Revising Forward

I recently wrote a post about “customer pain points” and addressing them through future revisions of past published books. One future revision I already did was to address a pain point in the story Zombie Nights where the final assassin had only appeared in the final chapter – I inserted a bit about her earlier in the story and that seems to have resolved that particular issue. Zombie Nights still has two major pain points and a possible path towards their resolution only occurred to me today, after serializing the story on Wattpad and getting the same feedback there.

I wrote Zombie Nights five years ago and through a lucky coincidence it became quite popular on Smashwords and remains so even now. garnering more than 100,000 downloads in its lifetime and still seeing around 10 per day. Future revisions will mean that future readers will encounter a different story, but fortunately for me I remain “nobody nowhere” so I still have this freedom.

The pain points are these: the story ends too quickly, and most readers wanted the zombie to follow the path of helping the homeless when he had the chance, when the charity guru “Cookie” makes him an offer to do so. In the current version, he sort of decides against it, being more compelled by his zombie nature to return to his gravesite, where he meets his sudden demise at the hands of the people who had killed him in the first place.

At the time when I wrote it, this made perfect sense to me, but I discovered that readers identify strongly with the protagonist – any protagonist – and they take the protagonist’s fate personally. It has to be led up to, they have to be guided, if that fate is to be unpleasant (witness the TV series Breaking Bad, where Walter ends up dying, but it was pretty much okay with everyone even though they loved him). Lenghtening Zombie Nights would let me prepare the reader better for the zombie’s fate. And, I could do this lengthening precisely by having him go to Cookie’s and do some work there, or try to. Essentially I want to close that possibility for the reader. That path cannot go anywhere but readers’ imaginations want to think it can. That escape route has to be cut off.

I believe I can still keep the ending exactly the way it is. I would need to extend chapter thirteen, where he turns left instead of turning right, earlier he could turn right first (into the first new chapter) and then later make the exact same fateful choice.

To pick up a story after five years and write new stuff into the middle of it is a challenge, because I will have to re-immerse myself into the story, and write the new stuff in the same voice as the person I was when I first wrote it. Who was that guy anyway and what was he thinking? It could be an interesting challenge.

Wattpad Weekly

Wanted to give a little shout out to some more of my favorite writers on #Wattpad:

@MichaelGraeme, first discovered on Feedbooks but I’m happy to see him sharing some of his great work here

@TipsyLit, the wonderful Ericka Clay

@wizzobravo, storyteller extraordinaire

I’ve also become engrossed in the Encante Trilogy by @CocoNichole and My Camino, a sweet travelogue by @AntoninosNatalis

Customer Pain Points

Writers can find that after certain amount of feedback, they can figure out the “customer pain points” of their story. The question then is what to do about it. For a long time my attitude was, hell, I wrote what I want, so there, but lately I’ve been adopting a different approach. I’m now thinking, what can I do to relieve their “pain” but without sacrificing my own perceptions. I’m treating it more as a software bug, and instead of closing the issue as “works as designed” I’m trying to resolve it as “fixed”.

I first did this with Zombie Nights a year or so ago. The customers didn’t like the way the character Racine just showed up in the last chapter, out of nowhere. “Surprise!”. I still wanted her to be something of a surprise, but I thought that a little foreshadowing might help the cause, so I added a brief scene with her a bit earlier on, although not by name and concealed behind a locked door. It was surprisingly effective, as I’ve not seen a single complaint since then.

Recently something similar occurred with Renegade Robot, an engaging little stor that never found much traction in the world at large. I serialized it on Wattpad and was very lucky to have it read by some good writers who all touched on the same “pain point”, a misunderstanding that was deliberate but confusing. I believe I’ve addressed it with a single sentence inserted into the first chapter. It may not be enough, but time will tell.

I’m also doing the same right now with Freak City. A customer pain point was the abruptness of the ending. I added a few more sentences that serve more as hand-holding – changing nothing but explaining a little more, and leading more definitively into the sequel. Originally there was no sequel and no intention of one, but in the end two more books followed, so it only helps to nudge the story along a bit.

This is one of the advantages of being an amateur writer. I can easily modify my books at any time. Past readers are stuck with what they read, it’s true, but future readers get the new version, and as far as I can tell, only the future is ahead of us.

Critical Thinking and Whiplash

Much human activity can be considered to be self-medication.  We have needs and we attend to them. Many activities can also be seen, in this light, as addictions. The young man in the movie Whiplash appears to suffer from a sort of obsessive-compulsion disorder that he treats with incessant jazz drumming practice. This is one way to see the movie. The other way, of course, is to see it as yet another remake of Rocky or Breaking Away. He wants to be great, we are told. “One of the greats” in his own words, and to be “great” requires endless sacrifice, hard work, persistence, dedication and above all “passion”. With those tools in hand, how can one not become “great”?

But “greatness” is a cultural artifact, not an objective achievement on a scale of one to ten. At one point in the movie the bully/teacher Fletcher intones that there are no more Charlie Parkers because everyone says “good job” and no one pushes hard enough, but the reason there are no more Charlie Parkers is that Jazz is not a thing and hasn’t been a thing that produces cultural greatness since the 1950’s. There are no more Mozarts, either. Why did Jazz die? Because all things die, not because nobody bloodied there fingers enough.

The movie seems to believe in the myth of the Great Artist more than it believes in the psychology of fucked-up people, but the young man (Andrew) is a fucked-up person, incapable of meaningful relationships, uninterested in the world for the most part, a youth who doesn’t have anything to say and doesn’t listen to anything outside of that one narrow band of acoustics. The movie doesn’t go there, except for a gesture towards a pop-babble notion that he drums compulsively because he never had a mother.

The Great Artist suffers for his art and thank God for that because otherwise we wouldn’t have Great Art. This is the myth, but the truth is that we ALWAYS have Great Art, because our societies demand that we have it, because as societies we need it, because it is a major component of our self-medication requirements. Therefore, we will always be declaring some Art to be Great, and that which is declared Great IS Great, ipso facto.

Some Great Artists suffer and some do not. Some get lucky in their time and place and some do not. Some make money and some do not. Some become famous in their lifetimes, and some do not. Having a passion is not enough. Talent, hard work, practice and perpetual improvement are not enough. You had better be aligned with your time and your place, and you had better hit all the right bells and beepers on your pinball voyage through the world. Failure is always an option, and the odds are in its favor.

The final scene of Whiplash reminded me of the rock concerts I went to in the 1970’s which for some reason always featured extensive drum solos. Nobody seemed to enjoy those sets. They were boring and obnoxious and went on far too long and eventually the whole concept was booed off the historical stage. What happens when the Great Artist’s Great Art is something nobody ends up wanting? It might be Great Art in another time and place, and art, more than most other human endeavors, does have the ability to time travel, but in that case the Great Artist is like a tree that falls in the forest. He didn’t make a sound, at least not then and there

This Week in Wattpad

This week in #Wattpad I’ve been happily reading some more good stuff, including (but not necessarily limited to)

Companionship by @PeerGlen, a genuine space opera with unusually inventive escapades and characters

Cursed Times – What Now? by @linahanson, a supernatural culture clash set in contemporary Ancient Egypt

Someday by @drwhogivesadamn, an exploratory friendship with the new kid next door, a fascinating reveal

Ally’s Revenge, by @BrandyLee1031, an unfolding drama told by two major characters as their paths draw closer to intersect

Phantoms of Folklore, by @joannajadoo, folk tales old and new told enchantingly by a gifted storyteller

A thief’s nightmare by @Keeylie, a clash of clans in a mythical world

The Magician’s Horses by @bkbennett made me race to the finish of this fascinating time travel experiment

@AnnWrites had me on the edge of my seat with two stories, The Trophy Wife’s Lover and 666: A Psychological Thriller

My “Library” is too full and the Android version of the Wattpad app is unpredictable – I never know what’s going to show up or in what order, but as always there’s no shortage of stories to check out there.

Satan’s Dollar Store

The first short short of a new collection that will be ongoing on Wattpad

SatansDollarStore_Cover1

The devil is in the details they say, but what they fail to disclose is that he is in every single one of them. On closer inspection they advise that you don’t look any closer. Leave it alone, they maintain, well enough or not. Everything must go.

That’s what the sign said. Everything must go. “Everything?” I asked myself. “What exactly do they mean by that? I wondered. I found myself walking nowhere in the dry and dusty part of town that day, dying of thirst, asking myself all sorts of stupid questions. I do that a lot. Walking nowhere, that is. It’s sort of my job. I’m a sidewalk inspector for the city. Anything wrong with your sidewalk, I write you up. The city makes you fix it. You pay. I would be an unpopular person if people knew what I was doing but they don’t. It’s not like I wear a sign or anything. I just walk around, eyes to the ground, looking for evil-doing concrete to write up in my little black book.

Here in the dry and dusty part of town there were a lot of ticket opportunities, but I was getting dizzy from the heat. All I wanted was a cool glass of water. All I saw were boarded up storefronts, liquor stores, check-cashing spots, and the last place on Earth I wanted to go into, a shop that advertised itself as Satan’s Dollar Store.

“Really?” I wondered aloud. “Everything must go?” I thought perhaps it was a general statement, along the lines of “all things must pass,” or “all good things come to an end” or “you get what you pay for”, because when I peeked inside the door I saw nothing on the shelves. It was as if the everything that had to go had already gone, but since it was the only business that seemed to be open, I went in anyway, figuring that even if they had nothing at all, they still might have some water.

It was a narrow store, six cozy aisles wide with shelves from floor to ceiling stocked chock full of empty air. Just inside the door, a man sat behind a counter, head propped up on elbows. I think he was asleep but then he stirred and half rose to greet me before settling back down again in his rickety wicker chair. He had one of those ridiculous hipster beards crawling down his neck and fingering its way up variegated paths on his cheeks. His arms were covered in green and yellow tattoos that resembled vines of tomatoes except they were bleeding. He was bleeding. It was real blood, and it was also dripping from his long and pointy nose. He was bald except for a braided pony tail that started somewhere halfway down the back of his head and extended, near as I could tell, to the faded and grimy linoleum floor.

He decided not to welcome me with words, but sort of grunted as he sat back down and wiped his bloody nose with the back of his hand. I was about to inquire about water when I noticed, at the far end of the store, a row of soda cans languishing on a lonely shelf.

“I don’t suppose you have any cold ones,” I asked him as I made my way towards those items.

“I don’t do cold,” he muttered into his beard.

I sighed but figured any old beverage would do, so I picked up one of the cans and was startled to discover how light it was.

“Is there anything in here?” I turned to ask him. “It feels like it’s empty.”

I put the can down and picked up its neighbor, which was likewise zero gee. I tried another, and another and quickly realized they were all the same, so I carried the last one I’d tested over to the counter and set it down. Maybe I was suffering from heat stroke, I thought. Maybe I couldn’t tell there was soda inside because it was my head that was empty as air.

“How much?” I asked. He looked up at me like I had eaten razor blades for lunch.

“One dollar,” he snorted, and a clump of blood flew out of his nose as he said the words, landing by my shoe. That was disgusting, but I didn’t want to be rude, so I pulled out a dollar and slapped it down on the counter and put my hand on the flip-top to open the can.

“You sure you want to do that?” he asked.

“Um, yeah,” I replied as sarcastically as I could. “Thirsty? Soda? Paid for?”

“Not soda,” he said.

“Not soda? What the?”

“Soul,” he said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, taking a step back and shaking the empty can. It really was empty, or at least there was no soda in it. I reached to grab my dollar off the counter but he was too quick. He grabbed it and said,

“Paid for, yup. Now you got it.”

“What exactly do I got?” I asked, tossing the can from one hand to the other. “What kind of place is this anyway? You got nothing on the shelves except for these empty soda cans. Looks like a lousy business model to me. I’m just saying.”

“Tell me about it,” he sighed. “Nobody’s selling their souls anymore, and those that do, ain’t hardly worth it. Can’t get nothing for them nowadays.”

“Right,” I said. “Selling their souls, huh? Like to the devil or something?”

“You can read, can’t you?” he asked. “You saw the sign, right?”

“Oh, like Satan’s Dollar Store? Seriously? That’s a terrible name for a business. No wonder you’re doing so poorly.”

“It is what it is,” he said, and it took me a minute to realize he meant that literally. This was actually Satan’s Dollar Store.

“What can I say?” he added. “It’s a franchise opportunity, and all I could afford was this lousy neighborhood.”

“Why soda cans?” I asked.

“Preservatives,” he shrugged. “They last longer this way. That one you got there? The one you bought? Check the expiration date. It’s on the bottom.”

“January Third,” I read after turning the can over, “three thousand four hundred and ninety eight?”

“Long shelf life, eh?” he grinned, but the smile quickly turned to a grimace as he added, “like that’s going to do anyone any good.”

I did some quick calculations and discovered that my one dollar purchase had an incredible amortization rate, less than a penny a century!

“Will it go up in value?” I asked, thinking investment opportunity.

“Maybe,” he said, “if there’s ever a market for a sad sack loser. That soul, phew. Guy sold it to me for a night in Vegas with a certain showgirl. Hope he got his money’s worth.”

“She must have been something,” I mused.

“I suppose,” he said. “Meant nothing to me. I was just doing my job. Guy wants to sell, I got to buy. It’s the rules.”

“I know what you mean, man,” I said sympathetically. “It’s like with my job. I see a badly cracked sidewalk, I got to write the ticket, whether that homeowner can afford it or not.”

“You?” He shouted, rising from his chair. “You’re that guy? I got one of those tickets a couple of weeks ago. That was you? You got a lot of nerve showing your face around here. Give me that.”

He grabbed the can out of my hand and threw the dollar in my face.

“You don’t deserve him,” he said, “now get out of here, and stay out, if you know what’s good for you. I got a little black book of my own, you know.”

I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t even pick up my dollar bill as it fluttered to the ground but hustled my tail back out to the street, but I’ll tell you one thing. If you ever see a sign saying “everything must go”, don’t even give it a second’s thought, just turn your head away and act like you never even saw it. Some deals are just too good to be true.