Potlatch World

What’s all this sudden interest in technology and energy use?  It’s not really sudden.  I just don’t feel like writing about literature for awhile.  See post for 11/17.  So why not write about baking bread, or the Argentine tango, or the joys of riding fixed-gear bicycles?  Lots of things I could say on those topics.  Instead, this depressing meditation on our childish preoccupation with flashy toys.

What set me off most recently was the people down the street.  Red-blooded Americans, they are poster children for the notion that if we decrease our dependence on fossil fuels, the terrorists have won.  They have a motorboat the size of the Titanic, though the nearest piece of water big enough to float it in is fifty miles away.  To get it there, they have the obligatory big-block crew-cab monster truck.  Also a ginormous SUV and various quads and dirt bikes.  Even the kids have gas-powered kiddie trucks.  Their flat-screen TV is the size of Montana.  Their outdoor Christmas display can be seen from outer space.

Friday morning after Thanksgiving there they were, setting up the 15’ inflatable illuminated Santa.  I’d somehow managed to forgot about him.  This year there’s a Santa Junior as well.  He’s only 8’ tall.  The number of lights has approximately doubled.  So far I cannot read a book, in my own house, by the glow.  Not quite.

 

What am I?  A grinch?

 

In 1884 the US government made the Northwest American Indian custom of potlatch punishable by a prison term of two to six months.  Potlatch was seen as wasteful, heathen, and essentially uncivilised.

Potlatch was a gift-giving festival.  A wealthy clan would hold a feast at which they would give away much of the surplus they’d accumulated over the past year.  It was a formalized way, on the one hand, of demonstrating your own clan’s great wealth.  Typical gifts would be preserved foods, manufactured articles, and slaves.  Potlatch could get quite competitive.  In its most extreme form, brand-new and perfectly useful items would be ceremonially destroyed.

The ban on potlatch was repealed in 1951, mostly as it proved to be unenforceable.  I am unaware that anyone ever pointed out that it was also tremendously hypocritical.

There are lots of ways we flaunt our wealth by throwing it away.  Edible gold cake decorations, for example: straight down the toilet.  But mostly what we do is burn things up.

The anti-grinch squad can see where I’m going here.  How can I possibly think of depriving little kids of the joys of Christmas?

 

Flying Cars

Do you read the news?  Pretty depressing stuff, much of the time.  As an historian, I remind myself that people are no worse today than they always have been.  As a citizen of a doomed planet, I note that modern technology has vastly increased the amount of evil any one individual can perpetrate.  Back in July, a single lunatic named Anders Breivik managed to wreck a fair chunk of downtown Oslo and kill 77 people with a fertilizer bomb and an assault rifle.  In China on the other hand, where weapons of mass murder are more difficult to acquire, the violently unhinged are forced to rely primarily on bladed weapons, and also to focus on children.  Within the past two years there have been at least eight attacks in or near elementary schools and child-care centers.  Used in the assaults were knives, box cutters, a cleaver, an axe, and a short sword (two feet long, or about the equivalent of the old Roman gladius).  Highest death toll in these attacks: nine.

Comparisons may be odious, and this one is unfair.  Breivik was a meticulous planner, while the Chinese attackers were in every case basically running amok.  Still, having technology in your hand is key.  In ’91, George Hennard ran amok in a Luby’s restaurant.  Using two semi-automatic handguns he killed 23 people (and wounded another 20),

Of course, technology doesn’t kill people.  People kill people.

 

It’s an interesting time just now in the history of technology.  (May you live in interesting times, goes the old curse.)  Since the Industrial Revolution we’ve been capable of seriously degrading the earth’s ability to sustain life.  Since the splitting of the atom we’ve been capable of going out with a bang.

How do you suppose the situation in Iran will play out?  Will the people of Yahweh use their new American-built bunker-busters to put a crimp in the people of Allah’s nuclear program?  Seems pretty likely.  And if they do?  And if they don’t?

 

So much destructive power in the hands of so many people driven by anger and, yes, madness.

So it was with great interest that I read today about a guy out in California who’s intent on using technology to solve some truly urgent problems.  Paul Moller, a retired professor of mechanics and aircraft construction, is working on a flying car.  Fifty years he’s been working on it now, while burning through cash at an average rate of two million dollars per year.

Who doesn’t want a flying car?  When I was eight years old, that was the sort of thing that really got me excited.  Actually, at eight I was sure we’d all be zooming around in personal helicopters by this 21st century.  How disappointing, the plodding pace of progress.

Flying cars.  Wow.  The flight will be controlled, we read, by an on-board computer.  Good thing computers never crash.

And when it lands, it’s a car!  You can drive it around!  One little fender-bender and your air-worthiness is kaput.

Seems like a lot of technology to put in the hands of an animal the average specimen of which can barely parallel-park.

Also, I’m curious about how much real estate you need for takeoffs and landings.  Vertical takeoffs and landings, but that’s 880 horsepower of thrust we’re talking.  You wouldn’t want to be standing next to one of these things.

Another practical consideration not taken up in the article was fuel economy.  Eight hundred and eighty horsepower.  Flying, which is hardly a fuel-efficient way to travel.  I’m thinking two or three miles per gallon, tops.

 

Am I alone in thinking that when it comes to technology, people think like eight-year-olds?  A hundred million dollars is what various investors have put into this thing so far.  Seems like a silly thing to spend all that money on.  Especially at this very interesting time in the history of technology.  Criminally childish, coming up with new ways to burn up vast amounts of a dwindling resource.

Unless it went underwater, too.  A flying submarine car?  Gotta have one.

When is a Grail not a Grail?

Sir Perceval is most traditionally the hero of the grail quest, although in some versions the hero is Sir Galahad, and according to a certain Heinrich von dem Türlin the hero is Sir Gawain.  Heroes come, heroes go, but the grail is always the grail.  Except when it isn’t.  But when it is, it’s always a shallow serving dish.  Except when it isn’t.

Wagner, although he was inspired by the Middle German epic poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach whose grail is most assuredly of the sideboard variety, changes the dish to a spear.

Dan Brown says it’s Mary Magdalene’s womb.

Monty Python is not specific, but seems to want to indicate that the grail is the cup from the Last Supper.  A popular choice these latter days.

There is historical precedent for all of these alternatives.  The grail, being a metaphor, can mean different things to different people.  The grail, since no one’s actually seen it, can change it’s shape.

 

Early on in the research stage for What is the Meaning of All This? I came across an internet rumor that the grail (the holy grail) had been brought to Accokeek, Maryland by Sir Walter Raleigh in a ship called the Susan Constant.  The Susan Constant actually existed.  She sailed from England in 1606 with a cargo of 105 of the hardy souls who founded Jamestown.  The last record of her is from 1615.  She is mentioned by name, along with her sister ships on the Jamestown voyage, by – ‘presumably’ as Wikipedia has it – Sir Walter Raleigh.  Except that whoever did pen the mention attributed to Raleigh seems to recall that her name was not Susan but SarahSusan is from Samuel Purchas’ chronicle of the Pilgrims.  We don’t know who got it wrong, but I’m pleased to report that the mix-up has engendered a small but vigorous amount of scholarly controversy.  The floating replica of the ship, which you can see at Jamestown, is named Susan.

The internet rumor did not mention how Raleigh had got his paws on the grail, nor why he’d want to take it to Accokeek.  Nor what he did with it once he got it there.

Accokeek is across the Potomac from Mount Vernon, Virginia.  It just so happens that I have good friends who live in Accokeek.  Maybe I ought to get a metal detector and a shovel, and go out for a visit.

Why Accokeek?  At the time that Raleigh (died 1618) brought the grail, there was no place called Accokeek.  There was an Indian village there by a creek.  The Accokeek Indians, who occupied the site until about 1630.  The first European to sail past this site was Captain John Smith.  In 1652 it was granted to a certain John Withers, who later sold it to a chap named Peyton, who in his turn sold it in 1662 to George Mason.  Who named his plantation Accokeek after the now-absent Indian tribe.

Possibly, whoever cooked up the Accokeek grail rumor willfully or otherwise tricked himself into believing that George Mason was a member of the Masonic Order.  (For all I know, he was, but it seems more likely a coincidence of names.  Any George Mason scholars out there care to set me straight?)

So: The Susan (or Sarah) Constant, which was known to have sailed from England to America.  A written mention of the ship by someone who may have been the storied and infamous Sir Walter Raleigh.  A site named Accokeek (with a faint Captain John Smith connection) owned by the influential George whose name happened to be Mason.

Toss these all together in a shallow serving dish, and what do you have?  The years don’t rightly match up, but hey; at least they’re all in the same century.

How clever of the Knights Templar to have hidden the grail in England.  Where, come to think of it, it would have been handed off to Raleigh by Queen Elizabeth.

 

Get involved in mystical stuff like a grail quest and you never know what you’ll find.  I found a name for my heroine: Susan Constant.  And a birthplace for her: Accokeek, Maryland.

Metaphors Be With You

The quest for the grail is an extended metaphor.  The grail itself (graal in Middle English) is nothing.  Okay, it’s a shallow serving dish.

The story of the quest for the grail is not about finding a shallow serving dish.  If it’s about finding anything, it’s about finding one’s self.

The usual hero of the story is Perceval.  Who is the son of a king (and thus eligible for hero-hood) but has been brought up in ignorance of his true identity.  His mother, heartbroken by the death in battle of her husband, has tried to shield her boy from any knowledge of knights and knightly deeds.  So she raises him deep in a forest, far from any court.  But one day, of course, he meets some knights.  They have really cool armor and stuff, and he decides he wants to be just like them.  He runs off to become a knight, which kills his dear old mum.

Percy really has no idea what that is: being a knight.  He knows, quite literally, nothing at all.  He is a blank slate.  The pure fool.  He does not even know his name (see – it’s all about finding your identity) because mum never called him anything but ‘dear boy’ and ‘pretty boy’.

Pretty boy sets out for knighthood and adventure.  Utterly clueless (and a double-barreled ass to boot) he makes lots of mistakes along the way.  Lots and lots.  Slowly, painfully, he learns the things one needs to learn in order to become a complete human being.  The first of these is love, and the last is regard for others.  (Yes, it’s a little bit backwards.)

Actually, he finds the grail long before he’s ready, as they say, to achieve it.  He stumbles upon it at the mystical Castle Munsalvaesche.  The lord of the castle (the grail king) is Anfortas.  Anfortas, centuries before the time of our story, achieved himself a certain mystical wound.  He’s got the point of a spear lodged in his nuts, and thus can neither walk nor ride a horse.  He can neither stand not sit nor lie.  All he can do is lean on things.  The only thing that can cure him (and, incidentally, save the world) is for a pure and perfect knight to arrive at the castle and ask him the redeeming question – What ails thee?

Percy does not ask the question.  He sits dumbly all through the elaborate ceremony of the grail without saying a word.  In the morning the castle is empty (or completely gone – there are different versions).  Percy rides around for five more years, and then is given a second chance.  This time (having been given a crib sheet) he gets it right.  The world is saved, and Percy becomes the new grail king.

What does the grail have to do with all this?  Nothing, really.  It’s only a McGuffin.  What’s a McGuffin?  Hitchcock says: “It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.”  In the grail story, it’s a shallow serving dish with certain magical properties.  For instance, it’s a bottomless cornucopia of food and drink for anyone present at the daily grail ceremony.  Also, if you look at it, you cannot die for at least another week.  Anfortas sees it every day.  Hence his centuries-long plight.

 

How does the McGuffin of a story get confused with an actual physical historical (and holy) object?  In two words, wishful thinking.  If you were a member of the Knights Templar, the two words would be: bad luck.

The Knights Templar were a by-product of the Crusades.  Briefly, they were founded around 1129 with the mission of protecting pilgrims to the newly conquered city of Jerusalem.  Where their headquarters was the Temple Mount.  Although the individual members were sworn to poverty, the order itself grew quite rich.  Also popular.  But when the Muslims took their conquered lands back, support for the Templars began to fade.  In 1307 (see the fine Wikipedia article on them for a fuller treatment) Louis IV of France decided he wanted their money.  And treasures.  Among which, most certainly, was the holy grail.  All that time in possession of the Temple Mount, they must have dug the damn thing up.

The strategic error the Templars had made was in running their organization like a boy’s clubhouse.  Secret initiation ceremonies and that sort of thing.  Like the Masons.  Secrets, wealth, and power – of course they became a target.

By 1307 the grail tale, a piece of fiction, had been for a hundred years one of the most popular stories in Europe.  People were all to ready to accept parts of it as fact.  (This is a problem today as well; we get our history from the movies.  A recent study shows that college students, even if given factual information and also warned that the movie treatment they are about to see is a fictionalization, are more likely than not to accept the tinselized version as real.)

The king of France, strapped for cash, wanted that grail.  Members of the Knights Templar, under torture, confessed that they had it.  More members were tortured.  Remarkably, none of them revealed where it was hidden.  Unremarkably, this merely served as proof that it was somewhere to be found.

 

We love secret mystical stuff.  We want to believe in the grail’s physical existence.  Which is a mistake that keeps us from understanding what it really is.  Which is: a McGuffin.  An element that helps drive the story.  What the story is about, is us.

Been There, Wrote That

The 17th already?  And only the second blog entry for the month.  Caramba.  What a lackadaisical blogger I am.

It was easier to stay on top of this when I was driving truck.  Hunkered down in the sleeper cab, parked in some diesel- and urine-redolent truckstop, it was pretty easy to find the time to write an entry.  The trickier part was locating a good wi-fi signal so I could post it.

Here at home, the distractions are legion.  I could make a list.  Something the heroine of What is the Meaning of All This? is fond of doing.

Susan Constant; that’s her name.  The poor girl; I thought about her every day for so long, and now I’ve cast her aside.

Hemingway, who was also a whiner, also talks about this problem.  From the perspective of a rich and successful writer, however, which is a little different from my own situation.  Papa, as he liked to be called, complains about how when he’s been working long and hard on a book, people seem to think he’s just sitting on his ass.  Once the book is published, they praise him for all the hard work he does.  While he sits on his ass, because once the book is done he does in fact do just that until he starts on the next one.

What a writer wants to do, once a book is finished, is anything but think or talk or write about the book.  He’s gone out there to the deep water, found the monster, caught it, fought with it, reeled it in, laboriously brought it home.  (This is the metaphor from The Old Man and the Sea, which Hemingway claims is not a metaphor.)  The old fisherman is exhausted.  Days and days he spent out there, with nothing to eat but some raw bonito.  To catch the great fish, he has sacrificed hundreds of feet of good line and assorted other tackle.  His hands are cut to the bone, and he’s begun coughing up blood.  In his tragic running fight with the sharks over his catch, he’s lost his knife and, as I recall, a few pieces of his boat.  By the time he makes land, with nothing to show for his efforts but the gnawed bones of what had once been a magnificent fish, all he wants to do is go home to bed.

All I want to is work on the next book.

Instead, I’ve got to do marketing.  Which is what this blog is ultimately about.  Kind of pathetic as a marketing effort, but then I’m not a marketer.  What I’m told I need to do is mount a huge Facebook campaign.  Facebook gives me the heebie-jeebies.

Wish I knew a good marketer willing to take this off my hands.

Then I could get busy on the next book, for which I already have a rough sketch.  Except that before I get too involved with that, I need to go through that old screed The Great American Desert to get it ready for Kindle.

And then there’s always the job I ought to go find.  That, of course, would be the practical thing to do, as of course this whole fiction thing is, so I hear, merely a by-product of the Industrial Revolution.  And my chances of ever making a living by writing stories are infinitesimally small.  Something, by the way, that I have no need for anyone to clue me in on.

The trouble with having a job is that, historically, it makes me unproductive as a writer.  And while I see the advantages of having a roof over my head, I also have this compulsion to write.  So for now I choose to be impractical.

What a lot of whining.

Mañana, for a change, I’ll blog something about WITMOAT.  Really.  Kerouac has a good line about mañana, which is a favorite word of some Mexicans he falls in with outside of LA.  What a beautiful word, he says.  It probably means heaven.

Is it a Religious Book?

That’s what a potential customer, her eye on the title, asked the other day.  She was not, she warned me, religious.

No, I assured her.  Not a religious book at all.  It’s based, in fact, on one of the stories surrounding King Arthur and his famous Table.

Usually the religious question comes up only once they see the subtitle or after I foolishly explain that the story is based on the story of the grail.

The Holy Grail? they ask.

Not exactly.

Strange, that I should have got wrapped up in the grail story.  I’d had Wagner’s operatic take on the grail inflicted on me, at the tender age of twenty, in Vienna, where they pull every single stop when presenting Germanic culture heroes.  Five hours this pageant went on.  Says Mark Twain, “I have witnessed and greatly enjoyed the first act of everything which Wagner created, but the effect on me has always been so powerful that one act was quite sufficient; whenever I have witnessed two acts I have gone away physically exhausted; and whenever I have ventured an entire opera the result has been the next thing to suicide.”

Twain also said Wagner’s music is better than it sounds, to which I would add: in small doses.  Everyone, for instance, knows the first nineteen notes of an excerpt from Scene 1, Act 3 of the second opera of a four-opera cycle.  The Valkyrie number.  Chiefly these days, we know this theme from the movie Apocalypse Now.  A well-chosen piece of soundtrack.  The movie is a bombast-fest.

 

About halfway through Wagner’s opera, there in Vienna, I entered another dimension.  I had been, up to that point, utterly bored.  We’d already read the very short text, and discussed it, and been assured by our professor, Herr Spycher, of the deeply deep meaning of the thing.  Herr Spycher had also vehemently but unconvincingly denied any racial slant to the opera, brushing aside the Jewish girl’s query anent Wagner’s anti-Semitism.  But that’s yet another story.  In this one, I’m sitting in something like the 5th balcony, looking down on this lavish and utter nonsense, bored out of my skull and unable to get on my hind legs and go because Herr Spycher is sitting two seats away.  When, two and a half hours in, I was no longer bored.  I had entered a state in which time had no meaning.  I could look on, as from a great height, and find a certain detached amusement at the pageant going on below, at the whole scene of being at the Vienna Opera House, of me sitting there trapped but irremediably clocked out.  At some point in not-time, the spectacle was over.  There were numerous curtain calls, adulation, then up came the house lights.  I found my out of the really very ornate temple known as the Vienna Opera House.  In a most peculiar state, somewhere between wakefulness and lucid dreaming, I headed north around the Ringstraße to Wáhringer Straße to the long hike up Nußdorfer Straße to where I had a room in the 19th district.

My version of the grail story is more down-to-earth than Wagner’s.  It also takes longer to read, but in recompense it has a lot more going on in it.

 

However I got involved in this story again, I began to consider it from the point of view of the characters.  The story has dozens and dozens of characters who have, over the centuries, simply disappeared.  The story has been whittled down to almost nothing, all the richness trimmed away.  The number of characters missing from Wagner’s version (which is, unfortunately, the last serious version out there) is legion.

So here they sit at Castle Caerleon, these knights and ladies cast aside by the whims of fashion and narrative simplicity.  Depressed is what they are.  Drinking too much, and growing more loutish by the hour.

What happens is, Arthur – good old King Arthur – asks the semi-mythical Welsh master bard Gwion Bach, better known as Taliesin, to tell their tale again.  To show the actors that the story still goes on in forms they would scarce have expected.  Gwion takes them back to an older version of the tale, before the grail got holy and all.  It used to be, before it got holy, just a grail.  A grail is a shallow serving dish.  How it is that the word ‘grail’ came to refer to some historical object associated with Jesus and/or his crucifixion is a tale in itself, and a long one.  But originally, in the early tellings of the grail story, it’s just a common ordinary everyday grail with a certain mystically bloody aura attached.  The oldest written version we still have is a Welsh thing called Peredur son of Efrawg.  In this version, the grail is a minor element.  When we do run across it, what it contains is a bloody severed head.  Of one of Peredur’s many uncles, if memory serves.  Most of the story is about Peredur finding his strength, becoming worthy and all that, and finally killing a bunch of witches.

This story got re-written, about 1190, by a French chap named Chrétien de Troyes who turned the quest for the grail into a major plot point.  The story was then taken up by a number of other authors with completely different takes on the story.  A certain French Cistercian monk, for example, threw out much of what made it a story about human beings.  This version forms the basis for what most of us know as the story of the grail, which is now the holy grail.  In Germany, a penniless knight and minnesinger named Wolfram von Eschenbach wrote his own version of the story.  It’s not religious at all, except for the occasional hermit.  It has little to do with holiness at all, except that it has a lot to do with a holy little thing called love.

Historical Perspective

In response to my 11/27 post, a concerned reader writes:

 “And yet a little historical perspective is in order. Making a living as a writer of fiction was extremely rare up until the 19th century. Then a combination of factors resulted in a huge market for reading material. This whole fiction thing is just a byproduct of the industrial revolution. But it was never a market for novels, per se. It was a market for entertainment. And as more easily digestible forms of entertainment came along, the market went with them. The same thing happened to piano manufacturers and instrumental musicians. It could be worse. How many people have ever made a living from being published poets?”

The answer is: none. Poets only survive because they find a patron of some kind. They are given a nice little sinecure by a university, or eke out a feast and famine existence on government grants. Walt Whitman, for example, was bounced into and out of various government clerkships for years.

Examples from the world of prose: E. M. Forster was only able to write because he was independently well-off. Virginia Woolf was only able to found the Hogarth Press (and thus self-publish her own work less overtly than most of us have to) because she was left a bequest by an aunt she barely knew. James Joyce, one of the greatest prose stylists of all time, was only able to drink his two bottles of wine a night in fine restaurants because he was supported by a rich American woman who’d been told he was a starving genius. Poor Joyce. In gratitude he sent her one of the first copies of Ulysses. Never heard back. Inquiries revealed she’d received it and promptly stuck it on a shelf. She’d been told it was a naughty book.

A little more historical perspective. The classic plays of ancient Greece were written by members of the business and privileged classes. Likewise most of the literature, poetry, and history of Rome. The authors who are exceptions to this rule were, as always, those lucky enough and politically savvy enough to find patronage. Normally, writing was a leisure activity. You wrote something, then invited your friends to come listen to you (or a well-voiced slave) declaim the thing. Writing did not bring you income so much as prestige.

Then again, lawyering in Roman times worked the same way. Until standards dropped, the idea was that you took up a case for free. You got to make speeches, and increase the number of people who owed you favors (especially if you won the case), both of which ultimately helped you along in what really mattered, your political career. But charging a fee for taking a case smacked of prostitution. The lawyers, obviously, have gotten over this prejudice.

 

This issue is, oddly enough or not oddly at all, taken up in What is the Meaning of All This?, a long title that I’ll sometimes refer to by its acronym WITMOAT. If you download the free sample from Amazon, you’ll be cut off (not my choice here – Amazon’s samples are 10% of the verbiage and not a line more) after the second line of a three-line phrase. The phrase is interior monologue in the mind of the semi-mythological Welsh poet Taliesin, he of the shining brow. A saying from the bardic tradition of the Celts:

It is death to kill a poet

To love a poet

To be a poet

One of the many, many reasons it is death to be a poet (or a prose writer) is that if you follow the call, you are doomed to almost certain starvation. Very tragic but makes for dramatic story-lines, when Hollywood makes a ‘based on a true story’ film about your life. That, of course, only happens in the case of artists lucky enough (Van Gogh is a good example) to be discovered after they’re already dead. The vast majority of us die in obscurity and stay there. As for my concerned reader, I do appreciate the concern. I also hope he does not think he’s telling me the news. The thing about poets (and prose writers and visual artists and instrumental musicians) is that we’ve been burdened with this terrible gift. We may or may not be worthy of it, but if we reject it we are doomed to a life of despair. As opposed to accepting it and living a life of despair. Either way a poet plays it, he’s almost certainly chingado.

Parking Meters

Although anyone can now be ePublished, there’s more than a little prep required to get there. The first thing you’ve got to do is reformat it to a file type that your ePub platform of choice will accept.

That is, once you’ve chosen a platform. To land in the largest pile of elephant dung, and hence to be available to the greatest number of shovels, Amazon’s Kindle platform is the obvious choice. Barnes & Noble had a competing platform tailored to their own e-reading device, but just as my graphic design ace and I were researching the options, B&N went out of business.

Having thus had our choice pretty much made for us, we looked into how to do the file conversion. Initial web searches turned up lots and lots of fresh new services eager to cash in on the burning desire to get one’s art out there. Hence the title of today’s post. There’s an old Gary Larsen cartoon. Two cavemen. (Larsen’s always good with cavemen.) One of them is carving a wheel from a rock. He looks over his shoulder to where the second caveman is carving a parking meter.

Further web searches turned up a file conversion program. And so the fun began.

Although MS Word frustrates the hell out of me, it is what I use. Vastly more user-friendly is WordPerfect. I switched over to WordPerfect during the writing of Great American Desert, and was in bliss until (because Microsoft does own the world) I had to convert my baby into a Word file. Which can be done, theoretically, at the touch of a few buttons. Post-conversion inspection revealed that quotation marks, for example, did not convert properly. Certain kinds of formatting, also, did not translate well. So for the next few days, I had to comb through my new Word file to find and correct all the errors.

Formatting codes were also a problem during the Word-to-Kindle conversion. For instance, an automatically-generated-via-the-return-key indented paragraph is indicated using a different code than a new paragraph created by dropping down a line and hitting the ‘tab’ key.

(An aside. Word’s insistence on auto-this and auto-that drives me berserk. Countless times, I have customized Word’s settings to stop it from doing things I have not asked it to do. Countless times, Word has reverted to its default settings.)

This was one of many, many, many formatting bugs that had to be tediously worked out. Fortunately, not by me. Have I mentioned my eternal gratitude to Anna the graphic design ace?

The last one to be worked out was a problem with italics.

I’ll need to backtrack again here. Loyal readers will be used to this by now.

For What is the Meaning of All This?, which is told by I couldn’t even tell you how many narrators, I’d begun using, occasionally, alternative fonts. I forget which narrator insisted on this originally, but once it got started it turned out to be a most useful narrative device. The finished MS included a bakers’ dozen of different fonts although the vast majority of the text remained in good old Times New Roman.

Kindle readers do not support the use of alternative fonts. So right away I had to jettison that useful narrative technique I’d grown so fond of. At least I still had italics. At least I still had boldface.

However, during an early editing session, we discovered that a few sections designated as italic did not show up italicized when uploaded to an actual Kindle reader. Six of these, or seven, absolutely refused to lean no matter how they were pushed. Online forums provided a number of helpful tips, none of which did the trick. In the end, after too many days of frustration, I re-wrote those six or seven phrases in ways that let me take out the italics. Just one of those compromises one makes. Someone (I frequently disremember the authors of my favorite quotations) once said that a work of art is never finished, but only abandoned.

 

The Wonder of ePublishing

EPublishing, of course, is touted as a victory for the little guy. Yes; you can now bypass the philistine literary agents who so frequently these days don’t even bother to send you a rejection letter. And the publishing companies who so frequently won’t even look at your manuscript unless it’s been packaged and presented by one of those agents.

(An aside: My first novel, The Great American Desert, was rejected via form letter by about half the agents I sent it to. The other half didn’t bother to respond at all, despite the SASE they tell you to send in along with the submission. I eventually did get an agent, though only theoretically. Friend of a friend. Said she (the agent) loved the book, was certain she could do something with it. When, many months later, I asked if she was making any headway, she got quite snippy. When I wrote to her later, to ask if she’d be interested in looking at the second novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain, she didn’t bother to reply.)

Amusingly enough, many agents will tell you that they will not accept what are known in the trade as ‘simultaneous submissions’. That is, you must wait for a rejection letter from agent A before sending your MS to agent B. As Steinbeck tells us, “Writers are a little below clowns and a little above trained seals.” That’s only true after they’ve been accepted by a publisher. Before that, writers are elephant dung. A waste management problem.

Two of the most obvious characteristics of elephant dung are that it stinks and that it comes in large quantities. Both of these are problems for a book business that is, yes, I understand, a business. Businesses need to make money. Artists (except for Kafka’s hunger artist of the eponymous short story) also need to make money, though true ones will do without all manner of things (financial security, respect of the opposite sex) for the chance to ply their art.

Enter ePublishing.

Now, anyone can get published.

However, elephant dung remains elephant dung. All you potential readers in search of gems will need to roll up your sleeves and get out your biggest shovels, and get to work.

 

Technical Difficulties, Not the End of the World

It was supposed to be the end of the world on 10/21, according to California end-times prophet Harold Camping. The previously-scheduled end of the world was last May or thereabouts, and the event was kind of a washout. Including this recent one, that’s four times now that ol’ Hal has been wrong. You gotta admire the perseverance on that boy.

The aggravating part is that on 10/21 I’d finally got my act together to put up a new blog post. Some mildly clever stuff about how, if Camping turned out to be correct this time you wouldn’t have time to read the new novel.

Then came the technical difficulties.

My blogcast account wouldn’t let me sign in.

Eventually I gave up and contacted GoDaddy tech support. Who told me, four times over two days, that what I needed to do was sign in and change my password.

Great sense of humor, those tech guys.

No thanks to them, here I are.

The even better news is – it’s not the end of the world. Which means you actually do have time to read the new novel.

Oh, yes. Almost forgot. I finally finished What is the Meaning of All This? Having lost enough money and gotten too many headaches the last time around, getting The Great American Desert printed, I decided to put it out as an eBook.

The conversion to Kindle format turned out to be much more difficult than it ought to have been, but Anna, my dance partner and graphic design ace, fought the good fight and won. For which I will be eternally grateful.

The talented Anna, by the way, can be seen in the lead role of Girl in the hit YouTube video Tango Deliverance.

I’ll have to write a blog entry about the making of that particular extravaganza one of these days. I’ll have to write lots of blog entries if I hope to ever catch you up on all the stuff that’s been going on here at Rolf Industries. For now, I’ll just finish, for a change, what I’ve started:

The Iconoclastic Press division of Rolf Industries has published, on Amazon, an eReader edition of What is the Meaning of All This? Whatever it means, it’s available at Amazon in Kindle format, which can be read on any Kindle, iPhone, iPad, Android device, BlackBerry, Windows Phone 7, Mac, PC, or web browser with their free Kindle Reading Apps.  Here’s a link to where you can read a quick blurb, download a sample, and buy a copy:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005RH2WN4

If you like it, do consider posting a review on Amazon.  Also, tell your friends.  Post it on your social networking site of choice.  Start a movement.

And, until the end of the world catches up with us, tune in again. Watch me figure out how to get this vehicle back in motion.