How (and Why) to Use Free Culture Lyrics In Your Book

"I've got the 'white boy tryin' to use song lyrics in my novel blues.'" Image by zooverano, CC0
“I’ve got the ‘white boy tryin’ to use song lyrics in my novel’ blues.”
Image by zooverano, CC0
A year and a half ago, I did a post titled “A different way to legally quote lyrics in your books“, providing a legal, workable alternative to bringing in song lyrics to your novel without putting yourself at the mercy of the litigation-happy recording industry.

It has come to be the post I refer to most often on social media, somewhat to my surprise, and the more I link it, the less happy I am with how non-comprehensive it is.

So today I return to the well, and aim to do a better job of explaining what the Creative Commons is, what Free Culture licenses are, and how to go about finding songs whose lyrics you can use in your books with minimal fuss and no legal vulnerability on your part.

But before we go exploring the Commons and Free Culture, let’s deal with what all new writers are actually trying to do.

Do Not Use Mainstream, Major Label Songs In Your Writing

you may cast me off
but i remain
you may tell your tale
but i’m the same

— Bert Jarred, “Spectacular“, CC BY 3.0

You’ve been working on your novel for a long time, and it’s the greatest book ever written, and the only thing that could make it more perfect is if you could just use this one perfect song lyric as an epigraph.

Don’t.

I don’t care how perfectly “Stairway to Heaven” or “Under The Milky Way” are suited to your story. If you quote them, there will be legal consequences.

You can — probably — get away with referring to the name of the song, and the band name, in the story. But I wouldn’t even go that far, personally.

There is a theoretical limitation to copyright known as “fair use” in the United States. In theory, people have the right to use a portion of a copyrighted work in a larger, original creation.

In reality, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) (or your local equivalent if you’re outside of the US) is going to bring suit against any use for which they did not get paid and to which they did not give permission.

It doesn’t matter how cool the band or artist is with fans making use of their works (and some are, but they don’t get the final say). The major labels and the RIAA sue, basically, everybody. Unless you’re Stephen King or Dan Brown, you don’t have the resources for the knock-down, drag-out legal fight that would ensue. As far as they are concerned, there is no fair use until it has been litigated, and the purpose of that is to create a very expensive barrier to entry for any use.

Don’t believe me? In 2007, Stephanie Lenz posted to Youtube a 29 second video of her toddler dancing. Her child was dancing to Prince’s 1980s classic “Let’s Go Crazy”, which can be heard (poorly) in the background of the video. Universal Music Publishing Group had Youtube pull the video due to a claimed copyright violation. (“‘Universal’s takedown notice doesn’t even pass the laugh test,’ said EFF Staff Attorney Corynne McSherry.“) The lawsuits and countersuits started that same year.

It is now 2015, eight years later, and the suits still have not been decided.

That’s over a 29 second dancing baby video, from which the song in question could not possibly be pirated, or detract from the copyright in any way.

Do you really think using lyrics in your novel will get you less of a legal quagmire than a dancing baby video?

So, you can (again, probably) use a song title and connect it with the band or artist’s name in your story, but do not go further than that, or you’re all but certainly going to regret it.

What is the Creative Commons?

did you think that you could save me from myself?
i’d rather stare at these four walls i know so well
i know their stories, i know their hells
i’ve been there too and i think they need my help

— madalyniris, “Leave And Never Look Back“, CC BY 3.0

The Creative Commons is a non-profit organization founded in 2001 by Lawrence Lessig and others, with the goal of promoting general licenses so that artists and creators can choose to waive certain rights otherwise protected by copyright.

A work released under the Creative Commons does not include the phrase “all rights reserved”, but instead says “some rights reserved”, with the particular license making clear which rights those are.

The goal of these licenses is to encourage people to share creations that they like with others. Some licenses restrict you only to that, while others grant more and wider permissions. And culture consumers can do so without fear of being punished for, say, making a mixtape-playlist and giving it to a friend.

What are Free Cultural Works?

A thousand footsteps outside my door
Well they don’t seem to matter anymore
I’ve seen the signs along the wall
Mine is the greatest sign of them all

— Glenn Wilson, “Try“, CC BY-SA 3.0

You can read more about them at the Creative Commons site, but here’s a quick thumbnail.

There are four necessary characteristics for a work to be part of Free Culture:

  1. Freedom to use the work itself.
  2. Freedom to use the information in the work for any purpose.
  3. Freedom to share copies of the work for any purpose.
  4. Freedom to make and share remixes and other derivatives for any purpose.

The important point here is that any Free Culture license allows commercial use of a work, and derivative works.

If you write a book and it has somebody else’s lyrics in it, you have created a derivative work. If you then sell that book, you are making a commercial use of that derivative work.

With a Free Culture license, you already have permission to do both of these things, without penalty or even notifying the creator, so long as you abide the terms of the license.

The Creative Commons licensing structure has two licenses that fall under Free Culture.

The Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license is just that — you can do pretty much anything you want with the licensed work, so long as you give proper attribution (generally with a link to the original source), indicate whether changes have been made, and make clear that your use is not condoned or supported by the original creator.

The Creative Commons Attribution–Share-Alike (CC BY-SA) license requires the same things as the Attribution license, as well as requiring you to release your derivative work under an identical or compatible license.

Note that this does not mean you need to give your work away for free. It does mean, however, that you need to stop worrying about “piracy”, because you are giving permission to copy and share by using the license.

(And, really: relax. It’s not piracy, it’s free advertising. How many of your favorite authors did you discover by buying a book blindly? If someone reads your book, loves it, and makes a copy to encourage his friend to read it, that friend might become your new biggest fan. If he does, you’ll get plenty of purchases from him in the future, so why would you think about punishing him for that first read?)

At the moment, apart from earlier iterations of the same license, there is one non-Creative Commons license that is compatible with CC BY-SA — the Free Art License (FAL), also known as the License Art Libre (LAL).

If you read that license closely, you will find that it is, in every essential, the same as CC BY-SA. So if you find a song under an FAL license, you can put your book out with a CC BY-SA, and you’re covered.

(There is also the Creative Commons license to dedicate works to the public domain, the CC0 license, but to date, very few songs have been released under it.)

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but how do I find a Free Culture song to quote?

It’s cause I like to fight about it so I,
Bite down taste blood then spit it out.
I learn quick, I make connections,
I don’t dream just pay attention.

— Lily Wolf, “Play The Game“, CC BY-SA 3.0

There are places to look, and ways to search, that can help you zero in on something appropriate. But you’ll be ahead of the game if you commit to listening to a lot of CC-licensed music to begin with.

It’s not difficult, and for the most part costs you only time and hard drive space. The only thing is you have to be willing to wade into unexplored waters and judge for yourself what’s good and what’s not. For some people that might be difficult, or at least it might take you a while to get your bearings.

But it’s worth it. Making CC-licensed music a regular part of your listening means when you think “man, this tune would be perfect for this video I shot”, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to use that tune with a clear conscience and no worries about RIAA lawsuits or DMCA takedown notices.

If you’re looking for a lyric Right Now, the first thing you want to do is go on a general CC search. Creative Commons has a CC Search tool (which is apparently being replaced, but hasn’t been yet).

jamendo_logoTo start listening to CC music generally, the place to start is Jamendo. It is, I believe, the oldest CC-music site, and has thousands and thousands of works, all under one CC license or another. Jamendo has some drawbacks. Older works disappear with disturbing frequency, and even finding a pointer to where they once were is difficult. So, for instance, I have a number of albums I downloaded from Jamendo and, due to moves from one computer to another, and other exigencies, the licensing info got lost, and I can no longer look up what license they had because they’re not even listed on Jamendo anymore. Jamendo also used to have a thriving community and lots of artist-fan interaction, which is now gone. And those “improvements” suggest that the owners of the site are perfectly willing to cripple it further without notice or regard for what you or I think. That said, it really is the best place to dive in to CC music.

WFMU-free-music-archive-logoAnother long-time CC music archive is the Free Music Archive, which hosts lots of CC-licensed music (lots of overlap with Jamendo), along with other music that’s free to download but not so clearly licensed (and some public domain music as well).

bandcamp_130x27_whiteBandCamp is a wonderful music outlet, and many artists on it use CC licenses, but there are two drawbacks — you cannot search by license, and when you download, at least the last time I did, licensing data is not included, not even in the music files’ metadata.

ia_purpleThe Internet Archive also houses a lot of CC audio, but it’s difficult to search by license, to find the sort of CC music you’re looking for, and to be sure that it’s legitimately under that license. I recommend going here only after you’ve got a lot of experience with searching out bands and songs, and having a good feel for what’s likely legitimate, and what’s probably somebody stealing music and passing it off as his own. (It’s pathetic, but yes, people actually do this.)

93px-SoundCloud_logo.svgThere are a number of Creative Commons artists on SoundCloud, but I’ve found searching there to be substandard, even while the formats available tend to be superior.

magnatune3-logo-smallMagnaTune is a pay service, so you know that artists are getting some financial support, and often they use CC licenses.

cc-mixter-logo-blackCCMixter is a service I’ve almost never used, but it definitely makes music available under CC licenses, so it’s worth checking out.

Too Long; Didn’t Read

No one likes the freak, no one likes the odd man out.
I’d rather live my life alone,
Than live a life of doubt.
I won’t let you force yourself on me,
I refuse to be a victim to your society.

— Sunspot, “Intellectual Terrorists” (CC BY-SA 3.0)

If you’re a writer, especially an indie writer, you don’t want to quote lyrics from mainstream songs in your book, or you invite lengthy litigation courtesy of the recording industry and their flesh-eating lawyers.

If you absolutely must include lyrics in your book, and wish to avoid legal bills, you can either invent them, or use lyrics from songs with Free Culture licenses (and abide by the terms of those licenses).

Unless you are under a severe time crunch, the very best way to find that one perfect lyric is to start exploring Free Culture music yourself, at any or all of the sites linked above.


As an addendum, I can add another way to explore Free Culture music. Last year, I did a first installment of a podcast meant to expose people to cool CC-licensed music.

The Creative Uncommons‘s first episode only got a few dozen listens and virtually no reaction, however; so, for that and other reasons, I let the project languish.

I have playlists for two more hour-long installments ready to go, and can easily put together many more, almost without thinking about it. And each of the playlists to date is entirely Free Culture.

If enough potential listeners are interested, I’m willing to take it up again, but, given my extremely limited financial means, I do need to make it pay. If you’re willing to support such a podcast, and/or know others who would be, leave a note in the comments or hit the contact form to send me a private email. If enough people seem interested, I’ll sit down, figure out what I’ll need to get back up and running, and put together a crowdfunding campaign. (Given my personal quirks, I may be foolish enough to do it with Bitcoin through the Lighthouse de-centralized crowdfunding platform, but we’ll see.)

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Mid-book thoughts

I have a confession to make: I do not enjoy reading Robert Louis Stevenson.

Oh, sure, I read Treasure Island when I was nine or ten. And as an adult I did manage to get through The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

But I’ve also failed to get through Kidnapped many, many times. And now I’m slogging through The Master of Ballantrae for my reading project, and it’s just irritating the hell out of me.

I’m two chapters in, plus an in-story preface, and while I have a better handle on what’s going on than I did the first time I tried to get through it last year (I’m already further in than I got on that attempt), RLS is still failing to give me much handle by which to grab on and get into the story.

The opening takes place around 1745 and the Second Jacobite Rebellion, which is fairly important to the plot, as it takes one main character away from the others and causes them to believe he is dead.

Let me pause to observe that “Jacobite” and “rebellion” are two words yet to be mentioned in the novel. At all. You’re simply supposed to know what Bonny Prince Charlie’s being around and the year means. No notes, no asides, nothing to help orient the reader.

Look, when Sir Walter Scott covered his fictional Third Jacobite Rebellion in Waverley, written much closer in time to the events it presumed the reader was familiar with, he still managed to give enough detail that I, who am fairly ignorant of those events, had no trouble following his (cracking good) story.

(It is, perhaps, partly excusable in that the story is narrated in the first person, and such a person would assume that anyone reading it would “just know” all the background, but I still hold that it’s bad writing to give readers basically no handle at all if they don’t have the same background as the characters in the story.)

Then there are the characters. The lists and lists of names, and indirect mention of certain characters being referred to by different names or different titles at different times, and again no explanation of why. You’re just supposed to already know, I guess.

There’s also the thick, thick Scots accent he transcribes for certain characters. A lot of it I can work out from my own knowledge of how Scots speak, or from context. But some things are just tae oobscur tae ken fa me Moorcin eyre.

I imagine that RLS is one of the authors who inspired Heinlein to write in his own particular style — that is, to describe things without explaining them, and let the reader work out the hows and whys himself.

But that doesn’t work if you don’t give the reader any way to figure anything out. So far, RLS doesn’t do that.

Also, probably best not to get me ranting on how he gives just as little description or orientation for his fictional places as for real ones, so that all of Scotland exists in a foggy nether realm where things have no spatial relationships to each other in this reader’s mind. Argh.

It’s quite maddening, but I’m going to soldier on, because this is my project, dammit, and I will finish it. Eventually.

(This is probably going to be very funny, as the next two novels in the project seem to be rather over-written Victorian pieces, so I’ll soon be bitching about having too much description, after complaining about not getting enough. Call me Goldilocks.)

Resolute, 2015

2014 could have been worse, but wasn’t a good year for me. There were, however, some bright spots.

While I failed in last year’s resolve to publish a piece a month, or to finish any novels, or to tie some writing into the season or holiday in which it was being released, I did at least get something written and published — Spring That Never Came is close to being a short novel (and I got complaints from a few friends that it should have been longer, which is a good complaint to have), and I pounded it out in a white hot frenzy in about a month, ran it through beta readers and fine-tuned the writing and logic in another two weeks, threw together a cover that I, at least, loved, and had published it to great indifference.

But that’s okay, because I like it and know why I had to write it. Plus, while it only got one (pretty darn good) review, the free Creative Commons download numbers were heartening, even if actual sales numbers weren’t life-sustaining.

Lesson learned? Write fast, publish fast, and stop avoiding the marketing side of things.

Also, even though I suffer from chronic fear that my writing sucks, I keep liking what I’ve written once I actually do it.

Most of the other things on the list I didn’t even come close to doing, so in some form they carry over to this year, with additions and modifications.

  • I will finish and publish one piece a month.

  • I will bloody well promote what I publish, and not just by whining “buy my book” on Twitter.

  • However unstable my employment situation is (and it is extremely unstable, thank you idiot governments that think you can tax your way to prosperity), I will put aside as much money as possible for The Dream (see below).

  • I will put all savings into Bitcoin, BlackCoin, or silver (not certificates, actual bullion). Yes, I think the dollar is going to collapse. I don’t know when, it might not happen for another few years, but I can foresee no means of escaping it, only of delaying it a little more. Presently I need currency more than anything, but I also need to get saving.

  • Since I am getting a freelance gig with a Bitcoin news and analysis site, I will do everything I can to make that site successful. (Can’t say which site it is till things are a little closer to relaunch.) If things work the way I’m hoping, this gig will be mainly for putting aside savings. We’ll have to see if that’s a reasonable thing or not.

  • I will explore a few other paths to publication, separate from Amazon. Yes, I’ll probably put most of my work up on Amazon, because that’s where the paying customers are right now. But I also want to put a novel on Unglue.It, and some of my work on BitcoinBooks.

  • I need to decide if I’m ever going to use Kindle Desktop Publishing Select again, as an author. It didn’t do a lot for Spring That Never Came except for the first free giveaway, but that giveaway translated into no reviews, no ratings, and few if any further sales. And I’d have to look at the numbers, but I think only three or four Prime members “borrowed” it, total, during the six months it was available that way. Granting that my marketing skills suck, that’s still not every impressive.

  • Though I made a half-hearted attempt to crowdfund my NaNoWriMo, I never promoted that attempt at all. Part of this is psychological, hangover from my childhood, expecting people to hate me when I ask for any value at all, and I need to get the hell over that. Another, much smaller, part is that BitcoinStarter seemed to go down or be unresponsive every time I got up the courage to try promoting it. Yes, that was disheartening, but it was also a convenient excuse not to bother people with my press release or any other promotion at all.

  • When my circumstances are even a little bit more stable, in addition to my daily writing time, I will devote several hours a week to getting The Tutoring Method up and running in a regular fashion. Preferably on its own website instead of a WordPress.com site.

  • I will continue seeking out unloved public domain books, and working to convert them to epubs. And I’ll even start making them available, which I keep meaning to do, but never actually doing. (Bringing one to professional completion would be a good start, of course.)


So, what is The Dream?

I’m chronically poor, an introvert, and simply don’t play well with others most of the time. And I’ve been just terrible, up to this point in my life, working out a way to make a living while not going against my nature and character.

But this year I discovered the Tiny House movement, and a few other things clicked into place as well, mentally. Yes, a large chunk of the movement is made up of hipsters being holier than thou about their environmentalism, which is in no way who I am. But. It’s still not a bad idea, for me, viewed from a different perspective.

The Dream, while fluid, details subject to change without notice from day to day, is essentially as follows.

  • Make a lot of money (for me, that is). Fifty thousand dollars or so seems to be the minimum for what I want, though if I’m artful and tricksy, I can probably do it for forty-ish. More would be better.

  • Buy a truck. (Used.) If I go with a tiny house on wheels (debatable right now), I’ll need at least a three-quarter ton truck to tow it. In any case, living out in the sticks, being able to haul almost anything will be a real boon. Speaking of location…

  • Buy as many acres of desert land in Arizona as I possibly can. I prefer it to be near the California border for personal reasons, but I’ve settled on Arizona being my future home.

  • Buy or build a tiny house, preferably of at least 200 square feet, preferably with a loft (or, if it’s not mobile, a second floor).

  • Buy or build all the tools needed to live off-grid. Solar panels, batteries, inverter, graywater collection and treatment system, rainwater collection system, sink a well, and lots of other little things that don’t need to be done immediately.

At this point, The Dream is realized, if incomplete. I’ll be able to live for a minimal level of expenses (food, propane, fuel and maintenance for the truck, land taxes, and internet and cell phone service), and outside of that I won’t owe anybody anything.

If I get to that point, I can just hunker down and write for a year. (And read, of course.)

But, of course, The Dream goes further than that.

After I get settled and make enough more money, I want to build a stealth tiny home for traveling, which I can then use to traverse the great 48, visit friends I’ve never met, and possibly attend SF conventions and do other personal-appearance marketing type things. (I don’t ever want to go through an airport again, least of all in the US, and I hate dealing with hotels and motels in general, so when I saw this “take your room with you” solution, I thought it was genius.)

I also want to build several structures on my property. All relatively small. One can serve as a writing office, then a larger (but still not huge) house, then some other tiny houses, to serve as guest houses for friends, especially if the economic collapse happens as I expect. Instead of being someone looking for refuge, I’d like to provide it.

There are other details, like storing slightly-out-of-date hardware in a large farraday cage, having a greenhouse and open air garden, setting up a still, lots of other details that would make the high desert my own little Galt’s Gulch, a totally independent concern.

But that’s about the size of it for now.

Coming Soon! A new series on writing

As you may or may not have noticed, I’ve been trying to get the blog back into fighting shape, posting regularishly, and basically trying not to suck.

Yes, it’s still a work in progress.

But I just had a brilliant new idea for a series of posts that I can do weekly(ish), though it will take more mental and typing effort than the Writing Music Monday posts.

Stealing a page from the Criterion Collection’s promotional videos (yes, videos have pages, shut up), possibly next week, or definitely after the new year, I’ll begin putting up 3 Things posts, each one giving you three things you, as a writer, can learn from another specific writer. (This will also get my reading butt in gear, as I’ll have to have 50-ish new authors to reference every year, assuming I can carry it off.) (I’m a slow reader, if you didn’t know.)

The names that immediately sprang to mind included Ayn Rand, David Drake, Elmore Leonard, and Poul Anderson. So I’m just a touch eclectic, yes.

Look for it soon. (But not today.)

Some ideas are just not series or franchises

Here’s the first trailer for the stupidly-named Terminator: Genisys:

Now, before I get to the ranty part, let me make clear that I actually had some hope for this movie. The cast they put together is pretty great, and I’ve been a particular fan of Jason Clarke ever since I watched him in The Chicago Code. He deserves to be a big star, and he’s also got serious chops as an actor. Starting with the fact that I thought he was from Chicago based on his accent, not Australia, until I looked him up after the first several episodes of Code.

I had hope that the great cast was a sign that the story was something new, different, and interesting.

Unfortunately, as the above trailer makes painfully clear, there is no compelling reason for this movie to be made except that the bean counters think it will make bank (and it probably will).

There are a number of reasons for this, and I’ve been ranting privately to friends about some (MBAs thinking that a weekend seminar on the Save The Cat checklist makes them experts in story, e.g.), but as I was about to tear into it with another friend who agreed it was awful (some seem to think it looks good, or at least has potential; I worry about them), something clicked with me.

The Terminator is a terrible idea for a franchise or series.

OK, I probably need to qualify that statement a bit. James Cameron got two superior movies out of the idea, which right there makes a series, technically. And there is material to make a series out of, or at least to springboard. But there’s a major problem there — if you take that material, and do something new with it, you can’t call it Terminator in any honest way.

What makes a good franchise or series idea, and what makes a bad one? I could probably go on for days and days about this, but I can boil it down to a fairly simple dichotomy.

A good franchise idea is open, and a bad one is closed.

Let’s take a look at three megahit movies from the 1970s, two of which became series, one which didn’t.

Star Wars was just about born to be a series. You’ve got limitless possible worlds, a galaxy-spanning conflict, and many, many characters who could serve as protagonists in their own films, should George Lucas have wanted to go that direction. The story of the film was over with the Death Star blowing up, but the larger story had infinite possibilities. There was Luke’s dad and the Clone Wars (remember what wasn’t known at that time); Han Solo’s background, and new responsibilities on finally committing to the rebellion; there was the struggle against the Empire, which could have been a continuing story with entirely new characters each film, if necessary; and so on and so on. It was wide open, and the only limitation imposed by the title (which is actually important) was that there had to be wars, and they had to be among the stars. Not especially limiting, unless you wanted to do a small domestic drama among the Wookies or something.

Jaws was a monster hit (no, I shan’t apologize), and deservedly so, it’s a spectacular entertainment with surprising dramatic heft into the bargain. But the idea is a closed idea. Shark attacks town, until it stops. If you want proof of how not-a-series the idea was, watch Jaws 2 (inferior but non-sucky retread of the first one), Jaws 3 (stupid, silly, ridiculous, and only connected to the first two by a shark and dialogue establishing series newcomer Dennis Quaid as Roy Scheider’s grown son[!]), and Jaws: The Revenge (in competition with The Apple for the “What in BLAZES were they THINKING!?” award). As indicated, the second movie is okay, but the next two entries are abominations. Because the studio and producers kept forcing a one-story idea to be a series. To the point of assigning sharks sentience and psychic abilities by the fourth entry, just to justify making it all one series. (Note: That’s not a joke.)

Finally, another massive box office hit from a regular hit-maker, Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. This is, again, a fairly closed-off idea — aliens have been observing and investigating us for decades (or longer), and decide to finally make contact. They want to contact certain individuals, earth’s governments want to choose the individuals themselves, and that’s the conflict engine. You follow Richard Dreyfus’s character as he dissociates from his family and seemingly goes nuts, until in the end all is made clear — he was chosen by the aliens as Earth’s ambassador (or whatever). The story ends when the aliens are revealed, and Dreyfus goes flying off in their ship. If you made a prequel, it would kill the original film, which milked the audience ignorance of what, exactly, was going on for atmosphere and suspense through the first two acts of the film. If you made a sequel, what would that be? Dreyfus’s adventures on alien worlds? His family’s rebuilding back on Earth? Dreyfus’s return fifty years later the same age as his now-grown kids? Any of those might make a good story, but none of them could ever, possibly, be More Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. It is a one-story idea and title. And, thankfully, there was no attempt at a sequel. While it has a very recognizeable “brand” that could be “leveraged in the marketplace”, saner heads prevailed and left it at Spielberg’s “special edition” added scenes a few years later.

(Now, those in control of the money in Hollywood will never understand this, but you, as a writer, need to: “series” and “brand” are different concepts. There’s overlap, but it’s not one to one.)

What can we take away from these examples?

A couple of things, I think.

First, in any story, there are really two stories at work. I don’t have any focus-grouped, mareting-friendly terms for them, let’s just call them the background story and the foreground story.

In Star Wars, the background story is the Rebellion against the Empire, while the foreground story is a farmboy leaving home and becoming a man.

In Jaws, the background story is a shark attacking a small coastal town, and the foreground story is the water-fearing police chief who has to go to sea to stop it.

In Close Encounters, the background story is alien contact and communication with us, while the foreground stories concern an everyman trying to understand the visions he’s been having, and Francois Truffaut trying to figure out how to handle the contact situation, and what the aliens might really want.

Star Wars’s background story continues over three movies, and its ending leaves open further developments (rebuilding after a war, among many, many other possibilities). Even if Luke Skywalker died, the series could continue.

Jaws’s background story is finished at the end of the foreground story, which is what makes the sequels so increasingly awkward and silly.

Close Encounters’s background story is also finished at the end of the foreground stories. You could argue that there are other stories that could be told in the same world, and there are, but they are different stories, and not close encounters anymore.

Getting back to The Terminator, we have a background story about the singularity, when artificial intelligence becomes self-aware, and starts exterminating humanity, while humanity valiantly fights to survive, then to defeat the AI. The foreground story is the result of the last battle, when the AI sends a battle unit back in time to prevent humanity’s leader from ever being born, before the war began, and the human soldier sent on a one-way trip to protect that leader’s mother from being killed. By the end of the film, both stories are resolved and intertwined into an ouroboros of causality. The war will happen, the AI will lose, it will send the kill unit back, that unit will fail, and in failing, it enables John Connor to be conceived and born, leading to the AI’s defeat.

Both stories are finished. No series.

James Cameron, because he is (or used to be) brilliant, looked at the story he had told, and realized he could do something more, and different, with it.

The first film, as it left things, argued against free will. (There was ambiguity, for sure, but the fact that things ended up the way they always ended up strongly suggested that time is fixed, despite dialogue to the contrary.) Terminator 2, with a small retcon, continued the story to explore actual free will, and while the story as a whole is far less ambiguous, its ending leaves the future open and unknown.

The background story in part two is the same, almost down to the second, with the additional detail that the AI sent back two killbots, to two different times, as insurance. The foreground story is all about free will. Sarah Connor has to learn that the future really is not fixed. The Arnie terminator has to learn to think for itself, to value, and to make decisions based on those values. John Connor has to learn to trust his mother, while still judging things for himself, and that some decisions require terrible prices, no matter which way the decision goes.

And once that story is done, the background story is intentionally left unresolved (will there even be a war of machines against man?) as part of the thematic point, and the foreground story is again completely resolved.

The original film was a closed loop of a story, complete in and of itself. Not just the story, but the entire world in which it took place.

While it is definitely possible to carry on with new stories from this point, it is also inadvisable, but not for the reasons of background or foreground stories. They are limiting, but there are workable solutions to expand them outward.

My problem here is the series title. The terminators are limiting.

In the overall premise of the war of the machines against humanity, terminators are a very tiny part of the story. The one in the first movie was only important because it was the vessel which represented all of the AI’s war against our species. The entirety of the conflict boiled down to one machine hunting down one human. If you keep going forward, but keep centering the story entirely (or even largely) around these minor components and forcing them into a larger role than is natural for the larger story, you make them the always-returning sharks of Jaws. They go from terrifying to running joke.

ASIDE: The series started getting silly when it jettisoned one of the core ideas of the original Terminator — that Terminators were created to infiltrate human populations. Based on that, what damn sense does it make that every one of them looks like Arnie? I can, with very little thought, lampshade that enough to get Arnie into a few stories, but just throwing away the very reason they’re made to look human in the first place? That’s stupid. END ASIDE.

You can tell stories of the war of the machines against humanity. Probably an endless number of them, in fact.

But most of them won’t be terminator stories.

Terminators will be, realistically, just one part of the larger story. (Star Wars isn’t called “Storm Troopers” for a reason.)

You can tell stories about John (and Sarah) Connor, but really, those shouldn’t be terminator stories either, though at various points terminators will enter into them. (I’ve never seen The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and understand that it’s very good and well done, but I avoided it for the very reason I’m citing — terminators out the wazoo, for the main reason that the “franchise” is named for them.)

Terminator Genisys, going from the trailer, is the result of people who have no concept of story dictating what a story should be. They got the rights to the Terminator franchise, sat down, and said “All right, what are the elements of this story that we can use in a sequel?” But they didn’t want to explore the world of the man/machine conflict, they just wanted to bring Arnie in and repeat all the things that people remember from the previous movies, while giving the story a mind-numbingly stupid “twist”. (Not a twist in the sense of a surprise direction in the middle or the end of the story, but a “fresh, new direction” of a premise, which is neither.)

On the buying of reviews

Some reviewers are less than reputable. Image by Nemo, CC0
Some reviewers are less than reputable.
Image by Nemo, CC0
I don’t.

Here’s why. (And no, it’s not because I’m poor.)

In any human society or culture, orders arise spontaneously. Things grow “organically” without any need of direction.

Immediately following the first rise of something new, smart people, often with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder or Asperger’s, in addition to (not infrequently) sociopaths, figure out the “rules” of the organic order, and the sociopaths (and anyone else with a conscience deficit) proceed to manipulate and game the system. They try to figure out the ways they can bend the rules to their own benefit, and if the system gets broken in the process, too bad.

You can see this in any part of society to some degree, but it tends to be especially acute in marketing, and doubly so in Hollywood marketing.

Take movie trailers. In the late 1990s, it seemed like every trailer began with Mr. Voice intoning “In a world where…”. (I was deeply thankful to Jerry Seinfeld for killing that cliche deader than Caesar with one single movie trailer of his own.)

Currently, we are still suffering a surfeit of trailers done by not especially creative people who thought the second Inception trailer was totally awesome. (As it was.) We’re still, five years later, getting the Hans Zimmer “BWAWM!!!!” in every second trailer that’s not for a comedy.

But that’s just imitation. That’s not really “gaming” the system.

An example of gaming it happened with the invention of movie critic David Manning for the purpose of putting good quotes on movie posters. (As if the existence of actual critic Rex Reed wasn’t enough!)

A Sony executive looked at the use of movie quotes on posters and newspaper ads, and said “You know, I’ll bet nobody checks these things.” He invented Manning, threw up some positive quotes, and possibly created a positive impression in the minds of a few potential movie-goers to convince them to see the latest piece of crap that wasn’t good enough to get actual good reviews.

That was simply an extension of the deceptive quotes from real reviews that posters had long used. Something like “As fun as having your head sledgehammered for two hours” would show up on a poster as “FUN!”

This isn’t much different than the way Amazon reviews are coming to be used.

It’s not about thoughtful engagement with the work in question. It’s about getting the largest number of five-star reviews possible. Period.

And, hey, if some of those reviews are purchased rather than honest appraisals of the work being reviewed, so what? Everybody needs sales, right?

I know it’s not fashionable to look beyond the immediate consequences of anything these days, but I can’t help it. I don’t want fake short-term numbers at the expense of having real long-term readers (and, hopefully one day, fans).

There is a musician I follow sometimes because I’ve liked some of his music, even if his politics are largely odious, and he has a very cynical term for life in American culture (he’s an expat in Eastern Europe): The Empire Of Fake.

And while I don’t agree with a lot of his assessments, he’s pretty bang on about this.

It’s easier to be fake.

It’s enticing to fake it and let people praise your fake qualities, and how well you fake things.

It’s much, much easier to buy a hundred five star reviews than to write a book or a story that earns one real five star reviews from someone who just happened to read it.

And I’m sorry, but I’m not fake enough to do that.

“But what if those fake reviews bring you real fans? Isn’t it worth it, then?” (You just know that some MBA jerkwad who sells his “services” to indie authors and has never written a readable story in his shallow plastic life will say this, don’t you?)

No. It is not worth it. Because that won’t happen. People, no matter how many MBAs you hold telling you otherwise, are not stupid. They might (might) be fooled by the first gung-ho, hyperbolic, shallower-than-a-puddle-in-the-desert five-star review. Then they’ll read the story, say “This is crap”, and avoid anything with a review that even remotely reminds them of that first stinker.

So unlike, apparently, a vast host of other indie authors, I will not purchase reviews as part of a “marketing strategy” (again, marketers do this, then wonder why people like me hate their trade with the white hot fury of a thousand suns). Nor for any other purpose.

Free copies to review? Certainly. Paying you to bullshit other people into buying my work? Nope.

Sorry, BookReviewNinja and all you others.

Style and Description

I had dinner with an old friend, who was also one of the first readers of Spring That Never Came. When we got onto the topic of that story, she observed that she had “miscast” one of the characters in her mind, thinking at first that a later description of him contradicted what I had earlier said.

When she went back and looked, she turned out to have been wrong, but it pointed up to her that I was fairly minimal in my use of descriptive passages.

Which is true. In Spring, it was largely deliberate, though I confess that I avoid excessive description in general, both by nature and due to my various influences, and I thought I should explore that a little, here.

"The golden glow of flowery description suffused the air between the towers of Shanghai, looking suspiciously like smog."
“The golden glow of flowery description suffused the air between the towers of Shanghai, looking suspiciously like smog.”
To begin with, my reading style tends to skip long descriptive passages, or else my eyes glaze over and I have to read the passage three or four times before it penetrates. There are authors who circumvent this in various ways and whose descriptive passages don’t cause me to stumble and repeat even once, but they are rare. In general, more than a few details lumped together and I start to treat it like somebody else’s grocery list — possibly important, but not to me. I skip on to get back to the drama.

Then there are the writers who have formed me as a reader and a writer.

Robert A. Heinlein is a biggie. I inhaled mass quantities of his work between the ages of twelve and eighteen. And if you’ve read him, particularly his earlier work, you know that he had a distinctive way of handling description, which is not to describe, but to drop a detail here and a detail there as the story keeps barrelling along. By the end, you have a fairly comprehensive image in your head of whatever it is, but you may also have your own impression of what a character looks like based on how they act and how others react to them, which may or may not match up to the accumulation of details. Heinlein is also the author who declared that the ideal science fictional sentence was “The door dilated.” That is, you don’t stop the story to discourse on the mechanics that permitted that to happen or the engineering history that led up to that becoming a common thing. You just state it, and let the implications work themselves out in the reader’s mind.

I’m telling you right now, I still think that’s a good idea of how to handle all kinds of things. Not always the best, not always possible, but a good default mode. (Among Hoyt’s Huns*, we call that sort of subtle description “Heinleining”.)

Another author who has had enormous impact on me, for good or ill, is Fyodor Dostoevsky. (I was reading The Brothers Karamazov in my sophomore year for fun. I don’t even want to know what that says about me.) Mad uncle Fyodor would very often go on long jags of nothing but dialogue. No description, not even describing the physical actions of the speakers. And yet, it’s not quite like reading drama, because his characterizations are so strikingly vivid that you can see in your head what they’re doing just by how they are speaking. Not what they are saying, but their tone of voice.

Then we come to screenwriting. I am a failed screenwriter. I spent years studying the craft, working out a plan of attack on Hollywood, and writing writing writing.

Now if you’ve studied screenwriting at all, you already understand why I don’t blink at a lack of flowery description, but if you haven’t, here’s a quick guide to the common wisdom for describing characters in a screenplay.

When a character first appears, you give a one-line description so the reader has an idea who he is dealing with and has something to picture. But you do not describe too specifically, because you want to leave the director and casting director a wide latitude in selecting an actor for the part.

The canonical example is from Lawrence Kasdan’s script for Body Heat, wherein you are introduced to “TEDDY LAURSEN, rock’n’roll arsonist”. And that’s all the description you get. (Honestly, after that, do you really need more?)

So no, I tend not to linger on description much. I give necessary details, and perhaps an evocative detail or two, and then let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. If it’s important, it goes into the story. If it’s not, I’d rather not be Dean Koontz or Dan Brown and go on and on endlessly just to show off the reading or research I’ve done.

In the future, perhaps, I will try to give a bit more detail, but I’m not sure how it will go. It’s just not how I’m wired. I’m less about pretty descriptions and more about getting to the point (i.e., the actual story).