Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Modern television classics: Which should be watched first?


I think I've mentioned here before that there was a point some time in the last two years that I kind of stopped caring about the TV shows that I was DVRing. It had nothing to do with the quality of the shows. Nothing changed there, these were still smart and clever programs. Like I said, the change was on my end. I just stopped caring. Episodes backed up on the DVR -- 5, 6, 7 episodes of some shows. I'd go to start watching an episode and I'd make it about 10 minutes before shutting it off. One day, after repeating this pattern, I went through and deleted all but a few episodes of a couple of shows I still watched with some kind of regularity.

Before this big purge, though, my TV dance card was pretty full, and I was pretty happy with the names on my list. It took a lot for a show to make its way onto my schedule, that's why I've never seen an episode of many of the shows that are being considered modern TV classics. No episodes of The Wire. None of The Sopranos or True Detective. No Game of Thrones. None of Breaking Bad, and none of Mad Men. But I feel like I should. These are supposedly great stories well told. It seems like someone who considers himself a storyteller should be familiar with and study what people consider the great stories of the time no matter what medium they're told in. Or am I completely wrong to think that?

So, where do I start? If you had to tell someone who hasn't seen any of these shows where to begin what would you tell them?

P.S. This post isn't out of the blue. It comes from a couple of podcasts I listened to on my way to and from work recently. Chris Hardwick interviewed Vince Gilligan and Matthew Weiner, creators of Breaking Bad and Mad Men respectively, for his Nerdist podcast. The interviews were excellent, but they usually are. Hardwick has a knack for putting subjects at ease and getting them to open up. Not Barbara Walters open up where we get the waterworks, but just get them to talk. I've seen people paid a pretty penny by other organizations to interview people who can't do it as well as he does. If you aren't listening to The Nerdist podcast, you should be.



Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Editing: The importance of choosing the right word



I'm in the middle of edits to the followup to Chasing Filthy Lucre. I've had a couple of people look at the story. They both like it, but also both have suggested fixes, so that's what I'm doing now. I'm working in the stuff I agree with. Turning my nose up at the stuff I don't. I'm kidding. There's very little I disagree with.

But in this process I'm also looking hard at each sentence. Can that one be tighter? Is that one too tight? I'm also considering word choice. Dropping cliches. Tweaking certain phrases to add the right amount of power, to convey the exact message I want them to.

A lot of people have a similar philosophy about first drafts that I do. Get it out quick. Recognize it will be dirty. You can clean it later. Well, for me, now is later. All those spots where I just left some filler sentence, phrase, or word have to be cleaned up now.

This has me thinking a lot about the power of the right word, and how it's easy to find a word that's really close but still not be just the word you need. I've got an example of this. It comes from church. We sing Chris Tomlin's Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone) on a somewhat regular basis, at least we did. But when we sing it we change one word. For reference, here's the song.




The line we change goes like this:
 "My chains are gone. I've been set free. My God, my savior, has ransomed me."

We change it to this:
"My chains are gone. I've been set free. My God, my savior, has rescued me."

Seems like a minor change. The basic meaning of the line is there. God did something for you that you couldn't do for yourself. Except the original line is saying so much more than that. It's not talking about being rescued. It's talking about being ransomed. It's talking about someone, God in this case, paying a price that you couldn't pay to pull you out of spot that you couldn't get out of on your own, in this case an eternity spent separated from Him. Ransomed is rescued on steroids. Ransomed is sacrifice. Ransomed, if you're a Christian, is what the faith is all about. It's so much more than rescued.

That's what I'm keeping in mind as I'm hip deep in edits. Every word is powerful. Using one instead of the other can change a meaning dramatically. I know that as a reader it can be easy to just pass over words when you're sucked into a good story. But if you can remember to do it next time you've got a book in your hand, look at the words the author chose. They aren't all going to be ransomed vs. rescued. Sometimes they are just words. But if you find a passage that you really like, one that feels powerful to you, consider the words the author is using. There's a better than zero chance that there was some serious consideration into what made it to the final page. And if you're a writer searching for the right words, happy hunting.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Hello Kitty and control of the creator

So there was a bit of a modest Internet hub bub last week when the people at Sanrio announced that Hello Kitty, that cute little cat that seems like it's been everywhere for the last 40 years or so, is not actually a cat at all. She's a little girl names Kitty White. She lives in London. She has parents. She even has a cat of her own. This is all from the people at Sanrio.

People were jumping at the chance to write the punniest headlines for this story. Others were claiming childhoods were ruined. Minds were blown. They didn't know what to do now that this creature that they'd known as a cat was actually not a cat at all.

My second favorite thing I read about everything Hello Kitty was this article in The New Yorker. It's a send up of my very favorite thing I read about Hello Kitty. It's this explanation of what she is from a university professor.

Hello Kitty is not a cat. She’s a cartoon character. She is a little girl. She is a friend. But she is not a cat. She’s never depicted on all fours. She walks and sits like a two-legged creature. She does have a pet cat of her own, however, and it’s called Charmmy Kitty.

Christine R. Yano, an anthropologist at the University of Hawaii and Harvard, quoted in the Los Angeles Times on August 26th

 I love that statement for it's matter-of-factness. "Hello Kitty is not a cat. She's a cartoon character." Yeah, Christine. No kidding.

No, she's not a cat in the strictest sense. But she is an anthropomorphic cat. She has some human features, like walking upright. I don't think there's anyone out there who was confused by this. She's like Goofy or Mickey or Donald.

So, say what you want, Sanrio. Hello Kitty is a cat, and there's not much you can do to make it otherwise.

This did bring up a question I have, and the seven paragraphs up to this point have all just been lead up to this. But when does a creator lose absolute control of his or her creation?

When does a creator lose control of a creation?
All of this Kitty stink reminded me of Star Wars. We all know that it went supernova when it was
released in the 1970s. There was the merchandising -- the toys, the bed sheets, the Underoos. Then there were the novels. They took the original stories and created an expanded universe. New characters. New adventures. New history for future movies to be based on.

Except when the new movies were announced, starting with the seventh, creators had to go back to the expanded universe and determine what was and wasn't going to be canon. There were whole parts that were left out. It's like they were saying that those elements didn't actually happen for the purposes of continuity. Those events were girls, not kittens.

So, here's my question again. And I want to clarify that I know, in the end, a creator has the ultimate control of his or her creation. What that person wants to do with it or say about it, they can. I just wonder is there a point of no return with something that becomes popular. Does the creator lose some bit of control because there are so many people who love what they've created? Does that crowd of fans have some sway? Do their expectations/should their expectations of what will/should happen have any influence on the creator and the next steps forward?

I'd love to hear what you think.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

The Emdrive: The engine that runs on sunlight

A quick post because a pretty cool story came out of NASA yesterday about a rocket engine that's called an Emdrive, that's it above. That brass-thing that looks like it belongs on something from a steampunk story.

It's an engine that converts electrical energy into thrust. And, according to this article over at Sploid, that electrical energy can be generated with solar power. That means this engine doesn't need fuel. There's nothing that it needs to burn. That means that absent some mechanical breakdown, this engine could run forever. The idea wasn't NASA's. Credit for that goes to a team at Satellite Propulsion Research Ltd. Scientists at NASA built the second independent working model.


I don't know that I will ever come close to understanding the science behind the engine, I just know that the people who do understand it all can come up with some cool stuff.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Trying to stay realistic in a difficult self-publishing journey

Zechariah 4:10


So, at church on Sunday we heard the last message from the summer At the Movies series. That's kind of what it sounds like. The pastor takes popular movies and shows clips providing Biblical lessons three or four times throughout. This week's movie was Rocky, something I hadn't seen in years but want to rewatch now.

Rocky. Obviously an underdog story. The first verse that the pastor shared was all about that. It was Zechariah 4:10:

"Do not despise these small beginnings,
for the LORD rejoices to see the work begin ..."

I've been thinking about this whole self-publishing/author-publisher thing I've been doing. It's slow and can be incredibly frustrating at times. I feel like I have written good books. I've told good stories. They are just having a hard time finding an audience for some reason. I did some math late last year. I think I've sold roughly 200 books since I started this in 2011. By itself, 200 isn't a small number. But in comparison to what others have sold it's nothing. I sell a book a month. Maybe two. It can get discouraging.

Organic discoverability is impossible
I try to tell myself a couple of things when it gets depressing checking sales and not seeing anything added to my ledger. First thing is there are over a million ebooks at Amazon. If anyone walked into a room and more than a million books were spread across the floor, what's the chance they'd pick up my book? Less than slim. But if I'm not doing anything to get my book in front of the people who might like it then that's exactly what I'm hoping will happen. I've run a few promotions for Chasing Filthy Lucre to varying degrees of success. And, again, success here is a relative term. I've got another promo ready to run this week. I'm hoping that will gain me a little visibility and jump start sales, at least modestly.

But hoping that people will just find my book isn't going to happen. And, as weird as that sounds, that helps me to handle the slow sales. Other than a tweet once a week or so, I'm not pushing the books so I can't really expect them to be found. There's just too much competition for eyeballs.

Most books don't have a long tail
The second thing I tell myself is that most books don't have that classic long tail of sales. Chart them, and most books sell a lot at the beginning and then the graph quickly falls off. Most of my sales of Chasing Filthy Lucre came in the first six months or so. Then things began to drop off and quickly reached the levels they are at now. So, again, it's a little unrealistic to expect sales to spike again. Could they pick up? Sure. But I'm not going to suddenly become a best seller, and I don't want that. Lie. I don't expect that, but I want it. I welcome it. But chances are much better than not it won't happen.

All of this sounds a bit like excuse making. I prefer to think that it's being realistic. It's me trying to temper that small part in the back of my brain that is always hopeful I'll see a handful of sales the next time I check my reports at all the sites I've books posted.

But I'm going to try and remember Zechariah 4:10 from here on out. "Do not despise small beginnings, for the Lord rejoice to see the work begin ..." And, looking at all the stuff I have planned and want to write, I have definitely just begun.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Hollywood: Here's my modest proposal


Did you watch Life On Mars? The U.S. version, not the English version. How about Awake, the show on NBC in 2011 about the detective who was living two lives. He knows that in one he's awake and in the other he's dreaming, but he doesn't know which is which. I did. I watched them both and really liked them both. Both lasted one season.

I used to watch a lot of TV. Not an obscene amount, but a lot. I had my shows that I liked. I was always an episode or two behind, but I kept up. Then a couple of seasons ago I got behind. I looked at the DVR and there were six episodes of one show on there. Eight of another. Seeing that, something clicked in me. I think I realized that I was so far behind it would take a concerted effort on my part to get caught up, and I just didn't have the desire to put forth that effort. So I deleted every episode of what I had saved. I just walked away from those shows. No more Elementary. No more Person Of Interest. The only thing I had left was Castle.

So going into this season, my decks were pretty clear. I could add shows if I wanted. Not much interested me except for Almost Human on Fox. I was excited by the premise. It was a bit like Chasing Filthy Lucre. Not a lot, but they had similarities. Then it aired, and it was actually good. The characters played well off one another. The hero is flawed. His partner was really a partner. I enjoyed it. Then I heard the talk. The show was expensive to produce. The audience had dwindled a bit after a strong opening. I was nervous. This was going to be another Life On Mars. It was going to be another Awake. A show I like a lot is going to get cancelled. Well, the announcement came down at the end of April. Almost Human:Cancelled.

I've been thinking about this. I'm tired of investing my time in something with nothing to show for it. So what I want to do is make a proposal to all of you Hollywood folks out there. All you actors, producers, directors. Anyone who has to commit to work on a TV series. If you get on a show and things aren't what you thought they'd be, I can help. For a modest fee, I will watch your show. I will become a fan. That way you can get out of your obligation. Because you are guaranteed that if I like your show it won't be around for Season 2. Heck, if I really like it, your show may not make it to mid-season.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Steadfast Stanley: Loyal dogs, charging zombies, and the power of a good pair of shoes

Cute little animated short about a boy, his dog, and the zombie apocalypse. I'll let you watch it then make a few comments. It's four minutes that's worth your time




So, I know that I'm supposed to think, what a great story of devotion, and I do. It's heartwarming at the end. But what I also thought, and rather surprisingly, I suppose, was that "Man, as a kid, I really believed in the power of the right pair of shoes." So when he puts his shoe back on and the music swells a bit and he walks out of the store confidently, I totally got that. When I was younger, in my head, there was nothing that I couldn't do with a new pair of shoes. I ran faster. I jumped higher. I turned quicker. I'd go to the end of the aisle, have my mom stand at the other end and tell her to watch how fast I could run and then how quickly I could stop. And I still think the right pair of shoes could make this 40 year old body a step faster.

Friday, May 2, 2014

My current musical obsession — Whiskeytown

Looking back at the most recent posts here, you'd think I'm a bit musically obsessed. I'm not. That's my brother. But I do like what I like. And I kind of run through phases. I'll be in old country for a while. Then I'll find some bluesy rock that's really scratching a musical itch. I recently started using Spotify at work. I don't really have a good reason for not signing up before. I was a Pandora guy, and I'd spent enough time giving songs a thumbs up or thumbs down that I had stations that were pretty much perfect. At least to my ears.

I still listen to Pandora quite a bit, but Spotify's different, and I don't think I appreciated those differences until I started playing with it. I'm still new to the platform, but the thing I've done the most with it so far is to get reacquainted with albums that I used to love, particularly late high school through college. That leads me to my current musical obsession — Whiskeytown. This group, led by Ryan Adams, put out the album Strangers Almanac in 1997 and a local radio station played the song 16 Days from that album. I don't typically buy an album for one song, but this one I did. I loved that song, but the entire album is great. Here's the link to it on Spotify. Take a listen. And if you don't have a Spotify account, sign up for one of those too.


Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ellie's growing up. Dad is too.



Some of my most distinct memories from childhood are playing with cousins and friends in someone's backyard in Kansas City. The yards always seemed bigger up there for some reason. I suppose part of that is because they were bigger. The homes are older and built on larger lots. While we played, though, the adults sat in folding chairs on the patio. They talked. The kids burned off extra energy.


This Easter I became one of the adults, and it seemed both weird and special. Ellie has two cousins on Gina's side, one a little older and one a little younger. And this was really the first time all three of them could go out in the backyard of Gina's parents house and play. There's a jungle gym out there. Ellie kept climbing up to ride the slide (In that picture up top she's getting ready to go down the slide). She played in the dirt with her older cousin.

I brought my camera and felt like I should grab a few pictures. I haven't been taking enough pictures of her lately. She's almost 2 now, and she's changing so fast. I should be documenting it better than I have been.

She's not the only one growing up, though. I'm starting to have those moments where tables are turned, and I'm sitting on a side that's not all that familiar, the adult side.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Big Block Sing Song is Magic

One of the cool things about having a little one who's almost 2 is that you get permission to watch stuff like this. I like all the Big Block Sing Song bits, but I saw this one for the first time today and it quickly became a favorite.