Sunday, September 30, 2018

Tinkering With Novella Price Points

Last year thanks to my regular listening to The Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing Podcast, I became acquainted with Lindsay Buroker, in particular the Kindle Worlds program for her Fallen Empire science fiction universe. I helped codify/solidify some of the background material for the primary series and the next-generation spinoff A Sky Full of Stars and wrote two military-SF novellas set during the rebellion. Those were Ten Davids, Two Goliaths and Discovery and Flight, the latter of which is explicitly tied in with her short story "Remnants." I even put together the TVTropes page.

I was planning on writing more novellas, including a straight-up zombie story (a biological weapon that gets out of control) and a Starseer story inspired by the Star Wars Darth Maul fan film Apprentice. However, Amazon shut down the Kindle Worlds program, even though based on the royalties I was getting it seemed to be doing pretty well. Fortunately Ms. Buroker let me re-publish the novellas via KDP and other KW authors are doing the same.

Of course, as an independent writer, I'm responsible for all the decisions, including how to price it. Initially I priced both novellas at $2.99 in order to get 70% royalties, but in the original KW program novellas were $1.99. In addition, many more successful authors price their novellas at $1.99--Marko Kloos' novella Measures of Absolution is $1.99, while Delilah S. Dawson's Peculiar Pets of Miss Pleasance is $1.99. James R. Tuck's Deacon Chalk novellas are only available in audio now, but I believe they were $1.99 in e-book as well. Some novellas are priced even less.

I did make some sales at the higher price point, but I would obviously like to make more even if that means a 35% royalty instead of a 70% one. Three sales at $1.99 generates a little over the same royalties as one sale at $2.99, so if I quadruple my sales, I'm ahead. The fact I've created an Amazon AMS ad for Ten Davids, Two Goliaths will surely help.

To that end, I have set the price for both novellas to $1.99. If this proves successful, I'll leave them there. If not, back to $2.99 they go. I'll give it a week. If you come across this blog post after October 7, 2018 and the price is $1.99, you'll know that reducing the price did increase the quantity demanded.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: V for Vendetta (2005)

The movie V for Vendetta and I have a long history. I don't remember seeing it in theaters when it came out, but I do remember using it as the basis for an opinion column I wrote for the University of Georgia student newspaper The Red and Black about the dangers of government surveillance and overreach in the age of terrorism.

It got a lot more personal when I studied abroad in Great Britain in 2006. I, like many other tourists, got caught up in the liquid-bomb scare, which broke out the night before we were going to leave to return home. My flight home had to wait for several hours on the tarmac at one of the London airports while we were all being background-checked. I had to pack up the books I'd bought in Oxford for the trip home rather than bring them on the plane. I could have bought new books at the airport bookstore, but at the time I thought the ban on all carry-on items not bought at the airport was a scam to make people buy all-new products and unnecessary to protect the security of the flights, so I didn't. Fortunately the airplane's televisions were on and I watched V for Vendetta as well as a significant chunk of The Wind that Shakes the Barley and at least one Doctor Who episode dealing with the Cybermen. I ended up watching the movie at least twice.

Now 12 years later, Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is doing a series on films people thought were So Profound when we were in college, to see if they still hold up. V for Vendetta was one of the films, and I made sure to appear on it. I may have mellowed out a little on politics since college, but governmental overreach in the name of fighting terrorism, a war, etc. is still a personal bugbear. Here's the podcast. Now for the review...

The Plot

Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) works for the British Television Network, a successor to the British Broadcasting Corporation in Great Britain. In an age of peril--the United States has fallen into civil war and there's been at least one global pandemic--Britain has turned into a police state under the rule of a "High Chancellor" Adam Sutler (John Hurt) and his Nazi-like Norsefire Party.

Sutler's regime, however, is challenged by the mysterious V (Hugo Weaving), a terrorist with near-supernatural fighting abilities who disguises himself as Guy Fawkes. V blows up Old Bailey on November 5 and vows, a year later, to blow up Parliament itself. Evey finds herself mixed up in the whole situation when V rescues her from some rape-inclined "Fingermen" (secret police) and ends up staying with him for an extended period. Meanwhile, some ordinary British police assigned to help investigate V find themselves stumbling onto a conspiracy dating back all the way to the founding of the Norsefire regime.

The Good

*There's actually quite a bit of intertextuality in the story, some overt and some more subtle. V's campaign against Sutler's dictatorship, though driven by the ideological belief that governments should fear their people and not the other way around, also has a strong element of personal revenge. The Count of Monte Cristo shows up repeatedly throughout the film. I also noticed a strong resemblance to the story of The Phantom of the Opera, especially the more Phantom-sympathetic interpretations--a pretty young woman falls under the thrall of an older disfigured genius and it's not completely non-consensual on her part. I can appreciate thoughtfulness.

*The script was well-done. I rather liked V's introductory speech and the vocabulary he uses. Very impressive.

*I also liked the acting in general. I don't think there's a bad delivery in the whole film. Hugo Weaving and Stephen Fry are particularly impressive.

*There's a really well-shot scene involving dominoes.

*V's strategy as a terrorist makes sense. Terrorist organizations often try to trick governments into overreacting and driving people who would otherwise not support the terrorists to do so. Some of V's schemes involve this.

*In the comic, the Norsefire government is able to seize control of Britain after the country abandons its nuclear weapons, causing it to avoid being nuked during World War III. Even without getting nuked, Britain would be cut off from world trade, inundated with massive flows of refugees, and subject to possible climactic disruption, and I could imagine that kind of crisis spawning a dictatorship. However questionable that proposition is in the first place--West Germany and other mainland European states part of the NATO alliance didn't have independent nuclear capability and they were going to get trashed regardless, plus the Soviet government has had a grudge against Britain from the beginning--that obviously needs to be updated. The descriptions of how the world and the United States in particular--which would not tolerate such a regime taking over one of its closest allies--are in a state of chaos are small and subtle, but they work for story purposes.

*Britain has an extensive security-camera surveillance system. The film shows how easy it could be used to track down enemies of the state (much like the film Enemy of the State, in which our own much less overbearing system is used for the same purpose) as well as stop crime.

*The subtleties of a British (or specifically English) fascism are well-done. The official action hero is named Storm Saxon and he's depicted as rescuing a British woman kidnapped and tortured by a caricature of an Islamic extremist, regime propaganda is delivered by something obviously based on the BBC, the Anglican Church is promoted heavily, etc.

The Bad

*Waaaay too much 9/11 Trutherism in the film. I'm not going to go into more detail for reasons of spoilers. It is entirely possible for a government to overreact to a legitimate danger rather than "there are no dangers and any 'dangers' are straw enemies to justify seizing power." The Japanese Internment doesn't mean the attack on Pearl Harbor didn't happen, the 1944 Sedition Trial doesn't mean the Nazis weren't dangerous, and McCarthy's excesses doesn't mean there weren't Soviet spies in the U.S. government. That was my single biggest beef with the film, as it undermines its credibility as a warning against government overreach.

*The movie drags a bit in the middle before things start ramping up toward V's endgame.

*We get a second "homosexual persecuted by the regime" story later in the narrative when we've already been given one, although to be fair, the second is more vivid than the first. Given how Norsefire is explicitly English-supremacist and a character having an Irish mother is brought up to threaten them, perhaps one of the two persecution narratives could be swapped out with a real or suspected IRA sympathizer? Even the democratic British government violated the rights of Catholics in Northern Ireland during the fight with the IRA, and I imagine Norsefire would be even uglier. Or to create an even more sympathetic victim, someone totally unconnected with terrorism who's a little too publicly proud of their Irish or Scottish heritage for the regime's taste?

(There's also a timing issue as to when homosexuals start getting persecuted that I'm not going to get into for reasons of spoilers. Making the second victim into someone falsely accused of being an IRA supporter for advocating for Catholics' rights in Northern Ireland and keeping the first victim as-is makes more sense chronologically, given the origins of the Norsefire regime, when it takes power, and when it starts persecuting different groups. Another alternative: Perhaps the second victim could be a Muslim falsely accused of being a terrorist? A prominent Norsefire official served in the military in various Middle Eastern places before the regime took power, so that's where he could have gotten his guinea pigs. Given how the film is a cautionary tale against anti-terrorist overreach, perhaps a Muslim victim would have been too on-the-nose, or the suits would have thought bigoted consumers wouldn't see the movie. I remember people complaining about a character having an illegal Koran, so that might've pushed them further along the boycott-denounce road.)

*The sense of time gets a little wonky toward the end. How long is Evey with V?

*Given some of the stuff that happens to Evey in the film I would expect her to be a lot more screaming-angry than she ends up being. Her reaction comes off as really understated. Natalie Portman can do better angry than that. Hell, she sounds angrier here when she's rapping on Saturday Night Live.

*Per the above, what happens to her would realistically require multiple people to pull off, not just one. Not going into more detail for reasons of spoilers.

*The back-story for the Norsefire regime on the level of Britain itself starts breaking down once we get deeper into it. Sutler is depicted as being a powerful Conservative politician with Nazi-esque banners, marching paramilitaries, etc. even before the St. Mary's plague that threw society into crisis and swept Norsefire into power. That he'd even get that far seems extremely unlikely--the British National Party suffered quite a bit when they got prominent enough for their then-leader Nick Griffin to get a spot on the BBC show Question Time, where he showed himself to be an idiot. And the BNP was trying to avoid looking like a bunch of Nazis. Sutler's crew is even more overtly evil than the BNP--they would have been marginalized (and potentially outlawed if they did more than prance around) and Sutler would never get into the position he was in before the St. Mary plague breaks out. And if he's not part of the British government (no more details for reasons of spoilers), the whole story doesn't work.

*Historical accuracy problem: Guy Fawkes was not a freedom fighter trying to overthrow an oppressive regime. He was part of a scheme by some English Catholics to re-impose the Catholic monarchy on an increasingly Protestant country. Yes, the British government was persecuting Catholics and that's not cool, but assuming the plan even succeeded--rather than provoking an even more extreme anti-Catholic backlash--the resulting government would have had to become oppressive simply to stay in power and keep its conspirators alive. We're talking Inquisition-level stuff here. Fawkes has more in common with Osama bin Laden than with V, even if V is borrowing his aesthetic.

The Verdict

Good, but could be better. I'd have liked it a lot better without the 9/11 Trutherism. 8.0 out of 10.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Donnie Darko (2001)

Back when I was in high school I rented a movie called Donnie Darko from Hollywood Video in East Cobb back when there was such a thing. I can't remember why, but one of my Quiz Bowl friends was really into indie films and perhaps he recommended it. I remembered actually liking it, or not disliking it, but I haven't seen it since.

Well, then Myopia: Defend Your Childhood booted up the "Cool in College" month in which we watched movies that we (or our peers) thought were so profound back in college to see if they were still thus. I rented Donnie Darko from Videodrome, the last video store I'm aware of in Atlanta, and off we went. Here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

In 1988, troubled teenager Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) begins hallucinating a humanoid rabbit creature named Frank. This leads into a convoluted tale of time travel, young love, and mental illness.

The Good

*The performances are generally good. I particularly liked how they cast real-life siblings Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal as brother and sister. That makes how they relate to each other more authentic. Jake as Donnie conveys both mental illness (I think the film establishes that he's a paranoid schizophrenic) and a sweet side that his sickness obscures. And although the character Kitty Farmer is utterly obnoxious, Beth Grant does a good job with her intensity and moralistic fixation. Per her Wikipedia article she gets cast as religious nuts and rule-sticklers a lot, so that makes sense.

*The opening scenes of the film show rather than tell the Darko family's troubles. Mr. and Mrs. Darko have problems managing their mentally ill and possibly dangerous son, while their older daughter Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal) rebels against their traditionalism by voting Democratic.

*The film takes place in 1988, which I didn't remember from when I watched it. I liked how they got a lot of the details right--the TVs are square and wood-paneled and the gas can that a character uses to commit arson is the exact same color and pattern of the gas can I remember my dad filling up the lawnmower with back in the day.

*The ending is legitimately sad. That's one reason I didn't like the movie--it actually made me somewhat depressive for a bit--but it shows skill on the filmmakers' part. In particular there's a conversation or speech Donnie is involved in/makes that reminded me of the iconic quote from A Tale of Two Cities:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

*Two of Donnie's friends wish they had a "Smurfette" as part of their group. Although their main focus is sex--there are a lot of people who need to get their minds out of the gutter on the issue of there being one female Smurf and a bunch of male Smurfs--ironically that comes true at the end when Gretchen (Jena Malone), a new girl in school who becomes Donnie's girlfriend, accompanies Donnie and his crew on an adventure.

*Per the above, there's some good examples of foreshadowing here and there.

*There's some stuff that's legitimately funny.

The Bad

*The film is incredibly, incredibly BORING. Seriously, it was a chore to stay focused on the movie for large stretches of it, even though I needed to do in order to discuss the movie for the podcast. There's apparently a director's cut that's twenty minutes longer! Hopefully it's dramatically re-edited so it's not so boring and makes more sense.

(Based on what Lauren said on the podcast it sounds like that was the case. In that case, here it is.)

*I don't remember not understanding the plot when I saw it in high school, but I definitely had problems understanding it now. Maybe it was hard to pay attention enough to "get it" because it was so boring or maybe there's some other reason, but I didn't understand it and that's a problem. I'm not against movies that require me to think, but there's that and there's this confusing morass.

*Donnie befriends Gretchen by helping her get away from a couple slimy guys and walking her home, but along the way he acts really weird and creepy (recounting burning down an abandoned house, for example) and ends with basically asking her to be his girlfriend. And somehow it works. Given Gretchen's history of familial abuse, I had trouble believing this wouldn't immediately trigger her danger alarm. Donnie is sweet in many ways but he's also mentally ill and unstable. This is not going to end well. Many young people have poor romantic taste and Gretchen perhaps saw the good in him and thought perhaps she could fix him. Again, this is not going to end well.

*Drew Barrymore plays the school's English teacher and she didn't impress. She wasn't bad per se, but she wasn't really that good either.

The Verdict

A dull depressing mess. 3.0 out of 10. Don't bother.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Irish in the Americas, Mexico and Guatemala Go To War, and French Protestant South Africa

More goodies from the alternate history forum. Although I've been self-banned from posting for the last three years--all the better to focus on my writing--I still go by every so often to see if there's something interesting.

And behold, here are some new alternate-history scenarios!

In this one, the seagoing Irish monk St. Brendan makes his way to what would become Canada (much like how the Vikings did later on) and kicks off Irish settlement of the New World many centuries in advance. A trans-Atlantic trade in exotic furs is enough to fund everything and we start seeing Britons fleeing the oncoming Saxons traveling across the seas as well as Irish. Although the Native Americans are still vulnerable to European diseases, the Irish settlement is on a much smaller scale and is much less organized, so they still have a fighting chance.

(Yes, I know it sounds absolutely insane, but someone actually built the kind of boat St. Brendan would have used and sailed to Canada from Ireland. Think Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition to show the Polynesians could have traveled to South America or South Americans could have traveled to Polynesia.)

 And this discussion here features a war breaking out between Mexico and Guatemala in the late 1950s. I'm not really familiar with Latin American history from that period, but it seems plausible and well-researched. And in real life El Salvador and Honduras got into a shooting war over soccer, so it's not like wars in the region haven't been started over less.

Finally, here's a timeline I found the other day featuring French Protestants colonizing South Africa. I'm not familiar with the French Wars of Religion beyond some of the different noble houses involved and how the Protestants essentially won but their leader converted to Catholicism in order to actually govern, but it seems pretty legitimate and detailed. The Huguenots (French Protestants) seem generally more decent to the natives than the Boers were (hiring them as free laborers on their farms rather than enslaving them), so perhaps the region's racial history will be a bit more pleasant.

So if you're wondering how history could have gone differently and you want something a little more exotic than "what if the South won the Civil War" and "what if Hitler won WWII," come check these out. They're fun.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Blast from the Past Movie Review: Fight Club (1999)

The podcast Myopia: Defend Your Childhood is having a "Theme Month" dedicated to films that people thought were cool in college but as the years pass, one realizes they might not have been as deep and profound as one might think. The most recent episode is based on the 1999 film Fight Club, which, as is appropriate, I first saw as a student at the University of Georgia. So here's the podcast. And now for the review...

The Plot

A nameless Narrator (Edward Norton) works as a recall inspector for a large car company--he inspects car crashes to see if they were caused by faults in the car itself and decides whether it'd be cheaper to recall the car or to settle out of court with people injured (or the families of those killed) by the defective cars. Off-the-clock, he contents himself with expensive IKEA furniture and doesn't seem to have any human relationships.

Then he develops severe insomnia. When a doctor won't prescribe him a sleeping drug and he whines that he's suffering, the doctor tells him to check out a cancer support group to see real suffering. The Narrator becomes addicted to attending these groups even though he has none of the diseases because he enjoys the connections he forms with the people there...and then he meets Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter), who's doing the exact same thing.

This perturbs him, and so the two divide the support groups between them so they can avoid each other. Then while on a business trip, the Narrator befriends Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), who claims to be a soap salesman. He ultimately moves into a run-down abandoned house with Durden when his condo mysteriously explodes. Durden begins romancing (or at least constantly banging) Marla as the two co-found an underground fighting club to counteract soulless materialism and the emasculation of American men, a club that soon grows out of control...

The Good

*The acting is really good. Norton does well as the Narrator who grows beyond empty materialism through his involvement with Durden. Pitt is appropriately dangerous and charismatic as Durden, who starts out engaging in petty and unhygienic trolling of society before progressing into outright violence. And Carter acts like, well, a junkie.

*The script is witty and flows well.

*The film shows the seductive nature and dangers of extremism. Durden does a good job calling out the emptiness of modern materialism, consumerism, and alienation from other people and even forming fight clubs isn't a bad thing given how people agree to participate and how it encourages men to excel physically. However, then they graduate to outright terrorism and that's not cool. Here's a poem (of sorts) about how fascism isn't going to reappear as comic-book Nazis but something far more deceptive. When our hero meets Bob (a man he met at a testicular-cancer support group) again and they both learn they're members of fight club unknown to each other, we see both male bonding and hero-worship--the kind that's fine in moderation but could potentially get very dangerous.

*Marla condemns modern throwaway society as well with her spiel about her dress, originally a bridesmaid's dress she got for $1 at a thrift store. Loved intensely for a day...then thrown away. She never goes to the extremes of Durden though. Even though she's clearly self-destructive with her drug use and sexual habits, that part at least is more rational.

*There's some good humor in there, especially a scene involving a liposuction clinic.

*Although especially lately people like to equate fascism and religion--and all too often organized religion has sold out to fascism to maintain its social hegemony--Durden's ideology is explicitly anti-religious (considering Durden's explicit denunciation of God and redemption) and even in many ways a substitute for the community-building functions of religion. The alt right, many of whose adherents are essentially freikorps LARPers, is often explicitly anti-Christian in terms of actual ethos and faith.

*Although at least one of my podcast companions was critical of the doctor for not prescribing the Narrator something like Ambien, I thought this a good example of someone telling the patient what they need to hear and not what they want to hear. One reason for a growing disease resistance to antibiotics is that doctors prescribe people drugs they don't need. Drugs aren't a quick-fix for everything and if the Narrator could fix his insomnia through exercise and herbal sleep aids, Ambien might not be needed.

The Bad

*The movie does run on for too long. Seriously, it's a nearly three-hour film. Good concept and well-executed, but that's still a problem. Tightening things up a bit isn't a problem--I cut my as-yet-unsold novel Battle for the Wastelands from 101K words to 89K words just by tightening the manuscript without cutting substantial content. Hell, I even added a scene that developed a character better. I'm not sure what parts of the film were flabby and needed tightening, but it is possible to snip a few seconds here and there to get a substantial reduction.

*There's a bit of a disconnect between the first and the second and third acts. The first act is about the Narrator, Marla, and support groups, while the second and third are about the fighting clubs and "Project Mayhem." Maybe if they had the Narrator meet Durden earlier, perhaps before he and Marla divide up the support groups? The Narrator losing interest in the support groups as the fighting club fills the emotional void the support groups did could be shown onscreen instead of just implied.

*Things get into suspension-of-disbelief territory once the police get involved. Trying to intimidate law enforcement to avoid investigating is going to backfire massively considering how tribal law enforcement is. Rather than back off, the police are going to get more aggressive. After all, their authority has been challenged and they can't have that. Given how law enforcement needs to be subverted as well for the plot to advance, perhaps we start seeing bored and frustrated rank-and-file cops joining the club and some stuff about how loyalty to the club trumps everything else? As Daniel and I discussed the other evening, crime has been in decline for years (although it might not have been obvious in the late 1990s), so people who joined the force thinking they'd be action heroes might be bored.

The Verdict

8.5 out of 10. Could stand to be tightened up a little bit.

Oh, and if you want an interesting fan theory, here's the notion that "Jack" is Calvin and Tyler Durden is really Hobbes. Hobbes, being a sentient figment of Calvin's imagination, has gone mad after being isolated for decades in Calvin's subconscious and now wants revenge on society for forcing Calvin to banish him and grinding his imaginative and lively pal down into a corporate drone.