Thursday, May 30, 2013

Death of A Titan

I think I’m officially giving up on The Count of Monte Cristo.

I remember reading this book in high school, and smirking because some idiot in class didn’t read the book and wrote a report about how this guy Edmond really loved his Mercedes and got really mad when his competitor took his beloved automobile away.

Moron obviously skimmed the book. Got a few names and the fact there was a bit of a love triangle there.

But you know what? I don’t blame that kid. Not now. This book is meandering, plodding – and a snorefest. Edmond Dantes may be a cold-blooded revenge plotter, but right now he’s so mired in integrating himself into Parisian society and meddling in the affairs of people ancillary to those on whom he wants revenge, I’m ready to scream.

Yes, it’s a classic. Yes, it has survived the test of time. And yes, the version I’m reading – the one most of us read – is less than one third the length of the originally-published version, which is just chock full of even more boring stuff about the Napoleonic Wars.

Just because a book is a classic doesn’t mean I have to finish reading it. I’ve given it a good college try.


The story, of course, has always bugged me. Edmond Dantes could have used the knowledge and fortune given to him by the Abbe for good – but instead uses it to exact a nasty revenge. Mister Magoo does a better job with the knowledge he gains.


No matter. I’m done reading it.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Traditional Publishers, Tremble Before the Foresight of Amazon

A few Christmases back, I got the 30th Anniversary edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, one of my favorite films.

Though it was made in the era before swarms of camera-toting morons followed the film’s every behind-the-scenes move, the film came with a good selection of extras to help fill the empty void in my otherwise dull life.

With one glaring exception: No copy of Closet Cases of the Nerd Kind.



This is old-school fan fiction of the lovable sort. And should have had a place on any anniversary or collector’s edition of the satirized film.

Amazon gets that, and is about to do something that ought to make traditional publishers tremble: It’s going to provide a place where fan fiction can be published and monetized, both for the original author and the fan boy or girl.

In other words, Amazon is going to monetize that fan-artist connection in ways that traditional publishers from the closeted avenues of New York to the Motion Picture Association of America have never done – and they’re going to laugh about it all the way to the bank.

Behold Kindle Worlds. In the words of Daniel Etherington from TechCruch:

[Kindle] Worlds joins Kindle Singles and Kindle Serials as a way for authors to earn money from digital publishing, and the best part is that in this case you don’t even have to be all that creative – the idea is to let fans create stories around original properties from other authors, offering them up for purchase on the Kindle book store. Amazon then pays out royalties to both the original rights holder, as well as to the fan fiction author, with the author making around 35 percent of all net revenue for works over 10,000 words.

Here’s Amazon’s press release.

Fan fiction has long been  a phenomenon, one I became aware of as the nascent web brought together fans of Robert C. O’Brien’s “Mrs. Brisby and the Rats of NIMH.” Shortly after I established a NIMH website on servers belonging to the Univeristy of Idaho, a network of O’Brien (and Don Bluth fans, creator of the film based on the book) emerged. I fell into a world of fan art and fan fiction (most of it crappy, yes, but some of it good; some of it far better than the NIMH sequels penned by O’ Brien’s daughter, Jane Leslie Conly. I’m sure the thought of getting paid to produce fan fiction – written within rules set by the original authors, as Amazon outlines, would have made these rabid NIMH fans drool.

And it should make traditional publishers shake in their boots.

Why not feed the fan base and make money off what they produce? That’s quite the opposite of what most approaches have been to fan fiction – the inevitable cease and desist letter. This is going to be powerful mojo for any authors lucky enough to produce a universe that spawns imitation, and has the potential to be big bucks for Amazon. Capitalizing on a loyal audience, that makes good business and creative sense.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Misspelled Incorrectly


I don't know what makes my head hurt more: The thought that someone thinks you can misspell words incorrectly, or that someone else tried to defend it.

Monday, May 20, 2013

How much for an ISBN?

Dear Representative Simpson,

Mine is not an earth-shattering question. There are certainly more pressing issues confronting this country. But it's still a question I'd like an answer to:

Why do ISBNs cost co much?



That's short for International Standard Book Number, the 13-digit, unique number assigned to every book published in the world. It's used for book cataloging and merchandising purposes, giving each book a unique identifier that can be used to track it wherever it goes or wherever it's sold.

For all intents and purposes, if you publish a book, you want an ISBN. Even in the world of self-publishing, they're important for distribution. Want your book sold at Amazon or through Apple? One of the first questions they ask is what is your ISBN.

So my question: Why do ISBNs cost so much?

There is one place in the United States -- one place -- where ISBNs can be obtained. To buy one number costs $125. And it makes sense for an author to have at least five ISBNs per book -- because if you want to publish a physical book, you need an ISBN (one for hardback, one for soft cover) and if you want to publish ebooks, it's one ISBN per format. That adds up quickly, even when you can get bulk rates for blocks of ten, one hundred, and one thousand ISBNs. (One thousand, by the way, costs $1,000 -- or one per number. So why charge $125 for the first one?)

The publishing world is seeing a paradigm shift, as traditional publishers no longer mono0polize the publishing world. Self-publishing is now a viable option for most anyone with only a little bit of computer savvy and the right story to tell. Yet the cost of ISBNs feels like a hurdle. Buying ten ISBNs will cost an author $25 per number. I know this seems silly to complain about -- certainly self-publishing removes so many hurdles for the individual publisher that paying a fee for a number that will help the book be featured in the best online catalogs and stores is a small price to pay.

I just don't know why it can't be smaller.

Are these number made of rare earth elements? Or is this just bureaucracy, inflating prices because, surprise, there's no competition for such numbers.

The pricing doesn't make sense. Numbers aren't rare. Of course, I've never understood why web domains have to cost so much either. Nor why people could parade into Indian territory, declare they own the land, and then sell it as if they'd created the Earth in six days themselves. No matter.

Ebooks are going for cheap, especially for new authors. Even a 99 cent ebook is stretching it for some, though the price point commitment of at least 99 cents but preferably $2.99 per book is what's being recommended all over the place. So the number of books to be sold to recoup the cost varies, but isn't insurmountable. I get the arguments.

Certainly this is a complicated issue. I'm certain there are a lot of ins and outs and international implications that make issuing ISBNs a complicated process that costs money. But still, there's got to be some padding going on here. What can I, as a citizen, do to affect a reduction in ISBN prices? Or am I just stuck?

I jokingly suggested to a fellow unpublished author that we buy a block of 100, or a thousand, and start our own press. Maybe that's not as farfetched an idea as it sounds. Every business has to start with some kind of investment.

So I guess the real question is why do they cost so much? Because complaining probably won't suddenlly cause the distributor to set them at gumball machine prices.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Ebooks: Still the Way to Go

If I needed any more convincing that ebooks are the way to go for the books I’ve written, the newest BookStats report is it.

Though I’m too cheap to buy the full report (and why charge for such a thing anyway?) there’s enough detail provided in the New York Times to show that ebook publishing is gaining and not going to disappear any time fast.

Fiction ebook sales rose 42 percent to $1.8 billion from 2011 to 2012, whicl non-fiction ebook sales grew 22 percent, to $484.2 million. Books for children and young adults (my niche thusfar) increased a startling 117 percent, to $469.2 million.

Ebooks now account for 20 percent of traditional publishers’ revenue, up from 15 percent in 2011.

But what about independent authors – how fare they in ebook sales, without the aid of a publishers’ marketing clout and their own authorial name recognition? Those numbers appear harder to find.

Nathan Bransford, however, believes there is no “ebookbubble” and that authors getting into publishing would be foolish to ignore the advantages ebooks offer, especially to new authors.

David Gaughran is also bullish on ebooks (and he’s apparently got a new book out on getting your ebooks more visible to the raving audiences; maybe that’s what I’ll spend my freshly-minted Amazon coins on).

Given the splintered nature of independent authoring and sales, it’s not hard to figure out why the numbers are more difficult to come by. But you’d think someone would be tracking this. If you know of any good, recent studies, sound off in the comments.

Finding lots of good advice for ebook publishing, though. Such as this advice from Robert Niles, a former Online Journalism Review editor and author.

Here’s the gold:
Unfortunately on Apple, you need to stay on those category bestseller lists to keep moving product. Apple lacks the recommendation features readers find on Amazon, meaning that once you drop off the bestseller lists, there’s no easy way to browse to your book any longer. So, yep, even though I still link to Apple, sales have dropped to just a few copies a week now.
So, as an independent eBook publisher, I say, thank goodness for Amazon. With Amazon’s recommendation engine pushing my title to readers of books similar to mine, sales of my book on Amazon have remained healthy four months after it debuted. And Amazon offers bestseller lists in many different subcategories that drill down much deeper than “Travel,” allowing would-be customers to browse to my book even after it has dropped down the main Travel bestseller list. Amazon mixes eBooks and print books in category bestseller lists, too, exposing my book to readers who don’t think to look exclusively for eBooks, too. That gives it a sales edge over Apple, which sells only eBooks.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

No Soup for You

So what this map tells me that if I’d been alive and aware of politics in the mid-1950s, my chances of meeting tourists or officials from the Soviet Union visiting the United States would have been nil in my home town.

Idaho Falls lies in the southwest corner of the vast swath of planet forbidden that stretches from the Wyoming border to the Seattle area.

I’m not surprised. Nor am I surprised by bans on travel in much of Washington state, southern Nevada, central Colorado, a big hunk of Texas, the area around Savanna, Georgia, central Tennessee and most of North and South Dakota (which I’ve visited and I can attest the Soviets wouldn’t have missed much). The areas listed here are either connected with nuclear weapons production, nuclear research, or nuclear weapon launch sites. Nor, considering the Soviet proclivity for industrial espionage, is it surprising to see the industrial heartland of the country off-limits.

You’d think, though, that with a map like this, those Soviet spies would be dying to go to those forbidden places.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Chapter Thirty-Six: Twaddle

Chapter Thirty-Six: Twaddle

The voles were in the garden, eating slugs. The crows' duck joined them, waddling through the jungle of tomato plants, seeking the succulents seeking to eat the reddening fruit.

Marmots have moved their truck, one said, chewing.

So I hear, said another.

Still, they're here to weed.

Yes, yes.

If slugs could scream, they would be screaming. The slaughter was immense.

And Jarrod? Who sees him lately?

Mainly the crows, a vole said. Since he's back from the canyon, they've kept a close bead on him. I seen him once. Thin, frail-like. Don't imagine whatever went on in the canyon helped him.

He's always been thin, said another.

It's a cruel world, said a vole to no one in particular. That wee creatures like us should use our energy so inefficiently, while the big beasties get long with their bulk with less.

Keep eating, a vole said. Keep eating. There are plenty of slugs to go around.

Yes, there is that. It's like a perfect world.

Like heaven.

There was a general pause in chewing.

There's that word again, a vole said. I heard Jarrod using it a few nights ago, talking to the crows in the beeches. They didn't know I was there, but there I was. And they were making no effort to be quiet in their speech, so it's no fault of mine I heard what they had to say. And I tell you, yon Jarrod is not as frail as many of you think. I think whatever happened in the canyon shocked him a mite, but in a good way. His eyes are clear. Clearest I've ever seen them.

Then there's the light.

Chewing slowly recommenced.

Yes, the light. You've seen it as well?

How could you not see it? Even Blind Mole has seen it. Or at least felt it. Jarrod exudes light. He's always had those iridescent feathers, mind, but now, they glow in the moonlight. He's well again. He's full again. Whatever it was that ailed him, it has healed.

I heard there are beavers again in the canyon.

Again, the chewing ceased.

Oh lord. Will there be another flood, do you think?

You've hit the crux there, sister.

Quiet in the garden.

There's this thing called a chiasmus, a vole said. It's like a story told in a circle. Something happens, and then something else, events trickling on like water. But this water flows in and on and around itself, flowing over the same rocks, carving the same bars, caressing the same fish. As the story goes on it winds in on itself, telling itself in reverse until, at the end, you're back at the beginning.

Jarrod has completed his chiasmus. Thence the glow.

How do you know so much?

My gran was a good one for storytelling, and loved telling the stories in round. Mostly, they were of the voles growing, growing strong, entering starvation or predation, then weakening. And then growing strong again. But with characters to guide you along the way and to point out the morals with their claws.

And if your gran told a story of Jarrod?

The vole sighed. She would tell a story of a Holstein pheasant who will no longer cringe when we mention the beavers.

A long, thoughtful, chewing-filled pause.

Is that what they mean by heaven?

No, a vole said. Heaven is something else.

But it were close enough to heaven, said another, that Jarrod acts as if he's just returned from there.

So when are things going to happen? a slug asked.

Soon, the vole said. And pounced.

Seven Years

Come the end of the month, I’ll have worked at the Radioactive Waste Management Complex and the Idaho National Laboratory for seven years.

I know that, in the long run, that’s not a lot of time. But it is a pretty significant bit of time for me. It’s the longest I’ve ever held a job – and I’ve had a few in my shady career of employment. I’ve never enjoyed a job more, which is even more significant.

This job has enabled us to do quite a bit. It helped us pay for two masters degrees which led me into a part-time job teaching at Brigham Young University-Idaho, which isn’t all that bad of a thing either. It’s helped us pay for a bigger house (but not too big) and the furnace and soon the air conditioning to make it comfortable. It’s helped us provide for three kids, and to have enough to put aside for retirement, and to help out a few others. It’s been a tremendous blessing.

I hope and pray that in another seven years, I’ll still be working here. I like it that much.

As significantly, it’s given me a different frame of reference for life. It’s helped me see that if I want to write novels, I have to sit down and write them, not just sit and wait for the novels to come to me. I’m not published yet, but in the last seven years, I’ve written three novels – practice for when the real one is ready to come out. That’s due a lot in part to the fact that at work I’m doing a different kind of writing than I was doing in journalism, and there’s enough of a gap between the two types that I don’t feel like I’m working when I’m writing a novel. That’s a significant thing.

So what will the future hold?

Still pondering a PhD, though it’s looking less likely that I’ll be able to do the technical communication doctorate at USU. Part of that is because we’d have to move to Logan. I did find out that I’d get tuition waivers and, in teaching classes there, get paid. But I don’t know how much – I’m still investigating – and we’re not sure we want to leave Ammon for Logan, nice as Logan is. That would be a big step – with big rewards at the end to be sure, but I have to measure those rewards compared to what the rewards could be if I continue on the course I’m on now, or if I choose another course (pursuing a different bachelors or an additional masters is not entirely out of the question). Maybe something in computer programming, though I have to wonder if that’s more insane than taking the family to Logan.

More to follow.

ANOTHER Gorilla!




This may not be the smartest video to use to illustrate this story, as, on the surface, it could be misinterpreted that I’m a racist scumbag. I hope my writing proves otherwise.

An interesting bit of news today coming out of Slate.com (that aggregator in disguise), National Public Radio, and a few local Cleveland, Ohio, news outlets: The much-celebrated Charles Ramsey, hailed in the news and on the Internet as the hero who freed three women held captive by a neighbor for nearly a decade isn’t the only hero in the picture.

In fact, he wasn’t even the first on the scene.

His wasn’t the home from where Amanda Berry made her now-famous 911 call.

But no one here is shouting “First!” least of all Angel Cordero, who was first on the scene and working on the door when Amanda Berry first started screaming; neither is Wentel Tejeda, from whose home Berry made the call. Both say they just did what had to be done (as did Ramsey, of course) to rescue the three women and the small girl held captive in their neighborhood for so long.

So why is Charles Ramsey getting all the notoriety? And why are we all being called racist for “enjoying” his “hilarious” video interviews? (Now, some of the memeification of Ramsey is clearly racist. But that’s not what I’m talking about.)

It’s because the media is racist(!)

That is, of course, click bait. Because the media really isn’t racist. Not really. Not really, really racist. They just happened to focus on the rescuer who spoke English, so maybe it’s more fair to say it’s because the media is monolingual.

Codero and Tejeda are Hispanic. Both offered interviews to local Cleveland news outlets (and others now that the Buzz! and the Wham! of the rescue and Rasmification of it all is fading) in Spanish. Both Codero and Tejeda were less colorful in their language, even if they spoke in one the reporters didn’t quite understand.

So it’s not because the media is racist. They’re just monolingual, and, let’s face it – I was once a media as well so I know very well what I’m talking about here – they’re also just lazy.

Ramsey is a hero. Absolutely no question. He helped break those ladies out of their hell. And he’s colorful – not in skin, but in language. Get any red-blooded reporter in a room with the likes of Charles Ramsey and more timid, less English-able folks like Codero and Tejeda, and the media is naturally going to gravitate toward Ramsey because he’s there with the Boffo that every story needs, even a story where four people set free from captivity doesn’t carry enough Boffo of its own.

So is it a wonder that the video of Ramsey is the one making the Internet rounds – it’s the one the media shoved into our faces. It’s the colorful one. It’s the one that makes a spectacular news event entertaining and, well, entertaining, because once again the rescue of these ladies isn’t enough.

Aldous Huxley knows what I’m talking about.

Bill Hall, who used to write opinion for the Lewiston Morning Tribune, once penned a column in which he kind of laughed at the media tendency to focus on the gorilla in the room – literally. He attended an environmental rally at which someone wore a gorilla costume. So the costumed person is the one who was photographed and put into the newspapers regionally. Because he was more colorful than your typical, run-of-the-mill tree-hugger, which, considering this is North Idaho, is saying something.

The media will focus on the color every time.

Recently, some friends of ours in Sugar City got involved in a fundraiser for a sick kid. One wing of the fundraiser put together a benefit auction and dinner for the kid. The other wing put together a motorcycle rally – because the kid really likes motorcycles – and made him the grand marshal. Guess which wing of the event got the most coverage on the news? And guess which event leader got bent out of shape because her event didn’t get equal coverage?

Once again, it’s the Gorilla Question.

So yeah. There were more gorillas in the room, so to speak, in Ohio. The media simply chose, as they raced to be first and to meet those deadlines, to present to us the one with pretty white girls running into his arms and the McDonalds bag in his lap.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Backcountry Tablet


I confess I have taken my Kindle Fire hiking.

Probably a stupid thing to do, carry an expensive device over lava fields, leaping over cracks in the earth; or up dusty trails, through woods, or out on the riverbanks. One drop and it’s all over, pal.

Besides, its utility in the backcountry has always been a bit limited. I have a full survival manual on my Kindle, but the topographical maps are always dependent on an always-on Internet connection (yes, I have a free app, but I understand the paid apps work on the same stupid, stupid principle).

So when I read TechCrunch’s article on Earl, the Android tablet “that wants to be your backcountry buddy,” I was intrigued. And at $279 a pop (if it ever gets out of development stage) I’d seriously consider buying one.

Here’s why it’s neat: It incorporates technology that other tablets should have already – the ability to pick up AM and even FM radio signals, the ability to function as a two-way radio without a blinking Internet connection, and a few others, including a solar panel for recharging and a robust anti-dust and anti-water chassis. (While the solar thing is cool, I have to wonder about costs in getting this beast repaired with the addition of a panel. Also, I have a portable solar panel that might work to charge my current stable of tablets. I’ll have to look at that more closely.)

TechCrunch is a little hazy on the details. I wonder if this works on the ham radio frequencies and thus would require the operator to get a license (not that big of a deal).

So as always, I go to the source, where I can meet Earl in person. They tell me this works on FRS/GMRS systems, as well as MURS – making it a pretty versatile device that would generally not require a license to operate. (Some GMRS channels required FCC licensing.) Pretty cool.

The guide part looks a little looser – if you want an always-there topo map, guides, or whatever, you’ll have to pay for them. But then again, having them all in one neat little package might make the extra cost worth it.

Tablet technology being what it is, though, Kindle and company could catch up (or may have this kind of thing already; I’m really rather ignorant of what apps are available). And the Earl has no camera, which is another reason to enjoy carrying my Fire around (cuts down on the baggage, see).

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Popping that Paradigm Clutch




I do not use Adobe’s Creative Suite software – but my wife does. Heavily, At least InDesign, with a desire there in the future to possibly dabble in Photoshop. We have, I think, CS5, and it seems to work well (again, I don’t know; I don’t use the thing).

So it remains to be seen if Adobe’s announcement that they’re going from software as product to software as service by making future iterations of their programs available only through their cloud service will have a profound effect on us. But the seemingly unstoppable move to cloud computing services requiring always-on internet connections is going to have an effect on us whether we like it or not.

That popping sound you hear is a bunch of paradigms shifting without a clutch.

I’m not sure this is all bad. I suppose as long as the service works as advertised – and the always on connection is already a reality at our house, so no problems there – and as long as the cost point isn’t prohibitive (it appears they’ll let owners of CS 3 through 6 use the cloud service for $10 a month for the first year) this could be a good thing, a thing perhaps taken for granted in another five or ten years.

There could be distinct advantages. If they can figure out how to run the applications on their servers rather than our home computers, maybe we won’t have lag time. Or, well, possible lag time of a different sort, I suppose, as computer processing speeds are replaced as the bottleneck by internet speeds and bandwidth use.

It seems like something you’d want to fight against. But I remember fighting against the ungodly trend of PCs without floppy drives. Now, I have to wonder, why were floppy drives so great? A memory stick is a heck of a lot easier, and capable of storing a heck of a lot more information.

Then there’s this position: We don’t see paradigms shifting a whole heck of a lot from software iteration to iteration. The software doesn’t change much, version to version. There are tweaks, but no enormous kabooms. Unless you talk operating systems. Our current Adobe products won’t work with Windows 8, for some unfathomable reason. So my wife is holding off upgrading her two Windows 7 computers for that very reason. No great loss, because Windows 8 is not a paradigm shift either. But when the hardware wears out, we have to make the shift. Though I confess our XP-only internet router doesn’t seem to notice that it’s running on a Windows 7 machine. So maybe things aren’t all that bad.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Pareidolia

NOTE: A Writing example for my students.

There’s a name for it – pareidolia.

We’ve all experienced it. Pareidolia is that odd phenomenon that makes you see faces in inanimate objects: The image of the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast, that eerie face of a man staring back at you from the surfaceof Mars.
Then there’s the name for the other thing – joint and crack sealing.

We’ve all seen it. Drive down any street in the United States, you’ll see those odd little lines of black, crisscrossing the pavement. Slow down and you’ll see it’s some kind of gooey tar set into the cracks, sealing them up so water doesn’t seep into the road surface to cause potholes.
There is beauty in joint crack sealing. Even as an adult, if I’m walking along a road with many sealed joints and cracks, I’m compelled to tread only once on that bit of pavement surrounded by those flatblack lines. Tread twice on the same bit of pavement, I fear, and it will open up beneath me and I will fall, fall, fall into the lava below.
Childish? Yes.
There’s more.
In front of my house, an eye. A rather alluring, sensuously-lashed female eye, winking and blinking at me as I stare at it from the upstairs window. As I stare at it through the windshield of my truck. Staring at me unblinking through the rain, through the snow, as bits of tumbleweed and McDonalds bags blow over it in Idaho’s constant winds.
I know it’s just cracks in the pavement.
But it’s an eye. Sometimes sensuous. Sometimes Sauron, its burning glare penetrating the flimsy vinyl siding and the wood and plaster and paint that make up the walls of my house.
 
Pareidolia. A constant companion since childhood. That might explain the pig-nosed-shaped rock collection. That might explain why I see faces in clouds, in tree bark, in flowers freshly bloomed and wilting and curling to brown. I see faces in the wrinkles on my wrists and in the swirls of plaster on the ceiling. Oh, as a child: Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner chased each other endlessly on my plastered ceiling. On the ceiling of our home in Sugar City, the Easter Bunny hiding from a crocodile and a duck. And, oh, on the ceiling of our home in Ammon: A massive, swirling black hole that threatens to suck me in when I’m sick.
Yes, it’s a little weird. Explaining it is difficult. I think the Aspergers syndrome my son has came from me, because, like him, I obsess about things. It’s weird, I tell you, to go everywhere and everywhere to see faces, faces staring back. Faces looking at me from faces where no one else sees faces.
Cars, on some days, are bad. Worst are the 1960s Volkswagen bugs, with their leering bumper lips and bugged-out headlight eyes. I owned a 1976 Chevy Nova I could not approach from the front, with its leering buck-toothed grille and chrome-trimmed eyes, baring teeth at me in a cockeyed fashion, because the chrome trim around one headlight was missing.
It’s not all bad. Because many of the faces are smiling at me. Flowers are generally friendly, as are the clouds – even storm clouds bear with them happy faces that promise rain and thunder and lightning and the smell of sage brush blown in off the desert.
Some are amusing – my wife was cutting an onion for dinner today, and, inside it, two weeping eyes and a mouth contorted in compassion for her as the onion juices made her cry.
But it’s unnerving. Because they’re always there. I think I’m done now. Because, from the garbage can, a wad of masking tape is peeping at me.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Wikipedia Novels

NOTE: I’m trying not to get into the habit of critiquing childrens’ novels, so watch me as I struggle to turn this post into a discussion on writing in general.


It took me a little while to figure out what it was about Jean George’s “Frightful’s Mountain” that bugged me so much, but I think I nailed it down to this: This book is a Wikipedia entry on peregrine falcons and falcon migration extended into a novel, not necessarily a novel itself. 

Oh, it’s a good read-and-learn, don’t get me wrong. It’s much more entertaining than reading Wikipedia. But it’s a rather boring novel. None of the characters, including Frightful herself, a young peregrine falcon to whom we are introduced through the eyes of Sam Gribley in George’s “My Side of the Mountain,” are all that interesting from a writer’s point of view. You have many stock, cardboard characters: The stoic fish and game warden, the bird-stealing bandits, the construction workers going na-na-na when they’re told about their environmental evils, the construction workers who sympathize with the bland city kids hoping to effect change and the bird herself, doing what birds do in, well, Wikipedia articles. 

George does this, and painfully so – particularly during the migration sequence. The science is clear, but the feeling, well, George basically throws up her hands as if to say, “I don’t know what’s going on inside the bird’s head, so I’m not really going to try to explain it to you.” That’s great scientific writing, but poor technique when it comes to novelizing. 

Maybe it’s George’s intent to avoid anthropomorphism, which I understand and applaud. But in doing so, George goes too far in the opposite direction, robbing this bird of only the barest personality traits which anyone who has long association with animals know are present in animals in spades, whether we regard such traits as anthropomorphic or not. It is interesting to note that at least one Amazon review of the book (one of the one-star reviews, obviously) criticizes George for humanizing Frightful too much. I just don’t see it.

Other writers – notably Felix Salten, Sterling North, and others – have shown authors can be true to accurate portrayal of animal behavior in a way that is warm, endearing, and worthy of empathy, while still sticking to the facts and proceeding without over-anthropomorphizing. It all comes down again and again to how the author chooses to tell his or her story. And I guarantee Salten and North have done more with their storytelling to rapproach the worlds of man and beast than many other authors with a more scientific bent have accomplished. 

This is good stuff for me to figure out, because it’s my dream to write a great animal tale. There are many roads to take when writing such a story and knowing I’m on a branch of that road that I like will take me a lot further in accomplishing my goal than sticking to the Wikipedia facts, essential as they are. 

That it’s good stuff doesn’t mean I’m not going to break my own guidelines. I tend to favor stories that lean towards anthropomorphism simply because such writing captivated me as a child and still captivates me as an adult as I read and re-read the stories of my youth. The success of such titles shows me there’s a great hunger in the world for such storytelling, so I will maintain my presence on that side of the road. 

Those who say they don’t like anthropomorphism confuse me. Anthropomorphism, despite the criticisms, has its place. Such a technique is a stellar way for an author to help get his or her characters into the readers’ heads – just as assigning animalistic qualities to humans (zoomorphism) does the same, as long as the writer uses either technique as an element of the entire story, not simply for the element itself. Again, it all comes down to a writer’s choices and readers’ preferences.