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Welcome to the Stifyn Emrys blog. Visit this site to stay updated on the latest news and releases from author Stifyn Emrys, along with serious, silly and occasionally sarcastic observations about the world around us.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

'Profiled': A short work of fiction


"Profiled." A short work of fiction.
____________________________________

I don't remember why I was out driving around that night. Maybe I wanted to get a few smokes or rent a Redbox video. Maybe I just had a feeling something wasn't right. I've had that feeling a lot lately. More kids have been hanging out under lampposts, smoking weed and mouthing off to their elders. More graffiti has been showing up on street signs.

The cops who used to patrol around here don't drive by as much as they used to. Staff cuts. Yeah, I voted against that tax to hire more officers. If the ones they had would do a better job, we wouldn't need 'em, anyway.

So, I'm out driving around when I see this kid in a leather jacket and Nikes walking down the street. Looks suspicious. How many kids in this neighborhood can afford a leather jacket? And the Nikes - probably stolen from some other kid. Punks. That's what they call them today. In my day, they called 'em juvenile delinquents. "Where are those damned cops when you need them?" I thought to myself. "Like Papa said, 'if you want a job done right ..."

I start following the kid in my Accord, just to keep an eye on him. Kind of skinny - a runt. But you never know. Those kind are often the worst. Act all big and bad, just to scare people. Well, I am big and bad. Sometimes, it takes someone like me to knock them down a few pegs. Take that chip off their shoulder and break it in two just to show 'em who's boss. No wannabe gang-banger's gonna be messing around in my neighborhood.

He turns the corner, so I turn the corner. Where's he going? His hands are tucked into his pockets. What does he have in there? A knife, probably. No, this guy is too suspicious.

Shit. He's seen me. I see him glance over his shoulder, and then he starts walking faster. That's what they all do when they're guilty of something. He's wearing a baseball cap, too: the kind of in-your-face gangster cap all the hoodlums wear these days. Los Angeles Dodgers. I hate the Dodgers.

Now, he's started running, so I know he's guilty. The 7-Eleven down the street got robbed just a few days ago, and right about this time. This guy was probably the one who did it. Or maybe he and his pals tagged my neighbor's car. Looks like something he would do. I wish I could see under that ball cap he's got pulled down over his eyes. Probably some tattoos he's trying to hide. Only punks get tattoos.

I'm gonna have to speed up to stay with him. Yeah, the cops pulled me over and gave me a warning about going too fast in residential areas, but fuck 'em. They always speed through this neighborhood, anyway, and they're not around now. I am. Someone's gotta do something, right? I tried to form a Neighborhood Watch group, but no one else was interested. They're all scared of these hoodlums. Someone's gotta teach 'em.

I'm only going 40 in a 25 zone, and I'm chasing a criminal. I'll have a talk with that fuckin' punk. ...

Wait. Now he's turned toward me and is running out into the street. He's coming straight at me, like he's gonna bash in my window or something. Holy shit, I just got this car. Maybe if I rev the engine a little, that'll scare him off.

Shit.

I don't think I can avoid ... Fuck it ...

So when it's all over, I get out of the car and I go up to the kid. She looks up at me, and she's shaking, but most of her body isn't moving. Some of her body isn't there. Yeah, it's a she. No more than than 14. I couldn't tell that before. ... She's saying something about how she wanted to stop me from following her. About being scared. About hoping that if she ran into the street I'd stop and go away. About how her brother was gonna kill her because she ruined his leather jacket ... she'd taken it to stay warm. Guess that's why she had her hands in her pocket.

No tattoos. Just tears and a voice so soft I could barely hear it. Then she stops speaking. Her eyes aren't looking at me anymore. They're not looking at anything. Guess I was wrong about her, but hell, I gotta look on the bright side. No witnesses. And she's the one who's at fault for running into the street, not to mention being out after dark in this shitty neighborhood. Stupid kid. Stupid parents for not keeping an eye on her. They obviously didn't give a shit, so why should I?

Gotta keep looking out for Number 1 ... and trying to forget the look in her dead eyes staring past me into hell.


"Profiled" © 2013 Stifyn Emrys


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Kill the Ref! How Online Drama Spoils Everyone's Fun and Games


Some people may wonder why online group moderators post reminders of the group rules or mission statement. Others complain of being "censored" when they behave rudely toward others. Imagine for a moment that you're attending a football game. If the game were an online group, this is how things might play out ...

Player 1 hits a player from the opposing team over the head with a 2-by-4 just as he's about to cross the goal line, knocking him senseless and preventing him from scoring. The referee blows his whistle and throws a flag.

Player 1: "Why did you blow your whistle ref?"

Referee: "Because you weren't following the rules."

Player 1: "Rules? There are rules?"

Referee: "Yes. The rules say you can't hit an opponent over the head with a 2-by-4 to stop him from scoring. I'm afraid I'm going to have to eject you."

Player 2: "Yeah, that hurt!"

Player 1 ignores Player 2 and continues speaking to Referee:

Player 1: "Well, your whistles hurt my ears. I'm going to sue you for damaging my eardrum!"

Fans (leaping out of stands to surround Referee): "Yeah, ref. Let 'em play!"

Player 2, ignored in the rapidly escalating confrontation, picks up the 2-by-4 and whacks Player 1 over the head with it.

Player 1: "Hey!"

Player 2: "Now we're even!"

Referee throws another flag and blows his whistle again.

Referee: "You're ejected!"

Player 2: "Me? What about him?"

Referee: "I already ejected him."

Player 2: "But he started it. I was just defending myself!"

Referee: "Did you read the rules?"

Player 2: "There are rules?"

Referee: "Yes. And according to my roster, you're not even eligible to play in this game. You shouldn't have been here in the first place."

Player 2: "Well, you're interpreting the rules wrong."

Referee: "But how would you know? You haven't even read them!"

Fans (booing loudly): Get off the #&%*#&* field, ref! Let 'em play!"

Referee: "I'm afraid they're the ones who will have to get off the field. I've tried to be nice about this, but there's something you should know."

Fans, Player 1 and Player 2 together: "What?"

Referee: "I own this stadium."

The part of Player 1 was played by Rude Group Member.
The part of Player 2 was played by Troll.
The part of the Referee was played by the Page Administrator.
The fans portrayed themselves.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Outlook for Supreme Court Vote on Marriage Equality Mixed at Best



With the Supreme Court poised to weigh in on same-sex marriage tomorrow, here's a quick prediction about how things will play out. For those of us in favor of marriage rights, the outlook seems mixed at best.

Same-sex couples are most likely to get a positive ruling on DOMA, the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (more accurately: the Denial of Marriage Act.) The outlook here is somewhat positive for one simple reason: this court seems to have a fairly consistent disdain for laws passed by Congress. It invalidated a bipartisan deal on campaign finance in its Citizens United decision, for example, and just today nullified a broadly bipartisan vote in 2006 that reauthorized the Voting Rights Act.

Congress also passed DOMA. In today's decision on voting rights, the majority argued that the situation had changed dramatically since the act's passage several decades ago, and that minorities no longer need the level of protection provided by the Voting Rights Act. Under this reasoning, the court could also determine that the situation has changed dramatically concerning attitudes toward LGBT rights and that, as a result, DOMA was no longer appropriate.

However, if the justices impose this logic, that could pose a problem for opponents of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in California after a state court had declared it legal. It could be argued that evolving cultural norms make it unnecessary for the court to intervene, and that this evolution toward the acceptance of same-sex marriage should simply be allowed to run its course. The court tends to trust voters and states a lot more than it does Congress, so it would (in theory) be far less likely to overturn a state-passed initiative than it would a congressional law.

This court has, on balance, favored states' rights over federalism. This would argue for a ruling upholding Prop. 8.

Ironically, the conservative wing that constitutes a slim majority on the court has also argued that it's too soon to weigh in on the issue because same-sex marriage is (supposedly) a relatively new phenomenon. The court tends to take its time on validating cultural change, so it's unlikely to do so in this case before it's ready. One thing worth remembering is that decisions weigh heavily on precedent - not just written legal precedent, but common law and cultural precedent, too. The perceived cultural precedent for limiting marriage to one man and one woman mitigates against any sweeping action on the court's part to sanction same-sex marriage on the basis of equal protection.


It's also possible the court will allow the lower court ruling in Prop. 8 to stand on the grounds that its proponents didn't have proper legal standing to appeal the case after lower courts invalidated California's ban on equal-protection grounds. The state's governor and attorney general (who is now its governor) both declined to appeal the case because they agreed with the lower court's decision overturning the initiative, so a group of citizens took up the appeal. Whether they had a right to do so is an open question, and this court has shown a tendency to use legal technicalities as a means to avoid far-reaching decisions.

Conservative courts tend to view far-reaching decisions, and this court is no exception. The chances for a sweeping decision declaring same-sex marriage legal nationwide on equal protection grounds seem slim to none given the court's propensity for 1) yielding to precedent, whether legal or cultural, 2) favoring states over the federal government and 3) avoiding "big" decisions.

On DOMA, however, the court's tendency to act as a foil for Congress and could swing things the other way. Moreover, a decision striking down DOMA would not be nearly as sweeping. It is clearly important, because it would clear the way for same-sex married couples to access federal benefits, but it would not force states to recognize such marriages or offer state benefits to such couples.

Of course, it probably all comes down to a single "swing" vote: Justice Anthony Kennedy, who more often votes on the conservative side but has favored same-sex rights in the past. Kennedy, however, tends to be cautious, so the guess here is that he'll avoid signing on to any broad equal protection ruling on Prop. 8.

Here are my odds, purely subjective on my part, on the two cases:

  • DOMA: 70 percent chance the court will invalidate it, 30 percent that the law will be allowed to stand.
  • Prop. 8: 50 percent chance the court will find the challenge lacked standing and allow the lower-court's ruling (against the proposition) to stand; 49 percent chance it will overturn the lower court ruling and uphold Prop. 8 out of "respect" for the state's electorate; <1 percent chance of a sweeping equal protection ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

I hope my prediction on Prop. 8 is unduly pessimistic. I hope I'm wrong. Given the court's previous behavior, however, this is my best guess. I'm hoping to wake up tomorrow to a pleasant surprise.



Sunday, June 9, 2013

Gay Marriage, Labels and the Dangers of Religious Elitism


"Why do they have to call it marriage?"

That's a question I've often heard from opponents of same-sex marriage. They can't understand why civil unions aren't good enough, why gay and lesbian couples have to lay claim to the term "marriage" - a term they seem to consider theirs and theirs alone.

They often base their argument on the contention that same-sex marriage is outside the bounds of their religious tradition. It's sinful, evil and to their way of thinking, a threat to their way of life. Of course, it isn't  threat - this is pure rubbish. No one in favor of same-sex marriage wants to criminalize marriages between men and women. What they want is equal access, pure and simple.

Gay and lesbian couples are the ones being denied the opportunity to engage in an activity that's open to others. Yet those who would deny them this opportunity claim they're the victims. They say same-sex couples are denying them the right to practice their religion. Yet the only way this could possibly be true is if their religion somehow demanded that everyone on planet Earth conform with its code. Not just believers. Everyone.

Labels are important in this process, because people find their identity in labels. You can say it's just a piece of paper, but a marriage license symbolizes something far deeper to a couple. The same holds true for other labels that are viewed as expressions of identity. At various points in history, the church establishment refused to recognize groups such as the Gnostics, Cathars and Lutherans as Christians. Instead, they were heretics. The name "Christian" could only be claimed by those who swore allegiance to Rome, with the Catholic Church holding a de facto trademark on the label that was enforced at the point of a sword.


Why was this important? Because those identified as heretics posed the same sort of threat to the establishment as same-sex marriages pose to straight couples: the threat of an alternative. The possibility that their way wasn't the only way. And this scared the bejeezus out of them. Galileo was silenced for the same reason, even though he could offer scientific evidence to back up his claims (made earlier by Copernicus) that Earth wasn't at the center of the solar system.

When you get into the realm of religion, evidence can be scanty. Instead, most assertion is generally based upon authority and tradition. There's nothing wrong with this in and of itself. Many traditions took hold because they made sense at a certain point in history and subsequently "stood the test of time." The problem arises when traditions stop being subjected to this test - when they are defended, not because they are effective, but rather for their own sake.

The geocentric model of the solar system probably made sense to a lot of people for a lot of years. It stood up to certain observable tests: the stars appeared to rotate around Earth, as did other heavenly bodies such as the moon and sun. To the casual observer with limited resources to test the idea, it must have made pretty good sense. The problem occurred when people insisted on holding to the tradition in spite of clear evidence that it was false.

This is like saying, "It works because we've always done it this way," rather than, "We've always done it this way because it works." Following tradition for the sake of tradition is getting it backwards, and since humanity tends to gather new information as time progresses, the idea of viewing the world through an ancient lens doesn't always work.

It would seem a simple enough matter to adapt to new information by modifying one's worldview. New information in the 16th century indicated that the sun was at the center of the solar system. Relatively new (within the last half-century or so) information in our own time suggests that homosexuality is not a choice, as previously assumed, but an integral part of a person's identity.

But too often, religious traditionalists refuse to acknowledge such new information because they view the old information as authoritative. It was written down in a sacred book, incorporated into time-honored dogmatic teachings and passed along by figures who claim authority - priests, seminary graduates, pastors, high priestesses, imams and so forth. Such figures seek to preserve tradition for tradition's sake precisely because they have a stake in the game. Their authority is being challenged, and to admit they might have been wrong would shatter their reputation as the ultimate arbiters of truth.

Sometimes, we become so caught up in the new information that we too quickly rush ahead, abandoning "old ways" that may have worked better. This is not because we tested the old ways too rigorously, but because we failed to test the new ways rigorously enough, throwing ourselves headlong into new technologies before we've sufficiently worked through the implications. Sometimes, it's best to return to older ways of doing things - sometimes, but not always, and not simply for tradition's sake.


A line from Tim Minchin's song White Wine in the Sun comes to mind here: "I don't believe just 'cause ideas are tenacious it means that they're worthy." The word "just" is important here. Some tenacious ideas are worthy; others aren't. They're worthy if they work; they're not if their tenacity is the result of authoritarian attempts to take and/or consolidate power. The motive behind continuing a tradition will tell you a lot about whether it's worth continuing.

All of which brings me back to the topic of labels. There are those who seek to hoard labels to themselves - whether they be husband, wife, Muslim, Christian, Pagan - based on tradition alone. They defer to the god(s) they worship as authorities for excluding other possible viewpoints and disparaging new traditions in order to reclaim or preserve what's always been comfortable. Where compelling evidence is lacking (and even, as in the case of Galileo, where it's present), they seek to have their beliefs accepted as a substitute. Then they seek to force their viewpoints on those who don't agree as a means of validating their dubious or even erroneous conclusions.

True marriage is reserved for one man and one woman. True Christians don't (or do) speak in tongues. Real Pagans worship the gods. Real Wiccans are Gardnerian. True Muslims are Sunnis (or Shiites). Real men eat steak.

Who says? The self-appointed authorities who believe they're speaking on behalf of a divine agent. The problem lies in the fact that the divine agent him/herself never seems to speak directly and incontrovertibly to humanity - or even a significant segment of it - simultaneously. We're asked to believe that the self-appointed authorities are the "true" authorities, that their decrees outweigh any evidence to the contrary and that their interpretation of scriptures and doctrines is the correct one.


The tenuous nature of such a belief is exposed when two authorities conflict (the mutual excommunication by the patriarchs of Rome and Constantinople in 1054 is a great example) or when evidence and public consensus overwhelms some previously accepted tradition. I have to laugh when I think about the two patriarchs telling each other, "You're not a Christian, goddammit! To hell with you!"

The common thread in all this is that such condemnations are always focused outward - not toward the self, but toward the perceived "other." Rather than focusing on controlling themselves, such self-appointed authorities spend most of their energy trying to control others. Those on the receiving end of this process usually have no interest in controlling anyone; they simply want to live their own lives while enjoying the same rights and privileges their accusers enjoy ... but seek to deny them. The right to marry whom they wish, regardless of sex. The right to call themselves Christian or Pagan or Muslim. The right to believe as they please without being told that their belief is an "offense" to someone else.

That shouldn't be a burden on anyone, and it shouldn't be too much to ask.


Monday, June 3, 2013

J.J. Abrams' 'Into Darkness' is a Black Hole for 'Star Trek' Fans


I don't want to be too negative, but I want to be clear: Star Trek Into Darkness is, in my view, easily the worst Star Trek movie I've ever seen.

Worse than The Motion Picture, with its half-hour panorama homage to the Enterprise.

Worse than Nemesis with its supposed clone of Picard who doesn't look a thing like Picard.

Worse than The Final Frontier with its self-important theistic speculation.

I had my doubts about the movie going in, based on the Matrix-like imagery of the movie posters and trailers, but this film looks nothing like The Matrix. In some places, it looks more like an SNL parody of the original (most specifically, The Wrath of Khan). In others, it's wholly inconsistent with scientific reality - even the reality of the universe in which it's supposedly set.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Oh, sure. Cap a volcano and you can keep it from obliterating a culture. That's like placing a bandage on a cancerous sore. Just ignore the science of plate tectonics and pretend that everything's as good as new. And while you're at it, design space suits with glass visors that crack when they're hit by debris. Just brilliant. By the way, a blood transfusion can now cure radiation poisoning in a person who's been dead (and presumably without any oxygen to the brain) for several minutes, if not, as it appears in the movie, longer.


We're also supposed to believe that all the top military brass in Starfleet convene - in a publicly known meeting - for a war council in a glass-paneled room on some upper floor of a skyscraper. Then, when some rogue helicopter pilot decides to open fire on them, the government doesn't immediately scramble some futuristic version of F-22 Raptor to blow him out of the sky. Instead, Kirk makes an improbable horseshoe toss of a fire hose into the copter's intake engine in order to bring it down. Here's what it amounts to: Calling in Roy Rogers because you didn't think to call in Tom Cruise from Top Gun. And these folks are supposed to be the guardians of the free universe?

If anything, the Klingons' security is even more lax. This is a culture that supposedly honors great battles and feats of bravery during wartime above all else.Yet somehow, inexplicably, no scout ships or battle cruisers are stationed at the edge of the neutral zone, and a rogue ship - without any weapons! - is able to make it all the way to the Klingon homeworld without so much as a tap on the shoulder. "Hey, guys, you might want to stay away from our planet, or we'll kick the crap out of you." Nope. Nothing of the kind.

When it does come time for a confrontation, it's the Klingons who get the crap kicked out of them by one guy with a gun. Granted, he's a pretty tough customer, but it's hard to imagine him getting the best of several dozen Klingons while wearing nothing more than civilian clothes and a cape (no body armor in evidence) and standing fully exposed on high ground. It's one thing to ask the audience to suspend disbelief; it's quite another to ask us to obliterate it.


Then there's a scene near the end of the movie where the Enterprise is orbiting the moon one moment, then suddenly finds itself caught in Earth's gravitational pull. Huh? Explain that to me. But first, you might want to warn the crew of the International Space Station, who are a heck of a lot closer to Earth than the Enterprise was in this film, and might be in some real danger. Yet, no, they somehow manage to ride along contentedly in orbit without the least little worry about being pulled down to their doom by Earth's gravity.

I realize this is an alternate universe, but that doesn't mean you get to just throw everything out and start from scratch. You shouldn't stick a 24th century institution (the Daystrom Institute) in the 23rd century, when it hadn't even been founded. Presumably, alternate timelines run parallel and don't include major advances in one universe that aren't yet discovered in another. Not here. There's no precedent for a Spock-Uhura relationship. In fact, the only precedent for any human relationship (one that was never consummated) involved Spock and Christine Chapel - who in this movie, is conveniently shipped off to some hinterland and nowhere in evidence.

At one point, Original Universe Spock (Nimoy) appears, Yoda-like, on the Enterprise viewscreen without any explanation of how he got there, to provide some timely insight for Alternate Universe Spock. He duly pronounces Kahn the most formidable foe Starfleet has ever faced, conveniently forgetting the Borg (yes, Spock was still alive during this time period in the original chronology).


The acting is hit-and-miss, but to be fair, the script is largely at fault. William Shatner set the standard for James T. Kirk by playing him with a self-confident over-the-top sort of bravado that somehow worked. That's because Shatner knew when to rein himself in and get serious. He - and the writers of the original series - had a strong sense of timing that this script sorely lacks. Here, the jokes seem forced most of the time, and poor Chris Pine (as Kirk) masters neither Shatner's sense of humor nor his heroic emotions. Pine tries to play it straight and winds up looking, for the most part, like little more than a cardboard cutout who likes to leer at women.

Zachary Quinto is better as Spock, but he's given the impossible task of transforming an almost entirely stoic character into one who regularly shows emotion. That's the fault of the script more than Quinto. Leonard Nimoy was a master at showing that Spock had emotions without actually displaying those emotions. Quinto is forced to be more explicit in his emotional displays and, because of this, loses some of the dramatic tension Nimoy employed to such great effect.


Benedict Cumberbatch is a solid villain, though it's never explained why an Englishman is playing a character who was previously played by a Mexican actor of Spanish ancestry - both with thick accents that are nothing like each other. Imagine Chekov suddenly speaking with a Scottish brogue and Scotty with a Russian accent. More alternate universe shenanigans, I suppose.

Karl Urban does a decent job as Dr. McCoy but isn't given much to do, while Simon Pegg is a decent but not exceptional Montgomery Scott.

When it comes right down to it, this is an absolutely horrible film. It is, quite simply, the worst I've seen this year. Maybe it won't seem as bad to the uninitiated who walk in with little or no knowledge of the Star Trek universe. The guy behind this film, J.J. Abrams, has been chosen to helm the next Star Wars installment, as well.

Wait a minute. Does J.J. stand for Jar-Jar?



Sunday, May 19, 2013

Publishing at a Crossroads: Beyond the Print-on-Demand Revolution


When does a good thing become too much of a good thing?

That's the question a lot of people in the publishing business are asking themselves right about now.

The publishing world has undergone a tectonic shift in the past decade, one that has left authors trying to stay ahead of a tsunami that just keeps coming: a tsunami of books. The print-on-demand revolution gave virtually anyone with a keyboard and some extra time the opportunity to become an author. Never mind that a large number of these "anyones" didn't know how to develop a plot, create compelling characters or even write a cohesive sentence.

Now, there are so many books hitting the market that no one has time to sift through them effectively, and little-known authors' works are lost in what my wife refers to as a cacophony of "white noise." To put it another way, it's virtually impossible to stand out from the crowd when the crowd is so immense it reaches farther than the eye can see.

Before all this happened, the tsunami was a bit smaller, and it never reached the reader. Standing in its way was a barrier as formidable as the Wall in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire - the bulwark of traditional publishing. The process was so effective at keeping bad books out of print that it became almost a running joke: Of course, you were going to get dozens or even hundreds of rejection slips before you got a publishing deal (if you ever did). That's just how the system worked - and still does.


John, Paul, George and Ringo

A brief but pertinent digression: Back in 1963, a young band no one had ever heard of auditioned for a recording contract with Decca Records, which took a pass in favor of an act called Brian Poole and the Tremeloes. It went down as perhaps the biggest mistake in recording history: although the Tremeloes charted with a handful of hits in the '60s, the band that didn't get the gig was none other than the Beatles.

The thing is, this happens all the time in traditional publishing. J.K. Rowling received something like a dozen rejection slips for her first Harry Potter book. Stephen King got 60 of them. William Saroyan reportedly collected thousands (yes, thousands). There are stories of authors who wallpapered their bedrooms with these suckers - not second-rate wannabes, but talented authors who ended up on bestseller lists. Stephen King is like the Beatles of the publishing world. Now, imagine if the Beatles hadn't been rejected once, but 60 times. Excuse me, but isn't there something wrong with this picture?

Clearly, a system that overlooks that kind of talent on a routine basis needs some fine-tuning. Part of the problem is the sheer volume of work that was submitted to traditional publishers - the tsunami. Acquisitions editors didn't have time to read it all, so they developed a system to weed out a large volume of manuscripts before they even opened the envelopes. Many refused to consider submissions from writers who didn't have agents and from authors who hadn't been published previously.

The tsunami got a little smaller because some writers got discouraged and stopped sending in manuscripts after receiving a certain number of rejections. Who knows how many potential Kings and Rowlings were among those who just gave up? A few - who could afford it - went an alternate route and published their works via the so-called "vanity" press, but without any promotion or distribution backing, these books never stood a chance at any kind of mainstream acceptance.


Personal Choices

I discovered writing in high school and soon decided I wanted to be a novelist. During my spare time, I worked on a fantasy novel I called "There Shall Arise an Eagle," which I imagined would be a little bit Tolkien and a little big George MacDonald with, of course, my own personal touches.

It was something like 600 pages, had an interesting premise ... and, in retrospect, wasn't very good. I sent it off to one publisher, got a rejection notice, and never tried again. The truth is, I was worried. I'd heard all the horror stories about publishers tossing manuscripts from the inbox to the trash can sight unseen, and I didn't particularly want to bet my future on that. I knew I could write, but I wanted a steady paycheck, so I went to college, graduated and became a journalist. I figured I could pursue a career I could count on and write fiction in my spare time.

Somehow, though, it didn't work out as planned. After roughly a quarter-century as a reporter, columnist and editor - and 15 years at my most recent stop - I got laid off. I had a job as a substitute teacher, but it wasn't enough to make ends meet. During the course of all this, I met the woman who would become my wife, and whose dream was, coincidentally, to become a novelist.

This coincided with the print-on-demand revolution and gave me what I thought was a brilliant idea: I'd start doing what I'd set out to do in the first place - write books. Only this time, I could send them directly to print, bypassing the traditional publishing "machine." Between the summer of 2012 and the spring of 2013, I churned out seven books (an eighth is near completion), and found an audience for my work - though not a huge one. Seeing my books in print was, to say the least, a dream come true, and independent publishing made it happen.

(As a side note, I was fortunate enough to find another job in journalism, but don't look for the Stifyn Emrys byline anywhere - this is a pen name I adopted, in large measure, to keep my two careers separate.)


The Downside

I'll always be thrilled with the fact that the tectonic shift in the industry that is print-on-demand enabled me to get my ideas into print without navigating the arcane obstacle course that traditional publishing had set before me.

But that shift also set in motion a series of troubling changes - changes that didn't occur only in publishing, but that were mirrored by similar events taking place across a vast spectrum of communications media.

Books, once funneled through a limited number of publishers, were now provided by a nearly limitless number of independent authors. Radio and television "channels," formerly confined to perhaps a few dozen frequencies on AM, FM, VHF and UHF (remember those?), proliferated to hundreds and even thousands of choices via cable and satellite. When it came to delivering the news, the Heralds and Gazettes of the world found themselves in a battle royal with online providers such as The Huffington Post, Yahoo and Google news.

Virtually everywhere you look, the old feudal barons are being supplanted by what appears to be a new direct democracy in which media outlets appeal directly to the people, and the middlemen - the gatekeepers - be damned.

But appearances can be deceiving.


The Communications Reformation

For one thing, the old gatekeepers are still there. The old television networks and media empires haven't disappeared at all. They're still there, and they're still powerful. They've just had to adjust to a world in which they aren't the only game in town.

In a sense, the world today is in the midst of a communications reformation not unlike what occurred when the Protestant Reformation changed the cultural face of Europe four centuries ago. The Catholic Church's monopoly on power was shattered, but it didn't disappear. Instead, it launched a counter-reformation and adjusted to the new world order in a largely successful quest to remain a potent political and monetary force. Worldwide, the Catholic Church still counts something like 1 million members, more than twice as many as all Protestant groups combined.

The Catholics were the old gatekeepers, the priests who stood between humankind and the Christian god. The Protestants, on the other hand, offered direct access to the divine via Martin Luther's "priesthood of all believers."

In the same way, the traditional media empires continue to be a potent force, but they're challenged by a vast array of self-appointed "alternative" gatekeepers who have taken advantage of the recent media explosion. Where Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley reigned unchallenged on the airwaves, their successors must compete with the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and a host of others. Each represents, to his or her particular audience, a sort of populist voice against the establishment (though most actually work for "the establishment," in one form or another).


The Battle for Books

The exact same sort of scenario is unfolding in the publishing world: an old-line establishment is intent on retaining its power against a new and insurgent "direct access" approach.

On the one side is traditional publishing, which is quickly consolidating into fewer and fewer meaningful players. The so-called "Big Six" publishers is becoming five with the merger of Penguin and Random House.

On the other side is Amazon, the gatekeeper for the indie authors, along with (to a lesser degree) Barnes & Noble and a few others. There's consolidation going on here, too. Rumors had Barnes & Noble selling its Nook division to Microsoft - which has since said it's not interested. Regardless, however, the behemoth Amazon is positioning itself as the 800-pound gorilla on this side of the fence, especially with its recent acquisition of reader fan site Goodreads.

At the dawn of the Renaissance, the Catholic Church stayed relevant in part by launching a counter-reformation. It has, over the years, retrenched and rethought its approach to religion (even going so far as to virtually abandon the traditional Latin Mass). More recently, the old-line media empires have kept some of their status by expanding into online, cable and other venues to challenge the insurgents on their own turf. In both cases, the establishment learned something from the upstarts and adapted, largely by adopting some of their challengers' strategies.

What remains to be seen is whether this will happen in the publishing world and, if so, what it will look like.


Looking to the Future

The Big Six (or Big Five) haven't done much so far, to my knowledge, in the way of adapting to the emerging new order. They continue to rely on their big-name stable of authors and their ability to offer big contracts to authors they think can move large numbers of copies. In a way, their jobs are easier now. The print-on-demand industry has begun to serve as a sort of minor-league farm system, churning out "prospects" who have already shown they can sell books.

But in another way, their jobs are a whole lot harder. The sheer volume of works being produced by independent authors threatens to saturate the market so much that everyone's piece of the pie will shrink dramatically. When supply exceeds demand - if it hasn't already - the Stephen Kings, J.K. Rowlings and George R.R. Martins won't suffer - but if you aren't a household name with a large following, you might find it a lot harder to make a living, whether you're traditionally published or not.

If the traditional publishing houses don't watch out, they may find their deep pockets growing increasingly shallower, and pretty soon they may no longer be able to offer the kind of incentives needed to lure an already successful indie author into their fold. If they don't think they're susceptible to this kind of money crunch, all they have to do is ask the newspaper industry, which has faced heavy contraction as a result of declining ad sales and profits. Large numbers of employees have been laid off, and more still have abandoned the industry for more secure or better-paying careers.

Indeed, the Penguin-Random House merger may be an attempt to combine resources in an attempt to better continue the fight against Amazon and its hordes.


When the Dust Settles

What has to be troubling, from the traditional publishers' perspective, is that they haven't done much to adapt to the changing landscape. If they don't, they face a far more formidable foe than the Catholic Church did in Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Henry VIII. Amazon is probably already more powerful than the traditional publishers; it's better funded and certainly more diversified.

If Amazon succeeds in fully vanquishing the old order, expect it to use the resulting virtual monopoly to enrich itself by taking a bigger cut of authors' profits, increasing fees and setting stricter pricing standards. This certainly wouldn't be good for authors and could end up becoming the next thing to a vanity press, making it economically prohibitive for many authors to write for a living. Under such a scenario, pure economics could dictate what works reach the public.

Another possibility is that the traditional publishing houses will, in some way, adapt to the changing landscape. It remains to be seen how they would do this, but they might pursue (for example) using their remaining financial clout to strike some sort of preferred distribution deal with Amazon.

In the meantime, many indie authors are likely to find it harder and harder to get noticed among the growing, discordant din of choices. Readers inundated by book ads, reviews and blogs are likely to, increasingly, tune out the "white noise" and stick with authors they already know. Even offers of free books require an investment of time, and if the reader is confronted with a series of wannabe authors who can't write their way out of a wet paper sack, they're unlikely to bother after a while. All this could end up thinning the ranks of writers in the same way rejections slips once did, and we'll be left with a mix of established, self-funded and stubborn authors - pretty much what we had before.


Agents of change?

The people with the greatest opportunity in the midst of all this might be the ones you'd least expect: the agents. Until now, they've had a virtual guarantee of work, courtesy of publishing houses that refuse to accept work from unagented authors. If the publishing houses decline in influence, this guarantee will disappear. But that doesn't mean agents are out of luck. On the contrary. Traditional publishers are already putting less money into promotions and marketing, leaving those tasks increasingly to the authors themselves. Beyond monetary advances and placement in the dwindling number of brick-and-mortar stores (Barnes & Noble and ...), they have increasingly little to offer.

This is where the agent has an opportunity to come in and do what the traditional publishers themselves have, so far, failed to do: adapt. Their role as a middleman between author and publisher will diminish, but they will have an opportunity to expand into roles such as publicist and marketing director. Authors need time to ... well ... write. And they'll find people to help them do what the traditional publishers are, increasingly, not doing: legwork and promotions.

I can tell you from personal experience as an independent author that I'm spending more time publicizing my work at this point than I am actually writing - and with the increasing competition from other indie authors who are discovering print-on-demand, I doubt it's going to get any easier. I'm not a bad salesman, but it's not what I was born to do. I was born, I think, to write - and I suspect most other authors feel that way.

That's why so many of us are, I'm sure, eager to see how this all shakes out. I can't tell you how it ends, but as of now, it sure is a helluva show.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Facebook Follies: Why Social Media are a Minefield for Communication


I'm becoming more convinced every day that the social media, and Facebook in particular, is a double-edged sword when it comes to communicating with others.

On the plus side, Facebook allows us to connect with people we'd never otherwise meet.

But then, there's the downside. Sometimes, it brings out the worst in us. I consider myself pretty diplomatic, for the most part, but I've noticed myself - in hindsight - typing things on Facebook that I'd think twice before saying in person, and I've noticed the same tendency in others. How does this happen? I can think of a few reasons, off the top of my head.

Disposable friends: Facebook gives us "disposable friends." Did someone offend you? No worries. You can always ban, block and make a dozen new "friends." A lot of Facebookers will post glowing remarks about how they're very close to online acquaintances they've never met in person. Some will even say they're closer than in-person buddies. That may be true for some, but the fact remains that they're a different sort of friend. Here's why ...

One-dimensional communication: Communication online is much different than real-time communication. For one thing, you're not generally talking, you're typing. What you see are letters on a screen, minus any vocal intonations, facial expressions or whispered asides. Our online interactions are, relatively speaking, two-dimensional or even one-dimensional. They don't show us the whole picture, but the problem is ...

We think they do: We're treating two-dimensional communication as though it were three-dimensional. Instead of taking into account the absence of non-verbal cues, we act as though they're there. As a result, we're prone to taking things out of context and jumping to (often erroneous) conclusions rather too quickly.


Fights to the finish: Facebook allows people to "gang up" on one another. Comments on a Facebook wall - especially when they involve hot-button issues - turn into popularity contests, with each side trying to shout down the other. In real life, most conversations are one-on-one; on Facebook, many turn into verbal jousts or gladiator matches in front of crowds that jeer, cheer and hurl rotten tomatoes (figuratively speaking) at the computer monitor.

Making permanent waves: Something written on a Facebook wall stays there. In verbal conversation, someone might say something that strikes you a little funny, but you're likely to brush if off and go on about your business. Even if it sticks in your craw a little, you'll probably forget exactly what was said, and the issue will be forgotten. On Facebook, by contrast, you can go back and view the same comment over and over again, ad nauseam. You can analyze it, overanalyze it and get all worked up over it. Even a comment that might seem fair or benign at first came seem offensive if you're defensive.

Ripe for abuse: The flipside of this is that there are social media abusers out there who know this and try to take advantage of it. They cajole, provoke and mislead us into thinking they're something they're not. This, of course, makes us even more wary and less liable to give well-meaning folks a chance to add the context we need to truly understand them. Here are some typical abusers who pop up frequently on Facebook:


  • Stalkers. Follow you from one page to another, leaving comments to whatever you post. They're attention seekers who need others' responses to feel validated.
  • Lurkers: Closely akin to the stalkers and often the next stage in their evolution. Having been banned or blocked, such people generally stay quiet and hide behind bogus profiles as they engage in a form of online espionage. They feel they're entitled to a place at the table, even after they've been asked to leave.
  • Imposters: Critics who masquerade as a member of a certain group, wait until the time is right, then blast members of that group on an open forum. Religious fundamentalists seem prone to this tactic.
  • Ranters: Air their dirty laundry to the world, often while slamming a spouse, relative, "friend," boss or some other third party who's (conveniently) not around to defend him/herself.
  • Know-it-Alls: Pose as authorities to gain "minions" or "clones." Like stalkers, such people are seeking validation; they just go about it differently. Instead of targeting a single individual, they seek to build a cult-like following. Ironically, they're usually not authorities on much of anything. Still, they enjoy pontificating at length on their favorite subjects - and just as the pontiff is infallible, they tend to view themselves the same way.
  • True Believers: The aforementioned minions or clones, who follow Know-it-Alls pretty much blindly.
  • Button-Pushers: Likes to get a rise out of people by posting uncompromising positions on hot-button issues. On the one side, such people get a lot of attaboys; on the other, they receive plenty of criticism (often spiced up using colorful language). Either way, they're out for attention, same as the Stalker and the Authority. 
  • Victims: These are often Button-Pushers who pretend to be persecuted for their beliefs. One favorite tactic: saying something outrageously offensive, then crying "censorship!" when the owner of the wall or page removes their comment.
  • Advocates: People who take up a single issue or slate of issues and make it a life-or-death line in the sand, then dare others on Facebook to cross it ... which, of course, they do. 
  • Devil's Advocates: The people who fuels the Button-Pushers' fire. Their goal is, like most of the others, to gain attention - but their method's a little different.. They're counterpuncher. They wait for someone else to state an opinion, then look for a weakness and pounce when they find one. It's a pure game of one-upmanship. The Devil's Advocate who can beat the Know-it-All in an argument has pulled off an effective Facebook coup and can build a following of his/her own.
  • Grammar Nazis: Operates similarly to the Devil's Advocate in that s/he waits for someone else to show a weakness, then points it out in order to look superior. There are Math Nazis, Science Nazis and History Nazis out there, too. None of them, however, serve up tasty fare like the Soup Nazi.


This isn't to say that all these folks are monsters. Heck, at one time or another, I've indulged in several of them - probably each of the last four, actually. If you're honest with yourself, you might have, too. I'm pretty sure a lot of it has less to do with the people than with the mode of communication itself. The social media give rise to and encourage these sorts of behavior.

A few months ago, I recognized I'd begun to play the role of a Button-Pusher too often, so I stepped back from talking about controversial issues quite so much. I still believe strongly in many of the positions I held then, and I'm not ashamed of any of them. Ask me, and I'll be glad to tell you what I think. But I'm not going to set out with an agenda of getting people all riled up over something that gets my goat (not usually, anyway). That didn't do my blood pressure any good, and it probably wasn't a lot of fun for those who read my posts, either. Mostly, it just attracts a bunch of Devil's Advocates who were more interested in trying to one-up me than in listening

More recently, I found myself playing the role of Devil's Advocate, which I decided wasn't worth it, either. I'm not out to build an army of minions, and I don't have anything to prove, really, so there's no point in acting as though I do. 

I'll probably remain a Grammar Nazi, simply because I'm an author/editor by trade and I've been working with words all my life. But I'll do my best to be a gracious Grammar Nazi ... and I hope the Math Nazis out there will show me the same forbearance.