Category Archives: Observations

Fun With Meter


I have never been much of a poet. Despite taking creative writing classes for years and all that, it turns out that I can write poems that follow specific forms and are technically correct – but still terrible, or at best not even rising to the level of mediocre.

I do enjoy playing around with meter, though. One of the interesting things about it is that there are really only so many ways you can write a rhyming poem with meter. So that means that many poems share the same meter and structure, and some of those are set to music. For example, Emily Dickinson was so enamored of the 7-6-7-6 meter that all of her poems can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas.

Recently some clever folks on the Internet came up with a far more sinister example of meter overlap. They discovered that the H. P. Lovecraft poem Nemesis has the exact same meter as Billy Joel’s signature song Piano Man. How does that sound, you might ask? Well, have a listen above. You can find the text of Nemesis here. It’s way creepier than a straightforward tune about a guy playing music in a piano bar.

Back in 2009 Slate put up a piece arguing that Billy Joel’s music is somehow transcendentally awful. Personally I’m pretty neutral on Billy Joel – I don’t particularly like his music, but I don’t particularly hate it either. It’s cheesy pop that I can take or leave. The article makes me wonder if the author had some bad childhood experience that took place while Billy Joel was playing in the background – because, let’s face it, in the 1980’s you could barely turn on a radio without hearing one of his songs.

But if the core of Piano Man somehow resonates with creeping Lovecraftian horror, I may need to revise my opinion. What if Joel’s music is not merely bad or schlocky, but evil? What if it is the means by which the Elder Gods intend to return to the world from the dark recesses of human imagination? Maybe that’s why he’s been popular for so long – his songs tap into an eldritch reservoir of ancient power that helps to embed them within the foundation of human consciousness.

Granted, it may just be a coincidence. But isn’t it more fun to envision Joel as an emissary of the ancient ones, promulgating their message through his music, and in the process slowly being driven mad?

Check It Out! I’m Rich!

arcana_screenshotWell no, not really. But this listing on Amazon was too good not to share. You can click on the image to enlarge.

Now to be clear, that’s a real listing, not something I whipped up with my mad MS Paint skills. You can check it out right here. Somebody has a used copy of my novel Arcana on sale for $713.52. Besides being an oddly specific number, that’s way more than it costs anywhere else. If one copy is worth $713.52, and I’ve got twenty of them in a box right here plus a few more on my bookshelf, that’s like fifteen thousand bucks. I’m sitting on a small fortune, right?

Amazon will even give you five dollars off your order. What a deal!

In fact, this listing highlights one of the more dubious practices I see on Amazon whenever a new book comes out. Somebody will put up a listing for a used copy – you know, before any copies have been sold and when I know that for sure – for some ridiculous price. Then, the listing just sits there for years. My working hypothesis is that it takes very little effort to list a book, and there are a few collectors out there dumb enough to pay those silly prices on the assumption that the book must be worth something if it’s priced so high and they’ve never heard of it. Then, on the off chance the vendor does make a sale, they buy the book at the regular price, ship it to the buyer, and pocket the difference.

It’s sure nice work if you can get it.

Postmodern Novel Bingo

postmodern_novel_bingoThe “literary versus genre” debate rages on. This article from Current Affairs discusses the universal acclaim received by Nathan Hill’s 2016 debut novel The Nix. It’s a postmodern novel about… well, what are postmodern novels about, anyway? To me, that’s part of the problem, and that always makes them a hard sell in my world. I may never be a great prose stylist just because I seem to lack the “love of language” that characterizes the best of them, and that means I always have been much more interested in what an author is saying than in how he or she is saying it.

Critics from major publications were united in their praise. They agreed not merely that The Nix was good, but that it was breathtakingly good. Said The Independent: “Reading The Nix—all 620 pages of it—is an experience of complete unadulterated pleasure.” Said The New York Times: “Hill has so much talent to burn that he can pull off just about any style, imagine himself into any person and convincingly portray any place or time… the author seems incapable of writing a pedestrian sentence or spinning a boring story.” Said The Guardian: “Hill is an assiduous selector of words whose artistic concentration seldom lapses. He is also a very musical stylist—the book is full of long, beautifully counterweighted sentences and subtle cadences that change from voice to voice as different characters take up the narrative.” Booklist compared Nathan Hill to John Irving. John Irving compared Nathan Hill to Charles Dickens.

So what I can get out of that is according to critics, Hill is a very good writer. There’s not much at all in there telling you what the novel is actually about, so I suppose the point is that if you’re the sort of person who values prose styling over the actual story, this is the book for you. On the other hand, if you’re actually looking for a good story, the article points out that this might not be the book for you at all.

In the interests of sparing you the trouble of reading the whole thing yourself, I’ll summarize the plot briefly for you here. The Nix is the story of a sexually frustrated academic who despises his students. Most of the first part of the book is an extended flashback to the time in his childhood when his mother abandoned him. Cut to his mother. She has an extended flashback to the time in her college days when she was peripherally involved in some anti-Vietnam protesting. There is a longish interlude about a kinky affair between a police officer and the mother’s college roommate, who enjoys being choked. The mom and the son have some cursory present-day interactions for the purposes of linking the two storylines together. There is a shocking twist at the end where you find out that one minor character is actually a different minor character. The end.

Oh, wait, there was also another plotline where the academic is in love with a violinist but her soldier brother sends the academic a deathbed letter from Iraq telling him not to have sex with his sister, so he doesn’t. Also a malnourished recluse named Pwnage nearly dies of a blood clot after playing a video game for too long. This is described at considerable length and has more or less nothing to do with any other part of the plot. The end.

Wow, that sure sounds like a story I want to read – NOT. Seriously, though, I haven’t read this novel and I have no idea whether it’s really any good. A lot of critics loved it, and Brianna Rennix, the author of the linked article, hated it. From the description here what I can say is that no matter how well-written it is, it’s not something I’m ever likely to read. To me, the story sounds boring and pointless, and no amount of prose styling, no matter how skillful, can fix that.

So why has this dreary novel received so much adulatory attention from the critical establishment? Well, aside from the possibility of a highly concerted behind-the-scenes wining-and-dining campaign by Nathan Hill’s agent, my only explanation is that literary critics are trained to respond to certain cues that signal to the reader that a given book is A Serious Work Of Postmodern Literature. Over recent decades there has been a hiving-off of books into lowbrow “genre novels”—mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, romance, and the like—and “literary novels,” which are all self-consciously vying for an immortal place in the Great Books canon.

But just as mystery novels have their locked rooms and romance novels their kilted Scotsmen, the literary novel is a genre like any other, with predictable tropes and a predetermined range of narrative possibilities. Postmodern writing has a very strong focus on literary style: it prioritizes conveying a mood rather than telling a story, and writing a “striking” descriptive sentence over presenting a fully-realized three-dimensional character. The art of the short story, being easier to read and grade, is more highly-prized by MFA instructors, and consequently the novels produced by MFA-trained writers have a cobbled-together feel of multiple short stories mashed into something of a novel-length. So-called experimental elements, such as unusual text formatting, have long since ceased to be experimental: they are now well-established formulas.

Here Rennix absolutely nails it. When people go about how the genres I write in, science fiction and fantasy, are not “literary,” I just roll my eyes. While it’s true that much genre fiction is not well-written enough to qualify, the subject matter itself should not be disqualifying. After all, “dysfunctional family” is a genre too, and we all know how much “literary” writing employs the same old tropes of abusive parenting and the like.

Now I’m not trying to argue that I’m necessarily a good enough writer for my fantasy or science fiction to be considered literary, I just think the idea of dismissing entire classes of subject matter out of hand is profoundly misguided. If you think fantasy can’t be literary, read Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Anybody who tells me that’s not a literary-quality novel is absolutely full of it. Prose in science fiction tends to be more sparse and minimalistic, but what about pieces with massive and intricate world-building, like Frank Herbert’s Dune?

My point is this – evaluating novels as “literary” or “not literary” should depend not on their genre, which might be “dysfunctional family” or “post-modern” or “science fiction” or “fantasy.” It should be based on their overall quality as novels, regardless of their subject matter. Personally, I read very little of the “literary” stuff under the current definition just because I’m not that interested in reading about regular life. I already have one of those.

And as I see it, magical powers and advanced technology are interesting. A bunch of characters who waste their time agonizing about a bunch of stupid crap, or whining about what assholes their parents were, are not. Likewise, all too often “experimental” is just another word for “garbage.” I know there are people out there who feel completely differently, which is good. I find it particularly sad when authors can’t find an audience. I’m just not going start reading this stuff myself any time soon.

Now is it just me, or does that “postmodern novel bingo” card up there look like a writing prompt? Maybe I can figure out a way to work every single one of those into a novel that is simultaneously postmodern, dysfunctional family, science fiction, and fantasy. That would show them!

This Explains a Lot

BookMarketingI came across this point in an article about marketing movies, but it seems to me that it probably applies to marketing books as well. For all people talk about the possibility of books “going viral” on the Internet, from what I’ve seen it hardly ever happens. A lot of author discussion groups talk about cultivating word of mouth and so forth, but in the real world even getting somebody who already likes your book to write an Amazon review is tough. So what’s going on here?

There is a chapter in Derek Thompson’s book, “Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction,” published in February, about how things go viral in the age of the internet. Basically, they don’t. Rather than spreading from individual to individual, Thompson, working from research done by Yahoo, argues that “Popularity on the Internet is ‘driven by the size of the largest broadcast.’” Things that spread on the internet are generally shared by one large host source (a celebrity’s Twitter account, a big media outlet, etc.) to many smaller sources with diminishing and discreet (in-person) shares from the infected pool. “Digital blockbusters are not about a million one-to-one moments as much as they are about a few one-to-one-million moments,” Thompson writes.

This potentially has huge implications for marketing books. It suggests that the most efficient path to success is to focus your resources on getting the attention of the largest possible media outlet and letting the rest of the marketing take care of itself. I don’t know that it’s necessarily true, but I will say that it fits my experience better than what is usually considered the “conventional” viral model. It might just be that viral popularity is more suited to things like YouTube videos that require little investment in terms of time. Books certainly don’t fall into that category. Go big or go home, indeed.

So I’m going to think about this, and see if there’s any good way that I can test it out to see if Thompson is right. Getting the attention of large media outlets was always difficult, so in a lot of ways this statement makes it sound like the old “gatekeeper” system is still in place – it just now operates at the level of media exposure rather than book acquisitions. In some ways it’s a little disheartening, but at the same time there’s no way to effectively hack a system if you don’t know where the levers are that make it run. It’s axiomatic that everything can be hacked – you just have to figure out how do it.

Should I Really Be Writing Like This?

viking_vampire_angel
I ask because a friend of mine posted this on Facebook, and I thought that the book summary had to be a joke. It isn’t. But here’s what’s more depressing – its sales rank is currently #10,083. The top book of mine at the moment is #163,060. That’s a pretty big difference.

Now to be clear, I haven’t actually read this thing and maybe it’s well-written. It’s the seventh book in the series, so we’re talking about an author with an established fan base. It could be something like The Southern Vampire Mysteries, which seems like it adds a new paranormal trope with every book, so by the time you get to the end of the series the whole world is basically one big mess. Vampires, shapeshifters, werewolves, were-everything-elses, witches, maenads, fairies, you name it.

Still, the setup seems like the author was especially careful to jam every paranormal trope she could think of into a single story, along with terrorists, cowboys, and vikings (!). So is that the secret to becoming a bestselling author? Combine so many tropes together that there’s something for everyone, whether or not it makes any sense? I sure hope not.

Understand, I don’t begrudge Sandra Hill her success. Making serious money as a writer is really tough. She must be doing something right, I just haven’t figured out what it is yet. I totally want to know.

I have a novel that I’ve been working on that basically satirizes this sort of thing and I wish I were a lot further along on it, because we have to be reaching the perfect time to release it any day now. Sadly, it’s not even half done.

Instead of Arcana, They’re Filming This?

I often joke with friends about how there’s no culture left because we used it all up. As evidence I point out all of the terrible Hollywood films that are either pointless remakes or rehashes of old television shows. Thankfully there’s still no big-screen version of B.J. and the Bear, a truly terrible show that Kevin Smith described in Mallrats as “there’s a concept I can’t get enough of – a man and his monkey!” In all fairness, though, if Kevin Smith were to write and direct it I probably would see it. That could be seriously hilarious.

Obviously as a writer I know from personal experience that there are new story ideas being written all the time, and I do think that Arcana would make a pretty cool film. It has interesting characters and a lot of action so it certainly wouldn’t be dull, and with the way the magick works the special effects budget wouldn’t have to be insane. It also would finally be a chance for Hollywood to put magical spells on film that don’t consist of wands or fingers that shoot glowing laser beams. I mean, does anyone in the world really think that genuine magick looks like that?

But I digress. What do I come across today online as the latest Hollywood bright idea? Rather than optioning my action-filled story about magick they are planning a film about – get this – the Magic 8-Ball! We must have reached the bottom of our cultural barrel if studio executives are digging through their childhood toy boxes looking for movie ideas. I do have to admit that Pirates of the Caribbean was way better than it had any right to be considering that it was based on a theme park ride, but how do you build a plot around the Magic 8-Ball? I mean, it’s not a character and it doesn’t really do anything.

Here’s my totally self-serving advice for Hollywood: film Arcana instead!

Arcana Synchronicities?

One of the things that you will start to notice when you take up a disciplined magical practice is that synchronicities – odd coincidences – start to become more common. There is some debate over whether this effect is simply the result of your mind being open to more information and thus noticing things that it might not have previously or if this is an external macrocosmic effect brought on by invoking magical forces.

However it works, I’ve had my first report from a reader of a synchronicity associated with reading Arcana. There is a lot of genuine magick in the book, so I suppose it’s possible that reading it could act in the same way as taking up some degree of magical practice. The synchronicity reported was relatively minor – upon finishing chapter 4, which ends with the apocryphal Chinese curse, the reader reported hearing that particular expression four times that same evening. Still, I find the idea that readers of the book might experience these sorts of things fascinating.

Have any other readers noticed a similar effect? Feel free to let me know if you have, either here or on Facebook. You can also send a private message or e-mail if you wish to remain anonymous – I just would like to be able to compile the data if it’s out there.