Painful Lessons in Publishing

A more official word will be going out soon, but it looks like we’re cancelling the Outliers series for good.

The fact that it was ever made at all is something of a small miracle. Five authors putting together a world of stories and characters, each shared and culminating towards a greater epic? That’s no small feat. Yet even before founding Thunderbird Studios, we had a publisher who backed out. This was early 2016, and the small press market seemed to be in a real flux. So, I started an LLC, grabbed some ISBNs and got to work with Manuel.

To help promote it, we even put together a primer, Outliers: The Shape of Things to Come, that was regularly given away for free. What threw us for a loop was that the primer seemed to do pretty great. The shorter length plus the art helped us quickly reap ten very positive reviews on Amazon’s UK site.

It looked like a really promising start for us.

Then we published the first volume of five novellas.

And it did not sell.

That was a year ago. We blamed some of it on the election upset last year and kept trying to turn it around. Facebook advertising, reaching out to folks directly, trying to get reviews. We had almost 250 followers on Facebook and several groups we could tap for more, and a few more on Twitter. We had our own personal networks. And we even launched our own product site, backed with freebies. But none of this helped.

Ask me why and I can think of a dozen reasons. Maybe more.

We really fought against labeling it as “superheroes,” focusing more and more on the science fiction elements. We dived into more grounded concerns, a formula that involved adding incredible talented people to say… the nursing profession, government bureaucracy, crime and law enforcement, the plight of the poor, and market manipulation. There were even a few modern day political points, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and police being required to use cameras.

These weren’t superheroes. They were just ordinary folks who could do something unique, and the world itself was reacting instead of the other way around.

We had serious and lasting impacts from our antics. The final story of Outliers: 2016 involved a sizable chunk of New York burning down. In future volumes, that section of the city is still very gone. And the politics of that event were still being debated. Less laser beam eyes and more modern cloak and dagger.

But I guess people took one glance, saw superheroes and didn’t look again.

What’s wrong with superheroes? Nothing, unless you’re not Marvel or maybe DC. Jon called it when he pointed out that the glutted market (especially with three companies using Marvel’s properties) makes anything one does seem derivative. Particularly when Fox came out with The Gifted, one of several in-universe terms we used to describe our Outlier characters. He described it as “a kick in the teeth.”

And speaking of terminology, Outliers was not a great choice to call our series. Search for it and the first thing you’ll discover is the book by Malcolm Gladwell. Keep digging and you’ll find The Outliers, a novel by Kimberly McCreight that was released earlier in 2016. Our efforts were a painful third.

Another big sign, one I should have watched for, was that the only people who ever seemed excited for Outliers were other authors and writers. Conversations about it drifted towards, “Can I pitch something for that?”

Yet most of them backed away when they realized that Outliers called for no small amount of homework. We weren’t big on “limitless powers,” and frequently nerfed what our protagonists could do. There were factions to develop, and sharing characters meant learning about their backstories, abilities, relationships and philosophy. Basically, every contributor was an encyclopedia in a series. And the wiki we developed to hold all this information got pretty damn big.

Joining us was buying into a creative contract. And when they realized that meant limitations, they seemed to lose interest.

In the past, a few people who were cross with me called prior works failures. I always shrugged. Those efforts never bothered me because they were trial and error, and I was always upfront about that. They were projects of learning that actually did go on to make several dozen sales. In the case of Far Worldsa couple of hundred.

But Outliers was a true failure. It sucked because most people remained silent on the matter. Folks said that they would review it, then they flaked. Not only friends but family just couldn’t be bothered. No one wanted to be honest and say, “Yeah, cool. Listen, I’m not really interested in reading that. But good luck.”

Not loved, not hated. At best, unknown. At worst, no one cared. And we’re left humbled hard by that truth as we leave our work to be trampled into dust by time.

Sigh…

…Anyway. The Outliers site is shutting down in a few days. The primer is coming off market too, and we’ll probably be retiring our social media outlets as well.

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Book Magic

outliers-volume-1It’s been a long and very exhausting two months, but we finished it at last. Outliers: 2016 is now available in paperback. Forthcoming posts on the Outlier’s main site will cover more about the actual content of the series. I’m more drawn to the technical how.

Usually when people find out about publications I do, they approach with “hey, I got a story of my own.” I’m sympathetic to people who want to tell stories, but many personal experiences have educated me in the difficulties in producing quality books. I’m certainly not trying to crush anyone’s dreams, but I do think many folks underestimate the incredible amount of labor it takes to get to print.

I’ve come to suspect that events like National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) have become more part of the problem than the solution. The event tends to promote an erroneous idea that writing a novel is easy. The timing creates a spike in material that builds slush mountains (not piles) at larger publishers, or hemorrhaging on Amazon and other self-published distributors throughout the winter.

Amazon and other services who promote NaNoWriMo do not care how much poor quality material is produced because even if only a few copies are sold to the author’s immediate family, they still make a profit. Or else they would pull the plug so fast, you’d wake up the next morning to discover indie publishing all but died overnight.

Instead, a lot of what goes into publishing is primarily about 1,001 magic tricks, such that readers never know, never spare a thought to every minor detail. To borrow from Christopher Priest…

The Pledge. 

Something ordinary, seemingly a book. These days, for a story to be exceedingly original is very rare, such that the description will sound similar to what others have written. This is fine, but there are unsaid expectations: hopes of proper grammar, punctuation, spelling, formatting, page numbers, etc, etc, etc.

The strange thing is that the more there are of these simple but professional elements, the more ordinary is the book in question. This is because of our expectations caused by prior generations of book publishing. And by applying these elements, we would not otherwise be distracted from…

The Turn. 

The pledge is the responsibility of the formatters and editors, to convince us of something grounded. But the turn, the second act in which an ordinary story does something extraordinary, that is up to the writer. The turn is the point where true magic is unveiled, when we are shown emotions that we didn’t expect to feel from reading.

Sometimes, that is to experience something in writing that we wish for ourselves.
Sometimes, that is to discover and explore an idea we had never considered.
Sometimes, that is the twists and turns of plots that subverted our expectations.

It is the most important magic, for it conjures something we never thought we could think or feel. And that is why we read until…

The Prestige.

All stories end. The extraordinary becomes ordinary again, and people have to go back to reality. Such is the demand of the natural universe.

But if the spell is good, then the magic will travel from the reader’s mind to their mouth. Emotions always want an outlet, or such we wouldn’t bother writing to begin with. And it is the goal to create something worth discussing, so that the magic can spread and live on. Thus the prestige is left to neither editor or writer, but the reader. They have to want to believe in that magic.

That’s what goes into creating a story. And I suspect, that’s more than most expected to weave.

Pardon the Life Interruptions

“Signal to noise is $%#^ed right now,” Alec said today, absolutely nailing the latest temporary problem.

Advertising our newest release has been put on pause until after Tuesday. The presidential election in the US and the rulings regarding the UK’s Brexit have been occupied the headlines, Twitter and Facebook in some nightmarish, endless loop.

coahtrMajor news outlets and comedy shows aren’t the only ones who have been benefiting. My Facebook feed is plagued with dozens of tiny political outlets and blogs on both sides, spewing quintessential mendacity and propaganda. Trenders fall into two categories: those who acknowledge the lie but fear the mentioned candidate winning, and intense, narrow-pupil zealots who are best avoided. Pondering and vexations as to the weaknesses of democracy often follow in their wake, to no meaningful conclusions.

In such times, relaxation is in order to relieve the body of stress.

Titanfall 2 with my brother offers some relief, as was the very impressive Doctor Strange. Although I enjoyed the movie as well as Netflix’s Luke Cage, my friend Adam nailed it when he said he was “Marveled out” for the rest of the year. While Marvel’s properties never fail to entertain, there does seem to be a saturation point where people need a break from even extraordinary characters, though interest often resurrects after a few months.

The entertainment industry is fickle as such. Entire genres can be tired out and placed in the cooler until such a time that they are dusted off to try again. Westerns for example, particularly those by Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood, gave us some of the best films throughout the 60s and early 70s until finally dying down. Perhaps twice a decade, the genre tried again, resulting in flicks like the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. But we are possibly on the cusp of a renaissance in other media, such as with HBO’s Westworld and the upcoming Red Dead Redemption title by Rockstar Games.

doctor-strangeStill, the Marvel property is far from dead, despite the doom-and-gloom entertainment articles which are increasing in frequency and almost always disproved. While I doubt that superhero films will become inert as a genre for quite a while, there’s definitely a limit to how much people can and do enjoy at one time. Still, Doctor Strange helps by opening the door to the mystical elements of Marvel’s properties, likely giving Marvel’s properties more longevity.

But perhaps most telling… if Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them does well, the market will learn of audience’s appetite for urban fantasy. If not, then Doctor Strange may have found people’s limits for magic on the big screen. And if the former is not a sign that people want to escape from reality for a while, I don’t know what is. So pay attention: you may learn a spell to conjure a fortune.

Jessica Jones Season 1 Review

Jessica Jones Poster

This review contains spoilers.

This reviewer has very little prior knowledge of Jessica Jones or Luke Cage, although he is familiar with the Purple Man from early-era Daredevil comics. As such, these reviews are against the material as presented on television. And on that note, Marvel’s knack for turning little known heroes and heroines into amazing small screen series cannot be understated.

Like its movies and series before, Marvel’s success continues to hinge upon top notch casting decisions. Krysten Ritter stars as the titular character, a former super hero turned private investigator with a tragic past. Ritter perfectly captures the essence of a woman tired of the altruism of the superhero gig, and has nothing to show for it but scars caused by the violent shattering of good intentions. Foul mouthed, sardonic and utterly jaded, Ritter successfully blends her comical wit and slyness from Don’t Trust the B– in Apartment 23 with the dramatic talents she proved to possess in Breaking Bad.

Most of Jones’ work involves the typical, misanthropy-inducing sleaze that comes with the occupation; gathering dirt for clients to ease their divorce proceedings. Jessica’s lowness is further highlighted by her more successful associations. These include her adopted sister, famous talk show host Trish Walker, and high-powered-high-profit Attorney Jeri Hogarth who is the source of most of Jones’ dubious clients.

However, Jessica haunts her past as much as it haunts her. She all but stalks Luke Cage, the owner of a local bar, for reasons of her own. And the rest her time is spent as inebriated as possible. Yet her path changes trajectory when she’s charged with locating a missing girl named Hope Shlottman (Erin Moriarty).

This chase eventually crosses paths with Kilgrave, better known as the Purple Man, a sociopath from Jessica’s past with the ability to control minds. Determined to hurt Jones’ for the pain of her abandonment, Kilgrave uses his powers to frame the kidnapped Shlottman for the murder of her parents.

David Tennant plays the role of Jones’ tormentor and nemesis Kilgrave. While Marvel’s movies seldom possess the time to carefully cultivate their villainy, their small screen work truly makes their bad guys amazing to behold. Just as Vincent D’Onofrio did with the Kingpin, Tennant makes the Purple Man shine with his warped sense of morality and refusal to accept responsibility for the actions partaken by those under his control. Driven by injured pride and obsession, Kilgrave returns from Jones’ past to try and reclaim what is “his.”

PosterPurpleManMarvelOne of the best elements of Jessica Jones has to be the unorthodox approach to handling the origin story. Too many comic-derived works take the Fantastic Tales approach of laying out the source of a protagonist’s abilities and heroic drive very early. And often rehashing it again and again whenever a new print starts or whenever a fresh introduction is required for new and expanding readership.

Rather, series creator Melissa Rosenberg wisely chose to wrap Jones’ past in two layers of mystery at least; the origin of Jones’ powers (to be discussed later) and Jones’ sordid history with Kilgrave and Cage, which is the center stage of this season.

For Jessica, Hope and a cast of other characters (including Eka Darville as Jones’ drug-addicted neighbor Malcolm), being a Kilgrave-survivor is a point of psychological intrigue. Kilgrave’s abilities raise unspoken questions regarding the nature of free will, as his victims are conscious and aware of their disturbing, involuntary actions, often voicing regret and remorse even as they obey. Yet the most horrible aspect of it is the sense of relief some of Kilgrave’s victims feel, assigning responsibility for their acquiesce to the man in charge. This psychological phenomenon is a carefully explored hypothetical that fairly puts the series in the realm of true science fiction.

Indeed, Kilgrave’s influence is felt absolutely everywhere and by everyone, no matter how much they try to elude him to deal with their own subplots. Those threads are a point of brilliance for the show. All the major characters are luckless enough to be caught by the Purple’s Man’s entangling web, which no one passes through without injury or consequence. And every subplot save one ties back into the centerpiece. Chekhov’s gun is observed and obeyed but the results aren’t without twists that shock and surprise.

CageOf those subplots, perhaps the highest praise could be paid to Mike Colter as Luke Cage. Like Jones, he is haunted by his past; a dead wife (at Jones’ hands and Kilgrave’s command), which led to a stint in prison where he achieved his powers of indestructibility. The original character is often classified as part of the blaxploitation era of the 70s, but care and vision had been given to the role’s reconstruction since then to stand above and beyond stereotypes.

Cage appears in roughly a third of the series, but his application moves the plot forward without overshadowing or distracting from Jones, while imparting depth and intrigue on his own. Colter’s passion for Cage has inspired this reviewer’s increased interest in the character’s forthcoming series, effectively selling it long before production finishes.

Then there’s Jeri Hogarth, portrayed by Carrie Anne-Moss. While the role was originally that of a man, Anne-Moss engaged the character with a sense of powerful rottenness that makes Don Draper of Mad Men look utterly meek in comparison. Hogarth’s story involves a tricky divorce from her wife for the love of her secretary, the strains of which grow until they are masterfully woven into the main plot. Her self-interest veers on the edge of antagonism even, such as preserving a sample of Kilgrave’s DNA for future study, even as the consequences turn karmic. Despite the tragedies that are inflicted on Hogarth, these traits are unlikely to have been erased, and one cannot help but wonder if she may become a villain.

Cage and JessicaWhile Cage provides a complicated love interest for Jones and Hogarth the professional and legal expertise, emotional support stems from her sister Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor). Grateful for Jessica’s help in escaping the clutches of their overbearing, fame-oriented mother, Trish’s attempts to aide her sister invoke the ire of Kilgrave. It’s here that Walker’s story interlaces with Officer Will Simpson (Wil Traval).

Turned into a pawn for the Purple Man, Simpson regrets his attempt on the life of the popular talk show host, and he and Trish eventually begin a relationship while the try to help Jones. A former soldier, Simpson has applicable experience for such situations. But Simpson’s extreme methods prove frictional for the women, who need Kilgrave alive to prove Shlottman’s innocence. The polarizing situation eventually drives Simpson back into the arms of a group known as TGH, who supply him with drugs that cause his combat prowess to match the intensity of his increasingly unstable demeanor. Walker’s research into this issue casts light on the mystery of the origin of Jones’ powers, hinting that TGH was responsible.

TrishThe remainder of the main plot proceeds as follows. Kilgrave’s attempts to manipulate Jessica fail, despite trying to exploit her past and Jones’ temptation to convince Kilgrave to use his powers for acts of decency. Kilgrave is eventually captured, and Jones discovers that she’s immune to his powers. Homework reveals that Kilgrave’s parents, inadvertently responsible for his abilities after trying to save his life from a disease, have been monitoring the situation from afar. Jessica involves them to build her case to the police.

Kilgrave escapes by exploiting Hogarth’s desire for an amicable divorce, but only after he slays his mother. Simpson appears later and destroys the gathered evidence, believing it folly to involve the law. Hogarth leads Kilgrave to her wife, who is a doctor, in order to treat a wound. Through Hogarth, Kilgrave learns of the fetus (of which he is the father) that was taken from Shlottman and preserved for study. Disgusted, Kilgrave leaves Hogarth to face the vengeance of her wife, but is saved by her secretary. Freeing Shlottman by coercing a DA, Kilgrave offers the girl in exchange for his father Albert. However the deal goes sour for Jones. Shlottman takes her own life as Kilgrave escapes with his father.

Let’s pause in the recap for a moment. If there was any weakness in Jessica Jones, it was here in the tenth episode. Kilgrave’s final escape risked being one chase too many, one dangerous step beyond the limits of audience’s interest, fractured by the wasted efforts of Jones, Hogarth and Trish to prove Shlottman’s innocence. And for many viewers, the scene was nearly as heartbreaking as a murder in Game of Thrones. Although the final three episodes rebound the desire to continue, this particular episode felt prolonged and almost needlessly tragic. These two factors made the tenth episodes “AKA 1,000 Cuts” the most difficult to watch.

NukeThe skills of Kilgrave’s father are harnessed to improve his son’s abilities, while Simpson’s volatility proves too dangerous. Trish and Jessica are forced to subdue Simpson, who disappears. Kilgrave proves the depth of his new-found power by deeply programming Luke Cage to lure Jones into his trap.

After rendering Cage dangerously unconscious with a shotgun blast to the face, Jones enlists Nurse Temple (Rosario Dawson) to keep her friend alive while Jones and Trish pursue the Purple Man. With no choice and no one left to defend, Jessica tricks Kilgrave into getting close before snapping his neck. Hogarth uses the implausibility of the circumstances to get Jessica off the hook legally. After regaining consciousness, Cage flees. Jones is alone again with only Malcolm, while Trish, given aide by her mother, begins researching TGH…

Jess-Jones-PosterHowever, the plot line involving TGH was the aforementioned mystery that remains unresolved for now. The second season hasn’t been announced as of yet as Marvel’s The Defenders likely takes priority. However, it’s not impossible that Jones’ may make appearances in Luke Cage or the second season of Daredevil between now and then.

Compared to DaredevilJessica Jones feels the more superior show by a few increments. Daredevil was somewhat handicapped by the sheer number of villains it was saddled with, and had many faces and story lines to introduce or at least hint at, both for its own sake as well as setting up the forthcoming miniseries. Jones was more free to explore the character and her yarns against 1.5 villains, and as a result handled its material slightly better.

If the first season of Daredevil has taken care of all the heavy lifting, and Jessica Jones is any indication of what to expect from now on, then we have a lot to look forward to from Marvels’ television studios.

Daredevil and Such

MARVEL'S DAREDEVIL

Yes. I’ve joined them. The ranks of those peculiar tele-vegetarians…

I cut cable.

And I don’t mean I’ve taken Rob Lowe’s now off-the-air advice and gotten Direct TV. I mean my television is now provided by Netflix, Hulu and, to a lesser extent, Amazon Prime. I’m not saying it’s been a perfect transition. I find myself aching to catch the final season of Mad Men, paying to see the very last three episodes of The Americans and reconsidering my choice for when Halt and Catch Fire returns.

The only guys who really monopolize their material is HBO, and even that’s primarily because of Game of Thrones. True Detective might join that list of too-good-to-give-away TV, but its anthological nature can make each season independently hit or miss. It’s going to take some serious work for Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn to pull together something of the caliber of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.

I’m not saying they can’t, but nihilist Rust Cohle has some very big shoes to fill as a complex and deep character. I actually look more forward to True Detective than Game of Thrones, in that with the latter I’ll always have the books. The former? Well, there’s plenty of pulp detective fiction out there, but there’s still nothing quite like it.

Oh yes. And then there’s House of Cards season 3. I got delayed in finishing it by a few weeks, and part of me knew that something was strange when the internet wasn’t quite as abuzz about it. Without spoilers, the season just wasn’t as popping as the previous two. Maybe it was because Frank Underwood’s new position as the president put him on the defensive more, and limited the scope of what he can accomplish for himself. I was delighted that a certain character makes a return, and he adds dimension and intrigue of his own. But Frank seems to be missing his bite, and when he tries to reclaim it, circumstances go badly. The ending was somehow lackluster too. I’m sure things will improve next season but we will see.

daredevil-posterWhich brings us to the jewel of the day. Marvel’s Daredevil. Relax. I have no spoilers to give away as I’m only four episodes into it. While I’ve seen enough to raise some talking points, the 13 almost-hour installments are a lot to absorb all at once. And to my surprise (and delight), they were considerably more dark than anything I’ve seen Marvel try on the screen. But be forewarned: Someone once said that although the series is darker, it is still supposed to be family friendly.

Whoever said that lied.

Daredevil has moments of gore, a little cussing, and more strongly eludes to sex. If themes were best described in colors, then Batman: The Animated Series is black and light grey, and Dexter is red. Daredevil as a series tends to blend those colors, but also lacks Dexter Morgan’s deadpan narration to lighten the mood and Batman’s resources. In fact, Batman is an interesting comparison in that topically he and Daredevil sound similar (orphans, willingly choose to fight crime, secret identities) but in every detail the two heroes are so unrelated.

If there’s one truth about superheroes that Marvel has acknowledged very well, it’s that they are not going to always be on the same page in terms of power. A God of Thunder or a billionaire in a flying armored suit are going to handle a very different set of worldly problems. Daredevil, aka Matt Murdock, isn’t on their level. In combat, his powers are useful much more conditionally useful. Murdock struggles with street soldiers, and doesn’t always come out on top of his fights. However, Daredevil’s heightened senses make for greater story telling due to the application of his gifts for investigation. And that’s the true strength of Daredevil as a television series over yet another summer blockbuster.

I have to admire a few things about Daredevil as a character. Matt Murdock, curiously enough, is religious. Roman Catholic. It’s a strong trait of his that sets him apart from almost all the other characters in the Marvel universe. He doesn’t seem to go full The Boondock Saints on us, but it sets strong tones that make him unique. He’s also blind, which effects how people treat and react to him. And at least in the original comics, his disability was an interesting, pitying element that strongly influenced his relationships, particularly with his secretary Karen Paige.

There are two factors that bug me. Again, I’m only four episodes into the series, and I get that this is a kind of slow roast, fragmented origin story so there are still things Murdock is trying to figure out. Daredevil has a hard ass attitude to criminals, I understand. But there is truly a devil-may-care attitude when it comes to the risk he poses on their lives. In the comics, the Punisher eventually challenges his morality, and the results don’t paint a clear picture. Batman has rules, and these rules made for an incredible movie. I don’t know whether this is supposed to be a set detail for Daredevil, or if it’s an issue that Murdock is going wrestle with himself over. Scenes suggest that it is, but we’ll see.

The other problem I have is proportion. The directors could seriously cut 60 seconds of action and instead use that minute to let the emotions of some moments sink in a little bit, and the show would be perfect. Most of the series’ violence occurs via fistfights that take a while, and seem to go over some allotment of time of being interesting. It’s Marvel, so there is an expectation of pulpy violence. But a good fight on television should reveal something or change the story in some regard.

There’s quite a bit more I could discuss, particularly Vincent D’Onofrio’s incredible performance as the Kingpin. But I think it’s all something to return to later once I’ve finished the series.