Friday, September 21, 2012

Mark Coker’s Visage

Last week, I had never heard of Mark Coker. This week, I think he’s a god.
I’ve been on the Amazon Kindle market for several months now. In that time, I’ve been uprunning all the other operations of my little indie authorship (professional cover art, internet presence, tangential projects, etc.), Finally, I decided to expand my distribution. I’d heard of Smashwords all along, of course: in the world of e-readers, as the saying goes, there’s Amazon and, for everything else, there’s Smashwords.
But after finding the Smashwords website and printing out their how-to booklets, I had a strange epiphany. At the end of every doc, there was the same smiling face, lit from beneath by an oddly encroaching light source which gave the curve of the mouth a strange smirk it could not otherwise possess. It was a startling effect, given that it was such a tiny image at the end of an otherwise overloaded instruction booklet. How often do you plow through a formatting manual just to arrive at some guy’s smiling face?
That’s how I knew that Smashwords was completely different from Amazon. Don’t get me wrong. The Kindle opened my eyes to a brand new world, and Amazon is still my favorite tech company. But discovering Mr. Coker’s creation Smashwords has been like discovering a new friend.
These documents that I printed were clearly a labor of love, showing an artist playing to an audience of one. Mr. Coker’s instructional copy came off the page like he was talking to me directly, like we were all in on the same joke. Since he was in our position not so long ago, he’s got the exact same mindset. But the difference with this guy is that he did something about it. And he knows it.
Something else I found really impressive was the originality of his business model. Another author once said: there is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Mr. Coker clearly anticipated the e-reader tide, observed the fragmentation of formatting, and concocted a simple solution: one formatter, multiple outputs. Most importantly, he saw the headaches he could avoid by NOT being a publisher. Smashwords is a distributor, plain and simple, and their throughput is driven by their formatter. 
The marketing genius behind this simple idea is so zen, so meta, that it’s hard to imagine a world where it had never existed at all. For me, that world was last week. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Components of Essay

I’ve been writing a lot of essay-length stuff recently. By “essay-length” I mean around 500 words. The funny thing is that, just like quantum physics, at that scale a certain distinct rule emerges. No matter the content – explication, review, entertainment – I’ve found that the length itself defines the requirements. 
Oddly enough, though, the method itself comes in different flavors. In fact, there are three different processes, each with three different phases, that I can delineate off the top of my head.
The first process is 1) ideas, 2) outline, and 3) write. This is the most academic of the different flavors. The first phase, ideas, is the most important. Here I would work out the general concepts, with lots of research and reflection, all the while getting them straight in my head. Eventually, this generation of ideas would inform their presentation. This is where the outline would come in. By this time, the organization should be obvious, and so this phase would be quick (it’s only 500 words, after all). Finally, I would write. If I’ve done the first two phases correctly, writing should be a stark exercise of only manifesting the ideas, and nothing more. 
The second process is 1) write, 2) organize, and 3) glue. In this flavor, I would spew out as many ideas as I could. Some may call it “freestyle” writing, but it’s not really stream-of-consciousness per se, because I have specific topics I want to discuss. Once I reached a critical mass of copy (which is easy to spot when you’re restricted to 500 words), I would go back and move it around to the point where I felt it created a coherent narrative. Since it’s a little disjointed, I would have to go back and glue it all together; that way, it reads like a full-on narrative and not a patched-up mess.
The third process is 1) spew, 2) buff, 3) and promote. This is a catch-all flavor. As a discrete course of action, it probably belongs somewhere else since it’s not an organizing sequence. However, there is a place in the creative process for embellishment as its own element. The most important part, by far, would be the buffing. In fact, only when the buffing is satisfactorily complete would I then promote this to a public venue. If it’s never complete, so be it. This process, since it is dedicated to turning internal thoughts into public discourse, is probably closest to the pure technical definition of communication.
So, those are my three different courses of action when it comes to essay-writing.
Next question is: what did I use for this essay?  Well, that’s a good question.
I’m not answering.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Here’s The Deal

In my day job, I work with financial computer programs. Usually, I’m the last guy in line to answer the question, “Where did this number come from?” Being the guy who explains such hidden behavior is kind of like being the Man Behind the Curtain. You have to come out and explain, “Here’s the Deal.”
What does this have to do with fiction? Simple. Just as an artist should be equally proficient in drawing, painting, sculpture, photography, and digital, just as the lead guitarist should be able to play bass, piano, drums, and sing, and just as the black belt karate master should know about boxing, muy thai, judo, akido, wrestling and so on, the proficient writer should be able to handle all sorts of disciplines.
It takes a special discipline to decipher the invisible. Think of all the components of fiction: plot, character, verisimilitude, point of view, sequencing, and the rest. All these are meant to tell a story where there is nothing. A straight-up exposition of logic is much the same thing, except that nothing has been replaced by confusion. In a way, that is harder to do, because there is a pre-existing misconception of which one must dispose before even starting the explanation.
One of my favorite proverbs is the Three Blind Men and the Elephant. It goes like this:
Three blind men approach an elephant. The first grabs its trunk and says, “Ah ha! This creature is like a snake.” The second wraps his arms around a leg and says, “No, this beast is a tree.” The third feels its great flapping ears and pronounces, “You’re both wrong! It is a bird.”
All three are right. Yet, all are completely wrong. The elephant beyond their localized perceptions is something else entirely. When you attempt to explain what The Deal is, you have to address those perceptual shortcomings. It’s a skill. Being able to say “Here’s the Deal” requires you back it up, no matter how confusing.
          Here’s the Deal. You have to assume that your reader is not just totally ignorant of your back story, but that she believes something wholly antithetical to your message. It sounds harsh, but it’s true. 
And, as we know, truth rarely wins the beauty contest. That’s the Deal.