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Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife
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The Velvet Podcast, Episode 008: Don’t Pull My Hair Unless You Mean It
Posted 25 September 2010 / By Caleb J. Ross / Study (the world/the craft)

Episode #008 of The Velvet Podcast is now live!

You don’t have my handsome voice to fluff your ear chubs this time, but I promise you won’t be disappointed by the talent here. Featuring three brand new voices to The Velvet Podcast. Make them feel welcome.

Writers Richard Thomas (Transubstantiate), Nik Korpon (Stay God), Pela Via and Nic Young grind out the topic of sex and violence in fiction and their complex relationship to sadistic bedfellows, love and shock..

Please, give it a listen. Subscribe via Feedburner, Podcast Alley, or iTunes.

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Meta-fiction for babies.
Posted 19 September 2010 / By Caleb J. Ross / Study (the world/the craft)

Or is it meta-non-fiction? Is all non-fiction meta? Are there any examples of non-meta-non-fiction? If we were introduced to an author who wrote a historical account of Indian bread and Greek cheese that constantly pulled from the text to state bluntly, “I am no expert. This history is just my opinion,” would we have met a non-meta-feta-naan-non-fiction author? Okay, that last one was dumb.

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White covers and isolated imagery: Why the trend?
Posted 6 September 2010 / By Caleb J. Ross / Marketing/ Study (the world/the craft)

I have noticed that over the past decade readers have been subjected to a trend in non-fiction book cover design. I am referring to the use of a white background to frame a single, striking element. For example:

 

I understand the appeal from a marketing perspective. As online book buying grows in popularity, the book spine is becoming less important to shoppers. Instead, the idea with white-framed covers is to create as much visual distance and isolation with a book so as to set it apart from its surrounding mosaic. An added benefit for non-fiction books in particular is the sense of authority that comes with a single image. This says, “I am an expert on this topic. I am not going to stray into superfluous details. Prepare to learn.”

I like the look, but I dislike the trend. I am a grump, though, and dislike most trends. I refuse to tell my wife that I don’t mind listening to her Ingrid Michaelson music simply because it’s on the radio sometimes. I even hate hipsters because they are too popular. How’s that for irony?

I collected many, many such covers (and it didn’t take me long to do). Flip through the gallery below to see. Now, as an exercise in the inevitable futility of following trends, try to see if any of the white-framed books stands out when packed together with so many similarly designed books. Answer: none stand out. This book, if it were thrown into the mix, would certainly stand out. Here’s hoping busy book covers don’t become a trend.

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The future of burning books
Posted 26 August 2010 / By Caleb J. Ross / Study (the world/the craft)

Below is the list of the top ten most frequently challenged books of 2009 as gathered from the American Library Association website. I completely understand the low priority some place upon books compared to other forms of media. However, I don’t understand why books would need to be burned. Think of it this way, if I had two children, I would probably like one more than the other. That doesn’t mean I should burn one (I’ll let the sun do that, when I allow my least favorite child to play outside all day without sunblock. Blame averted).

Being invested in the publishing industry, I feel I should fight back. Note: I have not read all of these books, nor do I know what many of them are even about. But if I’ve learned anything from the mere existence of a banned books list, it is that arguments don’t have to respect the source material or the material’s context. It’s fun to hate!

10. “The Chocolate War,” by Robert Cormier

Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

Un-Reasons: I had to Google this book to determine its content, and honestly I feared what searching “the chocolate war” would return. I can count the number racially explicit scenarios that would use this phrase on two hands. I can count the number of pornographically explicit possibilities on one hand…the other is busy. Granted, the SERP (that’s Search Engine Results Page for you people with a life) yielded nothing questionable, but the simple fact that it could have is enough to keep this book off of the banned books list. If my mind is filthier than the book title, then the book isn’t worth battling over.

9. “The Color Purple,” Alice Walker

Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

Un-Reasons: Can we get over this book already? The people who question this book are likely racist. It’s just that “Blackieness” wasn’t an available check box on the official challenged book request form, or as it is known among dissenters: “Show Off Your WASPy Prudishness” ballot.

8. “The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things,” by Carolyn Mackler

Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

Un-Reasons: Kids grow up faster these days than in days past. “My Butt” being a “Round Thing” is probably offensive only to those people who also take offense to the implication of the Earth being round.

7. “My Sister’s Keeper,” by Jodi Picoult

Reasons: Sexism, Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide, Violence

Un-Reasons: My wife read this. She’s still cool. And believe me, my wife has plenty of opportunities for commonalities among lame-ohs who challenge books. She loves guinea pigs. She dances with her thumbs in the air. She can’t pronounce “Parmesan.” I could go on, but I won’t, because I love her too much to disrespect her with a fourth item in this list.

6. “Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger

Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

Un-Reasons:

5. Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer

Reasons: Sexually Explicit, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group

Un-Reasons: No, the real reason these books should be banned is because they are everywhere. I’m sick of telling people about William Gay’s “Twilight,” only to be raped by Stephenie Meyer “Twilight” fans. Also, to call this book sexually explicit is to insult all the creative whores out there who work hard to freak out horny dudes (or women, or animals, or kitchen appliances, or plumbing supplies, or…). Making out with a vampire and/or werewolf is like 2nd base stuff to today’s kids.

4. “To Kill A Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee

Reasons: Racism, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group

Un-Reasons: See “The Color Purple” above.

3. “The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” by Stephen Chbosky

Reasons: Homosexuality, Sexually Explicit, Anti-Family, Offensive Language, Religious Viewpoint, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs, Suicide

Un-Reasons: So many teenagers are depressed antisocial-ites. Let them have a book whose title implies pride and self-respect, and stop shoving morally definite books, that polarize homosexuality, language, and religion, at your kids. The world is ambiguous; embrace it.

2. “And Tango Makes Three” by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson

Reasons: Homosexuality

Un-Reasons: “Two male authors,” you say. “Gross.” What if Tango is Jesus and he’s there to cure the authors of their homosexuality. Are you okay, now?

1. “TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle

Reasons: Nudity, Sexually Explicit, Offensive Language, Unsuited to Age Group, Drugs

Un-Reasons: We managed through 9 items before hitting a book that is offensive not just to people, but to the English language as well. This is very impressive considering IM acronyms are as a common as…typing “IM” instead of “Instant Message.” Does this mean that the English language has not yet devolved far enough from the Queen’s English to have become unrecognizable, and that novels are still culturally relevant, meaning that they should be examined closely for moral alignment? WTF is wrong with you? Language evolves. The good words live (Boner: [boh-ner]-n, slang an erection of the penis ) while the bad ones die (Andrew Koenig: -n, the guy who played Boner in the 1980s sitcom Family Ties)

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Lessons from a nobody – writing has two anchors
Posted 11 July 2010 / By Caleb J. Ross / Study (the world/the craft)

I can’t claim to be a master o’ the written word, but I can pretend to be one. With that in mind, I am compelled to push forward any writing-related knowledge I may have in hopes that you too can promote a false sense of superiority.

Today’s lesson: Writing has two ways to keep you grounded in your story, or “anchors,” as I will call them.

  1. The words you’ve already put down
  2. The words you have yet to put down

The first anchor is touched upon in the brilliant book by Ron Carlson, aptly titled Ron Carlson Writes a Story (which I reviewed at the How Publishing Really Works blog). Basically, the idea is that every word you write should be used as a bank of ideas to further the story itself. For example, if I begin a story with the following line:

Greg topped his tank for what he knew would be the last time in many miles, days, perhaps even weeks.

Then I already have a wealth of information to use as I continue the story. Writer’s block be damned. Here I can explore who Greg is, why he is traveling, why it will be the last time for a while, what kind of car does he drive, whose car is it, and so on. This advice seems obvious doesn’t it? Because it is. So many times we simply fail to recognize the simple things. Keeping this bank in mind can literally help sprout a full story from a single, random line.

The second anchor is a reference to story outlines. I am a strong proponent for outlining a story. The concept is scary to many writers, as it implies the structured tiered outline forced upon us in middle school. But, an outline can be something as simple as a numbered list of plot points. The goal is to simply know your general direction so that you are never daunted by infinite possibilities. Believe it or not, restriction is important when writing. The goal isn’t to open you mind to infinite ideas; the goal is to tame those ideas down to a manageable level.

I think it is Max Barry who compares this second anchor to a car’s headlights (if anyone knows the source for sure, please let me know in the comments below). One should write with only a few future plot points in mind, basically the distance that a car’s headlights reach. I agree with this. The headlights allow a story to move in a visible direction while at the same time not allowing the story to wander off the road.

Now, tell your friends that I am a genius.

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Resurrecting the Author Career, Returning to Whisky and Words
Posted 23 June 2010 / By Caleb J. Ross / Marketing/ SEO for Authors/ Study (the world/the craft)

Disclaimer: I am far from a career author. I’ve made enough money to buy a few fifths of whisky and some diapers for my baby, so needless to say I’ve got a long way to go. The following plan reflects this outsider (re: possibly ignorant) perspective.

The idealized author spends his time alone, churning out typewritten manuscripts to meet constant deadlines. He drinks. Probably smokes. He’s respected. He vacations in tropical seclusion, but still, even with the changed view, he writes. He has no day job. He is an author. Writing puts his kids through college.

There is a reason this image contains a typewriter. Much like the machine itself, the idealized author is all but extinct. I think a lot of writers would like to go back to this model. Is it possible to not just retain the author career, but to make it thrive?

Given the following set of assumptions, I believe it would be possible to bring back the author career:

  1. Content will continue to outweigh consumption
  2. The marketplace is spoilt by free content, and much of that content will continue to be free
  3. eBooks/eReaders will be a primary content medium within the next decade
  4. The cost to produce and distribute market-quality products will continue to fall

More authors are producing more content than ever, so it’s fair to say the larger onus is on the publishers to bring back the career. The problem is that publishers have no incentive right now to court authors in the way they once did. Publishers have the above items #1 and #2 going for them. A culture of expected free content coupled with an overflow of content, means authors have been trained to work for cheap or free.

But, authors have items #3 and #4 above as important pieces of leverage. If publishers don’t adapt to the changing market, and work with authors to do so, then the publishers will die. Because authors have the ability to create and distribute their own work, and because they have been trained to work for nothing, authors have little to lose by abandoning the publisher. Without authors, publishers die. Without publishers, authors continue.

What can be done?

  1. Consolidate the agent and publisher roles. Basically, this combined entity should act as a time and beaurocracy manager for authors. Today, authors have the ability to publish and distribute their own content without the help of agents and publishers. If this Pub/Agent composite can give authors time to write, then they will ultimately be given the sort of consistent product that the marketplace loves. Marketing thrives on trends. Giving authors time is the way to nurture trends.
  2. Increase author royalties. As media becomes electronic, the savings on overhead and distribution must be passed on. Court your talent, publishers. I’ve read the arguments against electronic media being cost-savers for publishers, and I just don’t believe them.
  3. Embrace the eBook paradigm shift. As a reader, I haven’t yet fallen in love with eBooks. As a writer, I am very excited by the possibilities. Instead of fighting to keep print alive, fight to make eBooks thrive. eBooks have the potential to increase the pool of readers, much as the iPod did for music enthusiasts.
  4. Brand yourselves as independent records labels do. Make fans out of your press, not just out of your authors. I won’t go into much depth here about this, but we do have an episode forthcoming at the Welcome to The Velvet podcast on this topic.

What can writers do?

  1. Provide consistent and brandable content. As Dan Holloway says in the comments at Jane Smith’s How Publishing Really Works blog, “If you are writing for the art, by all means try your hand at getting an agent, but don’t be upset if you don’t get one – and if the feedback is that you should be more commercial in order to get one, then make the decision – do you want to write for the pay packet, or do you REALLY want to do it for the art? And if it’s the latter, don’t expect to be picked up, or blame the publishers when you aren’t.”
  2. Prove that you can provide that content. As Jane Smith says in a response to the above comment, “I think that a big reason that most writers make such a paltry amount is that there are lots of people out there who call themselves writers but who only really dabble with writing: they sell an article every now and then, take several years to write just one book; sure, they’re writers–but not full-time, serious writers.”. A career author must write as though it is a career.

I want to sit alone and write fiction for a living. Help me do that. Make me believe.

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Results of 5,000 words for Father’s Day
Posted 20 June 2010 / By Caleb J. Ross / General News/ Study (the world/the craft)

As far as meeting this goal, I failed. I did not reach 5,000 print-quality words in one day. However, I did learn something very important. I am simply not meant to write all day. I am glad that I can no longer blame my non-productivity on time constraints. In fact, I actually work better given 2-3 hour windows. As you can see by the time-line below, the day started off quite well.

10:08a (1 word) first word (The), first cup of coffee (Soy Chai Latte with an extra shot – It’s like beer: start the night with something exotic so that when you are drunk later you don’t care what brand you are drinking).
11:08a (570 words) went to the bathroom, took in a chapter of Saramago’s The Stone Raft, and gave the dog a treat. She’s been really good about not killing me, considering I am not a daily occupier of this house.
11:22a The headphones already hurt. Time to try listening to Bohren und der Club of Gore through speakers. Less ear pain, but too much outside noise mucking up what is supposed to be a way of isolation by sound.
12:05p (958 words) 2nd cup of coffee, this time black. 1,000 words in 2 hours. Things are not looking good. At this rate, 5,000 words will take me 10 hours, which I simply don’t have. Boooooo to goals.
1:16p (1,496 words) I said I wouldn’t, but I’ve got to get out of the house. I may slowly be realizing that I am just not meant to “go under” when I write. Could I be a normal 2-3 hour max/session writer?
2:44p (1,496 words) Notice the word count has not moved in 1 ½ hours. I drove to get a sandwich, then decided to drive home to finish the day. My wife has taken our kid to a friend’s farm for naturey stuff. So, I should have a couple more hours to at least round the count to 2,000 words.
6:04p (1,731 words) I’ll call these last 3 ½ hours a break, even though the duration really constitutes forfeiture. During this time I ate a couple donuts, drank some coffee, bought two Jose Saramago books (and learned that he has two posthumous English language translations forthcoming this year, Little Memories, an autobiography which I assume will be prepared for publication even considering his recent death, and Elephant’s Journey), and also a few Moleskine notebooks (which I learned is pronounced mol-a-skeen’-a, and not mol-skin as I had been doing for years). But I did come back to writing, and I did manage to pound out a few more words.
7:19p (2,041 words) I’m getting a shower.

What to make of this? As much as I would like live the romanticized writer’s life, I simply do not have the constitution to do so. My apologies to anyone who gambled incorrectly on this outcome. My advice is that next time you wager money on someone’s likelihood to meet a goal, don’t use me if your choose the affirmative side.

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