Jan 15

How the Hell does it Happen?

How does a novel become a best seller? It seems to me there are three basic ways. At times they may overlap or intersect, while at other times one of them is the prime mover. Assuming the book is effectively written–for a relatively wide audience, or at least a receptive audience–its potential readership must first be made aware of it. Unless you’re already a best seller, I happen to think that bookstore signings are mostly useless. A more realistic hope for genuinely productive exposure is *hotly enthusiastic* reviews in high places–major print publications, like New York Times Book Review, or the online equivalent; even better, positive reviews on, say, National Public Radio or on television, or online sites with *very* high traffic by book buyers. A corollary is author interviews on television or radio, which can happen before the book is hot *only if* there is something unusual and entertaining or madly timely about its concept–likely pointed out to the venue by effective and connected publicists.

Second factor: widespread and expensive advertising based on the reviews or the hotness of the subject matter. This requires an improbable and expensive outlay by the publisher. The publisher may pay for ads–and they have to be in the right places–if the novel got giddy and well placed reviews or if the publisher had to bid for a novel because it got hot even before publication (usually requiring a really damned good, strategically placed literary agent). In for a hundred thousand, in for three hundred thousand.

Third, word of mouth, readers simply telling other readers, online or in person, about a novel that flashed past their defenses and got them worked up enough that they rapturously recommend it . . .Word of mouth is like lightning striking (John Brunner said in an interview, “Lightning never struck for me”) and persistent reader chatter can occasionally make an obscure book into a roaring success. It has even happened with some ebooks. Word of mouth that launches a best seller, or turns a fairly effective seller into a top seller, is almost invariably based on an *unusually high* level of enthusiasm–the readers truly enjoyed the *hell* out of that book. But on some occasions extensive word of mouth is primed by timing, by the book’s relevance to current trends, eg, when Zombie Apocalypse fiction was first getting hot; it can be stoked, too, by a subject simmering in the national collective mind, perhaps the tragedies associated with Hurricane Katrina. If you have a *good* Hurricane Katrina novel at the right moment to catch the wave…you can surf that wave. The writer of course has to be sharp, or a good storyteller–and the material has to seem reasonably fresh even if it’s part of a sub-genre.

Of course there are all sorts of ponderable and imponderable factors–editorial acumen and book-selling canniness, intelligent marketing personnel, book cover imagery, sexual trends in the reading public.

A publishing phenomenon that surprised a good many people was the success of Fifty Shades of Grey… but certainly word of mouth, social lightning striking, was instrumental in its emergence.

And a word of mouth that reaches that sort of “lightning striking” level usually arises with startling mysteriousness…

Jan 15

Bratty Kids. Sarah Palins kids? Mostly the Brat I’m thinking of is …Me.

“Photos of Sarah Palin’s son standing on dog stir debate whether it was animal abuse” say the captions. Right, he shouldn’t have stood on the dog and if she really encouraged him she shouldn’t have but I am now going to publicly confess that I did this SAME THING when I was about that age and the reason I remember it is because my Mom got really *mad* at me. I didn’t hurt the dog–a big dog which looked rather like that one but a little bigger.

Also when I was a little bitty kid and I got hold of some matches…yes I was playing with matches…I put some to a few of the kitty cat’s whiskers and melted them back a little. I didn’t think it was hurting the cat really as I recall and…I was WRONG, of course, it does harm the cat, they need those whiskers. Why do I remember? Because my older sister Bonnie got really *mad* at me. Boy she gave me a big lecture. She said “those are part of the cat’s sensory equipment. How would you like it if I set your nose or your ears on fire?!”

I was pretty bratty. I remember a fourth grade report card from school with a note that said, “John is very intelligent and would do much better in school if he would leave the girls alone and concentrate on his work.”

I liked to melt toys too and turn them into monsters using tweezers on softened plastic. Now I’m totally pushed around by pets and am practically their submissive slave.

But I might still melt some plastic toys.

Dec 14

Michael Moorcock, Elric and, yes, Me

MICHAEL MOORCOCK, who has recently turned 75 is one of my literary heroes partly because he started writing pulp — he wrote some Edgar Rice Burroughs pastiches to start out and, as I recall, he said he wrote them on amphetamine! Like, a novel a week! But he soon got over that writing habit (I think he switched to pots of tea) and went on to write more resonant pulp / genre works, like the Elric books, and innovative works like the Jerry Cornelius books and the Dancers at the End of Time series–a favorite of mine. He helped launch the important New Wave in science fiction and as editor he re-launched the very influential magazine New Worlds. He wrote a fine award winning novella that atheists should prize: Behold the Man. . . And then he made the leap into big serious fantasy and historical fiction crossovers with a political slant and began to be taken seriously by mainstream critics. The fact that he could make this journey delights me. “He’s one who escaped the ghetto”. (When I was a mere stripling of a science fiction writer I heard many sf writers grumble about the science-fiction / fantasy “ghetto” in publishing). But even now he will also write his artful pulp when he chooses.

When I was young I corresponded a bit with Moorcock. The letters were lost in one of my many moves (unless one of my exes has them?) …I remember he said, after reading my first two novels, “I see that, like me, you write on adrenaline.” Yes indeed. Anyway, he was not only kind to me he was inspirational to me.

And he and I are members of a small exclusive club: writers who have written lyrics for the Blue Oyster Cult! He wrote songs like Black Blade and Veteran of the Psychic Wars for them…

I do admire Elric still and I once pitched some ideas for an Elric movie to Paramount…they never got around to making it with any writer. Probably couldn’t get past the albino thing… I wanted to have Val Kilmer (who was young then) play him in white makeup and with contact lenses…

Dec 14

The New Heroin Epidemic

We’re in the midst of an epidemic of heroin addiction in the USA. It’s increased 50 percent in the last four years. Where’d it come from? A pharmaceutical company called Purdue created Oxycontin, and pushed it for every little ache, and downplayed its opiate addictive qualities. Whereas it turned out to be hugely addictive. Problems arose, and the government made it harder to get. People addicted to Oxy and other painkillers–pills which had been pushed by manufacturers and doctors as Oxy had–turned to heroin. Word got out that here was a big market, in small towns and suburbs, for heroin. Dealers proliferated to answer the demand. I know a lot of people who were hurt by this. And not enough is being done to help them.

Essentially, they were victimized by pharmaceutical companies and irresponsible doctors. It really is not their fault. So why aren’t we helping them?

And if they haven’t sued them already–these victims should mount class action lawsuits against Purdue pharmaceuticals.

Dec 14

Stoner Steve, Stoner Stan, Moses, Noah, and Jesus, Bruh

Duuuude!” cried Stoner Steve. “You just watch this gnarly Noah movie with me. I just watched it. It’s trippy as shit.”

“Whoaaa,” said Stoner Stan, sitting beside Steve on his ash-dusted sofa, “No way! My old man was into that Bible shit. I said, ‘Those Muslims and those Hindus, they got holy books, what’s wrong with those. He kicked me out for a week. That shit was cold, man!”

“Bruh, okay, here’s the thing, just because it’s bullshitty myth faked up shit doesn’t mean there’s not, like, seeds and stems of truth. Like, Noah–maybe there was a guy who was watching the weather, and he had some almanac shit going on, and he got real high and had a hallucination talk with his own brain and thought God was telling him to build a boat so he built a pretty big boat and put all his farm animals, like his goats and sheeps and turkeys and shit on it, and maybe a couple burros, and some of his peeps too, and the flood came and drowned a buncha people in the villages around there–you know, like it was some local shit but to those fuckers, that was the world–and he didn’t get his peeps and his farm animals drowned because of his boat and it got dumped on that one mountain down kinda low and the rest was a lot of made-up shit. Like when Lanny takes shrooms and says space aliens pick her up.”

“I guess, bruh but–”

“And that Moses dude, it’s like, he was this Hebrew guy stuck in Egypt with some of his people and asked the Pharoah, Yo man let us go back to, like, Israel and the guy said fuck off. So then Moses prayed and it they had different food to eat than the Egyptians and they Egyptians got food poisoning but the Hebrews didn’t and maybe some kinda grasshopper infestation came in, and it was some coincidence shit. And the Pharoah said whatevas, leave then, so Moses took his peeps outta Egypt but then the Pharoah said no fuck this and sent his soldiers but there was some tidal shit going on because the moon was close so it blocked off the soldiers from following and it seemed like a miracle. And it was all just the roll of the dice stuff. But it got made into a big fucking story. Oh and then Moses and his peeps got lost in the desert a couple years and they ate that gooey stuff from that Tamarisk tree they called manna and then Moses got sick of wandering and saw a nice village and he like hallucinated the lord told him go in there and kill them all and take their shit and he did, he killed almost all the people and enslaved the other ones–”

“He did that? Fucked up!”

“Oh yeah, Moses had his peeps murder a lot of other people’s peeps. It’s in the book of Numbers.”

“Speaking of that–you want to smoke another number?”

“In a second. So anyway, there’s Jesus, he was real but he was just this pretty good guy, though he could be a dick too, and he was kinda crazy-ass figuring that he was the messiah and he was really smart and he got crucified but all that other shit about him was made up. But here’s the thing–Noah, that was like a message, don’t do bad shit or bad shit will happen and good people’ll be cool but what goes around comes around for the bad people. And Moses it was like, have faith, yo, and don’t give up and wait for your chance and the ten commandments, that shows people got to have rules.”

“But you said Moses was a murdering dickhead.”

“Nobody perfect, dude. And the Jesus thing is, like, turn the cheek and do unto others as you’d have em do and shit. So they make up the myths out of a little bit of stuff that maybe happened so they can try to tell people to stop like being dicks and shit.”

“Steve how come you know all this shit?”

“Oh I got an Masters in comparative religion, man. Hadda do something in school. Hey–Lanny left some shrooms!”

“Let’s do ‘em!”

One hour later. “Steve–what you staring at out the window? You’re talking to something out there! You’re trippin balls!”

“Dude! That bush outside the window’s on fire! But it ain’t burning up! And it’s talking to me!”

“Righteous! Let’s take some more shrooms bruh.”

Dec 14

They canceled “The Interview” movie…And It Just Hit Me That…

It’s always more complex than you think it is. International affairs–even the absurd kind. I reacted with somewhat kneejerk irascibility to the news that the comedy film The Interview was not going to be released due to North Korean threats. I was howling about our first amendment rights being trampled by dictatorial foreigners–but I had forgotten one key factor. Sony is based primarily in Japan–headquartered in K┼Źnan Minato, Tokyo.

Japan has a history with the Koreas and Japan is a neighbor to North Korea, with only the relatively dainty Sea of Japan in between. A threat to Sony can be carried out in Japan fairly easily, with operatives or long range weaponry. North Korea claims to have missiles that can reach Japan. North Korea’s leader may not be quite sane. His dad was certainly crazy as a grasshopper on PCP. So that’s probably a lot of the calculation–and it’s not just about American media and threats to us. So the decision might’ve been made on *that* basis. They’re not all that worried about the USA’s first amendment.

So maybe I was more or less wrong, in practicality if not in principle. I’ll see the movie (only because the North Koreans don’t want me to) when it is, inevitably, leaked online.

UPDATE: Sony’s putting the film out in limited release so I guess they grew some balls. Or one ball anyway.

Dec 14

Where do you put a Package of Sadness?

If you get a big package of sadness in the mail, or perhaps the package is left for you to find in the house, and you mistakenly open it–why, there it is. It sticks to you, and it penetrates your skin. Then you feel it living in you.

You can try to squeeze it out and put it somewhere. But where do you put sadness? You can feel it in the cabinet, every time you pass it. Also, it whispers to you. Same for the attic, when you pass under that spot. The basement–no, you can smell it seeping up between the boards. You feel it in your feet. They go spottily numb; it climbs up your legs.

Bury it in the backyard? Something will grow, there, from the place sadness was buried. Something will grow huge and overshadow your house and shed sticky seeds on it, and on your land. And from those…

You can try to drop it in the sea, but all water is connected. Won’t it come back that way? Anyway, there’ll only be another package left for you. And you don’t really have to open it–shortly, it unwraps itself.

You can try not to identify with it, and step back from it, but it almost feels like a betrayal of your soul. There’s a reason for sadness, after all. But where do you *put* sadness? In a facebook post? In a book? I sometimes put it in books. But it won’t stay there long.

Dec 14

Can an Independent be Elected President?

If a sufficiently potent Independent politician were to run for President, he or she could win, as an Independent. (Bernie Sanders is great but I’m not sure he’s charismatic enough and he’s rather elderly for a Presidential candidate.) People grind their teeth over our supposed two party system but in fact there are lots of political parties, and there’s Independent. There is no “Independent Party” as such; there’s American Independent Party but that’s a thankfully obscure far-right theocratic bozo pack of fantasists.

Perhaps an Independent Party or a Progressive Party should be started. There’s already a progressive party of sorts, the Green Party, but it has fumbled so much and has been so fixated on rigid rhetoric that it has lost credibility except in very small elections.

It would about getting enough support for a truly impressive candidate. The Democratic Party leadership would oppose supporting an Independent no matter how admirable. But if I thought there was an Independent along the lines of Sanders who had a decent chance of winning, I’d vote for them. Normally I’m a hidebound Democrat, because that fits with the idea of pragmatic progressivism (the art of the possible?) which I have embraced. But I think lots of Democrats would defect to a really inspiring Independent. And the category is taken fairly seriously.

A new Progressive Party could at first support progressive candidates in the Democratic party, or declared Independents. It would be like caucusing in campaigns. Then it could build up its status, and support, and field its own party’s candidates.

One problem with this is the electoral college which seems to support the two party system. But it can be worked around–or changed. A really Independent progressive party would generate such hope it might bring a sweeping flood of changes with it.

Nov 14

Me, Snow White, and Woody Woodpecker

I was in the garden yesterday watering the new plants when I saw a lark sparrow watching the spray, eyeing it from within a shrub. He was very interested in the arc of water and seemed to be contemplating a shower but he kept looking at me nervously. I knew if I sprayed right at him he’d be startled away. I very carefully turned off the sprayer and then angled it so the water fell on the shrub from directly above, not too forcefully, to give a rain effect. It pattered down through the leaves and he stayed in the shrub, took the dripping for rain and began to flick his wings and shake himself in it, reveling in the rainshower. Yes, it looked like something from a Disney animated film circa 1940, but I didn’t care, it gave me and the bird pleasure. . .

A few days ago I was working on the stairs I’m putting in on the hill, and heard a distinctive drumming, a tone I hadn’t heard before. A tock tock-tock tock, a bit hollow sounding. I was surprised to find it was a woodpecker–surprised because it wasn’t the usual sound. Realized it was because he was tapping at a palm tree, which being a bit spongier and corklike produces a different sound. The woodpecker then went to an oak tree, harder wood, and it made a different clack clack clack sound, quite distinct from the palm tree tone. It was a different *note*. Theoretically you could make tunes by following woodpeckers around to different trees, each type of tree producing a different note from the impact of the bird’s beak; record the variants, cut and mix, make a coherent melody. I leave it to you.

Nov 14

Thanksgiving–Is it Meaningful? Yes, Even for Atheists.

I sympathize with people who dislike the commercialization of every holiday, certainly including Thanksgiving. I sympathize with those who wonder if the Native Americans who are said to have given the Pilgrims a helping hand that day were only opening the door to misery and inexorable invasion. But the concept of ritually or consciously giving thanks, as well as the notion of celebrating “harvest”, whatever it may be, with family and friends, makes Thanksgiving, perhaps, the most sensible of holidays.

I give thanks I’ve got my wife Micky Shirley–I’d be lost without her. Thank God I’ve got the friendship of those few close friends who have put up with my eccentricities, my fits of depression, and occasional louche backsliding over the years. I’m thankful I encountered a few adventurous book editors willing to take a chance on some quite outre fiction. Thank God I’ve got three sons who are employed, intelligent, kindly people. I fully appreciate the fact that I’ve got opportunities to earn money to pay a mortgage on a home, to pay for a celebrative meal, and, thanks to America’s first African-American president, full healthcare coverage at a reasonable cost.

These considerations are valuable. The underlying idea of Thanksgiving, if I open up to it, makes me a better man than I usually am, however briefly. If I give it a chance, it lifts me out of my self-pity. It reawakens my feelings of charity toward others even as it encourages volunteerism and charitable thoughts in many people who otherwise are caught up in their own troubles; these same people are sometimes found handing out hot dinners, on this day every year.

The philosophy implied in thanks-giving is a holiday even my many friends who are sturdily atheist can appreciate; praying Pilgrims or not, the occasion has lasting ramifications for a healthy secular society. One doesn’t need to thank God, in particular. One can simply be thankful. (In the end, the same thing–but don’t tell the atheists.)

Thank God for giving thanks.