Thursday, May 30, 2013

Monday, May 20, 2013

Is it just me?

...Or is this a bizarre year?

I've had a lot going on in my personal life the last few months and it has really been a struggle to write. In the last six months my family has lost all three of our pets, one to cancer, another to old age, and the third to an accident (he was hit by a car in the street near my house). For my children, this has been a crash course in coping with mortality. It hasn't been a cakewalk for my wife and me, either. 

My part-time real world job has been picking up. Unfortunately, it's essentially an on-call job, which means that when something needs to be done, I have to drop everything and do it. Since I only have a few hours a day to write as it is, this means my personal writing time has been chopped approximately in half.  On top of that, a family friend has been dealing with health problems and ended up having neck surgery a few weeks ago. For most of this year, he had been steadily losing the ability to use his hands or even walk. He couldn't sign checks, drive a car, or even clip his own nails. And with no family in the area, he really had no one to turn to but us. We've been happy to help when we could, taking him on shopping trips or hospital visits, helping out with the routines that we tend to take for granted when we're healthy. Slowly but steadily, his health is now improving and it looks like he'll thankfully make a full recovery in the next few weeks. It hasn't been easy for him.

I also received a phone call from my brother recently, and learned that he's planning on moving back to the area. He's been going through personal issues and has finally reached the conclusion that it's time to make a new start. I'm thrilled that he'll be moving back, and I've been spending a lot of time helping him look for work, housing etc., which is no small task considering he has six (!) children. It will be nice having the family together again. I know at least one of the younger ones will be staying with us for the summer while my brother gets settled. As happy as this makes me, the reality is that I know it will present certain challenges for coming months and probably the rest of the year. 

I could go on, but I don't think I need to. What it boils down to is that I've been trying to find an hour here and there to work on my novels, but it feels like I'm swimming upstream. Writing fiction is a creative process, and it's not the sort of thing I can turn on and off like a faucet. Small routine distractions are hard enough, but when the entire world around you is in turmoil, it can quickly become overwhelming. That said, I have managed to finish two first drafts and half of a third, so I'm still well on my way to reaching my goal of writing four novels this year. Unfortunately, those drafts will need a lot of work and I just don't know how much time I'll have for them, so I won't be sure when my next books will be coming out until the end of summer or early fall. 

So is it just me, or is this happening everywhere? It seems like the economy is improving and we're seeing some brights spots in the job and real estate markets, but at the same time everything else seems to be falling apart. Ah, well. Maybe it's time for some positive thinking exercises.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

All for One?

The greatest danger to Indie writers right now, in my humble opinion, is marginalization. No, I don't mean setting the proper margins on our manuscripts (although that is very important also). I mean allowing the entire movement to be marginalized by our behavior and the way outsiders perceive us.

We live in tumultuous times. We've been watching the legacy publishing industry going through convulsions for ten years now -or more- as it struggles to adapt to this new digital paradigm. When the same thing happened to the music industry, the RIAA's first response was to blame music fans. Metalli-whatever (whose name shall not be spoken!) sued their own fans for downloading pirated music, and spearheaded the self-destructive movement that nearly toppled the industry. Music labels began installing anti-piracy software on their CDs that actually kept them from playing on thousands of types of CD players, thereby crippling the product and forcing even more fans to find alternative sources for the music. 

The publishing industry similarly installed DRM on their e-books, making it so that readers couldn't effectively transfer or store novels they had paid for. Then they took it one step further and decided to punish the authors by stealing digital rights they had never specified in their contracts, and by forcing the authors' backlists into obscurity. At the same time, they shored up their bottom line by dumping midlist authors and all but closing the doors to new talent. 

Despite all of this, I'm excited. We live in unprecedented times. Today, anyone can write a book or record an album and upload it to the proper distributors, and be making money in minutes. Not everyone who tries will succeed (they never have) but now more than ever we have the opportunity to at least try. And with each one of us who does succeed, the rest do a little better. Every Hugh Howey or Amanda Hocking represents millions of readers now willing to check out Indie authors. Their success gives us all validation.

And yet we've all heard stories of Indie authors who go around slandering the work of their "competitors." They post fake reviews. They marginalize. They give thousands of potential readers one more reason not to pick up a book by an Indie, and therefore they limit their own market potential at the same time. Some have even speculated that employees of legacy publishing houses have taken part in this slanderous and fraudulent activity (a speculation not entirely unprecedented).

Not too long ago there was a grassroots political movement known as "Occupy." It was a fast-growing left wing movement similar to the right wing (or libertarian) Tea Party movement. The two movements started the same way, with voters who were fed up with the two-party political system and their dysfunctional government. Both movements spread like wildfire. They affected political careers and threatened to topple the status quo. In short order both were vilified, demonized, and infiltrated by agent provocateurs who sabotaged the movements from inside. You don't have to agree with Occupy or the Tea Party in order to see what happened. They appeared out of nowhere, presented a threat to the status quo, and were immediately marginalized to the point that we no longer hear about them. They might as well not exist. And they weren't just attacked by political opponents. They were attacked and marginalized by their own political parties.

Is this what we want for Independent Publishers and Authors? Are we going to allow this incredible movement to be toppled, not only by attacks from those who would protect the status quo, but by ourselves as well? If there's a problem with the Indie movement, it's not that we're out there spamming ads for our books on public forums or hurling insults at our critics, it's that we are apparently willing to cannibalize each other under the false pretense that another Indie's success might damage us. That's not the way it works. Every time one of us succeeds, the chances get a little better for the rest of us. Let's not screw this thing up.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Wine Movies you may (not) want to see!

Contains Spoilers!

I've been on a wine-movie kick lately, but it's been a challenge for me. The problems I have are:

A) there are too few wine movies, and
B) most of them aren't available on Netflix streaming.

This means that I have to search for them, put them in my que, and then wait. I hate waiting. What can I say, this is the digital age. I want it now, not in three days. Fortunately, I'm blessed in that I own quite a few movies. I have a few I can watch whenever I want... Like Ratatouille.

Okay, it's not technically a "wine" themed movie; not in so many words. But it's a food movie and wine plays an integral part in several major scenes. Also, it's just great entertainment. The story is clever and well-developed and the animation is nothing short of brilliant. What's not to like? I blogged about this movie a while back, just because it's sooooo cool.

Then we have Bottle Shock, which I don't own but is available currently on Netflix:

I really like this somewhat bizarre movie. It does a great job of capturing the eclectic nature of Northern California, which may have been true in the 70's but still persists to this day. The father is a conservative ex-lawyer who dreams of nothing more than his own successful winery in a time and place that makes his dream appear somewhat ludicrous to his peers. His son is an unaspiring pot-smoking dropout with no goals or discipline, but an inescapable love for his father and a deep desire to see him succeed.

Alan Rickman brilliantly plays a European wine snob (he's English, not French!) who sets up a blind tasting competition between French and Californian wines... and here's the clincher: It really happened! This movie is based on a true story, and these people are real! 

Does that mean the real people resemble the characters in the movie? I have no idea. I've read criticisms that the movie is highly fictionalized, but also read that it was very true to history. I suppose I could drive over to Calistoga and visit the winery Chateau Montelena to get the truth (it's about twenty minutes from my house), but then they'd expect me to buy something and this writer cannot yet afford to buy wine by the case. Maybe someday...

Blood into Wine:

This documentary is about rock star Maynard James Keenan (singer from Tool) and his venture into wine-making. Wow, where do i even start? Most rock-star winemakers are tools who buy premade wines with custom labels and then market it to a bunch of fans desperate for validation -even if it comes in the form of a bottle of shitty wine that will make their friends puke all night. Not Maynard. This guy not only makes and bottles his own wine, he moves to Arizona and founds his own one-of-a-kind vineyard!

Now, I get why he chose Arizona. It's the soil, the weather, the sun... the terrior. I get it. But if I had this guy's fame and fortune, I would've chosen something a little closer to home... Like my dream of a few acres in the Sonoma Dry Creek, Chalk Hill, or Alexander Valley appellations. But nonetheless I applaud his bravado and avant-garde thinking. The truth is, wine can be grown just about anywhere if you're careful, you do your research, and you're not too picky about varietals. 


Another documentary, this time one that takes a look at the politics of wine, both in the U.S.A. and in the old world as well. If you're really into this sort of thing, it's not bad. There are some cool characters, but a lot of people come off looking like genuine jerks as well. I really don't know much about any of these characters, other than it's a documentary and they are, in fact, real people. Like most real people, they're not always at their best in front of the camera and it's hard to tell if these people are really so out of touch with reality that common courtesy escapes them, or if the film was edited to make them look worse than they really are. Is it worth 2 1/2 hours of your time? Well, I watched the whole thing, but my wife fell asleep. Granted, I'm a winemaker and she is not.

French Kiss:

This film... it's a romance about a tragically co-dependent Meg Ryan who pursues her cheating fiance to France, and finds herself falling for a thief instead. Wine plays a minor role in this film because the thief is an aspiring winemaker from a French wine-making family who wants to start his own vineyard. I like the spice-set the thief put together to teach himself and others to recognize flavors and scents in wine, but the premise that he steals an American vine and smuggles it to France so he can crossbreed it with French grapes is somewhat ludicrous.

A Good Year:

Stars Russell Crowe and directed by Ridley Scott.  Again, wine plays a minor role in this film about an English banker who inherits his uncle's ch√Ęteau in France. Not a bad movie, but definitely not an action thriller. Don't look at this as a follow-up to Gladiator. Expect romance and drama; you'll be fine.

Sideways: What the hell do I say about this movie? It won tons of awards and changed the way people in America think about wine. And the first time I saw it, I hated it. For starters, the main character and his sidekick were both jerks, and that's putting it delicately. They're shallow sociopaths who don't think twice about lying, cheating, or stealing from people they supposedly care about. In one definitive scene, the main character (a man in his thirties) steals money from his mother's sock drawer. A few minutes later, his best friend announces his goal of cheating on his fiance while they're on vacation. Suffice it to say, if I met either of these guys in real life I'd be tempted to punch them in the nose rather than share a bottle of wine with them. And it breaks my heart to think that this movie single-highhandedly nearly destroyed the wine market for Merlot because the protagonist hates Merlot (and yet seems to love wines blended with Merlot). 

I'm not saying Merlot is the best thing ever, but it's a good wine when done right, with soft tannins and lush, layered flavors. There is a reason Merlot is blended with just about every red out there. It gives body to weak wines and softens the tannins and acidity of Cabernet (which is just too easy to grow for this fictional connoisseur).

Eventually, the characters do find some -limited- growth and redeem themselves, in their own limited ways. After cheating on his fiance multiple times, Jack finally realizes that without her he's nothing and finds a rare moment of humility. Miles, the protagonist of the story, risks his neck and sacrifices his already blurred moral values to protect his good friend. A small thing in a character so flawed, to be sure, but it gives us something to believe in.

One of the things I missed -or forgot- about Sideways, was the subplot about the main character being an author. How did I miss that? Or, alternatively, How did I forget? It must be the fact that I hated the characters so much in the first viewing that I really wanted to distance myself from them in every way possible. "Miles" was a spineless wimp with major character defects, not the least of which were his snobbish, pretentious, and half-educated opinions on wine. On top of that, he was perfectly willing to lie about his friend's illicit affairs and steal thousands of dollars from his own mother. So what if he was an aspiring writer? I wanted nothing to do with him.

Well, it is an interesting twist in retrospect. The guy's an English teacher who writes a book and then can't find a publisher. He does have an agent, and she tactfully informs him that publishers aren't interested because they don't know how to market his book and the industry is falling apart because it's "all about the marketing." If there's anything worth taking from this movie, it's not what they say about wine but what they say about the publishing industry back in 2004.Maybe I should've paid more attention to this movie back then and saved myself a few years of futile submissions, painful rejections, and unbounded neglect.