When I was a wee lad in the 1970s and 80s, the idea of robots on Mars was far-fetched fodder for science-fiction stories in comic books. This year, Amazon Studios released a film that shows just how far we have come by making this concept a reality. As a follow-up to last month’s post about a mysteriously unsigned postcard that arrived in my mailbox with a riddle about robots, I’d like to share a few thought-provoking and inspiring videos for the author of that postcard as she works on her robot novel. It turns out I correctly guessed her identity, and we enjoyed some good correspondence about the rise of the robots and our relationships with them.
First up is the 2022 film Good Night Oppy, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It tells the story of the Mars rover Opportunity, NASA’s amazing robot who was expected to last only 90 days but overcame the odds to explore the red planet for fifteen years. Good Night Oppy conveys not only fascinating science but the equally interesting way in which humans can form emotional bonds with robots. It does so through captivating interview clips with people who worked on the project, including people who were so inspired by Opportunity and her mission as teenagers that they eventually grew up to work on the project itself.
The gorgeous musical score and the exquisite recreations of the peaks and perils of Opportunity’s journey by Industrial Light & Magic make this a film not to be missed. It’s currently free to watch for Amazon Prime subscribers, and the cost is more than reasonable for everyone else. Below is the film’s trailer. Though it is in many ways a triumphant tale, you have a colder heart than mine if you can make it all the way through without crying.
Another wonderful film that focuses on the artificial-intelligence aspect of robots is currently available to watch for free on YouTube. AlphaGo tells the story of the A.I. developed to master the game of Go and its eventual triumph over the world’s top-rated human Go player. Like Good Night Oppy, this film brings you into the lives of the humans who created this robot and helped it learn, but the big difference here is that the robot was an antagonist in some people’s stories. To the players who faced it, AlphaGo was an enemy—or, at the very least, a competitor.
One of the more interesting subplots in this documentary involves the Go player whose world was shaken by losing to the robot, and who subsequently joined the development team to advance the robot’s potential. Go is an incredibly complex game, perhaps even more difficult to master than chess, and this film does nothing to explain how the game is played. But even if you know nothing about Go, this film is well worth watching.
Even if you don’t play Go and have no plans to travel to Mars anytime soon, our lives are increasingly affected by robots, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. The first robot I encountered was ELIZA, a rudimentary bot that ineptly conversed with my sister and me in the early 1980s on our TRS-80 computer from Radio Shack, back when you could load a videogame from a magnetic cassette tape. These days, I’m a big fan of the Midjourney robot who helps me create digital art for various projects such as blog posts, postcards, and stories.
But one of the most useful applications of autonomous robots to arrive in recent years is in self-driving cars. I have been driving on the roads with other humans for thirty-five years now, and I can testify that humans absolutely SUCK at driving. I’ve had a car totalled by a drunk driver on a holiday weekend, lived though one of my friends running a red light and breaking her neck, and almost been run over in crosswalks a thousand times. We are our own worst enemies, and the stats of traffic fatalities and injuries leave no doubt about that. If you aren’t convinced that self-driving cars are the wave of the future, watch the following video from Derek at Veritasium, then check out his trip in a self-driving cab from a company in Chandler, Arizona.
I love dystopic stories about a future where robots decide that the solution to human problems is the obliteration of humanity. The first and second Terminator movies are all-time favorites of mine. On the other hand, I grew up on Asimov’s robot stories. While it is entirely possible—in fact, almost certain—that some people and governments will develop robots to oppress and slaughter people, we are also fortunate to be living in an era where robots are being built for scientific exploration, making our lives safer, inspiring us to learn about our universe and improve our lives, and raising questions that help us gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. The bots at Chess.com are even helping me sharpen my chess skills.
So, do I fear robots, or do I trust them? The answer is simply yes. Robots are tools, like a hammer. In one person’s hands, a hammer can be used to build a house for safety and shelter. In another pair of hands, the hammer could cave in a human skull. I don’t believe the question is “Are robots good or bad?” The question is “Who are we?” The things we create—robotic or otherwise—will reflect that.
Ordering Author Copies for your paperback or hardback edition with KDP is a very quick and easy process that will only seem mysterious the first time you do it. I will show you how to get it done. First, your book needs to be LIVE on Amazon — not In Review by KDP, but fully Live. Second, you will be ordering at your wholesale cost — what KDP might call the printing cost — not the retail price listed on Amazon.
To begin, sign into your KDP Account. The first screen you see should be your “Bookshelf“, as shown below.
This might be unfamiliar territory if someone else set up your book for you like I do for my clients. So, let’s zoom in a little and see exactly where you click to Order Author Copies.
Clicking the Order Author Copies button will take you to the next screen where you will input how many copies you want. You can see this screen below.
Notice that you can order just one copy, or any other number you want, up to 999 copies. If you need more than that, then you are one fortunate author and also might need to contact KDP Support directly for help with that.
The only thing that sometimes confuses people here is the dropdown menu to select the “Marketplace of Your Order.” But it’s an easy decision. If you are in the USA, then choose “Amazon.com”. If you are in another country, pick the version of Amazon for your country. In the UK, for example, Amazon is “Amazon.co.uk”. Below, I have zoomed in to show you how easy this is.
Finally, click the big yellow Submit Order button in the bottom right corner. Then you are done with this part!
The final step is that you will soon get an email notice from KDP/Amazon that your order now appears in your Amazon Shopping Cart — the same cart where anything else you might buy on Amazon would go. Your cart is where you will pay for the order. You can also choose your shipping rate, if you want to pay more for faster delivery.
And, you can choose a delivery address. For example, if I order a book this way to send to a friend or reviewer instead of to me, I just give their address. You can also select the “Gift” option so you can add a short note to your friend, which will be printed and included in the shipment. That way, you don’t need to get books shipped to you and then re-ship them yourself; you can just “drop ship” from your cart if you want to.
This post is an excerpt from my book about writing and workshopping, My Life As an Armadillo, available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover editions around the world.
When we begin our writing journey, other writers invariably advise us to “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s easier said than done, and the terminology is to blame. After all, aren’t writers engaged in the art of storytelling, not story showing? How can we tell stories if we can’t tell anything? What does this advice really mean?
In January 2018, I took a writing course from Australian author, coach, and publisher Joanne Fedler, and she put her finger on the heart of this matter. Joanne challenged the class to stop writing about a feeling and instead write from a feeling. One of her methods involved identifying how an emotion can be communicated in sensory, physical terms. In other words, what does a given emotion look like? What does it taste, sound, and smell like? What would it feel like if we could touch it?
By describing an intangible emotion in tangible terms, we create a story where readers experience the feeling for themselves instead of simply reading a report about it. Joanne used the word “report” in her discussion about this method, and it was an eye-opening moment for me.
Consider sentences such as “He felt sad” or “Susan was annoyed”. These are reports about a character’s emotional state. They tell us information, but they don’t generate any feeling inside us. If we don’t experience a feeling, we don’t engage with the story.
Readers want to take an emotional journey, not read a report about someone else’s journey. This is the central idea behind “Show, Don’t Tell.” Telling means reporting about feelings instead of communicating them in a way the reader experiences first-hand.
Rather than “Show, Don’t Tell”, I suggest we say, “Immerse, Don’t Report.” We want to immerse our readers in a world they feel and emotionally respond to. We have several tools in our writing toolbox to achieve that goal: appealing to the senses, describing body language, and eliminating adverbs.
Joanne’s method of appealing to the senses forces us to consider how an emotion colors our physical experience of the world. Two people can observe the same event but draw totally different interpretations based on their emotional states.
Films achieve a version of this effect using soundtracks. For example, a simple shot of a sunset can elicit completely different emotions depending on the music in the scene. The musical score can make the sunset appear joyous or foreboding, triumphant or tragic.
Our emotional state affects the physical world in the same way. One person might view a bustling sidewalk full of people as an exciting opportunity to mingle with others and make friends while navigating the boundless adventure of an unfamiliar city. Another person might view the same scene with crippling anxiety about jostling shoulders with strangers in potentially dangerous territory. Based on our character’s emotional state, we can describe the same scene in totally different ways.
To practice writing about this difference, take a photograph and write about it from opposing emotional perspectives. For example, take a photo of the Grand Canyon and write about it from the perspective of a character who is excited to explore it. Then write from the point of view of a character who is terrified of being lost inside it.
In each case, refuse to report these feelings. Instead, focus on how the character’s emotional states color her perceptions of the physical environment. Do the rock formations rise triumphantly toward the sunlit sky, or do they loom like a menacing maze of stone? Do clouds grace the edges of the landscape like puffs of cotton, or do they smother the horizon in obscurity? It depends on what emotional state our character brings to the scene.
Sensation refers to the immediate response of our sensory receptors (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, fingers, skin) to basic stimuli such as light, color, sound, odor, and texture.
Perception is the process by which people select, organize, and interpret these sensations. The study of perception, then, focuses on what we add to these raw sensations to give them meaning.
—Michael R. Solomon; Consumer Behavior, 12th Ed., 2016.
Let’s consider another tool: body language. Again, we are rooting the emotional world in the physical world, but here we examine how characters move their bodies and interact with their immediate environment. To illustrate the point, let’s discuss cats.
We can infer all kinds of things about a cat’s emotional state from observing her body language. A hunched back, fur standing on end, and a snarling face show us the cat senses a threat and has adopted a defensive posture. Rolling on her back with her belly exposed and her paws curled shows us the cat trusts us to give affection without harming her. Even the way a cat wags or flicks her tail shows us whether she is calm or agitated.
Now, let’s consider how a cat interacts with her environment. When she leaps onto a narrow ledge, we sense her confidence in her own agility and power. When she stretches out on a high tree branch for a nap, we understand she feels safe from enemies or predators in her chosen spot. When she bats her paws at bugs or streams of water, we sense her curiosity about the world, and her willingness to mess with things just to find out what they do.
Regardless of our characters’ species, we need to find ways to communicate feeling through physical action. Many writers are stuck in a rut of boring actions such as sighing, head nodding, head shaking, eye widening, and eye rolling. These have been done to death, and I am sick of reading about them. We need to find more ways to communicate emotions.
As an exercise, take a single emotion and come up with ten ways a character’s body language communicates it. Embarrassment, for example, might involve a character’s fixing her attention on the floor, shrinking away from other characters, stuttering, blushing, having watery eyes, suddenly being silent, running away, shoving her hands in her pockets, kicking something on the ground, or fidgeting with something in her hands. Which one best fits your character?
The way you choose body language immerses readers because they see an action and must derive meaning from it. This is why I don’t much care for the advice “Show, Don’t Tell.” What is most important is how we choose what to tell. If we tell the reader the facts about body language and interaction with the environment, then we trust the reader to understand character emotions without our needing to report on them.
This brings us back to the union of style and substance. If the substance of our story is emotional, we don’t want to undermine it by using stylistic choices that make it a mere report. We need to trust readers to draw their own conclusions, and I feel that treating narration like a camera is the best way to go: Use the camera to observe action, and let readers bring themselves to the story to understand the emotional landscape.
This is why experienced writers advise us to avoid using adverbs. Adverbs are a shortcut that allow the writer to indulge in a lazy lack of description. For example, consider the sentence “Susan nervously handed him the keys to the car.” What’s missing here?
We’re missing details that communicate Susan’s nervousness. Did her hands shake? Did she fumble with the keys or drop them? Did her palms sweat? Did her heart race? Any of these descriptive facts communicate nervousness and paint a more vivid picture than an adverb that reports Susan’s emotion.
By adding action and description instead of using shortcuts, we create a rich and emotion-laden world readers can enter with our characters, a world where they experience emotion for themselves instead of reading a report.
Congratulations! Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) has approved your new ebook, and it is live on Amazon! What next? What can you do now to promote your book and spread the word? Here are five easy, low-cost actions to get you started.
Disclaimer:I am not an employee of Amazon or KDP, and no one is paying me to write this. I am a freelance editor, designer, and self-publishing consultant who has explained this stuff so many times that I thought I might as well put it all in one handy reference for my customers, friends, and every other writer on the Internet. Let’s rock.
1. Get the correct link to your book. You can get the URL for your book from inside your KDP account—not just the URL for the listing in the States but in other countries, too. But many authors end up searching for their book on Amazon like a customer and copying the entire URL they get. The result is uglier than sin and is full of garbage you don’t need. The actual URL is much simpler.
Help! It’s making my eyes bleed!!! But everything from “ref=” to the very end is just garbage. If you look closely, you can see it shows the search terms I used, and other data that is useful to Amazon but is pointless to share with other people when promoting your book. The only meaningful part is this first part: https://www.amazon.com/Meteor-Mags-Permanent-Crescent-Other/dp/B0B6XSNMV6/
2. Set up an Amazon Affiliate Account. This one isn’t exactly simple, but since it involves linking to your book, we’ll cover it now. I’m not giving a full tutorial on how to set up this account, but it’s pretty easy to get started here: https://affiliate-program.amazon.com/
When you are an Amazon Affiliate, you can get short links to any product page—including the one for your book—and those links identify your affiliate account to Amazon. That means if people buy your book after clicking through the affiliate link, then you don’t just make your royalty on the book sale; you also make a small commission as an affiliate. And if you share that link with people, and they share it with other people, and those people share it again… Do you see where this is going? Every time anyone in that chain clicks through that link and makes a purchase, you get a little commission.
Once you’re an Affiliate, you get a special toolbar when you are logged into Amazon, and you can use that toolbar to make short links to your book (or anything else Amazon sells). At the time of this writing, it is called the “Amazon Associates Site Stripe”, and it looks like this in an Internet browser:
Using “Get Link” and “Text”, it only takes a second to create a short and simple affiliate link to the same book I shared in Step One above: https://amzn.to/3ShU30g
Isn’t that much nicer and simpler than the others? Isn’t it nice that it earns me a little extra commission that goes on an Amazon gift certificate to fund my graphic novel addiction?
If you want something more visual for your website, you can also generate a clickable image of your book (or any other product) using the same affiliate toolbar. I would show you here, but WordPress.com doesn’t allow “iframe” code in these posts, which is what Amazon will give you to embed in your website. (If you are no stranger to website design, then you are probably already thinking, “I could just put the book cover image on my website and hyperlink that image using the affiliate URL.” And you are right.)
3. Set up an Amazon Author Page. Using your KDP/Amazon login credentials, go to Author Central and create your own Amazon Author Page: https://author.amazon.com/
You can upload a photo, add your bio, and add your book to that page. You can also add your blog feed to it, plus photos and videos. It’s all about you! But it’s also one way to improve your credibility and engage both fans and potential readers. Plus, you can get a nicely customized URL. Here’s mine: amazon.com/author/matthewhoward which when clicked on, redirects to the actual page URL of https://www.amazon.com/Matthew-Howard/e/B00S3DYDEK
4. Promote Your Book by Buying It as a Gift for Other People. Just about every successful author you meet has done many book giveaways and sent out tons of free copies. That can be a major expense of both money and time with printed books. With ebooks, it’s much easier and less expensive.
Just go to your ebook’s listing like any other customer and click “Buy for Others”. All you need is a valid email address for the recipient, and you will be able to add a short, personalized message to the email that gets sent to them with a link to claim the gift.
If your book is 99 cents and you are on a 30% royalty plan, then you will get back 33 cents of the 99 you spend. Sure, it will take two months for that 33 cents to hit your bank account via direct deposit, but your net cost is reduced to 66 cents. (For simplicity’s sake, I have not included sales tax in these calculations.) If your book is, for example, $9.95 and you are on the 70% royalty plan, then you will earn back $6.48 of your cost, reducing your net expense to $3.47.
And guess what? Your ebook gift expenses are now tax-deductible marketing expenses for your publishing business. Keep track of them and claim them at tax time on your Schedule C.
If you really want to be thrifty and ultra-low budget, you can first reduce the price from inside your KDP account to the lowest allowable price, buy a bunch of gifts at reduced cost, then change the price back to your normal retail price when you are done. Just keep in mind that each of those changes require about a day to update through KDP.
5. Consider Enrolling the Book in KDP Select for More Marketing Options. You can do this by checking a box during the initial set-up, but you can also add your book to this program later through your Marketing Manager page: https://kdp.amazon.com/marketing/manager. Enrolling in KDP Select opens up several marketing possibilities for you.
KDP Select is related to the Kindle Unlimited subscription that allows customers to read KDP Select books at no additional cost beyond their monthly subscription fee. Select pays authors for these readings out of a general fund, and how much you get paid depends on both the size of the fund and how much of the book gets read. (It’s complicated.) It probably won’t make you a ton of money, but it is a zero-cost way to gain potential readers who might tell their friends, write a nice review, or buy your other books.
Plus, once you are enrolled in KDP Select for 30 days, you can run Price Promotions as part of your marketing efforts. You can, for a limited time, make the book available for free, or make a Countdown Deal. With a Countdown, the discount starts at the maximum discount and decreases over time until the last day of the Countdown. This is an incentive for people to buy sooner rather than later to get the best deal. Currently, you can run these promotions multiple times per year.
Finally, being part of KDP Select allows you to enter your book in various Amazon Literary Contests. Winning an award would certainly be a good thing for your book, wouldn’t it?
Bonus Action: If the five things I’ve discussed were easy stuff for you, then maybe you are ready to take it to the next level by running an Ad Campaign for your book on Amazon. The main site for setting up an Amazon Ads account is https://advertising.amazon.com/ but if you already have a KDP account, you can skip that. Instead, just log in to KDP and find your ebook on your “Bookshelf”. There will be a button for “Promote and Advertise” that takes you to a page where you can begin setting up an Ad Campaign. (Alternately, go directly to Marketing Manager.) A basic Sponsored Product campaign for one book takes about five minutes to set up. You determine your daily budget and how much you bid for clicks, plus the duration of the campaign, so you completely control your cost.
Conclusion: If you’re serious about promoting your self-published book, you have so many options available through Amazon and KDP—and most of them are free or cost next to nothing. Some authors can do all this on their own, while others need to hire someone like me to handle the technical details. Either way, they are useful tools available to all KDP authors, so take advantage of them!
The Puma Years: A Memoir is my favorite book I’ve read this year. It’s the true story of a young woman who, feeling like something was missing from her nice, safe life with a soul-crushing white-collar job, went on a trip to Bolivia and visited a ramshackle wildlife sanctuary. There, she was assigned to care for Wayra, a puma with a troubled past due to being a victim of the illegal wildlife trade which killed her mother and placed her in an abusive home as a kitten.
Over time, Laura—the author—bonds with Wayra, but the path is not an easy one. Wayra distrusts people, and rightfully so, and she is kept in an enclosure where she is very unhappy. One of Laura’s jobs is to take Wayra on daily runs, as pumas like to roam, but the big cat is almost too much for her to handle safely.
You might wonder why they didn’t just let Wayra run free into the Bolivian jungle, but Wayra never had a mother to teach her to hunt and navigate the wilderness. In one especially heartrending episode, Wayra does escape. But she cannot deal with her freedom, so she constantly circles the camp and becomes a danger. When Laura finds Wayra and tries to put her on a leash, Wayra lashes out, and the wounds require stitches.
But Laura does not blame the puma. She realizes she handled the situation in the worst way possible. Laura writes:
It’s me who has these ropes, ropes that held her when she was a tiny, mewling puffed-up ball of fur, that tightened around her neck. That whipped her when she was sad, that took her mother and everything she knew away.
Other dramatic passages tell of the outbreak of a forest fire that threatened the entire sanctuary and the lives of the many animals and people there. Laura and her friends risk their lives to dig a ditch, clear away the plants, and make a firewall. It appears many times that all might be lost for the big cats and their caretakers. But at last, the fire burns out, and when Laura visits Wayra in the aftermath, something magical happens.
Wayra, who had never swum in the nearby river—unlike a typical puma who has no fear of water—decides to go for a swim. Laura enters the river with her, and the two of them frolic in waters that I personally would be too scared to explore.
For most of the book, the relationship between Wayra and Laura seems like one step up and two steps back. I don’t remember ever crying so much over a book, but the journey is worth it. In the end, things do work out for Wayra. But Laura reminds us that deforestation and the illegal pet trade and the super-sketchy “zoos” of Bolivia require much more work to solve—a work Laura continued long after the events of The Puma Years.
If you have ever loved a cat, or wondered how those of us who do can form such strong bonds with our feline friends, then you need to add The Puma Years to your reading list. It will break your heart and sew it back together many times, and give you a glimpse into the nature of these magnificent animals.
Shout out to everyone who picked up free copies of my books at Smashwords during this July’s Summer Sale. Giving away hundreds of free copies of printed books can be a major marketing expense for self-publishing authors, but ebook giveaways are a low-cost alternative for those of us whose pockets are not as deep as those of the big boys at Penguin or Random House. This year, Smashwords made a deal to be acquired by another ebook provider, Draft2Digital, but many authors I talk to are not even aware Smashwords exists.
Just to be clear: I don’t work for Smashwords, and they don’t pay me to talk to about them. But I have been using them for years as an additional distribution channel for several reasons. I also want to cover some technical aspects of using Smashwords that authors should know before they dive right in and try it for themselves.
Increasing Your Distribution
First: While I like giving away free books in July and December using Smashwords, you don’t need to make them free. You can also set discount prices at a certain percentage of the list price, and you can use Smashwords to generate “coupon codes” to distribute to anyone you want. Although I don’t, it’s a handy tool for authors with an email marketing list or social media presence. I go with the “totally free” option because it gets dozens or even hundreds of books into the hands of new readers at no cost to me. Some of them write lovely four- and five-star reviews.
Second: While I am a big fan of Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), they’ve always had gaps in their distribution. Amazon would—for obvious reasons—prefer that ebook readers stay within the Kindle environment rather than spend money elsewhere. Many years ago, I started using Smashwords because my friend in Australia preferred getting ebooks in the Apple/iTunes environment, and she could not get my books there. I did a little research and discovered Smashwords distributed to the Apple bookstore, so I set about learning how to use them. At the time, getting distribution through additional global retail outlets was, to me, icing on the cake. I really just wanted my friend to find the book!
Since then, I’ve realized that while KDP gets my paperback books into the catalogs that libraries can use, they don’t appear to be doing the same with ebooks. Amazon wants sales money for every single copy, and they don’t seem to care about people who check out free ebooks from public libraries and the increasing network of partner sites libraries use. (For example, Hoopla partners with the Pima County library system for ebooks, including graphic novels and comics. It’s just an app you download for free and log into with your library card credentials.)
Smashwords, on the other hand, distributes to ebook outlets such as OverDrive where libraries can buy ebooks. The Phoenix Public Library, for example, now has several of my ebooks available to check out because they buy through OverDrive. While readers can check them out for free, the library does buy them, so I got paid for those sales.
Plus, Smashwords allows you to set a different price for libraries than the retail price. Some authors might feel they should jack up the price for libraries, since a single library purchase can reach a theoretically unlimited number of readers. I take the opposite approach and lower my price for libraries, because not only do I love libraries and want to support them, but I am also a relatively unknown author who wants to make it easy for libraries to take a chance on my books without risking an arm and a leg.
One final bonus is that Smashwords will create an EPUB file that you as the author can download for free. So, if you want an ebook you can send for free to friends, family, reviewers, or contests, you can just get that file and email it to them. Anyone can get a free EPUB reader from Adobe, called Adobe Digital Editions.
While the sales, giveaways, and added distribution are great reasons to use Smashwords, you do need some technical knowledge to work with them. If you are still using Microsoft Word like it’s a fancy electric typewriter, then you don’t yet have the skills required to work with Smashwords—unless you hire someone like me to deal with it for you. Here are some of the major things I’ve encountered and overcome in my years of working with them.
First, Smashwords will accept two kinds of files. One is a completely and properly formatted EPUB file, and if you don’t know how to create EPUBs on your own, that will be a challenge. Programs such as Calibre can help, but most authors I work with lack the technical skills to deal with it—and good luck finding any classes on it. Adobe’s InDesign program can create EPUBs, but it is most often used by professional graphic designers and is about as challenging to master as Photoshop or Illustrator, for which most authors don’t have any training.
For those who aren’t Adobe experts, Smashwords will also accept a .doc file. That’s not the current version of MS Word files, which are .docx, but the backwards-compatible and increasingly outdated version of Word files from a simpler, bygone era. Current versions of Word can absolutely save files as .doc, and that’s how I do it. I work on all my manuscripts in the current version of Word, but when it’s time to make a Smashwords edition, I save them as .doc files. That process causes some changes; for example, if you formatted anything in Small Caps, it will become All Caps in .doc. So, this requires some formatting expertise to make sure everything looks right on the virtual page.
The process becomes more complex if you have images and illustrations in your books. I have run into so many problems with images not being displayed correctly after Smashwords crunches my .doc file through their converter. The only solution that ever reliably works the first time for me is to delete every single image, save the file, then re-insert every image from scratch and make sure all of them are formatted as being positioned “In Line With Text”.
Probably the weirdest image problem I ever encountered—and it only happened once—was when the converter robots kept renaming embedded image files in a .doc to something even they didn’t recognize, so then they couldn’t find them in the converted file. Eventually, I fixed it by downloading Smashwords’ resultant EPUB file, opening it in Calibre, and using a repair function in Calibre to fix the EPUB. Then I uploaded that version instead of my .doc file and, magically, it solved the problem. I’ve never seen that happen before or since.
But there are even more time-consuming design challenges with .doc files for Smashwords. I think they boil down to the fact that the robotic Smashwords converter has even stricter demands than Kindle, because you can get away with all kinds of things that make for perfectly readable Kindle ebooks but which are total failures at Smashwords.
A common challenge is the hyperlinked Table of Contents (TOC). If you have an intermediate skill level with MS Word, then you know how to link something in your TOC to a specific place in your document. That’s easy stuff. But what you might not realize is that MS Word has a tendency to fill your document with all kinds of bookmarks you don’t know about. These Hidden Bookmarks confuse the Smashwords robots and wreck your TOC, preventing Premium Distribution to other outlets. (Note: Smashwords will not tell you the TOC is broken, but instead say that the “NCX file” is bad. The NCX file is, in simplest terms, a separate TOC generated for EPUB files. But in all cases where my NCX was broken, my own TOC links got corrupted, too.)
I am not a noob when it comes to Word. I have been working with it at an expert level for more than twenty years, taken advanced college classes and corporate training on it, and taught other people how to use it. I have done things with Word that professional graphic designers have assured me are impossible—until I showed them how it was done. So, hidden bookmarks were not a mystery to me, and whenever I work with bookmarks, I make sure there is a checkmark in the little box that says, “Show Hidden Bookmarks”.
But what I did not initially realize is that the checkbox is useless if you don’t uncheck it first, then check it again. MS Word apparently needs to reset its brain with the uncheck/check process before it displays all the actual bookmarks so you can delete the garbage bookmarks one-by-one. My failure to realize this resulted in many of my more complex books being rejected for Premium Distribution, which is how you get into places like Apple and library platforms. After struggling, I contacted Smashwords support, and they helped me get a clue. These days, I know about the problem and how to eliminate it, and my books are all approved for Premium Distribution on the first try.
Bookmarks in Word are also crucially important if your book has footnotes. When I upload a compressed HTML file with footnotes to KDP, their robots automatically convert them to hyperlinked endnotes that appear at the end of the book. It’s super convenient. (How I make compressed HTML files for KDP would require its own tutorial.)
But the robots at Smashwords hate footnotes. If you’re pretty good with MS Word, then you already know that it only takes a couple of clicks to convert all your footnotes to endnotes using the References tool bar. But guess what? Smashwords’ robots don’t like that either.
It took me years to figure out a solution—even after reading all of Smashwords’ formatting documentation and watching multiple, useless YouTube tutorials about it. The solution to getting workable endnotes with Smashwords is—in the simplest terms I can put it—to create a bookmark at every place where you have a numbered note in the text, then create a bookmark at every specific endnote, then create individual hyperlinks from the note number in the text to the specific endnote, and finally create another link from the note itself back to the place in the text.
The bookmarks also need to be named with the prefix “ref_”. (Don’t ask me why; it just keeps the robots from getting confused.) So, my first note in the text is named “ref_001”, and the corresponding endnote is named “ref_ftn_001”. If you only have a couple of notes, this is child’s play. If you have, like I sometimes do, upwards of 100 notes, it’s a time-consuming, brain-numbing clerical task—especially since the pop-up window MS Word gives you to work in is roughly the size of a couple of postage stamps.
Anyway, this four-step process of bookmarking and hyperlinking will allow readers to click on a note in the text so they can see the endnote, then click on that to get back to the original spot in the text.
But what if your document already has linked endnotes because you made it in Word? Sorry, but it’s now full of junk that will confuse the robots. The actual first step that I discovered is to remove every single hyperlink in the document.
I started out doing that manually. But when I got to books with copious notes, I suspected there must be an easier way, and I searched for it online. The “easy” way turns out to be running a Visual Basic script to remove all hyperlinks. Even as a Word expert, I don’t find writing Visual Basic to be easy. Fortunately, I copied the script from someone else who was kind enough to post it on their blog. It was a lifesaver.
Now, you might not need to get that technical to remove a handful of links and insert a couple of bookmarks manually. As far as I’m concerned, that is simple stuff. But one of my books had more than 200 footnotes, and doing this manually just to get approved by Smashwords and have a viable ebook that readers could use reliably was a massive project that took hours of my time, research, and so much mouse-clicking that I’ll probably end up with carpal tunnel syndrome.
The things we do for art.
Do I love Smashwords? Absolutely. They got me into libraries, ebook outlets around the world, and the hands of many readers who would have never discovered me otherwise. But because I often publish books with massive amounts of images, footnotes, and complex Tables of Contents, I had serious technical challenges to overcome to achieve my vision.
Fortunately, I solved those problems. Now, I can help other authors get past them and distribute their ebooks on a global scale through channels that KDP alone cannot or will not handle.
Here in Arizona, we have some current and upcoming opportunities to vote this year. In the U.S.A., our political climate has become extremely polarized, and it seems common for people to assume that anyone who doesn’t vote the way they do must be stupid, thoughtless, or evil. It’s not a healthy climate, so I’d like to share the following book review from my graduate-level Campaign Management course in 2018. While The Reasoning Voter is aimed at people working on campaigns, its concepts and conclusions would help a wider, general audience understand how voters of all political stripes process information and attempt to make rational decisions about complex topics and candidates.
The Reasoning Voter analyzes U.S. presidential elections and primaries in the 1970s and 1980s. The second edition has a chapter on the 1992 election. Samuel L. Popkin, who studied campaigns at MIT and worked in campaigns, addresses how voters form opinions about politicians, how they evaluate information, and how campaigns deliver information that influences opinions and votes. Popkin’s theories about reasoning are essentially cognitive psychology, providing a framework for understanding historical events and data. He contends that voters have limited information about government, so they use shortcuts to develop ideas about government, and campaigns provide information interpreted via these shortcuts.
Theory and application are deftly interwoven, with early chapters being more theoretical to lay the foundation for the final chapters which apply theories. Chapter One introduces “low-information rationality” and “information shortcuts”. Popkin doesn’t believe voters are thoughtless and easily manipulated; they are thoughtful but confronted with a government so expansive and complex that getting a full picture is impossible. So, they draw conclusions from “past experience, daily life, the media, and political campaigns” (p. 7). The shortcuts interpret cues for extrapolating a big picture from a small one, such as using impressions about a candidate’s persona to predict his potential behavior in office.
Chapter Two explores these cues and shows campaigns need to connect issues to a specific office. If voters don’t perceive a president can do anything about an issue, it makes no sense to argue the issue in the campaign. Popkin tears down conventional ideas about a more educated constituency; education broadens awareness of the number of issues but does not lead to increased turnout and does not change how voters make decisions.
Chapters Three through Five explain how voters evaluate campaign messages and fill in the blanks. What constitutes relevant evidence? How do voters relate a candidate’s actions to specific policy and social results? How do evaluations of other people’s positions affect the voter? While answering these questions, Popkin demonstrates that campaigns don’t change voter positions on an issue; they change the relative importance (“salience”) of the issue to bring it to the forefront of voter awareness.
Chapter Six covers why candidates see surges and declines during primaries. Popkin argues that voters do not simply climb on the bandwagon of the front-runner. Preferences change as new information is revealed and concerns about personal character are supplanted by conceptions about political character. Chapters Seven through Eleven provide case studies.
Popkin backs up theories with history and polling data, comparing what really happened to expected outcomes based on traditional conceptions. Sometimes, Popkin approaches the trap of placing too much weight on a single, dramatic event, a fallacy he warns against. He sidesteps it by relating other events that came before and after. His suggestion to have longer primaries seems contradicted by his assertion that most voters don’t pay attention to primaries until they involve the voters’ state. Insisting that voters are rational is undermined by Popkin’s explanation of thought processes based on fallacies, incomplete information, or jumping to conclusions. If voters are reasoning, they are apparently not reasoning well, nor from solid premises.
This book gives campaign staff insights into how voters perceive campaign messages, and which messages matter most and when (such as moving from the personal to the political at different stages). It illustrates the need to differentiate a candidate’s position on an issue and connect it with the office. It will rescue campaigners from wasted time on information cues voters don’t respond to. For policy makers, this book highlights the importance of connecting an issue to the office through news stories and campaigns, and framing it as a social problem, not an individual one. Popkin’s cognitive psychology will enlighten anyone interested in how we evaluate information. Low-information rationality applies to decision-making on any subject, and The Reasoning Voter illuminates how we make sense out of information we encounter.
The new short story I drafted this month has a brief description of something that resembles the “strange attractors” from Chaos theory, so I spent a little time refreshing my memory about Chaos. In the most general and oversimplified terms, Chaos theory is a study of how apparently orderly systems give rise to apparent disorder, and vice versa. It also involves fractals, which are fun, and they give insights into how very simple sets of rules can create enormous complexity.
My introduction to Chaos was the 1988 book Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick. Along with Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which came out the same year, I read it in 1989 or 90 when I was still in high school, and it blew my mind. It isn’t a mathematical textbook but a history of the pioneers in the field and their discoveries. It lays out the basic concepts in layman’s terms and how they apply to a vast array of disciplines that study dynamic systems, from the weather and animal populations to the human body and your heartbeats. It also has a lot to say about how a revolutionary, interdisciplinary field at first met with apathy or outright resistance from the scientific establishment.
If you don’t have the time to read the whole book, you can get a brief but engaging introduction to some of the concepts in the following video from Veritasium.
A few years after Gleick’s book made inroads into popularizing the topic with general audiences, Chaos reached the masses through the first Jurassic Park film, based on Michael Crichton’s exceptionally entertaining 1990 novel. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone from my generation who isn’t familiar with Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Ian Malcom and his famous line, “Life, uh, finds a way.” On the other hand, the film didn’t do much to explain real concepts of Chaos, and probably left people with the impression that it just means “Things can and will go very wrong, very quickly.”
That’s not so much Chaos theory as it is Murphy’s Law, but whatever. Science-fiction stories are notorious for latching on to the smallest shred of a “sciencey” concept and turning it into a fantastical plot device. I’ve written before about how the term “science fantasy” seems more accurate to me, despite being outdated. From piloting spaceships through wormholes, to nanobots that can magically do anything, sci-fi is mostly bunk science: a fantasy about something science-related.
I’m as guilty as any SF author in that regard, but I did want my current story to do justice to this one bit of Chaos. The characters encounter a phenomenon that at first seems wildly unpredictable; but upon closer examination, a type of order appears. While movement is unpredictable at any individual moment, the totality of the movement falls within certain boundaries or parameters.
That’s the oversimplified idea behind strange attractors such as the Lorenz attractor, which is usually shown as a two- or three-dimensional graph that helps us visualize the possibilities for a set of three non-linear equations developed by Edward Lorenz, one of the Chaos pioneers who was originally trying to use computers to model weather systems. While the solutions (or iterations) never repeat themselves exactly, the graph helps us see that they all take place within a certain “shape”.
Anyway, there isn’t much of a point to this post, except that Chaos is fun to learn about! For engaging introductions to the Chaos-related concepts of fractals, see the following two videos.
Racism and oppression based on race are nothing new to the United States. It was written into our original Constitution, and we had a full-blown war over it not too many generations ago. Judging from current events, that war left wounds that are far from healed even more than a century later. But one of the most overlooked parts of American history is how this nation treated its citizens of Japanese descent during World War II.
It happened at the same time we still pat ourselves on the back for because we opposed the Nazis. The Third Reich was herding Jews into ghettoes and eventually death camps, and the USA was the hero with the ethical high ground for opposing such inhumanity. That might be the morally satisfying story your grandparents remember about WWII—unless they were of Japanese descent. Here in the States, we were herding American citizens into camps of our own.
In 2019, former Star Trek star George Takei published a graphic novel about his experiences as a child in those camps. The narrative is interesting for the way it shows his multiple perspectives on the events at different times in his life. As a child on a train to the camps for the first time, protected by his parents from the true horror, he initially sees the detainment with a child’s sense of wonder at being on some new adventure.
As a teenager developing a broader historical perspective, he rages at his father for not violently resisting the incarceration.
As an older man, George comes to understand that his father and mother did everything in their power to do what was best for their children in a horrific situation no one should ever experience. Only later in life did he realize how much it meant for his mother to smuggle a sewing machine.
They Called Us Enemy includes a few framing sequences. One portrays George giving a TED Talk, which seems to be his presentation from 2014 in Kyoto, Japan.
I don’t know about you, but I think if I lived through what George did as a child, I would be bitter for a damn long time. Maybe forever. But George’s memoir continues through rebuilding his life after the war, getting involved in theater, landing his role as Sulu, and making peace with his past through political advocacy, non-profit work, and speaking to new audiences.
One would hope that George’s efforts to educate about that period of American history will prevent us from repeating horrors of the past. But it is difficult to maintain such hope in a time when thousands of people are held in similar camps for attempting to cross our border, where hundreds of thousands of people work as slave labor in prisons in a country with the highest incarceration rate on the planet, and where millions of people of color are being systematically disenfranchised though racist voting laws, gerrymandering, and the dismantling of election oversight committees.
But that’s what I love about Takei’s graphic novel. It doesn’t present an easy solution. It gets you thinking. It reminds you that if you don’t want the USA to be a nation governed by racist policy, then you need to get involved. You can’t just sit by and do nothing. They Called Us Enemy is both a cautionary and inspiring tale for those of us who envision a country where, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
On a related note, I recently discovered a Chris Hopkins series of paintings and drawings about the people who lived through the internment camps, and they range from powerful to heartbreaking.
Chris painted the cover of one of my favorite editions of old pirate biographies, and he also brought the Tuskegee Airmen to life with his brushes. You might have seen Chris’ paintings for 1980s movie posters such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Labyrinth, and Return of the Jedi. He currently has a gallery of dozens of paintings and drawings about the Japanese internment camps at http://www.chrishopkinsart.com/
One thing the Hopkins paintings cover that the Takei story does not is the rule that people sent to those camps could not bring their pets. As sad as it is to leave behind possessions and people, there’s something especially sad about leaving behind a best friend and companion who lacks the words and pictures to even comprehend what is happening.
Fortunately, George Takei and his artistic collaborators created words and pictures we can understand, relate to, and learn from. They Called Us Enemy is an educational yet personal account from a man who lived through the worst of times, and it deserves a place alongside Maus and March in your collection.
Shout out to my fellow blogger and comic-book enthusiast Ben Herman for introducing me to this book with his post about meeting George at a 2021 Comic Con.
The ship sailed beyond the sight of land, to a place where “there is no moral possibility of desertion, or application for justice.”
—James Stanfield, as qtd. by Rediker.
To board the slave ship was to abandon hope—unless one hoped for torture, degradation, and the destruction of human life in the name of commerce. Driven by profit motives, the wealthy of Europe engaged some of the most depraved men of their times to lead cruel voyages across the Atlantic Ocean. The center stage for this drama of human injustice was the slave ship, or slaver. Historian Marcus Rediker takes the reader on several hideous voyages across the Atlantic on these ships, telling the stories of the human lives that participated in the trade of captive Africans for money.
The Human Stories
Rediker primarily focuses on putting a human face on dehumanization. The Slave Ship covers 1700 to 1808, the period of the highest volume of slave trade by the British. Their sailors gave the journey from Africa to the Americas the name “the Middle Passage”. Subtitled “A Human History”, The Slave Ship examines the lives of key figures involved in the slave trade and the effects this unholy commerce wrought upon their lives. To call the trade horrifying hardly scratches the surface.
Rediker spares no gory detail in his recounting, save where the writers of the day could not even bring themselves to elaborate the torture and suffering that took place. Such was the case with James Field Stanfield, who witnessed what was “practised by the captain on an unfortunate female slave, of the age of eight or nine.” Field said of this event, “I cannot express it in words”, although it was “too atrocious and bloody to be passed over in silence” (Rediker, 152).
Rediker’s focus on human stories rather than facts and figures reminds us that the men perpetrating these crimes were not fantastic monsters but human beings. Men in Britain and the American colonies grew rich from the trade, men such as Humphry Morice and Henry Laurens. They were, after all, simply men, respected in their communities and occupying social positions of prestige and leadership.
The Slave Ship also recounts the lives of slaves such as Olaudah Equiano, who penned a tale of his experience aboard the slavers that contributed to the abolitionist movement with its tragic narrative, and men such as Job Ben Solomon. Solomon, a leader of his people, endured enslavement but was eventually recognized as a tribal leader by the British.
He returned to Africa not to liberate his people but to serve the interest of the Royal African Company, assisting the Europeans in putting even more Africans into slavery. Stories like this reveal the myth that the Atlantic slave trade simply consisted of European enslavement of Africans. Rediker tells of many African leaders and tribes who participated willingly, capturing peaceful people on their own continent to sell into slavery.
Rediker details the lives of John Newton and James Field Stanfield to paint portraits of the sailors on these terrible ships. Newton’s experience as a common sailor with a bad attitude eventually transformed him into an ardent abolitionist. Stanfield originally joined the slave trade to see the world and have adventures. He found despair, torture, and atrocity. He would write vivid narrative poetry that bolstered the abolitionist movement.
These were the fortunate ones, for Rediker tells many more tales of lives destroyed by the trade: free men reduced to slaves, families torn apart, tribes destroyed, healthy men crushed by disease and torture, and sailors reduced to empty shells after their voyages. By focusing on the human side of history, Rediker makes it come alive.
The Rise of Racism and Capitalism
The Slave Ship touches many times upon the relation of the Atlantic slave trade to the rise of racism. Before the Atlantic slave trade, it was uncommon for people to see other people divided only by the color of their skin. Anyone—black, white, or brown—could become a slave in those days.
The Atlantic slave trade, however, grouped all Africans of many cultures into one single group: black. Rediker explores how far the division of black and white could be taken, where light-skinned people could be “black” based on their social status, and “white” became synonymous with “free” even for dark-skinned people. It often depended on which side of the barricade one ended up when revolt broke out on the ship.
Rediker also relates the Atlantic slave trade to the rise of capitalism. Slave ships brought manufactured goods from the Americas back to Europe on the return leg of their journeys, stimulating manufacturing in the colonies. Also tabulated for the reader are the facts and figures of production: millions of pounds per year of rum, tobacco, and cotton produced with slave labor and exported to Europe.
Rediker could have spent more time on the rise of the corporation. While he mentions companies such as the Royal African Company formed solely for the purpose of enslaving human beings, he does not explore the lingering social impact of forming companies to profit from human misery. To see the lasting effects of this form of commerce, observe companies like Raytheon who profit by creating bombs with no other purpose than the mutilation and destruction of human beings. The Atlantic slave trade and other European ventures into the Americas founded this policy of corporate cruelty.
Rediker often returns to his theme of the slave trade’s destruction of lives—not just the lives of slaves, but of all those involved. When Rediker describes the incredible atrocities committed by sailors against their captives, the reader might form an idea of privileged white people abusing blacks. Even more shocking, perhaps, is the examination of the lives of the sailors. In most cases, captains victimized sailors to nearly the same degree they abused the slaves.
In Rediker’s portrait of the slave trade, the lines between the victimizer and the victimized disappear. What emerges is a web of cruelty that enveloped everyone it touched. Rediker tells of many sailors who were swindled into the voyages by unscrupulous means: through falsified debts in bars, threats of imprisonment, and false promises from recruiters.
In some sense, the sailors were captives just as much as the slaves, and their lives were wrecked just as thoroughly. Rediker tells of sailors cheated out of wages, abandoned in ports, riddled with disease and injury, and left to scrape a mean existence on the docks as homeless, penniless human wreckage. While the mortality rate of slaves on the ships was high, about one in four sailors died on the voyages, too.
It appears the only people to benefit from the Atlantic slave trade were the richest, most powerful men living far removed from the ships, reaping most of the profits and enduring none of the hardships.
Rediker’s approach to telling stories results in a narrative that jumps around chronologically. His approach shows how individuals changed over time, but makes it difficult to envision the flow of historical change. From an educational perspective, a single timeline would make the big picture clear. The Slave Ship seems to be several books combined into one, making an overview almost necessary for a complete understanding.
Because each chapter stands on its own, the reader runs into much unnecessary duplication. By the halfway point, the reader has already encountered the same or similar descriptions several times: slaves jumping overboard, manacles “excoriating” flesh, dysentery smearing the hold with excrement, sailors being swindled into signing on to the ships, and the speculum oris.
Each time these horrors appear in The Slave Ship, they receive a treatment as if they appear for the first time. This causes the book to lose momentum as it progresses. While it starts with a bang, the last third of the book includes many redundant descriptions.
While manacles get many paragraphs, world events sometimes receive much less. In a study of the development of capitalism, one might expect a bit more time studying various wars, inventions, and other world-shaking events. The development of ship-building from a hand-me-down trade to a full-blown global science merits a page or two. The relation between science and the slave trade bears more exploration.
Abolition movements receive a similar treatment. While Rediker speaks of the contributions of Equiano and Stanfield to the abolition movement, he does not spend much time discussing the movement itself. This might be an important part of the puzzle he leaves out. How the abolitionists contributed to the British and American bans on the Atlantic slave trade would form the proper end to this book.
What can we learn from The Slave Ship? Nothing good, it seems—only that humans require no fantastic gods or monsters to inflict cruelty upon them. They will take care of that themselves.
History bears out this lesson. From instruments of medieval torture to the Spanish invasion of the Americas, from the Nazi concentration camps to Ku Klux Klan lynchings, the greatest danger to man continues to be man himself. When his greed for money and power drives man’s capacity for cruelty, we find no limits to the savagery he will inflict upon others.
The Europeans un-ironically viewed themselves as civilized and the Africans they tortured as barbarians. Despite the years that have passed since the Atlantic slave trade, that attitude remains prevalent in many countries and cultures around the world. One group dehumanizes another group, and the cycle continues.
Is the entire planet a slave ship driven by greed, fear, and hate? Is there no application for justice? Are we doomed to destroy other people in the pursuit of profit forever? The Slave Ship raises these questions and leaves them unanswered, while brutality in the name of commerce continues to destroy lives around the world in the twenty-first century.
I was thrilled last month when I read that NASA is sending squids into space. I’m a space-octopus enthusiast, so squids in space is something I can get excited about. But the article dashed my dreams with a cold dose of reality. After serving as research subjects, the helpless squids will be returned to Earth—frozen.
Their fate brings to mind another tragic tale: that of Laika, the canine cosmonaut. She was an abandoned puppy who became the first dog in space, but she was also abandoned a second time, in orbit. Though the details of her demise were obscured at the time, it’s now widely accepted that she died from overheating. She got so hot that it killed her. Think about that for a second. I don’t even like dogs, but that’s not a destiny I would wish on any of them.
Nick Abadzis tells her story in his graphic novel, Laika. Though he portrays her as an adorable and loving companion, and certainly the main character, Abadzis resists the urge to anthropomorphize her. He tells compelling, human tales about the researchers who worked with her, trained her, and tested her, but Laika remains resolutely canine.
The one artistic decision that bothers me is the author’s tendency to wax poetic as Laika orbits the Earth. While the decision lends the moment an inspirational grandeur befitting its place in the history of space exploration, I could not help but feel sad and angry knowing that the reality for the animal was intense suffering in her final moments, alone and without comfort inside a metal cage, tortured for a purpose she could never understand nor even desire.
But Abadzis knows these harsh facts, and he shows more than the public backlash from the world’s discovery that Laika died. He shows the grief on a personal level in the reactions of the woman who worked with Laika and built a bond of affection and trust, despite the experiments she oversaw that must have been absolutely terrifying for the animal.
We as a species need to reconsider our choice to send intelligent, feeling animals into space to die. As much as we have benefitted from space exploration and research, the time has come to stop treating animals like disposable garbage in the pursuit of new horizons.
The inscription on the Soviet Monument to the Conquerors of Space speaks of the “reward for our toils”. Though the sentiment is noble, the reward for animals we send to space is not noble. It is only nightmare, or death.
And thus rewarded are our toils, That having vanquished lawlessness and dark, We have forged great flaming wings For our Nation And this age of ours!
Matthew Flinders was a sailor, explorer, mapmaker, and navigator who served in England’s Royal Navy and once sailed with William Bligh after the events recounted in Mutiny on the Bounty. History remembers Flinders as the man who gave Australia its current name, and for completing the first circumnavigation of that island continent.
But history also honors the cat who made that voyage and many others with Flinders. If you visit the Mitchell Library in Sydney, you will find a statue of Flinders and, very near to it, a plaque and statue of Trim, the black-and-white feline adventurer who was born on a ship at sea and enjoyed waging war against one of the true terrors of nautical life: the pestilent vermin who sought to eat the sailors’ food.
The first time I read about Trim, it was in the hilarious and detailed history of Australia, Girt by David Hunt. Today, I was reminded of Trim while reading the small but delightful 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization by Sam Stall. Each short chapter tells the tale of a noteworthy cat, from the first known cat to be named thousands of years ago to exceptional cats of the current century, from cats of well-known authors and heads of state to cats in recent popular culture. Trim’s chapter is the second to last.
I highly recommend both Girt and 100 Cats Who Changed Civilization, but their summaries of Trim’s life pale in comparison to the affectionate memoir penned by Flinders himself. You can read it for free online at The Flinders Papers.
With a little exaggeration, as cat lovers are prone to make, and a great deal of love and respect for his sea-faring companion of many years, Flinders describes Trim’s travels, travails, and triumphs. I sometimes worry that my fiction stories involving a space-traveling cat living with interplanetary rogues and brigands will strain the reader’s suspension of disbelief. But when reading Trim’s story in Flinders’ own words, and the stories in 100 Cats, I am reminded of the great variety of character and capability to be found among felines, many of which defy our stereotypical ideas about what cats can do, and feel, and accomplish.
Flinders’ memoir about Trim ends with an epitaph. Here are its final lines:
Many a time have I beheld his little merriments with delight, and his superior intelligence with surprise: Never will his like be seen again! Trim was born in the Southern Indian Ocean, in the year 1799 and perished as above at the Isle of France in 1804. Peace be to his shade, and Honour to his memory.
March is a three-issue graphic novel from 2013 that autobiographically tells the story of 1960s-era civil-rights activist John Lewis, who later served as a representative for Georgia. He led one of the groups that helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Through a series of framing sequences and flashbacks, March takes the reader on a journey from an impoverished rural childhood, through times of heartbreaking violence and protest, to the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. That moment was a cultural victory for millions of Americans, and reading about it this month puts recent events into perspective.
In January 2021, we saw a different kind of march on Washington. A violent mob of white supremacists and incredibly misguided people who swear allegiance to a reality-TV demagogue and known liar stormed the capitol, claiming their racist hate was patriotism, claiming their attempt to overthrow a fair and democratic election was a defense of democracy, and leaving in their wake a trail of death and destruction in the name of so-called freedom.
March also reminds us that this despicable aspect of America is nothing new. Similar violence and even worse was rained down upon black Americans staging peaceful protests attempting to be served in restaurants, join schools, or ride a bus — and it was accompanied by the same sort of flag-waving idiocy and bible-thumping madness that too many have used to advance an agenda of racial subjugation that has nothing to do with our country’s ideals of equality nor the peaceful teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
John Lewis passed away last year, in 2020. But we are fortunate that he left us with this memoir. It is a monument to how far our country advanced in terms of equality in his lifetime and, especially in light of recent events, a reminder of just how far we have to go.
What can I say about one of the most widely acclaimed and influential graphic novels ever published? I re-read Maus this month for the first time since the mid-90s, and its combination of sequential art and novelistic storytelling have held up remarkably well over the years.
Maus tells the story of the persecution of Jews in Poland under the reign of the Nazi Third Reich, framed by sequences where the author interviews his father to get the memories that form the basis of the historical narrative. Throw in some detours such as a short comic-inside-the-comic that deals with the author’s mother’s suicide, and a meta-examination of the work where the author deals with his guilt and ambivalence towards the series and visits a therapist. Maus subverts the idea of “funny animal comics” by making the characters animals but telling a story that is tragic and horrifying.
Maus was one of the first books I can recall that gained national—even global—attention for telling a serious story that did not involve any superheroes yet brought an air of literary legitimacy to the term “graphic novel”. These days, any six-issue story arc about a mainstream superhero can be collected into a paperback and labeled a graphic novel for marketing purposes. Maybe the term has become so watered down that we’ve lost the meaningful distinction between graphic novels and comic books.
But I don’t plan on losing any sleep over it. Categorize them however you want! There’s room in the Big Box of Comics for all of them.
Action Philosophers uses humor, exaggeration, and sight gags to spice up a subject that many people avoid just because it’s too damn boring. Writer Fred van Lente and artist Ryan Dunlavey bring much-needed life to the topic in their irreverent yet educational takes on many of the most influential philosophers, from ancient times to modern.
Consider Bodhidharma, an important figure in the development of both Zen and martial arts. Did you think a lesson on Zen was going to be a bunch of boring monks sitting around meditating? Think again!
Then there’s Isaac Luria, portrayed in an homage to the sorcerer Dr. Strange of Marvel Comics fame.
In their quest to make philosophy exciting, the creative team pays other tributes to action-packed comic book styles, including Jack Kirby’s pulse-pounding visuals.
Pop culture references abound, such as imagining David Hume using the old Saturday Night Live catchphrase, “If it’s not Scottish, it’s crap!” I’ve read Hume before, and it was nowhere near as fun as this version.
The conventions of comic book art lend themselves to illustrating some abstract concepts, like this page where objects and people disappear because the philosopher isn’t thinking about them.
And why suffer through tedious history books about Francis Bacon when a handy infographic does the trick?
This is a fun series, and I thank reader Ergozen for recommending it a few months ago. The Tenth Anniversary “uber-edition” collects all the material so that the philosophers appear in chronological order, but it’s often out of stock or exorbitantly priced. However, you can find a similar complete collection on Amazon at a reasonable price.
You can also explore more fun and educational works at Ryan Dunlavey’s site, including a lengthy sample of his history of comic books.
My love for Larry Gonicks’ Cartoon History of the Universe goes back almost as many years as this blog, when I first discovered scans of it and later collected many of the original nine single issues. Cartoon History won my heart with a first issue that features some of my favorite topics: the origin of spacetime, the lives of dinosaurs, and prehistoric mammals and birds. From there, the series leaves behind the “universe” to tell the stories of human civilizations throughout Africa, India, China, Greece, Rome, and Europe. It’s a monumental tour de force with a great sense of humor, and it’s way more fun than most history classes.
So, this Spring, thanks to this blog’s readers, I expanded my Cartoon History collection with a few collected paperbacks. Three large paperback volumes collect issues 1–7, 8–13, and 14–19 in almost 1,000 pages of awesomeness that start with the Big Bang and end as Columbus sets sail from Spain in 1492.
On top of that, a paperback collection of nearly 400 pages offers The Cartoon History of the United States, which was originally published in two smaller volumes. Gonick adroitly strikes a balance between giving us history’s broad brushstrokes and revealing some of its complex nuances. For example, most Americans might tell you, “Lincoln freed the slaves,” but the reality was not so simple. Gonick tackles complex topics like this without ever being dry and academic about it.
He also succeeds in unraveling such complexities in a way that someone in sixth grade or junior high school could read and understand, and it’s a shame that these books are not used as textbooks in high school courses—or even college. Stylistically, this collection shows a departure from the crisp panel layouts and inking style of the “Universe” series, with Gonick abandoning his prior preferences for panel layouts in favor of a more open style and adopting a rougher inking technique that incorporates prior period-specific artwork in some of its panels. This style still works; it’s just noticeably different from what came before.
You’d think that after all that history, we might be done. But I also picked up Gonick’s collaboration with Mark Wheelis: The Cartoon Guide to Genetics. Visually, this book looks more like the volumes of United States history, and the material is more scientifically complex. It adeptly delves into not just the history of genetics pioneers such as Gregor Mendel but into the molecular structure of DNA and the inner workings of cells. I’ve read more detailed books on cells, such as the masterful The Machinery of Life by David Goodsell, but this is a book that even your average high-school student should be able to read and understand. It isn’t quite as funny as the “Universe” series, but it’s an enjoyable and informative read that will give you a strong foundation for understanding this topic.
Larry Gonick has done more books than these, but that’s where my store credit ran out! After working my way through all these volumes, I’m left with a profound admiration for his skills at using cartoons as a teaching method, for his ability to discuss complex aspects of history and science in way that renders them comprehensible without sacrificing an awareness of their subtleties, and for his use of humor to turn what could be rather dry reading into an enjoyable and memorable romp through history.
Today’s pick from the box of indie and small-press comics is Tales of the Cherokee. Let’s have a look at Gene Gonzales’ illustrated version of the Cherokee creation myth in “How the World Was Made.” Dig that splash page featuring the worlds above and below!
Below is another tale, a Cherokee love story Gene calls “The Origin of Strawberries.”
In 1978 and 1979, Last Gasp published four issues of Anarchy Comics. The series combined history and satire, politics and humor, wildly veering from educational to absurd in its exploration of left-wing themes. One minute, it’s seriously explaining how the black flag became a symbol of anarchy, and the next it’s having a laugh by sending a deranged punk rocker into a futuristic, peace-loving utopia that enrages him. Archie gets ridiculously spoofed as Anarchie, in the same series that presents a historical discussion of women anarchists. It’s a wild ride that might serve as propaganda if it only took itself seriously, which it refuses to do.
You can often find copies of Anarchy Comicsat MyComicShop, and some are occasionally available from Last Gasp. But you can save yourself the trouble of tracking down individual issues thanks to the 2012 Anarchy Comics: The Complete Collection, which you can easily find on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.
Here are two short pieces about the Russian revolution, from our archives. The first is by Spain, the creator of the satirical left-wing action hero Trashman, who appeared in Subvert by Rip Off Press.
If you haven’t yet discovered the underground comix insanity Last Gasp published in the 1970s, dive into the archive of Last Gasp highlights collected on this blog.
I began reading dinosaur books in the late 1970s, and back then, we had a dinosaur called Brontosaurus: the iconic Thunder Lizard! But the beast I grew up with would be revealed, in my adulthood, to be a complete fraud. Brontosaurus was nothing more than a hoax perpetuated with the bones of the real animal: Apatosaurus.
Just like my generation needed to reconceive of dinosaurs as having feathers, lifting their tails instead of dragging them, and living as endothermic animals instead of exothermic reptiles, my generation accepted the disappearance of our beloved Brontosaurus.
But it seems we were wrong about being wrong. Recent examinations of the fossil record have shown both Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus were real animals: structurally similar, but differentiated by their skin. The Thunder Lizard has returned!
Author and artist Ted Rechlin couldn’t be happier about it. His graphic novel Jurassic puts Brontosaurus back in the spotlight. When a baby Brontosaur is separated from his mother, he gets swept up in a journey through the perilous landscape of a forgotten North America, encountering all sorts of species of dinosaurs Rechlin renders in gorgeously colored illustrations. Through the young Bronto’s eyes, readers take a tour that is both educational and exciting.
Despite a few violent dinosaur fights, Jurassic keeps the gore to a minimum, focusing instead on the drama. Rechlin doesn’t try for the existential terror of Jim Lawson’s Paleo andLoner, nor the biological brutality of Ricardo Delgado’s Age of Reptiles. But like those comics, Jurassic tells a thrilling story about animals in the natural world.
Just between you and me, the Brontosaurs may have been the main characters, but they were not the superstars of the story. That honor belongs to the incredibly awesome Allosaurus who rages through this book, a massive female fighting machine storming the countryside with a pack of smaller Allosaurs at her side. Rechlin renders her with savage, majestic beauty, and she totally steals the show.
Rechlin doesn’t get heavy-handed with his natural philosophy, but the final scene with the big female Allosaurus puts the entire story in a different light. Throughout the book, you sympathize with the baby Bronto’s separation from his mother, and you hope he will be okay. The female Allosaur and other carnivorous creatures are threats to our main character. But at the end of the day, the murderous Allosaurus is shown to be an attentive mother whose primary concern is feeding and caring for her own babies.
The interdependent struggle of all animals to survive, eat, and rear their young is a tale that echoes Jack London’s Call of the Wild and White Fang, and it’s a consistent theme in dinosaur comic books. Eat or be eaten. The triumph of Jurassic is how subtly Rechlin handles this theme and communicates it without getting excessively graphic.
Brontosaurus, Allosaurus, and many more dinos also appear in Rechlin’s coloring book Dinosaurs Live! This innovative work combines drawings of dinosaur skeletons, educational and entertaining captions like a comic book, and full-page spreads of the dinosaurs in all their fleshy and feathery glory.
Rechlin isn’t afraid to convey science in casual, conversational language that uses humor to memorable effect. You will learn from his coloring book, but you will laugh, too. Like Jay Hosler’s Clan Apis, which teaches about honeybees, Rechlin’s coloring book is strong on biology without being a stuffy textbook.
No, I can’t bring myself to color these beautiful pages. I would feel like I was defacing a black-and-white dinosaur comic book such as Epic’s Dinosaurs: An IllustratedGuide by Charles Yates, orTyrant by Steve Bissette. I might need a second copy so I can color the pages guilt-free!
Also on my wish list is Rechlin’s other full-color dinosaur graphic novel, Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Below is a list of where you can buy these books on Amazon, and with links to purchase directly from FarCountry Press, the distributor who kindly sent us review copies and images. FarCountry has many animal, nature, and history books, and other exquisitely drawn coloring books featuring flora and fauna of national parks.
In January, graphic journalist Joe Sacco gave this hour-long interview at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. From his journeys to war-torn nations in the Middle East, to an examination of his creative process, the discussion brings together art, history, and concern for human rights. See Joe’s books currently available at Fantagraphics.
Marcus Rediker’s Villains of All Nations dedicates a chapter to female pirates. Though his account of Read & Bonny covers familiar factual ground, Rediker adds his thoughts on gender roles of the day, and their relation to the pirate way of life. He writes of other women at sea, for comparison, and analyzes how artwork depicting a female pirate in the frontspiece of Johnson’s General History may have influenced the painting Liberty Leading the People.
On the subject of the Atlantic pirates in general, Rediker examines the working conditions of sailors in those days, and how piracy was a rebellion of oppressed laborers. Rediker is no stranger to the horrors suffered on ships back then. I studied his book on the Atlantic slave trade, and he painted a grim picture of life at sea for not only the captured slaves but for the sailors hired to transport them. Villains of All Nations briefly touches on this slave trade and how the 1720s crackdown on piracy was influenced by pressure to keep slave trade routes open and profitable.
Rediker’s narrative clearly sympathizes with the Atlantic pirates for liberating themselves from intolerable working conditions, and he openly criticizes government campaigns of propaganda and public hangings used to deter piracy. He details the code of collective self-government pirate crews adopted, but he does not unilaterally glamorize them. He does not shy away from their cruelties, nor their increasingly unconscionable violence as the crackdown turned against them.
But in giving a clear picture of the harsh living conditions which compelled them to rise up and resist captains and empires, to form their own multi-ethnic and independent societies, Rediker provides a unique insight into the decision to go “on the account” and become a “man of fortune” in the 1700s. The book is scholarly but never boring, and much of it could be read as the makings of a manifesto in an age where millions of laborers continue to suffer in oppressive conditions around the world.
The Atlantic pirates may not have been the romantic heroes portrayed in theater and fiction, but many of the justifications for their rebellion echo ideas we now consider noble or even take for granted: self-determination, reasonable working conditions, respect for diversity, and a voice in our governments.
The images in today’s gallery come to us courtesy of the archives at The Supergirl Project. Some of these public service announcements from the National Social Welfare Assembly have graced our virtual pages here before. But something unexpected happened last year when we put one on Twitter. It got picked up by someone from the NSWA, now known as the National Human Services Assembly. It turns out they were collecting these old ads for their archives! Last we heard, they had gathered quite a collection. Enjoy a few below. Superman even makes a couple appearances!
In today’s installment of The Library of Female Pirates, we take a look at a few pages from Angus Konstam’s Piracy: The Complete History. Though we return once again to the familiar subject of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, this book is notable for questioning the romantic yet brutal tale of these two female pirates. Unlike some other texts in our series, Konstam finds fault with the “far-fetched” and “sensationalist” story passed down to us courtesy of Daniel Defoe’s General History of the Pyrates.
Konstam points out that a pirate’s occupation was generally short-lived, due not only to its rough nature but to its being a temporary economic solution for most sailors involved. Thus, Konstam doubts Mary Read would have spent nearly 23 years at sea. He also points out we have little record, other than their trial documents, to verify anything Defoe has told us. Konstam makes these criticisms in pages 185-188, reproduced below.
Piracy: The Complete History begins in the 14th century BC, with a band of sea raiders who troubled the ancient Egyptians, and continues up to the modern time of 2008, when it was published. It’s an enjoyable read, and its modern language makes it more accessible than some of the older texts covered in this series.
“A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates and Also Their Policies, Discipline, and Government.” Nearly every book you find on pirates of antiquity will refer to the book featured in today’s installment of The Library of Female Pirates. David Cordingly, in Under the Black Flag, calls it Captain Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, and Cordingly has provided an Introduction to at least one edition of the book under that name.
However, you will also find the book listed under author Daniel Defoe. Why? Editor Manuel Schonhorn explains in the Introduction to the edition pictured below. Based on the work of Professor John Robert Moore in 1932, academics have increasingly come to believe that “Captain Charles Johnson” was merely one of many pseudonyms for Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe. Schonhorn elaborates on Defoe’s life, his interest in maritime commerce and piracy, and the nature of his sources and travels.
Schonhorn’s edition fills more than 700 pages and incorporates text from four editions of the first volume of A General History and the second volume as well. His supplementary material works to clarify Defoe’s factual claims, while the organization of the text for clarity cohesively orders material which was apparently scattered throughout the editions published in Defoe’s era. Defoe himself made corrections and changes between editions, and Schonhorn must have put in tremendous time and effort to make a single coherent text.
Compared to other texts in our Library of Female Pirates, this one has the most antiquated language. Schonhorn has preserved many old spellings (such as “authentick” instead of “authentic”) and the apparently common “anything goes” Approach to Capitalization of those bygone Days. This makes the book at once more challenging to the reader and more endearing, as if one is truly studying an historic document.
Pages 153 through 165 cover Mary Read and Anne Bonny. We would love to scan those pages for you, but the book is incredibly thick. Scanning it without destroying it is nigh impossible. However, most of the information has been recounted in the other, more modern books we have covered in this series. A General History of the Pyrates has served as the primary source, or at least the starting point, for all modern research on Read and Bonny, from the romantic retelling by Charles Ellms to Gosse’s account to Cordingly’s scholarly work.
Yet some details of their lives only appear in Defoe’s work, as far as we can tell. For example, Defoe spends nearly four pages recounting a tale of three stolen spoons. The drama between a wife, her husband, and her maid resulting from these stolen spoons leads directly to the circumstances of Anne Bonny’s early childhood. Mary Read’s various military services and her marriage resulting from one of those services also earn a bit more detail in Defoe’s history than in subsequent works. A combination of Defoe’s General History and Cordingly’s research in Under the Black Flag may well constitute the sum of all we shall ever know about these two famous female pirates.