Attacking Automated Job Application System Annoyances

Dear reader,

Today, I applied for a job.  Or, rather, I have been applying for many, since I wrote this on my old Ramble About Writing blog back in 2012.  We’ve all been there, and many of us are pretty familiar with the process.  First, we re-vamp the resume…

Wanna hire me?  I take consulting/promotional work!

Then we write up a cover-letter that tries to make us seem skilled without sounding self-centered.  Then we just hit ctrl+p, grab an envelope and a stamp, and…

No, wait, that’s not how most companies handle resumes anymore.  And why should they?  There are trees to protect!  And not to mention that there are, like, tons of people applying for each job.  Let’s start by looking at the education field:  I’ve competed against 800 people for a single, one-year-long job as a teacher.  Assuming one can even keep one’s resume down to one page (is that one too many ones?), that’s two sheets for each person.  Forget a “stack” of resumes, we’re talking about an entire crate, easy.  So, naturally, my area devised an automated resume-handling system called “On-Line Application System,” or OLAS.  If you think this article is going to complain about OLAS, you’re wrong.

The essence of an application system.

OLAS is actually a pretty well set up service, and corporations like Best Buy, Petco, and even the infamous McDonalds sport similar systems.  I’m familiar with one of the three I’ve just mentioned, as well as plenty of others representing smaller and more specialized entities like McKinsey and Thomson-Reuters, but they all have some key things in mind….

– They allow applicants to create individual log-in names.
– Under their log-in name, an applicant can upload, store, and edit their resumes.  Cover letters are standard fare.
– Search functions allow a job browser to look in their area for jobs they are qualified for.  With new jobs being added all the time, employment seekers can check in every month or so to see if something has opened up!  Eventually, that 97 year old janitor has to retire, right?
– Once an appropriate job posting is found, all the user has to do is check a box and hit “apply!”  Any necessary questions can be asked of the applicant at that time, and the resume/cover letter are automatically attached.  Confirmation is sent directly to the applicant’s e-mail address, so you know it wasn’t “lost in the mail,” and any future correspondence is handled privately.

For obvious reasons, this is a tremendous advantage to the job-seeker.  I can’t tell you how many publication packets, job applications, and other documents I’ve sent to an employer, only to have no idea whether it all made it to it’s destination, or if they ended up taking a vacation in Aruba, instead.  Having knowledge that your application was received is relieving.  That doesn’t mean it’ll be seen, and it doesn’t give you a clue of how many people are applying for the same position, but at least you know it’s there.  The point isn’t to make your odds better, it’s to make your life – and the employer’s life – a little easier.

With all of these advantages, and with all of the features that a relatively old model like OLAS has built into it, how can an application system be built wrong?  And, perhaps more importantly, what does it mean to the applicant?

 

How to mess up simple things.

Let’s start with resume storage.  OLAS is going to serve as my “go to” example of a well-designed service.  On OLAS, you’ve got a resume and a profile all your own.  It’s practically part of the signing up process, and all you need to do to update your resume is to upload a new .doc (or other acceptable format) document.  From there, any job you select and hit the “apply” button to?  Your resume is instantly sent.  This is pretty self-explanatory.  Yet today, as I was trying to upload my resume, the system I was working with worked on the premise of making you create a profile without an attached resume.  Each job you apply for? You upload your resume again and again.

Okay, so that’s annoying, but what about cover letters themselves?  Well, with the business I applied to work at today, cover letters had to be attached to the same document you were attaching your resume to.  This means that you need to create a unique file just for that job.  If six positions exist, each one just a bit different than the other, you need to make six files.  Is it any different than the old days?  Maybe not, but it’s frustrating.  It’s easy to forget to include your resume, or to send the wrong file.  OLAS, on the other hand, allows you to attach “Job-specific cover letters,” as well as a “generic” model.  You can do this independently of uploading your resume.

Let’s move on to the actual job search interface.  What I was working with today might as well have never heard of Google.  It instantly spit out 190+ jobs, with no easily-found way to narrow the search down.  When you’re looking to work at a specific location, it’s pretty ludicrous to have to flip through ten-job-per-page listings which aren’t even in alphabetical order.  OLAS?  It organizes by region, and once you select the region you need it goes to alphabetical order.  Simple, if not perfect.

Now for something that’s a personal pet peeve of any interface design, be it job applications, shopping, or whatever.  Even when you narrow your listing down to the eight jobs you might be interested in, you’re only getting the name of the job title, right?  So you want to investigate each one individually, just like you were reading each article in a newspaper.  The standard way to do this is to right-click on the link to the full description, then select “Open in new tab.”  Ordinarily, this works just fine, and you get a brand new browser tab with a full description of the job you’re planning to apply to.  With the system I worked on today?  It just opened a blank, broken tab.  So the only way to view the job is to effectively close your search out.

That’s annoying, but here’s where it gets downright frustrating.  Here’s where any reasonably intelligent person will get irked that “they” can’t get it “right.”  Let’s say, as happened to me, that you look at the first job and it’s not what you were expecting.  Maybe you clicked it by accident, and you really wanted to check out the second one in the list.  Naturally, the site has a “Back” button that takes you back to your search, right?  I mean, that’s just basic, right?  But, no, it completely re-sets your search.

So to review:  Somehow, more than ten years into the twenty-first century, these folks have made signing up to the system unnecessarily difficult; they’ve made searching for a job a frustrating exercise in repeatedly re-executing searches; and they’ve even managed to make the actual process of applying complicated.  All of this after it’s been well proven that you can design a system to handle each of these things with one or two button clicks.  And they aren’t alone.

 

If you aren’t hiring, don’t solicit.  If you are, do it right.

Now, I’m an honest guy.  In a way, I’m just complaining about simple little nuisances.  Life is about getting through these simple little nuisances.  Certainly a job is about getting through the rough patches in order to enjoy the good ones!  And when you’re only looking to apply to one or two jobs, these kind of nuisances really don’t seem like a big deal.

But here’s why it’s just not right.  Let’s use our imagination.

You’re a job applicant.  You’re looking for a new career, and you’re serious.  So you are searching high and low, applying wherever you can.  You’ve spent a couple hours fixing things up on your resume and practicing your cover letter writing.  Now it’s time for you to search.  It takes you ten minutes to find a suitable job.  You need another ten minutes to initiate the process of applying.  That’s twenty minutes.  You attempt to return to the previous search, but it’s cancelled out; you need another ten minutes to find another job to apply to.  Then, because of poor design, you need to repeat the laundry list of application requirements; another ten minutes.

Instead of applying to two jobs in twenty minutes, your pace is now cut to one in twenty; or, two in forty.  Now you want to apply to a third.  Let’s assume you’re better prepared to face the technical nightmare, so you cut the application and search processes in half.  You’ve now taken fifty minutes to apply to three jobs.  To apply to a fourth requires another ten – that’s 4 jobs in one hour.  That’s a lot of time, time you could be spending on your family or a hobby or on taking care of chores.

“So what?  Deal with it!” is the usual response.  “Everyone else has to put up with it, too, so just do it” is the other one.  Here’s why that’s a bad mindset, both from the applicant’s perspective, as well as the businesses’.

As the applicant, you’re sitting here dealing with this annoying process that’s soaking up your time, right?  Well, you could easily just go…Apply to a different business!  Yes!  After all, if your initial impression of your potential employer is that they are so inept they can’t even design a system that’s convenient (or pay someone else to do it), how are you going to take them seriously as a place to build a career?  Time Magazine addresses these kinds of issues in an article about “top employees,” and is it any wonder that one of the reasons a super-star might not be happy with their employer is “under-utilization?”  Or that another one is “condoning mediocrity?”  If you’re a business looking to hire skilled workers, shouldn’t your application system demonstrate some skill?


The business of business is good business.

Let’s get back to the business’ perspective.  You want the best candidates, right?  So you want to make it as convenient and painless as possible for applicants to apply, just like you’d make shopping at your store as simple as you can to make your clients happy!  Yes, you might get eight hundred applications, and you might even get eight hundred well qualified candidates, but isn’t that better than getting zero?  Oh, and here’s another thing; chances are that if your application system scares off an applicant, they’re still looking for a job in the field that you do business in, right?  What happens when your competition starts getting the best recruits?

Imagine if Amazon made it tough to hire visionary designers, and they chose to work at Barnes and Noble instead.  I know, crazy, right?  I mean, given how the website Deadline reports B&N’s fiscal results, clearly it’s already lost that war, yeah?  But only because Amazon had those designers in the first place.  That edge is not guaranteed.  If Amazon treated its employees like crap, and – as a company reputed to be tech-savvy – made it’s employment system look like it was slapped together by a drunk ape, chances are it would stop getting good recruits.

Instead, they’d start getting good competition.  And not in the “friendly chess game” kind of competition.

Jesse Pohlman Publications and Projects, 2/19/2015

Hello, friends!

This is a casual update post, mainly so that I can keep readers informed as to what I’ve been up to, lately!  You might be surprised at how long this list is…

Articles by Jesse Pohlman

– An article I wrote for TheHill.com’s Congress blog, Gerrymandering Exposed In Florida, was published on December 12, 2014.  It’s about the exposure of a scumbag!  What more could be better?

– On January 22nd, I received a Daily Kos Community Spotlight for an article I wrote about Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman, on the eve of King Abdullah’s death.  Saudi Arabia’s King Salman – Unexpected Innovator or Alzheimer’s-Stricken King?  explored the background of the new ruler, and analyzed some of his strengths as well as weaknesses.  It addressed rumors that the new king may be suffering from some form or another of dementia, a disease I know quite well, but so far no major media outlets have played this up.  I’ve written other articles at Daily Kos, and I’d encourage you to check them out.

– I’ve continued to work on The Weekly Freeporter, my blog about my home-town in Freeport, New York.  My latest article centered on a friend of mine, Amanda Stevens.  She’s planning to interview an average of one person per year.  Much like The Weekly Freeporter, there isn’t a one-per-day mandate on Amanda’s interviews.  If she did seven in one day, she could rest for six days!  I also found that The Weekly Freeporter is nearly five years old, and I have more than two months to do two posts in order to be “weekly” for five years!

 

Books by Jesse Pohlman

I’m keenly aware that 2014 didn’t feature any new releases to my catalog of published novels.  On the upside, however, I have a lot of books “in the works” and I expect a lot of 2015 progress!  Here are some of the details…

– I have completed a first draft for the sequel to my 2011 National Novel Writing Month smash hit, Protostar:  Memoirs Of The Messenger.  I’ve given it many revisions, and now I’ve put it in the hands of a beta reader or two.  As soon as the beta reading process is complete and my chapter-by-chapter edits are finished, the book will be ready for publication!  Then it’s just a matter of finding proper cover art, and away we go!

– In a blast from the past, I finished (today, actually!) a revision of my very first novel, Volume One of the Pillars Of The Kingdom series, The Forming.  I have a few more tweaks to make to the actual document, but I intend to re-release it in anticipation of completing and releasing the final book of the series!  I am still very much on the fence about how I wish to do this, however:  I could put each book out independently, or I can combine all three into a single volume.  The first novel alone is over one hundred and twenty thousand words long, which gives me pause as to whether or not I want to “Hobbit Movies” it (which is really “Harry Pottering” it) and split the one book into two smaller volumes.  Part of me feels like that would be price gouging (two sales for one), but part of me believes I could make each read a more solid experience.

– I’m also working on fresh text for the finale of the Physics Incarnate series,  which will be entitled Physics Trincarnate.  I have a clear vision for the novel.  The original Physics Incarnate introduced us to Emmett Eisenberg, but it was meant as a stand-alone and it demonstrated how Emmett lived without using his superhuman mastery of atomic structures until he was dragged back into the hero business.  When I realized there was more to Emmett’s friend James Lowery, and a bigger story I could tell, I decided I had enough good ideas to make two more novels.  I released Physics Reincarnate in mid-2013.

 

Other Projects by Jesse Pohlman

– My Dystopian Review series of videos and articles has been on hold for a long time.  I’m really saddened by this, and if time permits in the next few weeks I’d really like to do a new one, but my personal life has precluded me from having a lot of time for sitting down and recording a good, solid video.  On the other hand, maybe I’m over-thinking it, and maybe it’s the content that matters more than the production value.

– I’ve been neglecting my website (again) because anything I’ve had to say, I’ve said wherever it was it needed to be said.  I don’t feel like I am adding to the site by reiterating posts I make on The Weekly Freeporter.  People interested in Freeport news will be reading it there; people interested in sci-fi won’t read it, here.  On the other hand, I feel like I should be updating the site more often, at least whenever I have some progress to report!

Thank you for reading this long, possibly over-the-top update!  If you have any questions, ask away!  Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and on my Facebook page!

An Undead, Zombie Valentine’s Day’s Wishes

I know, I know; your neighbor got bit by a “dog” and now he’s chasing your children around the house. Zombies are hardly a new thing, but we’re so used to seeing them on TV that we stop thinking about the make-up that goes into creating a good zombie! It’s a good thing Kat Anguera is a master of both the camera and the blood-colored make-up kit.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, check out this good gentleman offering this lady a luscious bouquet!

Unfortunately for him, he might be a touch too late.

Anguera creates most of her effects physically, without the aid of photo-shop. To create the eye and face wounds, she carefully caked layers of latex together until they formed gruesome, yet perfect additions to her “victims.” Her main use of digital image alteration stemmed from removing the color from her model’s eyes.

 

KAngueraluv

Tell us what you think! Certainly the artistry involved in this shoot is top-notch, but has the Zombie train run off the tracks? Have you run out of patience with the walking dead? Sound off!

Kat Anguera is a freelance photographer working in Valley Stream, New York. She can be reached via her Facebook page, where you can check out these and other pictures!  Or, visit her website at Kanguera.com!

Protostar: Memoirs Of The Messenger Now In Paperback!

This may be a bit belated, but my sci-fi space opera, Protostar:  Memoirs Of The Messenger is now available in paperback!

 

Protostar by Jesse Pohlman
Protostar by Jesse Pohlman

 

Here’s a five-star review from artist Cecelia Ivy Price:  “It’s like Ghost in the Shell meets Outlaw Star (For any old school anime fans.) Intergalactic warfare and furtistic weapons. Get read, highly recommend it!”

 

Ensign Lahira Ocean is the chief navigator of the Human battleship, the George Washington. Born on the world Magellan, she hails from a wealthy family, and joined the fleet as a precursor to her future as a trade magnate. Aside from astronomic charts and hyper-drive calculations, she studies history as both a pastime, and a lens to understand her life’s path. She regularly muses about retirement, despite her incredible skill at military affairs. Fate intervenes when scanners on a Human-held planet, Hudson, pick up an approaching group of alien ships. The George Washington is deployed to supervise this initial contact, but the greeting Mankind gets is as horrifying as it is stereotypical of a 20th or 21st century science-fiction epic!

Now, Lahira has little choice but to accept command of a brand new generation of star-ship, a cruiser called the Messenger, and is charged with recruiting subordinates of her own. Bringing together a hard-nosed specialist in military doctrine, a free-wheeling former space pirate, a nonchalant communications expert, and hosting her former academy rival as her own chief navigator, can the now-Captain manage to survive her own crew long enough to face the alien menace? What has made these foreigners so ready to wage war against any organic species it meets? Is she up to the task of leading the Messenger on a counter-attack against these mysterious marauders which humanity calls The Orphans?

The AVGN Movie Review: An Amazing Indie Accomplishment

Last night, my girlfriend and I had the unbelievable pleasure of going to a movie premier in New York City. Even better, we got the pleasure of going to see Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie! I’m a huge AVGN fan; I even brought my Ghostbusters NES cartridge to get signed. I had to leave before I could get that, however; my dad had a medical procedure the following morning, but damn I wanted it! Why? Mainly because I am an independent author, AVGN’s company Cinemassacre is an independent studio, and in many ways he is an idol of mine. The bulk of the movie, after all, was crowd-funded by his fans through IndieGoGo!

For those who don’t know the Angry Video Game Nerd, well, it’s a self-explanatory name for a character. James Rolfe created a series of you-tube videos where he plays a video game nerd who is angry about bad video games. He reviews those games, or in some cases entire game consoles, demonstrating all of their bad design choices. He also curses them out, and often destroys their physical copies, frequently talking about either feces or bizarre anal sex acts. There, done! For those of you who are familiar with him, his style and the entire culture of internet reviewers (including, to a lesser extent, me!), well, you also already know what you’re getting! That is a great thing, overall, but it’s also a little lacking in some areas.

The Angry Video Game Nerd Movie.  Image courtesy of Cinemassacre.com
The Angry Video Game Nerd Movie. Image courtesy of Cinemassacre.com

The plot of the film is pretty basic: In all of his one-hundred-plus Youtube videos, The Nerd has never reviewed the game “ET” for Atari (called EeeTee in the film). Yes, it is based on the Steven Spielberg movie of the same name; no, it isn’t good. For years, now, fans have begged Rolfe to review it. In-character, he has refused, claiming the game is just too horrible. As you might imagine, by the end of the movie, the fans get their wish!

Of course, it isn’t so simple. The plot unravels around an evil corporation that descends like vultures upon the trend of gamers playing bad games, gamers such as The Nerd. They intend to use our favorite Nerd as a marketing ploy for an ET Sequel, namely by forcing their way into his life and annoying him until he cooperates. Said corporation (‘Cockburn,’ of course) also investigates a popular video game legend: That Atari buried millions of copies of ET in a New Mexico desert because it was such a bad game. Naturally, since this is in New Mexico, it attracts the military’s attention because they’re talking about “ET’s” and digging about in the desert, and, well, something-something-Area 51.

Coincidentally, at the same time the AVGN movie was nearing completion, it was revealed that this legend was – in fact – true! There are actually a bunch of old (and terribly designed) games buried in the desert!  But, by now, my own review is buried in the plot of the movie it’s about, so let’s get to some actual critiquing!

 

The Angry Video Game Nerd Makes Me Happy

I want to start with the good, both because I always do and because there’s a lot of good to be had. The comedy comes mostly from making fun of common tropes. The film takes situations frequently explored in other movies and “Nerdifies” them, complete with the vulgarity and excess that AVGN is famous for. Oh! Look! There’s the AVGN and his female gamer playing a game, but being misunderstood by the old man downstairs! We’ve seen this scene before, but Rolfe and his co-writer Kevin Finn make it funny by slipping in double-entendres that catch viewers off-guard. In a scene where two girl characters are fighting, there is a significant sense of sexual tension and a lead-up to some sort of cat fight that ultimately gets a brief acknowledgment before being thrown away. It was refreshing that they didn’t lean on girl-on-girl action to attract too much attention!

The visual effects are worthy of mention because so many of them are what Rolfe considers “practical.” He doesn’t just rely on fancy computer graphics; he actually built tremendous set-pieces just to have a guy in a suit destroy them on camera. It was a throw-back to old Kaiju films like Godzilla, another favorite topic of Rolfe’s. Some of them were deliberately-horribly done, such as one scene involving what appeared to be a micro-machine on fire. It earned a hearty chuckle and some crowd applause! One of his favorite tales of practical effects gone wrong involves the accidental triggering of a fire alarm by his set lighting. Go figure. The bottom line was that when the movie needed to look good, it did. When the humor called for it to look goofy, it didn’t stray too far into the absurd.

The characters were, for the most part, enjoyable. Even Cooper, played by Jeremy Suarez, was generally charming and funny! I have no idea where Cooper came from, since as a fan of the show I am stunned by the idea of AVGN having a side-kick, but that’s part of the point of the film. It’s a spoof on film expansions to TV series or video games (or vice-versa!) where new, seemingly-vital characters are shoehorned into the plot. Speaking of shoehorned, Mandi – seemingly the obligatory love interest for the Nerd, played by Sarah Glendening – actually comes off as fairly charming, and while she makes some of those “classic movie mistakes,” like leaving the safe-house to make a useless phone call, she succeeds in avoiding any one stereotype. By and large, every other actor was appropriately over-the-top for their character, had witty lines, and made themselves stand out.

I think the final note I want to hit is that, at times, I was impressed by how the movie really got its timing down. Many of its cameos (we’ll get to some of them) were timed perfectly, and made sense within the movie’s continuity. Getting the actual programmer of the ET game, Howard Scott Warshaw, to appear in the film? That was genius. One of my favorite AVGN characters, Shit Pickle (I know), is featured on a billboard on one of those incredibly detailed Las Vegas sets that Rolfe built and had destroyed. Pat Contri (Pat the NES Punk) does a fantastic job as an AVGN groupie.

 

The Shitty Side of the AVGN Film

Okay. It’s not shitty, but if I’m watching and talking about the AVGN, I’d better fucking swear.

My number one complaint with the film is that it leaned heavily on its audience’s knowledge of the series canon. Some of the jokes – invisible blocks obstructing a player’s progress – were obvious. Others were nothing more than a token appearance by The Nostalgia Critic, who has served as an internet video enemy of Rolfe’s and, well, doesn’t contribute much except to be a face on camera, briefly. Then again, I’m a hypocrite – the very next scene is a similar cameo from Lloyd Kaufman, creator of The Toxic Avenger and a guest in one of AVGN’s episodes, and I liked it very much. The difference, I think, was that Kaufman actually did something. He had a line. He had a role. Nostalgia Critic? I love you, but no.

Speaking of “having a role,” who the fuck is Cooper?! Look, no offense to Jeremy Suarez – again, he did a great job – but the AVGN already has back-up. In the real world, Rolfe is teamed up with his childhood friend Mike Matei to produce his videos. Why couldn’t Matei be the side-kick? Instead, he and Kyle Justin – the musical mastermind of the series – have little cameos at the AVGN convention. Kevin Finn, a frequent guest and also-friend of Rolfe’s, has made appearances in the series but seemed content to co-write on this ride. I know we’re all supposed to wonder where this Cooper guy came from, but it all feels like it stretches what we AVGN fans know a bit too thin.

Speaking of thin, the biggest serious critique I have of this film is that the movie’s last half hour feels like a complete mess. There were moments where I looked at my girlfriend and fought back the urge to ask, “did I miss a scene?” I had absolutely no idea why, at the end of the film, the soldiers are cheering for their general’s demise. I can extrapolate that the officer in question is a complete jerk, but I don’t get why his men have transformed their mission from “crowd control” to “insane mob.” This is the biggest and most severe weakness the film suffers from: A spasticity in its progression.

Overall Impression of The AVGN Movie

The aforementioned flaws aside, I’ve spent about 1,500 words talking about this movie. If it wasn’t worth watching, would I have? Now, you might be asking yourself, “Jesse, what if the movie isn’t in a theater near me?” It’s an indie film, after all, and it’s not in mainstream movie houses! Well, in the after-movie Q&A session (which I had to leave early, sadly), Rolfe was asked what his plans for a wider release were. He intends to do a digital distribution arrangement of some kind, mentioning a date in early September, but he hasn’t got a specific plan finished, yet.

So now let me talk just a little more about what this movie means.

Yes, it’s pretty insane. Yes, it’s got flaws. However, it’s the brain-child of a man who started off making nothing more substantial than home movies. Later, he went on to create a few Youtube videos, ones that became extremely popular. He helped make Lets Plays into a major thing. He managed to generate enough revenue from his internet show to quit his day job and produce content full-time! That’s pretty much the American Dream, here.

But most of all, he created something for his fans. Yes, Rolfe goes over-board on content that makes an avid AVGN fan say, “Well, you’d have to listen halfway through episode 37 to get this joke.” However, as an indie producer myself, all I can say is, “Congratulations, man. You did it.”

Overall: 8.7/10 (8.1 for non-AVGN fans; 2.1 for non-video game fans, but then WTF are you watching it for in the first place, exactly?)

Jesse Pohlman is a writer from Long Island, New York.  If you enjoy science-fiction novels, check out his Amazon Store and see if one of them sounds fun to read, to you!

James Rolfe, Kevin Finn, and some dude's big ass head.  @Symphony Space in New York City, 8/8/2014.
James Rolfe, Kevin Finn, and some dude’s big ass head. @Symphony Space in New York City, 8/8/2014.

 

 

 

 

Dealing with Project Sprawl – Writing Tips!

Hello, fellow creators!

While I was working on my Lego Comic, and debating on drawing some more cover art for a book I’m almost done with, I was networking and writing my local news blog and…

…And I realized I have a problem.  See, I have a lot of projects on my hands at any given time.  Sometimes I get commissioned to write an article, while other times I just end up in a pointless debate with someone on the internet.  Most of the time, though, I’m working on a book.  There are lots of them I’m working on, and lots more that I’ve de-facto abandoned.  That’s probably the greatest shame, because I’ve written them all in my head!  Just not on paper!  This always saddens me, because I always have another great idea, another new scheme.

Unfortunately, if I were to start on them, then I’d leave other projects un-done, and therein lies one of my greatest problems as a writer.

Focus On One Thing?  Hah!  …How?

Some people’s first bit of advice is to pick one thing to focus on at a time.  For many people, that works – and if you’re that lucky, hey, good for you!  Put that exceptionally rare talent to use!  Many others find themselves always waking up, each day, with a different “feeling.”  Maybe some day they feel like writing, while another day they feel like painting.  If they don’t write, their manuscript goes unfinished; but if they try to force themselves to write when they want to paint, well, nothing gets done except for the denial of their true desire!  They spend time staring at a blank computer screen, imagining they are in front of a blank canvas, instead.

In my case, I was inspired to write this article because I was working on the cover-art for my next novel, and I realized just how disparate my goals were.  There’s so much I want to get done, but so little I can.  It’s a problem!  Just creating a place-holder image for this article took some time.  Yes, I learned new techniques for a paint program, but it was still time spent doing something which distracted me from the sheer pleasure of writing.  Sometimes, the research or the image-collecting for an article simply steals the show.

So what’s my answer?  Well, one thing is to try to have a schedule.  “Day one, work on project one.  Day two, work on project two,” whatever works best for you!  Everyone has a different routine, after all.  Unfortunately, we also have daily obligations.  There are days when I only have 15-20 minutes of “Creative Time,” if that!  This forces me to pick something I can get done quickly, or at least something I can make a major contribution towards.  Being able to figure out where one left off, then continue, isn’t always so easy.

Then, sometimes I’m working on commissioned articles or promotional material, and my “Creative Time” becomes “Second Job.”  And sometimes, I’d rather write about knights and dragons than do content for some band’s website.  The same things can apply to painters, photographers, and even musicians.  Photographers might want to shoot macro-scale, exploring the nuances of a flower petal, but instead have to do bland portraits of an average family to pay the bills.  All of these things add to an already overloaded plate.

Truly, sprawl is a problem any creator has to face down.

The Answer Is Patience

Most of all, I feel like I’ll never get something done “in time,” whatever “in time” happens to be.  I feel that the book cover will take so long, I don’t want to even begin.  I feel like finishing a novel will take forever, and that it won’t get done.  Editing?  It feels like bashing my head against a brick as a little voice screams at me to work on something fun, not something old.  There’s just this overwhelming feeling that if I’m not creating new work, I’m not being productive, and the stories in my mind will never get out.  Ever.

And none of that is true.

See, I’m young.  I’m 29, now.  But even if I were 69, I’m probably not dying tomorrow.  I’m probably going to wake up tomorrow and have time to work on my next idea.  The biggest reason why other creators I’ve spoken to seem to collapse into working on dozens of projects at once is because they don’t know how to be patient.  They don’t understand how to put their ideas on paper until the ones they’re already executing are complete, and come back to it later.  That’s the bottom line – patience.

For me, it takes patience to believe that, yes, this cover-art will get done; yes, the book will be released; yes, I can edit and re-release old ones, and – finally – I can put out new material.  I can clear this massive plate I have in front of me, and I can think about new ideas and not feel like I have to immediately act on them in order for them to ever happen.  The key refrain I’ve discovered?  If they are strong enough ideas, they will be there when I’m finished with what’s got me busy.

For others, I’d recommend the same – or, at least, a genuine evaluation of which projects should take priority, and what the subject of the creator’s effort should be.  Immediate performance and financial income isn’t the only guideline, here; existential reward and personal satisfaction matter, too.  Each person will be different, and there’s always some creep, but sprawl should be kept to a minimum – before it gets out of hand, and nothing gets done.

This article is adapted from an original, less-refined version, posted on my old “Ramble About Writing” blog.  Enjoy!

Thoughts on the Ongoing Israeli Military Action

Since its very inception, Israel has been up against attackers from all directions.  In more recent memory, it has had to fend off missile attacks from the terrorist group Hamas, a group which controls the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian territory in the south-west of the country.  I’m all for Israel defending itself; my question has always been, “how?” I absolutely believe Israel shouldn’t have to live with lunatics lobbing rockets into their cities, but the devil is in the details.  Just what is Israel supposed to do?  Ideally, it should be seeking a lasting peace with its Palestinian neighbors, but let’s examine the tactics it has employed, instead:

The current Israeli administration has hardly taken its peace talks with its Palestinian counterparts seriously.  Their Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has all but overtly refused to endorse a two-state solution to this ongoing conflict.  Israel has gone so far as to tap U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s phone, a reprehensible act (that we do to other leaders) and a clear show of bad faith.  The Gaza Blockade, designed to choke Hamas, hasn’t helped; just like our embargo against Cuba doesn’t actually hurt the Castros, it has starved and strangled civilians for years. Israel settlers have continued to invade occupied Palestinian territory. Multiple invasions of Gaza have led only to massive civilian deaths; in many cases, they were easily avoidable. Is it any wonder Hamas still has power there? Maybe it’s because the local population only sees Israel as the people starving them, as the people blowing up shelters it claims are safe, and the people refusing to negotiate in good faith!

Now, Netanyahu is talking about Hamas paying an “intolerable price” for attacking Israel. Cool! How will he make sure Hamas is the one paying it?  Depending on who you ask, the answer might horrify you.  Yochanan Gordon, a writer who had an Op-Ed in the Times of Israel, literally stated:  “If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?” Once the (if I may be forgiven for violating Godwin’s Law) Nazi-esque propaganda Mr. Gordon published drew the international condemnation it deserved, it was removed from the Times of Israel’s page, and he has since apologized.  Nevertheless, we are still left with the question: What, then, are Netanyahu’s ideas of an ‘intolerable price?’

The Gaza blockade, courtesy of Wikipedia
The Gaza blockade, courtesy of Wikipedia

At least 1,500 Palestinians have died in this current round of fighting, most of whom are civilians.  Gazans are starving, and their only power plant was destroyed (Fortunately, the United States insured it, so we U.S. taxpayers get to pay to rebuild it!).  Will Netanyahu get a safe Israel out of this behavior?  Ask yourself:  Does anyone in their right mind believe that the children who are watching their friends and family suffer and die will grow up without a hatred for Israel buried in their hearts?  Would you so readily forgive a nation if it invaded your city and killed those around you?  Put a third way:  Do you believe those who lost family members and friends in the September 11th attacks would have been happy to live side-by-side with Al Qaeda?

This isn’t a defense of Hamas.  Hamas is an evil organization, and it is sickening that Gazans haven’t already thrown them out of power.  These are the assholes who hide rockets in schools, prompting Israel’s attacks upon them.  That doesn’t make Israel right – it just makes Hamas’ evil instincts clear.  On the other hand, from the average citizen’s perspective, Hamas are the ones who build tunnels to smuggle material goods (as well as guns) into Gaza.  They provide the police.  They can be seen shooting at the Israelis who invade Gaza, and they have Israel playing exactly the game they want them to:  “Come get us if you can find us, and don’t kill too many children on the way there!”  I find it pitiful that Gazans haven’t thrown Hamas out on its ass, yet, but at the same time I can understand their rationale.  Why would you part ways with the only group that seems to maybe have an interest in helping you?

Therein lies the problem.  So long as Israel makes it a habit of invading and destroying huge chunks of the Gaza Strip, so long as it refuses to negotiate a lasting peace with Palestine, and so long as it allows illegal settlement of Palestinian territory, groups like Hamas will appeal to the Palestinians who don’t believe there is any hope of peace.  When a Palestinian parent reads an article like Yochanan Gordon’s, he believes his children’s lives are under an existential threat.  If you recognize that term, it’s because Israel has so often claimed that Hamas, or Iran, or someone is the Existential Threat to them.  And how does Israel respond to these Existential Threats?

Just look at Gaza.  Now you see the shit’s depth.  And, yet, today another UNRWA school in the Gaza Strip was bombed, despite that organization’s boss, Robert Turner, saying that the Israeli Defense Force receives daily updates on what sites are being used as shelters.  3,000 people may have been taking shelter there, some of whom are now dead or wounded.  Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, when asked why Israel is eschewing peace talks on this issue, responded by asking “What’s the point?

The point, ambassador, is that Israel has a right to self-defense.  It does not, however, exclude Palestine from having one.  Unfortunately, Israel’s military invasion of the Gaza Strip has left Hamas looking, to Gazans, like the only people fighting to protect them.  Increasingly, as school after school housing civilians gets bombed by Israel, it stops being about Israel’s right to defend itself – and starts being about the unacceptability of its attacking a civilian population.

I hold my friends to a high standard, and as I’ve always viewed myself to be a friend of Israel, I’ve always believed they can do better.  If they continue to prove to me that they can’t – if they keep killing civilians and refusing to even try to negotiate a truce – then I, one lone voice in the crowd, will stop supporting them.  Fortunately, as The Economist points out, I’m far from alone in this opinion.

Dystopian Review: Persepolis and the Iranian Revolution

Hello, everyone!

I just created another Dystopian Review video to examine Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a graphic novel and autobiography about her experiences growing up around the Iranian Revolution.  It’s a long video, indeed, but it’s worth the effort as I cover the Iranian Revolution, as well!  If you’re a history, politics, or just-general-information buff, this one’s for you!

If you’d like, you can pop the video out of this tab and scroll down to read the original Dystopian Review article from my days as a writer for Suite101.  Enjoy!

 

Dystopian Review: Persepolis

 

http://barclayagency.com/satrapi.html

In today’s world, we hardly think of revolutions as something happening right next door.  Oh, sure, there’s some third-world country undergoing one some time or another, and there was that big “Arab Spring” we heard about a couple years ago, but it’s not like there’s actively any chance of our country radically changing its political ideology any time soon, right?  Considering I couldn’t possibly know what country you’re reading from, well, there’s a good chance I’m just coming up with a clever opening line!

The reason for this line is Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, a graphic novel which is really more of an autobigraphy.  Written in 2002, and it’s a rather good reason.  Persepolis is a rather unusual bit, as some of the details of Satrapi’s tale are most certainly skewed in order to protect those of her family who still live in the nation now known as Iran.  As Satrapi illustrates, they have already suffered quite enough.

 

The Price of Revolution

As I sit here with my copy of “The Complete Persepolis,” the first thing which greets me is the introduction.  It discusses some ancient history, up to and including how the nation of Iran gained its current name.  It is a story most Americans are likely unfamiliar with, as Satrapi explains:  “This old and great civilization hs been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism.”  It’s hard to argue that the political narrative has been to generalize Iran’s goals; here’s just one example of an Israeli minister stating that Iran wants Israel, well, dead.  Considering some of the riddiculous things its leaders have said, this isn’t an entirely unreasonable perspective save for one critically important point:  Iran is not a nation consisting solely of a bunch of priests and a whack-a-mole president, but rather a country made up of millions of people who do not want war.

Satrapi’s story begins with her youth, and in particular her days as a child living under the pre-revolutionary government.  Back then, the Shah ruled over the country; and, as Satrapi’s parents duly elucidate, there is much more to the background of the Iranian revolution than the simple rise of Islamic extremism.  That fanatic viewpoint just happened to be the victor of a much larger cultural struggle which took place, overthrowing the Western-backed Shah.  Did I say Western-backed?  Well, the Shah only came to power after the deposition of Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953; the Iranian Prime Minister who just happened to want to nationalize Iran’s oil resources.  It’s rather well established fact that America and Britain helped to perpetrate this coup, and Satrapi reasonably argues that it was the Shah’s poor, even cruel governance which sparked the revolution in the first place.

Still, while this may be the first lesson Persepolis puts forth, it’s far from the last.  It doesn’t even try to argue that the ultimate victors were somehow better than the previous rulers.  Far from it, the very first page of artwork condemns the fanatic viewpoint.  In fact, Marjane even make clear that the views her parents held about social classes and rulership were, themselves, occasionally hypocritical.  What’s more, things always seemed to get worse; the second Shah was worse than the first, and the Islamic government was worse than the Shah!

Ultimately, the story has a happy-ish ending.  Marjane eventually leaves Iran, sent to a foreign school due to her refusal to conform.  She experiences Western culture, freedoms, and weed!  Wait, you thought that’s the ending?  Nonsense!  Eventually, she returns to Iran after some time in the West; the revolution’s passionate fires had died down somewhat, but oppression was still rampant.  She does eventually return to the West again, of her own volition, but she never fully assimilates to the Western style of life, either.

And therein lies the message.

 

Persepolis shines a light into darkness

While Satrapi certainly lived in a rather Dystopian situation, there is one underlying fact which need to be remembered:  The entire world is not so bad.  Persepolis was written to stand in defiance of the generalization of Iran as a nation composed mostly of lunatics.  Yes, there are bad people; yes, there is a police state; yes, good people die for infinitisimal crimes like satire!  But her message is that most Iranians are not in step with this system, at least not completely, and that there is truly more to her homeland than meets the Western eye.

On one hand, it is easy to compare this story to  Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Both feature oppressed female protagonists who live in defiance of the regieme controlling them, and both tales include characters sympathetic towards her.  These are not the raging hordes of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.  If one critical difference between the two novels is that between autobiography and fiction, than the second must surely be the devilish details of the message.

Satrapi’s story humanizes an often-dehumanized society, while revealing that it is still incredibly flawed.  It’s a must read for anyone who wants to even begin to understand the insidious nature of religious fundimentalism, while simultaneously demonstrating how – when the time is right, one day – there could indeed be a revolution in the streets of Tehran once more, one that a cruel police state will once more fail to prevent.  Or, perhaps, any city, if needed!  But, until then, Persia’s legacy will live on only as a footnote – forgotten and replaced by a dark conjuration of extremism.

My Dream Fixes For Createspace and Kindle Publishing!

Let me begin with an opening disclaimer:  Amazon does an excellent job with its platforms for independent authors.  I’ve chosen to use Amazon as a platform for distributing my own novels, so far be it from me to say they do a bad job.  I love how I get to keep the rights to my work, and my creations are distributed, promoted, and expanded upon at my own discretion.  Everything is on my timetable, and while there are certain disadvantages – most notably, a lack of extra eyes to examine and edit a manuscript to eliminate easily overlooked errors – I’ve found that I genuinely love controlling my own destiny.

Furthermore, it’s worth noting that Amazon and Hatchette Publishing – among others, it seems, as reported by Laura Hazard Owen, of Gigaom – are fighting a major war over contracts.  Brooke Warner of the Huffington Post gives an especially detailed explanation as to how this fight is playing out.  Amazon is stretching the limits of responsible warfare tactics as it disables pre-orders for companies its in a contract dispute with.  On the other hand, Bloomberg News points out that Amazon claims to be simply asking for Hatchette to pitch in half of an author-payment pool to make up for the difference between E-Bookand paperback royalties.

That said, having been through a couple of tech-support e-mails and publication snafus in my time, I’ve concocted a few ways they can improve their product.  But, first, a little exposition!

 

How Amazon Kindle and Createspace Publishing Work

Createspace was once a self-publishing start-up called “Booksurge,” and its goal was to provide print-on-demand services to authors who had, for whatever reason, opted to jump head-first into the still-shallow independent author pool.  Booksurge and another company were acquired by Amazon in 2005, and were eventually re-branded as Createspace in 2007.  Createspace does what Booksurge did, only it does it at Amazon’s beck-and-call.  This marriage ultimately yielded two blessings in tandem:  Createspace-published books are easily implanted into Amazon’s marketplace; and, with the invention of the Kindle in 2007, it made for relatively easy access to the budding distribution network for the world’s most infamous e-reader.

The premise is simple:  An author uploads a Word Document to Create-space in an appropriate format for a novel.  They choose a cover and a distribution scheme, purchasing such things as ISBNs if they wish.  Then, with a few clicks, they can publish their own novel in both print and, if they so choose, on the Amazon Kindle.  Software – and not the author – takes care of the vast majority of this process.  Amazon’s Kindle Direct Select program even gives authors extra perks to exclusively distribute the electronic version of their novel on the Kindle.  It’s all-in-all a sweet deal!

But, there’s room for improvement.  The first idea I have is a simple enough one:

 

Standardizing the price structure for physical products.

One of the biggest reasons I chose to go with Amazon instead of its competitor and my first publishing home, Lulu Press, was that Lulu added an exorbitant charge in order to place my novel on Amazon’s marketplace.  Lulu and Createspace both stick to a simple formula in that authors set the price of their novels, while the printer charges for the raw materials (paper, ink, etc) and takes a cut of the sale price.  A $10 novel might cost $2 to produce; the printer might then charge an additional 20% ($2) per sale, leaving the author with a whole $6.  That is, of course, unless the author is selling the book on another company’s site.  Barnes and Noble would want its own share of the profits, perhaps another 20% for the sake of this explanation.  That leaves the author getting $6 if a person buys the novel from their little-known printing press, but only $4 if the book is bought at a larger retailer.

Back in 2005, when I first released Pillars Of The Kingdom, I faced an insane problem:  If I had wanted to sell my first books on Amazon at the prices I wanted to sell them at, I would have owed Amazon money for any possible sales I made.  Yes, that speaks ill of Amazon, itself, since it was Amazon’s choice to charge Lulu a pretty penny for access.  On the other hand, it helped hit home that Lulu wasn’t a powerful enough platform to launch a career as an author from.  I needed something greater, and Createspace’s tag-team with the Kindle distribution network made it a clear winner.

Therefore, since Amazon owns Createspace, one might imagine that the author’s end-royalty would be the same, regardless as to if the book is sold on Createspace’s store or Amazon’s.  Alas, that’s not true:  This handy little calculator makes clear that a 200 page, black-and-white, 6×9 format novel sold for $9.99 will yield the author $4.74 on the Createspace store, $2.74 on Amazon’s marketplace, or a paltry $0.74 if it is sold through expanded distribution!  Even though Amazon owns Createspace, and therefore banks all of its profit, anyway, it still charges an extra premium for access to Amazon’s network.  It’s true that Amazon will sometimes knock the list price of a book down, using this price gap as a cushion, but it could be reduced a slight bit in the selfish pursuit of giving authors more money per sale.

Basically put, this is an anachronism that needs to end.

 

Improving Kindle-To-Createspace Communication

Oh, dear.  This was one of the biggest issues I had with publishing Physics Reincarnate.  It’s a difficult problem to explain, but think of it like a chicken-and-the-egg scenario.  If you set out to publish on Kindle first, and then decide you’d like to also publish on Createspace, linking the two titles can be a nightmare.  Even when handled by customer service representatives, you can end up with two slightly different entries for your book’s listing as a series.  It’s problematic to say the least, though it’s shown no actual evidence of hampering sales, so far.  Coming at it from the other end is easier; Createspace has some Kindle-production capabilities built in, but it doesn’t fix every problem.  Essentially it serves as a portal to the Kindle creation service.

I have to add a sort of disclaimer, here:  With Amazon’s “Matchbook” program, an author may choose to give away a free or discounted Kindle version of a given novel as a courtesy to those who buy the physical product.  It’s your basic Paperback + E-Book deal, but it expands an author’s options on providing deals to their customers.

 

Better Sales Feedback

If I want to check how many books I have sold, on Kindle, in the last two years, the process is fairly straight forward.  I start by downloading a .PDF chart…For May, 2014.  Then, I download one for April, 2014.  Rinse-and-repeat.  Createspace’s author-gateway is similar in its incredible disorganization.  Essentially, you have to download twenty-four folders just to get the raw data for the past two years of your own sales; then, of course, you have to collate them!

We live in the age of cloud computing.  Hell!  Amazon offers website hosting services!  There is no reason they could not keep a compressed sort of glorified excel sheet keeping track of sales records.  What books were sold in what region each month?  That should be a piece of cake.

 

In summation…

Those are the three big issues I wanted to address.  There are probably plenty of other petty concerns, especially having to do with formatting book covers (ugh), but those are issues that are more just matters of confusion than sorely-lacking smoothness.  I’m also not going to try to talk about their music publishing options – I don’t do that, I’m afraid!  Be it Kindle, Createspace, or both, Amazon is still an excellent place to self-publish.  I just want to make it better, if my little voice in the writing wilderness can be heard!

 

Jesse Pohlman is an independent author from Long Island, New York.  He’s self-published five novels, including the popular Physics Incarnate and Protostar serieses.  Check them out!

An Open Letter To The FCC: Save Net Neutrality!

You might not be aware of this, but you’re reading this article on the internet.  Okay, you probably knew that; what you didn’t know is that the very nature of the internet is under attack.  The reason you can load my webpage as fast as you can load Amazon or Google is because of a legal and regulatory concept called “Net Neutrality.”  The idea is that the Federal Communications Commission, which governs telecommunications devices such as radio, TV broadcasts, and phone networks, required all internet service providers to treat data flowing through their cables equally, regardless of the source.  Verizon, among other companies (especially Comcast), has led the charge on eliminating this rule; Comcast and Verizon have already used shady pretexts of “peering” to coerce Netflix into paying them what amounts to a tithe so that their data can reach consumers at reasonable speeds.

Now, creative and digital types have talked about this for a while, but the truth is that there’s a lot of abstract terminology and regulation involved.  The media has generally failed to get a hold on it until, well, until now:  John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight (and one of the best-ever The Daily Show correspondents and substitute-hosts, never forget), did an amazing job describing this issue.  It’s thirteen minutes long, but Oliver is a hilarious gentleman who will make it both educational and fun!  And, no, I’m not lying to trick you into watching.

I did exactly as Mr.  Oliver asked.  Well, first I went to the FCC’s website, got the phone number for their boss, and called them!  Then, I visited the FCC’s commentary system, which by the way is archaic (ancient (really fucking outdated)) and posted a comment.  This could easily qualify as a topic for a Dystopian Review video, which I might give a shot at making.  I dunno.  However, if that doesn’t get done, since my comment is already in the public domain, well,  here it is!  Feel free to basically cut/and/paste it when you comment, though I’d like to be credited if you do so.  Just cuz it’s a just cause!

 

 My Open Letter To The FCC

 

To: Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC; the larger body of FCC employees; the rest of the country and the rest of the world!

I know you’re overwhelmed, so I’ll make this very simple, ladies and gentlemen. I’m a 29 year old writer from Long Island, in New York. I’m an independent author. Most of my sales come from electronic books distributed via Kindle. I am, with some caveats, the definition of a “start-up” enterprise. What I do would not be possible without an open internet; Amazon’s rise would not have been possible without an open internet; our whole modern economy would not be possible without, well, you get the idea – an open internet!

There’s more: The government, which is by/of/for the people, paid for the research that ultimately led to such services as ARPANET. In one ethical viewpoint, the internet is already ours – we paid for it! But, that’s unrealistic, so let’s instead turn to the inscrutable source which is Wikipedia: It claims that in 1993, the internet carried 1% of all telecommunicated information. In 2000, it carried 51%, and by 2007 it carried 97% of all telecommunicated information. Since that wikipedia article cites a study by Martin Hilbert and Priscilla Lopez, “The world’s technological capability to store, communicate, and compute information,” published in Science Magazine in April of 2011, I’d wager it’s a legitimate argument.

Therefore, it’s safe to conclude: At least 90% of all that telecommunications companies do is part of the internet. It follows that, for lack of a better term, the internet is telecommunications. Guess what? That makes administering it your job. Perhaps “Commissioning” is a better word? I’ll leave to the side the numerous studies showing that, under your stewardship, our quality-of-internet has plummeted, and that most of our telecommunications companies have carved out little fiefdoms which clearly violate whatever anti-trust statues are on the books. I’m sure you’ve been linked to enough clips of John Oliver citing them to get the point.

But, here’s mine: We paid for it, we paid for it again when we bought a subscription to our cable company, and we pay you to keep it working in a fair manner. The concepts of “net neutrality” and “open internet” are vague and easy for people, even myself, to not quite “get.” However, since you’re the experts here, you know what your job is: Get it right. That’s all the majority of us ask: Get it right.

Regulate telecommunication companies like you would regulate any other public utility, because I can guarantee you that it is easier to disconnect from your local water utility by setting up rain collection buckets than it is to disconnect from your local internet service provider and get any kind of service. I mean, that’s the whole point of utility regulation, right? People need things like electricity, water, and telephones (which are telecommunication devices, themselves).

Regulate them the right way because it’s the right thing to do.

 

My warmest regards,

–Jesse Pohlman