Two of my sci-fi novels are launching in a day and a half. I’ve been writing since I was a kid (I’m 29 now), and self-publishing since around 2011, but this is my first serious attempt to do everything by the book, no pun intended—it’s my first effort to make writing novels my daytime job, specifically by following the advice of people whose day job is writing novels.
But what does that mean, exactly? It means giving the people what they want. Whenever you look at books, movies, or TV shows, almost everything seems exactly the same. Superheroes. Action. Zombies. The main characters are doing something normal, then some sort of crisis occurs, then they’re thrown into a whirlwind of trouble, and at first things go pretty badly, but then eventually they get the upper hand and triumph in the end, having learned a valuable lesson. Even Seinfeld follows the formula; the only thing the show does differently is the last part, where the characters learn absolutely nothing and go back to making the same petty mistakes.
Anyway, inside this basic formula—wheels turning within wheels, to borrow one of Frank Herbert’s favorite phrases—is a pattern of crisis-recovery-what do we do next-crisis-recovery. For example, Luke gets attacked by the sand people (crisis), Obi-Wan rescues him (recovery), Luke heads home and finds his aunt and uncle dead (crisis), he meets Obi-Wan again (recovery), they decide to go to Mos Eisely where they run into all kinds of trouble (crisis), but they meet Han Solo…and on and on. If it’s all crisis, the audience gets overwhelmed and bored. If it’s all recovery, the audience just gets bored immediately.
If you don’t follow these formulas—if you don’t work within them to create something fresh—it seems to piss people off. Myself included. I suppose it’s because we want to believe our day-to-day efforts make a difference, but that’s just a theory without any evidence that I know of at the moment. That would be an interesting experiment for social scientists—why do we like formulaic entertainment? Do we like entertainment formulas because our lives are formulaic—rising relatively peacefully in the morning, doing battle during the day, and coming home to rest and reflect in the evening—or are our lives formulaic because we like entertainment formulas?
Some artists try to break free of the formula, but I feel like they never achieve much popularity as a result. The first movie that comes to mind is an old monster flick called Them!, about giant ants, where—spoiler alert—the hero dies halfway through the movie. Even as a kid, I was stunned by that choice. Crouching Tiger switches main characters halfway through the movie, so that’s an exceptional success, and one of the most incredible films ever made…I feel like French and Korean movies occasionally attempt to pull off stunts like that, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Then there’s always mondo cinema, like Baraka, or avant-garde films like The Color Of Pomegranates, which feature the world itself (as seen through the eyes of an alien or a medieval poet) as the main character…
My dad told me that he saw Them! around the time that it first came out. He was so terrified that he ran up into the attic and hid there for hours.
So that’s the artistic side of this massive book launch project: writing something fun that people want to read. The marketing side also requires a great deal of expertise. Are you, the author, willing to fork over a big chunk of change for an awesome cover? Are you willing to pay for an editor? Can you find a way to keep readers coming back for more? This last bit involves releasing a series, where the first book is free, and ends with a request to join a mailing list (in exchange for more free stuff that the reader presumably wants), as well as a link to the next book in the series, for which readers have to shell out a few bucks. That’s pretty much the gist of it.
This massive project is linked to another massive project: moving myself, my wife, and my two little kids to America from South Korea, where we currently reside. Things here are actually pretty awesome, if you don’t pay attention to American media, but we chose to leave for our kids education—we can’t let them get swallowed up by the Hagwon Machine.
So aside from all the logistical difficulties of moving to another country—shipping things overseas, selling and throwing away the things we don’t need, trying not to lose our minds while traveling with small children for two or three days straight—there’s the challenge of getting jobs when we arrive. My wife is a registered nurse, so no problem there, really, but as for me—what am I? A clown? Who’s going to pay for that?
I’ve lived in Korea for eight years. Say that again. Eight years. Twice as long as when I was in hippy college. Two years longer than I lived in New York City. Almost as long as I lived in Maine, as a surly youth. And when I first got here, I didn’t think I’d make it eight days (this experience is recounted in my best-reviewed book published thus far). And not a week has gone by, during that period, when I have not found myself confounded by the need to teach English to hordes of screaming children, nearly every one of whom is either passively or aggressively uninterested in learning my language.
If this new book publishing venture doesn’t succeed, I’ll probably have to go back to teaching kids. I couldn’t be more thrilled.
I guess the last thing I want to say here is a reference to David Brin, whose excellent blog I follow, and whose excellent books I greatly enjoy. In a recent blog post, he makes a reference to something he calls VAPID—Villainy, Apocalypse, Pessimism, Incompetence, and Dystopia. All lazy sci-fi follows these themes, in his mind. My two most recent books include two of them—villainy and apocalypse. Perhaps when I become a more established author I can branch out into stories where there are no villains, where life is not collapsing around the main characters, where people ardently believe in ideals (like the original Star Trek or communist propaganda blockbusters), where the main characters aren’t idiots, and where the government isn’t out to get them. Until then, though, I have to write what sells—or else it’s back to babysitting screaming children for most of my waking life—and to me it seems like people just can’t get enough of it.
Everyone complains that Hollywood superhero movies are boring and formulaic, but Hollywood would stop making them if we stopped watching.