Friday, June 29, 2012

The Good Book Review

Most book reviews are not entertaining. They grind axes that should best be left in the woodshed. They get really snarky. Sometimes they don’t review the book at all, instead reporting only on the reviewer’s place in life and his/her attitude toward the author.

At a minimum, a good book review should include a brief synopsis, follow the plot, address the characters, riff the dialogue, and comment on the pacing. Also, it should cover the story mechanics, flow with the language, and convey the message of the story. In short, a good book review should make its point with focus, clarity, and substance.

A good book review should have both positive and negative points, with a balance. Sometimes you write a review with the intention of giving a new writer a leg up; in that case, you may take it a little easier on him/her than you would on, say, the Larssons of the world. Sometimes, though, your true, toxic feelings toward the story are so powerful that you have to just let rip; in that case, it’s a lot easier if the author has already bought his yacht with the massive profits. Always, you need balance, because, as a reviewer, your integrity is on the line.

A good book review should also include an excerpt or two. Not only do you want to give a potential reader an opportunity to sample the stuff, but you also want to remain true to the material. An excerpt keeps you honest.

A good book review should address the two most important aspects of the reading experience: the reader’s enjoyment and the story’s consistency. Enjoyment is a subjective thing, of course, but in the end, you have to pass judgment. That may be why the rating system is so popular; it’s just so easy. 

Consistency, on the other hand, should be totally objective. We’ll cover that in the next installment: Synthetic, but Consistent.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Focus, Clarity, Substance

When I was in high school, my English teacher told me three words that I have never forgotten: focus, clarity, substance. If you fulfill the promise made by these three, she advised, you will be a long way toward effective writing.

Wow. How obvious, I thought. Of course, those ideas which are most obvious are often the most brilliant. What a different world we would inhabit if only decisions were made based on the obvious, rather than the implied, or worse yet, the rationalized.

Focus requires discipline – discipline to avoid tangents, discipline to stick to the subject matter, discipline to stay the course. There is no substitute. The only alternative would be a stream-of-consciousness, and that’s no alternative at all. Unless you’re a Buddhist monk staring at a cave wall for forty years and training your mind with laser focus, then your consciousness probably streams like an explosion of confetti. You’ve got all kinds of thoughts roiling around up there, moving in a thousand different directions at a million miles an hour.

Especially these days. Our generation was raised on television, and we’ve spawned a new generation raised on Internet. Let’s be honest: neither of those encourage patient, sober, critical thought. With insidious infiltration, television and the Internet have infected our collective minds with a strange, voyeuristic suspension of disbelief. People are just plain credulous. They are.

Which brings us to clarity. Clarity is a harsh mistress, whose raw, bright light generally reveals all the ugly little imperfections you would rather cover up. You can believe what you see, or you can see what you believe, but there doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. With respect to my old English teacher, clarity was the ability to express that rawness. There is a fundamental disconnect between your thoughts and their expression, and bridging that divide determines the level of clarity in your message.

All of which culminates in substance. Here is where the rubber meets the road. After all, who doesn’t want a little detail in their otherwise skeletal plot? Without such supporting material, any message would devolve into empty shouting. In fact, the most effective messages are those which go unspoken, because the reader already knows them to be true. By creating an entirely consistent, synthetic world via the printed word, you can let the idea communicate itself.

I’m not sure if that is what my English teacher was getting at, but hey – it was high school, alright?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Tournament Profession

The famous Freakonomics professor, Steven Levitt, in his famous analysis of drug dealers, used the term “tournament profession” to describe any line of work in which only a very small number of people actually succeed, while an infinitely larger number of people underneath them toil for little or no reward. Recently, I’ve been reading a lot about “self-publishing” being such a profession. That’s hard to dispute. 

Here is a partial list of the things which I’ve done to promote myself and my book, Machines of Kali. I’m having fun, but it’s a little appalling. Without even trying too hard, I’ve already established four separate Internet presences.

I have a website which is hosted by my domain name provider. This website is itself pointed to by several other domain names which I own, and I have at least one email account associated with it. This website consists of a splash page, an illustrative cover page, a plot synopsis, a chapter sample, an artist bio, and a link to my book’s Amazon page. I concocted the entire website myself, but only because I’ve had so much experience doing this in the real world, it would have been silly to outsource it. 

I’m already on my book’s 2nd book cover, both of which I conceived and executed. I could have paid someone else to do this. Many authors do just that. With all due modesty, though, I couldn’t think of anyone I knew who was better at art direction. Doing a cover, however, required some basic leg/grunt work. I bought a font collection from my local computer store, asked my printer to scan some pictures for me, learned GIMP from scratch, acquired several images from IStockPhoto, and so on.

I opened a Blogspot account, which you are reading. I actually enjoy writing this stuff. It’s not heavy lifting or anything. The only cumbersome aspect is dealing with a 3rd party, but I know that I don’t want to host my own blogging site.

I opened a Twitter account. This was especially weird for me, because I don’t yet grok Twitter. However, I’m starting to see its charm. It’s like any other strange new application – difficult to grasp at first, but indispensable over time. It was the same way with Lotus 1-2-3 back in the 80s, just as it was with Mosaic in the 90s. (FYI: those were, respectively, the first popular spreadsheet and the first proper Internet browser.) 

Naturally, I had to update my Amazon author page with everything listed here, including my email, website, Twitter handle, etc.. There are so many other little bullet items, but I’m only scratching the surface. It’s just a lot of stuff, and that's the tournament profession.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

GIMP Uber Alles, Part 3

Computer graphics apps are bursting at the seams with cool features to tweak and manipulate your images. If you’re at all familiar with visual arts concepts like color spectrums, contrast fades, and like, you know how prevalent these are in even the most simple programs. The sophistication only rises the further you go, starting with MS Paint on your Windows Accessory Menu and moving up the scale to monumentally expensive, custom installations like the Avatar suites. For most of us in the middle, of course, there is PhotoShop, and its open-source counterpart, GIMP.

I made my first book cover with MS Paint, and it showed. For my next attempt, I used GIMP. What a revelation. If I hadn’t had the experience of using Paint, I would never have appreciated the magnitude of the upgrade.

Here’s the deal. The most critical difference between a serious image processing program like GIMP and a simple graphics app like MS Paint is its ability to maintain multiple, separate layers of the same image. For instance, take a simple logo on top of a photograph. Think print ad. In a graphics app like Paint, you would have to write your logo text directly onto a JPEG image. If you needed to move the logo, then you had to undo the text and start over. With GIMP, you would load the JPEG image into one layer, then create a wholly separate layer for your logo. This you could color, distort, and manipulate any way you want. You could see how it would interact with the image underneath it, then move it, resize it, or do anything else that the occasion fancied. 

For my new book cover, I decided I needed multiple elements. The first thing I did was troll for appropriate imagery. My book featured 1) a beautiful woman, 2) a full moon, 3) a satellite, 4) a city at night, 5) guns, 6) cars, and 7) circuitry. For each of these, I copied a dozen different thumbnails. By loading these into separate layers in GIMP, I was able to recombine them endlessly, trying new combinations at will.

 Eventually satisfied that my mock-up was as good as it could be, I procured the images themselves. When I replaced the blurry thumbnails with these high-resolution files, it was like - Bam! The effect was immediate. With these real layers in place, I spent the next week rotating, moving, scaling, distorting, shading, colorizing, cropping, and doing everything else I wanted within GIMP. 

Wow. It was such a better experience. But don’t take my word for it. Here are my two book covers, side by side. See for yourself.