i can do better

I’m working on a new novel. It’s an idea I’ve had for a while, but I just recently started writing it down. (I’ve hinted about it a few times already on Twitter.)

I’m about 19,000 words in, and I recently wrote a scene that bothered me a little because it reminded me of a passage in my novella The Start of the Majestic World.

There’s a scene in Majestic World where Agent Maynard has a verbal confrontation with the main villain, Colonel Preston, a handsome army colonel who tries to intimidate her into following his orders even though she’s not under his command.

Here’s a bit of it:

The Colonel stood up, and walked around the desk so that he was very close to Maynard—so close, and in such a posture, that Maynard felt he was trying to brush aside the barriers of rank and agency, and underscore primarily the difference in sex between them. 

I don’t want to give away too much about the new book, but the scene in it has some very similar elements. The female protagonist is in a meeting with a handsome male colonel, and he is trying to get her to do something that may violate protocol. (It’s deliberately ambiguous in the scene, but she feels uneasy about it.) And there’s some uncomfortable sexual tension–it’s less overt than in the above, but there’s some suggestion he might be trying to seduce her.

Now, there are also some big differences, involving both the setting and the characters. But as I was sketching out the scene in my mind, I was thinking, Gosh that’s awfully similar to the Maynard/Preston scene.

So, right now you’re thinking: “Well, dummy; you’re the writer–don’t write it that way, then!”

True, that’s one option. But there are a couple reasons I hate to remove or alter the scene. First, it’s a very natural way for things to play out in the story–it works well in context, both in terms of plot pacing and characterization. I hate to lose scenes like that.

And second, it’s a much better execution of the concept than in Majestic World. The dialogue is more natural, the characters are more nuanced and less caricatured. This is encouraging to me–it’s good to know I’ve improved as a writer since writing the Maynard/Preston scene over three years ago.

The great film director John Huston once said about movie remakes: “There is a wilful, lemming-like persistence in remaking past successes time after time… Why don’t we remake some of our bad pictures… and make them good?” That’s sort of how I feel about this–sure, I tried this basic concept once, but now that I’ve improved as a writer, why not prove that I can do it better?

At the same time, I could see somebody who read Majestic World reading the new book and saying “Yawn! Another Colonel behaving inappropriately towards the protagonist. Give us something new, Berthold!”

But I can guarantee it won’t be the same thing over again. Trust me.

What do you think? Should an author revisit a concept similar to one they’ve written before, if they feel like they can write it better this time, or is it best to try to break new ground?

It all started when I read this post from Carrie Rubin.  In it, she describes how people make money by entering book giveaways on sites like Goodreads, etc. and then immediately selling the free books they have won, without reviewing or even reading them.

I have an economics degree, so I began thinking about the incentives that cause this, and what adjustments you could make to the market to fix it. It made for a nice thought experiment. And, well, maybe it got a little out of hand.  But I’m posting it anyway; just for fun.

First of all, we need to discuss the concept of expected value. Wikipedia has a nice summary, using the game of roulette as an example, which I quote below:

Suppose random variable X represents the (monetary) outcome of a $1 bet on a single number (“straight up” bet). If the bet wins (which happens with probability 1/38 in American roulette), the payoff is $35; otherwise the player loses the bet. The expected profit from such a bet will be

E [gain from $1 bet] = -$1 x 37/38 + $35 x 1/38 = -$0.0526

i.e. the bet of $1 stands to lose $0.0526, so its expected value is -$0.0526.

Note that the expected value of a bet in a roulette game is negative.  This is why casinos make money and gamblers typically don’t.  The game is designed to be rigged against the player.

In the book giveaway scenario however, the “player” is not required to pay anything to enter.  The only cost to them is the opportunity cost of the time it takes to enter a giveaway, which is minimal once you have created an account.

Of course, to have a realistic shot at winning anything, you have to enter a lot of giveaways.  So the expected value is the sum of the value of each book times the probability of winning it.

Since there is no monetary cost to entering giveaways, the “player” only stands to gain by doing it.

The author, on the other hand, has little incentive to give the book away.  They only will benefit if the recipient likes the book and makes it known to others.  A bad review, or no review at all, goes down as a loss for the author. If the recipient then sells the book to someone else, it’s an even worse loss, because now multiple people are getting the benefit of the book without payment to the author.

How can we fix this?

One way would be to charge a fee to enter the contest, as in the case of the roulette example.  This would probably work too well–nobody would risk losing even $1 unless the potential reward were an extremely valuable book.  Hence, no one would enter the contests.

Another way would be to impose some limit on the number of giveaways a user is allowed to enter in a given timeframe.  After all, for it to be worth their while, the contestants must be entering a fairly high number of giveaways. Placing a cap on that could deter the book-scalpers.

But remember the original intent of the giveaways.  In an ideal world, the way it works is that the reader gets a free book, reads it, and reviews it.  Both the reader and the author benefit–in economics jargon, this means the outcome is “efficient”.

As part of my research for this post, I decided to find out if Goodreads takes reviews into account as part of the algorithm they use to pick winners.  According to this site, they do–citing the giveaway terms and conditions:

“If more people are interested in a book than there are copies available [which is nearly always the case], we will pick the winners at our discretion. The factors that go into our algorithm are: randomness, site activity, genre of books on your shelves, current phase of the moon, and more.”

I notice they say “site activity”, which is pretty vague, but I’ll assume it means that somehow or other they factor a user’s review track record into their chance of winning.

Tweaking that algorithm might go a long way towards fixing the problem.  But I don’t know what their algorithm is, so for the sake of this exercise, we’ll assume that it’s perfect.

Instead of changing the algorithm, another idea would be to change the terms of giveaways.  If a winner doesn’t post a review in some period of time (e.g. 30 days) they are required to pay a small fee–less than the price of a new copy of the book, but still enough to decrease the profitability of re-selling it.

I think this would increase the effectiveness of giveaways.  It incentivizes (to use that horrible word that only an economist could write) giving reviews, but while still benefiting the recipient, since even if they don’t review it, they are still getting the book at a cheaper rate.

That said, there are some potential problems with this plan:

  1. What is the mechanism for charging people?  Goodreads does not require credit card information to make an account. (It’s much more straightforward on Amazon; there, all users have some sort of account that can be billed.)
  2. It could lead to lots of garbage reviews.  People are likely to post short, unhelpful reviews to get their free copy.

We can still do better than this.

Remember, only physical books can be re-sold.  They can’t do much with a free eBook.  So, how about this: when someone wins the contest, they automatically get a free electronic version of the book, but to get the physical copy, they have to review it.

Amazon has a free reader app that runs on almost anything, so chances are, if you have a device that can be used to enter a GoodReads giveaway, it can also read an eBook.  And Amazon owns GoodReads, so it would be easy enough to set this system up between the two sites.

There’s still potentially a problem with an incentive to give garbage reviews, but it’s lessened considerably by the fact that the reader gets rewarded for posting a review, rather than punished for not posting a review.

What do you say, readers? Could this work?  Is it totally insane?  Do I think too much about weird stuff? Is this why everyone hates economists? Let me know what you think!

I was cleaning today and found an old list of possible titles I jotted down for what became The Start of the Majestic World. Here they are:

  • Thuban AM
  • Siege Mentality
  • Civilization Under Threat
  • Classicism and Decadence
  • Equally Jests
  • Concerning the Cancellation of Thuban AM
  • Upon What Meat?

Re-reading this, it’s clear to me that I made the right decision. Note that the last title on the list is from the same scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that includes the phrase “the start of the majestic world”, which gives you some insight into how titles get selected.

What do you think?  Do you agree with my pick?

I am fascinated by football helmets and uniforms.  I study them like some people I know study the dresses movie stars wear at award ceremonies.  Like any enthusiast, I have my opinions on the aesthetics of uniforms and helmets.

In my opinion, these are probably the two best helmets in all of football:

Image Credit to the NFL. Reproduced under Fair Use for the Purpose of Criticism.

I’m not crazy about the black pants for the Bengals–I almost always prefer white jerseys with white pants–but otherwise I think these are pretty good. (Interestingly, the Ram helmet with yellow horn was the first football helmet design ever.)

Apart from white-on-white, I usually don’t like the same color jerseys and pants–teams like the Chiefs, Texans and Cardinals will wear all red, and they look like they are in their pajamas. I did like these old Buffalo Bills uniforms, though I would prefer it with a white helmet.

The absolute worst uniform in all of football is the Tennessee Titans’ current one.  It is a total disaster, although this mess the Jaguars wore (against the Titans even!) is pretty bad, but it was only an alternate.

I am also a big believer that you can’t change your uniform once you have success with it.  The Rams won the Super Bowl with their yellow horn helmets, then changed them to an awful gold color, and haven’t won since.  They did lose one to the Patriots, who are now stuck with a pretty bad uniform that they have enjoyed tremendous success in.

At the college level, everybody gets new uniforms all the time now, thanks to the influence of the Oregon football team.  Oregon wears a new combination every week, and I have yet to see them find one that is good, although these chrome helmets look kind of interesting.

In general, I find most college uniforms to be stupid. I do like these all-grey uniforms that West Virginia and a few other schools have done. Strangely, my team, the Ohio State Buckeyes, has not worn one of these even though grey is one of their traditional team colors.  Speaking of the Buckeyes, their regular uniforms are some of the best in the sport.  These alternates, which I call their “Christmas tree ornament helmets”, are weird but interesting.

Probably the best helmet/uniform combinations in college football are USC, Ohio State and Michigan State.  I also loved these camouflage uniforms that Army has worn a few times.

What helmets and/or uniforms do you like?

A friend of mine told me about the great themes of literature. The idea is that most great books, movies, etc. all have at least one of the following  themes.  She and another friend had come up with two of them–they suspected there was a third, and I’ve included the suggestion I cooked up. Here are the categories:

  1. “Love Conquers All”–Pretty much all happy endings fall into this category. The Harry Potter series practically had this embossed on every page. In Star Wars it’s a little less obvious, but it’s still there.  It can be different kinds of love–romantic, familial, platonic.  I’d say To Kill a Mockingbird is a “love conquers all”, in the sense of a sort of universal, fraternal love between all people (Yeah, that makes the book sound way more gooey than it really is.) Jane Eyre also falls into this category as an example of romantic love conquering all. And for the record, every Gilbert and Sullivan operetta except Yeomen of the Guard and The Grand Duke is in this category also. I’m not sure how bittersweet love stories like Casablanca fit in here–the love story doesn’t wind up exactly where the leads get what they want, but it’s not really a tragedy, either.
  2. “Ya Can’t Fight City Hall”–This is the category for tragedies.  In Greek tragedy, “The Gods” or “Fate” are “City Hall”, and the stories end badly when people try to fight against their will.  Chinatown, one of my favorite movies, is almost the epitome of the “ya can’t fight city hall” genre (e.g. the line ‘He owns the police!” at the end.) Dystopian novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four usually end up being in this category as well.  I think your really good horror stories–like Lovecraft’s best–fall into this as well, with unexplainable, powerful supernatural forces standing filling the role of “city hall.” But the concept can be extended psychologically–in Macbeth, city hall could be either the supernatural forces of the witches or Macbeth’s own failings as a person.  I guess this is because tragic stories have a feeling of inevitability about them, and that’s what makes them feel tragic.  Most of Thomas Hardy’s novels fall into this category.
  3. “The Cake is a Lie”. Most thrillers and twist endings fall into this category by default.  (I took the name from the famous line in the video game Portal.) This is the category for stories where things aren’t as they seem.  The Repairer of Reputations, as well as most unreliable narrator stories–e.g. The Turn of the Screw–are in this.  But also any story where a major element is that characters are deceiving others, or themselves.  This is where I think The Grand Duke fits as well, because everyone is pretending to be something else.  Most “meta” narratives fall into this category, because they are about illusion and deception.  I’d argue that the game Spec Ops: The Line has one foot in this camp, and one in the “ya can’t fight city hall” camp. Works with ambiguity and room for multiple interpretations fit in this category as well.

What do you think, readers? Any suggestions for things that fit these categories? Anything that doesn’t fit any of these categories?  Are the categories themselves nonsensical?


Okay, I wasn’t actually planning to make this into a regular series, but events have just sort of worked out that way.  Blizzard’s “Battle.net” online gaming service got hacked last week, allowing hackers to acquire “sensitive data”.  Fortunately, Blizzard says that does not include financial information, but still, the fact is that online gaming made users vulnerable to hackers.

People play games to have fun, to relax.  They do not want to have needless stress heaped upon them when they are trying to play a game, because they probably get plenty of that in their real lives.  With the trolls, the technical difficulties, and then the threat of hackers, online gaming is way more trouble than it’s worth, as far as I can tell.

If any online gamers read this, I’d love to read why you feel it’s worthwhile.

I want to address two unrelated yet very similar stories I saw in the news today. One concerns the governor of New Jersey ordering flags be flown at half-staff in honor of Whitney Houston. The other concerns the Secretary of the Navy naming a ship after former Representative Gabrielle Giffords, which has been criticized by some.

The decision to lower the flags really doesn’t make much sense to me. Whitney Houston may have been a great singer–I don’t know, I’ve only heard one performance by her–but I don’t understand what she did to deserve having the flag lowered for her. It doesn’t offend or upset me that the governor wants to do that, but I don’t understand why he would.

As for the ship naming issue, I certainly do believe that war heroes deserve to have ships named after them more than John Murtha did, so the Navy secretary deserves the criticism he’s getting for that decision. But Congresswoman Giffords was badly injured in the course of fulfilling her duties as a public servant, so I think it’s fair to name a ship after her.

That’s my opinion. What do you think?

Nathaniel Chapman, a video game designer at my favorite game studio, Obsidian Entertainment, had a good post on his blog about “A Theory of Fun”. He makes a great point that “fun” doesn’t describe a game, it describes the experience you have while playing it.

His post also made me wonder: do I play video games for fun? Do I, for that matter, read books or watch movies or otherwise indulge in such pursuits for “fun”?

I mean, I obviously do it for pleasure. But what is this sensation “fun”? For instance, are my two favorite games Knights of the Old Republic II and Planescape: Torment “fun”? I don’t know if I would actually say they are. The feeling I get from them is altogether a more powerful one. It is much more like “awe” or “wonder” than “fun”.

There are some games, obviously, which I play purely for fun. Sports simulation games, especially, come under this label. But I do not think of these games as being in any way “better” than those above, though they may technically be more “fun”.

This applies to many other things, as well. The basic romance or murder-mystery novel, is, or at least used to be, regarded by many as a “fun”, cheaply thrilling reading experience, whereas reading Great Literature (or in some circles, Holy Books) is not actually a “fun” experience but definitely a better one. The same goes for films: Star Wars and Jurassic Park are “fun” films. Are films like Citizen Kane “fun”, or is the feeling they evoke different?

People often do draw a distinction between “High Art” and “Low Art” to describe this kind of thing, but the trouble with that is that it can quickly devolve into labeling things you personally dislike “Low Art”, and then it becomes simply an issue of taste.

LZ Granderson believes that the present government is so bad because of uninformed voters. His basic point is right, though he puts this idea across in harsh terms–the real problem is not that voters are “stupid” or “lazy”, but that they haven’t the time to thoroughly research and consider the relevant issues. Even experts in one particular area will have, at best, a passing knowledge of the others.

Theoretically, you can get around this by having experts from all fields tell people what to do, but that won’t work if different experts give different answers, or if people are led to believe, rightly or no, that experts are unreliable.

It is true, as J.E. Sawyer has observed on his blog, that the problem of political ignorance is at its most curable in history, and yet many people still do not avail themselves of this cure. This is understandable. Do you want to research whether we ought to have an ethanol tariff or watch football when you come home from work?

So, how to fix this problem?

One way is to radically increase the difficulty of voting. Make it so that people must pass tests in order to register. The problem with this system is that it will almost certainly be systematically biased in favor of some groups and against other groups. Whoever is put in charge of creating the test would see to it.

Any other solutions?

UPDATE: Thingy says in the comments:

“Wow, really? Make it so hard that the poor schlub who never caught a break, never finished school for whatever reason, but loves his country as much as the educated elite, they should have to prove themselves? I think it should be made easier.”

My fault. I think I phrased it poorly, because my intent was to convey exactly this; that if such a system were implemented it would be unfair towards some people, which defeats the original  purpose of Democracy. The idea I am getting at is that you are damned if you do allow easy voting, because then even the idiots who support insane policies can vote, or else you are damned if you restrict voting, because then whole groups of unfortunate people, as described by Thingy, cannot vote.

Well, clearly, the best answer is giving all adults the right to vote combined with a good education. But is that possible? I would certainly like to think so, but my fear is that it might not always be, not at all because they are “stupid”, as Granderson thinks, but because of the lack of time.

I mean, take me for instance. I know so little about foreign policy that I have no business whatsoever voting for who ought to be the Commander-in-Chief. Now, I hold very strong opinions on these matters, but I can’t claim to be anywhere close to an expert, and while I’m just one voter, I fear that I am not too far below average. But, naturally, I would be quite upset if I were barred from voting.

But, to return to the original point, my proposed “solution” above was more sarcasm than anything else. I didn’t mean to suggest it is a better system at all.

On The McLaughlin Group last night (we all have our guilty pleasures) the panelists were screaming about discussing government funding for the arts. Pat Buchanan, of course, examined the issue in the context of his “culture war”; that is to say, he argued that because government funds works like those of Andres Serrano, which he and many others find offensive, the best compromise is to not have any government funding of the arts at all.

Well, I think most people would agree the arts are very important to society, even if one doesn’t like or even consider the work of Serrano and similar “art”. But then again, as the Conservatives would say, what good is it if it has to be subsidized by the government? Surely, it should be a spontaneous result of the culture, not brought about through government subsidization.

Perhaps. Although it’s worth bearing in mind that the Medici family and the Church paid for the famous art of the Renaissance. And while I’m sure Conservatives will say the Church is different from the government, that argument is based on the experience of Americans, who may not quite realize the extent to which the Church was the government in Renaissance Italy.

Not to say that there is no merit to the argument that government ought not to fund the arts. After all, if the aim of real Art ought to be Truth, and if it is funded by a government, it is quite likely they will fund only that art which advances their agenda, and may be quite contrary to higher purposes. Propaganda, in other words. (Indeed, I sometimes think many Conservatives would not be opposed to this use of government-sponsored art.)

Then again, it seems funding must come from somewhere, and since true art may not always be profitable, where else can it come from but from an institution that does not have to turn a profit?