stolen, in either analog or digital form.  One way or another, it’s all in the public domain, there for the taking–isn’t it?  Put it this way–no one ever promised to pay you, anyway.  Given the choice, you’d rather give it away than keep it to yourself.

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The Collapse of the American English

 

03262015-Kingdome_01By Shawn StJean

Perhaps my accompanying photos are a trifle hyperbolic.  Perhaps.  It’s a truism among our global neighbors that Americans (by which I mean U.S. citizens) expect everyone, everywhere, to speak English.  The corollary, of course, is that most refuse to learn other languages, such as Spanish, even when the utility of doing so is abundantly clear.  But a looming problem for our culture in the 21st century seems to be that Americans increasingly decline even to learn English–at least beyond the 3rd or 4th grade level.

This level, supported by weak resources in the slang of the moment, proves sufficient for basic writing and speaking, but does not carry us far into the realm of critical thought and communication.

I choose the word “collapse” for my title, rather than “decline,” because I mean just that–what used to be a language with hundreds of thousands of specific, nuanced and descriptive choices has and continues to converge and impode into fewer and fewer.  With the recession of traditional print media in the face of digital dissemination of what can charitably be called information, even simple affirmations like “Yes,” “certainly,” “definitely,” “acknowledged,” and “no doubt,” in the most extreme example of private text messaging, have all been replaced by a single letter: “K.”

Need this be a bad thing?  After all, what’s more efficient than “K”?  Doesn’t that free us up for more important, or at least more, activity?  Before answering, let’s look at some other casualties in this war for the space in our brains.

Examine the following short list of commonly used expressions, and you’ll realize that either they are purposefully and even defiantly vague, or that one word takes the place of many–indicative of the digital age we live in (compression, homogenization, and subtle loss of nuanced information):

“Do” replaces the verbs/actions “try” “give” “accept” “participate in” “contribute to” “tolerate” “clean.”  As in “I don’t do Christmas.”

“Go” travel/venture/explore/pedal/fly/walk/hike/swim/jog and even “communicate something uncomfortable,” as in “Don’t go there.”

“huge” /big/large/important/significant/influential/knowledgeable/enthusiastic.  “I’m a huge fan.”  In my ear, this sounds ridiculous even on the face of it.  We all speak in meaphors of one degree or another all the time (“collapse” is a minor metaphor when not speaking of a physical structure,) but the above expression equates to saying the gushing adorer is an abnormally large person (or ventilating device.)  One might as well offer to wave oversized palm leaves, ancient-Egyptian style, at the object of worship.

“way” very/much/far/long (“This license is way out of date.” “This sauce has way more garlic than the recipe calls for.”)  This one in particular disturbs me because it deomonstrates we aren’t just discussing slang here.  “Way” has been adopted not just in common speech, but by professional writers.  It has infiltrated the language in a permanent, um, way–ahem–manner.

“You’re all set.”

“It’s all good.”

“basically”

“it’s all about”

“comes into play”

“deals with”

“back in the day”

Of course, words are invented, repurposed, and recombined all the time.  I must be overracting.  Aren’t these replacing archaic usages?  We’ve got “tweet.”  And “text.”  “Sick,” “diesel.” Oh, and “literally” can apparently now mean just the opposite, “metaphorically”–I mean, does it really matter?

“[   ] is a thing.”  Ah, yes, thing–the one catch-all noun when people grasp for a word and cannot find it, the very expression of inarticulateness, has become an official word to describe a fad, trend, icon, object of buzz or gossip, popular occurrence or consumer good, news item of the day, or week.  We had all those expressions, and they all relied upon small distinctions.  At this stage in human (d)evolution, we needed “thing”?

Okay.  Let’s say I’m right.  So the language is imploding.  What’s at stake here?

Many will not miss the subtleties that have dispersed into ether, I imagine.  Then again, it’s difficult to miss something you never knew you had.  What about the millions of unborn youngsters who will grow up with effective working vocabularies of a mere few thousand words?  Will they write poetry that amounts to more than a colorful tag on a railroad bridge?  Will they read it?  Will they understand the U.S. Constitution, even as they are called increasingly upon to “defend” it?  Will the historical records of the 19th and 20th centuries begin to sound as impenetrable as Shakespearian solilioquies do to us?  And I’m not talking about the kind of missing material in a contraction: to anyone but a fiction-writer or screenwriter, the distinction between “I’ve” and “I have” is not great.  One might use it to distinguish among charaters who are high-born or low-born, for example.  For the rest of us, it’s merely a convenience.

George Orwell warned writers not to compose in cliche’s.  He claimed, essentially, that writing in the pre-digested shorthand phrases of others leads to thinking in the pre-digested shorthand phrases of others.  Other signs that your thinking has been compromised: Do you find yourself regularly Googling information that you could remember with just a bit of effort?  Are you trusting that information (or that from Wikipedia, Mapquest, Siri, or the CBS Evening News) enough to act upon it or pass it on to another human being without double-checking it?  Are you cut-and-pasting that information (either in written or verbal form) without rephrasing it?  My overall point here is there exist vital differences among raw data, information (processed data), and intelligence (interpreted information).  And yet many of us are not bothering to recognize them.  Not because we lack the cognitive ability, but because we lack the critical tools and the will to use them.

A brief [ mostly harmless] experiment should serve here.  Raise your hand if you like music.

That should include most of you, one hopes. If you like music, you have probably in your time looked up some song lyrics.  In the old days, we read them out of LP album covers–which meant the source was the band’s record label, presumably direct from the songwriters themselves, which meant little chance of transmissional error.  Nowadays, we all know where song lyrics get found.  Dozens of websites cater to this need; even Google has gotten directly into the act through their search engine.  Look up a song or two that you know intimately, but the performed and recorded lyrics of which are not 100% crystal-clear by listening. I can guarantee you that, as transcribed onto your website of choice, you will not be long in discovering blatant errors in those lyrics which materially alter their meaning.  Furthermore, and more appallingly to me, you will discover upon cross-checking that most, if not all, of the alternative websites repeat that same error.  Which means, of course, that they are all “borrowing” from each other, and profiting off both you and the songwriters with little regard for the truth.  Now, if the stakes here seem low to you, import your experiment to the television news programs.  Jon Stewart had a running bit on his incarnation of The Daily Show dedicated to proving that not only do major news outlets shamelessly plagiarize from each other, but they do so in unedited cliche’s.  Again, in the old days, we might double-check their intelligence in what used to be called printed newspapers.  Umm.  Except. . .

One of the great virtues of written language is its precision, yet increasingly written English begins to resemble spoken English, even in widely disseminated and professionally published print media.  And spoken English begins to resemble colloquial English.  Don’t think so?  Ask an octogenarian (someone born roughly during the Great Depression, as of 2017) if their parents would use the word “cool” as part of their everyday discourse.  Nowadays, try to find someone who doesn’t.  Not that I think “cool” has done the language any great harm.  As far as I can tell, it was first used in America, in its modern sense, by Emerson in the 1840s–which probably means it dates back even farther and derives from the British.  But this word may prove the exception rather than the rule.  As it is, it conflates a much more typically detailed appraisal of a person, event, or object.  A girl who might once have been variously described as “tolerant,” “forgiving,” “loose,” “free-thinking,” “substance-abusing,” or “not a nag” is now simply “cool.”

Of course, one might argue that simple is better; the fewer moving parts in a machine, the more reliable it is likely to be (read “mousetrap.”)

I doubt the sustainability of that argument.  Another, more insidious example: “fewer” vs. “lesser” (or less).  Almost no one but your English teacher bothers with this one anymore.  Here’s why: who cares if your supermarket checkout line reads (correctly) “fewer than 12 items” or (incorrectly) “less than 12 items”?  Can’t we just dispense with one of these?  Well, we could.  Except one of them refers predominantly to individual items and people, and the other refers objects in bulk or concepts.  That is, “fewer people are finding jobs their college degrees prepared them for.”  NOT “less people.”  Because those people are individuals, not some vague statistic.  There’s less forest, which means fewer trees.  There may be “less opportunity.”  There may be “less rain this year” or even “less cod in these waters.”  But if there are unaccountably “less people,” we had better start looking for them.   And reevaluating the value we place on human life.

I’d like to conclude with a different, and more familiar example; possibly the mostly commonly transmitted text message in English:

Where R U

It (or some variant) is quick, servicible, doesn’t cost much effort to send, or–hypothetically–to answer.  And yet this message has probably caused more misunderstandings and needless arguments than most.  Why?  It’s laden with ambiguity (or even what deconstructors call “undecideability”).  In the absence of voice intonation, facial expression, pronunciation, linguistic context, primary and/or secondary punctuation, and so on, the receiver must interpolate those for herself.  Here’s how that might go, in response:

“None of your damn business.”

“Uh oh, he’s saying I’m late again.”

“Did I promise to be somewhere right now?”

“I’m at Main Street and Vine”

“She really wants to know Who am I with, and What am I doing?”

“I left an hour ago.”

Texts and tweets may count portability and quickness among their virtues, but they certainly cannot include clarity in that list.  Even among intimates, this message is as likely to lead to a dispute as an informative reply.  Another aspect that’s missing, and increasingly missing from written communication especially, is any sense of formality, professionalism, or what used be called politeness.  Now, you may say, “Well, that’s just a text message.”  Sure.  But ask yourself how many e-mails you have received without a greeting, a signature, an identification of the sender or introduction, or even so much as a rudimentary spell-check?  Did you answer them?  If you did, you, as are we all,  are complicit in the process of collapse.  Compare these two e-mails, typical of what I, as a college professor, have received from freshman students:

[2007]  Dear Professor:  I’m sorry I missed class last Tuesday and Thursday as my grandmother died.  I misplaced my copy of the syllabus.  Can you tell me what we did in class so I can make up the work?  Thanks, Kayla

[2017]  I missed class last week would you tell me what I missed

Neither one of these qualifies as polished, professional communication–especially from a writing student–but I think you’ll agree that the former has a few lingering virtues to recommend it, which have gone glimmering in the latter.  In fact, were I to delve deeper into my records of the past, we’d find that the students of the 1990s had bothered to include my actual name; that the excuses were often more inventive and frequently included such touches as offers of doctor’s notes; that a request to meet in office hours was not unheard of upon missing a week’s worth of training; that the student might have actually acquired class notes from  peer before writing; that the student would bother to identify which of the four classes I teach she was enrolled in.

I’m not sure that the degradation of the language–as slow and inevitable as abuse of the atmosphere that has summoned the effects of global warming– will contribute materially to the collapse of the society, the culture, or possibly even our civilization.  But I don’t fancy it helping.  It’s perhaps predictable that as our planet becomes more overpopulated, as more wealth becomes concentrated into fewer hands, and as such factors demand a parallel dynamic of information becoming the province of fewer people (collectors,) the rest of us will not find encouragement to strengthen our language skills beyond the consumer sphere (that is, you and I only need know how communicate well enough to work and buy and perhaps sell a bit.)

As for writing, a culture’s written language is the primary repository of its history.  Without a sense of history, it cannot evolve.

The solution?  Same as it’s always been, and the advice is good not just for writers, but for anyone who wishes to grow their brain and live up to something approaching their potential: READ.  Read anything.  Comic books, advertisements, editorials, romance novels, cereal boxes, movie credits.  Some are better than others, obviously.  Personally, I recommend Hawthorne, Hemingway, and Wharton, along with Carl Sagan for those whose tastes require something a little more contemporary–here was a man who knew a bit about large-scale collapse–but that’s just me.

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They Will Not Thanks Us—Generation Y Can’t Stay in School Forever

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By Shawn Stjean

When is the last time your kid genuinely thanked you for the drive to school/a friend’s house/a social or sporting event/part-time job? Because if he or she is not thanking you now, it sure won’t happen later, when the mini-van trips are all over.

In general, millennials of the so-called “middle class” are deprived of the rituals of youth in America, which toughened previous generations.  The school bus stops these days at every house for a pickup, rather having little Dylan make the trek of a block or two to a common bus-stop, where swaggered actual (not cyber-) bullies, cranky at their own failure to get/maintain their own set of wheels, and willing to take it out on whomever looked vulnerable.  They were teachers too, in their way–they modeled bad behavior, taught who we didn’t want to be, and the price of admission was their company.

And when the bus actually arrives at school, today’s lads and lasses dismount only to board a vicious cycle dressed up as a merry-go-round, and underneath, the corroding machinery works something like this: the administrators inherit a shrinking budget less-and-less reflective of our society valuing education, which leads to “differentiated learning,” (the semi-literate bully might appear next to you in class now, rather than being tracked into a room with other low-functioning brutes.)  They’ve got bigger class sizes, less homework, shorter readings–or maybe no readings at all, because the teacher is reading the book aloud, leaving many free to stare out the window.  She’s got challenges of her own, because when the phone on the wall rings, or someone runs the old “I gotta go pee” ploy, or a girl who’s been out for eight weeks with mono needs catching up, or the e-mail light blinks constantly with parents demanding to know why Brittany–a real treat to have around–isn’t getting her “A”. . .well, then, old Teach just has to soak it up.  Nothing three glasses of a middling Chardonnay after 4 pm won’t help her repress, until she burns out on weekend grading, while never finding time on Sunday for better lesson plans, meanwhile absorbing pressure to “keep standards high” while somehow not flunking anyone.  She doesn’t even have the power to throw Christian a detention anymore, as he whips a pencil and happens to catch Peter (a boy with a diagnosed and legitimate learning disorder, who used to have an IEP, but they’re much harder to get this year) in the ear, drawing extended screams, but no blood.  So the flinger gets written up for it, twenty minutes of class time get wasted, and the administrator gets to try another case of “The Lesser of Two Evils.”  Will his parents support a suspension, or at least a series of DTs, and ground him during his tenure at home, or will they take his word that he didn’t mean it, and pressure the school to keep him on because he’s already behind? (that trip to Florida between the winter and spring breaks probably didn’t help.)  And to give them their due, they’re both working, and ultimately Christian can’t be trusted home by himself–he’s got an undiagnosed case of painkiller addiction, and chronic pain-in-the-ass.  So the Big Wheel of administrator-parent-teacher creakily slows down long enough for the lad to jump back on, and keeps on turnin’.

How did this get to be the way we all roll?  It’s easy enough for the principal to blame the economy, the parents this generation of poorly trained teachers, and the teachers a non-supportive administration.  It’s a Mexican stand-off now, not a carnival ride.  So does it really matter–or is the real issue what we’re going to do about it?  Start blasting, and hope to be the least-unlucky-hombre in this tepid triumvirate, or lower our weapons long enough to see where the real loser has skulked off to?

The kid doesn’t have the vocabulary, so he doesn’t know the operative word–complicity–but he does know the concept. He understands, deep down, that he’s not exactly doing his best, either–and why should he?  Every time he lowers the bar a notch, someone unaccountably offers him a boost to get over it, and it’s not long before he’s looking down at the floor for the standards and expectations everyone’s paying lip-service to.  Terms like Excellence, Achievement, Breadth and Depth, Pride–they mean only so much to a fella who can’t remember his girlfriend’s phone number, despite texting her 22 times a day, because it’s saved in his Contacts.  Hell, he doesn’t remember his own number.

Oh, the computers play their part, too.  Because when you cut three-and-a-half teaching positions, but acquire three hundred touchscreen terminals in the same five-year period (hoping the community won’t notice the former, as they ooh-and-ahh over the latter,) well, you better use the things.  The students will need the keyboarding practice, anyway, in an age where “all thumbs” is actually a skill, and half the jobs they’ll be qualified for involve this new form of coal-mining: checking people out as they run up their credit cards for new possessions, big and small, new services, needed and unneeded.  Unless there’s a bar-code reader at the counter.

Oh, not my Chelsea!, I can hear some of you declaring.  She’s going straight to college to become a professional!  What kind, I’m wondering?  Well, we haven’t figured that out yet.  But she’s going–this Fall.  No break.  Of course she hasn’t thought up a major to declare, because she’s had enough of school–she really has–and instead of wasting her parents’ second mortgage or retirement funds, she ought to be out there–in a crummy apartment with leaky pipes, taking public transportation to work, eating substandard food, yet still living life here in America with free speech to complain, fresh water to drink, and rights many people in the world can only dream of.  It’s those years of deprivation, out from under one’s guardians, that make young folks appreciate the rest of it.  And it shouldn’t take a war that decimates both their generation, and the population of another nation with a different skin color, religion, or economic ideology from our own, to evoke that appreciation.

Now in the old days, she could work her way through a series of jobs, eventually gain a toehold and some maturity through making her own mistakes and creating her own triumphs, meet a partner, start a family of her own.  Not anymore, and again, you can only take the “blame the economy” game so far.

See, instead, she’s persuaded to take a different path, to endure 4-6 more years of “higher education,” with ample Spring, Summer, and Winter Breaks, but no real relief.  She changes majors three times and the actual college twice, meanwhile signing over student loans–in addition to Mom and Dad’s contribution–that will keep her in payments until she’s 55.  And those payments, depending on where she went to school, will take a lot of choices out of her hands along the way.  Now she has to take work as somebody’s “administrative assistant,” (Heaven forbid we call a secretary a secretary!,) even though she’s come a long way in the Brains department, and she’s pushing 30 now.  Because the Bachelor’s degree she cobbled together in between partying is about worthless in the job market of 2020, and the Master’s she’d like to earn at night will cast 100 grand, and she’s not sure about the gamble.

Somewhere in here, in between dropping her divorce papers in the e-slot (lawyers are still doing well, but the USPS is defunct) and feedings of her three-year-old, Chelsea gets upset.  Really upset.  And by now, she’s self-aware enough to realize she’s not just sad, or lonely, or menstruating–she’s angry.  Pissed.

Why?  She’s had every advantage.  So many, in fact, that she never had to go to summer school to make up that gym class she blew off nine times in tenth grade, never had to repeat the eighth grade even though the “D”s she got in three classes were as munificent as the gifts of the Magi, never got suspended for calling her sixth grade teacher a “bitch” right to her face–Mom got her counseling instead.  Never got called on showing up in class high, never did most of what little reading and homework was asked of her, never had to walk home after school.  Never had to count cell-phone minutes or texts (or pay the bill for them,) never had her allowance withheld, never had to stay home from a prom, never picked up a check (eating out-food 2-3 times a week).

So, again, why the anger?  Because, plain and simple, everything she was supposed to learn before she was twenty, under relatively easy and supervised conditions–from how to track a bank account, to how to sew, write a business letter, read a tax rule, do a real job interview, and apologize sincerely when she’s wrong–she’s now having to learn herself, a decade late, the hard way.  It’s always the hard way, now, because if she can’t do it, someone else with more degrees, fewer recent scars, and who is still young enough to live with her parents (28 or so,) will do it instead.

She missed out on the one advantage that can’t be bought, substituted, calculated, synthesized, or replicated: she never had to choose.  Because choosing always means losing something, leaving something behind, and valuing the other thing enough to sacrifice for it.  Instead, she was fed fat on the absurd idea that every previous generation of human beings on the planet was weaned off, in childhood: that you can’t have everything.

Forgive us, kids, we felt guilty.  ‘Cuz we f—–d things up for you, and we knew it.  We knew the coming world was tough, tougher than we’d ever had to survive ourselves, and in meaning well we hoped to insulate you from the worst.  And somehow the worst just became the bad, and the bad the uncomfortable, and the uncomfortable the inconvenient.

Too bad–ol’ Chelsea could’ve done alright for herself.  A few bumps and bruises aside.  They would have saved deeper cuts, later on.

So if your youngster is thanking you for that ride now, (you’ve raised her to at least be polite,) enjoy it–it won’t last.  We knew it back when we were young (there was a T-shirt, remember?) No one rides for free.

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Friend: An Indie Author’s Vocabulary Starts and Ends On The Word

Thoughts Inspired on a Super-Bowl Sunday

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Alternatively, the word would be Loyalty.

Am I wrong in declaring that about every independent author or small/self-publisher out there secretly longs to become a breakout success?  Not so secret.  Of course, we’re not all money-grubbing, would-be capitalist dragons dreaming upon treasure hoards.  Most of us are humanists, in one way or another.  But if we were to enjoy commercial fame, sell a lot of books, do the talk-show circuits, get reviewed and lauded in The New York Times, nominated for prestigious awards, and the rest, well. . .rewards vary.  A lot of us would simply like the financial freedom to write, full-time, without the drudgery of either having to support ourselves with a ten-hour-a-day-job, or having to network and promote for the better part of the writing-day.  Others could sure use the dough, to buy better houses, computers, and cars, or to get out of debt for ones already bought.

Whatever the motivation, the plain fact is that. . .most of us are not going there.  Most of us will live our lives continuing to work, write, revise, format, publish, network, and (hopefully) supplement our incomes as a modest, partial reward for daring to share ideas with other human beings, making our voices articulate among a 21st-century sea of overwhelming images, and dreaming well into adulthood, after others have stopped.

Agree with me?  I know, it’s a bittersweet vision.  Read on.

Given this dose of reality, what sense does it make, then, to continue to act like one of the mindless drones who actually subscribe to the slogan of the NYS Lottery: “Hey, it could happen“?  Groan.  This type of rubbish, preying on the hopes of normally sane people, has probably killed more human potential in our culture than War.

If you’ve made the decision to publish independently of the traditional commerical establishment (no matter what it is calling itself at the moment–you work, they take the profit, bottom line,) then Congratulations!  You’ve done a brave thing.  Don’t betray your own courage by then proceeding, out of ignorance, cowardice, or greed, to act as if you were still a slave.

Here’s what I mean: You won’t make it five steps, alone.  You’re going to need pals.  A lot of ’em (though not as many as you might think.  One good one is worth a hundred others.)  You’re going to be saying, “Buy my book” quite often, naturally, but at some point you’re going to have to give some away, and you’re going to have to buy others.  And if you want to get reviews, you need to write reviews for others.  If you want a manuscript critiqued, a blog post shared and tweeted, an endorsement, an introduction, an interview, a guest post, and so on–you’ll be repaying, in kind.  Not that every single event needs to be quid pro quo with every person, but you’ll at least be paying it forward to someone who needs it, the way you once did, before you moved on.

This is the beginning of a crusade well beyond whatever Facebook definition of “friend” your fifteen-year-old has.  Because you’re going to discover, as you go, that there are real, flesh-and-blood people behind those avatars.  This is a good thing–and exactly the reason you retreated from the monolithic, exclusionary moat-and-wall that surrounds the castle of commercial publishing.  You wanted to touch other people.  Well, they’re here on the ground, bleeding shoulder-to-shoulder with you, not up there on the ramparts.  And as you do rub elbows with your brothers and sisters-in-arms, you’re going to see that some of them are worth, as Shakespeare said, “grappling to thy heart with hoops of steel.” And others, not.

Let me offer one concrete example, among a legion.  I always hear about folks buying up domain names (this is like buying insurance on a blackjack bet,) in case you get famous.  Well, you wouldn’t want someone cashing in on your name, right?–and the first thing you’re gonna do, when you hit big time, is ditch that free WordPress host/domain, right?  Amplified groan.  I don’t expect everyone to agree, here, but consider what you’re doing.  Abandoning friends at the first sign of non-trouble. I personally have been running a blog at WordPress for eight months, and they’ve never asked me for a dime.  Never littered my site with ads, never annoyed my visitors with pop-ups.  ‘Cuz that’s what commercial entities do.  You know, there are things I wish WordPress would do better, and I suppose if I do enjoy a lot of traffic one day, I’ll pay them the mite they want for upgrades.  Hell, at this point I would pay without the upgrades, if they said they needed it to stay afloat–because, even though we don’t share text messages and swap cute animal pictures, I know there are still friends of mine, over at WordPress.  They’ve treated me well, and I’m gonna treat them well.  You can go all cynical and say, “Well, StJean, you dummy, they don’t care about you.  They make money off you whether you know it or not.”  If they do, I say, good. They’d better.  But even in business, there is such a thing as loyalty.  This is not The Godfather, in which “business” is a euphemism directly preceding back-stabbing (or garroting).

Now, if I’m not going to turn on an entity like WordPress, which doesn’t even have a human face, I’m damned sure not going to use and discard real people who’ve aided me, or at least wished me well.  (I can hear everyone out there saying “Neither would I!”  But you may not have thought it fully through.)

I’m taking about competition vs. cooperation.  When you compete with someone, you’re by definition trying to take their share for yourself.  No way around it, be it a title, a trophy, a dollar, or a slice of pizza.  And you might say, “we’re all competing,” but that’s not really true.  Only in the sense that every member of an army or sports team competes–some get medals, records, or payment for personal achievement, true, others remain obscure.  But still, a win for one is a win for the team.  When you cooperate, everyone cedes a bit of his personal share for the greater success of the whole–and this can be far greater than the sum of its parts.

Amazon knows this (not to target them gratuitously, but they are a pertinent example.)  They know that every author they sign into KDP Select, no matter how big a hack and how few books they sell, is one more author cooperating with them, by legally agreeing not to compete against them.  However, when that same author goes Kobo, ITunes, Smashwords, Google Play, Barnes and Noble, or some smaller outfit, maybe even just sells on Ebay and from a blog, then that’s one tiny step toward breaking the monopoly.  AND, when these little guys start teaming up, then you have a whole league (which is the way both capitalism and democracy are supposed to work,) of teams, with more-or-less equal viability in the forum/marketplace.  Competition continues, but it’s healthy, because everyone has a real chance.

Somewhere there, I shifted metaphors, away from the medieval and violent.  The cost of competition should not be measured in broken and severed limbs.  So, Sports.  A lot of intellectuals look down on sports fans–not without reason, at times–but even the drunken, body-painted clown standing up and obstructing your view knows one thing, for sure–he’s chosen his team, and he’s loyal to it through thick and thin, whether they win it all, or go winless that season.  ‘Cuz there’s another inning, another quarter, half, game, series, and season coming.  That’s why they play the games–you really never do know what the future holds–and the victories are much sweeter for the adversity that came before, and for the folks you’ve shared it with.

You and your girlfriend may both write Suspense-Thrillers or Romance novels, may both have gotten your M.A.s in the same grad program, have been up for the same scholarships, and are now eyeing the same prizes as surely as that Amazon ranking taunts you both.  But you’ve both been called up to the Show, now.  The big leagues.  Believe me, put your back to hers, and find others with the same colors.  Pros know, they’re going to be coming at you from all sides.

Assemble your team.  Make flags, design logos, sew uniforms if you have to–but much more, research and recruit the players (the best ones are not always the snazziest, loudest-talking, biggest chest-bumping, highest high-fiving either,) hire the coaches (the best ones don’t always already have high-profile jobs,) build the stadium (not always the newest, biggest, or best-located,) and run the game.  And don’t be a fair-weather fan–they need you when it’s raining and snowing, more than ever.  And you definitely need them.ImageImage

Clotho’s Loom in Print Gets Global Distribution

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Glas Daggre Publications has contracted with Lightning Source, a division of the Ingram Content Group, to print and distribute a matte-cover version of Clotho’s Loom in mass-market paperback, by Shawn StJean, in the worldwide market.  This means that, in addition to availability on Amazon.com and Amazon Europe, the new novel of literary fiction will soon be available from barnesandnoble.com and other online booksellers, as well as for-order through ground stores in the US, and in many countries (Germany and Brazil are the most recent additions to LS’s reach).

The book has not been translated, and is currently available only in English.  An audiobook edition, read by the author, is currently in post-production.

Casting Call–Miscellaneous Characters–Angelic Mother, Demonic Father

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For William Wyrd’s parents (both of whom are only seen in flashback,) we add an even more international flavor to the cast of a hypothetical film production of Clotho’s Loom.  Irish actress Susan Lynch (known in the U.S. as Maggie from Waking Ned Devine,) and currently working in the TV series Monroe, could well handle the role of Will’s unnamed mother, who, like the heroine of the novel and her daughter-in-law, Nexus, has to raise her son alone following the disappearance of his father (in this case, into North Vietnam.)  Earlier, she even defends the boy against his father at several points, doing her best in spite of a clear lack of power–so she functions as a foil for Will’s future wife.

For Will’s father, known only as Sergeant Wyrd to us, no particular actor is needed because we would never seem him very clearly onscreen.  A black operator, possibly, or perhaps even CIA, his shadow is imposing and threatens to suffocate both his wife and son, and his voice gritty and vaguely Germanic (Will’s grandparents were German and Irish immigrants to America).  I tried to write into the novel the psychological trauma of the strong father, from many angles: even when moral, as with Nexus’ father Lambert, the voice of Vader can be paralyzing.

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From out of the unconscious to Oedipus Rex to Star Wars to the latest video game, HE just keeps turning up. . .

Indie Authors: Beware Amazon’s Auto-Renew (and Miscellaneous Pitfalls of KDP Select)

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Activision’s Pitfall Harry finds a new way to get his heart broken

As a follow up to my post, Cowboys and Indies: Amazon and Monopoly in the Free Market,  in which I joined the chorus of e-voices lamenting Amazon’s latest wave of review removals (I’ll return to this further down,) I’d like to draw attention, especially for the benefit of new and aspiring authors, to a few of the other potential landmines in your path, if you choose to go with a program specifically designed to benefit fledgling writers: KDP Select.

First, I want to be clear that you’re making a good choice. It’s a great way to get launched. I’m not embarking on some anti-Amazon crusade—my own books are published there, and likely to remain, no matter what other steps I take to sell them. But the system is not perfect—and its flaws are, without question in my mind and whether designed consciously so or not, biased toward the building of the Amazon monopoly.

So if they’re going to police us and our reviews, we’d better police them. While we still can.

There’s a “convenience” feature (their word, not mine) built into KDP Select that renews you for a second (and third, etc.) three-month period, which requires you to UNCHECK the default setting of “go ahead and do it.” This obligates you to publish your book EXCLUSIVELY through Amazon for that period. At first, I thought I was unique in my blunder at overlooking this. Once you’re aware of it, it’s easy to locate within your author’s dashboard—one might say, it hides in plain sight. You will not, among your dozens of other Amazon e-mails, receive a reminder. I’ve since discovered several other authors who’ve essentially committed the first SIX, not THREE, months of their book’s existence to the the giant bookseller by this same lapse in vigilance.

At the end of the first 90-day period, you may feel comfortable enough as an author/bookseller/promoter/agent to want to branch out with outfits like Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Lulu, Google Play, and a host of other players in the market. You may also have given away hundreds or thousands of copies through AZ’s program, and feel that’s plenty to get your toe in the door of the electronic marketplace, especially if you are channeling those readers in venues like GoodReads, LibraryThing, blogs, and forums like the UK’s Kindle Users Forum (you should be).

Now, should you stumble into an Auto-Renewal, it may occur you to shrug and just do as you like, anyway. If you feel like it’s too much trouble for Amazon to take legal action against you because you’re so little, just don’t forget they have other options. First, it’s their store: they can ban you and your works. Second, due to the royalty payout structure, Amazon will have custody of up to three month’s of your royalty money at any given time. If you breach, and they counter-breach your agreement (somehow your money doesn’t arrive,) are you willing to pursue legal action against them, given they’re so big? Oh, and if I’ve reviewed the guidelines correctly, the 72-hour grace period for withdrawing only applies to the first signup period. I found it all-too-easy, assuming all along I would not renew, to miscalculate the exact day I thought to withdraw, and became obligated for another (big holiday) term.

Perhaps needless to say, this really does look like another of the many, many moves it takes to corner a market, build a monopoly. And you may not really be selling that many books, but as long as you’re also not selling any through any other channels, well, Amazon doesn’t need to concern themselves about you, do they? You’re not contributing to their competitors becoming a threat.

A quick update on the review removals: I’ve confirmed through several sources that it isn’t just certain reviews that AZ’s software bans: it’s certain reviewers from reviewing certain books (products). So that means, if you as an author are in contact with a reviewer (very common, and often very legitimate) and can persuade them to reword or even completely re-write a review, even in strict adherence to the guidelines, it will not stick. I wish to emphasize the importance of this. In my view, it reveals that the official line about reviews violating guidelines is baloney. And in the final analysis, if you can’t get enough positive reviews (the fundamental, traditional means of selling books,) then aren’t you even more dependent upon the Amazon distribution machines, like KDP Select and its giveaways, or whatever they come up with next?

By contrast, if you get stuck with a one-star review by someone who obviously did not read your book, did not buy your book, and for perverse reasons of their own would clearly like to sabotage your book, AZ had provided a “report abuse” button for you to push. I have not discovered many authors getting justice this way, however.

As several sensible folks have already remarked, blenders and generators and computer motherboards are one thing—you NEED reviews to help make an informed decision—but as far as content like books and music goes, perhaps it’s time we began behaving, as consumers, in a non-traditional way: READ the SAMPLE. At least several pages—and decide for yourself. As a literate person, you don’t need Amazon’s robots, or friends and family of the Author, or some ex-girlfriend with a vendetta, telling you who, and what, and how, to READ.