Writers vs. Authors vs. Scammers

I keep thinking about the argument of writer versus author, and then saw this interesting news item about a scammer who made millions publishing junk ebooks on Amazon:


The summary is that a guy set up a small empire publishing hack e-books about homesteading, weight loss, vitamins, healthy lotions, and whatever Whole Foods-oriented how-to garbage would attract clicks. The scam used multiple fake authors and an army of fake customer accounts. He would then game the system with a network of fake reviews, and set the books for free and mass-download them to up the ratings. He carefully hid his tracks through the Tor network, and when a book got reported and banned, he would re-title it, and have another fake author release it with a new cover.

I think most writers have different reactions to this, but it’s a mix of two base thoughts: either “I waste all my time writing and publishing real books and some asshole publishing fake books on vegan child care is making tons of money gaming the system, this is bullshit” and “why am I not gaming the system, maybe not to this level of scamminess, but it sure would be nice to get some traffic.”

I think the best reaction to have, for me, and one that I don’t have, is something like “all of this is meaningless, and who cares how these scammers are destroying the industry, because I write to write, not to make a buck or get fame.” But it’s hard to think this way in a world where you have to pay to keep a roof over your head, and I think a lot of writers are somewhere on the spectrum of this being important, and make some ethical sacrifice towards this.

I’ve struggled with the “writer versus author” argument, and I feel like I need to invent a new set of terms, because these don’t seem quite right. But I think there’s a difference between people who write whatever they write because it is their passion or their lot in life, versus people who write to sell. That’s not to say genre writers who research what to write based on market trends can’t be passionate about their work, and people writing literary fiction can sell their work or modify it to meet market demands to some extent. It’s probably a spectrum, and writers make ethical or business decisions that push them in one direction or another on this range.

What makes me think about this is that the scammer in the article has made many decisions that are to the full-blown extreme of writing to sell. And when I read self-publishing help sites, all of these tactics about gaming the system are discussed to some extent. These sites talk about the importance of covers, how to title your work to get maximum reach, the use of pseudonyms, how to pick categories and add keywords and get reviews and whatever else. They are not as extreme as what this scammer did, but they are all things that aren’t related to writing, or the art of writing.

The thing that gets me is that this scammer chose books, but not because they enjoyed writing or making a connection with the reader at all. I’m not even sure if he actually wrote the books; he could have paid someone on Fiverr to do it. And it could have been anything other than books. The same tactics could have been used to sell nutritional supplements or baseball caps drop-shipped from China. And I sometimes feel that way with the other writers (authors, whatever) with which I share an Amazon bookstore. My books aren’t for mass-consumption, and sure, they don’t sell like a good vampire erotica series sells. But it makes me wonder if these other writers are more interested in marketing and selling than they are about writing. When the gold rush will end, will they will all move to selling insurance or lawn furniture or prepackaged meals online, or will they be writing book that make no money?

I wrote my novels before there was a kindle, before there was a self-publishing world. If Amazon disappeared tomorrow, I would keep writing, even if it meant going to Kinko’s and paying ten cents a page to give them to friends. It’s what I did back in the nineties, and it’s what I’d do again, if it came to that. Everything else shouldn’t matter. But it still creeps in my head, especially with a new book out, ready to face the world. This is something I struggle with, and I wish I didn’t.


My new book Vol. 13 is out

I have a new book out!

TL;DR: kindle and paperback.

This book is called Vol. 13 because it is my thirteenth book, and I’m obsessed with Black Sabbath. It is 20 stories, each longer than flash fiction – the whole book is just shy of 200 pages in print.

If you read my books Thunderbird or Sleep Has No Master, it’s similar in format and content. Structurally, I think the stories are more “story-like” and slightly longer – like Thunderbird was 26 stories and 186 pages, while this was 20 stories and 196 pages. Each story is titled, which a few reviews mentioned they liked my titles even more than my stories in those books, so that tradition continues. If you want to see all of the titles, go check out the book page.

The content of the book is Konrathian. I can’t describe what I write, and that’s sort of the point. If you’ve read my stuff, you know what it is. I’ve created this sandbox of near-future post-apocalyptic ruin that’s probably getting a little too close for comfort these days, and then I set my cast of characters loose in it to wander the wasteland of pop-culture and destruction. It’s fiction, but I’m guessing that within six months, a guy with a Killdozer is going to go viral and end up with a holding deal with HBO to develop a talk show with tits, and everyone will think I’m Nostradamus. It’s happened before.

Anyway, the book is out. As always, I’m looking for reviewers or places to guest-blog or interviews, or any other help I can get to get this thing out there.

Here’s the linkage again:

  • Kindle – the book is part of Kindle Unlimited, so subscribers can read it for free.
  • Paperback – it’s in Kindle Match, so if you buy the paperback, you get the kindle version for free
  • Goodreads – go mark it as “to read” and tell all your creepy friends.

OK, that’s done. Time to start the next one.


I have a new zine out

I have a new zine out.

It is called Mandatory Laxative #14. It is about lunchables and satanism.

It is 20 pages long. It is printed on an inkjet printer. It is as lo-fi as possible. I didn’t even spell-check it.

It contains the following “stories”:

  • Pain Is Only Temporary (Unless It Is Chronic)
  • A Scene Where A Guy Goes To A Colonics Clinic, Falls In Love With The Cashier, And Almost Ends Up Shooting A Fountain Of Coffee From His Ass
  • Sleep Letter Zero
  • Letter to Freddy
  • I Am A Satanist And I Like Toast Because It Is Cult And Evil
  • Someday This Could Be You
  • I Love Lunchables
  • Late At Night With Dwight Dingleson
  • Remember the Alamo, Motherfucker
  • Two Men Discuss Low Calorie Pizza Before A Ritual Satanism Killing
  • This Knife Means Fucking Business
  • Chili Sweats at Aerie #666
  • The Inevitability of an Accidental Saline Enema

It is listed on Goodreads here.

It is not available on Amazon. It is not available as an ebook or a PDF. It’s barely available at all. It is a limited edition of about 30 copies. If you really want a copy, and you are in the US, paypal me $4 and your postal address. jkonrath at rumored.com.




Sleep Research Facility and ambient music

I’m always searching for music to listen to while I’m writing, because I can’t think and fall into the right kind of trance to dump my subconscious onto pages when extreme death metal is screaming away in the foreground. Classical music puts me to sleep, and jazz is jazz, so it’s hard to precisely nail it. I do like ambient music, as long as it isn’t too passive, and doesn’t veer off into the Yanni-esque new age shlock. All points south of classic Eno can be good, but that specific sound doesn’t imprint my brand of writing exactly the way I need it, so I’ve been looking for more.

Dark ambient, for better or worse, is closer to what I like. It contains a texture that provides a good underlying current for my work, and blocks out everything around me, yet doesn’t invade my mind in a way that would turn it in the wrong direction. Dark ambient removes from the equation the type of music a hippy-dippy acupuncturist would play in his office, which is good. The main problem with dark ambient is that it’s impossible to find a straight answer as to what it is. Ask ten people what ten bands constitute death metal, and you will get twelve highly contested answers. Dark ambient is the same. It shares distant borders with Krautrock and experimental music, and I don’t know enough about it to give you a defined answer as to who the main players are. (Maybe you should tell me.) I can tell you about a specific band I like, though.

Sleep Research Facility, the working name of Glasgow musician Kevin Doherty, has released five albums of essentially beatless dark ambient music, along different themes. The one thing in common is a dark, textured soundscape, usually without musical elements, or maybe with long, sustained chords. The name of the band relates to the work’s lack of any elements that would disturb sleep. That’s a slight peeve of mine, because it’s difficult for me to listen to dark ambient that contains extreme screeching, loud noise, and distorted shrieking voices. It’s hard to get in a trance state to work when interrupted with those elements. I’m not saying they don’t have artistic merit within a composition, and I can enjoy listening to them for the sake of listening to them, but when looking for functional music, it’s an issue.

Another challenge with creating any ambient music is having a central theme or “gimmick” or some set of tracks for the train to roll down. SRF seems to do this well, in the choice of conceptual framework. The prime example, and a good starting point, is the album Nostromo. This is a nearly 70-minute album that was inspired by the ship from the movie Alien. The album details a walkthrough of the ship from Ridley Scott’s scifi/horror movie, starting in the A-Deck, while the crew is in suspended animation, hurtling through space back to Earth. Scott meticulously detailed the ship, not as a sterile, futuristic vessel, but as a beaten, worn, working man’s craft, like a battle-damaged oil platform in the middle of the ocean. But when the crew is in stasis, prior to the computer waking them, there’s a certain calm, or anticipation in the vessel.

Nostromo starts in the A-Deck of the ship, presenting a deep-bass flow of sound, with slight electrical static and drifting sounds of machinery. It’s not like the harsh industrial sounds of the cyberpunk-influenced electronic genres of the mid-90s (I’m thinking the mechanical sounds of, say, the interstitial tracks of early Fear Factory, or even the earlier sounds of something like Front 242. (and sorry for the horrible reference points. This is very far outside my wheelhouse of musical knowledge, trying to learn here.)) Anyway, the dozen-minute tracks drift deeper into the ship, as the sounds and textures become more refined. The entire album is very dream-like and drifts seamlessly through the ship. The 2007 release contains a bonus track named “Narcissus,” which was the lifeboat escape pod of the Nostromo, which contains similar elements, although it is texturally different. You could imagine Ripley putting herself in stasis and drifting back to earth during the final track.

I listened to Nostromo constantly when I was writing He. I’d sit down to write every day, start the album on repeat, and keep it as a constant soundscape. I do this a lot when writing; for Atmospheres, I listened to the Sleep album Dopesmoker every day for at least a year. It’s not exactly ambient, but it’s an easy album to fall into.

So what album do I use for the next book? More importantly, what is the next book? Still working on that.

Anyway, check out more about SRF at their home page: http://www.resonance-net.com


The Glossary

I recently found myself back at The Big Fun Glossary, which was a point of obsession a dozen years ago. It is the story of a college-aged punk rock slacker and his band of friends living in an old farmhouse in rural Virginia in the mid-90s, told in a wikipedia-type A to Z glossary. As a person who left college in 1995 and knocked around a farm state for my formative years, I took great interest in this, and ended up ripping off the entire idea, using the rough hosted wiki software on his site to start brain-dumping my own entries into a bunch of topics. This became The NecroKonicon.

I worked on The NecroKonicon on and off for about four years, although it was really more like a sudden burst of new writing, a few years of tweaks, and then a push to freeze the topics and push it into a paper book. The book itself didn’t sell at all (or, you could say it sold as well as any of my other books.) But I got a lot of comments and mails about it. And the people who started the Bloomington wiki at Bloomingpedia.org claim my site was one of their inspirations to get their own site going.

At some point, I moved all the topics to this site and made it a bunch of static HTML pages. After the book came out, I eventually pulled the site, partly because I didn’t want to potentially undercut book sales (dumb), but there were other reasons.

Now, I sometimes wonder what I should do with the site. I sometimes think about doing more work on it: updating pages, getting better pictures, adding new topics. Or maybe the “underside” of the site needs to be changed, like moved to some wiki software, or maybe like a blog platform.

There are a few things that make me waver on doing anything with this:

  • A project like this is open-ended. Any time the glossary went off my radar, I’d get a (usually angry) email from someone, demanding correction of a topic. People love to do this. Certain people really love to do this, to a fault. It finally got to the point where I said the thing was frozen, and I would still get angered corrections. How did these people ever deal with print books? Did they write angry letters to Webster saying “NO IT’S COLOUR NOT COLOR YOU PIECE OF SHIT.”
  • I think the culture of the internet and privacy and googling one’s own name has changed a lot between 2002 and today. Many times, when I added a person’s first and last name to the glossary, I would be the only search result on the internet for their name. Most of the time, these people never noticed. But now, everyone googles for their ex-girlfriend or high school friend, and everyone is on Facebook (or was). And some people get really offended when they find out they’re online. I hated receiving takedown requests from people, partly because I felt bad about hurting or offending them, but also because it usually meant I was “friends” with them in my head, or still remembered them, and they were not friends with me, or wanted no part in the project, or felt violated, or whatever. Also, having a person involved in multiple entries, then having to backtrack and edit them out or change their name to L________ diminished the work somehow.
  • The idea of doing a “straight” project like this takes away from the amount of effort I can focus on my “main” writing, and there are only so many hours in the day.
  • I feel like I can rehash the past only so much, and need to move on. I can’t be a person thinking “hey, remember 1992?” constantly. I know people who are like this, and it disturbs me on some level. I can’t fully explain it, but being stuck in the past bothers me. I need to be creating, not dredging.

But… it still calls to me. I often think about some way of turning these old entries into some sort of fiction book, or using the framework for making a hypertext book, or something.

The other possibility is something I started doing a long time ago, I think in the first year or two of this blog (then called a “journal,” because the term blog did not exist.) At that time, I’d hard-coded in a glossary of terms, maybe because I had Infinite Jest stuck in my head, or wanted to use hypertext more. I wanted to have the ability to mention “414 Mitchell” and then go to a popup or page that contained a definition and stories about the place I lived in Bloomington for two years. But I coded this by hand, and it was a huge pain in the ass.

I’ve thought about this more, and like the idea of using WordPress shortcodes, like so a term surrounded in brackets becomes a link to a section of the web site with a bunch of pages of terms — or something. I need to think about this more. And it’s obviously something that’s a time-sink, so maybe I shouldn’t.


Sanjay Gupta and Jack Kevorkian went to the same medical school

  • I hate end-of-year lists. I didn’t even know it was 2014 for half of the year, and I can’t remember what I wrote, read, bought, or otherwise did. I published two books, and worked on two others, but you probably already know that.
  • I fell down a brief Jack Kevorkian k-hole the other day, probably because I spent too much time at the airport. I really want a copy of his jazz album. It always fascinates me when someone famous for one thing has a side-passion in something completely different.
  • This isn’t a good example, but I always found it interesting how prior to his career in blowing shit up, Ted Kazczynski was a math prodigy, and published several academic papers, mostly about boundary functions.
  • Both Kevorkian and Kazczynski went to University of Michigan.  (Not at the same time.)
  • I went to the same school as Jim Jones, Meg Cabot, and Joe Buck. (Jones was obviously before my time. Cabot lived in my dorm, I think, but I never knew her. I refuse to discuss Joe Buck.)
  • I went to Wisconsin for the holiday. I got sick. It did not snow. I’m still sick.
  • I guess a new year’s resolution, even though I hate them, is to not get sick anymore. This would probably involve jogging or something, and maybe not eating at Taco Bell four times a week.
  • A k-hole I plan to fall down, when I get off the DayQuil/NyQuil roller coaster, is Oulipo, and Raymond Queneau’s movement on constrained writing. He did this thing called A Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, which is like a paper version of those random headline generators, but from 1961. I don’t know any French, and I have no idea what I’m talking about, but it’s a good rabbit hole to fall down, maybe.
  • I have some fascination with constrained writing only because I wrote a ton of stuff just like Atmospheres, and then after the audio book and having to re-read it a dozen times, got really sick of that kind of writing, and thought I needed to write another book where the prose was much more simple. I don’t know what rules I would follow, other than to make it less manic, and maybe stop drinking Red Bull.
  • I was futzing with this app called Hemingway, which calculates the grade level of your writing and points out passive voice and stuff that’s hard to read. Most of the stuff I wrote in Atmospheres is way above the 12th grade level. I think I should just write books of lists at the 3rd grade level.
  • Not to be confused with The Hemingwrite, which is a hipster digital typewriter for about $400, and a kickstarter, which means you probably won’t get it until 2027.
  • I am about 4 for 17 on kickstarters, and just got in the mail this stupid pet camera I must have ordered in like 2011. It showed up right after we got back from vacation, so it’s sort of useless.
  • In 13 minutes, I get to take another dose of DayQuil. I’m pretty happy about that.
  • Other vague resolutions that aren’t are the usual: write more, ignore the news, lose weight, hail satan, etc. You?

Interactive fiction versus games

I’ve been thinking a lot about interactive fiction, trying to find good examples online and learn how to turn existing books into games, or write new hybrid game/books, and it’s made me consider the definition of the two.

First, I’ve been playing with this tool called Twine. It reminds me a lot of the old Hypercard, which is sadly gone. Twine essentially lets you create an interactive game by creating a bunch of little boxes or cards in its interface (they call them Passages) and then connecting them together. It uses a wiki-like syntax for creating the links. You can also use a collection of macros to do basic if/then logic and set/get variables, or you can use straight JavaScript to do more. When you’re all done authoring, it spits out the target in HTML, which you can easily host wherever.

I’d previously looked at another tool called Inform, which produces a compiled output that can run on a z-machine. Back in the Infocom days of Zork and other programs, they used the z-machine format for text-based games. Now, you can get a z-machine interpreter for just about any platform (including phones) and can play old games like Zork, or a multitude of other games that have since been authored.  (Although playing a game that involves a lot of typing is not that great on a touchscreen phone.)  For me, Inform was a bit of a dead end, because hosting a z-machine game on the web isn’t that intuitive (there are applets and whatnot, but it’s a huge pain and a slightly clunky end-user experience) and learning how to develop something in Inform has a massive learning curve.

As I thought about this, there were a bunch of different types of games or fictions possible with these tools. And in trying to differentiate them, I started thinking about them along three (or four) different axes.

First, there’s the content-per-page axis. Think of a conventional book: it’s got chapters, which vary in size, but are usually a few or a few dozen pages long. In a paper book, where you’re deeply immersed, that’s an okay chunking of the content. Contrast that with a game like Zork, and you’ve got maybe a sentence of content at once. You aren’t thrown long passages of paragraph after paragraph; you are presented with maybe a sentence or two between commands.  (If you don’t remember, here’s a video.)  On a web-based piece of Interactive Fiction, there’s going to be a sweet spot between those two. You want the person to be immersed into what you’re doing, but you don’t want to present them with ten thousand words of scrolling.

Second, there’s the linearity axis.  A conventional paper novel is completely linear: chapter 1, chapter 2, and so on. A choose-your-own-adventure book is a typically a tree structure – here is a great example of one. There’s no real outer bound on this axis, except that you can get more and more insane with the number of nodes, choices, choices per node, and endings. And you can loop. Go dig up an old C343 computer science book and read up on depth and breadth for more info. But there’s going to be a sweet spot there, too. The old Bantam Books CyoA books were bound by their published length, about 120-140 some pages. On the web, there’s no such limitation, aside from the reader’s patience.

(Also a note on linearity: just because a book isn’t having you make choices, doesn’t mean it’s not further down the linearity axis. Even the most rudimentary plotted books are sometimes jumping between the main story and a B story. Fiction can start at the end and work backwards, or jump around, even within a linear book. And things like footnotes and endnotes give you the ability to “jump” to the side for a moment to give you some side info. And you’ve got stuff like Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Cortzar’s Hopscotch, which make Zork look almost linear.)

Third, there’s the game logic axis. Printed novels have no game logic; there are no variables, no javascript, no programming. A game like Zork has a ton of game logic: you have inventory, there are combat rules, things happen at random times, and so on. A dungeon crawler text adventure could be entirely dynamic, spitting out a new map every time you came.

There’s also potentially a fourth axis, which is the presentation level. Books are text, maybe some images.  You could add in more styling, graphics, sound, video, and so on.  If you want to go whole-hog, consider a printed book versus the presentation in a Grand Theft Auto game.

All of this has me pondering what to do for a book like this. The simplest thing would be to take one of my linear novels, like Summer Rain, and make it web-based; a web page per print page, and maybe add in some pretty pictures. That’s pretty boring, and useless – you could just go download the Kindle version. The next level would be taking something like Rumored and arranging it in a tree-like structure, with wiki links between the nodes. That could be interesting. It also makes me think about going in the opposite direction, writing a book that’s interconnected in a web-based structure, and then flattening it into a linear print book. I kinda-sorta did that with The Necrokonicon, which went from wiki to print.  All of the hotlinked words were bolded in print, indicating you could manually page over to that topic.

A project I started messing with was the idea of a game based on a book, something with game logic built into it. I started writing a Twine mashup of Summer Rain and the Necrokonicon. You wake up in a boarding house room in Bloomington in 1992, and then you wander around the sandbox of campus, almost GTA-like, getting dressed and walking to Lindley hall to log into a VAX computer, find people to hang out with, spend your few dollars getting something to eat on Kirkwood.  This was a fun project to start, but exhausting. I needed a solid set of stories to tree up within this large matrix of the campus topics, like people you would need to meet or tasks you would need to accomplish, and I ran out of steam on that.  I also wasn’t finding the right balance on axis 1, unsure of how much text to put on each page. It was a fun distraction, but within a few days, I barely had my house and the few blocks around it mapped out; I could easily burn a thousand hours trying to world-build the thing, and that wouldn’t even get into the story.

I’ve got to get back to other writing, but I do want to do something with this at some point.