Thursday, July 31, 2014

Spy fiction and Facebook

Spy fiction author Charles Cumming asks: Has modern technology killed the spy thriller?

Stephen King no longer a horror writer?

Not really, as Gary Carden of the Smoky Mountain News explains. Stephen King’s newest is more noir than horror:

“King has abandoned spooks and the supernatural for the traditional hard-boiled detective/noir tale”
This is not necessarily a bad thing, nor an unreasonable change on King's part. King's first novel, Carrie, was published more than 40 years ago, after all. 

By the time King published It, in 1986, there was evidence that he was growing weary of writing novels based on supernatural phenomena. His next book after It, The Tommyknockers, was a turkey. 

I haven't read Mr. Mercedes, but I did read his 2013 novel, Joyland. While it has a strong supernatural element, Joyland is first and foremost a murder mystery. And it's pretty good. 

Even 11/22/63 is more of a fantasy novel than a horror story. Once again, this doesn't keep it from being entertaining. 

Despite a few clunkers, King handles most genres skillfully.

Still, I miss the original Stephen King novels--the ones that depicted epic paranormal battles between good and evil: The Stand, The Shining, Salem's Lot, Pet Sematary, etc. 

King's writing was also a lot tauter and page-turningly readable back then--which may partly explain my preference for his earlier work.

Amazon and the $9.99 ebook ceiling

As the Amazon-Hachette wars continue, Amazon reveals its ultimate game plan: The retailer wants all ebooks to be priced at $9.99 or less.

John Scalzi comments here, in a mostly anti-Amazon rebuttal

Scalzi makes some legitimate points: Amazon is trying to use its weight in the marketplace to determine pricing for everyone. (But Amazon's share of that market is far greater than the 30% Scalzi mentions: Amazon has 60% of the ebook market). 

Scalzi is also correct in pointing out that Amazon, no less than any other corporate entity, is a profit-generating, self-interested enterprise. I recently made a similar argument myself.) 

On a related note, I know of Amazon-published authors (both big names and relative unknowns) who are far too giddy about the potential demise of the "dinosaur" traditional publishing establishment. A market in which Amazon becomes a monopsony for authors' work is ultimately no better than one in which a handful of New York-based publishers perform the same function.)

Scalzi's arguments, then, aren't necessarily wrong, but they are incomplete. There are two key factors behind Amazon's $9.99 strategy that Scalzi overlooks:

1.) The perceived value of ebooks. Readers understand that the marginal production cost of a single ebook is near zero. No, this doesn't mean that "information wants to be free," and therefore ebooks should be priced for free or at $0.99.

However, there is a standard consumer expectation that cost reductions will be partially passed on to them (as is almost always the case with cost increases). For every ebook that is sold in place of a physical book, there are savings in printing, transportation, and handling inside a warehouse. This should be reflected in a significantly lower ebook cost.

2.) The competitiveness of books in the entertainment marketplace: Within the publishing establishment there is a core of writers, publishers, (and even readers) who are sentimentally attached to an industry structure based on the following: A small group of economically inefficient literary agents and publishers (based mostly in New York) release a limited number of high-priced books into the marketplace. These are sold by brick-and-mortar retailers (i.e., the overly romanticized "independent bookshops") at near list price. 

The result is a $27.99 novel--which Amazon sells at a 40% discount, but which the cozy corner bookshop cannot afford to sell at even a 10% discount, because of differences in overheard and economies-of-scale. 

Much of the hostility directed at Amazon is based on the fact that Amazon is asking the publishing industry to behave more like other industries. (Again, I wrote about this in more length the other day.) That means paying attention to real-world economic concepts that other industries (such as the automotive and electronics industries) have used to make their product offerings more diverse, more affordable, and more widely available to consumers. 

This doesn't square with the old-school, romanticized vision of publishing. 

However, one thing that all parties agree on is that both adults and children are reading less than they once did; and this trend can be directly traced to competing forms of entertainment that are technology-based and much cheaper: cable television, Netflix, the Internet, etc.

The publishing industry needs to join the 21st century and behave like other industries. Otherwise it will become a "dinosaur".

*      *     * 

Amazon is attempting to force the publishing industry into making these changes. To be sure, Amazon is also looking after its own business model and its own profits. 

The bottom line, though, is that the old cost structure of the publishing and book retailing industry--the cheese and wine lunches in posh New York restaurants with literary agents, the inefficient corner bookshops, etc., aren't conducive to an economically competitive publishing model for the digital age. 

Amazon has made mistakes; but Jeff Bezos has a grasp of business and economics that most publishing houses (and most authors, for that matter) sorely lack.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Another Amazon hit piece

The literati and their various proxies in the mainstream media have decided that Amazon is a ruthless corporate entity, ranking somewhere between a nineteenth-century sweatshop and Nazi Germany on the despicability scale. 

This is because a.) Amazon has had some very public battles with publishing firms (who the literati and wannabe literati generally like), and b.) because certain influential literati voices (Jonathan Franzen, Richard Russo, Stephen King) have said that Amazon is despicable.

Ergo, Amazon is BAD. 

The mob, remember, thrives on its own slogan-driven emotional energy--not on facts.

Consider this hit piece from Worse than Wal-Mart: Amazon’s sick brutality and secret history of ruthlessly intimidating workers

What you'll learn in this essay (once you peel away the layers of emotion and conjecture) is that Amazon runs its distribution centers according to the same principles that companies like Toyota use to run automobile factories. In other words, Amazon pays attention to factors like time usage and worker productivity. 

Toyota, in fact, is mentioned in the article as a model for Amazon's operations:

"Onetto in his lecture describes in detail how Amazon’s present-day scientific managers go about achieving speedup. They observe the line, create a detailed “process map” of its workings, and then return to the line to look for evidence of waste, or Muda, in the language of the Toyota system. They then draw up a new process map, along with a new and faster “time and motion” regime for the employees. Amazon even brings in veterans of lean production from Toyota itself, whom Onetto describes with some relish as “insultants,” not consultants: “They are really not nice. . . . [T]hey’re samurais, the real last samurais, the guys from the Toyota plants.” But as often as not, higher output targets are declared by Amazon management without explanation or warning, and employees who cannot make the cut are fired. At Amazon’s Allentown depot, Mark Zweifel, twenty-two, worked on the receiving line, “unloading inventory boxes, scanning bar codes and loading products into totes.” After working six months at Amazon, he was told, without warning or explanation, that his target rates for packages had doubled from 250 units per hour to 500."

This is no big deal to me. I worked in the automotive and machine tool industries for years, so I'm used to coping with time studies, and various work quotas and targets being assigned to me. 

And yes, sometimes the goalpost gets moved on you. 

In short, that's the way businesses work in the real world.

That is also why Amazon is able to deliver books to consumers at considerable discounts, whereas those much over-romanticized corner bookshops almost always charge the full sticker price and have a smaller selection. It's all about economies-of-scale and efficiency.

Again, anyone who has worked in manufacturing--or elsewhere in the real world--will be unsurprised to learn that Amazon's distribution centers employ such systems.

On the other hand, an ivory-tower academic cum leftwing journalist like Simon Head (the author of the aforementioned hit piece) is probably shocked to learn that Amazon employs industry-standard business principles. 

Publishing firms are also antagonistic toward Amazon. The publishing industry, based in New York, is generally inefficient, as it is run by English literature majors and ex-journalists, people who have no real grasp of cost management, marketing, or economics. has established the heinous objective of making books more affordable to the reading public, at a time when books must compete with video games, YouTube, and Netflix. And for this the publishing establishment vilifies Amazon as a heartless, uncouth philistine at the gates.

I'm not implying that Amazon is some sort of a utopian workers' paradise. Newsflash: No company is a utopian workers' paradise. 

Corporations exist to make money. But the upshot of corporations making money is that we get cars, books, cell phones, food, and all the other daily necessities of life. Those things don't come from leftwing bloggers, or from discussion groups in the Humanities Department at Harvard. Nor do they come from the government. (Though the government will be happy to tax them at various stages.)

Toyota doesn't manufacture Priuses to make you happy, to help you save money, or to reduce total gasoline consumption. Toyota manufactures Priuses to make money. But all those other benefits accrue to you and me, nevertheless. That's the way the free market works, as opposed to command economies of the former Warsaw Pact nations, where no one had much of anything at any price.

I worked for a large company for fifteen years, a company that has a global presence and worldwide brand recognition. 

My employer, like Amazon, had a "system" that it used to monitor, motivate, and yes, sometimes weed out employees at all levels. That much is true not only at my former employer, but also at General Electric, Amazon, or any other company on earth that stays in business. 

Remember all the dreamy-eyed, idyllic dotcoms that went belly-up in the early 2000s? There was a reason why they went belly-up. They were inefficient, and/or based on unworkable business models.

Interview employees and ex-employees from any large company, and you're going to find people who love the place, and people who claim that it's hell on earth. And a whole lot of people somewhere in between these two extremes.

The solution for you, as an individual, is to remember that no employer is the only game in town. If your workplace really, truly, is hell on earth (or hell on earth for you) then find another workplace--or start a business of your own. 

Simon Head's politically slanted condemnation of proves only two things: 

First, that Head has no understanding of the way businesses work; and secondly, that is not a good match for every employee. 

Neither one of these should be over-interpreted too much, or regarded as a profound revelation.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sunday/Monday giveaway: "The Maze"

Get The Maze free on Amazon Kindle for two days only: July 27 and July 28:

Book description:


Amanda Kearns is a hard-driving executive with a broken heart. Her male subordinates think she is a “machine”; they have no idea of the real, hidden Amanda.

Hugh Jackson is a software salesman with a defective heart—a condition that will kill him in a matter of months or years.

Evan Daley is a young college graduate adrift in a career for which he is ill-suited; he struggles with the scars of a barren, loveless childhood.

Amanda, Hugh, and Evan were expecting another routine day on the job at the Lakeview Towers office complex just outside Columbus, Ohio. But this massive structure hides a secret—a hidden passageway that plunges the unwary into a labyrinthine network of endless, twisting hallways: the Maze.

Trapped inside the Maze, Amanda, Hugh, and Evan must battle their way through perilous corridors filled with half-man, half-wolf beasts called “manwolves”, killer robots, and demonic wraiths known as “watchers”.

But they face their greatest challenge in the snowy, earth-like wilderness on the other side of the Maze. Here a group of ragtag rebels and settlers struggle against a tyrannical demigod known as the Director. The Director is determined to enslave or annihilate everyone within his reach, using a combination of worldly and unworldly weapons.

Amanda, Hugh, and Evan each find love and momentary comfort on the other side of the Maze. But they cannot escape the ultimate battle with the Director. The three Ohioans find themselves forced to choose—between the draw of love and loyalty, and the instinct for self-preservation.

A riveting emotional tale wrapped within a fantasy adventure, THE MAZE is sure to appeal to adult readers who fondly recall childhood “parallel universe” stories like “Through the Looking Glass” and “The Chronicles of Narnia”.

Stephen King's epic fail on Twitter

Stephen King Criticizes Christians, Tea Party Reaction to Border Crisis on Twitter, Gets Owned by Conservatives.

I've been following a little bit of Stephen King's back-and-forth's on Twitter myself. To put it mildly, King's Twitter performance is cringeworthy.

The problem isn't that King is a left-leaning Democrat. Plenty of novelists are left-leaning Democrats. Moreover, King has been in the public eye for decades now, and most people are at least vaguely aware of his political views.

The problem is that rather than presenting thoughtful arguments, King is simply sloganeering.

Whereas his novels represent original thinking, his tweets represent the parroting of other people's views.

The result is that King comes off like a typical rich elitist--the ultimate "limousine liberal".

King probably doesn't care at this point: He's 67, and has more money than he could ever hope to spend. But as one Twitter follower tweeted back at King: "Seriously, offending everyone is maybe not a good plan."

Writing: Give your villain a reason for being bad

If you paid attention during your high school English literature classes, you'll remember the concept of the tragic flaw: This is an innate weakness that compels a basically decent person to make bad decisions. 

Shakespeare is full of examples: Macbeth's overpowering ambition, Othello's jealousy. 

I recently read Dan Brown's Inferno. This book is full of villains, but the most interesting one is Bertrand Zobrist, a brilliant, fabulously wealthy geneticist. There is much about Zobrist that the reader can admire: his brains, his achievements--but Zobrist has a fatal flaw that turns him into one of the book's chief antagonists.

Zobrist is obsessed with a neo-Malthusian theory of overpopulation. He believes that humanity is on the verge of breeding itself into extinction. So Zobrist decides to remedy the situation:  Using his skills as a geneticist, he invents a plague that will wipe out over half of the world's population.

Of course, there is nothing admirable about a man who would kill millions of innocent people. But Zobrist believes that he is working for a higher good--that the ends justify the means. 

This makes Zobrist sympathetic to readers: Don't we all struggle with ends-justifies-the-means conundrums in daily life? Don't we all have obsessive ideas that occasionally override our better judgment? These might be ideas about politics, religion--or maybe an old jealousy or personal slight that we simply can't relinquish. 

This is only one example--and probably not the best one--taken from a recently popular novel. Crime writer Michael Connelly is also skilled at crafting sympathetic villains. Michael Connelly's villains are often driven by motivations that seem--within a highly specific context, at least--to be semi-rational. This is part of what makes Michael Connelly such a successful writer: Readers love his recurring main character, LAPD detective Harry Bosch; but they are also fascinated by his memorable villains.

Stephen Hunter is another crime novelist who knows how to write compelling, human villains. The best example is his novel Dirty White Boys. This novel contains a flawed hero and three villains who--while thoroughly evil--are almost as engaging as the novel's protagonist.

The opposite of the sympathetic villain is the cardboard cutout villain in a black hat. For me, this caricature has always been symbolized by the Snidely Whiplash character in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. 

This is the sort of villain who closes each scene with a sinister but cartoonish bwah-hah-hah!

The cardboard villain in the black hat can also be found in a lot of fiction, much of it entertaining but ultimately forgettable. Clive Cussler's villains commonly fall into this mold: Dirk Pitt (an unrealistic hero to begin with) does battle against one villain after another who is both supremely evil and completely devoid of any characteristics that make him human. If you've read a lot of Cussler's fiction, you may occasionally suspect that Cussler is simply renaming the same villain for each novel, and changing superficial attributes like nationality. You wouldn't be too far from the truth. (Don't get me wrong: I enjoy Clive Cussler's books from time to time, but as literature--even genre literature--they leave much to be desired.)

Since I've written a number of novels and short stories myself, you might fairly ask me if I practice what I preach. My answer is: I try. My favorite villain has always been the sort of villain who reacts badly to a less-than-perfect situation. 

Eleven Miles of Night is a horror novel. The main plot concerns a young filmmaker's trek down a haunted stretch of rural Ohio roadway--the so-called Shaman's Highway. Jason Kelley is the main protagonist of the novel. During his walk down the Shaman's Highway (as part of a paid contract job for a cable TV series, Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose) Jason encounters numerous supernatural phenomena.

But he also encounters various humans--both good and bad. The main human villain of Eleven Miles of Night is Terrence Coyne. We first meet Terrence Coyne in Chapter 8 of the book:

While Jason Kelley was pondering the wildlife along Route 68, Terrence Coyne was finishing his second can of Miller Light. His wife, Bridgette, regarded him with what he perceived to be an accusatory stare. He glared at her and she quickly looked away.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. He opened his refrigerator—their refrigerator, technically speaking—and saw that there were no more beers left. The one in his hand was the last one.
“I’m not looking at you,” she said.
“You were.”
“It’s just that you got drunk last night again. And this is already your second beer tonight.”
“I thought you said that you were taking no notice,” he retorted sharply. He knew that this was not exactly what Bridgette had said; but never mind that. His wife’s holier-than-thou attitude about his drinking never failed to infuriate him. All day he had to endure the tedium of working in his father’s feed store in Wagosh. Wasn't he entitled to a little bit of compensatory drinking? Wasn't he entitled to little bit of fun, for Chrissakes?
He heard his son begin to squall from the far end of their rented house and he felt his anger rise. “Can’t you keep that kid quiet?” he said, in a voice that was a fraction below a shout. He noticed that while there was no beer in the refrigerator, there was plenty of baby formula, and all the healthy crap that his wife liked: low fat milk and cottage cheese. Yogurt and lean ham. Bridgette was responsible for the grocery shopping and she knew that he liked to kick back with a few beers of an evening. Would it kill her to pick up a twelve-pack of Miller Light?
“I’m sorry,” Bridgette said, going out of her way to be conciliatory even though they both knew that he was being an asshole. This was just another part of Bridgette’s holier-than-thou act. It was a stratagem that she employed when he was in an obviously bad mood: She went out of her way to be nice so that he would not have an immediate excuse to vent and lose his temper. Then when he finally did lose his temper, he would feel like even more of an asshole because she had given him no just cause. “I’ll go check on Jeremy.”
He swallowed the last mouthful of beer and watched her walk past. Eighteen months after delivering the baby—their son, he reminded himself—she had lost the last traces of her post-pregnancy weight, and he had to admit that she looked not half bad. Of course, noticing her in that way was the thing that had gotten him into trouble to begin with, if you wanted to get technical about it, and thereby trace the circumstances that had brought about the ruination of his young life. Bridgette Coyne might be holier-than-thou about her husband’s drinking; but she had not been too holy to have sex with him back when she was Bridgette Mackey, a girlfriend whom he had seen as a temporary if enjoyable source of amusement. This side of Carey County wasn't known for its nightlife or its abundance of single young women. And Bridgette Mackey, then barely nineteen years old, had been one of the prettiest of those available. She had been young and sweet and ripe—oh, so ripe.
So Terrence had dallied and he had had his fun. All the while, Bridgette had seemed to be very impressed with him. And why shouldn't she have been? After all, he had been something of a sensation during his days as a running back on the Wagosh High School varsity football team, still less than ten years ago. He was also a scion of the moderately prosperous Coyne family of Carey County.
Then a positive pregnancy test had changed everything. Now he was twenty-six, and trapped with a wife who no longer interested him so much. His son was cute enough in certain moments; but he mostly ate and shat and cried a lot.
He was too young for all this. Wives and children and their associated responsibilities were for some men, he supposed—but not him. Not yet, at least.
Terrence’s days were spent in the tedium of his father’s feed store. Hour upon hour of checking store inventories and waiting on customers. Then balancing the store’s books, sweeping the floors, and setting up new displays. Pretending that a stupid question from a customer wasn't stupid, but the most important thing in the world.
And another thirty years of that were all that was waiting for him, thank you very much.
It was all because of Bridgette. Bridgette and her faulty birth control. When Terrence had met her, she had claimed that she was preparing for college. She had said that she wanted to attend the University of Dayton or Ohio State. A girl like that, Terrence had believed, would take pains to assure that she never got pregnant. Until the day she had informed him that the proverbial rabbit had died.
Bridgette came back into the kitchen. Her displeasure was written on her face. Not displeasure at the baby, of course. She cooed and fussed over Jeremy as if he were an angel descended from heaven. (Terrence wondered, for perhaps the thousandth time, if Bridgette had allowed herself to get pregnant in order to entrap him.) No, Bridgette was upset because he wasn't acting like Father of the Year and Mr. Happy Husband. He wasn't joining the party. Well, it was a party that he had never wanted to attend.
“I’m going to have a few beers with Glenn tonight,” he announced. “We made plans.” This was, in fact, a lie: A night of drinking with his buddy Glenn was a spur-of-moment decision, a reaction to the unexpected depletion of the house’s beer reserves. That and the sudden weight of his domestic claustrophobia. He knew that Glenn would be available. Glenn was always up for a few beers at the Parrot Inn.
“You mean Glenn Rutledge?” she asked.
“No, I mean Glenn Frey, the guy who played guitar with The Eagles. Ol’ Glenn wants to talk with me about his next solo album project. Of course I mean Glenn Rutledge. How many Glenns are there between Wagosh and John’s Mistake?”
“I was just asking,” she said sullenly.
“Well, it was a stupid question for you to be just asking.” He noticed that she recoiled from this rebuke as if his words had physically stung her. Good. That would repay her in part for what she had done to him. He could tell that she was thinking about talking back but thought better of it. She didn't want a repeat of what had happened to her one night last April. Truth be told, neither did he: His father had given him hell about that—and her parents, also. A county sheriff’s deputy had questioned him. “Domestic violence,” the uniformed prick had called it. Only his father’s clout in the county, and a promise to never, ever, ever strike his wife again—no matter what—had kept him out of jail.
“It’s already well past ten,” she said, as if he needed a town crier.
“Well, I won’t be gone late. I’ll be home around midnight,” he said.
Bridgette sighed, resigned. “Okay, Terrence. Have it your way.”
“I ought to get to have somethin’ my way,” he said. Before she could respond to him, he turned on his heels and headed out of the kitchen, through the living room and towards the front door. The main door was already open to let in the fresh air and the smells of the rural summertime. A screen door kept out the mosquitoes and the gnats.
Terrence pushed open the screen door, making a bit of a show of tossing the door back against its hinges. He let the door fall back against the doorframe with a loud slap of wood against metal. The air outside was warm and mildly humid. A trio of moths were fluttering around the front porch light.
It’s a good night for having a draft beer with a buddy. A damned good night for beer. He thought about how good it would be to see the familiar crowd at the Parrot Inn; and then he thought about their new waitress—a hot little number named Tina, or Riley, or something.
These thoughts were still in his mind as he climbed behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Camaro. It was a 2001 model. His car was more than ten years old. He had purchased it only last summer, using the little he had managed to save from his paycheck at the feed store, plus a supplementary loan from his father. A loan that both he and the old man knew would never be paid back.
From the driver’s seat of the Camaro, he surveyed the farmhouse in which he, Bridgette, and Jeremy lived. The rent was eight hundred per month—for space in a house built sometime around World War II, a house that stood too close to Route 68, a house built just a few years after a group of WPA workers had supposedly found ancient human remains while paving the roadway for automobile traffic.
He glanced upward, at the full moon that shone through the branches of the many trees that surrounded the house. The house was practically enveloped by woods. There had once been a farm here—many years ago—but the backyard now gave way to undergrowth a stone’s throw beyond the rear porch. There were a few long-fallow fields in the back that had been taken over by weeds, scrub bushes, and maple saplings—and serious woods beyond that. Almost any spot in Carey County was “country” by Cincinnati or Columbus standards; but this part of Route 68 was really out in the country.
Like practically every resident of the area, Terrence knew all about the Shaman’s Highway and its many legends. He had heard about the demonic witch that supposedly haunted the covered bridge farther down the road; he had heard about the hellhounds and the ghostly voices that were said to emanate from the woods late at night.
“And I ain’t never seen or heard a damned thing,” he said to himself, dismissively. The Shaman’s Highway caused him no fear whatsoever. His friend Glenn had once admitted that the highway creeped him out sometimes, and Terrence had badgered him about it mercilessly. The Shaman’s Highway was a campfire tale for children and imbeciles. No real man would be afraid of anything out here—unless he was a pussy, he had reminded Glenn.
Speaking of his drinking buddy: Before he started the Camaro’s engine, Terrence removed his cell phone from his pocket and typed out a brief message to Glenn Rutledge: “Meet me at the PI. 15 minutes.”
He started the Camaro, backed it up into the yard rather than the gravel turnaround, and then pointed the car at Route 68. He was about to pull onto the main road when his cell phone chimed with a new text message.
“See you there,” Glenn had responded.
Terrence smiled as he gunned the accelerator and the Camaro pulled out onto the Shaman’s Highway. As he had expected, Glenn was up for a beer. Glenn was always up for a beer. 

*        *        *

As you can discern from the above, Terrence is not exactly what most of us would describe as a nice person. He doesn't appreciate his wife and son. In fact, it's apparent that he's even a bit abusive.

However, it's also apparent that Terrence is a supremely unhappy individual: He feels trapped--in an unwanted marriage, and by economic dependence on his father...A job that he hates but must neverthless endure.

As a reader, you certainly won't approve of the way in which Terrence reacts to his situation. I certainly didn't while writing the book. But you can probably relate to Terrence's feelings of being "trapped" by life's circumstances. Most of us feel trapped at one time or another--if not by an unwanted relationship, then by the lack of a relationship that we do want.

Readers (I hope) will find Terrance to be a sympathetic, human villain, because he isn't a cardboard caricature in a black hat, bellowing bwah-hah-hah while he plots the downfall of civilization. Terrence is a human character who reacts badly to a bad situation. He has an alibi for the bad decisions he makes in Eleven Miles of Night. But the reader knows (or at least believes) that he or she would have made better decisions if placed in Terrence's shoes.

The sympathetic villain who is corrupted by a fatal flaw is a cousin of Shakespeare's tragic hero. There are other kinds of villains, too. For example, there is room for the thoroughly evil, unredeemable character, so long as that character has human touches that make him believable. 

I'll explore this in a subsequent post.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The kappa and the giant salamander

From the Kamogawa River of Japan. Giant Salamander of Japan not the Largest in the World

"These giant salamanders are rarely seen because they seldom come out from their aquatic habitats in cool, well-oxygenated mountain streams. They can't see too well too but have special photosensitive cells in the skin that give them pretty good perception. 
 Some people say that these animals inspired tales of the legendary kappa in Japan."

The Japanese characters for kappa are 河童 , in case you're interested.

Life after Harry Potter

This I didn't know: JK Rowling also writes crime fiction under a pseudonym: JK Rowling plans crime bookspree

She must truly love the work; she certainly doesn't need the money!

Ghosts in the suburbs

From my neighboring state of Pennsylvania:

VIDEO: ‘Ghost’ attacks news reporter in Pennsylvania home

Watch the entire video. While many of these "ghost videos" are undeniably hoaxes, this one does raise some interesting questions. 

If this one is a hoax (which who knows--maybe it is), it would have required the collusion of multiple parties, including the reporters who filed the story.

Fouad Ajami 1945-2014

I'm a little late on this one, but you should read a book on the Middle East from Fouad Ajami if your schedule allows. 

Dr. Ajami truly understood the conflicts of that region both from an insider's as well as an outsider's perspective:

Friday, July 25, 2014

The catharsis of exhibitionism

Yet one more example of how digital technology makes life more complicated, even as it makes life simpler: Woman Accidentally Sexts Dad, Shares Drama With Twitter

It used to be that when you did something embarrassing (as we all have, at one time or another), you kept quiet about it, and it went away.

But in the narcissistic age of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagam, many find catharsis in wallowing in their faux pas where everyone can see.

Note to readers: If do accidentally sext the wrong person (not that I sext anyone, mind you) don't expect me to talk about it here.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Amazon the "retailer of the future"?

Perhaps. But investors might be growing weary of the company losing money each quarter. Amazon's Loss Widens as Bezos Keeps Spending.

Regular readers will know that I'm generally pro-Amazon. However, Amazon must avoid two classic "Internet company" pitfalls moving forward:

1.) The temptation to try to be all things to all people. Brick-and-mortar businesses all realize that they need to define a limited, tightly focused business model and stick to it. Internet companies, by contrast, suffer from a constant temptation to expand into sidelines. 

2.) Pay attention to cash flow: A decade and a half ago, thousands of dotcoms went bankrupt because they believed that the Internet was "special", and therefore, online companies weren't bound by the first need of any viable going concern: to generate a positive cash flow.

Amazon has been around since 1995. That's almost twenty years. It is no longer a "start-up", and it should not behave like one.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Stephen King a "bad writer"?

A writing instructor nitpicks King's style in Con Games: Why Stephen King Can't Write. Below is a relevant sample:

"Teaching a writing class last week, I went to the top of the bestseller lists and did a blind taste test of Stephen King's "Mr. Mercedes." Here's the third paragraph from the new novel: 
 "When Augie reached the top of the wide, steep drive leading to the big auditorium, he saw a cluster of at least two dozen people already waiting outside the rank of doors, some standing, most sitting. Posts strung with yellow DO NOT CROSS tape had been set up, creating a complicated passage that doubled back on itself, mazelike."  
Surprise! I used this paragraph to highlight what I consider bad writing. Only later did I realize Stephen King makes these mistakes on purpose for reasons he explains in his how-to "On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft." Give me a minute on the road with "Mr. Mercedes" and I'll explain.  
Strike One: "a wide, steep drive leading to the big auditorium" is vague enough to mean almost anything and therefore means nothing. What's a big auditorium? What's a steep drive? And why bother with those generic, indistinct details to begin with on the first page of a novel?  
Strike Two: what in the name of all that's scary is a "rank of doors"? Is it some kind of hierarchy or grading system or a band from the Sixties? I have no idea, and if you're honest, neither do you. It's a stinkeroo.  
Strike three: "a complicated passage that doubled back on itself, mazelike." I immediately thought of Jack Nicholson in "The Shining," one of King's best concoctions, but this was not a maze at all. The "complicated passage," as King writes on, was designed "to cram as many people as possible into as small a space as possible," the way they do in "movie theaters and the bank."  
In fact, the passage is not only not "mazelike" but almost exactly the opposite: a line, like the ones you see at airport security and DisneyWorld, that moves you to the front with no chance of losing yourself because you have no choice. The crammees are in a "cluster" to begin with, rendering the notion of a maze completely incoherent.

Writing is an inexact science; and it will always be possible to cherry-pick sentences from bestsellers and find flaws in them. (As this essay came from a writing instructor, we shouldn't be surprised at his approach.)

When taken to extremes, clunky sentence structure and bad form can indeed get in the way of an otherwise compelling work of fiction (if these flaws become unavoidably distracting). 

At the end of the day, however, story is still the most important factor. (A disconcerting amount of what is known as literary fiction is filled with "good writing" but dull stories.)

To answer the question posed in the title: Heck, no. Stephen King is a great writer, a great storyteller. 

But it is fair to point out that some of his books are better than others: Carrie, Pet Sematary, The Stand, 'Salem's Lot and The Dead Zone are among the best examples of popular modern fiction.

From a Buick 8 and Cell, on the other hand, well...not so much.

"The next frontier of readership?"

Amazon's new Kindle Unlimited service may be of interest to some of you. And (shameless promo) a handful of my books are available through the service as well. 

However, it's important to evaluate the cost-benefits on an individual basis. While there are a lot of books in the Kindle Unlimited program, it isn't necessarily the most cost-effective reading option for everyone. 

A fixed commitment of $9.99 per month still comes out to $120 per year, after all. 

And there are many books that aren't available through Kindle Unlimited. (It is only a portion of the catalog, in other words.)

"Eleven Miles of Night" free 7/24 on Amazon Kindle

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"Jason Kelley is a young, struggling filmmaker looking for his first big break. When the semi-famous cable television ghost hunter Simon Rose approaches him about a freelance project, Jason is understandably thrilled.

He isn’t fazed by the fact that his assignment is a walk down the Shaman’s Highway, an eleven-mile stretch of rural Ohio roadway that is reputed to be haunted by malevolent spirits, hellhounds, and demonic forces. Jason is an agnostic in regard to the supernatural.

He isn’t prepared for the reality that awaits him on his walk through eleven miles of night—nor the more human violence and heartbreak that he will face along the way."