Remembering the Swanson TV dinner

I’m old enough to recall when the microwave oven was relatively cutting-edge technology. Yes, really.

My parents purchased our first microwave oven in 1978. We actually attended a course on how to use the thing.

Yes, really.


Before microwaveable meals became the norm, however, the Swanson TV dinner was the go-to convenience food for most suburban mothers.

Very few of these dinners were truly edible….let alone palatable.

The only redeeming aspect of the Swanson’s TV dinners were the desserts…which were, well…not bad. Sometimes.

I was especially partial to the fudge brownie.

Mailbag: Wattpad

Today a regular reader of this blog asked me for my opinion about Wattpad, and whether I would ever consider posting any content there.

To cut right to the chase: I have nothing against Wattpad, but my content would be a bad fit on the site.

I’ve visited Wattpad. (I even have a member login.) Everything on Wattpad seems to be written for teenagers by teenagers–especially teenage girls.

I think it’s great that the younger generation is taking an active interest in storytelling (as opposed to the mind-numbing white noise of social media), and that they have an online place to practice their skills, and display their work.

I also think it’s best if people my age stay away from there. I graduated from high school 33 years ago, after all.

The writer should know his place; and my place isn’t Wattpad.

Revolutionary Ghosts: Chapter 27

I made it to the McDonald’s on time—barely.

I walked in through the front door. As the six o’clock hour neared, the restaurant was doing a fair amount of business. 

This early, it was mostly families. Young parents with small children. McDonald’s wouldn’t release the Happy Meal for several more years, but the fast food chain was already a hit with children. 

When I walked back into the employees area, behind the customer counter, I didn’t see any unfamiliar faces—and certainly no one who could be Diane Parker.

I was about to take my place behind the open cash register—the one on the far right. But first I had to clock in. The time clock, with a card for each employee, was mounted on the wall, adjacent to the manager’s office. As I stepped past the office door, I saw Louis seated behind the desk. He was smoking a cigarette, as always. 

Louis saw me through the window in the center of the top half of the door. He waved me in.

I pantomimed punching my timecard. Louis nodded. I clocked in, so I would get credit for my time. Then I entered the smoke-filled office. 

Oh, another thing about 1976: Smoking in public was still more or less acceptable behavior. Most restaurant dining rooms had nonsmoking sections. But smokers lit up without hesitation in the common areas of offices, shopping malls, and bars. 

“Shut the door behind you,” Louis said.

I complied. The smoke inside the office was so thick it stung my eyes, filled my mouth and nostrils. 

I waved my hands about dramatically, as if I could drive the smoke away. “You’re going to stunt my growth with that stuff, Louis.”

Louis was a tall, gangly young man with black curly hair and a light complexion. He often developed inexplicable red blotches on his cheeks and neck. He wore thick glasses encased in heavy black frames.

Louis smiled impassively at my objection to the smoke. We had had this discussion before. 

“How tall are you?” he asked.

“Six-one.”

“Well, there you have it. You’ve already done all of your growing. And look at me: I’m six-three.”

“We could both get cancer.”

“You won’t get cancer. Have a seat, please.” He motioned to the visitor’s chair on the far side of the desk. “I wanted to go over next week’s schedule with you.” 

I sat down, coughing.

“Quit hamming it up. The smoke will make a man of you.”

“If that’s the case, then I should have a twelve-incher by the time I walk out of here.”

“Hey, I didn’t say that smoke is a miracle drug. Think of what you’re starting with. Anyway, take a look at the days and shifts I have you signed up for next week. Let me know if there’s any problem. But please don’t let there be any problems. If I have to redo your schedule, I have to redo everyone else’s schedule to fill in the gaps.”

He slid the paper across the desk to me and I gave it a quick look. I was scheduled to work almost every evening, as usual. 

Ray Smith had a diktat about day shifts: Day shifts were reserved for the older employees, especially the young married women with children. I think Ray Smith believed that he was doing his part to keep at least a handful of the local teenage population out of trouble, by keeping us at work at his restaurant during the witching hours. 

“I don’t see any problems,” I said, sliding the schedule back to him. “That will be fine.”

“I saw you looking around when you came in,” Louis said. “You were looking for Diane Parker, weren’t you?”

“Not really.” I said. 

“Bullshit. You were rubber-necking like you’d never seen the inside of a McDonald’s before. Anyway, Diane Parker is working a half shift tonight. She’ll be in at eight. Speaking of schedules: You’re good for closing up tonight, right?”

“Closing up” referred to the procedures that we went through after the conclusion of business hours. Some light cleaning, restocking supplies, etc. Everything that needed to be done so that the morning shift didn’t walk into a chaotic, messy restaurant. 

“Of course,” I said dutifully. I would leave the restaurant at 10:30 or 10:45 p.m. tonight, I estimated. 

“I guess you can go ahead and get to your cash register.” He glanced at his watch. “Did you get here at six?”

“Five minutes early, actually. Then you called me in here to talk.”

“Ah. Yes. Well, anyway.”

I could sense Louis hemming and hawing around. There was something else he wanted to talk to me about.

 

“Is something else on your mind, Louis?”

After pondering my question for perhaps five seconds, he said, “I’m not sure, really. I’ve been feeling a little…weird, of late.”

“‘Weird’? You’re always a little weird, Louis.”

“Come on. I’m being serious.”

“All right. What do you mean by ‘weird’? Are you sick?”

“No. I don’t mean that there’s anything wrong or weird about me. I feel like there’s something weird going on. Around here, I mean.”

It was as if Louis had read my thoughts, been privy to the events of the entire day: the hoofprints at the Pantry Shelf, the missing persons flyer, that shadow I saw in the hallway of my home…and then finally, the second set of hoofprints and the bizarre reaction of the  clerk at the Sunoco station.

“What about you, Steve? Have you noticed anything unusual of late?”

I could have confided in him in that moment. I could have told him about everything I had experienced since roughly noon. 

Unlike the clerk, Louis was certainly open to a speculative conversation.  

But I didn’t reveal anything to Louis. 

“I haven’t noticed anything out of the ordinary,” I said. “Not really. Not at all, now that I think of it.”

Why didn’t I meet Louis halfway, when he was clearly attempting to take me into his confidence? 

I wondered to myself—even then. 

My reasons had nothing to do with Louis. I don’t know if I was still in denial, but I was definitely in a state of resistance. This was the summer before my senior year of high school. I wanted it to be filled with fun. Pleasant memories. Maybe a new girlfriend.

I didn’t want to think about young people around my age going missing, possibly the victims of some horrible forces that I could barely imagine existing. I didn’t want to consider the notion that Harry Bailey’s article in Spooky American Tales might be anything more than the sensational ramblings of a pulp journalist. I didn’t want to contemplate the possible meaning of those two sets of hoofprints, the nasty gunk around their edges. 

“I’d better get to my cash register,” I said.

“Yes, I guess you’d better.”

I was standing up from the visitor’s chair when Louis gave me yet one more thing to think about. 

“Oh,” Louis said, “if you do happen to hit it off with Diane Parker, I recommend that you don’t take too long in making your move. What I mean is: Don’t let Keith Conway make his move first. You know how he is, after all.”

Chapter 28

Table of Contents

FUJI-SAN

富士山

Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain, with a height of 12,285 feet, or 3,776 meters. Mt. Fuji is technically classified as an active volcano, although it is currently dormant. The mountain is located on the border of the Shizuoka and Yamanashi prefectures.

As a landmark, Mt. Fuji has become an internationally recognized symbol of Japan. The mountain was first introduced to a worldwide audience through the woodblock paintings of the artist Hokusai (1760-1849), who produced a series of pictures of Mt. Fuji from various perspectives. His paintings were sold abroad during the Meiji period (1868-1912), and foreigners have been in love with the mountain ever since.

To many Japanese, Mt. Fuji has a quasi-religious significance. Expeditions up the mountain are quite popular among Japanese and foreigners alike. Climbing the mountain is arduous; but the activity is regarded by many as a spiritual experience.

Table of contents

AMSAdwerks and the inevitable reconsolidation of publishing

Warning: this post contains arcane details about indie publishing. If you aren’t interested in indie publishing, skip this post!

I happened by Russell Blake’s site the other day when I saw his post about his investment in AMSAdwerks, a new company whose mission statement is as follows:

We specialize in Amazon marketing. Our experts manage your campaigns from your KDP-AMS or AA dashboards following your budgetary and ROI requirements.

We offer a distinct value to independent authors and small publishers who would rather work on their product lines instead of attempt to figure out the intricacies of the Amazon platforms. 

AMS Adwerks

According to the graphic on the company’s homepage (see below), the fortunate author/client might hope to shovel $8,000 into the maw of the Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) machine, and net a profit of less than $2,000…minus the Adwerks commission, of course.

Source: AMS Adwerks

Russell Blake said in an earlier post that indie authors have little choice but to invest heavily in advertising nowadays. He’s right. Over the past year, Amazon has changed its algorithms to make its website a pay-for-play venue.

I’ve been listening to Bryan Cohen’s podcast, Relentless Authors Advertise. In the podcast, Cohen generously reveals the details of his extensive advertising activities throughout the week, including his final profit or loss.

Cohen, to be sure, is a smart guy who takes advertising seriously. And even he is barely making money at it.

The entrance of a company like Adwerks into an already overheated market will make advertising on Amazon even more expensive. I have no doubt that, with a cash infusion from Russell Blake, the company will hire a full staff of bright young things, and be very good at what it does….Certainly better than the typical indie author, tinkering away in her AMS dashboard, playing with ad spends of $10 or $20 at a time.

In 2019, the indie author who relies solely on the Amazon ecosystem must advertise. In 2020, the likely new imperative will be: The indie author who relies solely on the Amazon ecosystem must hire an outside consulting agency to tweak his ads constantly throughout the day.

This, of course, will require wheelbarrows full of cash. (Notice again, the sample numbers on the AMSAdwerks graphic. These are telling.)

I predict that by the middle of next year, or thereabouts, the requirements of advertising spending (for authors solely reliant on the Amazon ecosystem) will become prohibitive for most individual authors.

The likely result of this will be a reconsolidation of publishing.

Authors have always been technically free to self-publish. There has never been a law against it. Twenty years ago, though, indie publishing was prohibitively expensive, because of the economies-of-scale of printing and distribution.

That changed ..for a while. About ten years. But the speculative bubble of indie publishing has brought about a practical need to winnow down the number of books being published and thrown into the Amazon database.

Having observed the dotcom bubble of twenty years ago, I saw this coming. (Also, economics was my undergraduate major.)

But I was wrong about one thing: I predicted that Amazon would eventually charge authors and publishers to list their books on its site. A listing fee of $50~$300 per title would have met with some complaints, but many authors and publishers would have paid it.

But Amazon has opted for a much more profitable course (for Amazon): The company has convinced authors that they should engage in a bidding war for AMS ad clicks. Bids of over $1 per click are now common in competitive categories within the AMS system.

Very few authors will be able to make money at that game, long-term, selling $3.99 ebooks. The margins simply aren’t there.

Publishing will once again require deep pockets to shell out up-front costs…if you want to make any money at it, that is.

Economics is inexorable. Despite all the utopian pretensions of the indie publishing community, the future may end up looking very much like the past.

Nunn Bush

Writers: If you need a “sensitivity reader”, you need a different book

So you’re a writer, and you’ve heard the buzz about so-called “sensitivity readers”. 

Do you need one? Or is the whole concept of the sensitivity reader a load of B.S.?

To begin with the conclusion: You almost certainly don’t need a sensitivity reader…And if you actually do need a sensitivity reader, then you need a different book to write.

I’ll explain what I mean by that. But first, let’s examine both sides of this debate. 

 

On one hand, the cult of political correctness has empowered Twitter mobs to seize upon the slightest pretext, and virtue-signal on a grand—and often destructive—scale.

Case-in-point: The Black Witch brouhaha of 2017. In The Black Witch, young adult (YA) author Laurie Forest wrote a novel that was set in a completely fictional universe. The Black Witch is a fantasy tale in the old tradition of the genre, featuring imaginary, anthropomorphic creatures like wolfmen, faeries, etc.

Enter Shauna Sinyard, a worthwhileness-challenged book blogger who saw an opportunity for self-aggrandizement. Sinyard wrote a 9,000-word, wildly extrapolated denunciation of the book, filled with all the most cutting-edge PC buzzwords.  Here’s a sample:

It was ultimately written for white people. It was written for the type of white person who considers themselves to be not-racist and thinks that they deserve recognition and praise for treating POC like they are actually human.

Source article from Vulture.com

Sinyard then asked her lemming followers on social media to slam the book…which they did, like good little lemmings. An exercise in adolescent/early twentysomething Internet melodrama followed, fulfilling all of the worst stereotypes about Millennial “snowflakes”. 

The Black Witch, thankfully, seems to be doing well on Amazon today, the best efforts of one worthwhileness-challenged, basement-dwelling book blogger and her social media goons notwithstanding. 

But of course, there would be a repeat. A similar situation befell Amelie Wen Zhao, author of another YA fantasy novel, Blood Heir. Advance copies of her book were sent out, and once again, a mob of Internet cretins decided that her [completely imaginary] world was actually racist/sexist/homophobic/(yawn!) you fill in the blanks.

Amelie Wen Zhao was bombarded by accusations of being racist/homophobic/ableist…over a novel that wasn’t even set in this world. 

Amelie Wen Zhao’s Twitter post

Amelie Wen Zhao, who is an immigrant from Communist China, was both emotionally battered and honestly puzzled by the backlash. Rather than tell the Internet to trolls to go fornicate themselves (which would have been the appropriate response), she submitted to the howling mob. Zhao asked the publisher of Bood Heir not to publish the book. 

Zhao then issued an apology to “the book community”, along with the news of her act of contrition.

As Larry Correia recently pointed out on his blog, in a post entitled, TO THE BOOK COMMUNITY: GO FUCK YOURSELF. AN ANTI-APOLOGY, if this is what the online “reader community” is all about, then we writers don’t need them. 

I certainly don’t need readers like that. Neither do Amelie Wen Zhao or Laurie Forest. 

And we know where Larry Correia stands.

That all said and fully acknowledged, it must also be noted that these tempest-in-a-teapot firestorms are mostly limited to the young adult genres—and especially to young adult fantasy literature. 

This is partly because the younger generation is most immersed in the leftist obsession with identity politics that academia has been inculcating for the past twenty years or so. It is also because fantasy literature, at the moment, is dominated by leftwing cultural concerns. (Military science fiction, by contrast, has been mostly freed of its leftwing literary overlords, thanks in no small part to the explosion of indie publishing.) 

The net result is that someone who has an interest in YA fantasy literature (enough to blog about it online, at least) is typically a bootlicking little PC weasel, with aspirations of becoming a Lavrentiy Beria in the Internet bookspace. 

Most readers of crime fiction, adventure fiction, and political thrillers, by contrast, could care less about such nonsense

But I said at the outset that there were two sides to this, and there are. The other side is best demonstrated by example.

Suppose that I were to set out to write the next breakout, coming-of-age novel for African American women—set not when I was actually a young person (the 1980s), but in the present day. 

I would make a total mess of that project. I would get everything wrong. My entire life experience illy positions me to write such a book. I haven’t been a young person since 1980-something. I’m not black. I’m not female. 

I’m a middle-aged white guy who grew up in the (mostly white) suburbs of the 1980s. I would need not merely a single sensitivity reader, but an entire team of them, to accomplish such a task.  

And the odds are high that I would still bungle it.

And this really is the other side of our opening question. Writing is an art, but it is also a business. I stand by my earlier assertion that Laurie Forest and Amelie Wen Zhao should have told the online mob to…well…go fuck themselves. 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every author is the right author for every project.

 

I know that there are some projects I should stay away from as a fiction writer, because I lack the perspective. For example, I would never attempt to write the definitive novel about the experience of being gay, transgender, African American, or female. I don’t know what I’m doing in those areas. 

To the extent that the concept of the sensitivity reader is legitimate (and that’s a very, very thin slice of ground), the following rule applies: If your book project legitimately needs a sensitivity reader, then you are probably the wrong author for that book.

Note, however, that this doesn’t mean that every book that has an African American character needs a professional sensitivity reader, if the author is white. There is a difference between a book with an African American character, and a book that attempts to define the African American experience. 

The first book anyone can write with a bit of observation and common sense. The second book should probably be written by someone who is actually African American, or someone who has at least spent a lot of time in that culture. 

For example, Michael La Ronn, author of Old Dark and many other fantasy novels, recently said in an online video that he plans to feature African American characters in most of his future novels. (Michael La Ronn is an African American writer.)

This makes perfect sense to me. Michael La Ronn can do that better than I ever could. There is no reason for him not to pursue that niche.

Likewise, there is no reason for me to pursue it at all.

A white-bread author like me can feel free to not worry overmuch about racial diversity in my books. And to be perfectly honest: I mostly don’t. I’m not interested in box-checking every story I write, to see if it has the ideal balance of race/gender/sexual orientation. Why should I try to write intimately about perspectives that are unfamiliar to me…when other writers can cover such ground from a position of firsthand experience?

This doesn’t mean that all of my characters are exactly like me…though many of them are. As noted above, I don’t get too worked up about this. And I’m not alone here. 

Amy Tan writes almost exclusively about Chinese American women. The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter…All these books explore the specifically Chinese American, specifically female experience. 

And guess what…Amy Tan is a Chinese American woman! If Amy Tan were to attempt a novel about redneck men in southern Ohio—where I’m from–she would probably need a sensitivity reader. 

But why should she bother with such a book? 

Sometimes I do employ a loose version of sensitivity reader—not in regard to race, but to age. My books often involve characters of other generations, both older and younger. 

When such a situation arises, I ask one of my younger (or older) relatives or acquaintances if I’ve gotten a particular detail correct. 

At this level, what we’re talking about here is research. No writer should knowingly publish something that is blatantly distorted, or hackneyed, or stereotyped, because “free speech”. If you’re a straight white guy and your story contains an African American or gay character, there is nothing wrong with soliciting the input of someone who actually has an insider’s perspective. 

That isn’t political correctness, that’s due diligence. 

Realize though, that your ability to convey such a perspective secondhand is inherently limited. How much this limitation hampers you will depend on the type of book you are writing. 

In a thriller, you could probably rely on common sense alone. If you’re writing a literary character study, however, your lack of real, experiential perspective will likely get in the way. 

But again: Why are you writing such a book?

To realize one’s limitations as a writer is a far cry from submitting to the arbitrary dictates and whims of the political correctness mob. It is a matter of common sense, and also a matter of obvious, observable intention

Shauna Sinyard was reading what she wanted to read into The Black Witch, a fantasy novel set in a nonexistent world. Shauna Sinyard’s intentions were clearly bad (borderline evil, in fact). 

As explained above, though, my low opinion of Shauna Sinyard doesn’t mean that I should write intimate character studies about Chinese American women, or that Amy Tan should attempt the next great novel about Appalachian men. 

Context matters. It will always matter. Each situation is unique, and must be individually evaluated. This is art, not physics. 

But as a general rule of thumb: If you conclude that you really, really need a sensitivity reader for a particular project…think about writing a different book. 

Bugatchi 1080x1080

Amazon, Whole Foods, and home deliveries

Amazon wants Prime members to do more of their grocery shopping at Whole Foods:

Amazon bought Whole Foods in 2017 for nearly $14 billion to gain entry into the $860 billion US grocery industry. Amazon hoped the deal would help it convert Whole Foods’ shoppers into Prime members. 


The retailer also set its sights on an even bigger opportunity: Convincing more of its approximately 100 million Prime members in the United States to buy their groceries at Whole Foods. 


Amazon has tried to make Whole Foods more attractive to Prime members since the acquisition. Amazon initially cut prices on products like salmon and avocados. Then it began offering an extra discount on sale items exclusively for Prime shoppers last year to sweeten the Whole Foods offer. 


Despite those steps, most Prime members still avoid shopping at the organic grocery chain. Only about 18% of Prime members shop at Whole Foods at least once per month and 70% of Prime members say they rarely or never shop at Whole Foods, according to a recent survey by Wolfe Research.

CNN

Is this going to work? Probably not. Here’s why:

Whole Foods isn’t convenient for most shoppers. I live in suburban Cincinnati, and there is one Whole Foods within driving distance of my house (and it’s not in a convenient location). On the other hand, Walmart, Meijer, Kroger, and Jungle Jim’s (a local, Cincinnati-based chain) are all within four miles of my front door.

Whole Foods is expensive. Amazon has made efforts to make Whole Foods cheaper. But there’s considerable debate about the success of those efforts.

Whole Foods has always been something of a hoity-toity affair, a shopping destination for wealthy singles, and a few helicopter parents who don’t want their precious Tiffanies and Connors and Alexanders to consume any pesticides.

Whole Foods will always have a following in the big cities. But out here in redneck country? Hell no, we’re going to Walmart.

What about Amazon Fresh? Amazon is also marketing a grocery delivery service. I’m not sure if this is connected to Whole Foods.

I like having books delivered to my house. The mail carrier invariably crams the oversized package into my mailbox, thereby damaging the book, and presenting me with the challenge of prying it out. Nevertheless, where books are concerned, the convenience of home delivery outweighs the headaches.

But as for groceries? No…not so much. I like to pick out my own fresh produce, in particular. And I can only imagine what the slipshod delivery methods of the US Postal Service would do to a dozen apples and some bananas. There wouldn’t be an undamaged piece of fruit in the entire delivery.

In short, I am generally a fan of Amazon. But I’ve always felt that Whole Foods was little more than a novelty. Home delivery service for groceries, meanwhile, is mostly a solution in search of a problem.

Yes, the Internet is wonderful. But some things really are better done the old-fashioned way. Grocery shopping is one of those things.

Read this: ‘Me, Inc.’, by Gene Simmons

I was an occasional KISS fan during the 1970s and 1980s. (“Love Gun” and “Lick it Up” were my favorite KISS songs.) That said, KISS was never my favorite band.

But I’ve always been an enthusiastic fan of KISS bassist Gene Simmons. His bass playing and singing are well….Let’s just say that the man is more interesting when he doesn’t have an instrument in his hands!

I read his book. Me, Inc.: Build an Army of One, Unleash Your Inner Rock God, Win in Life and Business. Part biography, part advice book, this one is worth reading if you have any sort of entrepreneurial ambitions.

Gene Simmons is simultaneously open-minded and politically incorrect. He says what he thinks, without apology. He pulls no punches.

You don’t have to like KISS, or even rock music, to benefit from Me, Inc.

Simmons rose from childhood poverty in Israel, to megariches as a first-generation American immigrant. He is truly a self-made man, and he has much to say about how he got where he is.

I highly recommend this book.

What I’m reading: ‘The Disappeared’ by C.J. Box

It’s refreshing to find a crime series that isn’t set in Los Angeles or New York. 

C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series is set in Wyoming–a place I’ve never been, but which Box vividly brings to life in The Disappeared.

Joe Pickett is a game warden. He is also a happily married family man (as opposed to the moody loners of so much detective fiction since Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett). 

C.J. Box writes with the pacing of James Patterson, but with a lot more depth. 

This is the first C.J. Box novel I’ve read. And based on the first hundred-odd pages, it won’t be the last. 

Adding a new web serial: ‘Luk Thep’

I’m beginning the online serialization of Luk Thep, my supernatural thriller about the Thai “spirit dolls”. (Read the Time article about them here.)

The story’s heroine, Jane Hughes, is an American executive at an automotive components company. Jane travels to her company’s Thai subsidiary.

And when she returns to the U.S., something follows her home.

Lots of fun in this one, and spooky adventures on two continents.

You can follow Luk Thep online, or you can get the book immediately on Amazon if you don’t want to wait.