Fear Itself

"You're drinking water? But that contains hydrogen oxide!"

“Something about Obama! Or the Koch Brothers!”

As I type this on a Sunday evening, it’s been about twenty minutes since I’ve heard or read something about ebola. What gets on my nerves is that most of the people complaining about it are also the same people who won’t get a flu shot. Many of these people will likely get the flu, which is something they do need to worry about.

But tell people that it’s extremely unlikely that they’ll ever come in contract with someone who has ebola, never mind get the disease themselves, and they get upset. I don’t get it.

Actually, I do. The source of most of our information about ebola and illegal immigrants and terrorist groups comes from the nightly news. In the past ten years, many of the more sensationalist stories have had to be retracted or get debunked on snopes.com. By then, the damage is done. And they don’t care.

Is it a grand conspiracy? Is there some sort of evil agenda at play here?

Well, yes there is. See, the broadcast news services, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News all need to sell advertising so Tim Matthews and Sean Hannity can go on telling you what to think. Advertisers use advertising to sell you everything from Toyotas to iPhones to tampons to even gold-buying schemes. (Study on it. Pray on it.) And how do those ads work?

Well, they keep your eyes glued. How? Two things: sex and fear. The networks have always used sex. Three’s Company and Friends and any soap, day or night, have contained enough bare skin, double-entendre, and implied or graphic sex to keep eyeballs pointed at the screen. But sex doesn’t work so well on the news. What does? Fear.

Tsunami hits Japan and sends a nuclear power plant in an out-of-control meltdown? Hey, radiation’s coming to America. Film at 11. Radical terrorists trying to take over half the Middle East? Well, the threat of them coming over here keeps a lot of people watching, right after this message from Captain Crunch. Ebola? Hey, there’s a new iPhone out. Let us tell you about that before we get to some horrific disease you likely will never get.

Sweeps months tend to be the worst for this. Local news in Cincinnati is pretty good. Yes, once upon a time, Jerry Springer was a respected anchorman, not a freak show barker. Yet every February, May, August, and November, YOUR SMARTPHONE IS HAVING AN AFFAIR WITH MITCH MCCONNELL AND A GOAT BEHIND YOUR BACK!

CNN actually takes the cake in scaring you to keep you tuned in. Back in the late 90’s, NASA discovered an asteroid that will come uncomfortably close to the Earth in 2029. It’s since been determined it’ll pass farther away than anticipated. However, CNN picked up on this for its 10 PM broadcast and ran with it. I remember watching for news of the end of the world in three decades only to learn, forty minutes later, the chances of humanity’s imminent extinction by dinosaur-killing impact were somewhere between slim and none, leaning heavily toward none.

It gets worse. Pundits make their money telling you everything is those “other people’s” fault, that they’re out to get you. It’s the Muslims fault or immigrants or liberals. Or conservatives. If Obama isn’t out to get you, the Koch brothers are. It’s all a grand conspiracy meant to make you miserable and keep you down.

Uh huh.

First off, I have, as a matter of fact, bought Gold Bond Medicated Powder for some itchy feet. When that happened, I hadn’t listened to a second of Rush Limbaugh since, oh, 1996. It was 2010. Volkswagen is pushing Jettas hard. Know why I bought mine? Internet search, comparison to Edmonds.com, the raving praise my cousin the lifelong VW fan heaped on the cars. Test drive. I didn’t buy it because Obama tried to kill the Koch brothers by bring the Black Plague to American shores.

You didn’t hear about that one?

Film at 11.

Friday Reviews: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great ExpectationsGreat Expectations

Charles Dickens

I selected this late novel by Dickens from Harold Bloom’s list of novels in his book How to Read. The list begins with Don Quixote and includes several French and Russian novels of various lengths, along with works by Faulkner and Thomas Pynchon.

Great Expectations was a good choice. It’s text is not as dense as A Tale of Two Cities, and there’s a refreshing lack of those contrived Dickensian names (“Scrooge”, “Wackford Squeers”). Great Expectations does, however, showcase Dickens’ pet themes, namely class disparity, poverty, and the questionable application of justice in early Victorian England.

The story is about Pip, the short name of Phillip Prirrip. Pip is an orphan raised by his abusive sister and her kindly husband. In the beginning, he helps an escaped convict by sneaking him food one Christmas Eve. The convict is later arrested, and Pip forgets the incident. He is eventually apprenticed to his brother-in-law, a blacksmith, and resigns himself to a life at the forge. A mysterious benefactor sends for Pip and offers to have his solicitor, Mr. Jaggers, raise him in exchange for giving Pip a small fortune. The benefactor wishes Pip to “become a gentleman.”

Pip’s life is one of idle luxury with no foreseeable plan. But he is a gentleman, and that is what is expected of Pip. Over time, Pip feels an enormous amount of guilt over leaving his brother-in-law, who showed him more kindness than the society types Pip encounters. He also feels a growing sense of alienation from Estella, the coldly beautiful girl from his childhood. In the end, when Pip discovers the identity of his benefactor, he wonders if his entire life since leaving Kent was a lie.

Great Expectations would be the template for later novels such as Twain’s The Gilded Age, much of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. David Simon’s television work, particularly The Wire and Treme are compared to Dickens work. However, Simon pulls from a different zeitgeist than Dickens, though there are many parallels – the anger at poverty and class inequality in particular.

Before reading this, I might have picked A Tale of Two Cities as Dickens’s contribution to Bloom’s list. However, Great Expectations sums up Dickens’s philosophy on class, morality, and justice.

Nobody Owes You

"But why doesn't anyone get my X Men - Twilight Crossover fanfic?"

“But why doesn’t anyone get my X Men – Twilight Crossover fanfic?”

In the great trad vs. indie debate, there’s an annoying chorus rising on the indie side. Many authors seem to think they have a god-given right to be published. “I worked hard. I write better than [insert disliked writer or celebrity here]. It’s not fair!”

Well, Corky, I’m about to pass on one of the best pieces of advice someone gave me when I was young: Never start a land war in Asia. Since that’s not relevant to today’s topic, I’ll also pass on this valuable nugget of wisdom: “Fair” and “should” have nothing to do with reality.

In fact, the way I heard it originally, “fair” and “should” walked off into the woods one day holding hands. They were struck by lighting and died.”

The point is that the world is not fair. Never has been. Never will be. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try to be fair. Fairness is an aspiration. It’s why we have laws and moral codes and why we keep revamping them over time. Fair and should are where we need to be pointed. They do not reflect reality.

The fact is an agent is under no obligation to read your work. He or she is looking to make money. That’s the whole point of becoming an agent. A publisher is under no obligation to buy your work. They, too, have a business to run. Now, an argument could be made that the Big Five is running its collective business into the ground, but that’s neither here nor there. In the beginning, the only one with a vested interest in your manuscript is you. Not an agent. Not an editor. Not even the buying public. If you go straight to them, they will decide if you’re worth their time. And reading a book takes time.

That is not to say you shouldn’t try. An unwritten, unsubmitted, or unpublished novel will not go anywhere. But nobody owes you a chance. Nobody owes Stephen King a chance. He just made the most of the one he was given. On the other hand, if his wife had never fished Carrie out of the trashcan, you’d have never heard of him. Not likely, anyway. And his experiment with being Richard Bachmann shows that he might have faced a struggle. As King puts it, Bachman sold 10,000 copies of Thinner – respectable, but hardly an NYT bestseller. Steve King sold several times that many copies of the same novel. And keep in mind that “Bachman” had co-conspirators in King’s editors and agent. Misery could have become Bachman’s breakout novel.

Let us remember what the biggest component of success is: Luck. Pure, unadulterated luck. Even if you should go trad, get an agent, sell to a big publisher, and have all the marketing muscle in the world behind it, readers can still look at your work and go, “Meh.”

“But… But… But… Hugh Howey! Amanda Hocking! Dean Wesley Smith!”

Okay, let’s look at Dean Wesley Smith first. He went independent already having a reputation and the ability to write over 100,000 words a month. That’s just combining short stories he writes for Smith’s Monthly and other work. It does not include his blog, his workshops, or work for hire. Smith is a hypergraphic freak of nature who makes Nora Roberts look like a slacker. They exist. I envy them.

But Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey. They did a lot of work to raise their profile, but both, Howey in particular, could easily have been ignored by the buying public they courted. They worked hard, and they got lucky. You do have to make some of your own luck, but if your work is esoteric or covers tired ground or, let’s face that elephant in the room, sucks, all the hand selling and interaction with readers is not going to do you any good. And even if it is good, innovative… Hell, you could be positively brilliant, and all that comes when you check your Amazon numbers or look at your royalty statements is the sound of crickets.

Probably the moment that set me off on this topic was when I decided independently publish Second Hand Goods. My editor from the original intended publisher said, “That novel deserved to be published.”

Of course, one should learn to graciously take the compliment. I did not say anything to him, but a few people got to hear me rant, “‘Deserves to be published?’ No novel ‘deserves to be published.’ It’s all luck!”

Maybe that’s why I don’t flog the Kepler novels or Road Rules harder. They’re done. I’m satisfied with them. They’re out there for people to find. And besides, crime fiction readers are a little harder to lure. (Hence my forays into science fiction. It’s fun to build a spec fic following!) I stand by my work. I don’t regret publishing them myself.

But nobody owes me a read. If they don’t owe James Patterson a read, why should anyone “owe” anyone else?

Remission: It’s All Coming Together

Running_Man_Kyle_CassidyIt’s not a stretch to say I did not have a good summer numbers-wise. My weight went back to 280. Blood sugar and cholesterol followed. In fact, cholesterol, not A1C, is what freaked my doctor out on my most recent (and overdue) checkup.

My wife and I have both been running this summer, but I fell back to a mile a run, three days a week and sometimes down to two.

But now we’re getting into to, using a football metaphor, the red zone. My goal is to run a half marathon in 2015, specifically the Flying Pig. I want to run the full Pig in 2016. So I need to be running more than 3 miles a week.

I’m working slowly on it. By Christmas, if all goes well, I’ll be up to 5 miles a run three times a week. Come January…

I’ll admit, I worried about being ready to run 13.1 miles in five months. As it turns out, I found a training plan for the run. You don’t have to work up to running 13 miles a day. In fact, you could hurt yourself doing that. You run five times a week, starting by running 3 miles a day. Sunday (or whatever your final day is), you run your long run. It starts out at three miles and increases one mile weekly to 13 miles. The week before the half marathon, you actually only run 6 miles on your long day. During the week, you insert longer runs from 4 to 6 miles, which is doable.

This is perfect for me as I have my final semester of college coming up. So for the first half of the semester, I’ll have two built-in rest days while I knock out an accelerated class.

So the first running goal is more than doable. Now I just have to figure out how to train for the marathon after that.

Friday Reviews: Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor & Saul Singer

Start-Up NationStart-Up Nation

It’s a small nation surrounded by enemies and at war as often as not. And yet Israel continues to thrive. Start-Up Nation attempts to explain why. It does not look into the political ramifications of its military actions or its treatment of the Palestinian people.

Instead, it looks at a nation that, under normal circumstances, would be seen as too dangerous to sustain long-term investment. Instead, it is a major center of technology. What’s the secret? Floods of money from America and Europe? A constant state of war resulting in greater and greater technology?

Actually, it’s culture. Israel’s history as a republic is unique, fostering an entire nation of entrepreneurs. Every Israeli Jew, with few exceptions, serves in the military. And Israel’s military is, counter-intuitively, anti-hierarchical. Junior officers are encouraged to question their superiors. And because units continue to serve in the reserves until their members reach their forties, a natural network is built up. Because of this, everyone in Israel knows someone who can help implement a new idea. And in these new Israeli companies, the office politics so familiar in Europe and America (Why do you think there are so many versions of The Office?) don’t exist.

At the same time, Israel is not too far removed from its “pioneer” generations. Consider the rise of America as an industrial power. Much of nineteenth and twentieth century technology that gave rise to GM, IBM, and Microsoft came from a propensity to tinker. In Israel’s case, there was no choice. When the republic was founded in 1948, it had only what it could borrow, steal, or salvage to build its infrastructure and transportation. Now?

Israel, a small country the size of Delaware, rivals America, Britain, and Germany in the number of patents filed.

The reasons for its constant state of war are touched on here, but it’s tragic, since Israel has much to teach its neighbors. Egypt and, once ISIS is subdued, Iraq may be in the best position to implement some of Israel’s techniques for fostering innovation. However, as long as the old monarchies continue to cling to power, they will never allow their populations enough freedom or education to foster entrepreneurship. Of all the Arab nations, Dubai seems to have made the most progress.

There are threats, aside from Israel’s enemies, the author asserts. While Israel produces incredible talent, many Israelis go abroad to seek their fortune. Certain traditional sects of Jews do not serve in the military, and their numbers are growing. Likewise, Arab Israelis, a growing segment of the population, also do not serve in the military. While they get the same education as their Jewish counterparts, they lack the network most soldiers enter civilian life with. The result is a brain drain and a growing segment of the population that is not in the workforce. These, along with relations with their neighbors, are the challenges the world’s first “start-up” nation faces in the future.

Embrace The Suckage

Leonid_Pasternak_001I have a couple of short stories that aren’t coming along the way I wanted. One is called “The Guns of Brixton” and is lifted from the Book You Will Never Read wherein our (at this point, still future) rock star hero is accosted in London by three Irish thugs who want the engagement ring he’s just bought for his upper class girlfriend. The other I just drafted this weekend and is next month’s Jim’s Shorts feature.

Both have an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink problem, though the latter story is shorter. Both are drafted, yet both are not something I’d show people. So why finish them?

Because to get good, you have to suck. Even Stephen King writes crap you’ll never read. (Some say he writes crap that gets on the bestseller lists, but I’ll save that criticism for Jonathan Franzen.) Nevertheless, nobody came out of the gate with a runaway hit. Maybe JK Rowling, but she is a rare, rare exception. One might say King hit a home run with Carrie and hasn’t stopped. Carrie was King’s fifth novel, and we’re not even counting his first Bachmann novel, Rage. His first one, he says in Secret Windows, was utter and pretentious crap. His second one was readable, just not publishable. By the time he sat down and wrote that scene with poor Carrie White getting pelted with tampons, he was ready to scrap that book.

One downside to the rise of self-publishing is that a lot of writers don’t get told no enough to do better now. We can sing the praises of the Great God Amazon and how it’s made getting work out there easier. Well, that’s true. It’s also created, in the words of Chuck Wendig, a shit volcano because all of us – Stephen King, Chuck Wendig, me, or that pretentious ass in your college English class who can’t stop quoting Faulkner – think we are the Second Coming of Shakespeare with our firstĀ  novels. Everyone does. And while JK Rowling did catch lightning in a bottle with the first Harry Potter novel, most of us have been told no on the first try. Well, I got told yes, and if I’d waited two weeks to talk to an agent, I might have been told differently. I’d have had a more realistic view of my work and my skills. Northcoast Shakedown is easily my most popular book, and yet it makes me cringe to read it, like a musician seeing a video of his high school band playing in the garage years after he started selling out stadiums or at least getting steady bar gigs.

But this is not a knock on self pub. I mean, hello! Still, without someone taking a pass on work that could be better or an editor fine-tuning a novel, chances are your first self-pub effort is going to be something many writers keep hidden in a trunk somewhere. Like Stephen King’s pretentious literary novel. (He didn’t always writer horror, yanno.) That’s fine. Only instead of an agent or a faceless editor saying no, you have the sum total of Amazon’s customer base doing it. And Barnes & Nobles. And Apple’s. And Kobo’s. Ouch. Good writers get told no.

Now no one knows better than me how frustrating promoting your work can be. But look, you’re not going to write The Son Also Rises your first time out. Go ahead. Write that embarrassing trunk novel. Self pub it if you must. With rare exceptions, a bad novel is not something fatal. To get to The Fault in Our Stars, you have to write a little Law & Order fanfic to learn the ropes.

So go ahead. Embrace the suckage. And listen when they tell you how you suck. Then suck less next time.

Have You Got On The Watch List Yet?

Kid on computer

“Mom, how do you spell ‘fissile material’? I need it for homework!”
CC 2007 Glenn Fleishman

This past weekend, I started work on a story where a woman must get rid of her husband’s body after a domestic battle ends badly. Part of this required that I Google what choice parts of a human pigs would eat. Yeah. I know. Creepy. Yet it’s in the service of the story.

Did I delete my search history? Why? My wife was sitting next to me when I did it. Mind you, I waited until she was out for a run to Google “What does human flesh taste like?” Answer: Pork. I’ll take their word for it as I have no desire to try it myself. Creepy? Yes, but not as creep as typing “What does human” and have it autocomplete “flesh taste like?” How many people Google that? My skin crawled looking that up, especially since one article had quotes from notorious cannibals Alfred Packer and Armin Meiwes. On the other hand, I now had two methods of corpse disposal. Sick?

Well, I’m writing about sick individuals, who are always more interesting than… Well, you. Or me. I mean do you really want to hear about my adventures maintaining SQL code all day? How my wife and I went to El Rancho Grande for dinner last week? We have Facebook for that.

But writing about the unusual often means Googling about the unusual. I suppose if I wrote spy stories and 24esque thrillers, I might raise a few eyebrows prowling known terrorist web sites, searching on weapons both commercially produced and improvised, and even asking some uncomfortable questions about how good guys and bad guys do battle. (There’s a reason ISIS makes al-Qaeda go “Dude! Seriously. Tone it down!”) During the Cold War, this would have made intelligence agencies very nervous had web sites and search engines existed back then. Actually, if you lived east of Munich, west of Tokyo, you could forget that kind of research. In Soviet Union, spies research you! (Jim stops to write check to Yakov Smirnoff.)

Nowadays, we still live with intrusive intelligence agencies, but even China has relaxed things a bit. But is it completely safe from the Men in Black? Pete Townshend related in his autobiography an incident born of the novelty of Internet porn in the late 90’s. Like many of us, he indulged and even punched in his credit card to one site only to get hit with a banner ad that said, “Kiddie porn!” Close browser. Reboot computer. Call credit card company. Only Britain’s idea of privacy is not the same as, say, America’s or Germany’s or Russia’s (which is non-existent.) Townshend ended up with a “caution.” Never mind that the banner ad scared the shit out of him. British authorities were more concerned with child victimization (ironically one of Townshend’s preferred causes) than the privacy of subjects’ Internet use. Townshend admits it was a stupid men-being-pigs moment, and the police were and are justifiably concerned who’s lurking out there. But was it a stupid situation? Yes. What’s the solution?

Said the middle-aged man about his dominatrix, beats me.

Is that a danger here in America? Are there other things that can raise a red flag? Don’t be naive. Of course there are. If anything, our national and international discussion about privacy is misleading. For starters, someone tell me how social media is anything resembling private. Yes, you can restrict who sees what, but isn’t the point of social media a benign (hopefully) sort of exhibitionism? Naturally, we should hide certain details about ourselves from prying eyes. I don’t post my cell phone number or my employer’s name on my Facebook or Twitter profile. But recently, one financial expert on local TV pointed out that, if you post where you had dinner or what car you bought, Facebook would sell that data to marketers who want to sell you stuff. Isn’t that creepy?

It would be creepy if I hadn’t mentioned it. But since I told the world I ate at Patty Burger in West Chester, Ohio, and that I bought a 2011 Jetta, it’s kind of stupid to think this even falls near the realm of private information, let alone under it. Hell, I just mentioned it on this blog.

For the most part, have a good reason for why you search what you search for. Remember, it’s not Facebook or Twitter you have to worry about. Most problems on those sites are usually because someone got careless or sloppy with their details. If you have a fight in public, don’t whine about it when you get called out for it. You did it in public, dumbass. It’s the odd little sites. Porn sites, sites purporting to sell you something. Where’s your credit card information going? What are they dumping on your hard drive? This is where spam zombies (the real zombie apocalypse) come from.

But think about how you search and where you go. There are some dark, dark corners of the Internet that are under surveillance. If you really need to know what’s there, chances are someone’s already written about it. But being a writer is going to lead you to some strange places. If your spouse or partner understands the strangeness of being a writer, they will leave you alone. If you haveĀ  a body of work out there, particularly if you write crime, it should not be all that difficult to explain when something sends the NSA’s computers clicking, buzzing, and whirring. (And frankly, the people who watch such things don’t find you all that interesting anyway.)

It was strange Googling what I did for the short story. It always comes across a culture shock, even when you’re doing it. It was different than researching, say, the presidents, who, despite some having god complexes, were a pretty boring lot. Sorry, liberals. Tough luck, conservatives. Neither Obama nor Bush are the Antichrist.

I have my doubts about Justin Beiber, though.