Monthly Archives: June 2014

Monster Fighting

godzilla-against-mechagodzilla-2A battle is raging, a fight between two behemoths who will wreck the consumer landscape. The war between Amazon and Hachette Books is diminished among greater headlines, and let’s face it, practically everyone is more interested in the Game of Thrones season finale. I cancelled my cable, so if anyone tells me what happens, I promise a gruesome and painful death possibly involving moldy gummy bears.

In one corner, we have Amazon. As a writer, I’m supposed to despise Amazon because of their shady business tactics and penchant for mowing over small press. In the other corner, we have Hachette books, publisher of great works from authors such as Malcom Gladwell and Richard Russo. At the core of the argument, as with most arguments, is money.

Amazon wants Hachette to re-negotiate the profit margin for selling the publishers books, wants the right to discount unsold books, and demands Hachette pay for advertising. Hachette thinks the current arrangement is just fine, thank you. Amazon’s defense, however, is more than just a firing shot across the bow. Amazon has conveniently cancelled pre-orders for any forthcoming Hachette titles, and although the digital bookstore insists already in-print Hachette books are just as available as they always were, searches simply don’t agree. When pressed, Amazon’s response for finding Hachette books is to simply shop for them elsewhere.

The battle between creators and retailers is as old as commerce itself, and about half as interesting. It’s easy to side with Hachette because Amazon is resorting to bullying tactics, and bullies are too cowardly to fight fairly. The truth is never so simple, and while I won’t argue that Amazon is abusing their power by affecting Hachette’s bottom line during the price negotiation, the big publishing house isn’t exactly innocent either. Hachette refused an offer to fund half of an author pool to mitigate the impact on authors through the dispute. Agreeing to the pool isn’t agreeing to any negotiating tactic, it’s simply agreeing that authors are unfairly affected by the issue, and Hachette’s refusal sounds more like sour grapes going off to the garden to eat worms.

George Packer’s article sums up Amazon nicely; an online retailer who didn’t mind excess inventory, Amazon was a boon when the publishing industry needed it most. While it’s easy to point at Amazon’s tactics as slimy and underhanded, the truth is they’re doing nothing other retail companies aren’t doing, forcing manufacturers to let retail sell for the lowest amount possible. The publishing industry is broken, and Amazon is taking advantage of that fact by forcing publishers like Hachette to the negotiating table. While Amazon isn’t the only game in town, they’re a force to be reckoned with.

While Amazon started as a bookseller, publishing was always a secondary goal to becoming a retail powerhouse. Achievement unlocked, Bezos. Books were a way to track purchasing habits and gain user information, which is the holy grail for any retail establishment. Amazon’s expansion into media, marketplace, and partnerships with other content providers like HBO has created a powerhouse that’s not nearly so easy to categorize. Bezos, like most tech dictators, knows how to focus the company on profit and how to build something consumers want.

Unfortunately for some, the publishing industry may suffer. The problem with the argument is, in my mind, that it masks the true problem. Publishing is broken and desperately needs a cleansing. Like the music industry, publishing has been slow to adopt electronic formats and has suffered. Amazon’s greatest achievement in the literary world may simply be the widespread adoption of the kindle. While there are better e-readers on the market, the kindle as an inexpensive device is pure genius. Problem is it’s only a small part of Amazon’s ecosystem. As a global retailer, Amazon wants its customers locked in. Buy an Amazon device and you shop in the Amazon marketplace, download Amazon goods and services, view Amazon-sponsored videos. It’s what made the iPhone so attractive; Steve Jobs recognized what could be accomplished by latching a consumer device to a marketplace of vetted applications and content, and that is the holy grail of retail in our modern age.

Well Played #1

A few days ago, I tasked a new hire with re-provisioning one of our biggest clusters because we have some firmware updates that should increase per-core performance. It’s a mind-numbing job of pushing a cart around, plugging a mouse/keyboard/monitor into every one of 1200 servers, manually rebooting and manually keying through the firmware update. Takes 2-3 minutes per machine.

So today I check on him. Now, this kid can’t be more than 23, 24, fresh out of college. I ask how it’s going, peek at the monitor which is just finishing up. When the server re-boots, the lights on the front switch from blue or amber to green. The kid says, “Light is green, the trap is clean.”

I said, “Did you just make a Ghostbusters reference? Right on, my man! Slap me some skin!”

He said, “Dude, L-M-F-A-O, my dad likes that movie.”

Well played, kid… well played.

Structure of Story III

Spec_Ops_The_Line_coverIn the first article, I discussed plotting tools and how to captivate your audience by making them feel smart. The second article covered characterization and growth of your protagonist. In this third article, I’m going to cover the blending of plot and narration with secondary and tertiary characters.

Spec Ops: The Line is a first-person action game set during a fictitious conflict in the middle east. Before you groan, the game features a surprising amount of depth and some of the best character development in any media. Brendan Keogh has an excellent analysis of Spec Ops: The Line that you should probably read if you have any interest in such things.

In its purest form, Spec Ops is a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Though possibly a bit closer to the Apocalypse Now version. In the game, a freakish sandstorm captures the city of Dubai. The city’s wealthy elite flee before the situation worsens, but the population of native and migrant workers is left to fend for themselves. The U.S. Army responds at the request of the UAE government, led by Colonel John Konrad, with the intention of aiding the mass evacuation before the city is completely cut off from the world.  If it worked, we wouldn’t have a game.

The player takes on the role of a special forces operative who enters the conflict six months later. Konrad and his infantry battalion have gone rogue, and it’s up to our hero (appropriately named Walker) to skirt the fine line between brutality and savior, finding a delicate balance between the insurgent survivors, remnants of the 33rd infantry, rogue CIA operatives, and an assortment of terror suspects.

What Spec Ops accomplishes that few other books, games, or movies have done successfully is to shift the audience’s sympathy throughout the game. The player is introduced to a brutal world of a collapsed city struggling for survival and infested with terrorists, but we quickly learn the terror suspects are simply survivors who’ve mistaken Walker and his team for members of Konrad’s brutal 33rd. The lost battalion had ensnared the city in an iron grip, punishing civilians and enlisted with death for the slightest infraction. As the game progresses, we learn that the 33rd also aren’t entirely to blame. From the game’s outset, Walker and his men started shooting first and the 33rd acted to preserve the civilian population.

Much of the story is relayed through dialogue between Walker (the player) and his two special-operations companions, Lugo and Adams. It’s through these secondary characters that the player is given insight into the world and allowed to dwell in the land of shoot-your-enemy. Spec Ops doesn’t give the player a choice with violence, which ends up being a choice in and of itself. By the game’s conclusion, we learn that Walker wasn’t entirely sane to begin with and the player’s entire view into the world of Spec Ops was through this unreliable narrator.

When structuring believable fiction, come to terms with the beliefs and ideals of your characters, particularly the ones which differ from your own. It’sspec-ops-the-line-white-phosphorus through these firmly-held ideals that characters enter into conflict, which not only serves the dramatic tension of your story but binds the reader to your character by making them rounded and complete. We come to understand Walker through his dialogue with his squad-mates, his actions in the game, and his observations from cut-scenes. In one pivotal moment, Walker and his men are pinned down by the 33rd. Angry that Konrad has convinced soldiers to kill one another, Walker decides to end the battle as quickly as possible by firing white phosphorous grenades into the entrenched enemy. During the next cut-scene, we see Walker and his men striding through the remains of both entrenched 33rd and cowering civilians. Walker comments that the 33rd weren’t trying to kill him, they were trying to protect civilians. By using white phosphorous, Walker (and by extension, the player) has committed an atrocious crime, killing innocent women and children simply because he didn’t want to engage in a long-running gun battle. Rather than lament his decision, as his men are want to do, Walker instead curses Konrad and the men at his side, claiming it was Konrad who forced his hand.

Leading your reader to a conclusion is extraordinarily difficult to do without being obtrusive. Most novels accomplish it through characterization, though not always successfully. Think of Jurassic Park’s Dr. Ian Malcolm. As a mechanism for Crichton to reveal the scientific aspects of his story, Malcolm also serves as a sounding board for the theme – the dangers of biotechnology and exponentially increasing scientific understanding with little regard for consequences. Spec Ops: The Line weaves the player/audience through a minefield of difficult subject matter, from the dangers of using chemical weapons on civilian populations to the ever-expanding role of military which often results in violence, all masterfully told through a protagonist who believes wholeheartedly in his convictions.