Sunday, July 24, 2011

In Obscura


So I wrote a book, I made a cover for it, and I'm putting it up on Amazon and Smashwords.

I'm sure you're wondering WTF, right?

When you are a working writer, as I sometimes am, it gets easy to lose sight of what got you into this to begin with. Especially if what you're writing isn't being produced. Because we are the sellers and studios/agents/producers are the buyers, we need to please THEM. Not you, and not always us. Telling buyers that my art theft TeeVee show would totally be well received means absolutely nothing. It doesn't matter what I think. It doesn't matter if I'm right. The buyers ostensibly have a much better handle on the market. They will tell you what will sell. Entertainment goes through them. Sure, it would be nice if you could just get a buncha viewers to sign a petition, but sadly it doesn't work like that right now. So as a writer, much of your day is spent figuring out how to sell. It's a very valuable skill, I wish I were better at it, but it can really drain the creativity right out of you.

This isn't to say that buyers have no interest in anything that's good, or in a writer's voice or any of that. There is acknowledgement of how fucked this business can be. But it does get harder and harder to get your voice heard through the noise.

Writing a novel was, for me, a way to do something that was all about voice and not about the market. I know the market well enough to know what has a chance of being commercial and what doesn't, and there comes a time when you just gotta do what you gotta do. Hence, In Obscura. This is NOT a commercial book, not in the modern sense. Maybe it would have been, back before publishing died. Who knows?

But the advent of the e-book and the dominance of Amazon and Barnes & Noble's e-readers gives writers a forum through which to tell stories to an actual public that doesn't just include their moms. Also, my mom doesn't have an electronic reading device, so that wouldn't work anyway. So someone who's written an unfashionably uncommercial book (i.e., me) can actually format said book for the e-book market and sell it alongside Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer... 'alongside' meaning on the same website. Not necessarily right alongside. While this sounds egalitarian, it's driving some published writers and publishing professionals fucking batshit.

See, there's A LOT of shit up on Amazon's Kindle site. Just a ton of poorly written detritus to slog through in the hopes that you'll find something readable. And people don't want to slog. Who can blame them? Leveling the playing field has its advantages, but also its disadvantages. There's so much web chatter out there with all our competing social networking sites and blogs and whatnot that it's frequently impossible to find what you're looking for.

Publishing professionals maintain that actual published books have an advantage because they've already made it past the first circle of hell. They've been agented, properly edited, nicely formatted, have professionally done covers, are typeset, bound and marketed. Essentially, writers who make it through the publishing circus have paid their dues, and if you don't pay your dues, then you don't deserve to be published. I understand that viewpoint but we're not talking about a vanity press here. If I put my book up next to someone's published novel and my book sells more copies, then it means that more people wanted to read my book than the published book. And if not, well, then not. It's kind of simple.

The contention is that published books will be better than self-published books. And for the most part, this is likely true. However, a lot of bad writers get published. Likewise, a lot of good writers don't get published. And since one doesn't hurt the other, what's there to get upset about?

Before self-publishing became so easy, before self-published e-books could -- if properly done -- be indistinguishable from that Tor bestseller -- there was NO WAY a rejected author could sell a book. So publishing was safe from having to answer the hard question -- why the fuck did we turn that bestseller down? Now, however, that's a question that just may surface from time to time. So yeah, that's scary to some publishing folks.

This is simplistic, I know, and I'm not necessarily disagreeing that a book that's gone through its paces in order to be published isn't going to be better 99% of the time. But there have been several e-book successes, and it's pretty clear that publishing's a little scared. They're also scared because some published writers have decided to self-publish. Even though they don't have the weight of a publishing house's marketing department behind them, they do already have a fan base and the royalty rate for an author is MUCH better than the deal they get from their publisher. An author gives up the backing of a big publishing house for more control over their product. Some people are willing to do this. And some aren't.

Publishing is as stuck-in-the-past as the studios. They immerse themselves in social media and networking, but they don't really understand it. They don't know why some things go viral and others don't. They try to force it, and that just doesn't work. Studios and networks announce that movies and TeeVee shows are hits, but is it really possible that EVERY summer cable show is the highest-rated show of the summer? The math says no. It's as if the announcement becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But maybe the days of telling an audience what it wants, what it needs, are waning. It's cheaper to release an e-book or an app or do a two-minute comedy video in your living room than it is to make a TeeVee show or a movie. So I think that if the tide is going to turn, that's where it's going to start.

But let's be honest here. People who write books and then upload them to the Kindle in the hopes of striking it rich are fucking idiots. But then people who come to Hollywood in the hopes of getting rich writing movies are fucking idiots, too. If you don't love it, if you have no motivation other than money, then don't do it. Seriously. DON'T.

In Obscura is a book I started writing over a decade ago. I'd write, put it away, drag it out, change all the pop culture and technology, etc. It has a sprawling, ancient mythology that needed to be corralled. There's magic in it. But it doesn't feature a punkish, back-to-the-camera heroine covered in tramp stamps as she wields a sharpened weapon of some sort. It doesn't have the mainstream thriller fiction vibe either. It's not about a globe-trotting archaeologist, or a famous symbologist. There are no scenes of cardinals rending their garments at the Vatican. People, I DON'T EVEN MENTION OPUS DEI. The spine of this story is a secret history, created partly out of the inspiration I had when we were researching secret societies and black virgins and bloodlines on Millennium. And you can only fit so much ancient conspiracy into one hour of television.

I hope you take a look at it (hell, 20% of it is free anyway), and if you buy it, I hope it's worth your time and your two bucks.

This is a book that I think people would like to read. It's as simple as that. With all the hoops that have to be jumped through, all the preparation and positioning and marketing and pilot reading and what have you, it's a nice thing to be able to say, "Here's a book you may enjoy."

And here's a trailer that will hopefully whet your appetite:

video

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Revenge of the Nerds

Comic Con is happening right now. I am at home. Some evil creature convinced me to go down yesterday for the day, however. I didn't really want to go because as everybody has been saying for years, Comic Con has changed quite a bit from what it used to be -- a comic book convention. There's a lot of "hey, you kids, get off my lawn" shouting from the old-timers about how things used to be so much better, there are hardly any comics now, there are too many people, parking and hotel rooms are impossible, etc. All of this is true, but none of it is the real reason Comic Con is an epic failure.

Back in the day, you could drive down on Saturday, park in the lot next to the convention center, and then go in and buy comics. You could walk into panels, which featured comic book writers talking about comic books. There was the odd film or TV writing panel, maybe even a panel with book writers on it, but the primary focus was comics. Studios paid some attention to it -- there's an adorable photo of fans watching Star Wars at Comic Con in 1976. Now obviously, upon reflection, this looks more charming than it was.

But think about it for a second.

Making Star Wars was a gamble. This is a kind of half-assed attempt at promotion. "Hey, what about those comics people? Maybe we should show it to them." And then, worldwide phenomenon that changed movies forever. But it's pretty obvious from the photos that it wasn't the Comic Con crowd that pushed Stars Wars forward.

The movie didn't give rise to what's happening at Comic Con now. Its surprising success did. Now every entertainment company is owned by some enormous megacorporation. And the one thing big companies cannot abide is failure, which in corporate-speak means something that doesn't make the shareholders money. Companies don't take chances anymore. We all know that. It's not news. Although if it were, the "reboot" of Spiderman should change minds on that. When companies discovered an untapped but potentially valuable core fanbase being held captive in San Diego for four days, they went to fucking town. Literally. Movies -- and particularly TeeVee -- started invading Comic Con. And real geeks who had spent their lives seeking out cool shit found that the cool shit started coming to them. So for awhile, people were happy. Fans didn't realize that they were being used only as a promotional springboard.

Then more companies, more networks and more studios started getting into the act. And the con organizers bent over fucking backwards to accommodate them. Comic Con became THE destination for the year's entertainment product. There was still a dealer's room with comics and books, toys and artwork. And sure, it got a little more crowded, but that's the price you pay.

I'm here to tell you, gentle readers, that we have far surpassed that now.

It doesn't bother me so much that they oversell, it's the fact that it has become literally COMPLETELY impossible to see what you want to see. And really, when you look at the programming, it's 99% about the moving picture. Panels don't have topics. It's actors coming to promote their movies or shows. And whereas panels used to have all kinds of diversity (whether it be literal diversity or diversity of experience), that diversity is gone now. Could a bunch of writers get together and do a panel at Comic Con if they weren't on staff on an approved show, or had written an approved movie? Doubtful. This is a new era of Comic Con, an era in which only corporate-approved product gets presented to the masses.

The venerated Hall H, the bete noir of many a Comic Con goer, has to be entered with a siege mentality. People sit in Hall H all day long, because that's where the movie studios plop big-name actors to hawk their upcoming movies. I don't have a problem with folks who want to sit there all day to catch a glimpse of Harrison Ford, but this is what ALL of Comic Con has become. It's simply product shilling to trapped consumers.

It's cynical advertising and since the con is so drastically oversold, it creates a false demand that frustrates people. It's become the nerd version of Sundance, where only the privileged few can see what they came to see. Look, if I can't get into something, whatever. I didn't pay to get in anyway, and since I have worked in this business, I can't go five minutes without running into someone I know. If I actually could get a hotel room and stayed down there for the entire thing, I'd spend the majority of my time hanging out and hopefully making some new contacts. I'd treat it like what it's become -- a professional networking scene.

But it really bugs me that people spend ALL that money to buy their passes, their plane tickets, their rooms, their frightfully expensive food, and then can't get into anything they want to see. Then they hear about parties they can't get into, where all the stars/writers/directors they would love to talk to are going. So the major draw of Comic Con -- to talk to/interact with people you admire -- is taken away from them. All they have left is to sit in Hall H all weekend to catch that glimpse of their heroes.

Look, Comic Con outcasts, I can't get into the parties either. But fuck it. It's an artificial class system that's been created by executives who have -- once again -- inserted themselves between you and what you came for. And you can't even pay extra to get it. YOU LITERALLY CAN'T GET IT. So if you're coming to Comic Con just for the crazy-ass experience it does indeed provide, if you want to sit in a ballroom or a hall all day to catch the stars of your favorite show, then do it. But if you're looking for a real convention-going experience, or inspiration, or anything that isn't like wandering into a live-action version of a fucking Google search, then find a different convention. And there are MANY to choose from.

It's gotten to the point where all the whores come out. I mean literally THE WHORES, the girls in their sexy superhero-ess costumes who ride in convertibles writhing to house music as they blow bubbles at the crowd and try to get them to watch whatever-the-fuck reality show. The sexy superhero-esses who crowd every street corner (HOW APPROPRIATE) handing out flyers and asking people if they want to party. "We're having an awesome rave down the street." When this kind of trash arrives, you know the world is ending.

I had fun yesterday, but 99% of the fun I had happened outside the convention center. It was great to run into friends and meet new people, and I wish I'd been able to get a hotel room earlier because staying the entire weekend and just doing THAT would have been fun. But geez, they just make it immediately inaccessible. They make people feel like they're on the outside from the second the fucking thing starts. And that's not a nice thing to do to a geek, especially since conventions have traditionally been inclusive. Sure, geeks get together and pick on furries (who doesn't?) but there's still the spirit of geek that used to rule the con and now you just see it in little spurts.

Unfortunately, when you put on that badge, you are entering into a tacit agreement with the corporations that you will consume its product. And the corporate noise drowns out all others. So you'll see people trying desperately to promote their indie comic, or film, or whatever. But they have to do it the way the studios do, or nobody will pay attention. However, by virtue of doing this, they wind up having their product compared to Sony's, and that will always end in tears.

There's just too much fucking noise. There are no surprises, either. Nothing comes out of Comic Con suddenly having buzz. The studios have made sure of that. The buzz going in is the same as the buzz coming out. Nothing must surprise, because it's all teen test-marketed and branded to death. It's just food to the faithful and you, Comic Con goers, are those faithful.

The big geek refrain is that there's only one thing that ruined Comic Con -- Twilight. This couldn't be more fucking stupid. They think Twilight ruined Comic Con because all of a sudden girls were coming. Maybe it's a desperate move on their part, to ignore their own participation in Comic Con's demise by pointing the finger at the newest fanbase. But let's face it, y'all. Comic Con was going downhill FAR before the Twilight kids got there. And the fact that the demographic isn't so startlingly male-driven has nothing to do with Twilight and everything to do with the convention no longer being for geeks. Sony doesn't make some big superhero movie in the hopes that geeks will like it. They use you to get to the rest of the world.

The spirit of the geek, of the unexpected fanbase, isn't completely obliterated, though. The brightest spark I saw all day was when we passed by the Hasbro conflagration. There's a giant fucking My Little Pony there. Seriously so giant that it's ride-able. Lots of little girls getting their pictures taken with it, of course. Because My Little Pony is so obviously marketed towards little sparkly girls. However, there were a lot of guys there, too, waiting rather self-consciously for the little girls to get their pictures taken so they could sidle in.

You may be thinking WTF, but then if you read this link, you'll at least understand what I'm talking about. Guys love the My Little Pony TeeVee show. They certainly don't love it because it's being marketed to them. They love it in spite of the fact that they couldn't be further from the desired demographic.

In the midst of the cynical marketing, advertising and dangerously enormous crowds of people, it's refreshing to see these guys who truly love something so much that they will risk ridicule by showing up for it in public. It proves that inspiration and adoration can still come from unexpected places.

Bronys, my hat is off to you. You saved Friday.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

I'm As Mad As Hell...

...And I'm Not Going To Take This Anymore!

I was going to write a nice blog post about how summer has even more quality TeeVee than fall now (especially since 17th Precinct didn't get ordered). We've got Torchwood, Breaking Bad, Damages and True Blood. But then one of the best dramas I've seen in fucking YEARS got canceled and, well, here's the blog post you get.

In January, TNT president Michael Wright had this to say about Men Of A Certain Age:

We couldn’t be happier with the show. We look for a lot of different metrics on TNT. Obviously we want big ratings success, but we also want attention and good reviews from critics. This show works on a lot of levels for us.

Now that the show has rudely been canceled by Wright, it's time to call bullshit. But let's be fair. Whenever a network president says something like this about a show, you know the show is doomed.

I wasn't in the room when MOACA was unceremoniously yanked off TNT's airwaves (if there are even still things called airwaves). I have no reason to doubt Wright's sincerity when he talks about the quality of the show. As people have been joking since the cancellation, "I guess that one viewer is pretty upset," it's clear that the majority of Americans had never even heard of it.

As an aside, I think that if it's okay to joke about a lot of people losing their jobs, then I can joke when teachers gets laid off. Fair? Cool.

So.

Who's fault is it that hardly anybody had even heard of the show when it was cancelled? Can you really blame the viewers? Especially the viewers who watch whatever's doing well on TNT? I don't watch anything on TNT, yet when I heard about MOACA, I thought it sounded intriguing and wanted to check it out. Does that make me better than all y'all who hadn't even fucking HEARD of it BUT WATCHED STUFF ON TNT?

Because honestly.

But actually -- and it's sad for me to say this -- that does NOT make me better than you. This is still the business I'm in (I know -- SHOCKER). And as such, I find that it is somewhat helpful to know what's on the television machine. Even if I only watch an episode or two, I like to be familiar. And sometimes I've only watched an episode or two of shows and then given up, only to be pulled back when people told me I should reinvest (Veronica Mars comes to mind). Other times, the show has been on my radar but I'm a few seasons behind before I get into it (Friday Night Lights). But I'm rather proud to say that I watched Buffy from episode one. There are TeeVee critics who can't say THAT. And don't get me STARTED on people whose job it is to WATCH TEEVEE not watching TeeVee.

So I don't expect the regular TeeVee viewer to check everything out. It's not their job. It IS the job of the network to promote their shows. And if people tuning into Leverage didn't know about MOACA, then the fault lies squarely on the network's shoulders. Sure, I suppose people who like Leverage and whatever else is on TNT wouldn't have any interest in a quiet, well-written drama about men approaching fifty. After all, there are no aliens or heists or interrogation room scenes. But MOACA wasn't even one of those demanding shows, or tough shows. It was instantly likeable and -- networks LURVE this word -- relatable. And granted, the show wasn't of the TNT "brand." But if your brand is so tightly-focused, then don't pick the show up, even if you adore it. Because the cancellation day will be coming.

A sidebar on brands. I thoroughly understand the fact that networks need to brand themselves. I've been on shows that were so isolated in the schedule that there was no way to cross-promote them (cross-promotion means being able to promote a show throughout the week). I UNDERSTAND THIS PROBABLY BETTER THAN ANYONE. I love the puzzle of network programming. I think I would be good at it (and an executive told me this once, when I told her that Lone Star was going to fail). But cross-promotion has evolved into out-and-out branding and while some branding is a good idea because it gives the executives and writers guidelines on what the network will put on, too much branding means that your focus is so tight that you won't take any chances at all. And this isn't good creatively.

Oh, it works MONETARILY. Because if you put one light procedural on and people watch it, you can put thirty on and the same Goddam sheep will glue their eyeballs to the screen because Show 2 looks exactly the same as Show 1 except the actors vary slightly. That may work for a board of directors, but it doesn't work as a creative endeavor. And while I UNDERSTAND BETTER THAN ANYONE that television is a business, it's also got its creative side. A side, I may add, that is becoming increasingly diminished with every season.

Sidebar number two on network branding. If you want to see a network that knows its brand, check out CBS. It's really easy to know what to pitch there. It's also interesting that on occasion, CBS has tried to venture out of its brand and try something new, and that something new always fails. I do not blame the CBS executives for this. CBS has a very natural brand and demographic. It really works for them, which is why they continue to be such a big success. What MIGHT be interesting in the coming years is seeing if NBC's cable networks start leeching CBS's viewers. We'll see. Anyway, CBS developed a show with Sarah Michelle Gellar this year that clearly wasn't a CBS show, and it went to the CW. GREAT move. Incidentally, I was on a show that didn't fit on CBS and was handed off to UPN. The show SHOULD HAVE WORKED but guess what? No support.

Anyway.

What did TNT do to MOACA? Simple. They never told the audience what the show WAS. They didn't promote it, they didn't find a way to promote it, then they kept dividing up the seasons so the show got no momentum at all, it didn't do well, and it got cancelled. Remember when ABC yanked Lost around and viewers left? As soon as ABC gave Lost 13 episodes a season without a break, viewership came back. Because even though we have DVRs and never really have to know when something's on, there's still STORYTELLING at work. Episodic storytelling. It IS interesting that Falling Skies doesn't fit into the TNT paradigm either, but it's doing well because the network actually fucking PROMOTED it. I was on a terrific show that the network just didn't get at all, and didn't support. But they promoted the shit out of everything else. So I know how this thing goes, and that's how it went with MOACA.

More than that, and this REALLY FUCKING PISSES ME OFF, people in the industry didn't watch it. How do I know this? Because it never got nominated for a fucking thing. The people who vote for the Emmys are just trying to mimic the viewing audience. They want their Eminem Oscar cred. So why would they bother voting for a show that just TOLD GOOD STORIES WITH INTERESTING CHARACTERS? How sexy is THAT? The Emmy voters let this show down BIG-time. But then they let Friday Night Lights down, too, giving it the stupid fucking "final season" Emmy nomination that is, frankly, more insulting than just continuing to ignore it.

Remember when cable used to be a haven? It used to be the place where shows that didn't fit into the broadcast paradigm could thrive. But cable networks are owned by the parent companies of broadcast networks, so even though you think you're watching a rebel pirate cable network, you're really watching NBC with less of a licensing fee. And this means less risk-taking. And when a network like TNT takes a risk on MOACA and it fails, what do you think that does to further risk-taking?

Fucking obliterates it, that's what.

What's really galling about this is that we all GET IT. We had a really good drama idea we wanted to pitch, but we were told that we wouldn't be able to sell it because it was too much like Friday Night Lights. And you know what? THAT'S ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. But think about that for a second -- one of the best dramas IN THE HISTORY OF THE FUCKING MEDIUM, and we can't pitch a show that is a similar kind of drama because Friday Night Lights is a FAILURE.

It's too horrifying to fathom. But when you think about the business end of things, yes. That's true. And NOBODY involved thinks it's right, but you can't change it. You just can't.

Because we all need to survive, and the only way to do that in this environment is to tell ourselves -- repeatedly -- that no matter what we are doing, we are being creative. Because we look at what happens with such a wonderful show like MOACA and we cringe, seeing how a real, honest voice is treated by a network publicity department and the asshat audience who's too stupid or too uncaring to recognize or appreciate quality.

While the network led the audience in this particular case, it just makes me despair that all of us creative types are ever going to tell you OUR STORIES in OUR VOICES. Because you don't care. All you want is shit blowing up, people taking shades off and squinting into the sun, pithy remarks while handcuffing suspects, a chase scene through Vancouver, kids singing Journey songs, and reality TeeVee.

And because all of this still runs on an ancient ratings system that doesn't involve ANYONE who actually gives a shit about storytelling, YOU WILL ALL CONTINUE TO GET YOUR WAY.

But know this -- the second you start complaining about how there's nothing on is one second before I fucking GUT YOU.

There WAS something on. You were just too lame to recognize it.