Monthly Archives: May 2013

You’re Worried About Numbers. You Should Be Worried About Engagement.

Take a deep breath and any antibiotics you have handy: We’re jumping into the writer pool. And not the fancy one everybody thinks exists – all white wooden lounge chairs and champagne on silver trays – this is the real one. The one on the front lawn, filled with old hose water and diluted beer. Hold your breath; I think a squirrel died in there this morning.

The biggest worry of any writer I meet, whether that’s an internet blogger trying to get traffic, or a novelist trying to get readers, is pure numbers. How do you get some friggin’ eyes on your friggin’ stuff? Surely, once you accomplish that nigh-on impossible literary feat, the rest is all diamonds and blowjobs and excruciatingly painful but terrifically posh diamond blowjobs.

It is not.

That is the first part of your job. Get eyes on words. Absorbing their meaning. Allowing your thoughts into their brain like little textual parasites. Infecting them. That part is tough, sure. But it’s not the endgame. As David Wong is fond of saying: The internet is a big place. There’s free porn on it. What part of your writing is better than free porn?

There are plenty of advice pieces based entirely around earning big traffic and increasing readership. It’s important stuff, worthy of discussion. But if you manage that slippery numbers trick, you can check back the next day and find out the harsh truth: You have to manage it all over again, from scratch. Those were just eyes, not brains or hearts. They don’t remember you, and they don’t care. It’s a hundred thousand views for one ad click. It’s thirty thousand free previews for one book sale. It’s ten thousand spoons when all you need is one spoon (stop, oh god, you’re going to be crushed to death beneath all these spoons).

I write for the biggest comedy site on the planet. If you take the average of all the metrics together, we passed the Onion, College Humor, and Funny or Die years ago. Every single week, I’m right there on the front of that page:The biggest one in its very broad genre in the entire world. And I defy you to find anybody else in real life that knows my name. I defy you to find anybody else that even knows Cracked.

(Crack? Wait, like Mad?)

We kill on traffic. We are traffic billionaires. We’re fucking traffic philanthropists – “you want some traffic? Got plenty to spare! Hahaha! Traffic for all!”

We will suck your dick in a gas station bathroom for some engagement.

Cracked is getting a lot better about the latter, through a very concerted effort. But I, and many other writers, are now facing the same problem. We may have thousands and thousands of pairs of eyes reading our stuff, but we have a very, very small fanbase. To build it up, we need to focus on engagement. I am not your guru here, I am somebody relating the steps as I learn them. This isn’t 101, this is the remedial class that teaches you to recognize the numbers ‘101.’

There are a few basic ways to build audience engagement: First, find a schtick.

For a lot of writers, this is as simple as picking a genre. You’re the steampunk girl. You’re the urban fantasy guy. You’re the insectile mech erotica guru. Ain’t nobody else does what you do, and if they did, they’d be hung for the worst of genre crimes: Riding coattails. For bloggers, it’s finding subject matter: Advice, comic books, games, movies. If you stick to and actively pursue just that community while pumping out consistent quality work, you may eventually earn a fanbase. But what of us hideous bastard chimeras? What of us writers who will write an op-ed piece about celebrities it’s hard to tell apart one week, and the next week write a fiction piece about huffing paint with the smurfs as a metaphor for the Enron scandal? What of us sci-fi writers who finish the cyberpunk book and think “great! Now, on to horror! To literary! To motherfucking young adult! (Shit, sorry about the language, young adults.)”

For those of us without an easily categorized specialty, we’re left to rely much more on the heinous task of “building a brand.” (I didn’t have to put that last phrase in quote marks. I just found the words themselves so distasteful that I needed to imprison them, somehow; keep them from infecting the rest of this page.) To “build a brand” (rot there, you bastards), you’re going to have to do a lot of things that seem downright unpleasant to your typical crazy-hermit-in-training writer type. You’re going to have to get your literal face out there – literally.

You need to start plastering your ugly mug up everywhere. No more mysterious, half-lit author photos, no abstract user avatars; just your stupid features in front of the world, clear and recognizable. People are built for face recall. Some may remember you from the strength of your writing alone, but not all. For many, names are just meaningless text until there’s a real person to tie them to.

For two, you’re going to have to establish a unique persona. That wasn’t a dig on your bland party anecdotes: Persona is different from personality. A persona has a mythos about it. A story. That story may not be complex or terribly original – Stephen King is the creepy dude from New England (look at his headshots, tell me he’s not nurturing that archetype); Dave Eggers is the hip young liberal with the tragic past (notice the persona is still ‘young,’ even though it has been fifteen years since he developed it); Chuck Palahniuk is the counter-culture crazy — “don’t take your eyes off him, folks! He’s probably rabid!” — even though by all accounts he’s very polite and soft-spoken in reality. Sure, there should be some element of truth to your persona, but think of it like writing a character: Nobody’s compelled by your real, well-adjusted accountant personality. But they friggin’ love the drunken party accountant with the sex addiction persona you developed – that’s intriguing, novel, and most important, memorable.

Hunter S. Thompson was a parody of Hunter S. Thompson. There was a lot of truth to the character, but it was more a boardwalk caricature than a sitting room portrait. He cultivated that persona because it made sense for his books, it made people remember his name, his face, and eventually, his work.

“Branding” is just one aspect of engagement, and this is one small part of “branding.” We’ll talk more about it and engagement in the coming weeks. And of course, all of this is utterly meaningless without consistent, quality work – but that’s waaay harder to help out with. This branding shit is extremely uncomfortable and very unfortunate, but it’s absolutely necessary and relatively easy compared to the whole ‘producing a masterpiece’ thing.

Oh god, it’s escaped the quote marks!

RUN.

Mechanical Keyboards: Because EVERYBODY Should Hear You Writing

In the last year I’ve bought four wireless keyboards. I have broken all of them. I write hard, motherfuckers. So I finally figured I’d make the switch and try a mechanical keyboard. I bought a CM Storm Rapid Fire Tenkeyless with Cherry MX Brown switches. That’s all fucking gibberish. Somebody dosed a room full of copywriters with mescaline and then let loose a rabid squirrel. That product description was the result of their frenzied swatting.

I’ll break it down in car terms: CM is the make, Storm is the model and Rapid Fire is the trim. Tenkeyless means it doesn’t come with the complete numberpad on the site, which I find kills me during long spells. The mouse is too far away, and it sets my shoulder at the wrong angle. I bought a separate numberpad for about ten bucks, when I need it. I far prefer this set up. Cherry MX is the manufacturer of the mechanical switches beneath the keys, and they make different types designated by color. In short, Blue and Green are very tactile and very loud, Red and Black are not tactile at all, and completely quiet. They feel more like a regular keyboard. Brown occupies that sweet space between pneumatic-feeling bliss and not deafening everybody else in the house with your robot woodpecker noises.

The CM feels great for now, but durability is a primary factor for me. And I haven’t had it long enough to attest for that. But if you write for a living, you need to give some type of mechanical keyboard a shot. Just the simple act of hefting something that solid and weighty makes every sentence feel more authoritative. Tactile feedback on every keystroke makes you feel like you’re writing with a machinegun; spelling out words in bulletholes on a brick wall with your Tommygun. I’m making far fewer mistakes, too — presumably because this shit feels real now. There are no mistakes in war, son.

I could never get with typewriters. They removed functionality in the name of nostalgia. But I totally see the appeal now: Back in the day, you banged out a manuscript on some gargantuan kinetic machine that literally hammered letters onto the page. It is hard to compete with that sense of completion by tapping on a rubber mat. But writing a page on a mechanical keyboard feels like you just built a shed. You need a beer and a woman after that kind of work.

Books and TV: The Freaky Friday Body Switch

ad

 

Arrested Development is back on the air, as the internet has not only certainly informed you of, but made possible in the first place and probably ruined for you already. I bring this up because they’re doing something interesting with the story structure. It’s a continuation of the original series, after a fashion, but it takes place years later, and each episode is a post-documentary follow-up focusing on a specific character. It’s not an entirely novel (ha! You’ll get that later) narrative structure — the documentary-years-after-the-plot device is at least as old as Spinal Tap – but AD are doing a few unique things. Because they’re a Netflix original, it’s not debuting like a normal series. There’s no weekly release schedule, no half hour run time. The entire season is available all at once, and there’s no set length for each episode. Some are twenty-five minutes, some are forty, and since you could feasibly watch them all back to back, the breaks only come when it makes sense to do so for the story.

As somebody who released a serial-novel that billed itself as ‘episodic,’ it’s of course interesting to see a TV show essentially take the traditional format of a novel. Think about it: No fixed length to chapters, available all at once, long form storytelling with no pre-sets on time or amount of content. That’s a book. Movies, even as adaptations from books, are fixed length. I’m sure there are art projects excepted from the rule, and series like the Lord of the Rings shatter your puny time constraints like those bitches was motherfuckin’ Narsil, but most mainstream movies are limited to about two and a half hours. As we’ve seen with adaptations like Snyder’s Watchmen, even three-going-into-four-feels-like-ten hours isn’t enough time to get to everything. Adaptations, by their very nature, must cut huge chunks of their source material to make sense in the movie format. TV shows are worse: They’re both fixed length and episodic, with viewers waiting weeks or even months for the next installment. Game of Thrones is possibly the first great adaptation of a book into a TV series, but it still feels like TV when you’re watching it. You’ve got fifty some odd minutes of run time, and knowing that, you can almost predict when the climax and the cliffhanger are coming. Then you wait for next week, or next season.  We have the miniseries, but that’s just longer TV. Any way you cut it, there’s just no film equivalent to a page-turner. These Netflix original series are the closest we’ve got to televised books.

This format makes particular sense for Arrested Development. You can really see it in the new season. It starts weak; it’s just a bunch of references to stuff that happened in the previous seasons of the show, and not in a clever way. Pure, cheap nostalgia. But that’s only because it hasn’t been going long enough to work in their trademark callbacks and multi-tiered jokes. The fourth season hits its stride somewhere around the halfway point, when plotlines start tying together, and then it’s as good as its ever been. You might remember that as the exact same reason Arrested Development got canceled in the first place. It was too hard to approach, and too dense to jump into, right in the middle of everything. Arrested Development has always taken a long time to get great. It didn’t work when there was a long wait between episodes. It didn’t do too well constrained by the conventional structure. It couldn’t draw people in that didn’t start at the beginning. It really only hit its fanbase hard when it went on sale as season long collections, or came up for streaming – when you could watch it back to back and really catch everything they were doing, and all the ways it tied together. If these sorts of adaptations prove a viable format, and they seem to be doing so, I’m really interested in the inevitable book adaptations. You could feasibly film a fifteen hour movie, adapting everything relevant from the original work, then split it into chunks only where it makes sense to do so, and release it all at once without losing any of the magic.

It’s funny that, with platforms like Amazon serials, the rise of ebooks, and the overall increased general awareness of alternate formats for literary fiction, television is going the way of books while books are going the way of television.

You Can’t Spell Muse without Music…Wait…

This blog won’t be entirely about writing, but it’s all I’ve been doing lately. So here we go again: Yesterday it was writing and time of day. This time it’s writing and audio. Do you write with music? If so, what? Some people say they can’t write to anything with lyrics, others have a specific genre (classical seems to be the most common answer, from what I assume to be fancy gentleman that must don formal Writing Wigs before settling in for the day’s work).

I spend easily half the day listening to music. That’s because both my day job and hobbies revolve around writing, and the two are tied intrinsically in my head. I can’t write without music. Which is odd, because I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of music. I love it, I need it, but I don’t pay any attention to it. I couldn’t tell you the names of half of my favorite albums, much less songs, much less name the members of the bands. I just know that when I want something atmospheric, I type a seemingly random string of words, like a password or a spell – Do Make Say Think, Todosantos, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Lower Dens – and I am rewarded with interesting sounds that distract me from my own exceedingly loud keystrokes. I beat the shit out of my keyboards (that’s why my column’s named ‘word puncher,’ incidentally), and I’ve conditioned myself to always be listening to music instead of, say, my wife complaining about the machine gun noises coming from my office equipment.

For some reason, musical choice is a much less covered ‘writer’s poll’ question. A lot of talk about time of day, about environment, about reading preferences – nothing about music. So let’s do this in two parts: First, do you listen to music at all? Second, if so, what do you listen to? I’m all for at least trying on other’s routines and seeing if part of it helps you. Switching to writing in the morning, much to my surprise and the surprise of everybody I maul savagely for talking to me before 10AM, has helped. Maybe a musical shake-up will, too.

For example, this study insists that silence helps creativity – even though most of us avoid it at all costs. The last few days, I’ve tried writing at least these little blog posts with the headphones off, and it’s having a strange effect. Silence is like an echo chamber for my thoughts. I hear the sentences bounce around in my head for a bit longer than if I had typed them with music playing. On the one hand, that’s great for editing – it helps me make fewer passes, because I catch the mistakes quicker. On the other hand, it’s not so great for first drafts – they come slower, as I get caught up on wording before I’ve even gotten the full thought laid down.

So your turn: A vote for silence? For atmospheric tunes? Or do you cast your ballot for something else? Screaming death metal, perhaps — because nothing helps you focus like loudly condemning society to hellfire for frowning on your lifestyle choices.

Write Early, Write Often, Write Noise, Write Snake, Write Power

What time of the day are you best, creatively?

I have always been a night writer, possibly because it’s a homophone of Knight Rider, and I’ve always wanted to be a permed man with a sentient Trans-Am. I do my writing at night, I do my pseudo-writing – editing, research, PR stuff – during the day. This is because, during the day, I am a bleary-eyed disaster area. A poorly collated anthology of rage, stupidity, confusion and sleep. This state of being does not, at first, seem to lend itself to creation. So I generally write at night, with a small glass of whiskey and a clear and civilized mind.

I’ve recently changed all that, and switched to writing first thing in the morning. I get up, immediately exercise — before I’ve even had that first coffee that switches off my kill-impulse — and sit down to write afterward. I figured I’d give it a shot, because on every single one of those “what’s your writing routine” posts you read on lit-sites, the vast bulk of the authors say something like: “Well, first I wake up well-rested, greet the sunshine with a friendly smile, pet a gaggle of bunnies, then skip to my writing meadow where I cheerily bash out sixteen thousand words of genius before breakfast.”

And while I’m still eagerly awaiting my Muse Bunnies and have yet to find an appropriate meadow with internet service, the routine shift is actually working. I’m not any better in the morning. It’s not any fun, and it’s certainly not easy to start. But it forces your hand. Forces you to get the creation out of the way, before you can settle down into a sleepy blur of lesser duties. On workdays, that means I do the actual writing part of my columns in the morning, then spend the rest of the day editing and trying to figure out the English equivalent of what I typed, which is usually something like “fugggasuimbitch vidja gumms.” On non-work days, I do a half-chapter or so of the book and then spend the rest of the day refining the furious-grizzly-bear-chase-sequences and smashing my pugs faces together trying to make it look like Yoda.

“Write in the morning” is not a revelatory tip. I know. I’ve read it elsewhere a million times, and I always rolled my eyes at these magical fucking morning people and their mystical ability to roll out of bed resembling something like a human being. But I just wanted to add to the pile of evidence, maybe tip the Great Creative Scales in favor of getting up during People Hours, if you were thinking of trying it.

Officially Sanctioned Self-Published Fan Fiction?

If you don’t follow publishing news, you probably missed the Kindle Worlds announcement. If you do follow publishing news, you’re probably literally drowning in Kindle Worlds commentary right now. “Help, I’m so scared” you manage to sputter, coughing up a lungful of op-ed pieces and trying, desperately, to draw a breath of air, but finding only more contract snippets and speculation instead.

For the latter: I am so sorry. You’re too far gone. This is how you die. I’ll tell your kids you didn’t beg.

For the former: Kindle Worlds, in short, is an attempt to monetize fan fiction. You can now submit fan fiction for certain properties, and Amazon will sell them. Which differs from the old approach in that they split the royalties with the FF authors now, instead of burning their children alive to appease Ip, the furious god of Intellectual Property. If you want to read opinions about the news from relevant, smarter, and altogether more attractive individuals, check out Scalzi’s commentary on Whatever and Wendig’s piece on Terribleminds.

Me, I have a very simple rebuttal: This is different, how?

We’ve been selling fan fiction forever. It’s an easy trick: You just slightly change the names and places, and everything is protected under the warm and fuzzy blanket of parody, or at least the woolly throw of homage. Fifty Shades of Grey was literally Twilight fan fiction – that’s how the book really started – the published version just used different names and didn’t feature any actual vampires (hey, just like Twilight!). I just finished Critical Failures, a book by self-published author Robert Bevan, about a game of “Creatures and Caverns” that absorbs its players. It’s a thinly veiled reference to Dungeons and Dragons, complete with a Cavern Master, twenty-sided die, Rogues, Wizards, Sorcerers, Goblins – literally nothing about the property was changed but the name. It was a fine and entertaining book, in no danger of being sued whatsoever.

It’s not a new development, either: Literary sass-monster Gore Vidal wrote historical fan fiction in the form of his Narratives of Empire series, John Updike wrote a prequel to Hamlet, Scalzi himself wrote Red Shirts, which was essentially just (truly excellent) Star Trek fan fiction, and on, and on. The only thing Kindle Worlds changes is a letter or two in the names, and the occasional well-placed synonym. Now, should Warner Bros. allow it, you could conceivably write and sell Buffy the Vampire Slayer stories, rather than what you’re currently writing and selling, which is Muffy the Undead Killer stories.

I Prefer My Dick Jokes to be FACTUAL, Sir.

These Product Review columns always do pretty well over at Cracked, even as comedic fiction in general nosedives into oblivion. There are obvious reasons for that: The PR columns start off with a numbered list, and Cracked scans really high in the OCD/numerically themed vampire demographics, so that’s always a plus. They also introduce real information right up front, thus giving the readers some grounding before launching into the weird prose. It makes sense that they would do well even as fiction fails.

But the surprising part is the reader response: Most people are pleasantly surprised that I tricked them into reading fiction. They say they only gave it a chance because there were real product reviews in a numbered list, but they, much to their own surprise, enjoyed the story section more. Readers intentionally avoid prose when they visit the site – you can see it in the numbers. Even true stories and humorous anecdotes are traffic death. The pure comedy, anecdotal and fiction pieces do maybe 1/5th the traffic of even the most generic numbered list.

I’m not bitter or complaining – half those generic numbered lists are from me, after all – I just find it curious that, if you can find a device to trip readers up and send them sprawling into a big stinking pile of prose, they’ll actually wallow around in there and enjoy themselves. Is this an intellectual posturing thing? Has pop culture turned some sort of literary corner? The prevailing attitude these days seems to be that reading stories is for kids, while adults read exclusively about cold, hard facts. I feel like that’s a recent trend (recent as in, last fifty years or so). Though I wonder if that’s just ignorance of past generation’s popular reading on my part. I’m really only basing that assumption on the fact that I can name a dozen classic fiction books from every decade of the last century, and yet there are maybe only two non-fiction books that survived the years.

I guess fiction has never really been big online, which is strange, because this is, without a doubt, the most literary age in history. We all carry around phones and tablets in our pockets and bags; we spend all day staring at words, words, words. Words for work, words for fun, words to communicate with friends and strangers alike. But stories are more marginalized than ever. The internet started off as a tool, then it grew to a research journal, then a media center. Somewhere along the way, it even became a stinking sex dungeon and amateur doctor. It’s just weird to me that the one thing it’s struggling to be is a library.

Revenge of the Revenge of the Meta-Nerds

knightspp

I just bought a Nexus 10.  After conducting my usual new gadget routine – reading the manual cover to cover, gleefully pulling off stickers and huffing all the new electronics smells – I went in search of games to see exactly how far mobile computing has come. I saw some very pretty and impressive stuff – mobile platforms truly are only a half generation behind modern consoles – and I’m not playing any of it. Instead, I’m totally sucked in to Knights of Pen and Paper, a poorly translated, retro-styled faux 16-bit tabletop D&D simulator. This is how I choose to use my astoundingly powerful mobile computer; my flat obelisk of technological fetishism; my new device literally straight out of Star Trek; the most recent avatar of mankind’s veritable stampede of progress…and I use it to emulate thirty year old technology that is, in itself, emulating some paper, dice, and friends.

Society used to make fun of nerds for being so socially inept that we played D&D on Saturday nights with our friends, instead of doing penis-and-vagina stuff at house parties. Now nerds are more accepted than ever, to the point that we have nerd simulators.

Good lord. I’m…a meta-nerd.

Look in the Black Mirror, what do you see? It’s you (but black).

blackmirror

So I asked you guys to recommend some good sci-fi on Facebook last week, and my internet literally burst into flames in response. I got a million recommendations that I’m slowly going through at the rate of one episode per day (all I got time for), and I’m two deep into Black Mirror. If you, like me, haven’t heard of it, it’s a British sci-fi series of one-offs — think old school Outer Limits — each with different writers, directors, and self contained plots. The first episode, The National Anthem, was all right: It was entertaining and ballsy enough, for what it was, but ultimately didn’t go beyond novelty. The second episode, 15 Million Merits, was astonishing. It was some of the tightest storytelling I’ve seen in years, and I don’t mean “tight” in the bro-with-a-wooden-ear-stud-likes-your-jacket sense. The episode could not have been one minute shorter, and should not have been one minute longer. It introduced an entire authentic world, likable characters, an intriguing plot and some seriously biting social commentary in just under forty-five minutes. If you’re going to start on the series, remember: They’re not linked. You can start on the second episode and not miss anything.

Although I will say if you, like me, watch TV in the morning on an exercise bike, maybe you want to stick to reruns of Supernatural or something. I know ‘biking while watching TV’ wasn’t the exact thing they were condemning, but it’s hard to watch a Huxleyan dystopia about the exact thing you’re doing at the moment and not feel just an eensy bit like a conformist drone being obliviously milked by your corporate overlords.

Just an eensy bit.

Wipe your feet, savages.

Hi, and welcome!

Take off your pants and stay a while.

Here’s the deal: This is not more Cracked. If you want more Cracked, try reading Cracked! We started our own website just to collect all of our favorite Cracked material, and we called it Cracked.This not a place for comedic lists, or even silly fiction. This is a kind of catch-all hub of awesome for all things me, me, me. This is a screaming testament to my own unflappable narcissism. It is a loving memorial to my immeasurable arrogance. It is a fount of conceit, spewing forth arrogance like blood from the severed artery of humility.

You know: It’s just your average blog.

The stuff here will be mostly op-ed, occasional promo (or even preview) material for my books, short fiction, polls, or maybe just pictures of me fighting drugged animals. Whatever I feel like. Stick around if that sounds interesting. I can’t promise that it will be good, but I can promise that it will at least be uniquely terrible.

I also reserve the right to display unbroken walls of text, without a smattering of unrelated stock images every other paragraph. Because fuck your withering attention span, internet.