Thursday, December 26, 2019

"Ready Player One," Identity, and Internal Consistency

So, a while back I sat down and listened to Ready Player One while I was on a road trip. I was really not all that interested in the book after all the things I'd heard about it, but Wil Wheaton was the reader for the audio book, so I figured what the hell, I'll give it a listen.

Everything you've heard is true... good and bad.
Before we go any further, yes the trivia about all of the nerd ephemera of the 1980s was interesting. Yes Wheaton's reading was engaging, and kept my attention. Yes the sheer amount of the different stuff touched on (video games, tabletop RPGs, movies, computers, etc.) all wrapped up in a Willy Wonka style hunt for the throne was a clever way to package the sheer amount of stuff the author wanted to hold forth about. On the other hand, it's also true that this book's style glorifies gatekeeping, is pretty incomprehensible in how the world and tech actually works, and it bends over backwards to make the nerdy, chubby, socially awkward white guy into a hero when, really, he just comes across like a whiny sad sack.

Now that that's out of the way, though, I want to touch on how the internal consistency of the book sort of falls apart regarding identity, experience, and who is and isn't "real."

Because it sticks out like a sore thumb, and it's a teachable moment.

A Modern View That Doesn't Fit The Sci-Fi Future

For those who haven't read the book, the world of Ready Player One is a crumbling, energy-starved dystopian hellscape where a massive, virtual reality computer world called the Oasis is the main place where people come together. You go to school there, meet people, attend parties, hang out, play video games, become a well-known celebrity, etc., etc. It's a tool that has been fully embraced for at least a generation, now.

Which is why the whole concern in the book about who someone "really" is, and the subtext of, "what if they don't look the way their avatar looks online?" hits such a flat note.

Because really, who are any of us?
That concern is rooted in a very 1980s/1990s view point, where we don't consider the things that we do online to be genuine. It's not real life, in other words, it's just the Internet. But in this book, the Internet IS your real life.

Our protagonist, for example, was a child when the Oasis first came online. He literally describes it as his first babysitter, keeping him plugged-in and entertained while his mom worked (also through the Oasis by doing cam shows, and similar digital work). He attended in-person school very briefly, but then switched to an Oasis school. The only people we ever see him interact with in-person till the end of the book are his aunt, one of her boyfriends, and a neighbor of his... literally every other interaction he has is online. For a majority of the story our protagonist is actually in a tiny apartment in Ohio, which he never leaves, ordering all his food and necessities from the net, and never so much as going outside. We see him shower once, but even his heartbroken brooding takes place online.

The idea that someone who's lived their whole lives knowing nothing else, and who can count the number of offline people he's had meaningful interactions with on one hand, would consider online friends to be somehow not their real selves is jarring, to say the least. And the over-emphasis on, "Do you really look like your avatar?" is equally weird.

Sci-fi with this amount of emphasis on the freedom and expression of the virtual world is typically used to dip into questions of race and ethnicity, of age, of gender and its expression, and dozens of other areas that it can be used to comment on... and there is a token nod to that with H, whose avatar is an athletic white guy while offline she's, in her own words, "a fat black chick." However, H chose that avatar so people would take her seriously, and so she could avoid harassment... realistic for today, certainly, but in a world where everyone is digital, and you could be a seven foot komodo dragon with a unicorn horn, are there really people demanding to know if their friends and loved ones really look the same offline? And rather than spending the middle chapters going on about the glitched screen in Pac Man's final level, wouldn't a brief moment to lay out some kind of anti-Oasis movement, or subcultures where you must have an avatar that truly reflects your appearance in the interest of some sort of digital code of truth be helpful to smooth out this oddly-placed emphasis on something that feels like a relic of the past?

Think Through The Implications of Your Extraordinary Elements

On the one hand, it could be argued that this book was just an excuse to wax nostalgic about all the pop culture elements of the 80s and 90s; a handy way to fit video games, giant robots, Internet culture, Monty Python, and all the other geek ephemera of the era into the text. And yes, the book does that.

But that doesn't make it a good book.

And, in this case, the world building falls apart because too much energy was being put into deciding which forty-year-old video games were going to be pivotal plot points, and not enough into asking what the culture, norms, and world was actually like after the introduction of such remarkable technology.

Because it's fair enough to say that someone who grew up offline, but who then adopted the online world would still have all sorts of hang-ups and cognitive problems telling physical reality from digital reality. But the book feels like a Gen X individual trying to write from the perspective of a gen Z character, who then goes on this whole tear about the world away from their screens, and their phones, and all these digital devices... things that only appear weird or unnatural to the older generation because they weren't in place when they were younger. To someone born to it, who grew up with it, these tools are just a part of how the world is... and the fact that the protagonist has a whole rant about who we really are offline, and how the world would be better if they could all leave the Oasis, feels like a rant from an out-of-touch grandpa who fell off the technology curve.

 For a book series that did this right, I recommend starting with Feed, the first in Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy. Short version, zombie apocalypse happened, and now our protagonists who grew up in the next generation are just trying to make a living. And there's plenty of nostalgia for older media (particularly zombie movies), but we see how the world has changed through their eyes, and how what would be bizarre or unheard of is just normal to them.

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

The Marketing Lessons We Could Learn From Elvis Presley's Manager

Marketing is a tricky beast, but if you're a creative professional then you can't afford to miss a trick... sometimes literally! That's why it pays to study some of history's great successful campaigns, and to take notes on them.

I was reflecting on one of those earlier, and I thought I'd share it for those folks who don't know about it. If you're not familiar with the ins and outs of the life and times of Elvis Presley, the example started with these handy little buttons.

Full honesty, I might have bought one of these, myself.

What These Little Buttons Can Teach Us

If you like music, chances are good you know who Elvis Presley was. Still referred to as the King of Rock and Roll by a lot of folks, his music remains popular, and going to see his home is like a pilgrimage for some of his fans. While he was a landmark in chart toppers and record sales, it was important to remember that not everyone was an Elvis fan. In fact, a lot of people back then actively disliked his music, and they were pretty vocal about that fact.

Some things never change, I guess.

Of course, just because someone hated Elvis, that was no reason he couldn't make money off of them. Or, at least, that was his manager's reasoning according to Boing Boing.

We got what they want, baby!
You see, back in the 1950s, Elvis's manager started printing buttons and other merch which declared that the purchaser hated Elvis and his music. Making these buttons was easy, of course, because they were already producing the "I Love Elvis" variety, so all they had to do was change the text for a different crowd. This was the marketing equivalent of selling guns to both sides of the conflict, which meant that whatever your opinion was all of your money went straight into the King's coffers one way or another.

Something For Everyone

While most of us aren't famous enough that we can make money off our haters with such a brilliant strategy (I mean, have you ever read and reviewed anything off my Amazon author page?), the core principle on display is sound. In short, ask what people who aren't buying what you're selling want, and offer them that, too.

You don't have to be as extreme as the anti-Elvis buttons to put this strategy to use, either. If you have an ebook you're trying to sell, for example, how many people have said they only read physical copies? If you have a physical book, how many people have told you they prefer ebooks? If you have tee shirts that tie in, how many people ask for those designs on buttons and pins instead?

Pay attention to what people will actually buy. Because while they might not say, "I'd buy that if only it was in X format," being able to read between the lines (and make some small leaps in logic) can do a lot to make sure that you clean up at the end of the day.

Just something to keep in mind, since we're in the midst of the holiday crunch, and all of us are putting together new plans for our marketing in 2020.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Fiction Creates Empathy (Yet Another Reason Inclusion and Diversity Matter)

How many times has a book or a movie brought you to tears? Probably more times than you're willing to admit in mixed company, but from Bambi to Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 chances are good you've had some tearjerker moments in your life. And if you tried to stem those tears with logic, you might have asked yourself why you were so upset? After all, these characters aren't real. They couldn't have died, learned deeper lessons about themselves, or reconciled with their parental figures and estranged family because they never lived... they aren't real.

The problem, of course, is that for the couple of pounds of jelly housed in your skull that makes all of your decisions, real is a slippery thing to define.

But if Darkblade isn't real, is anyone real?
For the gelatinous thinking parts between our ears, reality is nothing more than sensory input. Our higher brains know there isn't a hulking masked killer in our homes when we watch a slasher movie, but the construction of the narrative allows us to essentially hack our own bodies to produce adrenaline and a fear high, along with the catharsis of release when the characters do something on the screen. That doesn't mean the sensations are somehow less real, just because the scenario that produced them is fake.

What psychologists have found in studies like this one is that fiction also creates the capacity for empathy in the reader. Because your brain can't tell the difference between reading about a person who doesn't exist, and actually knowing someone who does. As long as the book you're reading provides you with an emotional journey that invests you in the character's experiences (something Scientific American pointed out, even if they also took the time to shit on genre fiction while they were at it) it improves your ability to empathize with other people.

So, the more you read, the more able to see other people's perspectives you become. This also means that people could begin to sympathize with perspectives they wouldn't otherwise see, or which they simply have no first-hand experience of. The same way as if they had diversified their groups of friends or family members in real space.

The Ripple Effects of Inclusion and Diversity

This is where the true power of the written word really shines through. Because just like how a scary story might give us the vicarious thrill of being chased by an undead maniac, other stories could put us in other situations we've never experienced. What it's like to be a young woman for male readers. What it's like to have a disability for those without such a condition. What it's like to be an ethnic or religious minority just trying to make your way in a world that is doing its best to keep its boot firmly on your head.

Fight the man, you feeling me?
In situations like this, your brain can't tell the difference between reading about a character and actually making a flesh-and-blood friend. Not in the delusional way (people aren't going to go around talking about how they spent the weekend escaping the prisons of NarShan with their best friend, as a rule), but in the sense that exposure to characters and exposure to people can have similar effects on your brain. So even if you live in a white suburb, reading a book can make the injustices and intolerances faced by the black community feel more real to you. Even if you've never once questioned being heterosexual, you can catch a glimpse of what it's like to be unsure, or to have other people trying to push and pull you in different directions regarding your sexuality. If you're part of the most common religion in the nation, a good book can show you what it's like to be someone persecuted for their faith by the majority.

In short, making friends with fictional characters affects us. The messages we see in their worlds lodge themselves in our brains, and open up channels that might not grow in any other way. They allow us to see different perspectives as readers, and to understand people outside our own experiences and beyond our own skins, metaphorically speaking.

This is why it's important for people to read a varied diet, but it's also why it's important for writers to make sure that the characters and stories we present are the sort of things that we want changing people's brains. We need to make characters, not caricatures, and to present scenarios that have internal consistency and logic to them, while also being engaging to read. In short, we are the ones tasked with making brain food for the masses, and tricking them into eating a double dose of empathy because it has a candy coating of engaging story and tasty drama to it.

Nobody ever said this job was easy. But if you've ever wondered if what you're doing matters, know that it does. You are literally affecting the way people see the world when they chew through your story... who else can say that about their work?

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Don't Be Afraid To Find A New Platform For Old Stories

For those who don't follow me on Facebook, I'm currently in the middle of what I've dubbed The Great Reshuffling. For many years I had an archive of content on the site InfoBarrel, and it earned me a small be respectable check every month or so. As the traffic to the site started to go down, and maintenance became less and less common, I stopped posting there. I instead headed over to Vocal, where I wrote a bunch of new content, and found it paid significantly better.

Now that InfoBarrel is taking ads off their site, and more or less going into a state of suspended animation, it's time to begin the process of moving the popular pieces out of that old archive, and into the new one.

Don't mind the grunting... this stuff's just heavy.
This is something I've been steadily doing since about last May or June... however, this is not the first time I've been forced to do this. So I figured I'd share the experience, and what fellow creators can learn from my many moves.

In The Days of Yahoo! Voices...

When I was in college, a friend of mine told me about a website that allowed writers to create whatever sort of content they wanted, and it would pay them based on their traffic. Sometimes they'd even qualify for an up-front fee, depending on the article, story, etc. in question. I was always looking for some side money, so I signed up, and gave it a try. So I put up articles, short stories, etc., and eventually I got enough views that I was earning roughly $2 for every 1k views my work got. And when a new article might generate 10k to 15k views, that was pretty nice work for a side hustle.

I even put up a couple of the steampunk short stories that acted as the basis for New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam.

Which has the first few tales for free, if you haven't read it yet, by the by.
The original website, whose name I can't recall for the life of me right now, was bought by Yahoo! It then became Yahoo! Voices, and for a few years I kept building my archive and making what earnings I could on it. And, for a bit, it seemed like I was going to be able to shift it from a side hustle to a rent-paying level of earnings... of course, as soon as I started pulling down triple-digit checks, that was when the site sent out a notice that it was closing down and deleting everything in its archives.


I detailed this at the time in Improved Initiative Needs Your Help! over on my gaming blog. But once I lost that archive of 400+ active-and-earning articles, I had to figure out what to do with that mound of content. Not all of it was great, but a lot of it had been pretty popular. So I started looking around for a new home to get it back on the market. There weren't any websites at the time paying a flat fee for traffic, so I initially started putting my old articles up on Hubpages. I was just starting to make progress on the pile after a few months when, as you might have guessed, things went south again. As I detailed in the Part Two update, no sooner had I caught my breath and gotten into the swing of things again than Google kicked me off their AdSense platform. So now there weren't any websites I could host my old content on, or write new stuff for if I expected to make any money off those efforts.

After asking around on some forums, I found there was a way to host your content on InfoBarrel, and to make money off the site's total take, rather than off your personal AdSense account (which, again, I no longer had). I'd had an InfoBarrel account for years, but hadn't updated in a while... still, when I logged in, it was glad to have me back. And for a year or so, it worked out pretty well as a new host for me. I got the real gems of my old archive back up, and started adding new content. Then InfoBarrel rolled out their 2.0 version, and suddenly traffic plummeted. What would previously have generated thousands of views was now barely getting a few hundred, and instead of a check every month I was getting one every three to five months. After trying new tactics and waiting on updates that never came, I threw up my hands and walked away. Now, as I alluded to at the beginning, I'm once again moving a lot of my content that's on InfoBarrel over to yet another new home.

Why? Why go through all of that effort one more time when it's already been through half a dozen websites? Well, because good content never really dies, even if the hosting sites do.

Evergreen Content Has No Shelf Life

If you drop by my Vocal archive and check out the recent posts, you're going to see a variety of topics. There's going to be life hack guides like How To Make An Apple Cider Vinegar Fly Trap next to silly listicles like 9 Super Powers Your Cat Has. And mixed in there you'll probably find some celebrity trivia, like 5 True Facts About James Earl Jones. There's also a lot of stuff about tabletop gaming, for those of you out there who like rolling funny shaped dice.

You know who you are.
The key to a lot of this stuff is that it's not going to go out of style. It's not movie reviews, where the film will hit big, and then fade into obscurity a week later. It's not a how-to for a car that's popular now, but which no one will own in the next 7 years or so. Most of these articles are evergreen, and they're always going to be relevant to a certain demographic.

And you know what I've found by moving them over? People are still reading them. They may not be reading them in the thousands, but my daily view count has been steadily creeping up since I started shuffling over those old posts, cleaning up the language and polishing up their look. It means my archive is steadily growing every week, and that I always have something recent (if not exactly "new") to promote on social media. It's mostly a copy-and-paste job, but it's paying dividends.

That's the point I'm trying to make. If you put in the time and effort to craft something that matters, don't be afraid of finding it a new home when the old one falls apart. Whether it's a blog that closes up, a publisher that shutters its doors, or fiction site that shuts down... you put work into that story. Don't just let it sink... there are people out there who haven't read it yet! Clean it up, slap on a fresh coat of paint (and possibly a new cover), and put it back in general population.

The results may surprise you!

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!