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Saturday
May312014

Learning about self-publishing non-fiction, instructional books  

Since publishing my book, Reading Poker Tells, in April of 2012, I’ve learned a lot about self-publishing. When I first started out researching this stuff, in 2011, I had no idea about publishing; I didn’t know how books got made, I didn’t know how the relatively new process of print-on-demand worked, I didn’t know what a reseller discount was. I learned as I went. All I knew was that I wanted to self-publish my book and I figured I’d eventually learn everything I needed to know.

My main motivation for self-publishing was that I wanted to make the most money possible. I have no doubt that I could have found a publisher if I’d tried, but I thought the type of book I was writing—a non-fiction, how-to book with a built-in niche audience that could easily find the book online—was the perfect book to self-publish. (This is compared to fiction, which obviously is a bigger challenge to find an audience for.) I had faith in my book and thought, through word of mouth and online search results, it would sell well with little marketing expenditures on my part. Instead of a publisher keeping the large majority of the profit, I’d keep it. Typical publishing deals give anywhere from 10% to 20% of gross book sales to an author; by self-publishing, focused on online sales, I keep around 60%.

My secondary motivation was that I’ve always been interested in learning about book production, and I thought learning how the industry worked would be a nice back-up skill to acquire. And what better way to learn the ins and outs of the field than to just dive in and do it? I thought it was possible I’d publish one or two more books if the first book worked out, so there was potentially future value in me learning the industry. I also thought it was possible that, if I gained enough experience and contacts in the industry, I might act as a publisher for other people’s books. For all of these reasons, I thought there was future value in me learning how to publish.

So far, my foray into self-publishing has been a success. My book Reading Poker Tells has sold about 10,000 copies (in all formats, both paperback and ebook) in the two years since it’s been published. (I credit this mainly to good Amazon reviews, good word-of-mouth, and strong, natural search results.) Just a few days ago, my new book Verbal Poker Tells was released; it’s already gotten some good reviews.

Over the next few months, I hope to write some blog posts about the things I’ve learned about self-publishing. My learning process has been a series of trials and errors, and I still often make mistakes that cost me money and time. (Just the other day, I realized I had set up something with my book in a way that was probably a big money-waster.) While I have periodically researched things about self-publishing, it is hard to find a lot of good info on the process; this is mainly because companies in the industry (like the print-on-demand company LightningSource, which is what I use for printing) change their policies often. Also, every book project is unique; this makes it hard to find information that applies well to your own project. For example, although I’ve read a good amount about self-publishing from various blogs and articles, a lot of it didn’t apply to my situation.

So maybe my series of blog posts will come in handy for people who are thinking about writing a book like mine: a non-fiction, how-to, instructional-type book. 

Wednesday
Jun152011

5 Explanations for Human Consciousness

I was thinking about human consciousness, and the forces behind it. The age-old question of how a human (or any organism) can have a sense of self-awareness. What prevents us from being just complex organisms with no inner thought?

It seems to me there are only five options to explain consciousness and self-awareness.

1)   There is a certain theshold of interactivity that a data-processing system must reach to become self-conscious. Self-consciousness is based on just achieving a certain amount of complexity in a system. (This implies that computers will be able to achieve consciousness.)

2)   There is some process at an unknown level that creates consciousness, like maybe on another dimensional level, or at a quantum level. (In other words, no amount of computer-power will necessarily lead to a system becoming self-conscious; something must happen at another level of interaction that we don’t know about.)

3)   All physical matter has consciousness. We are conscious just like animals are conscious, just like a tree is conscious, just like a rock is conscious, just like an atom is conscious. Complex systems (like the human mind) could be broken down into a number of separate consciousnesses, each unaware of the other.

4)   We are given consciousness by an outside all-powerful force, like God. 

5)   Consciousness doesn’t exist and is some kind of illusion.  

These aren’t original ideas, of course. And the second option leaves a lot of possibilities open. But I haven’t seen a thorough list of all the possible options in one place before. And it seems to me these are the only options available. Anyone see any flaws in this thinking?

Monday
Oct042010

Language-Based Narrative Structure in Dreams

I believe in Freud’s fundamental theory of dreams: that all dreams are a wish fulfillment in one form or another. I also believe his ideas about the large role language plays in dreams. While the jury is out (potentially forever) on the concept of dreams as wish fulfillments, I think most modern psychologists recognize the central role that language and words play in dreams (and in psychological disturbances, which have a lot in common with dreams).

My ideas in this short essay have to do with the major role that language plays in dreams. I think it’s entirely possible that words and our use of language are the root core of dreams. I think it’s possible that our visual memory of dreams is actually an illusion: a covering up of what are abstract concepts and words—things that have no visual form. (It’s entirely possible these thoughts have been voiced somewhere else, but I have not done extensive research on similar trains of thought.)

My dream centered around a group of women who were vacationing at a mountain resort house. They had committed a crime, likely killing a man or several men—it was unclear. A detective arrived in the story to investigate what was going on at the house. The women had all arranged their stories before hand to cover their guilt.

One of the women sat in the front room of the house with a large amount of some sort of candy on a table in front of her. The female shopkeeper, who was potentially in on the plot, said that she and the woman had never seen each other before.

The detective found this strange because the candy-dispensing machine where the woman got her candy was right beside the front desk where the shopkeeper would be located (or at least wouldn’t travel far from). Not only that, there was a bell on the candy-dispensing machine that rang every time it dispensed candy. If the woman had used the candy-dispensing machine to get as much candy as she had in front of her, she would have rung the bell several times, which would have surely alerted the shopkeeper at the front counter. All of this pointed to the fact that the women were lying in saying they had never met each other before.

This was the gist of the “scene”; that the women were lying. If you were to think of the dream as a narrative plot, then the elements of the candy-dispensing machine, the candy, and even the shopkeeper, were all just a narrative device to move the dream in the direction of them being found out. (I won’t go into the entire contents of the dream or the complete dream analysis, but these elements were of very minor importance.)

The dream was pretty standard and would have passed without notice except that I happened to wake up right at the moment the detective caught on that something wasn’t right. My impression on being awoken was that the whole plot point centering on the candy did not exist up until a few moments before I awoke. I could remember the previous part of the dream and knew that these elements were not part of the narrative flow of the dream.

At the moment when the narrative device (the detective realizing the women were lying) was needed, these elements were created. Not only were they created, they were weaved into the past narrative structure of the dream. In other words, information in the dream was effectively being moved backwards in time.

If I hadn’t awoken when I did and continued on with the dream to its conclusion, I doubtless wouldn’t have thought twice about it. The subplot about the woman with her candy and the detective making his deduction would have been just another narrative step in the dream, and it would all have seemed chronologically coherent.

Dream scholars will be aware of the nature of compression in time in dreams, and know that sometimes complex dreams that seem to take hours can occur within a very short span of real-time. Freud likened this process not to a dream-time that operated much faster than real-time (a theory demonstrated in the recent movie Inception), but to the idea of pre-existing scenes, clichés, and fantasies saved up in the dreamer’s mind that can sometimes be activated easily. An analogy from Freud would be to hearing the opening bars to a favorite song—you don’t have to hear the whole song for that whole song to effectively enter your mental space. You don’t have to hear the whole song at its complete running length to have the entire song flash in your mind.

So perhaps it’s not surprising to dream scholars that a dream, which is far from linear, would be capable of a similar compression when it comes to injecting a needed scene backwards into the dream narrative. (In my case, it was quite ready-made; the detective who spots something amiss and breaks the case—who hasn’t seen that scene many times in books, movies, and tv? The only elements needed were the weird specifics of the situation: the candy and the candy dispenser, which no doubt came from my previous day’s thoughts.) Perhaps other people have noticed this phenomenon—it was new to me and I hadn’t read about it in Freud’s work.

The second thing of interest that occurred to me was that the work that the dream did in putting that narrative information in the past was similar to the kind of work that different tenses of language do in a narrative text.

Let’s say you were forced to write a story without being able to stop or go back to edit (which is actually a good analogy for what dreaming is). But let’s say you reached a point where you knew you needed to have something happen in the past of the story to make what you’re writing now make sense. What would you write? You’d write something like: “A few minutes ago she had walked over and gotten some candy from the candy dispenser next to the shopkeeper’s counter. She had taken some candy and walked over to a table and sat down.” You would switch to a different tense (in this case, past perfect tense) to communicate something in the past and then you would return to a regular tense like past tense or present tense (present tense is a better analogy for dreams).

Okay, you might think it’s a good analogy, but my thought was what if it is not an analogy at all? What if our dreams actually used different tenses and language structures in this manner? What if our dreams are all language interpreted by another part of our brains as visions? Or else interpreted only in our memory as visions? Freud points out many instances of the role of words and word play in his books, but he doesn’t make the leap that it is solely language at the root of everything.

I would like to investigate this idea in more depth. It seems a very testable hypothesis. For one, I’d like to read about the dreams of blind people. They don’t have vision, so how would they describe their dreams? Then maybe you’d study people with various language deficiencies (maybe brain trauma to language centers) to see what their dreams are like. I’m sure there’s many other studies you could do and I’m just touching the surface.

Sunday
Sep262010

The Hidden Meaning of Ishiguro's 'Never Let Me Go'

I was moved to write my thoughts on Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2005) after seeing that a movie version was just released. I read David Denby’s movie review in The New Yorker, and I've read several book reviews in the past, and none have talked about what I understood to be Ishiguro's central message.

First, a quick spoiler: Never Let Me Go takes place in an alternate world where the main characters are clones raised solely for their organs. Called Carers, they live a truncated life, dying in middle age as they are called upon to give up one organ at a time. The bulk of the story takes place in the past, when they were children living in a small, strange boarding school, sequestered from the world.

Reviewers of the book (and now movie) have focused on the sci-fi/thriller elements of the story – the cloning, the raising of people for organs, what Ishiguro might be saying about the future of our society and our medical industry. But this book has nothing to do with science, or the medical establishment, or problems of the future. This is a story that uses these pop-ish elements as a mere backdrop to examine human nature.

As Ishiguro did so expertly with The Remains of the Day (still one of my favorite books of all time - also a good movie but the movie is not even in the same ballpark as the book), he paints a portrait of characters seemingly lacking in “normal” affect. The most noticeable feeling you have as you read Never Let Me Go is a feeling of frustration. As the characters grow into adolescence and then into young adulthood, slowing realizing (as we realize) what is in store for them, you want to scream at their complacency. “Fight back!” you want to say. “Do something! This isn’t fair!”

But the characters accept their lot. As their destiny is slowly revealed to them over years, they spend their days embedded in rituals, in gossip, in small dramas, in petty arguments and jealous rivalry. Ishiguro weaves a realistic and placid account of their lives, so hypnotically tedious that it’s maddening when you snap to and remember what has been done to these people. This leads the reader to think, “What idiots. If it were me I’d fight back, do something. I wouldn’t just take this injustice lying down.”

Or would you?

Ishiguro is a psychological genius. Do you see what he’s done? His subtle framing of this story in such terms leads you to question the complacency with which we all (some more than others) live our lives. Aren’t all of us embedded in rituals and past-times we have never examined? How many of us are surrounded by injustice and madness that we accept as par-for-the-course on a daily basis?

I felt a similar existential claustrophobia when I finished Remains of the Day for the first time – that sense of how trapped we humans can be – by our past, by our mind, by our roles assigned, by what is expected of us. And as with that book, I felt a strong aversion to that claustrophobia – to living a life that is too defined.

Ishiguro’s mastery of language and the human mind cannot be overstated. With the unreliable narrator, which he uses in all of his books that I've read, he seems to have found the perfect narrative device for sneaking inside the mind of a reader and setting up shop there, twisting screws and loosening sockets all while the reader might be unaware of what is going on. I have read that Ishiguro is well-versed in Freudian psychology and I believe his books show this.

I am of the opinion that many people who read his books, even when they don’t see the intricate crafting that has been done, still finish the book with Ishiguro’s messages lodged in their unconscious.

Friday
Oct232009

Where The Wild Things Are: The Hidden Meaning

Guest Review by Molly Johnson, author of Spartacus and the Circus of Shadows

I can’t tell you how long I’d been waiting for "Where the Wild Things Are". When I saw the trailer, I knew that I finally had a movie to look forward to. I talked to everyone about it. I downloaded the Arcade Fire song that played on the trailer. I made plans with a childhood friend and we saw it together, the first Saturday it came out, grinning side-by-side, while a peanut gallery of 6-year-olds sat behind us, narrating every scene.

There are some great reviews out there about what worked and what didn’t (Salon.com and The New Yorker, for a start). But none I read touched on the larger meaning of the movie: What was the message? I’ll tell you my experience following the movie, the conclusions I jumped to…and the interpretation that came to me, two days after the movie had time to swim around in my brain.

My initial reaction was that the movie was very self-indulgent. Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers had to imbue the monsters with many characteristics that were not there in the 300-word children’s book. I understand that. What I didn’t understand was why the whole thing had to be so damn sad.

I understand the jealousy and the fighting and the breaking things (they are beasts, after all), but I don’t understand the moping. Oh god, did they mope. Stephanie Zacharek’s review in Salon aptly describes them as EMOnsters (as in Emo) —and they really are.  Brooding and dejected, they shuffle through the woods or sit alone on a cliff, shoulders rising with every painful sigh. Max sits quietly beside them, very confused, as were we.

“Why is he sad?” came a small voice in the theater behind me.

“I don’t know,” answered the bewildered mother.

“I don’t know, either,” my friend whispered to me.

One monster in particular, the giant bull, lurks in the background for the entire movie. Nothing broke my heart more than at the end when the Bull creature finally speaks, telling Max goodbye in a defeated voice, his furry hands reaching out uncertainly in the obvious “I want a hug” gesture... and Max just walks away. We can only assume the Bull committed suicide shortly after Max left.

Many children's movies can go back and forth between exultation and melancholy, but this movie stayed mostly down in the dumps. What kind of masochistic kid would enjoy this strange trip? It really seemed to me like perhaps the filmmakers had used the chance to extrapolate the original story to express all of their own feelings of a lost childhood. Or perhaps it was Dave Eggers’ post-modern influence: I can imagine him sitting around in the brainstorming session, saying “Okay, we got to make this thing dark!”. Was this really what Maurice Sendak had been intending?

However, all of that was before I slept on it, before I was able to pinpoint the undercurrent I was sensing beneath the surface. I respect Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers a lot, and I know they are smart guys, and I know they didn’t make this movie without putting a lot of thought into it. I could feel a meaning hidden there at the edge of all that melancholy and confusion, similar to that feeling I get after watching a David Lynch movie. There’s something going on there, but what is it?

Max’s trip is obviously a dream, and as in dreams, you can see parallels between Max’s experiences in real life and his experiences with the beasts. There is a fort-building, there is a fort-destroying, there are strange, confusing creatures that are meant to represent Max’s family as well as parts of himself. I got some of that. But why do the beasts want Max to be their king? Why does Carole, the main monster, want Max to “keep out all of the sadness”? Why are they so unhappy with him not being able to deliver on this tall order? What is the movie saying? You always hurt your family? You should leave them when things get bad?

It finally came to me two mornings after watching Wild Things. There is a scene when Max tells an upset Carole, “You need a mom.” Suddenly, it clicked: Max’s role as “king” of the beasts is the same role that children assign to their parents: this enormous, unachievable task. “Keep out all of the sadness.” “Keep us together.” Max’s journey, and the point of the movie, is the unfolding of his realization that his mom is not all-powerful, and that there is no one who can fully protect a family from being unhappy. Max leaving those ‘wild things’ behind is symbolic of his maturation, of his better understanding of the difficulties of ruling a kingdom (or family).

I believe that this is what Jonze and Eggers were going for, and I’m surprised I haven’t read anything about this interpretation. The subtlety of the movie, and the way it leaves a meaning lodged in your unconscious, lead me to like it a lot more than I did right after seeing it. But my reservations are still there, and that's because, no matter the worthwhile meaning, it’s still just so damn depressing.