Thursday, June 23, 2011

J.K. Rowling Joins The Revolution

J.K. Rowling's books will finally be available in eBook form this year. Now that the entire series has been released in print, she's deciding to go digital not only with eBooks, but with an enhanced experience as well. According to the press release, she partnered with her publisher Bloomsbury to produce the eBooks, which was lucky for her publisher. They've made billions on print books and will probably make billions more on eBooks and enhanced books. Before the eBooks revolution celebrates a victory, we might all wonder if authors like Rowling will keep the traditional model alive with moves like this. Because of contractual obligations, the publishers can make billions off of eBooks. What if Steven King is next? His publisher could create an enhanced version of Cujo and keep the traditional model alive. Authors who are already making billions have no interest in creating their own eBooks because they would probably rather do something else. Also, an enhanced ebook isn't easy. If you watch J.K. Rowling's video, there are some pretty cool special effects. I can't do that. Will us self-pubbers be once again left in the dirt by fancy enhanced books? Maybe.

    We might also wonder if authors are going to be selling directly from their site, will this one day end eBook distributors like Kindle. The article at said that J.K. Rowling has to have to have a distribution deal with Amazon and Apple in order to make her work available on every platform. This isn't true.  The material just has to be in the correct format, no deal necessary. Smashwords is one example. They don't have a deal with Amazon, but books can be downloaded into a Kindle from the Smashwords site.
Either way, it's an exciting time and it looks like authors and readers will be the winners in the digital revolution.  

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


 Just wanted to write a quickie about mentors. I've had a few. My first was my grandmother, Elizabeth Chater. When I was 16 I used to drive over to her house once a week so she could edit my material and give me some pointers. She had taught science fiction creative writing at SDSU and had eventually achieved Professor of Emeritus. During her time at SDSU, she had Greg Bear as a student. They formed a relationship and he even dedicated a book to her. She was the smartest person I have ever met. Her I.Q. was clocked in at 186. It was impossible to stump her when it came to grammar. She wrote and published 24 novels and countless short stories. She could write an entire book with no errors, and when submitting a book to her publisher she sometimes had to fight with editors who would introduce errors. She never once had an unkind word to say about my work, even
when it was junk. I think more mentors should be like this, rather than the drill sergeant method. I learned a lot from her. Some of her words of wisdom: "Seat of the writer, seat of the chair." And:  "Never pay anyone to read your work." I only broke this rule once, when another mentor, Stephen Womack, my screen writing teacher at Watkins Film School, suggested I submit my screenplay to the prestigious Nichols Fellowship. It was only fifteen dollars, but I felt like I was breaking my grandmother's rule. Thousands of people submit to the fellowship and it was no surprise to me that I didn't even make it to the second quarter. I was honored that my teacher thought my script was good enough to enter for the fellowship, but it was money down the drain if you ask me. David Farland says his agent charges a reading fee to keep from getting too many submissions, but apparently never collects the cash. But with all the unscrupulous contests and agents out there, I think this is a fair rule.

Another mentor was Ernest Hemingway's book A Moveable Feast. It's a memoir Hemingway wrote about his time in Paris in the 1920's, and it features the people that mentored him along the way, including Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I read it when I was 18 and it inspired me to want to be a part of my own writing community.
The best book on writing as far as I'm concerned is Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. It's beautifully impractical. Rarely does it get into the nuts and bolts of writing--it's more about the way a writer should approach his work, how to find the Zen. If a writer can find the Zen, he can write as good as anyone. As far as I'm concerned, it’s the only book writers should read. Other books focus much more on academic concerns, like John Gardner's The Art of Fiction. According to Gardner, there isn't a writer of merit who didn't graduate from college. Really? What about Ernest Hemingway, Woody Allen, William Saroyan, William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Ray Bradbury, James Cameron, Paulo Coelho, Noel Coward, Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, and tons more. (Shakespeare, Twain, Hemingway, Tolstoy arguably the greatest writers who ever lived). My favorite on this list, and another mentor of mine, is my father Kerry Chater. He spent a year at a junior college to make his father happy, but then left so he could play in a band called Gary Puckett and the Union Gap--a band that outsold the Beatles in 1968. He later went on to write five number one hits. My favorite word of advice of his is: "Do it for free, but don't do it for nothing." 

 I'm not anti-college, but I don't think it’s absolutely necessary to becoming a successful writer. See for yourself: 
Too much of an emphasis on mechanics can stifle a young writer. Write what makes you happy and worry about grammar later…or date a copy editor. That's what I did.  

Thursday, June 16, 2011

I Don't Believe You

   In the last few years I've tried to wipe the phrase "I believe" from my vocabulary, but it's not easy. Try it and see. I've tried to use "I think" or "I suspect" instead of "I believe." Before forming an opinion, I try as hard as I can to collect all the information, to look at all viewpoints. What I believe shouldn't matter. Something is either true or it isn’t. Before you throw me a parade, you may want to read this: I think it may be impossible to be totally objective. I'm starting to come to the conclusion that all of us are predisposed to certain viewpoints.  It's just in my nature to be more open-minded when it comes to religion, to be more stubborn when it comes to traditional forms of learning, and to run to the rescue as soon as I see someone bullied, despite the fact that I've been told time and time again to stay out of it. So how do we all get along if we are predisposed to certain types of thinking? Are we all wrong? Are we all right? Can we change?
    Let's take a lesson from well-crafted characters. Their beliefs and emotions are what drive a story. One character believes we should be free of religious persecution, another believes that we should be free of religion. One says guns are good, another says that peace is the only way, and is willing to kill anyone who disagrees. One character says God exists, another says prove it. In the novel The Beach, a character believed in a universe big enough for every possibility. As far as he was concerned, somewhere in the universe there are different versions of you reading different versions of this blog written by different versions of me. If the universe allows for such variation in reality, why do we, or much less our characters, bother fighting for anything?
    Beliefs are powerful. When Mao came to power in China, he believed religion was the reason for all suffering throughout history. In 1943, he enacted "freedom from religion" in the Chinese constitution.  He went to war against religion, not only slaughtering the people of Thailand, but sending the Dalai Lama into exile. Here's the bizarre part: Buddhism teaches non-attachment, especially when it comes to beliefs. Buddha never once mentioned God, or any divine creator for that matter, and taught that open-mindedness was the best way to connect to the universe. Wait a second…a dictator slaughtered open-minded people to rid the world of violent belief systems?  Doesn't make sense.
    Did I say that beliefs needed to make sense?
    Of course they don't. Remember, we live in a universe where anything is possible.
    Richard Dawkins believes that beliefs are like a virus, passed from one person to the next through a Darwinian-like process known as memetics. Whether or not the information passed is true doesn't seem to matter, it can still infect you and get more virulent as it passes from host to host. He believes that this was how religion started, and how it continues to "infect" society to this day. Researchers using fMRI have shown that people praying or meditating are actually activating healthy parts of the brain. Study after study shows that religious people are healthier, are less prone to depression, and are more charitable. Not much of a disease. So who is right?
    A character with certain beliefs will sometimes act in predictable ways, but the character that losses the fight, the girl, the competition, is the character that doesn't change. In story telling they call it character arc, when a character goes from selfish to selfless, from shy to outgoing, from closed to open. The only constant in the universe is change; therefore our characters should always question their deepest held beliefs about themselves, others, and the nature of the universe.  Had Luke Skywalker not gone from a farm boy to a Jedi who embraces the force, he would not have been able to blow up the Death Star.  Had Jerry Maguire not changed his belief that heart was more important than money in sports, he wouldn't have created the ultimate relationship with his wife and his most important client. In the reverse, had Alvy Singer been able to change, to not be an island onto himself, Annie Hall might not have left him for Paul Simon.   
    Our beliefs can make us easy targets to those who wish to manipulate us. Every character faces this dilemma. In the movie "The Fourth of July," Tom Cruises' character enlists in the army to go fight in Vietnam because he believes fighting for his country is the moral duty of every citizen. By the end of the movie, he came to the realization that he had allowed himself to be manipulated because of this rigid belief system. For some people, beliefs can't even be questioned, much less challenged, without them reacting violently. For others the scientific model seems like the most peaceful resolution--that by showing empirical data you can prove a belief. But what scientists don't understand is that some people won't change their minds even when given irrefutable evidence!  That's just the nature of belief. It can trump fact.
     At one time, Einstein's relativity was doubted. Now it's widely accepted, yet there are no more than a handful of people in the world who truly understand Einstein's equations. Why then do we all believe it? The same holds true for climate change. Why is there even an argument? Science should present its case and that should be the end of it. But a lot of people have formed their decisions based on what their political leaders have told them to believe, or on their emotions, or on popular perception. But believing in something doesn't make it true, and not believing in something doesn't make it false. Newton decided that gravity makes us stick to the planet. Would it matter if I didn't believe him? Would I suddenly float away? It's either true or it isn’t.
   As writers our characters are probably better off not being so open-minded.  The only thing we need to know as writers is that the only constant is change. Our character can have beliefs we don't share, can come to conclusions no normal person would, but if our characters don't change, the reader won’t care about them. They may agree with them about climate change, but agreeing with a character isn't the same as liking them or relating to their journey…or being interested in their plight. 
    When it comes to my personal beliefs, I live by these wise words:  The truth needs no defense, and given time the truth will prevail.
    When it comes to my characters, I go by these wise words: Conflict drives a story, and a character that doesn't change will be boring.     

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Suggestion To the Scientific Community on Artificial Intelligence: Stop Making Robots That Want To Fucking Kill Us.

In my novel, The Traveler's Companion, the CIA has put an artificial brain inside a cloned female body. Its name is Angela, and she will make you fall in love with her. She will not love you back. She does not have consciousness. She only does what the CIA programs her to do, which is sucker you into thinking she's the love of your life. Then you're toast.
  When I was researching the book, I had to ask myself the basic questions: Could a man love a machine and could a machine love a man?
   The conclusion I came to was that a man could fall in love with a machine…for a time. We've all fallen in love under false pretenses: characters in books, actors playing roles, people lying to us, our own image of a person rather than the real person (e.g. a screen name).  But sooner or later we realized the love wasn't real. We were duped, sometimes by ourselves. It was all in our head. It's just a part of what makes us human.
   I also concluded that a machine could not love a man.
   Why not?
   There are lots of books, movies, and video games out there that predict the end of humankind from artificial intelligence: Terminator, Robot Apocalypse, iRobot, Star Trek's Borg, to name a few. Vernor Vinge coined the term "singularity" (popularized by futurist Ray Kurzweil), which quite literally means "intelligence explosion," a point of super-intelligence brought about by enhanced drugs or from a computer/human interface. It's also sometimes defined as the point when computers become self-aware, when technology becomes conscious.  
   Science fiction writers have covered this arena fairly well. It's often a given in the scientific community that computers will one day become self-aware, find us illogical and unnecessary, and wipe us out completely so they can take their place on the next rung of the evolutionary ladder. The obvious question most of us have is why is science rushing to create something that may end our existence? Here's a suggestion: Don't create a fucking robot that will cause the extinction of humankind. Just a thought.  Here's another thought: what makes you think artificial intelligence will ever become conscious when we don't know what consciousness is?
   Edelman's Darwin Series robots have circuits that function similar to the cells in our bodies. These are complex machines, but are they on the verge of becoming self-aware? Does an artificial version of cell operation equal consciousness? My cells continue to operate even after I die; hair and finger nails grow even though there is no consciousness to power it. One could argue that cells and circuits aren't that much different, but we can also agree that complex cells do not equal consciousness. We might also agree that intelligence has nothing to do with consciousness. Some people are smarter than others. It doesn’t mean that smarter people are more conscious, they just have brains that are wired differently. If Watson can beat me at Jeopardy, does that mean he is more conscious than I? A hammer can nail better than I can, but that doesn't mean it's more alive. A calculator can do math faster and better, but I'm not worried it's going to smarten up and turn me into a slave. Yes, I know calculators are different than quantum computers. I know that there are artificial intelligence programs that are being written that can gather information, copy it, select it, and replicate it. But it does so because we told it to. Maybe we were programmed by evolution in a similar manner, but does that programming include spontaneous decision making?    
   Futurist Jacque Fresco imagines a beautiful world where people live in harmony with nature in ecofriendly communities where disputes are handled by a central computer. The computer settles conflict using the scientific model, predicated on the idea that people only argue in the absence of empirical data. He believes the failing of any social system is human opinions. Facts should rule. Empirical data solves all arguments. You wouldn't argue with your butcher about whether or not the meat you were buying was exactly a pound if he put it on a scale and it read 16 ounces. Fresco believes all disputes could be settled this way. But first the computer would have to be programmed. We'd all have to decide how to program it. Abortion legal or illegal? Drugs? Religion? Free Speech? If the computer decides on these issues, how do we know it will decide in a way that leads to peace? Is peace even possible in a world that is driven by conflict? Even science has to admit, conflict keeps things going, it keeps the sun burning, it keeps nature alive, it allows humans to grow and form stronger relationships. Why would we design a computer to ruin all our fun?      
   We'd first have to agree, in order for a computer to agree with us. If we program it to be pro-life, then it will rule out abortion. If we tell it that killing is the best way to stop crime, then it will kill. Will it be able to make moral judgments based on data? Maybe. But we might not agree with the judgments. A computer may regard humankind morally corrupt in nature and therefore try to kill us off. Humans mess up the environment, fight each other, and cause suffering; why would a computer want us around? Animals aren't always nice to each other either. Should they go too? What about plants? They can be nasty when provoked. Would computers find them illogical or irrelevant?  If getting rid of conflict was the answer, then computers would have to get rid of everything. But competition fuels evolution. Destruction clears the playing field for new things. The only thing that doesn't fit in the natural world is a computer. It might realize this one day and annihilate itself.
   Before you go to Radio Shack and get your anti-artificial intelligence dematerializing ray gun, let's try to figure out what consciousness is. We don't want Angela to fool us into thinking she's something she's not.   

Sunday, June 5, 2011

All the Editor's Men: Why is the Publishing Industry Putting Out Poor Quality EBooks?

For the last several months I've been reading about poor quality eBooks put out by major publishers. A lot of bestselling authors are complaining. How hard is it for industry professionals to learn or God forbid hire someone to proof and format an eBook? Why is it that top selling authors are fielding complaints from their readers that their eBooks are full of typos and formatting mistakes? My girlfriend and I formatted my book for Smashwords in about an hour, same for Amazon. We made it into Smashwords' premium catalogue on the first try, so someone please tell me why the big 6 can't do it. Could it be that they're doing it intentionally? Could it be that they want eBooks to appear of lesser quality? Could it be that they're worried that eBooks will become the preferred format for readers and thereby make their jobs obsolete? The answer is yes.
    Imagine you got a call from a big publisher and they want to make your dream come true and publish your book. A year later you go online to check it out and it looks like a fourth grader edited it. Now imagine you’re a bestselling author who's been banging out the hits for decades and your eBooks look like you don't even know basic grammar. Too bad, you signed the contract. You get no say in how your book is distributed. SOL.
    In the next few months, the transition from traditional publishing to digital is going to get more and more precarious for the big 6. By fudging with the numbers of author royalties, as well as trying to make eBooks appear inferior, they have hastened their own demise. How long will it take until traditional publishing becomes what self-publishing used to be: a colossal waste of time and money, career suicide, and a sure bet you'll never see a penny? I'm betting it's going to be months instead of years. I'll make a prediction that traditionally published print books, even though they still get (so they say) 80% of readers, will represent less than half of the readership by the end of 2011. A bold statement, you say? At the Digital Book World conference in January, industry analysts speculated that eBook sales would increase to 50% of publishing revenues within five years. Then why do I say less than a year? First, because they haven't yet figured out (or they are intentionally ignoring) self-published sales. On the Amazon bestseller list, 49 out of 100 are from self-published authors. These numbers are ignored by the APA (American Publishing Association) for now, but pretty soon someone's going to figure out how to track self-pubbers and it's going to shock the shit out of everyone.
    Secondly, blogs like this one. Writers sharing horror stories are going to scare would-be authors right into the arms of Mark Coker. Best-selling authors are already jumping ship. Others will follow suit.
    When Dave Wolverton says you'd be better off doing it yourself, and everyone agrees with him, it's only a matter of time before traditional publishing will seem silly. Some writers are advising to pursue both avenues, traditional and self-publishing, but that's difficult when rumors are circulating that agents who want to be publishers are putting clauses in contracts that take away author erights. Why do they want these rights so badly? Because self-publishing these days is sending agents and publishers the way of the dinosaur.
    I started out this blog by encouraging authors to take the leap into self-publishing, but it might not be a leap much longer. It may be the only game in town.  
    What do you think?