How very meta

Over at Fraggmented, John Seavey has an interesting post about what he calls “The Metastory Trap”:

Put simply, the metastory trap comes when a long-running series of separate-but-linked stories gets more interested in its metastory than the individual stories that compose it. Put even more simply, you get caught in a metastory trap when you’re more worried about your arc than you are about your individual installments. Put even more simply, you’re caught in a metastory trap when you write “Countdown to Infinite Crisis”. *rimshot*

It’s worth reading, although I’m not sure I agree with all of it or with all of the examples he cites. (And I think it goes without saying that some of those examples offer up at least mild spoilers.)

I was a little disenchanted with the Anya/Xander relationship at the end of Season 6 of Buffy too, for instance, but I also think its development was organic to the story the writers were trying to tell at the time. It didnt feel like just another ratcheting up of plot twists for its own sake. I thought the further developments in Season 7 (particularly the Anya-centered episode “Selfless”) just further underscored this. You didn’t have to like that story or the way it was told — and heaven knows I had my own problems with most of Season 7 — but I think there’s a big difference between allowing a story to grow naturally beyond its beginnings, and forcing everything to change because that’s all you know how to do. Both are likely to alienate viewers, but I think only the latter deserves to.

In other words, a show doesn’t have to be what it once was in order to be true to those beginnings.

The whole idea of a “Metastory Trap” gets thrown for a loop by shows like Lost or Heroes, which from their very beginnings were all about the overarching metastory, more than any individual episode. I think Lost has figured out how to make this work, precisely because the writers know the shape of their metastory. Unlike those for whom metastory is a trap, they’re not just making stuff up as they go along.* They’re really not telling a series of separate-but-linked stories, but rather one very long, multi-season story. You’d have a tough time starting with Lost from almost anywhere but the beginning, but that seems more by design than by accident.

One of Seavey’s other examples, Babylon 5, is a little more problematic. Its first season may have given the illusion that the show was about stand-alone stories, and that the writers only racheted up the meta in later seasons when fans responded eagerly. But I think B5 was clearly intended as a single 5-year story. I think there are some problems with how J. Michael Straczynski told that story — particularly that the fifth season is something of anticlimax — but it’s hard to see how it “fell into” the metastory trap, when what it really did was dive in headfirst.

As did a show like Twin Peaks, which I think you could argue fell into something like a reverse metastory trap: once its overarching storyline was gone and its original mystery solved, its attempts to tell separate, smaller stories within the same universe failed to generate the same excitement. Personally, I liked the reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer — and I’m not sure the show could have sustained the tension of not revealing it much longer — but it’s not tough to see why viewers left when the metastory they signed up for went away.

If any one show did fall into the trap, it’s that other antecedent of Lost, The X-Files. By the show’s end, the metastory had become the elephant in the room, and many fans (myself included) often wished it would just go away. The show threatened to choke under the weight of its own mythos. It’s no wonder Chris Carter decided to go another route with his recent X-Files movie I Want to Believe. Then again, it’s no wonder that movie failed; the mythos had become such a part of the show that die-hard fans were disappointed to find no new evidence of it. And everybody else…well, everybody else had pretty much stopped caring ten years earlier.

Seavey isn’t wrong that “A series that is all about its metastory rapidly develops a complex, tangled mythos that can obscure the simple, powerful idea at its heart…and turn off new readers/viewers.” But I also think there’s much to be said for a series that rewards patient and regular reading or viewing, that uses a growing mythos (tangled as it may sometimes be) not to obscure its central idea but to examine it, to build from it, and to allow that idea to naturally evolve. Metastory need not be a trap. If the twists and changes in a series are organic and logical, if they don’t feel like a cheat or ploy for short-term excitement, then I think metastory can work to enchance a story. Rather than a trap, it becomes an effective tool.

* Around season two, I had my doubts. But now I really do think they know what they’re doing.

Let’s have Patrick Swayze Christmas, one and all!

So, Christmas. That was nice, wasn’t it?

I’d like to say I spent the day recovering, but the holidays weren’t too stressful this year, all things considered, and I was off the entire week before then, with another week still to go. I spent today, mostly, just lying around. I read a little, on my shiny new eBook reader — about which more later — and watched some new DVDs and DVR’ed television. (I’m really enjoying TNT’s new show Leverage, whereas the MST3K riffing of Bloodlust is on pause right now.) I also played with the dog a little, indulged in a few leftover Christmas cookies, and sent out a happy holidays note on behalf of Kaleidotrope to various and sundry — enough various and sundry, apparently, to get my sending privileges temporarily disabled by GMail. (I promise, my intention was not to spam.)

We went out to eat on Christmas Eve — me, my parents, my aunt and uncle, and my sister Catherine and her now fiancé Brian — who I gather spent most of Wednesday afternoon sitting in traffic, driving in from Maryland. I’d spent most of the afternoon reading Kaleidotrope slush and sending out some acceptance e-mails. (I couldn’t bring myself to write rejections on Christmas Eve.) After dinner, we all came back to the house for coffee and cookies. Of course, I think we were too stuffed after dinner to make much of a dent in the cookies — much less the enormous apple pie my aunt and uncle brought with them — but it was a very pleasant evening all the same. I spent the last couple of hours before bed capping holiday fare and wishing everyone over there well.

Then it was Christmas. Luckily, my sister seems to have outgrown the habit of waking us all up at the crack of dawn to open presents, and I managed to sleep in a little. (She hasn’t outgrown the habit of playing our parents’ Holiday Sing-Along with Mitch Miller CD, but that’s another story.) We had an early dinner at another aunt and uncle’s house, since they’re moving to North Carolina at the end of December, and much fun and many presents were had by all.

Among mine was a brand new eBook reader.

I’m really impressed with it so far, even if I have spent more time figuring out what to load onto it than actually using it. (Many thanks to Heather for suggesting…as well, actually, as the reader itself.) I think when I get back to my regular daily commute the second week of January, I’ll get more of a chance to use it on a regular basis. It really seems very intuitive, looks easy to read, and doesn’t feel at all weird in my hands. There’s some heft to it, but considerably less than you’d find in a larger hardcover book. And I find the idea of loading Kaleidotrope slush onto it — rather than printing that slush out or reading it on a computer monitor — incredibly appealing.

I probably should finish the ink-and-paper book I’m currently reading — Dracula, which I’m almost surprised to be enjoying so much — before taking on anything else. And then there are the books I got for Christmas — Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book and Kim “Howard” Johnson’s Monty Python’s Tunisian Holiday among them — that I really want to check out. But I’ve got to say: the eBook reader really looks cool.

There really could be something to this electronic publishing thing.

My sister goes back to Maryland on Sunday, although Brian had to head back early this morning for work. No immediate wedding plans yet, but I think they’re hoping for late 2009 if possible. (His sister is getting married in July, apparently.) I don’t know if this puts more or less pressure on me to be next, but I’m very happy for them

So that, more or less, was my Christmas. Hard to believe there’s only a week left until 2009.

Buyin’ books

Gavin Grant explains why, if you can, it’s often better to buy your small-press books directly from the publisher:

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a company? Distribution? Promotion? Finances?Everything comes back to finances and sales. If we sell books through our website we get say 90% of the cost (we pay shipping and Paypal takes a percentage). If a book is sold through our distributor we can get as little as 35%. It’s a challenge to publish books on 35% of retail.

And yet he also says:

The one part of the internet that worries me in the great flattening-out-and-increase-of-accessibility is that when people go to what for them seems the easiest thing, it can be killing their local economy. Some online booksellers’ higher discounts mean that local businesses are losing business and in danger of closing. There is nothing like the human capital of a well-informed bookseller (or any other kind of store) and when buyers shop online they are taking the money from their local stores that would pay people to do the job in their town. So while your local bookshop may not carry everything, they can usually order what you want. And, again, since most people buy books in bookshops, getting them physical bookshop is important.

Publishing is a complicated business sometimes. But I don’t think he’s wrong: I still buy an awful lot of my books in brick-and-mortar stores. When it’s a smaller press that could really use the cash, though, it may be better to buy direct from them online.

I really can’t say enough good things about Small Beer Press, by the way. I’m delighted (albeit delightfully surprised) to hear they’ll be publishing a desktop calendar next year. And I just finished Geoff Ryman’s terrific The King’s Last Song, which they published in the US recently.

Updated to add… I think the calendar Grant refers to is the “Working Writer’s Daily Planner 2010” available for pre-order here. It sounds very neat.