2016/06/21

Reader Mail: A Self-Publishing Primer

A new reader sends this request for help navigating the radically transformed publishing landscape:
First off, I'd like to congratulate you on the success of the book bomb a couple of weeks ago, and I hope you continue to be successful in your writing career. I have a huge amount of respect for people who can make self publishing work. I'm glad I was able to take part in the book bomb, and I'm happy to say I'm enjoying Nethereal so far.
Let me just chime in to say thanks and to remind readers that they too can start enjoying my breakout SFF novel Nethereal via the following link.


My cherished reader continues:
I currently find myself in the position in my writing career (having decided this is what I wanted to do several years back) where I've been querying my first book for a while, just started querying a second, and am reaching the point where I'm starting to lean more toward self or indie publishing as opposed to traditional publishing, both because I just completed my Master's degree & am currently unemployed and because it's become quite clear that I'd be found guilty of political wrongthink by the mainstream SF/F writing world even if I continue shying away from discussing political issues online (though, to be honest, I'm growing really tired of censoring myself for worry of online dogpiling and character assassination which could negatively impact my ability to make a living.)
However, probably unsurprisingly, the prospect of going self-pub is a bit intimidating, and I'm not completely sure what the best way to go about it is. To that end, I was wondering if you had any advice and/or know any good resources to help start the process.

Lots of food for thought, there--so much that I wrote a quick self-publishing primer in response.
My opinions on self-publishing have changed quite a lot. A few short years ago, I'd have said "never". That changed to "it makes sense in a few rare cases". When I took the leap and self-published Nethereal last year, developments in the industry led me to conclude that going indie was the right answer for most authors, but some would still be better served by traditional publishers.
Now? It's difficult to think of a situation in which trad pub is a better--or even a smart--move. I suppose if you're already famous, like a politician or a celebrity chef, and Hachette has someone all set to ghost write your biography and a seven figure advance. Then you take the money and run.
In your circumstances--and in practically everyone's at this point--the answer is to self-publish. Go for it. There's no reason not to anymore and plenty of reasons why indie is the better deal all around. Odds are you'll earn more, for one.
Here's how to get started:
  • Write a manuscript. I give it 2 drafts before step 2.
  • Have beta readers critique the manuscript. Choose people who will give you honest feedback. That usually rules out friends and family (I'm lucky to have both who reliably tell it like it is). Ask them to identify places in the story where they were a) bored and/or b) confused.
  • You can safely ignore complaints given by 1 or 2 beta readers. If 3 or more criticize the same thing, revise it.
  • Redraft based on beta reader feedback. A good rule of thumb is to take 25% of their advice.
  • Hire a professional editor to review draft 3. Unlike beta readers, take all editorial direction unless you really, really disagree with it and have a compelling reason not to make the edit.
  • Make sure your eBook is formatted to professional standards. Some authors who are more tech savvy than I am do it themselves. I use Polgarus Studio and couldn't be happier. 
  • Get a professionally designed cover. An effective cover conveys the genre, mood, theme, and hints at the plot of a book at a glance. IMPORTANT: your cover must be intelligible and the title and byline legible at thumbnail size and in greyscale. Most big name cover artists drastically overcharge. DeviantArt has a whole section devoted to book cover artists who don't.
  • Upload the finished book to KDP for the eBook and CreateSpace for the paperback. Price the paperback so as to earn at least a $2.00 royalty on every sale in every market. Price the eBook much lower than the paperback. Experiment with the eBook price regularly to find your book's sweet spot.

Follow those steps and you'll avoid the worst self-pub rookie mistakes.

And as a bonus...
Marketing:
There are various ways to market your books. The most vital element of any author's marketing strategy is visibility. Potential readers need to know your name, that you are an author, and that you have books for sale.
Having a high traffic blog sells books. Releasing new books frequently sells books. Blog often and be prolific.
That's your self-publishing primer. Now get out there and make your own luck.

2016/06/20

Applied Rhetoric: Fun with Trolls


Plato Aristotle - rhetoric

A close friend and I were discussing the relative merits of dialectic and rhetoric the other day. He spoke of the invective bafflingly spewed against Christians since the Muslim terrorist attack in Orlando and mentioned debating fellow members of certain online communities on the subject.

When I advised him that the most effective weapon against anyone caught up in the throes of so glaringly irrational a Narrative is a more visceral, rhetorical approach, he insisted that appeals to logic had in fact convinced the anti-Christian commenters to moderate their positions--or at least to make apologies.

While it's possible that my friend has stumbled upon the secluded valley, accessible only once every thousand years, where the fabled Rational Leftist unicorns ruminate on opposing viewpoints before logically refuting them or, perhaps, modifying their own, I submit that a Christian venturing onto the internet shouldn't expect the same warm welcome.

The first principle of online debate is simple: if your opponent argues logically, answer him with logic. If he argues from emotion, answer with rhetoric.


Dialectic vs. Rhetoric

If you're unfamiliar with the difference between these two concepts, the short version is that dialectic is logical argument wherein premises are put forward in order to arrive at true statements. If all of the premises are true, the argument is structured correctly, and the conclusion follows from the premises, then the argument is sound and the conclusion is true.

Rhetoric is the type of argument that primarily tries to convince people by appealing to their emotions. As you'd imagine, rhetoric is pretty informal, though good rhetoric mimics the structure of dialectical arguments. The most important difference is that rhetoric is completely unconcerned with fact. Its purpose is to produce conviction; not deduce truth.

The naturally dialectically inclined tend to look down on rhetoric, or even denounce it as evil. When they argue with natural rhetoric speakers--i.e. most of the population--they often balk at "stooping to the other side's level" and plug away citing statistics, quoting Scripture, and calling out logical fallacies.

Meanwhile, their opponents ignore them like Italians being lectured in Chinese and proceed to run rhetorical rings around the logicians.

Think back to a frustrating argument you've had online. Everybody's been there. You hammer away at the other guy's flimsy argument with meticulously researched facts and quotes from great thinkers. You call him out on his straw men and personal attacks.

But nothing works. All your best arguments roll off his back like water. He changes the definitions of words, down to prepositions and articles, and pinning him down is like nailing Jello to the wall.

You got owned by a rhetorician. It's frustrating. But it doesn't have to happen.

Rhetoric isn't evil. Like any tool, it can be put to good or bad use. Since most people make most of their decisions based on emotion, rhetoric can be a powerful force for good if you use it to move people toward wise action.

Consider smoking. Your kids' peers don't argue them into smoking with a risk/benefit analysis. Kids are pressured into it via social proof. Likewise, lengthy diatribes about higher incidence of lung cancer and how much money smokers waste on astronomical taxes are far less effective deterrents than having an admired member of a kid's peer group tell him he looks like a loser with that fag hanging out of his mouth.

Clerks - cigarette
"You're a cigarette!"

Case Study: Slaying Trolls at John C. Wright's Journal

Getting back to the talk I had with my friend, I only regretted that I lacked a counterexample to his successful use of dialectic. The very next day, Providence supplied the perfect live demonstration of dialectic vs. rhetoric in action.

The inestimable John C. Wright, Grand Inquisitor of the Evil Legion of Evil, recently published a partial list of jihadist attacks on American citizens during the current administration. You'd rightly expect such a post to draw a school of trolls nipping at this intellectual Leviathan's tail. On this occasion, John landed a marlin--a bigoted, feelz-spasming marlin.

Yes, in the wake of a tragic massacre committed by a terrorist who swore allegiance to ISIS, Captain Moral Equivalence busted in like Jonestown Kool-Aid Man to tell us all how his cherry-picked, torturously literalistic readings of the Bible prove that Christians are the real terrorists*.

*Excerpts repositioned for space and ease of reading.

Troll 1

Many strove valiantly to confound the troll with facts.

Troll 2

Pointing out the troll's rank irrationality likewise failed, but the rhetorical barb planted in the comment made the troll reveal his own weak point.


Intermission
Troll 2
Troll 2: still less shoddy and more coherent than the troll's arguments

Troll vs Rhetoric

I'd been hanging back and watching the bull in a china shop-style proceedings, observing the troll's virtuoso performance with awe and pity. The comment above gave me my cue to wade in.

Disclaimer: I normally maintain a principled stand against engaging with this kind of dirtbag. Unlike the philosopher kings my friend hangs with, trolls like Mike can't be reasoned with and can't be convinced. There are only two valid reasons for talking to them: 1) there are neutral observers on the fence who might be drawn to your side by a good troll-shellacking; 2) as an object lesson in rhetoric, which the troll readily served as, and which I now submit for your edification and enrichment.

Rule 1: don't meet trolls head-on. Talk about them with others to draw them in. That way, you set the terms and terrain of the exchange.

Troll4

That comment's just an example. It also didn't draw the troll in. For that job, I baited my hook with the sweeter meat which our dear troll himself provided.

Troll5

Instead of making inflammatory accusations and answering others' responses with insults, Mike is now compelled by his inner demons to answer me. Result: he cedes the initiative.

Troll6

Note how much wordier Mike's responses are than mine. He's also growing even more incoherent. This tells me he's experiencing cognitive dissonance, which tells me I've found which button to push.

Advantage: counter-troll.

Troll7

Dimly aware that he's lost ground, the troll flails about in a desperate attempt to justify himself. He musters an effort to regain control by leveling an insult at me that he thinks I have no choice but to refute. He's wrong.

Rule 2: trolls like this are all offense, so never let them put you on defense. Never answer their questions. Always answer their attacks with an attack.

Troll8

Though batting Mike around like a pinata was more fun than the law should allow, I had actual work to do. Since I could now lead him around by the nose, it was time to drag him onto my turf for a good old-fashioned clubbing.

Troll9

Evidence I can document: my major award-nominated, category best selling books



The troll takes the bait and is reeled into an alien, waterless world where he writhes, gasping.

TrollX

Mike's rantings have revealed him as a compulsive braggart and know-it-all who can't resist calling others ignorant to stroke his own ego. Now that pride has led him into an arena--publishing--where he knows precisely jack squat, it's time to jab my pen through his temple.

TrollXI
Want to really stick it to bigoted trolls like Mike? Increase that number of reviews by leaving your own.
Exit the troll, to seek less rhetorically fluent prey.

Far from inflating my own ego (to my knowledge, I have none to inflate), let this post serve as instruction and encouragement to rational folks who find their favorite online watering holes beset by periodic troll infestations.

Being treated with honor is a privilege exchanged among civilized men. Barbarians give, and should expect, no quarter.

The vast majority of the populace understands only rhetoric. Engaging them with dialectic won't get you anywhere. Debate them only if you must, and when you do, answer rhetoric with rhetoric.

2016/06/19

Geek Gab: Battle of the Iron Mans!

Daddy Warpig and I devoted the latest episode of Geek Gab to debating my best Iron Man movie post. The discussion was quite vigorous, to the extent that we broke the normal half hour time limit and did a double length episode.

I definitely think the subject merited the extra time. Take a listen and see what you think.


NB: though Daddy Warpig delivered a brilliant meditation on the first Iron Man in light of themes common to Greek and Shakespearean drama, I'm confident that my original argument stands. It's interesting to note that nearly every counterargument from the many commenters who've attempted rebuttals fall into one of the following categories:

  • Changing the subject from the films' objective merits to their subjective preferences
  • Insisting that Obadiah Stane is an effective, well-motivated antagonist (Full disclosure: I never denied the first premise and DW brought me around to affirming the second. However, most of my interlocutors ended up confirming that Iron Monger doesn't work nearly as well, which was always my main point.)
  • Armchair quarterbacking/fan saves: proposing complex script changes that would have improved Iron Man 2 as we find it no more proves the superiority of the first Iron Man than suggesting improvement to The Empire Strikes Back makes the original Star Wars the best entry in that franchise.
  • Plot hole nitpicks: for every one you can point out in Iron Man 2, I can find you one in the first Iron Man. I never claimed that either film is perfect. In fact, they're both quite flawed by later MCU standards. Again, the point of the exercise was to find the best of three imperfect films. Iron Man 2 still takes the tarnished crown.
Consider that a more proper closing statement than we had time for. Anyway, read the post that started it all, listen to the debate, and draw your own conclusions.

2016/06/14

The Conjuring 2

The Conjuring 2

With The Conjuring 2 dominating the weekend box office, now seems like a good time to expand on my short review from the most recent episode of Geek Gab.

The sequel to 2013's The Conjuring, also helmed by director James Wan, this installment features the dramatization of another case from the files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Though a couple of the Warrens' other famous investigations are referenced, the plot mostly revolves around the 1977 Enfield Poltergeist case.

Like all films "based on a true story", The Conjuring 2 takes copious amounts of dramatic license with the original source material. But James Wan's stated aim was to restore the reputation of studio horror films; not make a documentary.

Did he succeed? Let's examine the movie in light of the director's goal.


In case you're totally unfamiliar with The Conjuring 2

...here's the theatrical trailer.


Seeing as how the film's premise is based on a highly publicized haunting that's been in the media since 1977, I'm dispensing with spoiler warnings. I'll also restrain myself from discussing major fictionalized plot details.

The facts in the real life case, as in the film, are that a young girl and her family experience strange phenomena in their North London home after she plays with a Ouija board.

Obligatory pneumatology PSA: legends, folklore, and old wives' tales often contain a kernel of truth. The universally negative portrayal of Ouija boards and other methods of communicating with spirits is one nut that Hollywood's blind squirrels reliably manage to find. DO NOT play around with this stuff.

And to head off the skeptic's favorite sophomoric objection: it's not that a mass-produced toy is magic. It's that the chosen end of seeking undue power over preternatural beings and phenomena is inherently evil; not the specific means used.

The more you know

Back to the film review. When ongoing disturbances, including but not limited to strange noises, poltergeist activity, teleportation of people and objects, apparitions, spiritual oppression and possession drive the family from their home, paranormal investigators--including the Warrens--intervene. The ensuing case becomes one of the most well documented hauntings in history.


Analysis

The Conjuring 2 is an atmospheric, often smart, supernatural horror film with welcome thriller and mystery flourishes. James Wan set out to make a studio horror movie in the tradition of genre classics like Poltergeist and The Exorcist.

Although this movie doesn't quite rise to the level of those iconic films, Wan does prove that "studio horror" doesn't have to be synonymous with "lowest common denominator schlock" while producing a rare sequel that rivals the quality of the original.

This film's greatest successes lie in three areas"
  • Background and foreshadowing: The Conjuring 2 cleverly sets up its main plot through a properly terrifying introduction that scores bonus points by delivering on a promise made at the end of the first movie.
  • Mood, atmosphere, and tone: director James Wan strikes a superb balance between visceral scares, psychological horror, existential dread, and, refreshingly, scattered rays of hope. The main theme that God remains ever present even in the midst of seemingly unrelenting terror shines through strongly.
  • Character: the writers, director, and actors deserve high praise for avoiding the cliched cardboard cutouts seen in too many horror movies and instead populating this film with believable characters whose problems we easily and immediately care about.
As for the film's few drawbacks, the most egregious are a couple of scenes featuring obvious CG animation that's visually and tonally dissonant with the setting. If you've seen Wan's other, similarly themed series Insidious, you'll instantly recognize the scenes I've described, as well as the director's self-indulgence.

My other beef with the movie might be specific to those who are familiar with Catholic theology and ecclesiology, but in a movie that claims to be based on true events, this one sticks out.

The plot point in question--don't worry about spoilers; it's dumb, anyway--is the reason given for Ed and Lorraine's involvement in the Enfield case. In the movie, the Church gets ahold of taped conversations with a self-identified 72 year-old dead guy spoken by an 11 year-old girl.

The Conjuring 2 trailer
"Priests like me are sworn to serve others' spiritual needs hand and foot...but we don't want to look bad, so we'll just send a lay couple in case this one's a hoax."
The English hierarchy supposedly ask the American hierarchy to approach the Warrens about evaluating the goings-on  in Enfield, with the justification that the Church can't be seen to be directly involved if the story turns out to be a hoax, because besmirching their reputation would hinder their ability to help people.

Such as the people they're not helping already.

By sending proxies not empowered with the seal of Holy Orders into potential contact with demonic forces.

Proxies who publicly trade on their close affiliation with the Church anyway.

In real life, this isn't happening. The local diocese is responsible for investigating claims of possession. Enfield is under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Westminster, home of English Catholicism's mother church. The archbishop is unlikely to need assistance from a couple of Yanks.

Supporting this assessment, original Enfield Poltergeist investigator Guy Lyon Playfair said that in real life, the Warrens turned up uninvited.

Also contra the film version, it was a priest; not the Warrens, who helped the Hodgsons get their paranormal problems under control.

But in the finest movie tradition, The Conjuring 2 doesn't let real life get in the way of a brilliant, climactic ending.

@BrianNiemeier