Writing Practice 5/17/2019

Describe a mosquito plant…

A mosquito plant is the place where, like an automobile plant, they manufacture mosquitoes. They have these huge, industrial-strength machines with levers and widgets and carburetors and assembly lines, to stamp out millions of bodies, and abdomens and thoraxes and eyes and wings per minute, but in these tiny, microscopic details. These are the places where those minute particles then feed over to another automatic assembly line, half a dozen conveyor belts all converging on various spots, like rivers flowing tributaries flowing into one big collector. The legs get on first, because they’re the hardest to do. They come in six different varieties, right front, right middle, right back, and they are attached one at a time to the body as it moves. Well – the body thorax does not move. It is held in a firm grip of a miniature pincers 1.2 millimeters wide, and this process of this whole assembly is moving, because that’s the only way to make sure the plane moves fast enough.

The arm swings down, picks up a thorax off the belt; it is guided by laser-sights, just like everything here. Precision is a must – there’s no room for error when you are dealing with trillions of transactions / actions each day. The laser-guided pincer swings down, grasps with a pressure precise to the one 1/10,000th of a kilo pascal, and then lifts the body. This happens 7,427,323 times a second, as this massive assembly swings and clangs and bonks and spits out exhaust from the other side. Once the thorax is secure, the legs approach. Again, these are held in micro pincers, and the connection process is laser-guided to the 1/100th of a millimeter. There is only so much we can get. We’d go to the 10,000th of that as well, but it would cost God far more in energy and resources (natural) to develop the technology, and we don’t have significant wastage to make that [illegible], anyway.

Legs approach. Thorax waits. In less than a second, all six legs are slotted into their receptacles, click-click-click-click-click-click. But, being only exoskeleton of biological material, and not anything metal, they don’t actually click – I just imagine they do.

After the legs are in, the head, and the wings slide in in a similar manner. Last stop is to animate the heart, which is done with a 0.000317 ampere shock delivered via two tungsten-coated diodes that are, yes, laser-guided to the opposite sides of the animal, and the wings start flapping, beating, pulsing (we’ve not yet landed on an agreeable terminology), then we release the pincer and out flies another mosquito. Success!

At least, until it finds its way to your backyard. But don’t worry – we have plenty more where that came from.

How To Write A Book Review

I recently finished reading 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Petersen. If you’re not familiar with the man, his book does provide a little history of his rise to recent prominence. I only found out about him in the last 6 months, from seeing some YouTube lectures on the nature of humanity, psychology, and various other subjects. Millions of others are like me in that they didn’t know about this former Harvard professor and clinical psychologist until he garnered quite a bit of attention for a political position about compelled speech, for the fact that the alt-right has commandeered some of his arguments to bolster their position, and for the fact that he’s quite solidly against some of the feel-good trends of the day.

Not getting into those here.

Instead, I’m going to write a little rant about book reviews.

It’s weird. Many book reviews are often not reviews, but summaries. I blame 11th Grade English teachers.

In their insistence that we answer exactly the question they’ve asked, with exactly the facts they wish to hear, but written “in your own words”, they’ve trained us less to think critically and more to paraphrase. This comes out when you look at the multitude of reviews on Amazon.com (or any other review platform). Most of the time, these are simply restatements of fact about the book, rather than their own impressions of the book’s content, how it made them feel, or what they take away from it.

And let’s not confuse a “rating” (1 star, 2 stars, etc.) with a “review”. A rating is an objective ranking. This is better than that. Those over there are worse than these here. A review is a subjective evaluation. This spoke to me. I appreciated parts here and there. Generally they’re correlated, but not equal. That is, most of the time you have a positive rating you also have a positive review. But sometimes not. I think it is entirely possible to have a 1-star rating with a “positive” review. That is, someone could find the format absolutely terrible (1-star) and disagree with the conclusions, yet still respect the arguments laid out within(“positive” review).

Which is why we need to have more critical reviews out in the public sector. But, ironically, not too many. Currently, Amazon.com has 4,878 reviews of 12 Rules for Life. I imagine B&N.com has thousands more, not to mention Goodreads and an uncountable number of independent opinions hosted on blogs or other smaller sites. If I read even a small fraction of all of those, I would easily spend longer on that task than the 15 or 16 hours I spent reading the text. Would that be worth my time? Probably not. I’d do much better to read a few and make a decision based on that information and spend the majority of my time with the actual book.

But where to start?

I’m sure that’s why Amazon introduce the [HELPFUL] button. This allows me to see whether other readers of this review have found value from the review. A meta-review, as it were. But doesn’t this also contribute to the problem of social conditioning and trending and social signaling? As more people find a particular review “helpful”, Amazon drives that review upward in the feed, creating a feedback loop in which I as a user don’t get the chance to experience the whole range of reviews, only the lucky leaders which came in to the process early, and have been promoted not necessarily because of quality, but simply because of quantity (of “helpful” ratings earlier than those which came later and are, unfortunately, buried too far back in the queue to ever get a chance at visibility).

Back to the review vs. summary discussion, what ends up happening is that many of those summaries are not helpful. They are not rated as such by readers. Good reviews, though, as actual reviews which provide insights, now take prominence because we, as readers, don’t want to waste our time reading unhelpful summaries. So we want to read the most helpful reviews, often of the value which we believe we’ll end up holding after we read the text! That is, if I think I’ll like it, I’m mostly going to spend time reading 5-star reviews. If I think I’ll hate it, I’m probably going to be waist-deep in 1-stars.

Ironically, and unfortunately, this confirmation bias problem drives a narrowing of the perspectives we are likely to see when considering a book. How many people read the 5 “most helpful” of each of the 5-star reviews, 4-star reviews, 3-star reviews, 2-star reviews, and 1-star reviews? Not many. We often read a couple of 5-stars, and validate our own internal prejudiced decisions we’ve already emotionally made with reference to these “independent” observers.

I think that’s a bad way to go about it. I don’t think this gives us a broad base of knowledge on which to base a conclusion. Instead, it feeds the brain’s energy-saving decision shortcuts

So. I there a way to fix this? I don’t know. Limit the # of reviews? Create an algorithm within Amazon’s display that forces a random review to be shown, rather than the “most helpful”? Cycle through on a first-written-first-shown basis so that each has a chance to be seen in equal measure? I don’t know the right answer.

Right now we’re getting the same sort of ineffective (destructive?) virtue-signaling and trend-whoring that we all complain about in social media. For the information industry (book publishing, lectures, blogging, etc.), which is so critical to the healthy function of a society, we may be running dangerously low on healthy debate, dissent, and critical thinking. Because we all want “the best” (again for a multitude of reasons), yet we’re not willing to go through the difficult process of evaluating for ourselves what the best might be.

Perhaps having a conversation around what it is we seek to accomplish through reviews, ratings, and the entire feedback process is warranted. I’ll leave that to someone else to organize.

SJ

P.S. I realize this essay doesn’t make much sense. Probably because I’m thinking as I write. I reserve the right to review and revise later.

P.P.S. I guess the least I could do is give you my review. Link here:

See below for text. You’re welcome.

P.P.P.S. I gave the book a 5-star rating and a positive review. It’s unlikely anyone will ever see that review and make a decision because of it, because now this review is buried a hundred pages back.

I don’t write many reviews on Amazon. They’re often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of everything else, so it feels as if I’m simply shouting into the void. Because…

This book needs no additional 5-star review. There are plenty of them already. This book needs no additional commentary – there is plenty of that already. This book, this author, needs no additional puffing up of his reputation – there’s plenty of that done by the Patreon subscribers and the purchasers of his other books. And yet…

In keeping with the rules that say “Tell the truth – or at least, don’t lie” and “Be precise in your speech,” I offer this rating and review in order to be consistent with the pull in my innermost Being, to respond to what I have just read and to share my thoughts, regardless of their receipt.

Thank you, Mr. Peterson. Thank you for saying, eloquently, what many of us have felt within our own spirit for years now. That this life is not easy. That there are hard things to do, and hard ways of doing them. That we’re not all badasses, that we’re not all going to win. That we must work, because of reasons outside our control, but despite that work and those obstacles we can still create within ourselves a life that is meaningful, that reaches for higher values. A life that represents better, a better Being, and strives agains the Chaos around us.

All should read this book. Not all will. And even of those who do, some shall be put off by the many references to God and Christianity and the Bible as authoritative. That’s a disappointment. For, even if one does not hold that same philosophy (as I do not), one should admit that, in accord with one of the rules, that this other person, this author (who has striven to bring your life additional Order) has something to say. Not just something for the sake of saying something, just to be heard and followed mindlessly in order to inflate an ego out of selfish desires, but something important and, ultimately, valuable as you strive to create a life you can be proud to leave behind.

Writing Practice – 4/16/2019

chaos

Chaos abounds in the darkness. In the light, even if there is motion, or disorganization, or interaction, or conflict, these are all seen, are all understood, are all mapped inside our consciousness and prepared for, planned for, contemplated by those lovely lumps of brains atop our spinal cord, and we have no fear. We do not stress. We do not wonder. Seeing is believing? No, seeing is truth, and acceptability, and regularity, and pattern, even if it is wild, incoherent, and random-ish.

But in the dark, in the absence of light, in the places where you sense with infrared and ultraviolet in the realm of navigating the world through our other nine senses (smell, taste, touch, hearing, balance, time, ESP), these are still not enough for us, for humans, to feel as if we have control of the situation. For is that not what chaos really is, but lack of control? We may not have authority over the teeming mass of wandering hordes out for destruction, yet if we see them we fear them much, much less than when they come under cover of darkness.

No other sense, no other attribute, contributes as much to our fear as our lack of vision. Were we to see but not hear, their terror in us would, paradoxically, be lessened, for that is one which, by its absence, reduces th threat. We don’t believe silent things can hurt us. For, what do we fear more, the snake’s rattle or the owl’s quiet wingbeats? precisely.

We fear those things which are loud, and unseen, and so adding a chorus of clanging boots and rattling armor to the darkest night is a combination fit to turn even the most self-professed brave soul into a withering baby. This combination takes away the one sense which adds assurance, sight, and adds another element which increases terror in its own right, sound.

The others – smell, taste, touch, we are too undeveloped in yet to have a way to know whether these will increase or decrease our fear. At long distance, that is. In the immediate presence, if you can smell the putrid, rotting flesh of the zombie horde, you may as well give up, because if they’re close enough for you to smell, they’ll be on top of you soon enough. And at the same time, touch, taste, require a physical intimacy which beggars belief of fear. So, then, this fear of the unknown, this fear of change, of the “other” out there, is heightened, and is birthed out of, chaos, disorder, unreality, irrationality, and the way the world works is far, far beyond our own mortal capacity to understand. WE have limited scope of using our brains, and we have devoted much of that to sensing in the visible spectrum. When a creepy-crawling comes approaching outside of that spectrum, then is when our distrust kicks in, our fear of chaos (destruction, impermanence, intransigence, ending, power, power to finalize, power to transform, power to erode) takes over, and we turn away as soon as possible, as strongly as possible, and we seek out that alternative, of places of light, and order, and permanence, and connectivity.

***

Commentary: So, this isn’t a great essay. It doesn’t hold any special revelations. I didn’t find any unique turns of phrase. I didn’t really “lose control” at the end. I felt like I sort of stopped a couple of times along the way, and just sort of plodded through it all. I could go back and edit, to make it flow better, to make it more impactful. It doesn’t even really end well. So why do I post it? Why do I let you see it? Why do I expose my soft underbelly of semi-incompetence?

Trust me, it’s not to fish for compliments. If that were so, I’d be ultra-negative on myself and expect someone, anyone, any reader, to correct me and tell me it’s fine, it’s great, it’s still inspiring. No, I don’t do this to garner sympathy or comments or feel-good-ness.

I post this in its mediocrity as it is because that’s what writing is about.

Writing is about doing the writing. Writing is about doing it even when it doesn’t feel great, even when it’s kind of boring at the end and you’re like, “yeah, nobody’s ever going to read that.” And you know what? They’re probably not. But you do it anyway. Because that’s how you get through the really low periods to the points where it’s great, where your pen is just banging, where you’re in the flow and you’ve got it all good and things just couldn’t get any better. Those things don’t just happen because you decided to show up once or twice or even ten times. Those things come when you’ve put in the work, when you’ve been steady and faithful to the muse, and when hit happens… damn. There’s nothing like it. So that’s why you write the crap pieces, the drudgery, the stuff about chaos and leadership and boring descriptions of shoes and conversations. So that you’re there and ready to strike when called. If you’re skipping out, you’re missing out.

When You Go And Do A Thing

So, yeah… A while ago, and pretty recently, I wrote stories, and this year I put them together, edited them, formatted them, got a cover, went through the rigamarole of signing up on Amazon, added things like bank account numbers for payment, ordered proof copies, marked them up, resubmitted texts for print and ebook, reordered proof copies, marked those up, re-resubmitted texts, ordered more proof copies, got e-mails from Amazon that my cover was wrong by 0.05 fucking inches!, stressed out, freaked out, ordered a new cover from my cover designer, got antsy, did it myself, reuploaded the cover and resubmitted the book, got antsy and called Customer Service to see if I could expedite processing and approval, got shot down, had to learn how to sit on my hands to wait, RECEIVED APPROVAL!!!, ordered 50 copies for the Book Launch party, freaked out that they wouldn’t arrive in time, calmed down once they’d been finally shipped and scheduled for delivery, FREAKED OUT AGAIN when the delivery was delayed due to “inclement weather” (pfft – natural disasters, who the fuck cares?), called Amazon already like seventeen times [yes, I exaggerate. It’s a coping mechanism] this morning to learn that indeed, the delivery is scheduled for today, FREAKED OUT YET AGAIN upon learning that the delivery window is anytime between 8 am and 9 PM {FFFFFffffffffffffffuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu………….}, took a deep breath, and said, “I believe it will all work out.”

And so, there you have it. That’s how you publish a book, my friends. Thirty-seven simple steps, and you only have to freak out like nineteen times! Why wouldn’t everyone want to do this?

 

PS: Never in my life have I been prouder to be ranked #6,846! (as of 8:35 am Central Standard Time, Monday, March 4).

Writing Practice 1/17/2019

I hear…

I hear almost nothing. Still early in the small hours of the morning, most of the house – child, child and cat, child, child, other cat – sleeps, and waits for the blaring ring of an alarm to interrupt the respite. Mine own announced its intentions to disrupt my rest twenty minutes ago; but by that time I was only snoozing, having woken myself a few minutes earlier by some subconscious trick that saw me know how to bring my body up from the ultra-depths before the clanging into the night, so that this experience is not so jarring. I wonder how I trained myself to do this.

My children sleep, but occasionally there will be a day when one or more is moving about at this hour. Bustling unceremoniously through a set of chores, or perhaps pouring and slathering and consuming a breakfast bowl of cereal. Yesterday one of them was returning from an earlier morning exercise class, abnormally energized about the day and invading the usual quiet reverie we keep for this part of our morning with laughter, and talking, and an energy we cannot usually abide. I did not like it. I wished she would simply remain quiet, and peaceful, as the rest of us usually are.

I hear no cats, either which means the large one cannot see the small one and be somehow, illogically, annoyed by her and begin his petulant, sorrowful hissing. Sorrowful in that it’s just sad that he seems threatened by her. Perhaps he knows it is her food which upsets his stomach, but, like an addict drawn to the very thing the very substance which hurts him, he cannot turn away when the opportunity presents itself, so he will invade her space, eat her food, feel it sit uncomfortably in his stomach, and then need to release it in a violent, ratcheting cough that leaves a half-digested, half-wet, half-brown/half-red/all disgusting mass of vomit on my bedroom floor, or my bed itself, or inside the occasional clothes hamper, deposited there with as much ceremony and attention drawn to itself as the Labrador depositing its faecal offering to the gods of the neighborhood while out for a walk on a Sunday afternoon.

I do not hear any of that, though, now for they rest, they sleep, they snooze, they wait for the hustle and bustle of the day to begin. I am awake, unusual too, for me, for I need to begin new habits. I need to reconcile my desire with my inactions, and change one to match the other. Since it is easier to change action than hopes, it becomes much easier to get up earlier and write more than to keep sleeping and to pretend that my desires for storytelling and writing in a meaningful ways do not exist, or that they have been somehow mollified, satisfied by the things I have done in other areas of my life, my e-mails, my press releases, my gland-handing and pressing of the flesh in networking, my research and construction of some other kind of work product for some other kind of client in some other kind of area. No, those things do no ultimately represent an adequate sacrifice to the God of Writing, and thus it is now my responsibility, if I wish to cleanse my soul, even if for only one more day, of my impurity of feeling, an impurity which says “you have not filled your obligation to your muse, you have not done what you have been called to do, you have allowed your talent to be squandered, you have not lived up to your potential,” if I believe I must atone for that sin, then I must make my penance and atonement here in this action with this burnt offering and this ink offering and this peace offering and it shall be good once more, and yea, and verily, and truth, and peace.

Announcement

Attention! Attention! Read all about it!

LOCAL WRITER TO PUBLISH BOOK

Stephan James, a writer currently residing near St. Louis, Missouri, announces today that in just under one month, on February 1, his first volume of short stories will be available for sale. Titled Predatory Behavior and Other Stories, this slim yet powerful volume will bring to light multiple issues facing society today.

“‘Predatory Behavior’ was born after seeing just how easy the publishing process really can be,” James says. “I used to think that bringing my ideas to life would be difficult. That it would take months and months, and I’d just toil in obscurity, scribbling in my notebook without ever getting the chance to see my work in book form. But now, it’s easier than ever to make my writing available to a much wider audience than I ever could have imagined. I’m excited that others can now read what I’ve written and use that as the catalyst for additional conversations about important issues within our society.”

There are ten stories included with this publication. The keystone story, “Predatory Behavior”, takes place in a world similar to the modern day, but with one key difference. A population of “Wolves” has sprung up over the past half-century, to help weed out those who are too sick to care for themselves. Not for the faint of heart, for this story contains scenes which may be considered graphic, “Predatory Behavior” nonetheless brings to light issues of health sustainability within our modern society.

Other stories deal with the last humans alive and trying to remake humanity while living on another planet; the implications of selling one’s body, though not in the way we’ve been conditioned to believe is “selling”; and how many people wish to have a new life, yet often times are unwilling to take the steps necessary to achieve it. Plus additional entries are micro-stories, also called Story Art, and highlight James’s prowess at weaving together seemingly unconnected concepts into a wonderfully taut presentation.

Predatory Behavior will be available starting February 1 on Amazon.com or directly from the author at author fairs and trade shows. “My birthday is February 11, and I wanted to give myself a unique birthday present, so I set that as the target publication date. That we’re going to have it ready before then is so exciting. I can’t wait to see the reviews.”

Predatory Behavior is published with help from SJM Copywriting, a local firm engaged in helping small businesses and nonprofits to tell better stories and get better results. More information about James and his writing can be found at stephanjameswrites.com. More information about how SJM Copywriting can support authors, small businesses, and nonprofits can be found at sjmcopywriting.com.

Book Review – The Stand, by Stephen King

The Stand was published first in 1978. This review covers the “complete & uncut” version published in May, 1991.

***

WARNING: Spoilers ahead.

***

I first read The Stand in high school, probably. It was this exact copy, too, a brick-sized hunk of paper and miniscule type and black-and-white drawings that enthralled me for weeks back then. Of course, anything by Stephen King was fodder for a wild Saturday night spent lounging on the couch for hours, book propped up on my chest, lost in the stories of Bangor, Maine or, in this one, Boulder, Colorado and Las Vegas, Nevada.

The Stand is one of King’s more controversial books. Not for its subject matter (the oft-repeated battle between good and evil) but for the preceding editorial decisions which were made to cut about 1/2 of the original manuscript for publication. King lays out, in a two-part Preface, that this book is not the original manuscript simply restored. Instead, this version is an expansion of that original story. Characters, settings, backstory, even whole subplots were removed from the original in a publication decision: a smaller book would cost less, and therefore sell more copies, and make more profit, so a smaller book was published.

Once King became more popular, and had the legion of fans which would buy anything, a new version was made to capitalize on that profit opportunity. Thus, the version I bought in high school (as one of the legion) and trundled with me as I moved 3 times while an adult.

I did not read that slimmed-down version. I only read this “restored” version, and thus loved it. Also, I was pretty well brainwashed into reading King and only King in those days, so I hadn’t seen enough of the broader story-telling world to reasonably consider the merits of the book by itself.

However, 25 years on, I have been exposed to many more authors and styles, and even critically studied the editorial process and revisionist. As such, I feel in a much better place to evaluate this book on its merits.

To be honest, I find it lacking.

First of all, it is bloated. We get approximately 200 named characters (I may exaggerate, because I don’t want to go through them all, but I’m confident it’s closer to that than 100). Plus there are many characters and subplots that, ultimately, don’t really contribute to the finale of the story. Now, not everyone has to. But there were just too many side stories to consider each one necessary to the tale.

And perhaps there are people who enjoy reading every little detail about as many characters as possible. Don’t get me wrong – I read every word. I enjoyed it and King’s style does keep one moving through the text. Yet I’m fairly confident that the “accountant’s” decision to cut words to make a smaller volume actually forced an editorial process that critically examined every word and ensured each one was necessary.

Second, the illogicalities of the action stand out in stark contrast to the overarching idea contained therein. The premise is that a major, nearly-100% fatal illness is released into the community. Then, what happens to the survivors? It’s the story of a nuclear war without the actual war, and how the survivors must adapt in the aftermath. Yes, in such a situation, there will be much that is lying around just waiting to be picked up and used, but there are still some things which didn’t get explained: how did the survivors who travelled by car (many of them), get the gas out of the pumps into those cars without electricity? We saw one scene in which Larry Underwood pries up a manhole cover to access gas. Does he do this every 300 miles as the tank empties? What about those who don’t have access to the same tools as him? With the electricity off (because all the power generators have nobody to run them), the pumps don’t work, and refrigeration goes out, soon allowing most of the remaining food supply to spoil. Does everyone live on tinned beef and Saltines? There’s just a lot of logistics that seem to be covered, but really aren’t.

Third, the production of this volume seemed to be less-than-perfect. I noticed many typos. Now, some can be expected. Maybe 1 every 100 pages? So in 1,130 pages there could reasonably be 11. I marked 3 in the last 50 pages alone. It was only in the latter fifth of the book that I started keeping track, and I’m not about to go back through just for that, but one would think that the copy editor would have caught more of these.

Finally, though, my major criticism of this story is one which The Stand shares with many of King’s works of similar length. That is, the finale, the conclusion, the climax where all of the tension has been building to finally gets resolved, is, in the end, nothing more than a deus ex machina. We criticize this technique in lower writers as a cop-out. Why not here?

Ultimately, the ending is where this all comes together and lacks substance. Larry Underwood, Ralph Brentner, Glen Bateman, and Stu Redman (accompanied by Kojak the dog) set off from Boulder on a God-given quest, delivered through the mouthpiece that is Abagail Freemantle. This is not something they developed on their own, not something they brought on, or something they actually had any “agency” in. [“Agency” is a fancy writer’s word for the whole of authority and power and action that a character has in a scene or a book.] When 3 of them (not Stu, who fell down a hill and broke his leg and was left behind with Kojak) arrive in Las Vegas for the final confrontation with Randall Flagg, the Dark Man, the Walkin’ Dude, they don’t ultimately DO anything.

The protagonists are not the solution to the problem. They don’t have or exercise any power at all. They simply exist, and wait for the story to take place around them, and the final end to happen for them. Which it does. The hand of God comes down out of the sky and does for them what they were unable to do.

Which begs the question – why did they have to go in the first place? Why were they even there? If this whole thing is a set-up from God to end the R.F. Man, why have the plague only kill most of the people? Why not have it kill them all and start fresh again? And if it was not from God, then what exactly was the thing which came out of the sky and detonated the nuclear bomb, anyway?

This is the same sort of deus ex machina that showed up in other King novels, specifically Under the Dome. It almost seems like he started writing a story, got to a place where he said, “Now how do I end this?”, answered with, “hell if I know. Let’s make it all a dream!” And there you have it.

So: while I enjoyed the book (I must have, because it took me about a month to read it), I’m starting to think that it would have been better as the shorter version. I don’t have that one, and at this point I’m not going to get it, but I have to wonder: is this what Successful Author Syndrome looks like?

***

P.S. Before you get into the whole “Yeah, let’s see you do it better!” commentary on my inability to critique due to lack of peer-ness with Mr. King, note that I don’t have to be a peer in order to give my opinion. That’s the beauty of self-publishing on this internet thing. Any jerk with a keyboard can make his voice heard, I don’t have to have “agency” in this to be able to say what I think. Nobody’s forcing you to agree with me, or even listen.