Category Archives: metaphysics

memento mori

I don’t follow professional sports too closely, but I wound up watching this documentary on Netflix about millionaire athletes who go bankrupt, and it was pretty interesting.

The ancient Romans used to have this ritual called a triumph, where a victorious general would essentially get a parade through Rome, riding in a chariot followed by prisoners from his wars and tokens of his victory. But in the chariot also rode a slave who whispered into the general’s ear “remember that you are mortal and you shall die.”

Perhaps the NFL should do something similar. 🙂

-JM

an article that offers bad advice

This article offers very poor advice. Key quote:

Here’s the problem with self-publishing: no one cares about your book. That’s it in a nutshell. There are somewhere between 600,000 and 1,000,000 books published every year in the US alone, depending on which stats you believe. Many of those – perhaps as many as half or even more – are self-published. On average, they sell less than 250 copies each. Your book won’t stand out. Hilary Clinton’s will. Yours won’t.

So self-publishing is an exercise in futility and obscurity. Of course, there are the stories of the writers who self-publish and magic happens and they sell millions of books, but those are the rare exceptions. How rare? Well, on the order of 1 or 2 per million.

This is a tremendous logical fallacy, and I hear it over and over again about self-publishing.

Yes, you’re not going to sell a million books. But so what? There are many, many numbers between 0 and 1,000,000 and many of them are good numbers. Selling 100 books is pretty good. Seriously, what higher compliment can someone give your book than paying actual cash money for it? Especially in this craptacular economy?

By the article’s logic, if an unemployed man can’t land a job as a Fortune 500 CEO, he shouldn’t attempt to look for a job. Or if a man can’t run a marathon, he shouldn’t attempt to exercise at all.

Actually, now that I think about it, that’s very common logic.

But that kind of thinking is a tremendous self-limitation, and should be avoided. Do not make the perfect the enemy of the possible. The perfect would be nice, but the possible is usually pretty sweet.

-JM

(found via The Passive Voice)

Traditional publishing is like Super Mario Brothers, and self-publishing is like The Sims

I’ve noticed that a lot of writers, whether veterans or just starting out, have a difficult time wrapping their heads around self-publishing ebooks. Or, more specifically, the mindset of self-publishing ebooks. Like, many writers want someone to set goals for them – someone to offer a Seal of Approval and say that the plot is good enough, the editing is good enough, the sales are good enough, and the book is therefore good.

I realized you can also see this quality is in recent college graduates. After all, in the modern Western world, a kid typically spends 18 years in some form of schooling or another before he’s released upon the world, and this transition from school life to real life is often a massive shock. In school life, everything is regulated, and there is a set of orderly and defined goals – pass this class, pass this paper, advance to the next level. In real life, by contrast, you can do pretty much whatever you want so long as you don’t get arrested and can cope with the consequences. And some people just cannot wrap their minds around that – interestingly, it’s often the kids who excelled academically who have the hardest time dealing with life outside of school. The same sort of dynamic, I think, is at work in writers who have a hard time dealing with self-publishing.

In other words, traditional publishing is Super Mario Brothers, and self-publishing is The Sims.

Super Mario Brothers is a side-scrolling, linear game. In his quest to rescue Princess Peach from King Koopa, Mario runs left-to-right through a world full of things trying to kill him, hoping to reach the castle where the Princess is held prisoner. Except at the end of almost every world, the castle instead holds this talking humanoid toadstool who informs Mario that “the princess is in another castle.” In the original NES Super Mario Brothers, Mario had to go through seven freaking castles before he got to the end of world eight, which finally held the Princess. Needless to say, only the terminally bored or the highly obsessive-compulsive ever got to the end of Super Mario Brothers.

This is a lot like how traditional publishing worked. Submit work to the agent, and get back the letter informing you that the princess is in another castle. Send out books and articles in cold submissions, and get back the letter telling you that Princess Peach is still in another castle. Keep at it long enough, and eventually you will find the Princess. And then it’s time to start looking for the next Princess – but make sure she’s 90,000 words long, and has a capable female protagonist, and shapeshifting sex wereotters because those are hot right now, and be sure to write the book in one specific genre, as well.

So traditional publishing, like Super Mario Brothers, is very linear, with a lot of talking Toadstools of Disappointment in princess-free castles.

Self-publishing is more like The Sims. The Sims is a “sandbox game”, which means that it’s not linear and there are no stated victory conditions, like rescuing the Princess or finding the TriForce or defeating the dread dragon Alduin or whatever. In The Sims, you control a simulated person, a Sim, and you can do…pretty much whatever you want. If you want to turn your Sim into a hard-driving career man, you can do that, or have kids, or expand your Sim’s house, or turn your Sim into a bum who sits around all day watching Sim Oprah…you can do that, too. There’s no princess to rescue, and you can do whatever you want.

Self-publishing works a lot like that. Have a 600,000 word fantasy epic? Go for it. Or a string of 45,000 word romantic novels? You can do that, too. A detailed guide describing how to clip your toenails? No one will stop you. You can do whatever you want for cover art, editing, layout, plot, and topic…and there is no final authority to tell you whether you are winning the game or not.

The thing is, there are people who find The Sims infuriating. There’s no plot, no goals, no quests, no point! You see a similar reaction with writers settling into self-publishing for the first time as they wrestle with the realization that there’s no official Princess to rescue from  King Koopa’s castle – save for whatever goals you set your yourself.

And that, I believe, is the key to self-publishing: the realization that no one is going to set goals for you, but that you must set them for yourself.

-JM

How Dr. House Helped Me Lose 135 Pounds

Today I’m going to tell you how Dr. Gregory House, fictional nihilist, helped me lose 135 pounds.

See, I used to weigh 135 pounds more than I do now. This was because a.) I ate too much, and b.) did not exercise. I was fully cognizant of both these facts, but I simply did not care. I loathed organized athletics, and really liked junk food. In those days, a meal for me would have been large fries, a Big Mac, a 10-piece Chicken Nuggets, and a large Coke. This was gluttonous excess, but it did not trouble me in the slightest. In fact, I told myself, throughout most of human history, most people have starved. So, really, shouldn’t I be thankful to be 135 pounds overweight?

Granted, in hindsight this is an obvious rationalization, but at the time I believed it. We can lie to no one like we lie to ourselves.

So, at night, when I settled down with my bag of popcorn, my can of ginger ale, and my plate of cheese sticks (they’re a LOT better if you cook them in the oven instead of the microwave), I would watch things on Hulu, because Hulu is free, and eventually “House, MD” caught my attention.

“House, MD”, if you’ve never seen the show, is about the titular Dr. Gregory House, a genius diagnostician who has Sherlock Holmes levels of observation acuity and deductive prowess. Unfortunately, House lost a major chunk of his right leg to a blood clot, and consequently walks with a cane and has a Vicodin addiction to keep the pain manageable. House is also a tremendous jerk, and much of the show revolves around House’s efforts to free himself from his chronic misery. (He usually fails.) But despite his self-destructive habits, he almost always manages to save his patient in the end.

I found the show fascinating, because I saw a bit of myself in House. Not a great deal, certainly – I don’t have a cane, a Vicodin addiction, I’m not a nihilist or an atheist, and I don’t have a team of attractive young assistants to help me (alas). But I do have a day job that revolves around solving puzzles, and like House, I had always preferred the intellectual realm over the physical (see the “loathing for organized sports” above). So I watched the show with a good deal of fascination.

Then the bad habits caught up to House.

Towards the end of Season 5 (this would have been April and May of 2009), he began hallucinating due to years of Vicodin abuse. At first he thought the hallucinations would be a convenient way to tap in the processing power of his subconscious mind. Once this almost led to the accidental death of a coworker, House tried to ignore the hallucinations. But they grew worse, until he could no longer tell reality from delusion. To fix the problem, he locked himself in his apartment with his longtime love interest Dr. Cuddy and attempted to detox off Vicodin. After 24 hours, he was successful, and fell into bed with Dr. Cuddy (who apparently is not all that bright).

The next day House went to work to enjoy his new, drug-free life and continue his relationship with Dr. Cuddy…

…only to realize that none of it had happened. He had hallucinated all of it. He had spent the night, and most of the following day, overdosing on Vicodin, and the hallucinations had grown so intense that he literally could not remember taking Vicodin, nor could he stop himself from doing so.

The Season 5 finale ended with House limping into a mental hospital, his career and life in ruins.

And holy crap did that freak me out. It shook me the way that few pieces of art, whether books or movies or games or whatever, have ever done.

Because, I wondered, what if that was me? Like House, I valued the mental much more than the physical. Except the body is the house (bad pun) of the mind, and the condition of our body affects the mind much, much more than we would like to admit.

For a while I had had the uneasy feeling that something wasn’t quite right. And what if, I realized, what if it was the overeating? Was it going to catch up to me the way Vicodin had caught up to House? After thinking about it for a few months, I concluded that I should try to change (and that overeating had probably warped my life in other ways), and so I decided to try and lose weight. (More details of that can be found here.)

I suspect not many people are inspired to major life revelations from a medical soap opera, but I suppose I’ll take what I can get. 🙂

-JM

extreme weight loss is like writing

This is an extended metaphor, so bear with me.

I lost about 135 pounds (from 320 to 185) via diet and exercise over the course of a year from 2009 to 2010, and so far have kept it off for just over two years. So someone sent me this article from the New York Times, and I saw myself in it. Specifically, this part:

But their eating and exercise habits appear to reflect what researchers find in the lab: to lose weight and keep it off, a person must eat fewer calories and exercise far more than a person who maintains the same weight naturally. Registry members exercise about an hour or more each day — the average weight-loser puts in the equivalent of a four-mile daily walk, seven days a week. They get on a scale every day in order to keep their weight within a narrow range. They eat breakfast regularly. Most watch less than half as much television as the overall population. They eat the same foods and in the same patterns consistently each day and don’t “cheat” on weekends or holidays. They also appear to eat less than most people, with estimates ranging from 50 to 300 fewer daily calories.

Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, says that while the 10,000 people tracked in the registry are a useful resource, they also represent a tiny percentage of the tens of millions of people who have tried unsuccessfully to lose weight. “All it means is that there are rare individuals who do manage to keep it off,” Brownell says. “You find these people are incredibly vigilant about maintaining their weight. Years later they are paying attention to every calorie, spending an hour a day on exercise. They never don’t think about their weight.”

Yes. I have recorded every single thing I have eaten since July of 2009, and ideally I try to have no more than 1800 to 2000 calories. I weigh myself every day, and I record it. (I used to keep a notebook, but I switched to Evernote a while back and find it much more convenient.) I go the the gym at least five times a week (running outside isn’t rigorous enough, plus there are too many blasted dogs without leashes) and run four miles. Every day I do four sets of 35 pushups, and my goal  is eventually to be able to do 100 in a single set.

The point of this recitation isn’t to brag, or to say “look at me, calorie sinners, and feel bad about yourselves!” Besides, the idea that physical fitness equates to virtue is both insipid and facile, despite what every magazine at the supermarket checkout will tell you. No, the point is that if I stop doing all that, I’ll gain the weight back very quickly. I think it would only take about two months or so.

All this is hard, but it does get easier. Or a more accustomed part of one’s mental landscape. I remember in March of 2010, a Little Caesar’s opened in my town, and I wanted to buy a pepperoni pizza and eat the entire thing, as was often my favored meal of choice when I was younger. I circled the block nine times before I managed to make myself go home. It was this bizarre intense physical craving, almost like drug withdrawal. It happened a few other times in 2010 and 2011, but almost never now. In fact, my new apartment is a block from that Little Caesar’s, and I drive past it on my way to work with nary a thought. So it stays hard, but you can get used to hard.

So how does this relate to writing?

People used to ask me if losing all that weight was hard, and I’d say yes, but it was still easier than trying to get published. They’d laugh because it was funny, but I was telling the truth.

See why I like electronic self-publishing so much? It’s easier than both traditional publishing and extreme weight loss! Win-win.

In practical terms, I suspect it also explains why I took to the rigorously disciplined methods of weight loss describing in the NYT article. I had been writing unsuccessfully for a number of years, and it turns out applying that discipline to another area of my life was effective.

This also carries over to self-publishing. I’m working on the rough draft of SOUL OF SORCERY now, and in one month I wrote 86,000 words. I could have done more, but short of neglecting important areas of my life, I don’t think I could have pulled it off. For some writers, that would be a daunting amount in a month. I’m not going to say it was easy – it wasn’t – but it wasn’t particularly difficult. I’ve been attempting to write seriously since I was fifteen, and in that time I’ve built up the skills and discipline that let me write 86,000 words in a month. The practice to get to that point – that was the difficult part.

I suppose the point of all this is that to do anything successfully – lose weight or write a book or whatever – takes work, work, work. A commitment of time and energy, every day. A “am I willing to do this every day for the rest of my life” level of commitment.

I’ve come to find that I like the level of self-discipline involved. At the very least, I don’t feel like I’m going to die after the first flight of stairs any more, and we’ll have a new DEMONSOULED book before the end of October.

-JM

Elf Opera

John C. Wright has another excellent essay on magic and Christianity and morality in fantasy fiction.

Specifically, he argues that there are three kinds of fantasy – hard fantasy, which works off real moral and supernatural principles (in that communicating with spiritual entities other than God is a bad idea and leads to all kinds of evils), in much the way hard science fiction works off real scientific principles. Soft fantasy, which does not, and fudges a bit – you can have good magicians and evil magicians. And Elf Opera, where the magic is simply a backdrop to get on with some good old-fashioned orc-bashing.

(In my heart of hearts, I think I would like to write Elf Opera.)

But of my books, I think Demonsouled and Soul of Tyrants are soft fantasy – they have both good wizards and bad wizards, and good magic and bad magic. However, I’m almost done with the 3rd book, Soul of Serpents, and at least part of the book takes a sharp turn into hard fantasy territory, when the well-intentioned (but nonetheless bad) decisions of a particular magic-using character catch up to him in a remarkably unpleasant way. (I suppose this reflects a decade’s worth of changes in my own thinking – I wrote Demonsouled in 2001, Soul of Tyrants in 2005, and Soul of Serpents this year.)

By contrast, the Caina short stories and books – Child of the Ghosts and Ghost in the Flames – are hard fantasy. During her adventures, Caina does not meet a single good sorcerer, and the scope of their malevolence ranges from cruel bullying to mass genocide for the sake of power. The closest thing to a good sorcerer that Caina meets is Septimus Rhazion in the Ghost “choose your own adventure” stories, and Rhazion’s potential for evil is limited by his motivation. He doesn’t want to rule the world or become immortal – he simply wants to save his daughter. Still, he’s not a particularly nice guy – his attempt to use forbidden powers to save his daughter results in the deaths of several innocent people.

My inclination is to believe that anyone with supernatural or superhuman powers will almost certainly abuse them. That said, I suppose the source of the power matters considerably – power obtained illegitimately will result in the destruction of the user. Look what happened to Julius Caesar, after all – and that was only political power!

-JM

the juvenility of nihilism

Since I have the day off, today I read the self-published short story collection of a New York Times bestselling author. (I’m not going to say who, since I’m getting too blasted old for Internet flame wars.) I thought a third of the stories were excellent, a third were indifferent, and a third bad.

Really, really bad.

Not in a technical or storytelling sense, mind. All the stories had sharply drawn characters and interesting plots. But in a moral sense, the stories were just terrible. People did bad things, or had bad things happen to them, and were left diminished by them, and that was the point of the story. The final story of the collection, in particular, was very bad in that sense (as well as being based upon some of the worse popular myths about the Middle Ages, sort of the like taking George Washington and the cherry tree and insisting upon it as historical fact).

There seems to be this idea that really Grown-Up, Serious Adult Writing must be utterly bereft of hope and take the bleakest view of things. That it must show morality is only based upon circumstances, that in the end, people are (to quote a sitcom) “bastard-coasted bastards with a bastard filling”.  Or, in other words, that people are mostly dumb animals defined by their appetites. And that this view of life is the only realistic one. It’s like that bit towards the end of CS Lewis’s “The Screwtape Letters” when Screwtape tells Wormwood to make the patient feel that he has at last seen the true nature of the world after viewing human remains plastered across the wall in the aftermath of a Nazi bombing raid.

The problem is that this perspective is terribly juvenile. It is the mindset of an adolescent who has not yet defined himself, and so attempts to construct an identity by criticizing everything. (I know whereof what I speak, since that was me for about thirteen years or so.) Lots of horrible, horrible things happen to people, but that’s not all that ever happens. Good things happen to people, too.

And even people who have horrible things happen to them don’t always fall apart, don’t always get continually worse. Nobody in their right mind wants to suffer, but people are not always diminished by their suffering. Sometimes people are made better by their pain.

Life sucks. No one in their right mind denies that. But life doesn’t just suck.

-JM