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An essay about process and reward.

It all started with a simple request.  My good friend Stacy told me she was going to read a scary story to her son’s fourth grade class at East Moriches Elementary.  Stacy asked me if I had a story to recommend.

I told her I’d think about it.

And because Stacy knows me well, she said, “Is this going to be a John Gannon special?”

While it is a John Gannon story, I’ll leave it to my audience to decide if it’s special.

And my process began.

I didn’t know if I could write a scary story for kids.  Truth be told, most of my writing these days is of the legal variety.  While lawyering helps pay my bills, writing fiction soothes my soul.  So, I gave it a shot.

But how to go about it?  Well, I felt I should roll back the language a bit.  Even when I write fiction, I usually write for adults.  But the former teacher in me couldn’t resist trying to pump a little vocabulary in there.  And that was my starting point: trying to think of good and fun words for children.

Puke.  Puke is a good word, I think.  It’s a fun word to say, and it has the air of a word that shouldn’t be said in class, so I was all-in on the puke train.  And it’s a Halloween story, so let’s throw in dopplegangers, because they’re off the beaten path and fun to say.  Ditto for golem and shaman.

I thought about the story some more.  It was to be designed for reading out loud to a group, so I needed to limit the characters and the plot.  It was specifically for the East Moriches kids, so I could put a lot of local flavor in it.

In my mental meanderings, I remembered a recurring dream I’d had as a child, where a witch would ask me to jump over a stick, but I was afraid I’d fall into a hole when I landed, so I wouldn’t do it.  That used to scare me as a kid, so I put it in.

But where did the witch come from?  Hmm.  What’s the most populous witch-tropolis in American culture?  Why, Salem, of course.  So, I made the witch come from Salem.

But how did she get to Long Island?  In asking that question, I reminded myself that there is a huge eagle statue outside the elementary school.  Since the children had to pass it every day, they would easily recognize it.  Into the story it went.

In thinking of statues, I remembered the creepy bronze statues of children playing outside the McDonalds two towns over.  Well, they had to go in.

For eighteen years, my best friend Rich Gardini has gotten up on the roof of his house on Pepperidge Lane, in costume, and entertained/taunted the kids while throwing them candy and lowering piñatas and spraying silly string.  How could that not be there?  (To see short videos of the man on the roof, click here for 2009 and click here for 2006.)  And then there was the town’s Spookywalk, done for charity to support Camp Paquatuck.  That needed to be in there.

And speaking of Paquatuck, there are many places on Long Island that have Native American names.  I brought them in, too.

My mind wandered vaguely through all these divergent thoughts, and a story started to cohere.  I sat down at my computer, and two hours later I was done.  It only takes twenty minutes to read out loud, so it works for Stacy’s needs.  Whew!

I sent the story over to some friends with kids, for a proper audience vetting.  So far, success.  One friend’s daughter asked to be driven over to look at the scary McDonalds statues, so I’m thinking at least I managed to capture some part of her imagination.

Oh, and the universal critique from the children segment of my readership: I’m not so scary.  But fun was had, and that’s enough.

I wanted to share the fun, so I put the story up on Smashwords, for free.  That took about thirty minutes.  Why free?  Well, it’s short, first off, and didn’t take much effort.  More importantly, I write in order to be read, and that’s enough.  Although it’s too bad I don’t need to write in order to be fed, because I’d be a lot skinnier then.

It felt quite good, and it was great exercise, to write this short story for children.  Actually, it was all I enjoy about the author’s experience in a condensed package: the joy of creation, followed by craft applied to construction, and the immediate feedback of satisfied readers.  It reminded me why I like to write.

To those interested, Halloween in Moriches is available for free, to be read on a Kindle, Sony eReader, Nook, iPad, or iPhone, etc.  Just click here.

But more importantly, for you writers out there: don’t forget to stay in touch with the reasons why you want and need to write; and keep contact with the magical mental juices that creation stirs a’boiling; and above all, write, write, write!

So, sit down and write a scary story for Halloween.  Do it now!  Having a deadline helps clarify and motivate.  Having a finished product in no time encourages one to embark on the next project.  Do it!

Thanks to Stacy and her request, I’ll be setting aside some time tomorrow for writing.  Hopefully, I’ll do it the day after that, and the day after that.  Because…

a writer writes.

Americans love How-To books.  To some, they provide a passive thoroughfare to the understanding of how things work.  To others, they provide a blueprint for future actions.  How-To books soothe the itch for self-improvement, whether it be improving one’s education, or improving one’s finances, or improving one’s physique.

For the self-pub eBook cognoscenti, or those seeking entry into the field, two How-To books have come out in the past month that blow holes right through the veil of mystery surrounding self-pub eBook success.

The first is John P. Locke’s How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months! (available on Kindle for $4.99).  Mr. Locke has gained notoriety for being the first self-pub author to arrive on the Kindle Million-Seller list.  His book is an intriguing Rosetta Stone for how he achieved this impressive feat in so little time.

Those new to social media and marketing in general will find Mr. Locke’s book an accessible read, and an eye-opener to the brave new frontier of self-pub eBooks.  As I discussed in a previous blog, I see self-pub eBooks as the New Pulp Fiction.  The book also provides an insight to Mr. Locke’s writing style.

Mr. Locke explicates his marketing plan with crystal clarity, although one suspects he might have left a few tricks hidden in his bag.  That is to be expected: no magician reveals all his secrets.  But still, the discussion of Loyalty Transfers, OOUs, and the values of Target Marketing are on point and well worth learning.

I do find the term Loyalty Transfer a bit off-putting.  It involves tugging at the sympathies for, and interests in, famous people or broad archetypes and aligning oneself, as an author, with them, for the purpose of leading to sales.  The term makes it sound tawdry.  I like to think of it as Niche Mining, but hey, I haven’t sold one-million books, so what do I know?  (Note: if my immediate family had one million members, I would easily have sold that many books, because they are very loyal.)

The second book, How to Sell a Gazillion eBooks In No Time, by Russell Blake (available on Kindle for $2.99), is a riotous send-up of self-pub eBook marketing and success.  Mr. Blake writes like a high-functioning meth-head on a coke bender, and I mean that in a good way.

But don’t let Mr. Blake’s unique pastiche of pop-culture, self-pub culture, and violent imagery distract you.  At the heart of Mr. Blake’s satire are deep insights to the real deal.  Especially enjoyable are all his made-up statistics, and his “trademarked” systems—each of which underscores his points.  One has to employ the Russell Blake Satire Translaticon TM to get the full import of what he is saying.  The humorless reader might find himself transformed into a giddy giggler.

Charlie Sheen might have Tiger Blood, but Russell Blake has Shark Blood.  He can turn a phrase with paradoxically caustic yet elegant ease, and he does so, with panache.  The shark jaws of his wit rip through the flesh of silly ideas.

Time spent reading How to Sell a Gazillion eBooks In No Time is like sitting on a barstool next to the dearly departed Hunter S. Thompson and enjoying a boozy screed for less than the price of a shot of Tequila.

The explosion in self-pub ebooks continues, and shows no sign of abating. JP Locke has become the first self-pub author to join Amazon’s Kindle Million Club, alongside the likes of traditional authors such as Stieg Larson and James Patterson. Have the major publishing houses taken note? You betcha. Are they quaking in their boots? Nope.

Don’t get me wrong, the Big Six are very much focused on ebooks, but their focus is primarily on how the ebook phenomenon affects the monetization of their authors’ works. In other words, they want to get all the milk out of their cows that they can. Pity the poor cows!

So what effect, if any, is there from this surge in self-pub ebooks? Three major results come to mind immediately, and I’m sure there are more (since I’m not that bright). The surge in self-pub ebooks: helps bypass the gatekeepers, provides an avenue of growth for emerging writers, and fosters new markets.

Traditional publishers have been scrambling, at least since November of 2007, when Amazon introduced the Kindle. When you sell water in the desert, you don’t want anyone else’s hand on the spigot. They didn’t joust at windmills. They knew the lessons of Sony v. Universal Studios, a 1984 Supreme Court case that found VCR time shifting, or recording of TV shows to watch later, was not a violation of copyright. The poor networks were afraid their business model was going the way of Uncle Miltie, with people being able to fast-forward through commercials. An ill-founded fear. Last time I looked, the big networks are still around. The lesson: embrace and exploit new technology, and don’t try to keep the genie in the bottle.

And what about the movie studios and their reluctance to embrace video tape? Anyone remember when a copy of a movie cost upwards of $80? (Dating myself here.) But along came E.T., with its $20 price tag, and voila, the viability of home video sales as a profit center was proven. Years later, most movies made more money from DVD sales than from the box office. The lesson: instead of ruination, a new market was born!

So, how does this affect the Big Six? Well, they were mainly concerned with ebooks not cannibalizing paper book sales. Amazon wisely went to school off the iTunes model and gave the copyrighted material some proprietary protection to deter piracy, but the Big Six wanted more. After an initial push where Amazon subsidized sales, capping the price at $9.99, the Big Six wanted, and got, higher prices for their ebooks. What’s a book lover to do?
Enter self-pub ebooks.

As any ambitious Big Six mailroom clerk will tell you, quality is not guaranteed when you purchase a self-pub ebook. This is not a lie. The imprimatur of a major publishing label is a promise of a measure of quality and thorough vetting. But let’s be honest, it is not a guarantee. Promises are occasionally broken. While agents and publishing houses do serve as gatekeepers against the barbarians at the transom, they are also profoundly interested in branding and synergy. The Patterson Inc. books, with its universe of coauthors, are evidence of this. And try to find anything of merit in a Kiyosaki book. I dare ya!

Self-pub ebooks, with all their flaws, bypass the gatekeepers. Writing which never would have seen the light of day in a commercial format now has an outlet. The gatekeepers still keep their eyes open, and will cherry-pick the ripest fruit, such as in the case of Amanda Hocking. But by and large, these books escape the gatekeepers’ scrutiny.

What are you telling us, John? We should rejoice that there are lesser quality books abounding and now available?

No. First off, they are not all lesser quality books. Most of them are not. And I’m telling you this is something to celebrate. Think of this as a rebirth. We have returned to the halcyon days of true pulp fiction, an era which ended in 1957 with the liquidation of the American News Company. Those glory days brought us the likes of Lovecraft, Chandler, Hammett, Bradbury, Heinlein, and many more.

The low entry costs of self-pub ebooks, along with the promotional leverage of social media, have created an era of New Pulp Fiction (minus the pulpy paper from which the moniker derives). Emerging writers have a venue to ply and perfect their trade. Gone are the months long process of sending inquiries to agents, and mailing off three chapter packets only to receive Xeroxed rejection letters. Now writers can get near-immediate feedback on their work, and develop the crucial confidence built on the satisfaction of knowing that someone found their work worthwhile.

Furthermore, self-pub ebooks are not stealing market share from the Big Six. The Big Six will not suffer or wither on the vine. This is a new market. The type of reader who will roll the dice on a 99-cent book from a previously unpublished author is a risk taker, a gambler. Such a reader is a sunny-eyed optimist who is willing to search for that particular new author whose writing strikes a chord within his or her breast. And when that chord is struck, there follow repeat sales of other titles.

Besides sunny-eyed gamblers, there is another important segment of this new market, and that is self-pub authors themselves. A writer writes, and a writer reads. I buy and read self-pub ebooks for enjoyment, to further my understanding of the market, and to improve my own writing by observing what does and what doesn’t work. I am sure that I am not alone.

Sure, the quality can be uneven. And sometimes I pick a lemon. But I liken the experience to attending community theater, where I don’t expect Broadway production values, and I don’t expect Broadway ticket prices. Or it’s like buying something at a craft fair. A homemade tchotchke might not have the machine-straight sewing lines of a factory produced item, but it has character and heart, as the work of an artisan always does.

Viva la ebook! Long reign the New Pulp Fiction!

Review of Hot Coffee

Picture a world where a rapist can execute a contract in advance, limiting his liability for his deeds, and furthermore, forbidding his victims access to the courts for reparations.  Such a contract would limit any such “trial” to an informal hearing before a friend of the rapist.  Which way do you think that friend will decide?  Exactly.  Some world, right?  Guess what?  You already live in it.

But, you say, I would never sign such a contract.  I would never give away my right to go to court.  Even for less serious matters, I would not sign my rights away.  You probably wouldn’t.  Or, at least, you wouldn’t knowingly sign such a contract, or you wouldn’t if you had a choice.  The thing is, if you have a credit card or cellphone, you’ve already signed such a contract.

Nice world, right?

Hot Coffee is a documentary which had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and is now airing on HBO.  Hot Coffee explores these recent phenomena in a succinct and easy to understand style.  The exposition of the facts has clever cuts to people-on-the-street interviews that further underscore the average person’s misconceptions.  I count myself among those possessors of common misconceptions.  These interviews helped me feel less ignorant, or less alone in my ignorance.  Thank you, Director Susan Saladoff, for that.

It wasn’t surprising to me that none of the interviewees could define a tort.  In law school we spent a semester exploring what a tort is.  Many fine legal minds will refuse to put an absolute definition on the term.  The one I decided to live with is “actionable civil wrong.”  That is to say, a tort is a harm for which a lawsuit can be filed.  Examples of torts include slander, libel, malpractice, negligence, and product liability.

But the public misconceptions run deeper than legalese and esoterica.  How did we arrive at these misconceptions?  Is it merely collective indifference?  Perhaps, in part.  But a larger share of the blame goes to the Karl Roves of the world, and their clients, Messrs. Reagan and Bush, and many more.  More particularly, it’s the result of the Rovian’s effective spin-doctoring.

You see, it turns out corporations like candidates who will push for laws which limit their liability.  Corporations give those candidates tons of money.  And politicians like money.  Money gets them into office.  Plus, as the Supreme Court has held: money is speech.  Throw in 2010’s Citizen’s United decision, which held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts cannot be limited, and that money-speech has no boundaries.  So who has a bigger megaphone, you and I, or those with corporate backing?

One of the scary parts is the corporations aren’t satisfied with electing Representatives, Senators, Governors, and Presidents.  Oh no.  Those people only create and enact the laws.  But the laws can be overturned by courts.  So the corporations help fund the elections of judges too.  Now that’s REALLY scary.  Get enough judges on a state supreme court, and those laws will be upheld.  And the corporations will save money.  It’s a sound investment for the corporations, with a solid rate of return.

Now it’s not like you’ll see “Joe Smith for Supreme Court, sponsored by Coca Cola.”  No.  First the corporations fund the US Chamber of Commerce, or ATRA (Association for Tort Reform), and then they in turn finance a whole slew of organizations that look like our neighbors started them, such as Citizens Against Frivolous Lawsuits, or Moms Against Bad Judges.  It’s all very convincing.  These people know what they’re doing.

The spin-doctors have a simple scheme.  Coin a phrase that people can rally to, and pound the point home with truckloads of cash and highly visible speakers.  “Tort Reform” is an excellent example.  The phrase is catchy.  People can rally to it, especially when they don’t know exactly what a tort is, and the spin-doctors choose their archetypes cannily.  They leave out key facts, and make caricatures of the lawsuits.  Hot Coffee explores examples of this very well.  And “Reform”?  Who isn’t for reform?  Reform is about changing things that are horribly wrong.  However, if you were a victim of corporate misbehavior, you wouldn’t see the tort system as being horribly wrong.  But once you’re a victim, it’s too late.  They count on that.  And it works.

Some hold we need tort “reform.”  And they paint an appealing case for it.  Sure, sign on.  Feel good.  Help save the poor “victims” of tort law, such as tobacco companies who promote products known to be deadly and addictive, and carmakers who ignore defects in their vehicles which kill people.  You can support that, right?  I didn’t think so.  Torts help redress prior wrongs and prevent future wrongs.  We need that.  Perhaps the more accurate phrasing of what the Rovians are trying to do is Tort Deform.

Do we want to live in a Corpocracy?  A Corporation Nation?  Do we already?  Should their voices be louder than ours?  Should their “votes” count more?  See the excellent documentary, Hot Coffee, and decide for yourself.


Beginners Movie Review

Caught a film in NYC last night: Mike Mills’ Beginners.  Christopher Plummer plays a recently widowed septuagenarian who comes out of the closet after his wife dies.  Ewan McGregor plays his son, who must deal not only with this radical news, but also with his father being terminally ill with cancer.

I must confess, I was expecting some lighthearted romp where Captain Von Trapp channeled The Birdcage with end-of-life verve and camp, while young Obi Wan stood by and somehow managed to deal.  How wrong I was.  This is no Apatow concept movie (which I also enjoy), but a heart-wrenching encounter that had little to do with Plummer’s emergence, and everything to do with the emotional stunting of McGregor’s character as a result of his parents, despite being true to each other, fostering a household devoid of emotional warmth as a result of not being, in the physical sense, lovers.  This emotional stunting is the centerpiece of the film.

The visual style is a whimsical departure from the ordinary, reminiscent of Savage Steve Holland, minus the anarchy.  Director Mills’ background as a graphic artist serves him well.  Isolation plagues the characters: the mother as a young Jewish girl in the 30s, the father as a closeted gay man for most of his life, and the son, McGregor, as a close to middle-age adult whose expectations of the attainability of a loving partnership are nonexistent and therefore a self fulfilling prophecy.  This isolation is fleshed out through pithy visual editorials, combining brief graphic imagery with voiceovers drenched in melancholy.  Mills excels at these expositions.

All of the characters are quirky and intriguing, and I had to remind myself that this was taking place in Los Angeles, because the film is devoid of the all-too-often seen movie assumption that LA is a town virally infected by the show business industry.  Refreshingly, LA is not a character in this movie.  At least that viral infection is in remission.

Christopher Plummer’s character is a beginner in the sense of his new social life, and he embarks on that journey without much cliché.  However, the meat of the matter is the McGregor character’s introspection, and whether he will surrender to the shackles of his life experience.  He is a beginner in the sense of living a fully realized life.

Melanie Laurent (most famous in the States for her turn in Inglourious Bastards) plays McGregor’s love interest.  She is an ethereal pixie encased in her own idiosyncratic isolation.

This film is devastating in its unflinching view of its characters, and the death of a father from cancer was, for me, so close to home that I forced back my burgeoning tears.  In the end, I was angry with myself for forcing back those tears, and I felt in doing so I did a disservice to the fine cast and their director.  Alas, more viral than show business in movies about LA, in the real world, is emotional stunting.

Beginners is an intelligent yet doleful gem of a movie.