Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Carnival

NOTE: A little something from a dream I had last night. Anyone out there a Photoshop artist who can do me a cross between a cruise ship and a large hotel, flying through the sky?

They come into the small towns and cities like a carnival. A carnival from the sky. First, the helicopters, gay in their red white and blue livery. Then, the floating buildings. Half hotel, half cruise ship, right down to the lifeboats and the balconies and the walkways where the people in their finery stand and gawp and watch and wave to the peasantry below. They try to land at the highest point where there are crowds of people, so they can be seen from a far way off.

The children emerge from the caves and from the woods to watch, pointing to the sky, laughing. Screaming in joy at the spectacle and at the jolly music pouring from the floating boats and to grab the candy the occupants toss from the balconies.

Then they disembark in their finery: the women in laces and white cotton, bright ribbons, flowered hats, painted eyes and straight teeth. The men in their bowlers, shiny shoes, white shirts and black suit coats with the rounded collars. They march forth as if on holiday, spinning umbrellas idly in the air, or draping them demurely over their forearms. Small men with tallow skin. Enormous men with huge hands clamped around their umbrellas. Tall, slender women with dark hair and dark eyes. And every one with a smile.

And the children. Dressed as miniature adults. And all of them staggering. You notice the children in the crowds, struggling to hold their balance as if they were babies learning to walk all over again, their heads too pendulous. When they stop and stand, it’s a battle not to fall over with them as they wobble and right themselves, only to wobble again.

They set up the tents, They play the music. And those who go into the tents, well, they hear that high pitched whine and they see that flash of light that seems to push right through them.

Then they aren’t themselves any more, and their children get the staggers.

I have seen that flash of light. I have felt it push right through me. I have felt the light push my soul out through my back. I have heard that hum.

But I came back, I do not remember how.

I will never go into the tents again.

There are many who don’t. But the carnival always finds them. They are allowed to flee – the secret of the tents is that you have to go inside willingly or the buzz and the flash don’t work – but they always find you. They always try again, with lace and cake and lemonade and persuasion, to get you to enter the tents again. And every time we flee, we flee further into the wilderness where there is less shelter, less to eat, and, for many, less to be. Those who fought the good fight eventually enter the tents willingly, if only to end the escape into the nothing they hoped to avoid by looking into the buzzing light.
“Have you seen Stovall?”

“No,” the woman answered. “Saw his wife at the market yesterday. And their kids.”

“On their feet?”

“Yes,” she said.

“That’s good. I’m worried about Stovall. I think he’s ready to go. We can’t lose him. Finest carpenter we’ve got.”

“His apprentice isn’t ready,” the woman asked.

“He’s been there a while, but apparently he’s a slow learner. You’re sure he’s ready to go?”

I swallowed a bit of bread. “You saw him, last time the carnival came through. Out there, running with the children. Eating the candy.”

“He’s young at heart. And he was keeping an eye on them. So they wouldn’t go into the tents when they got set up. It was his turn, his job,” she said.

“Maybe,” I said. “But I’m still worried. I can see him in a bowler hat.”

I left the cave, walked past the pavilion Stovall’s apprentice and helpers were still working on, weeks after it was supposed to be finished. We’re tired of the damp of the cave, the dark. The bats. I had to find Stovall.

I walked down to the creek and followed it downstream, passing the dams the beavers and the children had built. Fine dams, whether built by man or beast, holding back the creek’s bubbling water in a chain of tiny ponds, like pearls reflecting the white of the clouds or the blue of the sky. Further downstream, I could hear children laughing and shrieking; occasionally a loud thunk as someone threw a rock in the water.


Stovall again with the children. He, throwing the rocks.

“Stovall,” I said. He looked. He offered a sheepish grin, then threw another rock into the water.
“You should be at the pavilion,” I said. “Your apprentice can’t keep the work going.”

“Oh, he does well enough,” Stovall said, bending over to pick up another rock. The children searched for smaller rocks to throw into the water. He tossed his rock which entered the water with a thump and left a muddy stain on the clear surface. “There’s not much more I can teach him.”

“You could teach him to use a hammer correctly, for one,” I said. “He hits the wood or his fingers far more than the nails.”

“Practice is all he needs. Besides,” he said with a sigh, “the carnival is on the way.”

I stared at him, at his gormless face, as the children threw more rocks into the pond.

“Stovall,” I said. “Come with me.”

He came meekly enough. “Joshua, mind the small ones don’t fall in the water,” he said.

We walked further along the creek, in silence. The rustle of wind through the leaves was soon drowned out by the roar of water tumbling over the falls.

“How long has it been?”

“Six years now,” he said.

“You miss her?”

“Wouldn’t you?”

We continued walking, our footfalls leaving puffs of dust on the path.

“I suppose I would. But after my own fashion.”

“Like she were dead.”

“Yes, I said. As if she were dead. It’s easier that way. Or so I understand.”

“Childlike, she is,” Stovall said. “Always childlike. That’s what attracted us in the beginning, I think. Each of us in a grown-up body, but each of us content to walk for hours tossing pebbles in the creek, or in the woods, or wherever we could walk and laugh and find mischief.”

“Six years,” he said again.

“I saw her at the carnival last year,” he said.

“I know.”

Stovall sat on a rock, staring out over the falls.

“She loved to play her little jokes,” he said. “Once we stopped at a rest area so I could go to the bathroom. Middle of the dark night. When I came back to the car she handed me a bit of paper and asked if I’d throw it in a garbage can for her. What I didn’t know is she’d seen a cat jump into the garbage can. When I threw her bit of paper in, it popped right back out, followed by the cat. Took a half hour for my heart to start beating again.”

Silence but for the roaring of the water.

“She loved to come here,” he said. She loved to hear the water. Will she come again this year, do you think?”

He threw a branch into the water, watched it twist and tumble and fall into the foam.

I ran from behind him, pushed him off the rock. He fell into the water with a thunk, just like the rocks he’d thrown for the children.

He didn’t struggle, but fell over the falls into the canyon far below.

And in the sky, the sound of helicopters, the thin whine of an approaching calliope.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities

The father shall not be put to death for the children, neither shall the children be put to death for the fathers: every man shall be put to death for his own sin.

Deuteronomy 24:16

That there, folks, is what Madame Defarge forgot in her unrighteous indignation. And, it appears, it is what we keep on forgetting though we have history – and literature – to look back on as a guide.
An appropriate read for this time, Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.” Dickens touches only lightly on the right or wrong of revolution against an aristocratic society that has forgotten the admonition to care for the poor to look heavily at the oppressed now the oppressors, overcompensating for the forgetfulness and callousness of their oppressors by bringing in the same old oppressions just this time wearing a republican red cap rather than the fussy accoutrements of high society.

Which is worse, Dickens asks: Neglecting the poor or persecuting the innocent?

But not really. He equates them as equally hideous.

And who is the real selfless hero of Dickens’ take? Is it Sydney Carton, who selflessly takes Charles Darnay’s place at the guillotine? I rather think it is Miss Pross, the Ur-peasant who strikes the blow against Madame Defarge and helps Charles and his family escape.

Then there is Dr. Alexandre Manette, father-in-law to Charles, who learns the price for revolutionary passion. He righteously condemns the Evremonde family “them and their descendants, to the last of their race” when the aristocratic Evremondes throw him in jail for threatening to reveal their crimes against Madame Defarge’s family, then has to pay double the price when Charles is condemned to die by his own passionate words.

That may be the hidden message of the novel: Careful what you say in fits of revolutionary passion, because when you call for an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, you never know how close that blow will come to your own, and everyone ends up blind and toothless in the end.

Dickens’ work oozes with messages, though. One in particular applies today, as we watch Ferguson, Missouri, burn as protesters decry the lack of justice in the shooting of Michael Brown. On this situation there can be no fence-sitters, and the message from Dickens would be clear: There is a divide of justice as far as Black America and White America go, and those who feel too much comfort in the justice doled out in this case would best remember their passion when time comes to pay for it – just as those who lie on the other side of justice ought to remember to show the constraint and mercy and justice they see lacking from the other side of the realm.

And speaking of endings – here’s a book with both a famous beginning (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times) and a famous ending: It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Indie Authors, Activate the Omega Thirteen!

Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords, has a longish post in which he discusses the present and near future of ebooks – and acts as an evangelist for indie authors. I can’t agree with everything he says, but he does offer quite a bit of interesting bits to ponder.

Full article is here. Here are a few highlights, through my eyes:

There’s A Glut of High-Quality Ebooks

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing by self-publishing naysayers who criticize the indie publishing movement for causing the release of a “tsunami of drek” (actually, they use a more profane word than “drek”) that makes it difficult for readers to find the good books.  Yes, indie publishing is enabling a tsunami of poor-quality books, but critics who fixate on drek are blinded to the bigger picture. Drek quickly becomes invisible because readers ignore or reject it.  The other, more important side of this story is that self-publishing is unleashing a tsunami of high-quality works.  When you view drek in the broader context, you realize that drek is irrelevant.  In fact, drek is yin to quality’s yang.  You must have one to have the other.  Self-publishing platforms like Smashwords have transferred editorial curation from publishers to readers, and in the process has enabled publication of a greater quantity and diversity of high-quality content then ever possible before.

NOTE: I’ve found a lot of the dreck that Coker describes. About half of it is published as indie ebooks. The rest is published traditionally, through publishing houses critical of the tsunami of dreck Coker describes. I remind people of this OFTEN when they question why I’m looking to become an indie author and say I’ll swim in a cesspool.

Good isn’t Good Enough

With the glut of high-quality books, good books aren’t good enough anymore.  Cheap books aren't good enough (Smashwords publishes over 40,000 free ebooks).  The books that reach the most readers are those that bring the reader to emotionally satisfying extremes. This holds true for all genre fiction and all non-fiction.  If your readers aren’t giving you reviews averaging four or five star and using words in their reviews like, “wow,” “incredible” and “amazing,” then you’re probably not taking the reader to an emotionally satisfying extreme.  Extreme joy and pleasure is a required reading experience if you want to turn readers into fans, and turn fans into super fans.  Wow books turn readers into evangelists.  Last year I wrote a post titled, Six Tips to Bring Your Book Back from the Doldrums.  It's a self-assessment checklist that prompts you to take an honest look at your reviews, your cover image, your categorization and targeting. With some simple questions and honest answers, you'll be ready to give your books a makeover.

NOTE: Thus why I’m re-writing Doleful Creatures for the fifth and likely not last time.

Leverage Professional Publishing Tools

Over the last couple years at Smashwords, we’ve introduced a number of new tools that give our authors a competitive advantage in the marketplace, such as Smashwords Series Manager for enhanced series discovery, and preorder distribution to iBooks, Barnes and Noble and Kobo.  Yet despite the availability of these tools, they’re not universally adopted.  Even though we’ve proven and communicated that books born as preorders sell more units that other books, only a minority of Smashwords authors release their books as preorders.  Take advantage of these tools.  They give you a competitive advantage!

Best Practices Bring Incremental Advantage*

Here's a quick summary of some of the most commonly underutilized best practices:  1.  Many indies release their books without professional editing and proofreading.  2.  A surprising number of authors end their book with a period and that’s it, and not with enhanced back matter and navigation that drives sales of your other books and drives the growth of your social media platforms.  3.  Although indie authors are releasing books with better quality covers than ever before, a surprising number of authors still release books with low-quality homemade covers.  4.  A lot of series writers haven’t yet experimented with free series starters, even though free series starters are proven to drive more readers into series and yield higher overall series earnings.  5.  Many series writers don't yet link their series books in Smashwords Series Manager, even though this tool increases the discoverability of series books at Smashwords and at Smashwords retailers.  6.  Even though we’ve published strong evidence three years in a row in our Smashwords Surveys (2014, 2013, 2012) that longer ebooks sell better than shorter ebooks, some authors still divide full length books into shorter books that can disappoint readers.  7.  Sloppy descriptions.  You'd be surprised at the number of book descriptions that have typographic errors, or improper casing or punctuation.  Readers pick up on this stuff.  Mistakes like this are like a slap in the face of your prospective reader.

*This point I have a love/hate relationship with. I appreciate what he says about Smashword’s surveys. But shilling Smashwords tools here, well, I’m a little less smitten with.

Take Risks, Experiment, and Fail Often

Success is impossible without failure.  Failure is a gift.  The challenge is to take a lot of little risks and make every failure a teachable moment.

Dream Big Dreams
Be ambitious.  Aim high.  You’re smart and you’re capable.  You must believe this.  Because if you don’t try, you can’t achieve.   Salvador Dali said:  "Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings."

Never Quit

Never give up. Quitting guarantees failure.  If you never quit, you’ll never fail.  Stamina and staying power beat the sprint.  Think of the story of the tortoise and the hare. Fight for your right to pursue the best career in the universe.

And never think you're too old, or it's too late. I'm still working.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Doleful Creatures -- Story Arc

In case you've been waiting (or not) I've got a story arc now for Doleful Creatures -- meant to help me doctor this thing through the fifth revision. If you can't read my hen scratching, don't worry. I probably won't be able to read it in a few hours anyway. The stuff in red is new to the book.

Good news is the fifth revision is actually going quite well. I'm about halfway through the manuscript and I have cut nineteen chapters. That wounds like a not (and it is, don't get me wrong) but the book will be the better for it. Here's my procedure for here on out:

Finish a quick "look-see" revision to the book, cutting here and adjusting there. Then I read it again and, more importantly, hand it to my daughter to read. I'm kind of aiming this book towards the YA market, so having a child in that age group is a bonus as I look for beta readers. Then I ask her about it. How it compares to other books she's read. Where it needs to be fixed. Because I have no illusions that it won't need more fixing. I'm optimistic.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Some Typos DO Matter

A few weeks ago, in a fit of despair, I wrote a blog post decrying grammar Nazis everywhere. Maybe typos don’t matter, I said.

Maybe some typos, however, do matter.

Consider this (emphasis mine):

But LANL has never publicly acknowledged the reason why it switched from clay-based litter to the organic variety believed to be the fuel that fed the intense heat. In internal emails, nuclear waste specialists pondered several theories about the reason for the change in kitty litters before settling on an almost comically simplistic conclusion that has never been publicly discussed: A typographical error in a revision to a LANL policy manual for repackaging waste led to a wholesale shift from clay litter to the wheat-based variety.

The revision, approved by LANL, took effect Aug. 1, 2012, mere days after the governor’s celebratory visit to Los Alamos, and explicitly directed waste packagers at the lab to “ENSURE an organic absorbent (kitty litter) is added to the waste” when packaging drums of nitrate salt.

“Does it seem strange that the procedure was revised to specifically require organic kitty litter to process nitrate salt drums?” Freeman, Nuclear Waste Partnership’s chief nuclear engineer at WIPP, asked a colleague in a May 28 email.

Freeman went on to echo some of the possible reasons for the change bandied about in earlier emails, such as the off-putting dust or perfumed scents characteristic of clay litter. But his colleague, Mark Pearcy, a member of the team that reviews waste to ensure it is acceptable to be stored at WIPP, offered a surprising explanation.

“General consensus is that the ‘organic’ designation was a typo that wasn’t caught,” he wrote, implying that the directions should have called for inorganic litter.

Officials at LANL declined to comment about whether a typographical error led to the switch to organic kitty litter.

Then again, which is worse: The error, or those who follow the error unquestioningly?

Because it seems easy to me to pass this off as an error – the fault of some minor functionary who fat-fingered something that subsequently got missed by people who should have known better. And I say this not because I’m a minor functionary functionarying in a capacity similar to the procedure-writer who is probably sweating bullets as this story unfolds.

In nuclear space, we’re trained to have questioning attitudes. If something doesn’t look right – even after the procedure is revised – we’re supposed to question it, even at the risk of stopping work. And it’s clear in reading the rest of the New Mexican article about this incident, the culture of questioning at Los Alamos National Laboratory is what’s broken, typographical error or not. The root cause isn’t the error – it’s what happened with the procedure after it was published.

The typo is part of the classic “Swiss cheese” model of system failure. All systems have weaknesses in them – so the goal is to pass change through multiple systems in the hope that if an error passes through the weakness in one layer, it’s caught by a strength in another layer. Errors are only catastrophic if they pass through the weaknesses of successive layers.

So I approach this area with a lot of humility – not smugness since this is an example of someone else in the cagal. It could happen where I work, and it’s not fun to think about it. Reading about this episode encourages me to sharpen my saw, to make sure I’m not the weakness in my portion of the process here.

And I have an example today where keeping atop the review process of a document helped us avoid an error – it would likely not have caused catastrophe, but certainly could have resulted in a delay and a necessary revision of a procedure. Thankfully, one of my reviewers caught an error that we were able to fix before the procedure went into use. That’s a sign of things working.