Monday, November 30, 2009

Free-E-Day Extra: 'FAKE' Author Commentary

As my contribution to Free-E-Day (December 1), I've released two new e-book singles.  Additionally, I thought I'd throw in a little blog bonus, a behind-the-scenes look at the evolution of one of my free-e-day stories, Fake.

Before we get to that, however, I'd encourage everyone to take a look at the Free-E-Day blog for a complete listing of all the free art, literature, and music being offered today, as well as web chats about various aspects of DIY indie culture.

Also, I'd like to take a second to send a big shout out to Dan Holloway for organizing Free-E-Day.  Dan, in addition to being a die-hard evangelist for independent art, is a tremendous writer in his own right.  His novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall is available for free from Smashwords, or you can buy the paper-and-glue version from Lulu (a perfect Christmas gift for someone you want to introduce to independent literature).

As a final note, the commentary below assumes that you already read the story.  Otherwise, it may not make much sense.

FAKE  Author's Commentary

Fake is a story I've been trying to write in one form or another for years.  It was born from a handful of disparate ideas, fragments I collected and tried to patch together into something coherent.  After several failed attempts in a variety of different styles, genres, and formats, with this story I finally managed to arrange these elements in a way that – to me at least – feels satisfying and meaningful.


Most of the elements in Fake were inspired by news stories that I stumbled across.  Obviously, the central idea tying everything together is the hoax.  A few years ago, there were a couple high profile journalistic hoaxes, specifically those of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair.  I filed them away in the back of my head somewhere under “possibly interesting story premises” but nothing ever really came of with it.

The first thing that really got me interested in hoaxes, however – and the one that I still find the most fascinating – was the case of JT LeRoy.

For those of you who don't know, JT Leroy was an alter ego created by the author Laura Albert.  She invented an elaborate, grand guignol life story for him that included sexual abuse, drug use, and prostitution as a child.  Through a series of phone calls and correspondences, LeRoy connected with a number of prominent writers who empathized with his childhood tragedies and championed his writing, which eventually was published to considerable critical acclaim.  Even though the work was technically categorized as fiction, part of its success lay in the fact that it was believed to be largely autobiographical.   Later,  Albert's sister-in-law Savannah Knoop started posing as LeRoy for public appearances to promote the books, explaining away her feminine voice and appearance by claiming to be a pre-operative transgender.  Eventually, however, the ruse fell apart and Albert was forced to confess that she had written the work and JT LeRoy did not actually exist outside of her own mind.

I hadn't hear of JT LeRoy or read any of the books until the news about the hoax broke.  Once that happened though, I became obsessed.  It's not that I think what Albert did was ethical –  it was certainly deceptive – but I think, in a way, I understood why she did it.  I remember reading that to her, it was more than using a pen name; she had to become JT LeRoy in order to write those stories.  Particularly, the fact that she was a woman who had to “become” a man in order to write about issues like gender identity and sexuality resonated with me – I have been cross-dressing since I was thirteen.  Also, it helped that, taken on their own as pure fiction, the books are actually still pretty good – and that one of them, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, was made into a film directed by and starring Asia Argento, with cameos by Lydia Lunch and Marilyn Manson, all three of whom are on my short list for People I Might End Up Stalking When I Finally Go Off The Deep End.

Anyways, the point is that I developed an interest in literary hoaxes, started doing a lot of research, and eventually started trying to write a story about a hoax from the point of view of its perpetrator, not to justify their actions, but to try to understand them.  Fake – or at least William's narrative – represents the final resolution of those attempts.

As a side note, while I was editing this story, I read an article about a ghostwriter who wrote “autobiographies” for celebrities, and in it he gave a really interesting description of the method he uses to find his subject's voice.  I couldn't help but draw parallels between his work and Albert's – even though they're at two opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of social acceptance.  So I decided to write that detail into my story.

Feral Children

The story about the sisters from Linz, Austria, was indeed an actual story, and it was another article I read that soon grew into an unhealthy obsession, leading me to do a lot of research into the subject of feral children – children who are somehow removed from society for a long enough period for it to affect their normal development and socialization – classically, this happened when children got lost in the wilderness (think Romulus & Remus, or Mowgli and Tarzan).  These days, however, it's more common for the child's removal from society to be deliberate (ie kidnapping) – and usually, as in the Linz case, done by a parent.

The problem with my early attempts to write a story about feral children, though, was that they all ended up too similar to Paul Auster's City of Glass.  I then went in another direction, trying to give it a stockholm syndrome-type twist; ultimately, however, I felt that idea was best left on the cutting room floor, so to speak.  Eventually, I merged the "feral child" with another character I had been developing, the supernatural musician.

As another side note, while I was finishing my first draft of Fake in its current incarnation, the news about Jaycee Dugard broke - one of many synchronicities that have cropped up for me in connection with this story.


The supernatural musician character was always the central role in the story throughout its various iterations.  In the earliest versions, her songs were spells to manifest ghosts; people came to hear her play so they could communicate with loved ones who had passed.  And they worked – for everyone except her.  She could never reach the person that she herself had lost, the person for whom the songs were written.

For the descriptions of her music and physical appearance, I pictured an amalgamation of Sigur Ros, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Zoe Keating, Amanda Palmer, and Lady GaGa.

Multi-Perspective Narration

The device of changing first-person narrators was something I had seen done well a couple of different places, first in one of Brett Ellis's books (I think The Informers) and most recently in the indie e-book Dead(ish) by Naomi Kramer.  I liked the way it was used, but never really considered doing it myself until.  But as I started writing this story, I realized the technique could give it an interesting structure, kinda like Citizen Kane with a touch of Ryunosuke Akutagawa's In a Grove thrown in for good measure (or Kurosawa's adaptation Rashomon, I guess if you want to stick with the film references).  Wow, that's a lot of name dropping for one paragraph.  Sorry.

Anyways, I tried to give each narrator a unique voice and style.  The idea was that William would be a more self-indulgent and prone to wordy, florid descriptions, thinking such things make him sound writer-ly.  Amy on the other hand has a more direct, edgy, staccato voice.  She says what she means bluntly, doesn't waste time searching for pretty words and isn't afraid to resort to expletives.  For Karen, I let myself slip back into my something more like my natural writing voice, figuring that a simpler, no-frills  approach would work best for her.

Other Elements

The bit about Philip K Dick's twin sister is true.

Also, I've had a long-standing fascination with Aleister Crowley.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Customer Reviews, Part 2

In the spirit of my post from earlier this week, as well as the similarly-themed Publetariat Indie Call to Action, here are two more e-book reviews that will be cross-posted on Feedbooks and anywhere else I can find them available for download.

Herman Marmaduke by Small Stories

Small Stories is a powerhouse, a true pioneer when it comes to e-books and new media - experimenting with Microfiction, Twitter Novels, Wave Fiction, and any number of other ways to merge writing with technology that I probably haven’t even heard about yet.

Herman Marmaduke
is my personal favorite of his stories so far. Hovering somewhere in the realm between short story and novella, it is a simple yet resonant story about two men - one who cannot remember, and another who wishes he could forget. The title character is a past-his-prime celebrity adventurer type (think Jacques Cousteau or the Crocodile Hunter) who’s long since faded into obscurity and is haunted by a painful past.

What I found most satisfying about the story is the way it plays with identity; how I some ways our sense of identity can be so illusory and mercurial, and in other ways unyielding and inescapable. In the end, it’s about wish-fulfillment, about a man who wants to become someone else – anyone else, it doesn’t matter who, just as long as it isn’t him.

DEAD(ish) by Naomi Kramer

Dead(ish) was the one of the first e-books I read on Feedbooks, and it’s still one of my favorites. The story centers around a young woman who is murdered by her boyfriend and ends up haunting him to take revenge in insanely inventive, twisted ways. It’s a quick read, written in a playful, conversational style that shifts between several characters’ first-person points-of-view.

What makes it special is the way that it crackles with exuberant creative energy from start to finish, never dragging or dwelling on the kind of inconsequential minutiae that tends to trip up less-assured, more pretentious authors (myself most emphatically included). Part mystery, part ghost story, part revenge fantasy, Naomi’s work stampedes over genre conventions and thumbs her nose at outdated notions of literary propriety. She doesn’t care if it’s a fucking sentence fragment or not, she’s not worried if her potty-mouth offends you, she’s just telling the story she wants to tell, the way she wants to tell it.

Both these e-books are simple, personal stories written with a stripped-down, unpretentious grace. They are examples of the best that independent fiction has to offer, and I fail to see how either one would benefit from edited, workshopped, or focus-grouped to death.

Herman Marmaduke cover by Small Stories.  DEAD(ish) cover by PJ Lyons.  

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Customer reviews - how to democratize criticism for independent e-books

I've been thinking a lot about e-book reviews lately.

Actually, what I've really been thinking about is: How do you turn someone who reads books into someone who reads e-books, and then into someone who reads self-published e-books?

Why we need filters

Lately I've been talking to a lot of people who are considering buying e-book readers (I've been showing off my Sony Pocket Edition like the freakin' thing cures cancer).  And when they ask where you go to get e-books, I eagerly talk up Feedbooks and Smashwords.

But as much as I love those sites, their biggest strength is also their biggest weakness - they present a broad range of content with little or no filtering.  And like it or not, I think the "casual reader" likes filters.  Filters are what allow them to navigate through many choices to find something that speaks to them personally* - given a set value of finite resources (specifically money, time, and patience).

And even I - as a writer looking to use their services, not as a casual reader - have to admit I was taken aback by the staggering wall of superhero fanfic and "erotica" I found when first visiting those sites.  (Not that I have anything against comic books or porn, mind you - I'm a big fan of both, actually.  But there's a time and place.) 

Which is what led me to the idea: there needs to be more reviews of independent e-books.  Now,  you may or may not agree with the axiom that "reviews sell books", but speaking for myself as a consumer, reviews are probably the second-biggest factor (after friends' word-of-mouth) in determining what music I listen to, what plays I go to, what movies I watch, etc.

Moxie may be slow on the up-take, but Publetariat is on the ball

So I started looking around to see if there were any sites that catered specifically to reviews of independent e-book and even toyed with the idea of doing my own reviews.  The problem that became very obvious very quickly, however, was that sites dedicated to reviewing indpendent e-books, which are largely obscure and marginalized, are themselves also obscure and marginalized.  And sites (or magazines, weekly papers, etc, for that matter) who have access to a broader audience are more interested in reviewing work by established writers.


But then I read an article on Publetariat that put forth an interesting idea: the biggest, most influential clearinghouse for book reviews may actually be Amazon.  The article goes on to make suggestions for getting your book reviewed by Amazon's "top reviewers", but I won't go into all that, just click the damn link.

Think about it: point-of-sale customer reviews, the new democratization of criticism.  Using the mainstream's own tools against them.

So what's the point?

1. Independent authors need to take advantage of user reviews on mainstream booksellers like Amazon, B&N, Sony.

If you use Lulu or have a US bank account, you can be on Amazon.  If you're on Smashwords, soon you'll be able to be on B&N and Sony.  That takes care of three of the largest e-book devices/platforms right there.  Get your book listed, encourage your readers to leave comments and ratings, leave comments on books by independent authors that you enjoy, create "lists" that include your book along with mainstream work similar to yours.

2. Independent authors need to support the platforms that support them - promote the hell out of Smashwords and Feedbooks.
Link to them from your site, talk about them on your blog and Twitter.  And make them a better tool for new readers by leaving ratings and comments for independent e-books that you've read - and again, encourage your readers to do the same.

So what's the plan?

Step 1. I'm going to keep using the blog to review independent e-books that I personally enjoyed and think would appeal to readers who are new to the medium, similar to the write-ups for Password Incorrect and Brief Objects of Beauty and Despair in my last post.

Step 2. I'm going to copy my review and paste it into the customer review/user comments for the book's page on Feedbooks and/or Smashwords.

Step 3. If the work is available in print or electronic form through Amazon or B&N or Sony, I'm also going to copy my review there.  If someone does a really good audio e-book, I'll post the review on iTunes.  If someone has a video matching images to their poetry or prose, I'll post the review on YouTube.

Step 4. Encourage other independent e-book readers and writers to follow suit.  Alone, I'm only one voice - and hardly a credible one at that (strangely, not many people seem to care what some jackass who wears a wig and pretends to be named "Moxie" has to say, and I'm okay with that).  But it's not about promoting yourself as a single independent e-book author.  It's about creating a thriving independent e-book community.

Post-script: I had been working on a draft of this post when I saw a link to this article on Publetariat making a similar suggestion.  I took it as a sign that I might be onto something.

*I wrote something similar to this statement in response to a blog post over at Jenn Topper's Don't Publish Me.  So if you got a sense of deja vu reading it, that's why.  And if you didn't, you really should start reading Jenn's blog.  She's my new DIY hero.