Monday, January 28, 2019

The Art of Appeal

When I wrote and published my first novel, "The Big Men," back in 2017, I had a few specific goals in mind for it. Mostly, they centered around the notions of challenging myself artistically, and completing the project to the best of my ability.

I knew from the onset that "The Big Men" would face an uphill battle in terms of finding its audience, not for any lack of quality or value as a novel, but by virtue of being an independently-published debut from an unknown author, featuring an unorthodox premise and literary style. In short, I did not expect much of "The Big Men" from a commercial standpoint beyond the relatively-modest goal of establishing myself as a "professional" novelist via its meager sales.

In retrospect, I still feel good about the way I handled the marketing of my first book: Keeping things rather low key and low impact, and letting the book find its audience at an organic, albeit somewhat glacial pace. I've always been a firm believer in the idea that some manifestations of creativity are more art than product and to me, "The Big Men," being one such example, warranted a more subtle approach.

Of course, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with a given work having an inherent, commercial appeal. Many might argue quite successfully that such efforts often represent the pinnacle of any medium, being simultaneously artistically and commercially viable.

Still, I've always had a soft spot for the sort of avant-garde, off-kilter manifestations of art that by their very nature, challenge the traditional standards of comfort and acceptance in those who experience them. As such, I can't help but be proud of what I accomplished in that regard with "The Big Men" as I feel it manifests those qualities in satisfying, compelling ways.

 As rewarding and personally fulfilling as the experience of writing "The Big Men" and bringing it to market was for me, I felt it was important to begin to show my range as a writer with my second novel, which led to me taking a very different approach, with a very different set of goals in mind, as I began work on "309."

For me, one of the more interesting takeaways I've gleaned from my experience is that there is in essence a different form of artistry in creating something of quality intended to be broadly appealing. When preparing to write "309," the cynical portion of my brain had repeatedly sparked a protest in my conscious mind suggesting that there was something invalid or unworthy about the premise of creating something with the specific intent of mass appeal. It was as if I'd been conditioned to view such an effort as less than artistic.

Ironically, this could not have proven to be further from the truth in my case. As it turned out, I found myself artistically challenged in a very different way by virtue of the constraints I'd willingly adopted. I have no doubt that such constraints are often used as an excuse for lazy, or half-hearted creative efforts in many circumstances but I was genuinely surprised to find just how much creativity and intellectually-satisfying output was required from me to ultimately craft something artistically valid, yet broadly accessible.

Having said that, I still often embrace and generally appreciate the value of a less constrained, more raw artistic expression but I feel I've also turned an important corner as a writer by challenging myself in a different way, without compromising my core standards of quality and authenticity.

As an added bonus, the critical response to "309" has consistently backed up that assertion. A development that, while absolutely not essential, certainly doesn't hurt. :)

Monday, January 7, 2019

Juggling Fire - Reflections on Self Publishing

It's been nearly two years since I committed to the idea of publishing my first novel. The story behind that decision is one I'll probably tell at some point but for the purposes of this post, I want to focus on what the self publishing experience has been like for me as I approach the end of my marketing efforts for my second novel, and prepare to begin work on something new.

In truth, I've been self publishing for much longer than two years. From the multiple incarnations of this blog, to indie music releases, to a handful of video game projects, to releasing content on several YouTube channels, plus live streaming on Twitch, I've never been shy about putting my creative works out there and making the most out of the self-publishing tools and platforms available to me.

That said, there is something a bit different about book publishing. For one thing, it takes considerably more time and effort to write, edit, publish, and market a novel than some of the other things I mentioned. Of course, recording, mixing, mastering, distributing, and marketing an album is no joke either, not to mention the borderline nightmarish to-do list associated with publishing a video game, or other complex piece of software. Still, there is something particularly intense about self publishing books.

To an extent, I think it comes down to two related factors:
  1. The time investment required versus the statistical likelihood of a return on that investment, be it monetary or some other form of fulfillment.
  2. Facing broad competition on a mostly-level playing field.
In the first case, when you look at the time investment versus the likelihood of success of self publishing a book compared to other creative endeavors, I'd argue that the ratio is, at least on paper, the least favorable for the content creator. You could quite literally spend months (or years) writing a spectacular novel of a given type but if any other aspect of the process falters, editing or marketing for example, your project will almost certainly be doomed to obscurity.

Perhaps even more daunting is the full comprehension of the second premise. It's more than a little intimidating to start, much less finish, a novel-length writing project knowing that there are literally thousands of other people, who may have a similar or even superior set of skills and experience, simultaneously doing the same.

In the worlds of music, or computer programming for example, there's a certain skill gap that prevents many people from even attempting to create software, a video game, a song, or an album. Even in less technically-demanding venues like YouTube and Twitch, there are still skills and levels of commitment that tend to organically separate content creators into tiers. Additionally, the visual nature of those platforms often make those distinctions obvious at a glance.

Of course, there's a similar effect in the world of books when it comes to potential readers browsing cover art and book jackets to see what catches their eye; however, with the sea of new titles being constantly released, the odds are definitely stacked against anyone self publishing, even with a solid marketing strategy.

So, why bother? Why even attempt to self publish a book, much less two in the span of two years, when statistically, the odds of success are so low?

I suspect that the answers to this question may well vary significantly from person to person but for me, it boils down to a couple key principles:

First and foremost, I have an inherently strong desire to create things. At the end of the day, that's just the way I'm wired and as I've aged, I've felt compelled to push the boundaries of my creativity, attempting to find the limits of my various abilities. Music production and video game development in particular have proven to be very useful experiences in that regard as they've both allowed me to grow and refine skills, while simultaneously learning important lessons about my creative limits, and the value of working with other talented, creative people to fill in those gaps when necessary.

Beyond that, I'm a firm believer in the idea of choosing the right artistic medium for what I'm trying to express, regardless of any financial considerations. If I can make a point in a few words, a simple tweet might suffice. If I want to show the raw, unfiltered experience of playing a video game for the first time, a three-hour Twitch stream might be necessary. Along those lines, if I want to tell an intricate, extensive story, a novel is simply what's required.

It's fair to say that I've taken some rather significant financial hits over the years for the sake of my creative efforts. In truth, I've only ever lost money, often quite a bit of it, by pursuing my artistic leanings. Thus, I'll absolutely echo here what many other content creators have said in that regard. Self publishing is generally not a path to financial security. For every financially-successful, self-employed content creator, there are literally thousands of others working one or more day jobs, dipping into savings, or relying on some form of investment to absorb the expenses incurred by their efforts. Casual observers often assume that these folks simply "aren't good enough" to "make it" but the hard truth of content creation is that we do not exist in a meritocracy and there are far too many hard-working, extremely-talented content creators languishing in obscurity as I write this for me to believe otherwise.

Having said that, I remain committed to the notion that creativity is its own reward. Even with my limited commercial success as a novelist to this point, the sense of personal satisfaction that I've attained, combined with the glorious sensations I experience when interacting with fans of my work, conspire to fuel my creative fire.

The trick of course in dealing with fire is to handle it carefully and responsibly, particularly when juggling it.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Relentless - a poem by Michael Shotter

Often, when I'm preparing to start a major writing project, I like to knock out a few, small mood pieces to help set the tone and get my mind into the right headspace for the task at hand.

These efforts are almost always exclusively for my own benefit since they tend to manifest as fragments of ideas that may or may not evolve into more as I work; however, occasionally, I'll end up with something that feels a bit more complete. I thought I'd share one of those with you today as I'm pretty happy with it and feel it acts as a nice, bite-sized teaser for what I'm planning to unleash on you folks in 2019.

More on that later. For now, enjoy this happy, little poem. :)

a poem by Michael Shotter

There is a creature in my mind,
a constant, seething something.
Born of a need to create,
or fear of making nothing.

Its bright eyes pierce, a laser's gaze.
Its mouth, drawn grim and eager.
Its claws, outstretched toward my throat.
Its malice, far from meager.

I cannot run. I cannot hide.
One weapon aids my cause.
Alone, I fight. Now, I must write,
relentless, with no pause.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

My Favorite Albums of 2018

Back in December, I shared a playlist featuring my favorite albums of 2018 on Twitter. Having recently broadened the scope of this blog, I thought it might be fun to expand on that list, explaining a bit about each of the projects I selected, and why.

Obviously, I didn't listen to everything that was released in 2018 and these picks are just my personal favorites based on what I did hear. As such, don't be sad if your favorite album isn't listed and definitely don't take an album's absence from this list as an indication of its quality. With that said, let's begin.

#10 - Above & Beyond - Common Ground

I've always been a fan of EDM and electronica but I have to admit, it's pretty rare for an entire album's worth of such material to capture and hold my attention these days. I don't know if Above and Beyond's "Common Ground" is something I'll be listening to from beginning to end years from now, but I did find myself happily taking it all in more than a few times in 2018.

#9 - Gorillaz - The Now Now

Left rather disappointed by the last Gorillaz release, "Humanz," I was equally cautious and hopeful to give "The Now Now" a spin. As it turned out, I've found it to be a consistent, pleasant listen. While certainly not as bold, varied, or unique as earlier efforts, I think there's plenty here to like and the project has a nice flow that I feel makes it work well as an album.

#8 - Muse - Simulation Theory

In my opinion, this is the best Muse album since "The Resistance." I'm also a fan of many of the alternate versions of songs included as bonus tracks.

#7 - The Smashing Pumpkins - Shiny and Oh So Bright, Vol. 1

I really enjoyed The Smashing Pumpkin's "Oceania" back in 2012. This new album kinda feels to me like an extension of that project. Admittedly, it comes across a little light on content and new musical ideas but I do also enjoy listening to it.

#6 - You Me At Six - VI

A solid, fun pop-rock record with a little bit of edge, and sporting a few interesting musical wrinkles. Nothing wrong with that in my book.

#5 - Jack White - Boarding House Reach

If you're in the mood for an intricate, challenging, yet ultimately satisfying rock record, this new Jack White album won't disappoint.

#4 - Judas Priest - FIREPOWER

Easily, one of the best hard rock/metal albums I've heard in the past 20 years. Also, Rob Halford's vocal performances are nothing short of amazing, particularly given his age.

#3 - The Sword - Used Future

Not sure I'd call this a full-blown concept album but it's hard to deny the consistent, atmospheric presence of "Used Future." Definitely a great mood piece, with some fantastic, memorable instrumental elements amid a solid collection of ear worm-esque rock tracks.

#2 - Death Cab for Cutie - Thank You for Today

Historically, I haven't been a huge "Death Cab for Cutie" fan but this album really surprised me and I've found myself listening to it far more frequently than I ever thought I would.

#1 - Shakey Graves - Can't Wake Up

For me, this is the album from 2018 that everyone should own. So good, on so many levels. Beyond its musical excellence, I can't help noting that "Can't Wake Up" for me uncannily captures the essence of the year itself. I can absolutely envision myself listening to these tracks in the future and being transported back to this time, despite the generally-timeless quality of the music. It's a difficult phenomenon to articulate but there you have it. If nothing else, do give this album a try. There's something genuinely special about it.

As an added bonus, here's a playlist featuring my favorite tracks of 2018, which includes three songs from each of the albums listed above, and some additional music genres.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Why Apple Should Care More About Power Users

I've been an avid user of and advocate for macOS ever since the initial release of "OS X" back in the early 2000's. For many years, I've considered it to be the obvious choice for just about every possible task one might wish to engage in when using a computer, with gaming being the one, notable exception. In truth, when it comes to the things I tend to use a computer for these days, macOS is still the best solution for me; however, Apple does have a bit of a problem on its hands in 2019, which is worth examining. Ironically, it's a problem of their own making, which certainly isn't unprecedented, but still a bit frustrating for those of us who are comfortable using Apple gear, and who aren't particularly keen on the alternatives.

In a nutshell, that problem can be boiled down to a troubling lack of support in recent years for a small-yet-influential group, often referred to in technology circles as "power users." Depending on the criteria used to define said group, it could be argued that power users represent 2-10% of all computer users on the planet at any given time. These are folks who push a computer to its limits on a regular basis for a variety of reasons and they tend to be the most astute, demanding, and difficult to please customers a tech company might attract with its products.

The conundrum power users pose to a corporation like Apple is that, while they represent an empirically-insignificant portion of the company's sales, they simultaneously require significant investments of capital, R&D time, and extremely-specialized technical support resources to cater to their needs effectively. As a result, on paper, it might seem like a no-brainer to shift emphasis away from power users and toward the average consumer, particularly as the company and its products grow in popularity, as Apple has in the past decade.

The simple truth of the matter is that 90% of people who use Macs and iOS devices these days use only a tiny fraction of the capabilities of those systems. From customers purchasing desktops and laptops to primarily check e-mail and surf the web, to most cell phone and tablet users regularly using six or fewer apps by many estimates, it's easy to see why a company like Apple would want to soak up as much of that easy money as possible for as long as it can.

Unfortunately, by focusing the vast majority of its attention and resources on the low-hanging fruit of mass-market, consumer electronics, particularly in the past five years or so, Apple has accumulated a rather significant technical debt that has begun to manifest in some rather alarming and embarrassing ways. You need look no further than the "Mac Pro," the desktop computer purported to represent the pinnacle of performance and functionality for macOS users, which hasn't seen a significant update since 2013 to begin to see the cracks in Apple's armor that hardcore technology enthusiasts have been lamenting for years.

Beyond that, Apple hasn't done itself any favors in recent months by releasing half-cooked OS features like macOS Mojave's "Dark Mode," which comes across to me as more of a demo, or proof of concept, rather than the refined, fully-functional OS feature it was billed as, or the company's recent efforts to lock down macOS to utterly prevent the execution of unsigned binaries, effectively forcing all software developers and users to play ball in Apple's walled garden or take a hike.

The sad reality is that I could go on and on citing the myriad of ways Apple has either let down or flagrantly rebuffed power users in recent years, which has led to the first significant exodus from its platforms by said users I've seen in over a decade. Why does this matter if power users represent at best 10% of the user base? Quite simply, power users are the influencers of the technology world. They are the people the other 90% turn to for technical support and recommendations. In many cases, they also create the software, data, and media products that drive, not only the tech industry, but other professions that heavily rely on technology. Thus, if a tech company loses them, it inevitably loses everything.

One could certainly make the argument that Apple has been overtly attempting to transition from being a tech company into a sort of service provider and lifestyle brand via efforts like Apple Pay, Apple Music, and the Apple watch in recent years. Still, the vast majority of Apple's value as a company remains inextricably linked to its traditional hardware and software offerings, which are the most likely to suffer the consequences of the inevitable blow to its mindshare within the tech industry should power users continue to seek greener pastures.

For me, there are two big questions when it comes to Apple in 2019:
  1. Do they have any interest in solving this problem? 
  2. Is it too late to turn the tide?
Personally, I think a lot is going to hinge on what happens with the "Mac Pro" in the new year. It's been known for quite a while that Apple has been working on a new, modular version of its flagship desktop computer, which is supposedly going to address most if not all of the long-standing complaints power users have had about the platform. If that does come to pass, I think it could be an important, first step toward Apple beginning to regain some of its lost credibility.

Of course, releasing the computer it should have shipped six years ago in and of itself probably won't be enough to convince those who have already jumped ship and this is where I think Apple has the biggest issue and hurdle to overcome. Apple's blind spot in recent years has been a presumption of excellence with regard to its own products, and a failure to look beyond its current success. It's pretty evident that Tim Cook and company have been diligently wringing the last bits of magic out of the playbook Steve Jobs left them upon his passing to good effect but its also quite clear that Apple is in desperate need of some new ideas, or at the very least, a return to the fundamental principles that got them where they are.

Can that happen in time to prevent a total collapse of Apple's ecosystem? Perhaps. I certainly hope so because, frankly, the idea of having to use Windows or Linux to do anything important kinda makes me sad. Fortunately, I'm fairly confident that I'll be able to continue using macOS for years to come, regardless of how this all plays out. It would just be nice to be able to, once again, feel good about the future of the platform, and less like it being the lesser of three evils.

To wrap things up, I'd like to give a quick shout out to MacRumors. I've been visiting that site for ages and their "What Do You Want to See From Apple in 2019" post definitely inspired me to speak out on this subject.