Sunday, November 18, 2012

Renewal

(Originally posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

A few weeks ago, in the midst of this exhausting book tour for ASHEN WINTER, I saw this tree:


It's an old, hollowed out sycamore tree growing beside a stream in Fortville, Indiana. From the top of that seemingly dead trunk sprouts a vibrant young sycamore about six inches in diameter. I took a picture because the image plucked a chord within me.

Sometimes students ask why I became a writer. And I tell them it was the only job left after I got fired from every other profession I tried. I answer that way because it's funny, and I like to be extremely candid in my interactions with students--they can smell fakers from all the way down the hall.

But the truth is that I fired myself; I quit most of the jobs I held before I was a writer. I did a bit of everything: janitor, marketing executive, wine salesman, and remodeling company owner among others. In each job, I felt like that old sycamore tree, getting progressively more hollow as small daily iniquities rotted me and office politics gnawed my core.

Now, I feel more like that new tree, growing fast and proud from a base of failure. In another sense, though, all those abandoned careers were anything but a failure. Everything I tried informs my writing today. The new tree could not exist without the roots the old one put down.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Great News!

Both ASHEN WINTER and the paperback edition of ASHFALL have sold out in less than four weeks, and they're going back for second printings!

To the bloggers, booksellers, sales reps, librarians, teachers, reviewers, and everyone else who has been so supportive of me and my books:

THANK YOU!

Let me also give a shout out to the amazing bloggers at Epic Reads, who selected ASHFALL to represent Iowa in their The United States of YA project. Check out all the great books they chose (I'm too inept a blogger to make this display at a decent size, but you can right click, choose view image, and then enlarge to read it easily):


Monday, October 29, 2012

The Value of an Author Visit

(Originally Posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

Author visits can take a lot of time to schedule and prepare for. Teachers, school administration, and parents aren't always supportive. Some argue they aren't "curricular." (This isn't true. Unless writing isn't part of your curriculum. In which case your school has bigger problems than the lack of author visits.) They can be expensive.

On the author's side of things, they're exhausting. They take time away from writing. They can be a nice source of extra income, but for a new author like me, the income isn't very significant.

So why do we bother? Why do some librarians spend dozens of hours of their own time scheduling and preparing for author visits? Why do some English teachers take the lead in those sad schools that lack a librarian? Why have I done more than 200 author visits for free over the last year? (I charge now, although I'm very cheap.)

A student recently answered all those questions for me via email. I've asked for, and received, his permission to share the email with you. I've changed his name to protect his confidentiality. Otherwise the email is exactly as he wrote it:
My name is Fred. About a year ago you visited Cedar Rapids Iowa. You made a stop at the Linn County Juvenille Detention Center and i was a resident there. ever since you visited i have been big on writing. but just not stories. i have written alot of poems and different raps about my life. i was wondering maybe if i could get some expert advice on how they look. or what are some areas i need to improve. if at all possible i would like to send them to you in the mail and hopefully get some good advice. it was really nice meeting you. if you want to know how my life is going right now i am on my way to completeing an independent living program. i just celebrated my 17th birthday today and im on the road to success. writing has been a big inspiration in my life and with out the visit from you i know for a fact i wouldnt have started to write. i would really like to hear back from you soon. it was great meeting you.


Does anyone believe another high-stakes test would have had this kind of impact on Fred's life? Another reading program? Another teacher evaluation system? The things many policy makers and administrators focus on truly don't matter. What matters are the connections that librarians, teachers, coaches--even visiting authors, make with students and the impact we have on those student's lives. If you're involved in education, do your school and students a service: contact an author--any author--today and schedule what may be a life-changing experience for some of your students.

Monday, October 22, 2012

How Lexiles Harm Students

(Originally posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

About a month ago, a woman approached me at a conference. She picked up a copy of ASHFALL and asked me, "What's the Lexile on this?"

This question threw me for a bit of a loop. I'm used to being asked what ASHFALL's about, how much it is, or where I got the idea for it. "What's a Lexile?" I asked.



"They use it at my daughter's school," she replied. "To match students with books at the right level for them."

"Oh, like the Guided Reading level." I happen to know about those because my wife's school district uses them. They always seemed a bit idiotic--what reader chooses a book based solely on its reading level? But since at her school they're used as suggestions, not mandates, and take the content of the books into account, they've never really bothered me. "ASHFALL is a Z+ on the Guided Reading level scale," I said.

Here's where the rabbit hole started to get twisty. "We don't use Guided Reading," she said. "We use Lexiles. And my daughter isn't allowed to read anything below 1,000." The italics are mine. You'll have to imagine my angry shouting at a school that won't allow their students to read--no matter what the excuse.

"I'm sure it's fine, then. ASHFALL is a Z+. It's got to be at least a thousand on your school's scale. What does she like to read?"

"She loved The Hunger Games, but the school wouldn't count it. It's too easy for her." (I later looked up The Hunger Games--its Lexile level is 810.)

"A lot of teens who liked The Hunger Games enjoy ASHFALL. How old is your daughter?"

"She's in sixth grade."

"You should read ASHFALL first, then--it depicts an apocalypse realistically. It's very violent. Definitely not appropriate for all sixth-graders."

"That's okay. I just need to know what the Lexile level is. Can you look it up?"

I obliged and found ASHFALL listed at Lexile.com. Its level? 750.

"It's too easy for her, then." The woman walked away as my lower jaw hit the table with an audible slap.

For kicks, I looked up Ernest Hemingway's masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms. Its Lexile? 730.

Is my work more difficult, more sophisticated, or more appropriate for older readers than that of Mr. Hemingway, a Nobel Laureate in literature? Of course not! Think about it: If this poor student stays in her school system, she'll NEVER be allowed to read A Farewell to Arms. It's allegedly too easy for her.

Since this conversation, I've heard of a high school that boxed up all its copies of Night, Elie Wiesel's classic account of surviving the holocaust, and sent them to the elementary school, because it's "too easy" for high school students. Its Lexile is 570.

Shocking as that example is, there's a bigger problem: the Lexile system punishes good writing and rewards bad writing. I'll illustrate this point with an example. Here's the first sentence of a book that sixth-grader would have been allowed to read, a book with a Lexile of 1650:
"ON the theory that our genuine impulses may be connected with our childish experiences, that one's bent may be tracked back to that "No-Man's Land" where character is formless but nevertheless settling into definite lines of future development, I begin this record with some impressions of my childhood."
Forty-eight words that can be replaced by three with no loss of  meaning: 'My childhood was.' This is a truly awful opening, whatever your opinion of the overall work.

Here's a novel millions of sixth-graders have enjoyed. A novel with a Lexile of only 820. A novel this woman's daughter would not be allowed to read:
“They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box  and his heart a sofa spring. They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash.”
It's clear and concise. It introduces the main character and opens irresistible story questions in the reader's mind. If it were rewritten as one sentence, it would lose the flavor of gossip that makes it intriguing--and have a much higher Lexile score.

Good writing is simple. The best writers never use two words where one will do, and they choose their words with precision. But the Lexile system rewards complexity and obscurity by assigning higher Lexile scores for works with longer sentences and longer words. In short, students forced to use the Lexile system in their reading are being taught to be bad writers. And some are likely being forced into books that will turn them off to reading.

What should you do? If you're a school administrator, teacher, or librarian, quit using Lexiles. I realize your motto isn't, "First, do no harm," but is that such a bad precept to follow? The Lexile system is actively harmful to your students.

If you're a parent, let your child pick books the way you do--based on interest and need. Ask your school to dump the Lexile system. The last thing we need is an expensive program that makes the great work parents, teachers, and librarians do--educating our children--more difficult.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

On the Road

I got back from Ohio late last night, and I'm packing for a trip to Chicago today. My cat, Pepper, is sick of me being gone. He chose to express his displeasure by waking me up 723 times last night with purrs, head-butting, and kneading any exposed skin he could find (with claws fully extended, of course).

So this morning, he not only jumped into my suitcase, he packed his favorite toy--the knit pastel mouse by his front feet:


Anyway, if you want to see me, sans cat, I have an appearance at the Batavia Public Library tomorrow. Visit my website for details and additional tour stops.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

ASHEN WINTER Artwork

Here are a few of my favorite pieces of artwork inspired by ASHEN WINTER. They're all hanging in the Barnes & Noble in Fenton, MO. The artists are students at Hillsboro High School.


Very cool, no? One of my favorite things about being an author is the fact that I sometimes inspire--and get inspiration from--artists who work in other media. Many thanks to B&N Fenton and the students of Hillsboro High School!


Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Great Day in the Life of an Author

I have given more than 240 author talks in schools, libraries, and bookstores in 18 states since my debut novel, ASHFALL, came out last year. But I'll never forget today's author talks.

Part of my schtick is to teach students a taekwondo move, hammerfist, as they enter the auditorium and challenge them to break a plastic practice board. Here's a pic of me teaching author Jennifer Armentrout taekwondo on the floor of Book Expo America earlier this year:


What made today different? In two different high schools today, I met blind teenagers. I almost didn't approach the first one to challenge her to try breaking the board. I have no experience working with blind students, and I'm not much of a taekwondo instructor, even with sighted students. But I decided I shouldn't deprive her of an opportunity available to everyone else.

I taught them hammerfist by holding their fist and swinging it, showing them how to move. Then I held the board so they could feel where it was. Both teens were nervous--neither of them thought they could break the board. But both of them succeeded. And in rising to that challenge, they provided me with an experience I'll never forget.

The other fun thing that happened today was that I returned to Hillsboro High School. You may remember that a few months ago on this blog I auctioned off a bunch of ASHEN WINTER-related goodies to help raise money to build a new library in Hillsboro. Well, here's one of the signs your generous donations bought:


I'm between two fabulous Hillsboro High School librarians, Amber Parks and Karen Creech Huskey.

Mostly I want to thank my fans for your help in building a new library in Hillsboro. The final vote will be November 6th. Here's hoping it passes--I'm looking forward to returning to Hillsboro and signing the final book in the ASHFALL trilogy, SUNRISE, in the library my blog readers helped to build. It's an honor to have such a generous group of fans. Thank you.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

What to Eat After the Apocalypse


Jody Casella, author of the forthcoming young adult novel Thin Space, graciously volunteered to join my blog tour. So why is she guest posting on my blog? Well, Savy Valdez from Books with Bite is hosting my blog tour and requested a post about what to eat after the apocalypse. (I told her it should be who to eat after the apocalypse, but that's another story.) So Jody and I both wrote a post--you can see my post on Jody's blog. Anyway, welcome Jody!

Hey Mike, 
Thanks for inviting me to guest post today on the topic: What to Eat in the Wild. I'm a big fan of your books and must tell you that I bow down to your presentation skills as well. I had the great pleasure of attending one of you book signings last year and watched in awe as you karate chopped a cement block in half. I'm fairly certain not many authors can top that!

{Mike: I love breaking stuff. Check out the video from my launch party last year:}

What to Eat after the End

Sometimes I get a little worried about the end of the world. I’ve read a ton of books lately about how it might happen, and oh, there are soooo many horrifying possibilities. In addition to sketchy Mayan Calendar issues, there’s:

1. Nuclear war (THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy)
2. Electromagnetic pulses coupled with flesh eating zombies (ASHES by Ilsa Bick)
3. Designer diseases unleashed upon us by immoral scientists (ORYX and CRAKE by Margaret Atwood and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH by Bethany Griffin)
4. Attacks by robots AND diseases (PARTIALS by Dan Wells)
5. Global climate change (SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi and AFTER THE SNOW by SD Crockett)
6. Asteroids hitting the moon (LIFE AS WE KNEW IT by Susan Beth Pfeffer)
7. All-purpose natural disasters with a supernatural twist (DARK INSIDE by Jeyn Roberts)
Or
8. The eruption of the allegedly dormant supervolcano lying under Yellowstone (ASHFALL by Mike Mullin)

After reading these novels, I have the distinct impression that it would be kind of scary to live through (and past) Doomsday. If you somehow manage to survive the actual blast, you’ll probably have to cope with brutal, sun-less, Ice-Agey cold weather. You might be attacked by other survivors who are zombies and/or cannibals. You will need guns, antibiotics, and plenty of non-perishable food. 

This could be a problem for me. I don’t like guns. I don’t have a stockpile of medicines. On a good day my cabinets contain a few cans of diced tomatoes, maybe some black beans, and a couple fruit cocktails. Sadly, I only own an electric can opener. Also, I’m just a really picky eater. I don’t see myself, no matter how hungry, digging into say, a can of Spam.

Okay. I am definitely doomed. But perhaps I can help others. When asked to participate on Mike Mullin’s blog tour for ASHEN WINTER, the sequel to ASHFALL, I jumped at the chance. And when given the topic of Post-Apocalyptic food choices, I was intrigued. Are there actual food choices for the hungry survivors of Armegeddon besides dusty cans of Spagettios and Twinkies and, um, Spam?

After reading ASHEN WINTER, though, I can say that yes, there are, and possibly even some choices that a finicky eater like me could stomach.

First, a shout out to Mike Mullin and this series. The first book, ASHFALL is an absorbing, action-filled, page-turner. Be warned. Clear out your schedule before you pick it up. Quick recap: Fifteen year old Alex stays home one weekend while his parents and little sister go off to visit relatives one hundred miles away. Unfortunately this is the weekend that the supervolcano lying under Yellowstone erupts and takes out half the country with it. Alex, who up to this point had been little more than a gamer (with some karate-chopping skills), figures out what he’s made of when he sets out to reunite with his family.

The non-stop action continues in ASHEN WINTER when Alex and mechanically inclined girlfriend Darla attempt another journey, through a bleaker landscape, if that’s possible, and confront pretty much every variation of the worst of human nature.

I stayed up half the night reading this book and got so involved in Alex’s harrowing adventure that I forgot most of the time that I was supposed to be looking for mentions of food. Here’s what came of my extensive research:

Forget stockpiling gold. Instead, hide some kale seed packets under your mattress. I assure you they will be worth much more than gold in an ASHEN WINTER environment. Fun factoids about kale: it grows well in coldish weather and contains a ton of vitamin C (good for dealing with the scurvy that will be rampant in the sunless climate).

I confess that my experience with kale up to this point is when it’s used as a cheery, frilly garnish next to a steak. But kale, apparently, can be eaten. Alex and Darla like to eat it on sandwiches. With ham and cornbread. Also goat cheese. Which sounds like one of your finer gourmet sandwiches. For breakfast Alex’s aunt and uncle scramble duck eggs. With kale. If you’re still not sold on kale, (yet want to counteract the scurvy), you could try dandelion greens. Just saying.

Once Alex found some wheat kernels that seemed inedible as is. He threw them into a pot of melted snow and boiled them for awhile. That didn’t really help either. But the next morning all that soaking of the wheat kernels turned them into something like oatmeal.

I am sure there were other appetizing recipes mentioned in ASHEN WINTER but I missed them due to the total page-turn-ery aspect of the novel. 

Signing off now to stock up my pantry...
--Jody Casella is a writer and fan of YA fiction. You can find her book reviews on her blog On The Verge. Look for her debut novel THIN SPACE (Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster) in Sept. 2013.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Why Does ASHFALL Have a New Cover?

(Originally posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

Three weeks ago I posted about receiving my author copies of ASHEN WINTER in hardback--it's the sequel to my debut novel, ASHFALL. (To summarize the post: squee!) I also got author copies of the paperback edition of ASHFALL with its new cover. Fellow blogger and author Lissa Price (I just called Lissa a fellow. Snicker. Sorry, Lissa!), asked a great question in the comments: why'd the cover change?

To answer the question, let me refresh your memory on what the hardback ASHFALL cover looks like:



I love this cover like Santa Claus loves reindeer. The artwork is a composite of photographs taken and digitally manipulated by Ana Correal--see more of her amazing artwork here. It's perfect for my book--tough, dark, and a little bit foreboding.

So why did it change?

In the world of book sales, there's one retailer that wields a huge influence over covers. Not the biggest retailer, that'd be Amazon. But Amazon carries everything--you can have the worst book cover ever, and Amazon will still sell your book. The most influential retailer of physical books is this one:


As I understand it, there was a rumor that someone at B&N didn't like the hardback ASHFALL cover. That they thought it was too dark and grey--a fair criticism, although life after a supervolcano would be pretty darn grey for a while. I have no idea if the rumor was even true. But here's the thing, B&N is so important to physical book sales, that even the rumor that someone there didn't love the cover was enough to spur a change.

Does this bother me? Not in the least. Because I got new covers out of the deal:





They're also by Ana Correal. See, more color! I love these even more than Santa Claus loves his reindeer. Even more than he loves reindeer even if he loved them in highly inappropriate ways, which he doesn't, but I'm just . . . oh, never mind.


And that's why the cover of ASHFALL changed. Look for the shiny new covers in a bookstore near you on October 8th!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Courage, Passion, and Determination

(Originally posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

This weekend was a trifecta of writerly inspiration. On Friday night my wife, Margaret, and I went to a dinner sponsored by the Indiana Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. I sat next to Alina Klein, whose debut young adult novel, Rape Girl, came out last year. So of course I dragged my copy along and bugged Alina for her autograph.



Rape Girl is an amazing book, one that belongs on your shelves alongside books like Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson and Scars by Cheryl Rainfield. But what I find most inspiring about Rape Girl is the fact that it exists. You see, it's loosely based on Alina's own experience as a teenage rape survivor. (A fact she discusses in the author's note at the back of the book.) I can't even imagine the courage it took to write this book.

I've been kicking a blog post around in the back of my brain for more than a year--one that would deal with my middle school experience with child molesters--but I can't summon the courage to write it. Yes, I break concrete blocks with my bare hands, but I'm a wimp compared to Alina. It takes real courage to write.

Saturday night Margaret and I went to see Big Bad Voodoo Daddy at Conner Prairie. I guess you'd call them a swing/jazz band.



What amazed me about BBVD was their passion--they're totally committed to their music and their audience. They break the conventions of their genre: electric guitar in a swing band? Banjo? Sure--they make it work! They play with an infectious abandon--if the Greek god Dionysus returned to earth, these guys would play for his procession.

As I enjoyed the music, I thought: this is how I want to write, with a wild disregard for everything but the words and my audience. I want to write words that unleash an irresistible flood of emotion, words that inspire laughter, dancing, or tears. It takes passion to be a writer.

Sunday was a day for yard work at the Mullin home. I bought two cubic yards of hardwood mulch to spread across the flower beds in our front yard. As the attendant at the garden center cut into the pile of mulch with his front-end loader, I noticed it was smoking. Even an hour later, the mulch in the back of my pickup truck was hot to the touch.

Unloading that much mulch from the truck to the wheelbarrow to the flower beds is a lot of work. My score? Five blisters formed, one popped. As I turned up yet another spadeful of black mulch, a spot of green rose to the top. It was an acorn, still a beautiful light green color despite its sojourn in the smoking mulch pile. I have no idea how long it had been buried there or how it escaped being ground to mulch, holding onto its life while all the neighboring twigs and leaves turned a uniform dark brown.

I felt I had a metaphor rather than an acorn on the end of my spade. All writers spend time buried among the thousands of others querying literary agents or struggling to find their readership via self-publishing. A few of us, like that acorn, hang on long enough to be unearthed. It takes determination to be a writer.

My weekend reminded me of the traits I aspire to as an author: courage, passion, and determination. How was your weekend? Let me know in the comments, please.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Epic ASHEN WINTER Blog Tour!

Check out all the awesome blogs participating in the ASHEN WINTER TOUR! Many, many thanks to Savannah Valdez at Books with Bite for organizing the tour. You're AWESOME, Savy!

Sept 23 - Mundie Moms
Sept 24 - Book Love 101
Sept 24 - Crossroad Reviews
Sept 26 - Good Choice Reading
Sept 27 - Page Turners
Sept 27 - Alluring Reads
Sept 28 - Book and Things
Sept 28 - Bookpics
Sept 30- Bea Book Nook

There will be at least six giveaways of signed first-edition hardcovers of ASHEN WINTER and paperbacks of ASHFALL--some open internationally. I also wrote about a dozen brand new guest posts--if you're interested in survival tips or taekwondo, you're in for a treat. There will also be some amazing interviews, so stay tuned! I'll change these links to the actual posts as they go live.



Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Contest to Celebrate ASHEN WINTER!

My author copies of ASHEN WINTER came in today! I know, I know, I already posted about it only an hour ago. Here's a completely gratuitous picture of them with my cat, Pepper:


So how can you get one early? Preorder! There are links at www.ashenwinter.com. Want one even earlier? Okay, okay, let's have a contest! I'm not going to give away my shiny new hardbacks yet, but I have five paperbound advance reading copies (ARCs) of ASHEN WINTER, and I want to mail one to you!

So for the first ARC giveaway, I'm going to think of a completely random name. Quiet, I'm thinking....


I've got it! The completely random name I thought of is Sheryl Russell Clark. If there's anyone reading this blog by that name who also went to high school in Paris, Illinois, email me your physical address! You've won! I'm at mike.mullin.writer at gmail dot com. (I've made Grant wait long enough, ha!)

Want to win one of the other four ARCs I'm giving away? Easy, just comment on this post with something you will do to help me spread the word about ASHEN WINTER. The crazier the better. I'll pick the four ideas I like the best and send ARCs out to the winners right away. Include your email in your comment so I can contact you, please. I reserve the right to award no prizes, or if the ideas really rock, I might dip into my stash of hardbacks. Good luck!

ASHEN WINTER Arrived!

Check out what I found on my doorstep when I got home from taekwondo tonight!





Aren't they gorgeous? I'm so excited! Here's a close-up:



That's the new paperback of ASHFALL on the left and the hardback of ASHEN WINTER on the right. The cover art is by the same fabulous artist who did the original ASHFALL cover, Ana Correal. Even my cat, Pepper, thinks they're beautiful, check it out:


I hope this means the books will ship early. You should preorder, just in case :). I put preorder links, information on the HUGE launch party we have planned for October 7th, and the first two chapters of ASHEN WINTER up at www.ashenwinter.com.

Did I already say I'm excited! I did? Sorry.

I'M EXCITED!


Monday, August 20, 2012

Is the Digital Piracy Threat Real?

(Originally posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

I've been discussing digital piracy here for the last few weeks--in this post I argued that pirating digital content is immoral because if everyone did it, it would blight our creative ecosystem. In this post, I went further, arguing that the very structure of the internet encourages immoral behavior, and that we need to redesign the internet to better serve the humans who use it. I also argued that digital piracy is a form of counterfeiting, not theft, and that "counterfeiters" is a better term than "pirates."

So the question might naturally arise--am I being a Chicken Little? I imagine that if the counterfeiters get the upper hand, we might wind up with a digital dystopia in which no content creators can get paid for their efforts and all content becomes amateur. Instead of Hollywood movies that cost tens or even hundreds of millions to produce, we'll have . . . YouTube. Novels will still be written, but many of our greatest novelists--those who make a living from their work--would write less or not at all due to the necessity of taking on other work to put food on the table. Could that really happen?



For an answer, I turn to a fascinating discussion I've been having with Tanvir Hossain on Goodreads. Hossain is a Bangladeshi, and graciously took some time to comment on one of my posts. You can read the whole discussion here.

Hossain begins his comment:  "You are right. Piracy isn't right. But still I pirate ebooks. So why I do it? The main reason is - there is almost no chance in getting caught. If I try to steal a book form a book store, there is 99% chances that I will get caught. But If I download a book from a pirate site there is almost no chance that I will get caught. But this is illegal and immoral."

In Bangladesh, counterfeiting digital work is so widespread that it has become a social norm. Hossain again: "My dad works on a Government office and the operating system of the computers of his office is pirated windows 7. So if government is using pirated software, what can you say about this country?"

Counterfeiting has decimated the creative community in Bangladesh. Take the film industry, for  example:  "Yeah, piracy is destroying the country. It had destroyed the movie industry and disabled the music industry. It all started in 1990's. When the VCR hits the stores of Bangladesh, piracy of Video Cassette begins [...] when the bootlegged copy of Bollywood movies came to Bangladesh they were instant hit. People started watch movies in VCRs not in cinema halls. As a result attendance to cinema halls dropped. So the movie industry get less money and with less money they made low budget and lower quality films than before. Now if you ask a Bangladeshi what was last bangla
movie he watched I don't think he will able to tell you."

Could this sort of digital dystopia spread to the rest of the world? Of course. All it requires is that those who counterfeit creative work believe they can do so without getting caught. If the social norm becomes that content is free, then most kinds of professional creative endeavor must end. And that world would impoverish both content creators and consumers.

What can you do? Don't frequent counterfeiting sites. Don't link to them. Report counterfeiting sites to authors and/or their publishers. Let your friends who download counterfeit content know that it's not okay to do so. An ultimate solution requires redesigning the internet and probably our copyright laws, but in the meantime we can all help to maintain the social norm that authors and other content creators deserve to be compensated for their work.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What's Wrong with the Internet?

I saw this video on Galleycat last night, and it stuck in my head, so I'll share it with you:


I like its message: We should remember that the internet is populated with real people, similar to ourselves. I'm going to try to be a kinder person online. And I wish everyone would do the same.

But I also wish there were winged unicorns flying outside my office window farting rainbows.

We've had the internet for 21 years. If simply connecting people online were enough to create kind and productive spaces, then we'd read the comments on YouTube videos and smile in delight. 4chan would be a marvel of helpfulness instead of the communal cesspool of the internet.

The video, wonderful and well-intentioned as it is, places the onus for the problem in exactly the wrong place. It exhorts people to adapt to the internet when instead we should demand that the internet adapt to us.

Simply put, the internet is defective.

Very few physical spaces are as dysfunctional our online world. Parts of Somalia, maybe. In general, we design physical spaces to encourage civility. Consider restaurants. There's a general expectation that you'll get good service and that you'll tip for it. Could I sit down, get good service, and not tip? Sure--in fact, from an objectivist point of view, that's an optimal strategy if I don't plan on returning to that restaurant. But because of the design of the system, even the people who wear their butts as hats online generally tip in restaurants.

Some corners of the internet are better than others. Actively moderated blogs, for example. John Scalzi does a great job keeping Whatever more or less civil. But active moderation is kind of like placing a band-aid over the gushing fundamental design flaw in the internet.


Could we design an internet to encourage civility? Sure, and it's only going to get easier as bandwidth increases. Flamewars rarely happen in real life in part because you can see the person you're hurting. Even without ubiquitous face-to-face communication, we could improve the internet dramatically with design changes. Consider what our online world might be like if we implemented just two changes:

1) End transient anonymity. Allow only one online identity per person--real or anonymous. Make that identity persistent from site to site. By making identity persistent, your behavior online would follow you, just as it does in real life.

2) Attach a reputation score to these persistent identities. This is no different than what we do with businesses now. Google nearly any business and you can find ratings and reviews. This makes most businesses careful to interact online only in positive ways.

Perhaps those aren't perfect solutions. I'm sure smarter folks than I can come up with better ways to redesign the internet. The important point is this: We need to design an online world to better serve people, not just exhort people to change themselves to fit the internet as it exists today.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Another Example of Idiocy in Education

The District of Columbia Public Schools are cutting librarians. Almost half their schools will be without qualified librarians when school reopens.


This despite more than 60 studies conducted in 22 states that directly link qualified school librarians to student achievement.

Hey, D.C.! I've got a suggestion for you. Why not cut 9% from your bloated $36.3 million administration budget? That's enough to save all the district's librarian jobs. You should start the cuts with whichever idiot at central office thought librarians contributed less to your children's education than the pencil pushers downtown.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Immorality of the Internet

(Originally Posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

Two weeks ago in this space, I posted about a discussion I had with the owner of an ebook pirating website, and went on to explain why I believe it's immoral both to consume and to provide pirated copies of copyrighted works.

I've continued to think about this issue because it's important to me both as a writer and as a reader. An environment in which the value of writing drops to zero would impoverish me personally and the literary world in general. Yet people who love to read pirate books. Why? I found my answer in the book I read today, You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier.



Part of the reason digital piracy flourishes is the fundamental immorality of the internet as currently designed. (No, I'm not talking about porn sites--I'm talking about this blog, YouTube, Facebook: the bits of the internet all of us use every day.) How can that be, you ask? Isn't the internet just a tool that can be used for good or ill?

While the internet certainly contains numerous tools, it's more than that--it has become an environment in which many of us spend a significant fraction of our lives. And that environment--or any environment, for that matter--has a profound influence on our actions.

The popular conception of morality is that it's something innate to individuals. Most people think of themselves as moral, but can readily identify others (a mother-in-law, a spouse's friends) who aren't. In fact, for most of us, morality has far more to do with our circumstances than any innate characteristic. A famous study Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point found that most seminarians would stop to help a person in distress if they were told they had plenty of time before their lecture, but only 10% of them would stop if they were told they were late. To a lecture on the Good Samaritan, no less. Similarly, cities have discovered that they can cut crime rates merely by cleaning up graffiti and broken windows--the people haven't changed, but the environment around them has.

Would thousands of people have stolen ASHFALL if they had to come into my house and look me in the eye as they took it? Of course not. The internet is immoral as currently designed precisely because it creates conditions in which immoral behavior is easy, anonymous (or nearly so), and so widespread as to become a social norm. (Lanier never calls the current design of the internet immoral, by the way, but that's the logical outcome of his arguments about transient anonymity and mob behavior.)

I can hear the howls of protest from pirates. File-sharing is not stealing, they will say. I'm not depriving anyone else of a book when I pirate it. And in a sense, they're right. Stealing is an inadequate metaphor for digital piracy. Lanier suggests a better one when he compares digital piracy to counterfeiting.

Currency and books only have value (except perhaps as fire-starters) when they're scarce. Counterfeiting doesn't take money from anyone--rather, it devalues all money in exactly the same way that digital piracy devalues all content. Counterfeiting is a worse crime than theft because it hurts the entire society, not just one individual. That's why faking a $100 bill (or even just holding a fake with fraudulent intent) is a felony that will get you 15 years, while shoplifting a $100 item is only a misdemeanor. Counterfeiting undermines the value of currency; digital piracy undermines the value of most types of creative endeavor. Piracy is far worse than mere theft. In fact, the term pirate has too much of a romantic connotation--let's call them counterfeiters instead.

I can hear more counterfeiter howls. Elitist, they will cry. Everyone should have ebooks, even if they can't pay! Information wants to be free! I actually agree with the first statement. Everyone should have access to books--which is why copyrights are issued for a limited period (and why recent expansions of that period should be rolled back). There are literally tens of millions of books that are free and legal to distribute. Recent titles should be distributed in physical and digital form by free public libraries which have paid for the rights to the books.

The second statement is so wrong-headed it's dangerous. It places information--bits in our computers--above the humans who consume and create it. And remember, "worthless" is a synonym for "free." True freedom demands a rich flow of information which can only be achieved by paying for the efforts of content creators--if information ever does become free, humans won't be.

What can we do? Lanier suggests that we redesign the internet, putting into place a system that rewards content creators and prevents the worst abuses to civility. He proposes placing content in the cloud, rather than on our devices, and charging a small fee that compensates creators when the content is accessed. Another idea he espouses is ending all forms of transient anonymity, so that bad behavior will follow its perpetrators, whether they're anonymous or not--i.e. you'd still be able to be anonymous on the internet only by assuming a persistent fake identity.

What do you think will help end piracy and make the internet a more moral place? Let me know in the comments, please. 


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Extraordinary Power of Kindness

Too often kindness is relegated to a random act performed only when we’re feeling good. But an even greater kindness (to ourselves and others) occurs when we reach out even when we aren't feeling entirely whole. It’s not easy, and no one is perfect. But we’ve decided it’s not impossible to brighten the world one smile, one kind word, one blog post at a time. To that end, a few of us writers have established The Kindness Project, starting with a series of inspirational posts. We post the second Wednesday of every month.

A few years ago, I was caught in the maw of one of the darkest periods of my life. The remodeling company I'd founded and run for 8 years had collapsed. A worker had died on a job I was responsible for. My writing was going nowhere. I suffered through days so bleak that I couldn't get out of bed. Think pills by the fistful; psychiatrists by the van-load.


On one of my better days, I ventured into the front yard to weed. We have more of a wildflower garden than a yard, but my wife and I stay so busy that it often looks a bit disreputable. One of my neighbors--I'll call him Fred, since he doesn't like his real name used--stopped by and asked if he could help. I said sure, and we spent more than two hours weeding the front yard (yes, it was that bad).

Fred walks with a cane, and his head is slightly misshapen. I knew he'd had some kind of accident about a year before, but I'd been too self-absorbed to learn the details. As we worked, he told me about it.

He'd been riding on our local bike trail, and a group of five young men accosted him. Four of them had bicycles, and they wanted one more. Fred's. They hit him over the back of the head with a 2x4 and kicked him over twenty times. They broke dozens of bones, including his skull. They thought they'd killed him, so they dragged him into some nearby bushes and fled.

Another cyclist called 911, and a determined police officer stayed on the scene for hours before he found Fred. No trauma surgeon in Indianapolis was skilled enough to piece Fred's brain back together, so a team from Chicago was videoconferenced in. He coded six times on the operating table, but he survived and ultimately recovered, sort of. When all the bills were in, Fred had racked up $800,000 in debt over a $10 garage-sale bike. He was bankrupt. To top it all off, Fred is gay. I won't go into the discrimination he's faced throughout his life, but whatever you can imagine, it was probably worse.

I ask you: Did anyone ever have a greater reason to hate the human race?

But here's the amazing thing about Fred. He greets everyone with a cheerful hello and smile--from businessmen rushing around in suits to alcoholics begging on the street corner. After that day of weeding, we started getting together for breakfast now and then--in each restaurant we've walked to, Fred knows everyone--right down to the busboys--by name.

We didn't just talk about what Fred calls his "accident" that day. I told him about my struggles, pitiful though they were by comparison. Fred said he'd hadn't seen me around lately and had been worried. Which was one of the reasons he took some time to talk to me and help me weed that day. Not long afterward, I started working on the first draft of my debut novel, ASHFALL. And I enrolled in taekwondo--partly because I knew the protagonist of ASHFALL would need to know some kind of martial art, but mostly because Fred's story had completely freaked me out.

None of us are undamaged--Fred perhaps least of all. He'll probably never walk without a cane again. But I trace part of the turnaround in my own life to his simple actions--helping a neighbor weed, listening. And that's the extraordinary power of kindness.

Be sure to check out all the inspirational posts for THE KINDNESS PROJECT. Want to join us by writing your own inspirational post on kindness? Sign up in the Mr. Linky widget below and post.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Costliest Price for Ebooks is Free

(Originally posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

My debut novel, ASHFALL, has become popular enough that it's being widely pirated. Oh. Joy.



For the last week or so, I've been having a remarkably civil conversation via email with the owner of one of the pirating sites. It's not so much that I think I'll change his mind--I'm pretty sure that the next time someone changes their mind due to the internet will be the first--I just want to understand what motivates him to take the considerable personal risk of owning a pirate site.



It turns out that he feels justified in what he does because he believes he is helping authors--he's tasked me with reading extensive selections from Cory Doctorow's writings about the benefits he gets from making his ebooks available for free. Now Doctorow is both smarter and a more accomplished author than I, and I have no doubt that making his ebooks free benefits him. But here's what he gets wrong about the ebook market: an environment in which the value of a book descends to zero hurts both authors and readers. In the long run, the costliest price for ebooks is free.


There's no doubt that copyright laws are in serious need of overhaul. As currently written, they excessively protect corporate interests at the expense of individual consumers and content creators. But the important part of copyright law--of any law, actually--isn't what's written down in the law books--it's the social norms and  habits that follow from the law.


I learned this viscerally during the year I was a foreign exchange student in Brazil. On my way out of the airport in Cuiaba, we slowed nearly to a stop at every green light. I tried to ask why, but my broken mix of Portuguese and Spanish wasn't up to the task. I had my answer soon enough though, as I saw cars ahead of us blowing through the reds at cross streets, full speed. Does Brazil have traffic laws? Yes, but the norm is that traffic lights are suggestions, not mandatory, so every intersection becomes a high-speed game of chicken. And to insure a car in Rio costs about a third of its purchase price every year. A similar phenomena applies to speed limits in the United States. The limit in Indiana, where I live, is 70 mph, but the norm is that people drive 75-80, and most of us tend to get annoyed at those going much slower or faster.


When laws work, they become a benchmark that sets a social norm and creates the habits that govern our day-to-day life. Right now, the social norm is that people who create and publish books deserve to get paid for their labor. Most people make sure the authors they enjoy do get paid, either by checking their books out from a library (which paid for the books) or by buying them.


Could I make more money giving ASHFALL away for free, like Cory Doctorow? Maybe, at least in the short-term. He's right when he says the biggest challenge facing new authors isn't piracy, it's obscurity. But my personal test for whether my behavior is moral or not is this question: If everyone behaved this way, what would the world be like? And if we all pirate books--or even give them away for free--the social norm becomes that books are free. And in a world where authors don't get paid for their work, I (and thousands of other authors) can't continue to write. Such a world would be considerably poorer for readers and writers alike. Which is why the costliest ebooks are free.


By the way, at least one of the sites pirating ASHFALL is charging for it. If you pay anything less than Amazon's price for ASHFALL, currently $8.98, I don't get even a penny.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Great News!

1) ASHFALL made the shortlist for NPR's 100 best young adult novels of all time! And YOU get to cull the list from the current 235 to the final 100. Go vote on NPR's site now.

2) I'm headed to Chicago for five presentations at various Chicago Public Library branches on Wednesday 7/25 and Thursday 7/26. If you're in the area, I hope to see you! Full schedule and details are on my website.

3) I'm still looking for schools, libraries, and bookstores in Las Vegas and Houston that would like to host FREE author events during my upcoming trips. I'll be in Las Vegas in late November and Houston in early February. If you're interested, email me asap.

4) I've got a new guest post up on Figment.com! It's the short version of how I researched ASHFALL--I had to squeeze it into a 600 word limit. Here's a link. Enjoy!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Authors Behaving Badly

(Originally Posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

Goodreads exploded in another of its periodic conflagrations this weekend. This time it was a self-published author whining in disturbing terms about bloggers who allegedly promised reviews in return for free e-books and allegedly failed to deliver. He even went so far as to post a list of said bloggers, describing them as "liars and thieves." In fact, one of the bloggers in question had never even heard of the author before the kerfuffle this weekend. If you'd like a more thorough review of this author's meltdown, Evie at Bookish has a recap.


As I've said before in other terms, 98% of authors are not cocoa-loco crazy like this guy. (We are, however, cocoa-loco crazy in more socially acceptable ways. We'll lock ourselves away with a computer on a perfectly nice day when we could be riding a bike, for example. Like today. Sigh.) Here's what I'd like to say to the other 2%: Book bloggers are not your prison bitches. They don't owe you anything. Not even if you send them a free book. Not even if you spend time doing an interview for them. They are doing a service to the literary community, promoting books, and in most cases they get paid absolutely nothing for that service.

We should nurture and thank book bloggers, not publicly call out their alleged failings or create lists of disfavored bloggers. They are helping to grow and support our industry, providing some of the milk we all suckle. They succeed or fail based on the services they provide to their readers, and their obligation is to their readers, not to authors.

Look, I like the current trend of inexpensive e-book self-publishing. One of the glories of it is that anyone can do it without being taken for ride on the multi-thousand dollar Ferris wheel of vanity presses. I'm on record saying that I would consider self-publishing at some point in my career. But one of the problems with it is also that anyone can do it, some of whom clearly aren't emotionally prepared for the considerable stress of publishing a book. If a traditionally published author behaved like this chap, he'd hear from his literary agent and editor tuit de suite, and soon join the ranks of self-publishers if he didn't get his behavior under control.

I also think this spat demonstrates something about the costs of cheap ebooks. The author in question was whinging over supplying a free e-book that retails for $2.99. His lost profit on that ebook (assuming the bloggers bought it instead of getting it free--an unlikely assumption, since I started the free sample of one of the fellow's books and put it down after the second sentence--yes, it was that bad) would have been $2.09. But the average person requires about 5 hours to read a 300 page book--even at minimum wage, that time is worth $36.25.

Cheap e-books are not cheap for the reader. You're investing at least $40 worth of time every time you pick up a book. Would you rather spend $42.99 on 5 hours of crappy reading or, say, $54.99 on five hours of thought-provoking entertainment? I prefer the latter.

The last thing I want to say is congratulations to Goodreads. They banned the badly behaving author fairly promptly. That bodes well for Goodreads--civility requires rules and an enforcement mechanism, and I applaud Goodreads for supplying both.

What do you think? Have you seen any other examples of authors behaving badly? Let me know in the comments, please.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Tragedy in Aurora

I've been following the news from Aurora all day, repeatedly swallowing on the lump of horror that seems determined to climb out of my gut. Both President Obama and Mr. Romney have offered messages of prayer and support to the victims and their families. Writers far better than I have appealed for kindness and offered poems of prayer. I join all Americans--people all over the world--in mourning the victims and praying for their families and loved ones.

But it's not enough.

After Columbine, we mourned and prayed and made appeals for civility. Yet the Amish School shooting happened.  And Virginia Tech. And Westroads Mall. And Tucson. And now, Aurora.

We need prayers and support and kindness, yes. Desperately need all three. But we must also take action. To understand why these shootings take place and to prevent or reduce them in the future. We didn't act after past shootings--at least not on a national scale, and so none of us should be surprised the problem persists.

What should we do? Let me offer two suggestions that I hope all but the most extreme among us--whether Democrat or Republican, whether gun owner or not--can support.

1) Fully fund studies of these types of incidents and violent crime in general conducted by the National Center for Injury Control and Prevention and eliminate political restrictions on that agency's research. Gun rights advocates argue that more gun ownership and easier concealed carry could help prevent tragedies like Aurora. Let's find out. Gun control advocates argue that restrictions on assault weapons and large-capacity clips would help. Let's study that, too. Why isn't this being done already? That's beyond the scope of my blog post, but this article in the New York Times sums the issues up nicely.

2) We should work to make mental health care more widely available. The Affordable Care Act takes important steps in that direction, and I call on Mr. Romney to pledge to protect the mental health provisions of that law from his promised repeal. Getting treatment to sick and potentially dangerous individuals benefits us all.

Will either of these steps prevent another Aurora? On their own, no. But freeing the scientific community to find the answers is an important first step. Treating the mentally ill won't end violence, but it's another step in the long staircase we must climb if we wish to leave the horror of that darkened theater in Aurora behind us forever.