Dealing With Bad Reviews

I’ve gotten some bad reviews in my time. Michael Alvear’s book mentions some statistical study which says that a single one-star review can destroy the sales of your entire product (or something along those lines). That’s probably an exaggeration, as even insanely popular and widely-beloved books like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone have one-star reviews. Many of these look like they should be directed to customer support rather than J.K. Rowling.

I can say, however, that sales of a book I wrote about living in Korea ground to a halt once someone complained about descriptions of garbage and prostitutes. The problem with that is, if you come to Korea, you will see this stuff all over the place. The reviewer objected, if I recall correctly, because she knew some Koreans and thought they were wonderful people. How does this relate to my book? I don’t know.

So. The eternal question. How does one deal with terrible reviews? I think the answer should be, if the review is fair, respect it and leave it. If the review isn’t fair, try to get it removed.

I just got two terrible reviews for my book. It’s a major disappointment for me, obviously. I published a couple of sci-fi books last month. To be honest, they haven’t been selling nearly as well as I’d like them to, and these reviews will almost certainly make the slog to eventual victory—defined as being able to quit my day job—that much harder.

But the reviews are fair. They complain about the same issues mentioned by other, more positive reviews, namely the presence of politics in a sci-fi novel. I thought this was necessary, since the book takes place in the present and deals with present issues (diverse people with diverse viewpoints working together), but I also recognized that it was a risk (like this post) and would turn some readers off. But you can’t please everyone.

For the moment, I’m not devastated by this. Maybe I’ve gotten used to it, a little. If you can’t stand the heat, you should stay out of the kitchen—but if you stay in the kitchen, the heat gets a little more tolerable. It’s the same as picking up women (or men, I suppose): the more you get rejected, the easier rejection is to bear. And, eventually, in the words of Beavis and Butthead, you SCORE.

Thus far I’ve dealt with this miniature disaster by going for a run. Running is basically my cure-all. I’ve found other forms of exercise (like working out) don’t really improve my mood at all, but even a few minutes of running keeps me more or less in control of my mood all day long. I’m under a lot of stress lately, as my family is moving to America and my books aren’t selling enough copies, so this is absolutely a must for me. I’ve run almost every day for the last two weeks, and while the results haven’t really been too clear when it comes to my weight (since you have to burn about 3000 calories a week, while eating the same amount of food as usual or less, to lose five pounds, and this number depends on the weight you start with, since you have to burn more calories to move more blubber), the difference in mood is immediately palpable. I just…don’t go over the deep end. I still feel emotions, but they don’t control me.

There are other obvious ways to deal. Whine to friends and family. Go for a walk and listen to a podcast (like The Dollop) that will not only make you laugh, but take your mind off of your troubles. Cut yourself. Actually, don’t cut yourself.

The best thing to do, of course, is to keep writing. Hone your craft. Try checking out the books that have made a massive difference in my life: Self-Editing For Fiction Writers, The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, On Writing, Story (by Robert McKee), Heinlein’s Rules, and Chris Fox’s 5,000 Words Per Hour (and the rest of the books in this series). I’ve found that looking at a few pages of any of these books is inspiring. In my dream office I not only have paper copies of these within arm’s reach (of my treadmill / standing desk which also generates electricity…), I also have framed portraits of my favorite writers to inspire me: Tolstoy, Flaubert, Gogol, Nabokov, Homer, Ovid, and others, specifically so I can take them down from the mantelpiece one by one and shout something like: “Leo! I don’t know what I’m going to do this time! Someone left me a one-star review!”

One day I hope to write books that my idols would like.

The most important thing, obviously, is: don’t respond to the reviewers unless you intend to do so nicely. Even then, I’m not sure it’s worth it. I’m clearly no expert, but I would just let sleeping dogs lie (sorry for all the cliches in this post). You shouldn’t argue with a pig: you just get dirty, and the pig likes it. My other sci-fi books have little or no politics in them, and I’m tempted to mention that to these reviewers, but I doubt it’s worth it.

As for getting the reviews removed, it can actually be done. I know, because I’ve done it. While I was trying to promote a Korea-related book on r/Korea, I got into a spat with some of the posters. I don’t remember why and I really don’t want to go back and find out. I did promote the book with the moderator’s permission, although he warned me that the subreddit has a fair share of negative nancies, and what wound up happening was that some of them actually took the trouble to go to the book’s amazon page and leave one-star one-sentence reviews. I was CRUSHED. I didn’t know what to do, so I begged amazon to remove the reviews, since the reviewers obviously hadn’t read the books, and for once, the company that worships customers and doesn’t give a damn about sellers actually listened to me, and removed the reviews, whereupon the negative nancies thankfully lost interest.

I’m guessing that amazon will ignore you completely unless you have an incredibly strong case, however. At the same time, people have a right to express negative opinions about your work; and if they’re all saying the same thing, you should definitely listen. I used to ask some of these people to show some of their own artistic work for me to critique, but this was viewed, for some reason—probably because it’s incredibly petty—as a ridiculous request. Reviewers are permitted to review you, but you are not permitted to review them. At the same time, people talk shit about Steven Spielberg’s movies, even though they’re awesome, and I can’t recall the man ever complaining about bad reviews (although since he’s a human being he must do so at least privately). I’ve read that when he’s finished with some huge project, he just relaxes in his massive home, and he watches all the big movies he’s missed over the last six months or whatever straight through, enjoying them way more than most reviewers apparently do. But, as one of my students once said, that may be “just ima-jee.”

I have to get going. I hope this post doesn’t make me look like too much of a loser, and that it helps everyone with a negative review out there deal with it. As I said, you can’t please everyone. Life, or the universe at least, goes on.


Goodbye (God be wi’ ye!) Korea

My family and I are leaving South Korea for the United States in less than two weeks.

I moved here—alone—eight years ago, and when I first arrived, I despised absolutely every last thing about this place. Almost anyone would have at least disliked the smoggy cement buildings and the garbage that was everywhere, but my loathing of this country was far more profound. The different designs for road signs are, objectively, completely benign and even practical, but because they were different from what I was used to, they drove me out of my mind. I hated the camera-shutter cries of the magpies, was sickened by heels on the beach, and found myself spending far too much time staring at the planes taking off from the airport.

I had a free apartment, which would be a luxury in any corner of the globe, and although it was clean, new, equipped with everything you could need (except for a stove, dryer, dishwasher, a decent view out the window, and access to a decent park), and actually large enough for a single person, the thought of returning there each day filled me with the desire to run away from this place and never come back.

I’m glad I stuck it out.

Although almost everyone I spoke with—except the little shrieking critters known as elementary school students whom I was supposedly teaching—was incredibly nice to me, and although I had an okay job which allowed me plenty of time to write every day, I existed in this state of severe loathing for six months. After taking a break in Southeast Asia, which everyone should be able to do, I came back to Korea. Things slowly improved. I met my wife, moved from Busan to Gyeongju (probably the nicest city in the country), and finagled a much-coveted university job.

Now, I’m about to leave again, this time with a wife and two kids in tow. While Korea has plenty of problems, I find myself constantly stopping to smell the roses—the flowers blossoming everywhere in the growing heat, their colors so intense it hurts your eyes to look at them. I ate snails with soybean sauce the other day, and what’s more, I not only enjoyed it, but decided I would definitely have to return to Korea one day, specifically for the food—all because of those damn snails. Yesterday afternoon, I sighed at a very decent sunset.

The sight of the rolling mountains of greenery basking in the haze, the comfort of having the best kind of job in the world—one that gives you enough money to survive without working you to the bone or shaming you to the very depths of your soul—all of it I will miss so desperately, it’s just ridiculous. If I could speak to myself when I arrived here, he would never believe the result, not in a million years, but here I am.

We’re moving to Maine because that’s where my family is (and it’s beautiful), but we don’t know how long we’ll stay there. It’s obscenely peaceful, but with that peacefulness comes a boredom that had me longing for the terrifying roads, the rush through the crowded marketplaces, the definite heart rate surge that comes whenever someone makes an effort to speak with me in Korean. I’ve already basically given up on finding a job that’s even a tenth as decent as the one I have; I’m fighting my apparent fate as an Artist With A Day Job with every last weapon in my intellectual arsenal.

But in a sense, I’m thankful there’s so much I’ll miss about this place. My students and colleagues, the friends I’ve made, the teachers who care for my kids, the daily ridiculousness of being part of a visible, obvious ethnic minority which occupies less than a percentage point of the total population. People still stare, notice, objectify, get tense, act strange, and treat me differently from everyone else even after eight years, and although it can get to me sometimes, I try to roll with it. In America, I’m just another pasty white dude. In Korea, I’m THE FOREIGNER, the object of numerous curious glances, and not all of them from unhappy old folks.

Holy shit, I will miss this place. I’m sorry we got off on a rough start, Korea, but I’m glad it worked out in the end. If you weren’t so insane about hagwons, I’d be happy to stay here, but I can’t abandon my kids to the test-taking education machine, nor can I sit back while Donald Trump attempts to transform my country into a satellite state of Putin’s Russia. Goodbye, and good luck. I hope, desperately, that I can return here every year. I hated you in the beginning, but I think pretty highly of you now.

You’ve become a part of who I am, and I’m grateful for it.

Title Redacted

Interesting fact: although people in Korea generally view marijuana use as being no different from molesting children, traditional Korean medicine smells virtually identical to marijuana. You can be walking around a massive city of millions of people here, where there won’t be a stoner for hundreds of miles in every direction, and suddenly you’ll catch the unmistakeable hippy school scent of marijuana wafting through the air like an invisible Chinese dragon. It really does have the exact same smoky fart twang. But it isn’t marijuana—if it were, the cops, who are usually pretty hands-off, would throw you in the slammer for decades.

Enjoyed this tidbit? No? That is physically impossible. Physicists will tell you about the Ian James equation, an unbreakable law that permeates the universe. Get ready for it. The math here is a little complex, but if you put on your concentration cap,you should be able to get the gist of it:

Ian James + you = fun.

So I’m going to ask you one more time. Did you enjoy this tidbit? Yes? My book, The Hotel of Insanity, has tons of anecdotes just like it—but each is approximately one million times more entertaining. Just reading the first sentence will have you laughing so hard your dog (if you have a dog) will get up from the couch to make sure you’re okay. If you don’t have a dog, then the laughter will be loud enough to compel the nearest canine to pay you—a hysterical human—a courtesy call.

You’d better pick it up soon—it’ll only be on sale for the next thousand years, which is a blink in the eyes of eternity.

Author Bio

I’ve been on the writer’s journey since I was a kid. In the second or third grade, I can remember writing a short story in class which involved a certain alien race known as the “Clingons” being used to convince a teaching aid that there was nothing wrong with my reading or writing. If only she knew the truth!

They thought there was something wrong with me, at that time, because my family had just moved from New York City to Maine, and the change was overwhelming. Overnight I went from a happy, high-achieving kid with plenty of friends to a loner with unimpressive grades. I picked up a few friends here and there, but my teachers complained in my report cards that I spent all my time staring out the classroom windows. I was dreaming of escape.

I wrote, read, and played constantly with legos and computer games. I come from a literary family—my great-grandmother is Gertrude Berg—so I had plenty of guidance and encouragement. But it still took me years to get used to the change. In high school, I picked up some of my closest, lifelong friends, and confirmed my passion for books and science. I wound up attending hippy school—Hampshire College—where there were no grades and no tests, but plenty of outcasts like myself. It was paradise.

In my third year there, I became infatuated with a girl, and decided, for some reason, that it would really impress her if I volunteered somewhere abroad. A few months later I wound up in rural Bali at a wealthy patron’s vacation home. I had arrived to teach English, but things were so out of control that I was told to pack my bags one day and offered the job of leading operations there the next. This was another huge change for me. I had set out to stay in Bali half a year, but I only made it three weeks.

(Bali itself was amazing. The program I joined, not so much.)

The return home was even harder than my arrival in Bali. No one had told me that culture shock follows you back like a maniacal specter if you don’t conquer it in the foreign land you’ve gone to in the first place. I was clinically depressed for half a year—sleeping all the time, but always exhausted; never hungry, but devouring tons of food; unable to think of anything to say or do; finding joy in nothing; and, worst of all, no longer writing.

At home on vacation, with the help of more than one therapist and a few months of medication, I set about to recover who I was—exercising and forcing myself to read and write (even if I loathed every word that came out of my pen). It took a few months, but by the time I returned to college for my final year, I was fully recovered, and more resilient than ever.

At the end of my time at Hampshire, I decided that the best I could hope for in America was an office job, and that didn’t appeal to me in the slightest. Traveling the world while learning new languages and cultures sounded far more interesting. The college career office told my that my best bet, if I wanted to travel more or less permanently, was to get an English teaching job in South Korea. A month after graduation, I was in an airport at Busan, extending my hand to greet the people who had come to pick me up.

I should have known better, but man, those first six months were hard. Aside from moving to Maine, they were the hardest in my life. The full experience is recounted, perhaps a tad too harshly, in my book, The Hotel of Insanity. In short, I came close to giving up and leaving again, but my experience in Bali—my knowledge that culture shock does not magically vanish as soon as you flee the shocking culture that caused it—forced me to stick it out.

Things got better. I traveled through Indochina, Turkey, and Georgia, and, back in Korea, met an incredibly awesome woman who revealed to me, several months later—after we had confessed our love for one another—that she was pregnant. Oops! A few months later we were married in a traditional Korean ceremony involving a live rooster and enough bowing to power a sewing machine (or two), and then the next incredibly difficult change in my life began—being a husband and a dad in a foreign country.

That was over six years ago. I have two kids now, and my wife and I have survived tribulations that would make a live rooster’s feathers turn white. My oldest spawn has almost reached elementary school age, and much as my wife and both love living in Korea, we can’t abandon either of our kids to the hagwon machine here. Students spend—no exaggeration—every waking moment memorizing trivia for multiple-choice exams, sleeping five or six hours a night six days a week. Only a few manage to make it through this gauntlet with anything resembling intellectual passion or curiosity intact.

As I write this, I have less than a month to go before we move back to Maine. This may wind up being the hardest change in my entire life. I’ll go from a cushy university job—where I’m respected (or appear to be respected!) and paid enough money to live far more comfortably than most people in history for just a few hours of pleasant rewarding work each week—to the wilds of Maine, where it’s restaurants, lobsters, or decapitating mice, all the time, or you’re on welfare. My only hope lies in books.

I love writing, but I’m not going to be able to do it without your help. If you’ve made it this far, check out my latest sci-fi book. You can download it onto any device for only 99¢.

Thank you for reading all of this. I hope I’ve managed to entertain you—that we successfully dreamed together—and that I can continue to do so in the future.

Ian James

Favorably Compared to the Greats in a New Review

…Ian James has been able to capture very diverse cultures (human) in a handful of characters. From the conservative Texan to the desert nomad. From the educated European to a Chinese engineer to an American born native Farsi speaker. James delves into some fairly deep philosophy with nods to Heinlein and Orwell as well as undertones of Philip K. Dick while keeping the story moving and the science on point.
I am very happy I agreed to read Battle of Earth for review. You’d better believe I am looking forward to reading the next installments for pleasure.

The book is only 99¢, and you can read it on any device, or even get a paper copy. See what all the fuss is about here.

This also relates to a recent editorial in the New York Times, regarding cultural appropriation. I write books with characters from diverse cultures, mostly because I love Star Trek and am thoroughly bored with stories about white dudes. Different perspectives automatically make things more interesting; just ask Viktor Shklovsky.

I also believe, as someone who lives in a foreign culture, that the concept of culture itself is arbitrary.

Before I proceed, you have to put on your liberal arts degree hats. Ready? Onward!

To say that you are appropriating from someone’s culture, you have to define that culture first. This is far harder than it looks. If you try to find anything uniquely Korean, for instance, you immediately run into connections with other cultures. Hangul, the unique Korean alphabet, has obvious links with the alphabet I’m using to write these words right now (ㅂ for β, ㅍ for π, ㅅ for Δ; plus even more obvious links with Chinese (ㅊ and 天, plus the blocky nature of both written languages)). Traditional Korean clothing originated in Central Asia. The language itself is possibly related to Japanese or even Dravidian languages. Kimchi, the most Korean thing ever, has its etymological origins in China. Five hundred years ago, before the Columbian Exchange, kimchi wasn’t even spicy! Psy, the most Korean pop star ever, could not exist without American pop music. Genetically, the people are all related to their geographic neighbors.

Everything is mixed. You can’t pull one thread from the tapestry of humanity without yanking out a thousand others at the same time.

That being said, fuck anyone who isn’t Native American for dressing up as a Native American on Halloween. This is a bit double-thinky, I know, but how could anyone possibly view such behavior in a positive light? When you appropriate, I think you get everything you deserve if you don’t do so in an informed and respectful manner. But who knows, I may wind up eating my words. There’s a reason comments aren’t allowed on this blog—and why I don’t really use twitter. Life is difficult enough without having netizens telling me to kill myself.

Writing Sci-Fi With Space Engine

I’ve started plotting my next sci-fi novel, which means a lot of work has to be done on where things are. I want the book to seem real, and in order for that to happen, the stars that the spaceship in the story travels to have to be real as well—actual stars, like Barnard’s Star, Luyten’s Star, or Gliese 163. The problem is that using the internet to figure out where nearby stars are located and how far apart they are from each other is incredibly frustrating. At least for me, imagining where stars and planets are located in four-dimensional space, their distances and relationships—it’s almost impossible. There’s a reason that a lot of the best sci-fi is written by actual scientists, the people who live and breathe this stuff their wholes lives. Unfortunately, much as I love science, the last real experiment I did was probably in high school.

My new book is the third in a series about mankind’s early forays into the cosmos—in this case, the first colonization of nearby stars. Now, even if you’re not really into astronomy or science fiction, you might know that the nearest star to our sun is Alpha Centauri—and you might even know that it’s a binary star system (in which case you would be wrong; a third star, Proxima Centauri, is also probably part of the system).

So far we haven’t discovered any planets orbiting either Alpha Centauri A or B, the two bigger stars that orbit each other close enough so that nighttime as we know it on any imaginary Centaurian worlds would be nonexistent—wikipedia states that if you lived on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B would be bright enough, most nights, to allow you to read without any candles or artificial lights, making the system an excellent choice for book lovers.

Indeed, you might expect that, since it seems like planets are pretty common in the universe, a few of them at least are probably hanging around in that area.

Enter Space Engine—a free, four-dimensional interactive map of the entire cosmos, which was (and is continuing to be) designed by just one guy.

For education of any sort—parents who want to intrigue their children, or teachers who want to show their students just how the universe works—the program is perfect. Anyone with even the slightest interest in space should download the program and support the creator immediately.

It’s also perfect for writing science fiction. I was tempted to place a colony somewhere in the Alpha Centauri system, until I had a look at the two stars orbiting each other in fast motion. Again, I’m no expert, but the stars swing really close together, then fling themselves apart, then swing together again—and on and on—which made me suspect that any planets which formed there may have been thrown out into the cosmos. But, again, not a scientist.

I was therefore forced to have a closer look at our stellar neighborhood. I discovered that most of the closest stars to the Solar System are red dwarfs, like the recently-discovered “ultracool” TRAPPIST system—named, apparently, for a beer, which was itself named after an order of monks. Anyway, many planets have been discovered orbiting these stars; the problem is that the stars are so cool (compared to our sun) that the planets have to be incredibly close in order to be warm enough for water to exist in a liquid state on the surface, and at that distance (around the distance from Mercury to the sun) the solar radiation is intense enough to make life as we know it unlikely. But the debate as to whether life and exist in these places is, obviously, ongoing.

Brown dwarfs, or small, cool pseudo-stars that are like larger versions of Jupiter—large enough to fuse certain elements in their cores, they mostly give off infrared radiation—abound as well. Some of these also have planets, although they’re all so cold and dark that they probably wouldn’t work well for anything but penal colonies, military bases, or hiding spots (although what do I know?). Interestingly, while they’re called brown dwarfs, they apparently look kind of purple when you’re within spitting distance—although nothing made on Earth has ever been within spitting distance of such places.

The closest star I could find that might possess an Earth-like planet truly in the goldilocks zone is Tau Ceti, about 12 light years away from us, a star already well-tred by science fiction writers. 12 light years seems not so far, but it is actually an incredible, painful, ridiculous distance; our fastest rockets would take tens of thousands of years to travel there. Still, Tau Ceti is fairly similar to our own sun, though it’s a a billion years older—which means that any life which might have gotten started there has had a billion-year head-start on us, naturally prompting the question: where the hell are they? The answer may be that all the dust and debris present in the system makes extinction events so common as to prevent life from becoming complex or multicellular.

Different sizes and ages of suns, however—different distances of planets in their systems—mean that finding a planet like our own, where liquid water can exist almost everywhere, is like trying to find a needle in a needle stack. Even though almost all the planets I looked at were imaginary, it still helped me appreciate how unique Earth is. Really, the conditions here are exactly perfect if you want liquid water (and if you’re planning on doing cellular metabolism, few other elements or compounds come close). A few degrees centigrade hotter, and the water boils away. A few degrees cooler, and the planet is encased in ice. Nearly all the planets I found in Space Engine (including all the simulated planets in the Tau Ceti system) are hundreds of degrees warmer or cooler than Earth.

That still won’t stop me from setting up colonies, both alien and human, all over the place. Realism can only take you so far. At some point, fiction does have to come into play. But his program makes the fakeness seem way more believable, in my opinion, anyway.

If you’ve read this far, you should probably check out the first book in the series this post refers to. If you sign up for my mailing list, you can read it for free.

The Battle of Earth’s First Reviews

The book has only been out a few days and the first reviews are rolling in.


An advance reader has also provided a short review:

“It feels as if this happened, it’s so easily relatable…I’m excited to read the other books when they’re out…I’m wondering where the [characters] are going to go next in the story.”—iVortecz

Buy the book on amazon for only 99¢, or join the Ian James author mailing list and read the book for free.

Except In Acadia

My family is moving to Mount Desert Island in six weeks. After spending the last few years cooped up inside the smoggy high rises of South Korea, we’re looking forward to being able to unwind on one of the most beautiful islands on Earth. Much of Acadia National Park is located there, and even at the height of the summer tourist season it’s possible to find uncrowded and well-maintained hiking trails and beaches all over the place. Until I moved to one of the most densely-populated countries on Earth, I never understood how vital it is to have access to paths through quiet forests, mountains overlooking endless oceans, and beaches and cliffs carved by—to steal a few words from Carl Sagan—“the awesome machinery of nature.”

In South Korea, whenever I catch sight of people walking their dogs, I can’t help thinking of how this place is terrible for raising canines. They have nowhere to run around, only disgusting smells to draw into their snouts, and their paws get filthy whenever they go outside. At the same time, if this place is no good for dogs, it must also be no good for humans. Our ancestors spent millions of years hanging around trees and sprinting across grass fields—often in the company of Canis familiaris—but little of that natural habitat is to be found here. Instead, we waste away among concrete towers and neon jungles…

But in Acadia, we don’t have to. I worked as a gardener on the island for a couple of summers, and gained a deep appreciation for the dew gathering in morning spider webs, the palpable happiness of rain-soaked flowers bobbing in the wind, and the hummingbirds zipping from tree to tree with bluebirds and cardinals.

Treasures of every conceivable kind can be found on MDI. I daydream constantly of weekend breakfasts at Cafe This Way, guzzling cup after cup of glorious coffee (along with more than a plate of blueberry pancakes) in the company of hairy COA students. This brunch-fast is then followed by a promenade along the shore path, people watching on the Village Green, and pizza and a movie in the evening at Reel Pizza Cinerama. One of my friends told me he ordered their goat cheese pizza on the phone so often that when he called, he just baaed like a goat—he didn’t say hello or goodbye. They knew it was him, and whipped up exactly what he wanted. This same friend was fond of smoking marijuana at a place he had named “Reef Point” on the Shore Path, an excellent strategic position which allowed him to see if people were coming from great distances in multiple directions. Now that pot has been legalized, there’s no need for such precautions, of course, but the legacy of Reef Point will live on, regardless.

To be honest, I didn’t appreciate the beauty of Acadia when I was a kid. But lately I’ve discovered a ridiculous enthusiasm for the wigwam at Sieur de Monts Spring, the glacier-gouged Tarn at the foot of Dorr Mountain, and the Viking-worthy fjard at Somes Sound. Hollywood ought to take notice of this last feature; it’s been waiting for decades for someone to film a scene involving warriors running along the gleaming oars of a longship. Far more history, both natural and human, is packed into this little island than many might at first suppose.

Then there are the tide pools cradling countless specimens of life—the lakes and ponds filled with frogs, tadpoles, and beaver lodges—the wintry hills perfect for sledding—the lonely lighthouses and ancient arrowheads embedded in the sand—the seafood driving gourmets insane with joy—the free summer buses spiriting tourists from attraction to attraction and town to town—the occasional moose striding across your lawn, and the curious deer staring at you as you jog along a carriage road alongside horses and barouches or brakes that belong more properly to Tolstoy or Flaubert. These are things you catch in movies or books—never things you see with your own eyes or touch with your own hands.

Except in Acadia.

Massive Projects

Two of my sci-fi novels are launching in a day and a half. I’ve been writing since I was a kid (I’m 29 now), and self-publishing since around 2011, but this is my first serious attempt to do everything by the book, no pun intended—it’s my first effort to make writing novels my daytime job, specifically by following the advice of people whose day job is writing novels.

But what does that mean, exactly? It means giving the people what they want. Whenever you look at books, movies, or TV shows, almost everything seems exactly the same. Superheroes. Action. Zombies. The main characters are doing something normal, then some sort of crisis occurs, then they’re thrown into a whirlwind of trouble, and at first things go pretty badly, but then eventually they get the upper hand and triumph in the end, having learned a valuable lesson. Even Seinfeld follows the formula; the only thing the show does differently is the last part, where the characters learn absolutely nothing and go back to making the same petty mistakes.

Anyway, inside this basic formula—wheels turning within wheels, to borrow one of Frank Herbert’s favorite phrases—is a pattern of crisis-recovery-what do we do next-crisis-recovery. For example, Luke gets attacked by the sand people (crisis), Obi-Wan rescues him (recovery), Luke heads home and finds his aunt and uncle dead (crisis), he meets Obi-Wan again (recovery), they decide to go to Mos Eisely where they run into all kinds of trouble (crisis), but they meet Han Solo…and on and on. If it’s all crisis, the audience gets overwhelmed and bored. If it’s all recovery, the audience just gets bored immediately.

If you don’t follow these formulas—if you don’t work within them to create something fresh—it seems to piss people off. Myself included. I suppose it’s because we want to believe our day-to-day efforts make a difference, but that’s just a theory without any evidence that I know of at the moment. That would be an interesting experiment for social scientists—why do we like formulaic entertainment? Do we like entertainment formulas because our lives are formulaic—rising relatively peacefully in the morning, doing battle during the day, and coming home to rest and reflect in the evening—or are our lives formulaic because we like entertainment formulas?

Some artists try to break free of the formula, but I feel like they never achieve much popularity as a result. The first movie that comes to mind is an old monster flick called Them!, about giant ants, where—spoiler alert—the hero dies halfway through the movie. Even as a kid, I was stunned by that choice. Crouching Tiger switches main characters halfway through the movie, so that’s an exceptional success, and one of the most incredible films ever made…I feel like French and Korean movies occasionally attempt to pull off stunts like that, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Then there’s always mondo cinema, like Baraka, or avant-garde films like The Color Of Pomegranates, which feature the world itself (as seen through the eyes of an alien or a medieval poet) as the main character…

My dad told me that he saw Them! around the time that it first came out. He was so terrified that he ran up into the attic and hid there for hours.

So that’s the artistic side of this massive book launch project: writing something fun that people want to read. The marketing side also requires a great deal of expertise. Are you, the author, willing to fork over a big chunk of change for an awesome cover? Are you willing to pay for an editor? Can you find a way to keep readers coming back for more? This last bit involves releasing a series, where the first book is free, and ends with a request to join a mailing list (in exchange for more free stuff that the reader presumably wants), as well as a link to the next book in the series, for which readers have to shell out a few bucks. That’s pretty much the gist of it.

This massive project is linked to another massive project: moving myself, my wife, and my two little kids to America from South Korea, where we currently reside. Things here are actually pretty awesome, if you don’t pay attention to American media, but we chose to leave for our kids education—we can’t let them get swallowed up by the Hagwon Machine.

So aside from all the logistical difficulties of moving to another country—shipping things overseas, selling and throwing away the things we don’t need, trying not to lose our minds while traveling with small children for two or three days straight—there’s the challenge of getting jobs when we arrive. My wife is a registered nurse, so no problem there, really, but as for me—what am I? A clown? Who’s going to pay for that?

I’ve lived in Korea for eight years. Say that again. Eight years. Twice as long as when I was in hippy college. Two years longer than I lived in New York City. Almost as long as I lived in Maine, as a surly youth. And when I first got here, I didn’t think I’d make it eight days (this experience is recounted in my best-reviewed book published thus far). And not a week has gone by, during that period, when I have not found myself confounded by the need to teach English to hordes of screaming children, nearly every one of whom is either passively or aggressively uninterested in learning my language.

If this new book publishing venture doesn’t succeed, I’ll probably have to go back to teaching kids. I couldn’t be more thrilled.

I guess the last thing I want to say here is a reference to David Brin, whose excellent blog I follow, and whose excellent books I greatly enjoy. In a recent blog post, he makes a reference to something he calls VAPID—Villainy, Apocalypse, Pessimism, Incompetence, and Dystopia. All lazy sci-fi follows these themes, in his mind. My two most recent books include two of them—villainy and apocalypse. Perhaps when I become a more established author I can branch out into stories where there are no villains, where life is not collapsing around the main characters, where people ardently believe in ideals (like the original Star Trek or communist propaganda blockbusters), where the main characters aren’t idiots, and where the government isn’t out to get them. Until then, though, I have to write what sells—or else it’s back to babysitting screaming children for most of my waking life—and to me it seems like people just can’t get enough of it.

Everyone complains that Hollywood superhero movies are boring and formulaic, but Hollywood would stop making them if we stopped watching.