Monday, July 21, 2014

Greed Masked as Convenience

Last week I read that Amazon has put together a "Netflix for books", Kindle Unlimited, which will let you pay $10 per month for a subscription service to its entire library of e-books.

Library. Now I know that word means something outside of the context of Amazon. Hmm...

Oh, right. That free subscription service that has most of the books you could ever want to read, that has helped more lives than Mother Teresa, that (in many districts) has free and easy e-book lending, that has been around since Jeff Bezos's great-great-great-great-grandpappy was less than a twinkle in his daddy's eye.

Look, I'm an Amazon apostle, all right? I gladly pay for Prime and I order a few items a month. I use the site for everything from cooking ingredients to toys for my friends' kids. But this is ridiculous. For probably a majority of Americans, this service is a total waste of money. The timing is good, because we've all gotten so used to paying monthly fees for our entertainment that we'll likely roll over and pay this one without remembering that we can get it elsewhere for free. But we can.

I use my library for e-books with reasonable frequency, and it's great. I use it for physical books on a constant basis, and that's great, too. Sometimes I have to go on the waiting list for a given book, but I rarely have to wait longer than a week. And you know what? I think it's better for me that I have to wait a week for a book rather than getting every book I want at any time. (The virtues of waiting for pleasure are engraved in story and song.) If I desperately need it now, for whatever reason, I can pay for it. But getting everything you want instantly all the time makes you Veruca Salt, and as we all know, she was a bad egg.

[honk honk]

Do me a favor, hmm? Before you sign up for Kindle Unlimited, just try using your library, just for a month, for all the books you would normally buy for yourself from Amazon, whether physical or e. If you succeed, look at the money you've saved. Maybe divide that by your hourly rate at work, see what that money means to you.

Depending on how your library is hooked up to other regional libraries, you may find that you have access to any book you want for free. I got to choose from three or four different translations of Madame Bovary when I read it last year, and of the ten obscure experimental books I had to read for a class this spring, the LA public library failed to find only one of them. Saved me well over $100, because I didn't care for any of the books enough to want to keep them. This very week I saved $30 by borrowing a 2014 GRE guide instead of buying one. At the library, you might not have access to any book you want within ten seconds, but that's another thing you can try for a month: waiting for what you want. I find that I like that better than its alternative, most of the time.

If your library isn't awesome, if you can't use it conveniently and freely and find everything you need, then I take it all back and Kindle Unlimited is great and necessary for some people. But just try it.

It's still up for debate whether Amazon is bad for authors, so I'm not for or against it professionally. Personally, I'm for it, this service notwithstanding. Libraries are technically not as good for authors as bookstores are, but honestly I'd rather someone check out my book for free and read it than buy it and never look at it again. Libraries are good for books, not profit, and the books are the important thing.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Poisonous Tedium of Taping

I sat down to write yesterday after months of not writing. It sucked.

(That could be everything I have to say about this, "it sucked," but as a blogger I'll never use two words when I could use a couple hundred.)

I didn't write very much, and every word felt terrible. I came up with a plan so I can try again today, but it was one of those days when I wonder if I should put down my pen, burn my notebooks, and move to Tajikistan and become a goat-herder just to avoid the shame of having written those pages. This may be slightly overdramatic, but really, it felt terrible.

In the evening I shook off my drama and started wondering why, what was going wrong. Maybe it was the story, I thought, maybe the story was no good. Maybe, if I tried writing a different story, I'd write a better draft. After sleeping on it, this sounds like nonsense to me. Almost definitely, the problem isn't the story, but that my gears are rusty and ill-used after months of revising my work and reading other people's work. Besides, virtually all first drafts are shitty. Perhaps the story is no good, but there's no way to know that for sure until the story's written, and it's much too early to give up, because then I'll just start and screw up something else instead.

The kernel of the idea still feels good, but writing the beginning of the story was...ulgh. I had no interest in witnessing these characters at the start of their journey. Plus, the mechanics of writing felt so tedious - to work in descriptions of these men, to write dialogue that displayed their characters, to say where we are in the world without saying straight-up where we are in the world. It's like painting a room. You ever done that? You have to put masking tape on everything first so you don't paint over your air vents and cabinets and baseboards and windows. Taping is bloody annoying, and if you don't do it carefully you make big trouble for yourself, and (in my experience) it takes longer than painting and feels like it's not the real work. That's what all this is to me: the precise way that the first few pages of a story have to be handled, and the mechanics of literary writing, which entails writing around your elbow to get to your thumb. Taping. Necessary, satisfying to rip down, seriously irritating to accomplish.

Oh HELL no 

I wanted to paint. I wanted to skip right to what happens to them at the climax. So my plan for today is to do that, write the middle, and see what comes of it. Maybe I'll find something about these characters that I enjoy enough to pump a few thousand words out of them, or maybe it'll turn out that this belongs as a flash. Maybe I'll discover that I didn't write that terribly, I just wrote terribly compared to the prose of professional writers that I've been reading of late.

No, scratch that. I'm pretty sure these pages are crap. But there are always more pages.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Quality of Not-Knowing

At the beginning of the year, the band Foster the People put up a mural in downtown Los Angeles. People apparently liked it. According to ABC7, its location is in an "area with beige-colored warehouses and office buildings," so "local residents welcomed a spot of brightness." However, on July 11, it emerged that the city had told the band to remove the mural. The image they put up as a mural is exactly the same as the cover of their most recent album, Supermodel. Evidently there are city regulations about advertisements vs. murals that meant their permits were not appropriate, because the image could have been construed as an advertisement.

Pretty colors, to be sure

I don't really care about Foster the People, but this story caught my interest. The band claimed that they were just trying to add art to the daily routine of ordinary citizens, but I wonder. If that was their only purpose, couldn't they have chosen another image? Surely it occurred to somebody along the line that this was a good way to get jumbo-sized advertising without paying jumbo prices. If not, if that's a cynical way to look at this incident, let's go the other way: is it fair for the city not to take into account that the band was just trying to make art? Should they give the band the benefit of the doubt, and let the mural stay up? Well, but even if the whole thing was an innocent mistake and this was just an image that the band believed in enough to plaster it on everything, letting it stay might create a foot in the door for genuine advertisements that are cynically masquerading as murals.

I find both possibilities valid, the cynical one and the innocent one. And I love news stories that demonstrate the existence of this split in life, that an incident could easily be one way or the other and there's no way to know from reportage what the truth of the matter is. That middle ground is exactly where I want to write, what I want to explore through fiction: when all sides of the story are equally plausible, and only the participants really know what their motivations were, and no one external to those participants' skulls will ever know.

One of the longest (and best, IMHO) stories I've written in the past year is about this - "Carlotta Made Flesh," a.k.a. the journalist story, which I wrote after reading many articles about catfishing, but specifically this one. The wikibook also has this split at its heart, although I'm not any closer to writing that blasted thing, so I guess I should stop bringing it up here, because I need to just put my money where my mouth is. The point is, this often comes to mind when I sit down to the notebook, this we'll-never-really-know thing, and it always gives me a little jolt of inspiration when I see it in real life. Some of the news stories that bring me food for thought about this issue are very unpleasant, but here, it's only a mural, and the stakes and harm are nice and low.

Incidentally, here, citizens petitioned in favor of the mural and Mayor Garcetti made an exception. The mural stays. And - maybe - some PR guy across town just put his feet on his desk and gave a satisfied sigh. Or maybe not.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Role/Reboot, Take 3!

Today, my work appears on Role/Reboot for the third time! Yay! The piece is about a new "women owned" logo soon to appear on products for sale at Walmart. I'm concerned that the piece can be read as me being not much of a feminist, and I really don't want to give that impression. But I fail to understand why the sector of consumer products, which seems pretty fair to me - in that consumers can't tell by looking which products were designed or created by women and which ones weren't, so they'll just buy the best or most popular ones, and the market will out those that suck, and gender won't have much to do with it - needs a thumb on the scale in favor of women. Reverse discrimination is still discrimination.

If you came here from Role/Reboot, welcome! Thanks for stopping by, San Diego.

There is no other news. I hope to write some this weekend, but we'll see.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Inappropriate Splurts

Yesterday I took the second exam of three for my summer class, and I honestly do not know what possessed me, but I decided to treat three of the four essay questions as fun creative exercises instead of serious, grade-dependent essays. For two of the questions I imagined dialogues between the theorists, and for the other I wrote a letter from the theorists to the leaders of the society they're judging. (It would be prohibitively boring to explain this in more detail.) I endeavored to explain the theories with diligence through this creative filter; I didn't just screw around. But Mean Brain continues to tell me that I made a complete fool of myself and probably didn't even cover the whole theory in detail and WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO TURN YOUR MIND INTO A TUNA MELT DURING THAT TEST YESTERDAY.

I don't know. Except that I haven't written any fiction in something like two months (perhaps longer, because it's been Revision City around here since the spring), and I suspect that failing to use that release valve has caused creativity to splurt into totally inappropriate places.

Like, Shelley and Wordsworth, after drinking too much wine, came to blows about whether a poet should be solitary or social in one of my "essays." And Kant said "la-dee-dah" to Hume. Those are inappropriate splurts, I think.

Or this. This kind of splurt is what happens when you generally repress sexuality across a society.
It's a slippery slope from weird exam answers to anthropomorphic cigarette packages. 

Only one more week of this class and then I can write. Oh, except not really, because I signed up to take the GRE at the end of the month and I need to learn geometry. Thankfully, the end of July will mark the end of my summer chores; I get to play for all of August. And with luck I won't have to take the GRE, nor learn geometry, ever again.

With further luck, my professor will find my answers delightful instead of idiotic. God, what was I thinking?