Let’s Pick Apart Great Writing To See Why It Works

revival

“The most terrifying conclusion Stephen King has ever written” Not my words. The inside jacket says that; and it’s a huge claim.

This is no book review. If you’re planning to read Stephen King’s Revival and spoilers bother you, skip this one. My purpose isn’t to tease you with it or give you enough zap to want to read it. I’m going to dissect this little guy like a Roswell alien to see…when it does work really well…why it works. I could have picked perfect works for this exercise, like Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1, Frank Herbert’s Dune, or even King’s 11/22/63. One reason is I read this recently. The other is it isn’t perfect; and in particular breaks down like a clunker at one point. Just like almost everything King puts out, when he’s bad, he stinks. When he’s good, he’s freaking brilliant and outshines almost everybody else putting words together. Let’s see why that is, so we can distill some basic principles that would be of value to someone crafting their own stories. Cool?

The story follows Jamie Morton, a boy growing up in 1960s Maine who first encounters a Methodist minister, Charles Jacobs when Jamie is six and the reverend’s young family moves in. Jacobs apparently heals Jamie’s brother using snake-oil sounding hoo-doo he describes as relating to “secret electricity”, a practice that forms the backbone of the whole book. The reverend’s family is killed in a terrible accident, sending him into a bitter tailspin; and over the decades, fate swings these two together again and again in  occasional intersections. Jamie falls in almost-love, then out; and he gets first hooked on heroin, then cured of it by Jacobs. There’s rock and roll and carnivals and fantastic characters along the way. Things finally culminate with Jacobs bringing Jamie in for his grand experiment: bringing someone back from the dead to finally know where his family has gone…to at last know what happens after you die.

1- The opening is chatty and conversational, though immediately alludes to Jacobs being somehow entangled in horrors.

2- Within a few pages, we’re given a host of mundane details we can relate to like comic books, a kid’s imagination, crappy family gifts, toy army men

Straight away, he’s trying to hook you…to make you interested within a page or two before most of us would put it down.  He invented neither foreshadowing nor characterization; but he excels at getting you inside his people’s heads with slice-of-life details. That’s my point. Read it and see how he uses specifics like the name of a TV show his mom is watching to lend flavor and engagement to what he’s telling you…little details we can relate to. A majority of the reviews for this book gush about how much they enjoyed the first part of this book when he’s doing this. In fact, he almost always does this. I had to put down Under The Dome because he was vomiting details and overdoing this trick.

3- Much like the accident it describes, chapter three hits hard and fast with horrifying descriptions of a brutal car accident

Following a brief opening with more relaxed details like: “Three miles away, a farmer named George Barton – a lifelong bachelor known in town as Lonesome George  – pulled out of his driveway with a potato digger attached to the back of his Ford F-100 pickup.” It goes on to describe him as “a good neighbor, a member of the school board, and a deacon of our church”. Then a paragraph later, there’s a scorpion sting that stuck with me for a couple of months after I finished this book. Seriously, it’s brutal how the accident is described. It was fast and brutal. It drew me in, horrified me, scared the crap out of me because of how likely it could happen with nothing supernatural. Incredibly well written. This was brilliant. If you’re trying to scare a reader, striking quickly like this with graphic brutality on characters we’ve been made to care about and relate to is a genius move. It drove everything else that happened. Just genius.

4- The narrative winds and builds, resonating with the title quite well, leading the reader on to believe these ‘secret electricity’ experiments we keep hearing about are going to bring the family back, just in more of a “Monkey’s Paw” style probably. I was thinking it the whole book.

Except when he at last gets to the end, that’s not really what he does. A really brilliant use of the title and narration to make you think you’ve got one ending coming when you don’t.

5- Jacobs brings back a corpse to ask about the afterlife, to know where his family is. Clunk! We’re shown the monster.

To previous generations, it was expected of a horror writer to show the monster. Read Lovecraft – he was very much into that. Abraham Merritt was an incredibly successful sci-fi writer back in the 1920s and 1930s; and he spent pages in lush detail on his visuals. Understanding preferences in fiction are subjective, I can still confidently tell you the prevailing aesthetic in the 21st century is we’re much more frightened when it’s in our heads and the imagination runs wild. Troll Netflix horror flicks and have a look at how many have grainy, security footage-style or lost footage-style preambles for three fourths of the movie before you finally get to the money shot, which is even then only a glimpse of some lady crawling backwards on the ceiling or whatever. King broke the rule with this one; and he has a habit sometimes of cracking the horrifying dread he’s conjured in us like he did this time by describing the afterlife as a place of torment like something from Dante’s Inferno, with massive basalt columns and wide-eyed people led in chains by ant-things to punishment.

On one hand, I’m impressed that a horror genius like Stephen King has picked the most frightening thing about being a human, not knowing what happens after you die, and built a book around it. That’s the mind of a guy who knows what he’s doing. Point in his column. On the other…’ant things’? When he got to this point, the atmosphere and pacing were incredible, driving the quick page turns and breathless wait for what happens next…excellent wordcraft. It’s just for me, when he showed his answer, I disengaged. It isn’t just me, many of the reviews make similar comments without the details of why they felt that way.

Anyway, that last principle is what made me think writing this article made sense. A quote from Great Gatsby came to mind, which is saying practically the same thing:

“No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart”

 

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Load The Gun First: Indie Book Launching Like Grownups

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If there’s anything I regret most about all the screw-ups I made launching my first indie book, it’s that I didn’t do anything before the launch other than write the book. Is that weird to say? Anyway, I got an interesting case study sent to me recently by Goodreads that I thought did a nice job of outlining how the big press houses work the system for book launches now, that make a real joke of the approach I took (or the lack of an approach, which is a little more accurate).

I wrote recently about what I view as the key success factors for book marketing in the modern age, centering on:

  1. Mainstream name recognition
  2. The cover
  3. The genre
  4. Reviews
  5. Awards
  6. Word of mouth

Have a look at the case study using the link in my first paragraph to see these in action. The emphasis for St. Martins Press in this launch was predominantly up-front and prior to publication. Who knew that was when the real marketing work should have been done? I was busy just trying to get the plot points to tie off without seeming forced and trying to decide what a typical book length in word count should be.

They strategically ran paperback giveaways, larger that normal (about 200 in this case) with good follow-through for reviews and word of mouth. Then they tied this in with focused advertising. I have been more impressed with Facebook’s approach to targeting ads versus anyone else, certainly more impressive than Twitter. Zuckerburg really seems to have done a nice job painting us all into neat little demographic corners. When St. Martins got the buzz building, nurturing it like a desperate fire on a desert island and watching the ‘to-read’ listings on goodreads as a measure of that, they launched a personalized mailer to readers who’d expressed an interest in the author.This was all prior to publication date.

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When word of mouth and buzz built to the point that nominations happened for listings and awards, St. Martins Press doubled down again with giveaways and ads to further fan the flames. Very strategic, this approach. Not surprisingly, it was a momentum thing no different from a football game or a successful startup company. Maybe everything that’s good in life is a momentum thing. Who knows?

Indie Book Marketing With A Vengeance

MCGRAW

It’s funny how so many people that hear you published a book scratch their chin, smile a bit and tell you they’ve been thinking about putting one together too. “I’ve got a great idea…there’s this_____”. Fill in the blank. For me, writing them is the fun part. Blasting words into the laptop down at the lake or acting out the dialogue somewhere quiet to make sure it sounds like something people would actually say…that’s all adrenalin for me. It’s the terrible part that happens after it’s done where so many hold our noses and dive in anyway. It’s the marketing. Selling it. Making people aware that a piece of you has been captured in the narrative; and it’s available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, waiting to change the world. I dove into that swamp in the Fall of 2015 knowing absolutely nothing about what to do next. It isn’t my intention here to tell anybody how to do it right because I’m no example to follow. It’s very likely, however that I can spare somebody from making the same sorts of mistakes. I’m actually really good at making mistakes.

When I typed the last sentence on a rainy beach in Maine, I was pretty pumped, of course. Who wouldn’t be? It’s huge to actually finish something that’d been stewing for that long. Look at that guy grinning…he has no clue what he’s in for. Anyway, I would have told you – should you have asked what’s next if you’re going independent – that you make the book as widely available as possible through Ingram Spark and Createspace, in electronic and paperback, set yourself up on social media, do a few giveaways, and start advertising. No problem. It’s a waiting game till the sales figures just start rolling in. Unfortunately, that wasn’t my experience; and I’ve made some boneheaded moves you need to know about. I won’t get into the decision whether to go indie or to find an agent or whatever. Pros and cons to either, so read up on it and choose wisely.

  1. I published the book before getting any reviews on it from anyone, before submitting to any contests or major review houses, and before setting any presence of substance up on social media. Ouch and double ouch.
  2. With a new Adobe Creative Cloud membership, I learned Photoshop and made myself a slick cover that I loved and everyone in my family loved. Neither they nor I have the first clue about cover design or the marketing principles behind them. It looked terrible in a lineup with other books online and drew no attention whatsoever. Ouch again.
  3. I ran a paperback giveaway on Goodreads but only made 20 books available, listed the contest for way too short a time period, and made too little emphasis on securing the reviews afterwards with zero follow-up. Almost all those copies wound up for sale on Amazon.
  4. I spent entirely too much valuable time screwing around on Twitter and Facebook, and even spent money on a social media marketer. Zero payback. A money pit that echoes.
  5.  I spent advertising money on Goodreads and Amazon though I had only two reviews. Anybody clicking through to the sell page just left because it looked so barren. I do the same thing when I’m on Amazon, should have thought of that. Didn’t.

Okay, that’s stressing me out so I’m going to stop right there. Anyway, through trial and error, deep research and conversations, and through reading up on what savvy marketing guys like Derek Murphy  and Dave Chesson have to say about this, I’ve distilled some principles of indie success that I believe hold true. There are probably exceptions and folks who caught lightning by chance; but this is what I wish I could have handed to myself there on that Maine beach. Would have saved a lot of effort and made the whole thing more fun. Let’s call it the MCGRAW principles:

M for mainstream name recognition: If the public has heard of you, favorably or unfavorably, talent or no talent, irrespective of the quality of your work, you’re far more likely to sell books without even trying. It’s hard to leverage this one unless you’re willing to put the time and effort into guerilla marketing or through interviews to force it.

C is for the cover: Think about how you pick books yourself, even online. This is a big deal. Murphy outlines seven principles of effective covers here. The cover should look professional and should look like it belongs on the shelf next to similar books, like it’s in the club. Spend money on this. It’s worth it; and there are thousands of talented folks who will do it inexpensively. If nothing else, get a pre-made cover customized.

G is for the genre: You can see this spelled out for you on Amazon book count listings by genre or in places like Bookbub where they show how many people have signed up for science fiction freebies versus general literature or romance freebies. Lesbian vampires will make sales happen for you. Mythic and philosophical musings on historical eras probably won’t. Just know going in what your audience looks like and where they feed.

R is for reviews: You need at least ten of these. They’re extremely difficult to get, even from people who read and loved your work. Probably the majority of the reviews online were paid for somehow or achieved through connections. Disheartening, but true. Giveaways done properly are the right way to make this happen; but it takes timing, good publicizing, and personal follow-through. Don’t waste any time or effort getting people to your sell page if there are no reviews there.

A is for awards: Awards by themselves are a bit unlikely to sell your work unless it’s one of the biggies. Snake oil salesmen are out in force trying to rape indie publishers with awards right now, so beware. However, awards will apparently push people who are on the fence over to the side where they spend money.

W is for word of mouth: Advertising can fall here, sure; but any way you can get people talking about you or the work will make it rain for you. Influential book blogs can help here. Being on even a local tv appearance can help. Generating buzz through charitable or newsworthy events can help. There are no end of strategies you can read about online of how to force this.  

So there you go. At least, that’s my take on it. Painful lessons. Good experience. Listen to people who screw up a lot. They know things.

 

Using A Wordcloud To Examine How You Write

Here’s a wordcloud on the full text of a book I wrote. I’ll tell you what it tells me in a minute. For now, just scan over that blob yourself and see if anything stands out for you. wordcloud

Anyway, a wordcloud (incase you’ve not run into one of these yet) counts how often words repeat in something and builds a picture like this – bigger words here repeat more often. The whole picture gives you a comparison of word choices.  You set a cutoff frequency count, so it isn’t every word in the document. Make sense?

In my day job, one thing I do is study and optimize how people communicate with each other. This sort of blob here calls me out on a few things I do that maybe I should be careful about, and maybe I should keep doing. Either way, there are insights into the word choices and emphases I made in the book. That’s a big deal if you’re a writer, to help you get better. Know what I mean yet? Let’s dig in, I’ll get to the meat of it.

Staring at me like the eye of Sauron (nerd reference!) is the word, ‘like’. I also know from my day job that the majority of us think and learn visually and that we absorb information quicker and more effectively when we can relate to it naturally. Parents get that point well without being told – tell a kid not to cross the street and they’ll bound away as fast as they can. Tell them a scary story about a kid named, Lulu who used to live down the street and looked just like them but crossed without waiting on the ‘walk’ sign and can’t get up from her chair anymore…no more problems with crossing the street. Is that wrong? Maybe. Effective? Try it yourself. When I’m building a scene as a writer, I probably use too much simile and metaphor, too much comparison, to burn my pictures into your head. It’s why that word is showing up as the biggest repeater. If I’m going to stick by my philosophy of emphasizing comparisons, I need to balance the word choice on that, not overuse it, and be careful not to mix one metaphor in the same paragraph with another. Good advice, right?

I notice in yellow the words, ‘just’ and ‘eyes’. Since I’m emphasizing the visuals, I do tend to describe facial expressions quite a bit. I want it to feel like a movie as you’re reading it. We process and can relate to human faces probably more than any other image. It’s why the words, ‘looked’ and ‘face’ are showing up in red as well. Because these are among my heavy hitters, I need to be careful not to overuse them. Honestly, I was shocked to see, ‘just’ there. I need to go digging on that one to see if it’s okay what I’m doing. My point here in this post isn’t that everything showing up as a high frequency word is a bad thing, just that it’s something to be aware of. Tells you where to go looking to see if it’s all right. Get me?

The two main characters are named, Misling and Ring. They’re showing up as heavy repeats as well, which makes sense. I would have thought Misling would have outpaced Ring, so that was a surprise to me. The storyline of the book is heavily influenced by events from a previous generation, so that’s possibly why you see, ‘old’ and ‘man’. When I saw the word, ‘back’ here, it made me curious. Apparently, in my zeal to make you see what I was writing, I spent some effort in describing ‘glances back’ and whatnot. Better watch that.

So that’s all I was going to suggest to you for this post, if you’re a guy that slings words for fun or cash. I would honestly never go back and edit something I’ve written because of something like this. It’s more like a personal growth thing for me to have yet another perspective on how I’m constructing things…to be aware of what I do so I can control it better.

I put this wordcloud together in R with the ‘tm’ and ‘wordcloud’ packages; but I believe you can do things like it easily with sites like, ‘wordle’. I’ve not used them myself. Give it a shot and see what your own cloud tells you. May surprise you!

 

‘Sun Of Suns’ by Karl Schroeder

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What do you REALLY ask of a book, anyway? Isn’t it true that if you can just get lost in some cool world, check out of this one for a while, maybe run into some chin-scratching ideas along the way, meet some fictional folks who you care about one way or the other – love or hate or whatever, then it’s all cool? Me too. Here’s one.

So I tried a different Schroeder book a while back (‘Lady Of Mazes’) and saw enough potential to try him again, though his style was bugging me. Seemed to ramble a bit. Don’t point at me, I’m the one typing here. This one was worlds better though. I’ll prove it – see what you think. It’s called, ‘Sun Of Suns’, by Karl Schroeder, first in his, ‘Virga’ series.

Virga is a massive fullerene balloon three thousand kilometers in diameter but filled with air. There are spherical lakes and massive chunks of floating rock – all aimless. The people living in Virga form and ignite their own little fusion suns for light and heat; but that leaves huge swathes of the atmosphere left in winter where there are no towns. There isn’t a single government or even a single planetoid where these folks live either – they’re on individual floating towns made from huge wood and rope wheels, spun for centripetal gravity. You can jump from one to the other if they’re close enough. You can fly from one to the other on hover bikes. It takes a few pages to get used to what he’s painting for you; but I haven’t come across such memorable imagery for a while. Would be amazing to see maybe in anime if not live action.

The story centers on a guy named, Hayden whose tiny town was slaughtered by a larger town six years ago when they tried to set off their own sun to gain independence. Hayden’s looking for revenge, targeting the Admiral who he’s almost certain (but not entirely certain) led the attack. He of course gets in the fireworks and intrigue of something larger with everyone he’s mad at, but also with a mysterious lady who is impossibly not even from Virga at all. The Admiral’s wife is beautiful but conniving and nasty; and Hayden tags along with her for a sizeable chunk of the narrative. She’s also the subject of the second book in the series, ‘Queen Of Candesce’.

When I was a kid in summertime, I’d ride my bike down our long driveway and around the yard imagining I was on a hover bike, stopping in at a floating maintenance shop and spying for somebody preparing for the revolution or whatever. This book had every bit of that, which smoked my mind a little because how the heck could something so weird in my head show up in print now? Schroeder did an ‘Inception’ on me. That was fun to see.

One scene in the book made my Physics mini-me flinch a bit; but he redeemed himself and nailed something down that is incredibly unique and worth the price of admission on its own. I don’t think it’s a spoiler; but you may think so. If you’re worried about that, skip the next paragraph and join me at the end. I’ll wait for you there.

The key characters pay a visit to a small town that has inserted itself into a massive spherical ball of water. They used a water-repellent cone the size of a freaking town and wedged it into the sphere, carving out a place where they constructed their buildings and hide away from all the intrigue and conflict within Virga. Flinch, read it, stick with where he’s going…incredible idea, maybe could work…wouldn’t want to live there…hope they don’t fire any guns at the walls.

My point is this then: great book! I read a lot of pulp science fiction from the 1930’s and 1940’s like ‘Brigands Of The Moon’ by Ray Cummings or ‘The Metal Monster’  or ‘The Ship Of Ishtar’ by Abraham Merritt. ‘Sun Of Suns’ has that feel of fun and danger and outlandish technology. Don’t look for deep philosophical musings or ominous quests or galactic battles here, you won’t find them. Read my first paragraph again up there…if those things make it happen for you, then give this book a shot. Let me know what you think.

Jack Kirby’s Genius Of Composition & What We Can Learn From Him

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So it’s a bit of a thing to people who particularly dig the history of comic books to credit either Jack Kirby or Stan Lee for some of the huge, transformative things that happened to Marvel in the sixties after the first Fantastic Four issue came out…but not both. A silly debate, because it was both of them with incredible chemistry and the beautiful, messy mix of amazing timing and talent that only happens a precious few times in any art form.

But I was watching this documentary about Jack Kirby that got me thinking about him in a different way than I ever had. If you don’t know who the guy is, you should google that right now or go to a place like here to see his style – you’ve seen it, maybe you just don’t know it. The guy’s American history and has influenced a majority of the guys illustrating comics today – it’s worth your time to know more about him.

The documentary I’m talking about is here:Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

What got me thinking was this: several of the artists they spoke to about Kirby said something I’d thought a lot when I was a kid – why does this Kirby guy keep getting work when he doesn’t know how to draw? Yet they kept going back to him because there was something there they found magnetic. The anatomy is wrong. The rules of perspective are twisted. Things don’t contort that way. It’s just all wrong. Yet the more they went back to him, the more influential he got to them. It soaked into their heads, like it did mine, because it was so different, because it broke the rules so irreverently, because it laid a new vocabulary of action and power and movement for an art form that was still trying to figure itself out. People needed to know how to say things graphically; and they needed to break out of some of the tried and tested methods because they were boring and tedious and based on a weird and forced application of old school comic strip doodling methods to prose stories. Instead, Jack Kirby was blasting fists out of the page and drawing gargantuan freaking alien ships or drawing guys who were just supposed to be sitting, but looked like they were about to rip the paper they were printed on apart. He put energy on the page and ignored what was going on everywhere else.

He worked from noon till early morning mostly, in a cramped basement with little space and crappy air conditioning, surrounded by science fiction pulps. When he was helping shatter and shape an entire industry for decades, that’s the kind of place where he was doing it. He’d reach behind him and grab a pulp, steal an idea and rejigger it till it was his, then charge it like a spring and draw it. Guys that watched him draw said he’d start at one corner and incredibly just make his way across to make it all work somehow, like it was all in his head to begin with.

  1. Kirby’s work ethic was inspiring. If I get bad news of some kind or if it’s a sunny day, or if I’m still stressed from work, I let a novel go for days without touching it. Like a little baby, whining. This guy jetted for half a day or more, never once missing a deadline, no matter how ridiculous it was.
  2. He paid attention to what other people were doing, sure, but set fire to it and crafted his own way of doing things that was entirely original, instantly recognizable as his and his alone, and didn’t let the things he knew technically get in the way of that. This advice is screaming at me.
  3. Just as an add-on, I always love to hear stories of guys who made the big time and weren’t too in love with themselves to bring folks into their world. Kirby and his wife, Roz made lunch for fans who made the trek to their little house – he’d show them around and even give them artwork. Actors now get a lot of credit for this kind of thing, when publicists really set them up.

Go look up some Kirby and remember what he managed to accomplish. If you think it’s wrong at first, pay closer attention and see if your opinion changes. He gets in your head, man. He gets in your head.

The Madman Of Oklahoma

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You’ve probably heard R.A. Lafferty quoted if you haven’t read him. I came across him first when Neil Gaiman said a particularly good line he’d used in his, ‘Sandman’ series was a Lafferty line. Maybe you recall it – the creepy witches called ‘The Kindly Ones’ said something like, ‘They can kill you; but we can kill you worse’. That’s actually a chapter title in Lafferty’s, ‘Fourth Mansions’. A rocking book, if you haven’t read it, about four secret societies vying to take control of the future of humanity. The reason you read it is not the plot, because you know…whatever…I can’t really say what’s going on; and I’ve read it twice. You read it because he drops these word-nuggets that sparkle. The title of the first chapter is, ‘I Think I Will Dismember The World With My Hands’. The ninth chapter is, ‘But I Eat Them Up, Federico, I Eat Them Up’. If you don’t love that kind of thing, then take a pass on the guy I guess; but you’re missing out. At least try, ‘Past Master’ because its plot is good too, there’s a great story, and there are more sparkling quotes for you.

Here are some quotes, see what you think:

  • ‘It looks like a good year for monsters’ – Fourth Mansions
  • ‘I’d like to be gentle to you with with a meat cleaver, Justin’ -The Emperor’s Shoestrings
  • ‘It is an awful and sickening thing to see a good man grow rich and respected.’ – The Underneath Man
  • ‘The first implement made by man was not a scraper or celt or stone knife, it was a crutch.’
  • ‘My magic can whip your magic; and my dog can whip your dog’ -All The Skies Are Full Of Fish
  • ‘Most of the trouble that comes to people in this world comes from reading the wrong books.’ -Try To Remember
  • ‘I have certain riddles to ask the woods and the mountain, and they do not speak when others are present’
  • ‘Which was first, you, or the belief in you?’ -Past Master

So back to what I view as his masterpiece, though everybody you talk to who digs this guy has a different view on that. For me, it’s, ‘Past Master’. A description from the interwebs:

‘Past Master is set in the year 2535 on the world of Astrobe, a utopian Earth colony that is hailed as Golden Astrobe, “mankind’s third chance”, after the decline of both the Old World and New World on Earth. Despite idealistic intentions, it is suffering moral and social decline that may be terminal for both Astrobe and the human race.

In an attempt to save their dying civilization, its leaders use time travel to fetch Sir Thomas More (chosen for his fine legal and moral sense) from shortly before his death in the year 1535 to be the president of Astrobe. More struggles with whether to approve of the Astrobian society, noting its possible connections to his own novel Utopia. His judgements soon lead him into conflict both with destructive cosmic forces on Astrobe and with its leaders who thought him a mere figurehead who could be manipulated.’

End quote. If you’ve ever read Harlan Ellison’s short story, ‘Repent, Harlequin Said The TickTock Man’, and loved it because the trickster guy in the story is thumbing his nose at the people who think they’re in charge, then this book may just work for you like it does me. Thomas More sticks it to the man, if you know what I mean. By the way, if you haven’t read Ellison’s story, what the crap, man!? Get that done, then come back. Sheesh, you’re lucky we found that out!

Lafferty, man. Go read this guy. He saved himself from alcohol through his writing; and he made the world a better place because of it. You owe him at least a look. Let me know what you think!

What Is The Deal With Filming Dune?

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I think of Frank Herbert’s, ‘Dune’ as the best science fiction novel ever written, and one of the finest pieces of fiction ever published. It’s that good; and so are the sequel, ‘Dune Messiah’ and to a lesser extent, the third book, ‘Children Of Dune’. Everything tapers off after that, so I’m not really talking about those now. I have many reasons for why I dig these so much:

  1. There’s a big, overarching religious context with the Bene Gesserit witches and the manufacturing of a messiah. I love the big, humming metaphysical overtones.
  2. Intrigue all over the place – everyone’s spying or betraying everyone else.
  3. Power plays and an uprising. Maybe it veers dangerously close to the white savior-style storyline where an outsider guy does native stuff better than natives; but there are great explanations for why. Loads better than the steaming turd that was, ‘Avatar’
  4. Freaking giant sandworms tearing up the desert and eating people.
  5. I’ll count the worms twice because they summon, hook and ride them!
  6. Spice-driven superpowers like telling the future, folding space, and whatnot
  7. Unlike almost anything this high-concept, I mean almost anything that tries to be this ambitious, there is nothing outright stupid and poorly thought-out. Even the idea of the giant worms living where there’s nothing big for them to eat was incredibly well structured with an ecology. Nothing stupid. All well-cooked. Guy was a genius.

With the glowing blue eyes on the Fremen, the worms, the battles, the technology, the intrigue, palaces, beautiful women, honor combat, exotic desert scenes, and massive space ships, the visuals and action are perfect for a grand, high budget, Hollywood treatment. So what keeps happening?

There was a piece of junk made with Sting and Kyle MacLachlan in 1984, which though many people still dig it, honestly doesn’t deserve their praise. Probably it’s nostalgia. I mean, I still like watching, ‘Jason Of Star Command’ and ‘Logan’s Run’; but that doesn’t mean they were good.

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This was after Alejandro Jodorowsky’s disastrous attempt at making a 12-hr LSD hallucination with Salvador Dali based on, ‘Dune’. He even started treating his son like a messiah in the making because he was so into it. No, seriously, you need to watch the documentary on this or at least the trailer. Alejandro is a genius, yes; but he’s a genius to be consulted by people not high on peyote and who can stick to a budget, not a genius you should hand anything over to.

dune2

So now I’m rewatching the almost-mess the SciFi channel (not SyFy back then) put together back in 2000 as a mini-series. I love the book so much, this is entirely watchable for me. I can ignore the ridiculous Peter Pan costume they put Stilgar in and the silly sailboat sails they have hanging off people’s backs, even the little diapers they make Paul wear in his knife fight. I can ignore the ludicrous mwa-ha-ha maniac laugh the Baron makes when he’s floating around in his gay bondage outfit. But my point is this – why should I have to?

I know, I know. Disney tried making an old-time classic (John Carter of Mars) into a high budget non-Star Wars movie and it sank like a rock and was a Hollywood punchline and career-killer for years. That probably means we’re out of luck for a long time on this.

Yet…

If modern audiences just want a little humor, plenty of action and spectacle, and to have fun with an interesting story, as Marvel’s successes would indicate, here’s my proposal; and if you’re a purist who loves, ‘Dune’ like I do, then don’t freak out:

  1. Make Duncan Idaho and Gurney Halleck into humorous Indiana Jones-style tough guys
  2. Put an interesting twist on the Baron to make him more likeable, the way Loki was handled in the Avengers
  3. Ground everything by de-emphasizing off-planet and spaceship stuff, focusing on Paul and Jessica’s trying to win over the Fremen
  4. Cool battle scenes, yes; but not with CGI and keep them fun by retaining occasional humor, the way the dwarf and elf banter in, ‘Fellowship Of The Ring’, for example.

Somebody write this and send it off to Hollywood. I’d totally watch it.

 

 

More Than Movies To Some Of Us

I was a geeky kid and alone often when I was growing up. I dug comics and science fiction, probably because Star Wars came out when I was six and my cousin had a million comics. Or maybe it was something else. Not sure how I got started; but I got started. One thing I was very consistent about was that DC comics – the ones with Superman, Batman, the Legion Of Superheroes and all those guys for the uninitiated, were boring to me; and I couldn’t relate to anyone in them. Marvel blew my mind. I would look for the Stan Lee box in the letters page and though I had no idea what, ‘Excelsior’ meant, it was awesome because he kept saying it. He could have said, ‘Baba ginouj’; and I’d have thought that was awesome too. Whatever. Guy was and is a genius of both marketing and mythmaking. I’ve at least made sure my kids have seen him a couple of times and heard him speak, so they crack up when he does all these cameos in the Marvel movies.

My point though, is this. The big stories we’re seeing in movies now that draw a billion bucks each time out, the ones drawing all the crowds, I read those stories the first time around. They were amazing on the page; and I felt just as excited back then sprawled under a pool table or up in a tree reading those on a summer day as a kid. I felt like Peter Parker was a buddy of mine, just a little older; and I absolutely rooted for him whether he was in the red and blue tights and swinging around buildings or getting crap from somebody at school because he was smart and quiet. He made sense to me. I remember being shocked that they’d actually let Bullseye kill Elektra, that Jean Grey was going crazy as Dark Phoenix, that all those X-Men were actually dying in, ‘Days Of Future Past’, and how awful and sad it was that Captain Marvel (the one that was a guy) had cancer like my grandmother did. One big thing I understood well was just how badly Peter Parker just really missed his uncle, and that, even though these were picture stories, Uncle Ben wasn’t coming back. Wow, you know? Those guys like Chris Claremont and Stan and Frank Miller made things that are timeless and powerful.

So my family makes fun of me when I see Captain America or some of these other guys up on the screen now and they’ve nailed the character so well. I watched, ‘Superman Returns’ and ‘Man Of Steel’ and thought they were awful. I’ve seen every X-Men movie; and they’re okay. I avoided, ‘Batman V. Superman’ because I’m just done with crappy adaptations that dodge the heart behind these stories and make slap-happy noise that looks like a video game. Somehow though, for whatever reason, the people at Marvel under Disney have managed (mostly) to make changes where it doesn’t matter at all and to keep the things that were so great. No joke, when I watched ‘Civil War’ with my wife and kids and Tony Stark was recruiting Peter Parker in Pete’s bedroom, pulling down the uniform, I was almost wiping away tears. That’s the Peter from when I was a kid! He was nervous and hiding his secret and smart and awed by being around the Avengers. They nailed it. Again. I don’t know who to credit for that; but they’re bringing back some old stories and some old friends that I hadn’t thought of in years and making me feel like I’m up in a tree on a July day with a comic book rolled up in my hand, munching on a fruit roll-up. Keep it up, guys!

Publishing Myths I Still Can’t Let Go

Yeah, I still have the dream of walking into a Barnes & Noble and seeing my name up on the shelf, with some of my sci-fi tribe standing around chatting it up. Awesome. Would be equally amazing to get an invite to Dragon-Con in Atlanta with a room full of cosplayers living out characters I dreamed up. My tribe again. Those guys are crazy. Anyway, that’s the sort of thing that prompts a guy like me to sit in his study or out on the lake and pound away on a keyboard, dreaming up outlandish tech-scapes and apocalyptic drama – or maybe more often chuckling at something I thought up for somebody in the story to say. The thing about reality though is it’s unforgiving and thrills at squashing the pictures you had in your head going into something like publishing. So here’s a few things I can’t turn loose, but probably need to:

3. Book reviews and big name author blurbs are reliable gauges of quality, and those guys are just out there waiting on you to publish so they can blanket bomb you with their verbiage. Book reviews and big name author blurbs are in fact, by majority, paid for or culled through big publishing house connections. They’re about as meaningful as the things people you didn’t like wrote in your high school yearbook. Trying to get real live people to log in to Amazon and enter a review is as fun and satisfying as passing a kidney stone. Yet you need them, so let the heavy work begin. Go to places like the following to send thoughtful, customized review requests of blogs in your genre. You should know though, if you’re one of those keyword and search engine geeks, the Amazon algorithms put a ton more weight on verified purchase reviews than they do other reviews.

http://www.allbooksreviewint.com/                                             http://melanierockett.com/directory-of-book-reviewers/ http://www.theindieview.com/indie-reviewers/

2. In order to get on the bookshelf at a big chain bookstore, you just have to have a great book and put the time in – pay your dues. It’s a process, open to everyone. Maybe that’s the case; but I’m not seeing it as worthwhile if you’re an indie publisher or self-publishing. Way too much effort and very low probably of success. Get yourself on Ingram if you like since so many of them order through that database. Get yourself a Kirkus or Midwest review, though you’ll pay through the nose for Kirkus (and may have to pay at Midwest). Look up the Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, and Hudson buyers online and submit if you like. The American Bookseller’s Association has an Indie Advance Access program where you can try and approach their small-store membership. Honestly, though, your time is better spent dropping this one for now, especially if it’s your first book or so, and churn up a decent on-line presence to drive people to your sales page on Amazon.

1. No reason I can’t just make the cover myself. I’m a smart guy. Give me a trial membership of Photoshop and get out of my way! Stop. Go back. Here be dragons. I spent days on this, learned the software, got my stock photography, even learned how to do lens flares J. J. Abrams would be proud of. I put that bad boy together and was overjoyed at how it looked. Family folks agreed at how amazing it was. A good time was had by all. Then I found out how hideous it looked as a thumbnail on ebook sites, how little impact it made when on the page with a bunch of other books, and just how many freaking rules of marketing and book cover best practices I broke with it. A savvy marketing guy named, Derek Murphy made a comment that stuck with me here – he said your book cover shouldn’t reflect a scene from the book because that’s worthless. It should just look like it belongs on the shelf next to books similar to it. That’s important.

So I’m done with this train of thought. Good luck to you if this is the road you’re headed down. Let me know if I can help!