Category Archives: Genre-Fantasy

Classics You’ve Never Read: The Tale We All Tell

You could guess this installment’s topic with your eyes closed, inside a burlap bag. From the basement room of a neighborhood that has no electric lights. Because it was, like, the Dark Ages. So I don’t do mystery, sue me. What other classic would I be reviewing in the week of Yule except Charles Dickens’ absolutely immortal- A Christmas Carol.

I can feel your impatience from across the internet, so let me give you the summary in two bullet points.

  • Yes, this is a fantasy classic.

    Did Capt. Picard play Scrooge?
    Did Capt. Picard play Scrooge?
  • And no, you haven’t ever read it. Not really.

A Spiritual Experience

Now I don’t want any sass on that first point– Marley was dead, to begin with, there is no doubt whatever about that. Then this dead guy, he talks for an entire scene, and Scrooge can rave about blobs of mustard all he likes, but even HE says he believes it.

...or Gen. Patton?
…or Gen. Patton?

Add three ghosts, trips across time and space, walking through walls and an old man spending the coldest night ever recorded on earth in his nightshirt, and what you have there is a fantasy tale. Light on combat, I’ll grant you, but a ripping good fantasy yarn nonetheless. Horror and the supernatural are strongly allied to fantasy and always have been. The main difference, in my view, is the growth of character across the tale. Eighteen movies where a cabin/car/boatload of teens run screaming from Risen Guy with a weed-whacker, and what has anyone ever come away learning?

But Scrooge– graduate degree in Goodwill and Charity, in one night.

And this is YOUR tale, rather ours. We all tell it, because we all continually live it.

Thurston Howell? Already greedy
Thurston Howell? Already greedy

The only real choice you have with A Christmas Carol is to figure out what part of the story you’re in. And decide how long you’ll stay there.

Scrooge and You, Both Misers

Not me, you exclaim? I’m warning you, no chance you’ll escape this one. The popularity of Christmas Carol is a tidal-wave of evidence. Why does every actor on earth want to play him? Why do we all listen to it, on the radio, in 19 major films, in 39 stage

Alfred! Did even the butler do it?
Alfred! Did even the butler do it?

versions (since 1974, half of them running continuously). There have been three Scrooge operas, a graphic novel with Batman as him, over 200 major productions either repeating the story directly or putting a “modern” touch on it. There’s a steampunk version of this tale, one where he’s a TV producer, one where Scrooge is played by just about the hottest woman on the planet, and another where Tiny Tim’s disease is causing the zombie apocalypse.

You think you’ve read this tale? Please, you don’t even know which character you’re playing. Yeah, it’s not good news. But prove your literary worth and pass the quiz first.

Scrooge by the Book- Is it in the Story? (True or False)

No, no- Miss America too hot to be a miser. Surely?
No, no- Miss America too hot to be a miser. Surely?

1) His clerk asks him for extra coal in the beginning

2) The ghosts come at 1, 2 and 3 o’clock

3) Scrooge sees himself in the future

4) Scrooge visits Crachit’s house on Christmas Day

All false. You’ve been remembering one of the many excellent video versions, which take details of the character arc to heart and amplify the essential meaning Dickens started with. The book’s too short for TV! And that’s fine. But why bother with a 160 year old novella unless everyone– directors, screenplay writers, major actors and you watching at home– responded to something there?

Point: you respond to a tale this powerfully this well this long, because you identify with

But... he likes animals
But… he likes animals

a major character. And Christmas Carol has only one.

The chief thing about a miser isn’t that he’s rich, or that it’s only about money. Misers are unhappy. They deny everyone their wealth, starting with themselves. There’s a word for the condition a miser lives in. It’s called misery. Scrooge is quite correctly described as sad, weird, funny; as his nephew points out, the only one hurt by all his crabbing is himself. Our lives reflect this and it’s seldom money- it might be patience, or good humor, or our love, or– ahem– our writing talent, but we hold it back and don’t share it enough.

And we need to change. Your heroes need to change- why else are people reading your novella? Many wise online coaches have written about conflict, but Dickens gives us a more detailed map of the how and when. Here is where the spirits come in. You might call them muses.

A Reader’s Progress- Scrooge’s Character Grows

  • Marley comes to warn Scrooge and his principal impact is based on fear. Scrooge needs to be jogged out of his complacent habits, convinced there are consequences to his actions beyond what he can see, and forced to consider that he must change. The fear is important, but alone it’s not enough. As soon as Marley leaves, the miser is trying to settle back into his old ways, muttering “humbug” again. But he is still off-balance and open to-
  • The Ghost of Christmas Past whose chief influence is to fill him with regret.
    Whoa- now it's getting weird. Do I know that guy?
    {Whoa- now it’s getting weird. Do I know that guy?}

    Seeing that he was once happy, and that he used to respond more kindly to people around him, Scrooge becomes truly sad (not miserable, which for a miser is just a form of self-pity). He tells the spirit he can bear it no longer- she has scraped him out like a gourd. Based only on regret for his mistakes, though, Scrooge will not change- he pushes down the cap over the spirit’s light to get rid of it. For more progress in his arc, Scrooge needs-

  • The Ghost of Christmas Present, who shows him happiness and gives him desire. There’s a Chinese proverb that speaks of how sorrow hollows you like a man creating a pot. Now you can contain more joy. two-gcpScrooge sees others making merry despite much less wealth than he possesses and comes to desire that happiness again. If left here, he probably wouldn’t be quite so crabby, for a while, but it’s still not enough. Scrooge must be pushed that final step to action by-
  • The Ghost of Christmas Future, who doesn’t simply terrify him but gives Scrooge a sense of consequence. Misers like us mortals are not only selfish, or rather we’re selfish in part because we can’t see for sure the best thing to do with our talents. Easy to say how stupid it is for an old man to hoard money- but remember, Scrooge doesn’t think he is a miser. None of us do. By seeing his future, Scrooge realizes his choices matter. He could make the wrong one. He has been so far. His fate and Tiny Tim’s are linked: and in the event of death, the boy has nothing to fear, whereas Scrooge… that’s not just fear, it’s an impetus to act.
Play a miser? Back off buddy, I'm a scientist.
Play Scrooge? Back off buddy, I’m a scientist.

If a man gave away all his money but had not changed inside, it would be about as effective as a knight in my tales defeating a dragon without effort. Scrooge on Christmas Day has become “light as a feather, as giddy as a schoolgirl”. He is an imp– speaking in riddles to the boy outside his window, sending the turkey anonymously to IMG_8303Bob Cratchit. He is unafraid to appear a fool; he knows he has already been one. He understands it’s important to use his money, not to be known for doing so. He is exchanging his treasures here for those in heaven. Just one more remarkable feature of Dickens’ writing, that he so clearly points to a moral and religious purpose without using the G-word (even in vain). Scrooge accomplishes a transformation of character that the world has responded to across all media for sixteen decades. We know, deep down, who he’s talking to.

The 19th Century Indie

Dickens did here what all us authors, writers, chroniclers want to do with our work. More than readers liking the story, more than loving it, he changed how people lived. Did you know:

  • He wrote Christmas Carol as Plan B? His original idea was to pen a political tract, urging Parliament to do more to help the poor, and children, etc. He decided that a parable about Christmas would be better. I don’t think he was wrong.
  • His tale brought us not just Scrooge, but “Merry Christmas” itself! In Dickens’ day there was still some Puritan in England’s make-up, believing that celebration and liberality were wrong. He was out to change that, and he did.
  • He finished the work in less than six weeks, with a deadline (Christmas 1842) looming over his head as pressure. The spirits were with him.
  • He elected to self-publish! Took a percentage-royalty instead of flat fee. And he didn’t do that well on it- the book’s popularity was almost immediate but his returns weren’t as great as he’d hoped. Public readings (early video!) and reprintings eventually made up the gap (but Dickens was already well-off). He did the slow-burn!
  • Dickens also spear-headed the blasphemous idea that you could publish longer tales, like his other novels, in shorter formats released as serials. Hmmm…. and by making each chapter so cheap (just a ha’penny or so) even the masses could afford to buy a copy.
IMG_8331
I did my part! Your turn now.

So, the more things change. And if Dickens was prefiguring so many of our publication choices, we might want to take his writing style to heart as well. Check any article about the history of Christmas Carol to see the impact his tale had on the world: other great writers heaping praise and vowing to give generously, factory owners reduced to tears or closing shop for Christmas after seeing the play. Face it, you got to get a piece of this.

Start with yourself. I urge you all to read A Christmas Carol– the verb there was “read”, but see it too if you like. Learn from your fear, desire the happiness that comes with giving, and make good choices to change the world. Scrooge learns it’s never too late. But the flip-side of that maxim is also true- what day better than today?

A Merry Christmas to you all. God bless us indie authors, every one.

 

1999
1999
1984
1984
1962
1962
1992
1992

 

 

 

2000
2000
2009
2009

 

 

Yep, me too. 2006 at the local children's theater
Yep, me too. 2006 at the local children’s theater

 

 

Will occasionally pontificates on Classics You’ve Never Read. His earlier reviews can be found here.

BTW: The best of the lot? Albert Finney, the musical version.

1970
1970

Getting Work- and Other Forms of Happiness

I wanted to limit posting on this topic, partly because I’ve been so unsure, partly because I was always hoping, and partly because I kept expecting the news to be about something other than creating cool fantasy tales. You know, something with put-on-a-tie and make-a-plane-reservation in it, and maybe a lot to do with building a spreadsheet, and then later on getting paid. That kind of work, the kind I’d been doing since the twentieth century before this past February.

Long and short– I became “displaced” as they say, a person on the business-end of “right-sizing” a company. Twenty-two years and change is a good run in this day and age. But as they say sixty is the new forty, so I looked over at my lovely wife and miracle daughter, and just behind them the two mortgages, the broken heating system and all six of our cats, and I thought the same thing Donkey thought at the end of Shrek 2:

“I gotta’ get a job!”

Editing and Writing, Those are Jobs

I applied in areas where I thought I could make a contribution. And I found that lots of people need technical writers, but they need them to have remarkably specific experience that I did not have. And yes, consultancies and government agencies and staffing firms and publishing houses all need editors. But they have them, see, and it’s just a guess but I’m getting the impression that once someone gets a gig as an editor, they keep it until they die.

And they don’t die very often.

At First, Keeping Busy

Looking for work is all electronic these days. The recruiting boards have boatloads of jobs you can’t do waiting for you in the Inbox practically every day. Applications take a few minutes, and if they have an assessment test, maybe another half hour twice a month. I was in a severance period, a great blessing, and I wanted to use the extra time profitably, at least to stave off boredom and the sense that I wasn’t getting anywhere. So I wrote a novel this past spring, and kept on narrating audio-books for marvelous colleagues like Gilbert M. Stack and M.R. Mathias.

I never thought of it as a job. It was too much fun.

But the summer burned off and the number of books I had narrated piled up and slowly I began to unravel that little knot in my head– the one that keeps me stupid– by asking “do I have the right to be happy in my work?”

I honestly can only think of one job that I was aware of being unhappy doing, and that was working for my Dad. Long story but every other job I’ve ever done seemed just fine to me. I liked the people, I liked the challenge, and I certainly loved getting paid.

But Narrating Was REALLY Fun

And It Was Starting to Make Money

So I kept looking for “real” work and I set myself the goal of winning an “upfront” narrating gig.

Audio-books Get Made on One of Two Business Models

{Yes there are others these days, but don’t interrupt:}

Royalty Share- the author hires you and pays you nothing. You finish the work and he still pays you nothing. The A-book goes out and starts to sell and THEN a) the distributor takes a cut, and b) you and the author split the rest. (This is sometimes referred to as passive income.)

Per-Finished-Hour (PFH)- the author hires you and pays you nothing. You finish the work and THEN he pays you based on an hourly rate for the length of the finished product. The A-book goes out and starts to sell and THEN a) the distributor takes a cut, and b) the author gets the rest. (You’ve already been paid, calm down.)

(Or narrate yourself and get paid twice!)

Royalty share is great for independent authors and those who haven’t “made it” yet, especially those who don’t know how well the book will do. Established authors or those with a bit of money, who know their book should sell XXX or X,XXX copies should want to pay the narrator up front, just like the cover artist and the editor, because then they reap the reward after that. Danielle Steel would be a fool to pay royalty share on her next sure-to-be-blockbuster. But if she did, narrators like me would probably commit murder to win the audition.

Bills to Pay- Cats and Mortgages

For a narrator, royalty share is nice because you just go on with your life and the money shows up like a bonus. I’m getting what I’d call “cat food money” from the titles I’ve narrated now. And with a half-dozen indoor cats who love people and food, maybe in that order maybe not, the amount represented by “cat food money” is not insignificant.

But you can’t budget against major expenses that way. You don’t know what to expect.

Now to get PFH on a steady basis, if I could achieve such high demand from up-front-paying authors that I virtually had my calendar blocked out full-time… THAT could pay the mortgage. One of them, anyway. I’ve kicked back and done all the math.

Full-length fantasy novel ~15 hours of finished audio (let’s just say)

Narrator on PFH Model e.g. $200/hour

Record-Retain Rate ~90%– that’s my estimate of how much out of each hour of recording time survives into the final product. It’s a pretty good rate- I throw out a few bad takes in each chapter, couple stumbles with accompanying curse words, or I have to go back and punch in a paragraph because somebody flushed the toilet and that comes over PERFECTLY of course (epic fantasy books almost never describe the hero in a garderobe, unfortunately. I did once!).

Record-Production Ratio ~3:1– i.e. it takes me around 3 hours of cutting, trimming, noise reduction and locating/implementing sound effects to “finish” each hour of good recording.

Bottom line, I could probably produce about 15 hours of finished audio, maybe a full-length fantasy novel, each week if I did it full time (recording each day for 2 hours and editing for around 6 more).

I would be able to pay the mortgage. Probably both of them.

And I’d be IN HEAVEN. Are you kidding me, narrating A-books for a living?

But there’s no point hoping about it unless I at least get started.

Which brings me to my announcement.

I’m a Contracted A-Book Narrator

Around the end of November I was invited by Findaway Voices to participate in a competitive audition for an A-book; there were five of us altogether. I sent in my sample, five minutes of reading from a portion of the book. I’ve auditioned two or three dozen times for A-books over on Audible, without success so far.

This time, I got great news. I am preparing now to start narrating Team Newb by M. Helbig. It’s a marvelous tale in the LitRPG vein, that whole playing-a-cool-game-WHOOPS-now-I’m-IN-the-game thing. It’s got humor and obviously that game-feel, and terrific rankings. It’s an official contract, it’s PFH and it’s signed. The book should be done in late January and appearing at retailers shortly after that.

I’ll post more about the book itself later over on the Media of Mien, but for now I just wanted to reflect on a sign of hope, coming to me at this time of year and after such a long time of trying and searching. I am deeply grateful, and need I add STOKED.

I still don’t know if I can grow this into any part of a living. But I have the chance to prove myself now, to a new audience for an author who never heard of me before he heard my voice. And did I mention one of the best parts? The sub-title of the book contains the two magic words any narrator hungers to hear:

“Book One”

So if anyone needs me during the day I’ll be at my desk as usual, looking for a job and sometimes with the headphones on. But early mornings I’ll be in the studio, recording a Fantasy RPG epic and loving every minute of it.

The blessings of the season to all who read this. May your work bring you happiness, even as it quickly feeds the cats and slowly retires the mortgage.