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Bridge Daughter on Kindle Scout: Week Four

Bridge Daughter by Jim NelsonThe lights went dim on the Bridge Daughter campaign Friday night around 9pm Pacific time (midnight on the East Coast). Did it end with a bang or a whimper? I would say it ended…on an up-note.

As I wrote last time, campaign activity dropped off after Week Two. What I didn’t realize when I wrote that post is how long the trough would sustain. Bridge Daughter had enjoyed a perch on the Kindle Scout Hot & Trending list for nearly two complete weeks, then fell off entirely, save for a few days when it resurfaced for a couple of hours. After reading other messages on the kboards Writers’ Cafe, I discovered I wasn’t alone—it appears Week Three of the campaign is a quiet stretch for more than a few nominees.

Fortunately, Bridge Daughter rebounded in Week Four and ended with a strong finish: four straight days on the Hot & Trending charts for 24 hours each day. It looks like the interest rekindles (no pun) when a book lands on the “Ending Soon” list, which gives it some prominence on the Kindle Scout home page. It also adds a little urgency to the readers, letting them know that if they want to see a book published, they need to vote now, and not put it off.

I’m out of energy to write more about Kindle Scout at the moment. It was fortunate the campaign concluded Friday evening. It’s nice to have a weekend to myself. I realized toward the end of Week Three that not a day had passed since the campaign started that I wasn’t fretting over it: writing emails, arranging advertising, social media, working on my blog…it adds up.

Now I wait for Amazon to evaluate the campaign results and my manuscript and return to me with a yea or a nay.

Bridge Daughter on Kindle Scout: Week Three

Bridge Daughter by Jim NelsonNow entering the home stretch, Bridge Daughter‘s campaign on Kindle Scout has five days left before the nomination process ends.

Week Three had a noticeable drop in energy over the prior two weeks. Out of the gate, Bridge Daughter was in the Hot & Trending list for over 20 hours a day for twelve days straight. That was a huge rush to see and, of course, invigorated my optimism.

That didn’t sustain, unfortunately, but I’m not certain that’s a liability for my chances of Bridge Daughter being accepted by Amazon. I’ve been following the Amazon Kindle Scout message list on kboards.com’s Writers’ Cafe (which I encourage all Kindle authors to join and follow) as well as reading blog posts from authors who’ve been published—and not published—via Kindle Scout. I don’t have any pearls of wisdom for guaranteed success with Kindle Scout, but I feel more positive than ever that it’s a mistake to view the program as a popularity contest.

What’s the magic formula?

Looking through the backlog of messages on kboards.com, one recurring question is What’s the magic formula for getting published on Kindle Scout? I don’t have an answer, but I’ve learned quite a bit over the past month. (And remember: I’m still in the middle of my first Kindle Scout campaign. Five days from now I might be changing my tune.)

Most of my information is second-hand, although a fair amount came from the authors themselves. (Martin Crosbie’s series on his Kindle Scout experience is a good read for anyone considering publishing this way.) It seems the following is true:

  • Some writers with books in the Hot & Trending list for 30 days straight were not selected.
  • Some writers who performed so-so in Hot & Trending were selected.
  • Writers who published multiple books through Kindle Scout in the past have been rejected even though their latest campaign performed reasonably well.

As I said in my first week’s post, I believe there’s a reason Amazon calls it “nominating” a book instead of “voting” for a book. It’s not a purely democratic process, where X nominations push a book across the finish line and Amazon will then (mechanically) start the publishing process.

I believe there to be a human component here, one or more Amazon editors who have some say over the approval process. How active they are in the editorial process after approval, I’m unsure. I’ve read blogs where authors were getting great edits before publication, and others where the book pretty much went to press as-is. We’re not even sure what algorithm Amazon uses to determine if a book is “Hot” at any moment in time (although it seems to be a combination of nominations and page views, i.e. clicks).

Part of me wonders if the Hot & Trending process is simply a baseline rather than the finish line—a way for Amazon to feel confident there’s sufficient interest in the book before using valuable editor time to read through it. Hot & Trending is also a gauge of how well the writer can spread the word and generate excitement (via social networks and the blogosphere), now considered by publishers a crucial part of author publicity, Amazon or otherwise.

I wish I could say Kindle Scout is a pure meritocracy, where great writing gets a publishing contract regardless of external factors. Then again, I wish I could say that about the traditional publishing world as well. I do feel I’ve received a tremendous positive reaction to Bridge Daughter thanks to Kindle Scout’s process, and that’s more valuable than I can describe.

Five days remaining to nominate Bridge Daughter for publication!

In praise of front matter

This is prehistoric by Internet time, but a few months ago Paul Cantor’s essay “eBooks Are Great But….” left me thinking about a lot of issues surrounding the rise of digital books. I responded to him directly on Medium (you can read my full response), but as time passed one detail I touched on kept nagging me:

My biggest gripe with the Kindle is how it opens a new book to the first page of the first chapter. Here Amazon screwed up. Show me the cover, then let me page through the front matter to the first page. This is the pleasure and ritual of reading a new book.

Now every time I download a new ebook or sample, I think back to this comment. Amazon really did screw this up. When I pick up a physical book, the first thing I read is the cover, then the title page, then the rest of the front matter (“prelims” in the trade), before reaching the first page of the first chapter. This is not wasting my time. This is part and parcel of to the reading experience.

Hiroshima by John HerseyFor the sake of example, let me take a physical book off my shelf—John Hersey’s Hiroshima.

The cover for my paperback version is superb, a rising sun drenched in suggestive red. It rises over a moon bridge with the water below as blood-red as the sun. (Without a word printed on the cover I would immediately know this book regards Japan.) The quoted Saturday Review of Literature‘s exhortation that “everyone able to read should read it” is almost unnecessary at this point in time for a book of Hiroshima‘s stature, but I suppose it gives lingering on-the-fence customers one more reason to buy a copy.

Since I was a child I’ve studied book covers before diving in to the book itself. I’ve seen plenty of crappy book covers in my lifetime, but a great cover is worth moments of reflection. I’ve always admired the illustrator who can capture the essence of an entire book in a single image. Wendell Minor (the cover illustrator for this edition) did a fine job of that without exploiting the more obvious emotional signals the name Hiroshima evokes. The cover is tasteful, evocative, mournful, and thoughtful—just like the book itself.

Opening the book, the first printed page (titled “When the Bomb Dropped”) lists the main characters of Hiroshima along with brief biographies for each. This isn’t filler. This page suggests to me that Hiroshima is a book of many people, not just one. What’s more, this is not a book of dry facts about the detonation of the first atomic bomb against a population, nor is it scientific analysis. It’s also not a military history, as none of the names have a government or military title.

The next page lists John Hersey’s other books, published between 1943 to 1987. I was under the impression that Hersey was a journalist who fortuitously had a magazine feature article turned into a bestselling (and now historical) book. I didn’t know he had such a prolific career. While this seems minor, skimming down the list shaped how I received Hiroshima.

Hiroshima title pageThen comes the title page, a clean, almost retro layout befitting the book’s original publication in the 1940s. A small note indicates the final chapter was written more recently, forty years after the bombing of Hiroshima. Again, that’s a nice piece of information to have—that while I’m reading a history book originally published contemporaneously with the events it describes, it’s not been frozen in time.

The colophon or copyright page may be the driest page of all front matter, but again, I glean something from it: “Copyright 1946, 1985 John Hersey.” Not everyone who picks up Hiroshima will recognize Hersey wrote it in the immediate aftermath of the bombing; that’s worth knowing before reaching the first page. Another tidbit to be learned: “The entire contents of this book originally appeared in The New Yorker,” additional historical context.

Then a modest table of contents. Five chapters numbered, each with a brief summarizing phrase that, even before reading the rest of the book, acts as a primer on the history Hersey records: “A noiseless flash.” “The fire.” “Details are being investigated.”

Only turning the table of contents page comes the first page of the first chapter. If I’d downloaded Hiroshima to my Amazon Kindle, this would be the first page presented. I would have been robbed—look again at the experience I’ve accumulated perusing the book’s cover and front matter.

I’m not blasting ebooks or declaring them dead or a horrible experience. I’m suggesting Amazon has made a questionable design decision, and one easily corrected. A simple option in the Settings would be enough to satisfy me.

Update: More on Hiroshima, John Hersey, and book covers here.

Kung Pao Grantland

Bill Simmons

Bill Simmons

GrantlandFor the past few days there’s been an under-the-radar furor over the news that ESPN will shutter (and now has shuttered) Grantland, Bill Simmon’s unorthodox and motley digital magazine he started in 2011. A melange of sports writing and pop culture analysis, Grantland offered daily doses of baseball/football/basketball coverage (“The Triangle”), movie and television reviews, NBA trade predictions, Hollywood power-structure tell-alls, and straight-up unabashed fan writing of all manner of popular entertainment. The moment the Twittersphere kinda-sorta erupted with news of Grantland’s demise I immediately felt sullen. Some grown-up in ESPN’s accounting department had taken my lollipop away.

Excuse me while I make a poor but useful metaphor: Grantland was the digital equivalent of Chinese-American cuisine. Both offer a little of something for everyone, and the elements together on the plate taste like nothing else in the American palate. Starchy staples, tasty fried sports writing, as well as specialty items you can take or leave, the sweet-and-sour film review or the Kung Pao TV retrospective. Founder and editor-in-chief Bill Simmons’ columns? The fortune cookie.

Unsurprisingly, Grantland was heavy on sportswriting. Bill Simmons’ career as a Boston sportswriter and later with ESPN guaranteed any site he started would zero in on the hardcore day-in, day-out sports fan. But Simmons aimed higher than the lad-magazine sports coverage dominating the commercial Web today. He also avoided the purple athlete hagiographies Sports Illustrated‘s writers pen in the hopes of turning a feature article into a book. Instead, Simmons looked for thoughtful, side-angle takes on sports that avoided the breathless “you-are-there” prose and sports-radio head-bashing. Grantland offered college basketball coverage that would make any casual fan a maniac, unapologetic take-downs on the NFL concussion controversy, and a soulful piece on Don King at the end of a remarkable lifetime, a story that should’ve won a Pulitzer.

(Grantland’s sportswriting wasn’t pure platinum. Like the worst of the dailies’ sports columns, Grantland occasionally lapsed into poor satire, such as its fictional oral history of a real-life American League pennant game, or, worse, Roger Federer’s deviled eggs recipe, both of which told me that Grantland’s writers operated under deadlines like their print counterparts.)

If sports don’t float your boat, Grantland’s television and film writing was equally strong. These features weren’t “bolt-ons” designed to drive traffic to a sports-centric site, but an integral part of Grantland’s overall gestalt. (Now you see where I’m going with this Chinese food metaphor.) In fact, that might be the secret of Grantland’s success: it treated TV and film criticism with the same irreverent seriousness as great American sportswriting. Simmons recognized a sports-fan-like obsessiveness in the Mad Men bingeviewers and the art-house film fanatics. They take their pursuits solemnly and dive in deep to their pet loves, but not with the deadly sanctimoniousness of political junkies or finicky tastes of music fans. Grantland targeted today’s connoisseurs of popular narrative entertainment, people who watch the movie then watch it again with the director’s commentary.

Most of all, Grantland recognized it was possible be a fan of all these cultural wellsprings—Major League Baseball, Breaking Bad, Christopher Nolan—and smart enough to want to read deeper and broader into them all. Bill Simmons laid it on the line: great writing will attract eyeballs, and it will keep them coming back for more.

My appreciation for Grantland came last July when I swore Grantland was committing a bizarre form of suicide. The noose they chose to hang themselves with was “Rom Com Week,” five days of retrospective on the best and worst of Hollywood’s romantic comedies. How could a site for sports fans who think the NBA draft is nail-biting drama possibly want to read about movies that made you laugh as you cried?

Well, it worked. It even made me rethink the romantic comedy as a—fine, I’ll say it—art form. I devoured each daily transmission of “Rom Com Week” at my office desk over a brown bag lunch, always eager for the next day’s installment. The cherry to top it off was Bill Simmons’ wrap-up analysis, “Sports Movie or Not a Sports Movie?” He attacked what may be the most pressing question in popular culture that was never asked and never answered: Were movies like Bull Durham, Tin Cup, and The Replacements sports movies or romantic comedies? In an awe-inspiring and sweeping investigation, Grantland uncovered a massive underground river in American culture, the overlap between “guy” sports films and “gal” rom-coms, with Kevin Costner as the center peg holding it all together. If Simmons’ essay doesn’t rearrange your head, you’ve been living under a rock for the past three-plus decades.

That’s the fortune cookie, Bill Simmons sliding in at the last moment with surprising observations and a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the subject at hand. Hell, he almost got me to forgive Saturday Night Live for forty years of repetitive and spineless comedy—almost. That said, Grantland’s SNL retrospective adds up to some of the best writing ever on an American institution that somehow manages to delude itself (and a lot of other people) into thinking it’s still an anti-establishment rabble-rouser, even while wearing a tuxedo and hobnobbing with A-list celebrities.

Romantic comedies, SNL at 40, the real origins of Moneyball, The Terminator reconsidered, the future of James Bond, the Golden State Warriors’ performance shot-by-shot. Maybe someday the hole left by Grantland will be filled, but I doubt it.

Gawker, meet Sid Hudgens: media mogul, slimeball, genius

Myron Fass' Hush-Hush News

Myron Fass’ Hush-Hush News

James Ellroy’s brilliant novel L.A. Confidential introduces readers to Sid Hudgens, one of Ellroy’s most colorful and enduring characters. Publisher of Hush-Hush magazine (“off the record, on the Q.T. and very hush-hush”), Hudgens gleefully reports on the secret lives of drag queens and lesbians, dishes the dirt on the famous (Robert Mitchum’s “Big Dope Bust of 1948”), and outs hunky actors whenever the whiff of non-heterosexual possibilities are sniffed out by him and his camera lens.

While Gawker Media weathered the storm this week over its outing of a Condé Nast executive embroiled in blackmail, I found myself revisiting Ellroy’s Sid Hudgens and all that Hudgens represents. I’m enjoying the Gawker circus immensely, delighted by each day’s revelations (Gawker “in a total meltdown”, “editors resign over flap”, Gawker to be “20% nicer”). Now this is my kind of tabloid journalism!

And I’m not the only one. I’ve noticed a preponderance of the word “schadenfreude” in accounts of Gawker’s self-induced implosion. (I even coined a neologism for the phenomena: gawkenfreude.)

I admit, I’m not entirely elated with Gawker Media’s and CEO Nick Denton’s funky little mess. I’m a fan of io9, a Gawker Media venture that avoids the lurid and sensational. In their place, io9 emphasizes reliable, thoughtful pieces for the science and science-fiction crowd. It’s also one of the few mainstream media sites to treat ebooks and self-publishing with the dignity they deserve. io9’s writing is remarkably free of the snark that Gawker churns out like dollar-mart peanut butter. (I should mention that I’ve socialized with io9 editor-in-chief Charlie Jane Anders in the distant past.) But io9’s good work isn’t enough to stop me from gawking at the Gawker pile-up.

Confidential magazine, November 1955

Confidential magazine, November 1955

With all the schadenfreude over the train wreck that is Gawker Media, maybe it’s time to acknowledge the immense debt Nick Denton & Co. owe to the Sid Hudgenses of the bygone tabloid era, 1940s and onward.

James Ellroy’s creation is most likely an amalgamation of two historical figures, Myron Fass and Robert Harrison. Media impresario Myron Fass revived the Eisenhower era Hush-Hush News in the late 1960s. In addition, he published “up to fifty titles a month, many of them one-offs, covering any subject matter he thought would sell, from soft-core pornography to professional wrestling, UFOs to punk rock, horror films to firearm magazines.”

Robert Harrison published Confidential magazine in the 1950s, whose editorial style was “laden with elaborate, pun-inflected alliteration and allowed stories to suggest, rather than state, the existence of scandal.” Those pun-laden alliterations became Sid Hudgen’s calling card in both L.A. Confidential and later stories featuring him. (You can hear Hudgens’ pleased hiss as he says “sinnnn-sational.”) When Hudgens narrates a story in this alliterative fashion, Ellroy’s prose becomes a thick, near-unreadable Finnegan’s Wake of double entendres, word mangling, linguistic winks and nudges, and postwar film references.

Myron Fass represents the more lurid of the two—his love of the grotesque, bizarre, and outlandish comes through in his wild covers. Harrison’s Confidential was more conservative in both subject matter and politics, taking the pose of a moral crusader exposing those in power and delivering the truth to a deserving public.

Danny DeVito as Sid Hudgens, L.A. Confidential

Danny DeVito as Sid Hudgens, L.A. Confidential

Curtis Hanson’s film adaptation of L.A. Confidential did a damn fine job boiling Ellroy’s tangled ride and entwined characters down to a focused, seasoned narrative. Screenwriter Brian Hegeland developed brilliant scenes that establish complicated characters onscreen in moments. Here’s Sid Hudgens (impeccably played by Danny DeVito) explaining his vision of…the future:

Jack Vincennes: It’s felony possession of marijuana.
Sid Hudgens: Actually, it’s circulation 36,000 and climbing. There’s no telling where this will go. Radio, television. Once you whet the public’s appetite for the truth, the sky’s the limit.

Compare Sid’s ambitions to Nick Denton’s pseudo-manifesto of Gawker’s values:

“We put truths on the internet.” That has been the longstanding position of Gawker journalists. … It is not enough for [stories] simply to be true. They have to reveal something meaningful. They have to be true and interesting.

I won’t quibble with “interesting” except to point out that this is the word choice of a one-time journalist and editor.

“True,” however, is worth pondering. Nick Denton is not invoking the philosophical notion of truth as handed down to us from Aristotle, Sartre, Kant, and so forth. This is a schoolyard notion of truth, or rather, The Truth. A bottled, constrained substance, the prim and scolding schoolchild feels entitled and duty-bound to uncork The Truth and dump it out into the sandbox and onto the heads of their peers, damn the consequences—to others, of course, never him or herself. “True and interesting,” as airtight and ironclad a journalistic ethic as any, Sid Hudgens might say.

While Gawker‘s writers talk up the First Amendment, firewalls between business and journalism staff, and the purity of The Truth they seek to release, it remains that the core of Gawker‘s pulled story lies an attempt to out a man as gay. In Gawker‘s 1950s worldview, homosexuality remains an accusation to deny or confess to. Even when Gawker’s writers insist staying in the closet is a form homophobia, their devotion to exposing “true and interesting” homosexuality rings as hollow as Sid Hudgens’. Gawker and Hudgens see it as their personal duty to pull back the curtain on private lives whose personal choices—right or wrong—have zero impact on the public.

And Gawker has been relentless in their crusade of outing public figures (never mind the question of whether the Condé Nast executive is a public figure). Look no further than their perverse, sordid, multi-year quest not only to out James Franco as gay, but as a gay rapist—a charge they determined by counting the yea and nay votes in their readers’ comment section. Outing gay men (accurately or inaccurately) is the staple crop of tabloid journalism’s output and the raison d’être for its existence. In other words, Gawker is not the innovator it presents itself as. Gawker has an unsavory, weathered provenance that goes all the way back to the days of Myron Fass and Robert Harrison.

Tabloid journalism does not engage. It shames, it derides, it scorns, it scolds. It’s the clucked tongue put to print. It’s the transcription of knuckles rapped in delight. By refusing to engage in the substance of a story, Gawker‘s revered snarkiness is revealed as nothing more than Sid Hudgens’ pit-bull taste for lasciviousness, but more hipster and less hepcat.

Still, I can’t help but feel Sid Hudgens won. He foresaw the future with more clarity than Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. From four-color tattler rags to Walter Winchell’s radio gossip to checkout line National Enquirer to prime time’s A Current Affair to the O.J. Simpson trial circus to Gawker Media’s empire—Sid Hudgens, Myron Fass, and Robert Harrison built the future one rumor at a time. Whet the public’s appetite for The Truth, boy-o, and the sky’s the limit.

From three acts to trilogies: The fall of “tight, gapless” writing

John August. (Mai Le)

John August. (Mai Le)

Over at Grantland, Kevin Lincoln makes a deft observation about the current (sorry) state of Hollywood’s output, which has gone from “tight, gapless screenwriting” to scripts focused on world-building, sequels, expansion, rebooting—in other words, franchising.

Lincoln quotes screenwriter John August:

Most screenwriters are essentially world-builders, and the nature of screenwriting is to create a universe in which these characters live, so that’s really exciting for screenwriters … it’s this weird blend of wanting to create the best two-hour movie you possibly can and having to sort of function as a TV showrunner, charting out the whole series, even though as a screenwriter, you’re only going to get paid for that one movie.

I have some interest in how Hollywood screenplays are crafted. (Truth be told, I’m more interested in how three-act scripts are structured, Hollywood or otherwise.) What concerns me with Lincoln’s article—beyond the ouroboros death-spiral that is the quality of Hollywood filmmaking today—is how this world-building dynamic is present in fiction too, particularly ebooks, a universe I’ve been wading into over the past twelve months.

If you search Amazon for independently-published novels labeled “contemporary” or “literary fiction,” you’ll discover your options are limited. (Or, if you’re like me, you might say “the field is wide open.”) Genre fiction is a another story. Science fiction, mystery, fantasy, dystopian YA, romance (and so on) are well-represented in the world of independently-published ebooks. Over-represented, maybe.

Some see that as a knock on the quality of independent electronic-only publishing, but the same situation is found across the publishing spectrum. Hardbound, paperback, big name New York publishers, small press publishers, even vanity presses—genre outnumbers the contemporary/literary world by an order of magnitude. (At least in the realm of books. By my reckoning, literary magazines outnumber genre magazines by two orders of magnitude.)

Someday I’ll write up my thoughts on genre fiction, but for now I’ll say that I don’t see the above situation as a problem in particular. I would like to see contemporary and literary fiction better-represented in the world of independent publishing, but I’m just one voice in a sea of many.

Three acts? Or three (or more) books?

My problem is where August’s observation about screenwriting intersects with independent publishing. Having spent a bit of time searching blogs and so forth for tips on breaking into the world of ebooks, I’ve again and again seen two connected strategies emphasized: world-building and sequels.

Group photo.

Group photo.

What’s that mean? Build a world, a big world, and explore it over the course of several books. This strategy has been the cornerstone of comic books (“the Marvel Universe“) and genre fiction (“A Lt. Detective Malone Mystery”) for decades now. Hollywood is finally waking up to the possibilities. And so are ebooks.

The ebook marketing wonkthink goes something like this: Write a catchy, addictive first novel that introduces your main character, builds the world, and stocks it with complementary secondary characters to be developed later. Give the first ebook away for free. Then write sequels that continue the story and develop your pantheon. Progressively increase the price of your ebooks as the series grows. When you’ve published the last ebook in the series—or reached a natural breathing point—package them together as a “boxed set” (there’s no box, just bits) and price it higher still.

Done right, the individual ebooks may be priced from free to, say, $4.99. The boxed sets can be sold as high as $19.99—the cover price of a physical book in a physical bookstore. With Amazon’s KDP Select, the author pockets 70% of that $20 purchase price. Not bad.

That’s the theory, but are sequels and world-building producing great reads? I’m not a connoisseur of modern genre fiction so I can’t say. I’m curious what hardcore genre fans think. Personally, I recall in my teenage years picking up Book One of various science fiction series only to discover its entire purpose was to introduce characters and describe the world’s physics and technology—in other words, sell me on buying the rest of the series. No thanks.

I know this: I haven’t gone to a movie theater in years simply because I can’t stomach what Hollywood is shoveling out the door these days. (This comes from a guy who grew up collecting Avengers comics and praying for a movie version.) They’ve rebooted Spiderman three times. “With great power comes great responsibility.” Yeah, got it.

Does it work?

Looking over Amazon’s Kindle Top 100 (paid ebooks, not free) and mentally discarding editions released by major publishers (and therefore available in paper form), I do see a number of independent ebooks that are part of a series. However, they’re all the first volume in the series (save for one boxed set selling for $0.99). I estimate two possibilities, and they’re not exclusive:

  1. The authors are selling the first book but failing to maintain readership throughout the series.
  2. The authors are big enough names they can sell the first volume rather than give it away for free.

In other words, I can’t tell from this limited data set what to make of this situation. I will say it’s tough as hell to crack the Kindle Top 100, so kudos to the authors. Also, this exercise of mine is rife with problems, so don’t let it stand as the final word on anything.

Note that I’m not terribly interested in the profitability of this world-building strategy. I’m more curious how other writers attract—and keep—the attention of readers. Do you really have to write a multi-volume genre series to succeed? I hope not.

I love the idea of tight, gapless screenwriting. I love even more the idea of tight, gapless fiction. For whatever it’s worth, that’s what I’m trying to do here.

Deutschland 83, SDI, and the birth of the modern era

Deutschland 83Tonight a new television series premieres on the Sundance Network, Deutschland 83. My cable package doesn’t include Sundance, so I won’t be able to watch the show in its first run, but so far I like what I’ve read about it. More than that, it’s exciting to read about its premise and development, as much of it reminds me of the impetuses that drove me to write Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People.

The Cold War

Deutschland 83 and Edward Teller Dreams are both Cold War stories featuring individuals caught on the front line of a war that had no front lines. For Deutschland 83, the main character is Martin Rauch, an East German Stasi officer sent to West Germany under cover. For Edward Teller Dreams, teenager Gene Harland is the son of a nuclear physicist tasked to develop the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a pie-in-the-sky system to deter nuclear attack that was immediately dubbed “Star Wars” by its critics.

It can’t be overstated how permanent the Cold War appeared in 1983. The idea that in six short years the Berlin Wall would fall, taking with it the Soviet Union and much of the Eastern Bloc, was so unthinkable it wasn’t even contemplated by science fiction or Hollywood. They preferred to traffic in darker visions of Soviet domination, such as Red Dawn, the Russians’ technological superiority in The Hunt for Red October, and 1983’s scare-TV sensation The Day After. Even MTV got into the act: 1983’s pop hit “99 Luftballons” was about a toy balloons starting World War III. Every Child of the 80s remembers Reagan and Chernenko boxing it out in Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s 1983 video for “Two Tribes”.

With each passing year of nuclear stalemate, the saber-rattling rhetoric, the occasional act of aggression that had to be negotiated down, the Cold War increasingly looked like Orwell’s vision of perpetual war. Of course, that comparison asks if the Cold War was ginned up to control populations or was a legitimate stand-in for irreconcilable differences between nations. Personally, I think it was a bit of both.

The birth of the modern era

I was also surprised to read that Deutschland 83 is set in “1983, the birth of the modern era”. Although I chose 1983 for Edward Teller Dreams because it coordinated with the year SDI’s development started, in earlier revisions I dabbled with setting the novel later in time, in 1984 or even 1985. The more I researched 1983, I realized I had to set my novel in that year and none other. (I’ll discuss more about this in a future post.)

Retailing in 1983 for $9,995 ($24,000 in 2015 dollars), the Apple Lisa mysteriously failed to capture the public's imagination.

Retailing in 1983 for $9,995 ($24,000 in 2015 dollars), the Apple Lisa mysteriously failed to capture the public’s imagination.

The developments in 1983 belie the stereotype of the Reagan years as drab, conservative, and conformist. In hindsight, the 1980s were remarkably dynamic, with 1983 perhaps the most so. SDI, Apple’s Lisa (the first personal computer sold with a graphic display and a mouse), the first reports of the AIDS virus and the solidifying of the gay rights movement, even the birth of the Internet on January 1st (the story’s more complicated than that, but roll with it). 1983 was more than an eventful year, it was a prescient year.

(And it was a great time to be alive if you were a reader: The Mists of Avalon, The Robots of Dawn, John Le Carre’s Little Drummer Girl, and Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit were all published in 1983. The Color Purple was published the year before. William Gibson’s Neuromancer would be published in 1984, following six productive years of groundbreaking science fiction short stories.)

Even in the context of the Cold War, 1983 may have been more consequential than 1962, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. In March 1983, Reagan declared the Soviet Union to be an “evil empire” and announced SDI, “a shield, not a sword”. In August the Soviet Union shot down civilian jetliner Korean Air Flight 007 and ignited an international uproar. All of this, as well as forty years of East vs. West posturing, culminated in the Soviet Union almost launching all-out nuclear war in November when it misread an American troop exercise as first-strike preparations. This series of “isolated” events—microaggressions on the macro scale— were not easily contained and soothed via formal diplomatic channels, the exact type of unchecked escalation feared the most during the Cold War.

Writing into near-history

When publishing an ebook on Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, or another distributor, the service asks you to list two or three genres to help categorize the work. While every author feels their novel transcends such pedantic pigeonholing—only partial sarcasm there—I’ve usually selected “historical fiction” for Edward Teller Dreams. It’s a problematic label, however, and not because I’m being snooty.

Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People by Jim NelsonThe term “historical fiction” evokes costume drama and so-called simpler times of clear-cut morality and rigid social standings. Most historical fiction book review web sites will only consider work that’s set at least fifty, seventy-five, even a hundred years in the past. Edward Teller Dreams is set thirty-two years ago (and was less than twenty years in the past when I first started writing it). Even with all I’ve described above, it’s hard to say the world has changed that much. I easily admit there’s more similarities between 1983 and 2015 than there are differences.

But even in writing this one novel I uncovered a number of obstacles with setting a story in near-history, and I suspect the writers of Deutschland 83 faced them as well. Show creator Anna Winger says “The great privilege is it’s living history. People are still around and they want to talk about it.” I would say this privilege also nods towards its challenges.

In interviews with authors who pen historical fiction, there’s much discussion about research, authenticity, understanding the period, understanding moires and daily language, and so forth. Some historical fiction authors even go so far to dress in period clothing to better understand their subjects. Me? I threw on a T-shirt and a pair of corduroy jeans and—voila—welcome to exotic California, 1983.

But I’ll go to go out on a limb and say writing near-history is equally challenging to writing “real” historical fiction, and maybe more so. Ask someone what they think of the 1880s and you’ll receive silence, or maybe “I don’t know, why do you ask?” Ask someone what they think of the 1980s and you’ll get an earful. To retell near-history, you’re confronting people’s personal memories as well as the collective memory of our recorded culture.

I don’t think Edward Teller Dreams is a bold stab at righting some historical wrong, or rewriting the past in order to spotlight silenced voices. It doesn’t sound like Deutschland 83 is out to serve historical justice either. I do feel there are many stories of that era—of every era—that, if taken at face-value as told in good faith, will alter our understanding of history as well as our present. To retell stories from the 1880s is fine, but to retell the state of the world of the 1980s is to dispute our perception of the world today.