Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cashing in the reality check

The publishing process is a bit of a mystery to those of us who haven't made it through yet, and one big question mark relates to money.

For a lot of folks, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling exemplify the financial situation of a career novelist. But others know that millionaire authors are the exception, not the rule, and that many authors can publish several books before they're making middle-class salaries off of their writing.

GalleyCat's post today about "The Financial Reality of a Genre Novelist," therefore, isn't so much a surprise as a grim reminder. It reminds me of Justine Larbelestier's (in)famous post about first novel advances and about the three dry years Martha Wells spent trying to get a tenth novel published.

No such thing as job security.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What fictional characters teach us

Fiction forces readers to see the world through someone else's eyes. This is one of the most fascinating aspects of fiction and one of the most powerful arguments for encouraging students (and, hey, everyone) to read it.

And yes, I'd argue that fiction does this more effectively than biography. When you're reading about real people, it's difficult to separate the words on the page from the controversies, biases, and common knowledge surrounding those individuals. Plus, you can't completely free yourself of the responsibility to condone or condemn a historical figure based on his or her effect on the real word.

For example, let's say you read a biography of someone like Pol Pot. No matter how much you learn about his childhood, what kind of man he might have been in private moments, or how conflicted he might have been about his decisions, you're not going to forget that he caused the deaths of at least one million people. The history has already been written, and you're ultimately going to remember him for what he actually did, not for what he might have done.

Fiction, on the other hand, gives you a world of possibilities. Anything could happen, and so you can root for people with the hope that they will do the right thing. You can also enjoy the catharsis of watching them choose the opposite. A Simple Plan, anyone? Macbeth?

Novels introduce you to characters on varying levels of intimacy. Sometimes you read every thought in a character's head. Sometimes you hover just over her shoulder, witnessing her experiences and her subsequent reactions. Sometimes you see her interact with someone else, and even through one character's clouded perspective you can get a rare glimpse of another.

And following characters through 300, 600, or 1000 pages, you may agree or disagree with them, you may like or dislike them, but you are forced to see things from their perspectives and observe the events that shape them. You will know more about these characters than you know about many of the people you encounter face-to-face.

Sometimes what you learn will disgust you, but it will still expand your understanding of certain kinds of people, and it will force you to get to know them better than you ever could in real life. Humbert Humbert of Lolita is a sick and wicked man, but he's a pretty interesting one, too. The way he sees himself and his crimes tells me something about the way people rationalize their own bad behavior. Cersei Lannister of the A Song of Ice and Fire is maniacal and self-deluded, and this is my opinion even after reading chapters from her perspective. Still, the gap between her perceptions and everyone else's is enlightening, as is the way she allows her unquestioning love for her cruel son to drive her.

On the other hand, I've also rooted for characters that would cause me more ambivalence in real life: 
  • I'm sympathetic toward the murderous and cursed protagonist of Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf because I know how he became a monster and how he feels about that. 
  • I wish Walt White success as a meth cook in Breaking Bad not only because I want him to support his family but also because I feel for him in all of the disappointments and failures he's experienced in his professional life. 
  • Readers find sociopathic serial killer Dexter Morgan likable enough that author Jeff Lindsay is working on the seventh novel in the series. 
  • I've already mentioned A Song of Ice and Fire, but I'll do so again to point out that it's proof that I'll still love some characters even when they've done horrible things. 
  • Snape, furthermore, seems to be a fan favorite in the Harry Potter novels, maybe because he's got so much complexity wrapped in such unpleasantness. 
  • While I don't condone adultery, there's something about the depth and genuineness of the characters in A Ship Made of Paper that the novel doesn't just put you in the characters' heads, it puts them in yours. You want what they want.
The list could go on. The point is, reading forces me to listen to someone else in a way that I can usually avoid in real life. That's why reading fiction is more than just fun; it's healthy for me as a human being.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The pen is mightier

In the last few days, both Justin Cronin (author of The Twelve and 2010's The Passage) and Stephen King (author of... who are we kidding, you already know) have weighed in on the gun debate. And as I would hope, they've both brought nuance to the discussion. The debate is too often framed as a conflict between rabid hillbillies and pantywaist ninnies, which is not conducive to productive discussion and compromise.

As Mr. Cronin explains in his New York Times op-ed, a person can own guns for a variety of reasons and still prefer (just guessing here) NPR to Fox News. Similarly, a person can support gun ownership and stricter regulation, as he does.

Stephen King's essay (which Maria Popova of Brain Pickings brilliantly dissects) takes aim at the media cycle surrounding violent tragedies and the oft-repeated assumptions about America's supposed "culture of violence." Of particular interest is his decision to pull Rage, his Richard Bachman novel about a school shooting, from publication. He does not believe that his novel made the boys who read it violent, but he considers that it might have been "an accelerant." Nevertheless, he feels regret about this act of self-censorship, in his words, "not because it was great literature ... but because it contained a nasty glowing center of truth that was more accessible to me as an adolescent."

I can't think of any authors who have censored their own work for any reason other than first-novel chagrin, but I'd be interested to know if others are out there.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Pixar's 22 rules to get me writing on a Monday

This has been floating around for a while, but I've only recently come across it myself (thanks to Janet Reid's blog and my local writing group): Pixar's 22 rules for storytelling.

Some of these pointers relate to how characters and plot elements should interact together to form a cohesive and satisfying story, and others relate to how to get the writing done.

Here are a few of my favorites.
"#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?"
"#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it's poison to the audience."
November's Backspace Conference included a lecture from literary agent Donald Maass in which he discussed storytelling. These two rules encapsulate a lot of what he discussed, which is that (a) interesting conflict is born of characters facing their worst possible scenarios and (b) well-rounded characters need opinions, passions, fears, and a rich inner life, even if those things never make it onto the page.
"#9: When you're stuck, make a list of what WOULDN'T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up."
I don't exactly do this, but I am a big fan of visual aids and organizing information. My favorite tool for outlining is FreeMind, which is indeed free. If I'm trying to get unstuck, I'll often make nodes and lists of things that might happen or what is currently motivating the character(s), but listing the unlikely is a new one for me.
"#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you'll never share it with anyone."
This^(100). For me, the most difficult part of a writing session is usually figuring out how to begin. When I'm getting started (or when I've hit a roadblock), just putting something on the page seems to grease the gears. I usually end up with either a warm-up paragraph that I can cut after I've gotten direction or with a passage that starts to build itself. By now, you'd think that I wouldn't agonize any more about how to get going.

Friday, January 25, 2013

WTFriday: Twitterpated

This week's WTF is a little more personal than I would have liked. I finally started a Twitter account Wednesday night, and like many new users, I began following the people who discuss things I'd like to hear about, and I sent my own introductory tweet.

Thursday morning, I get online and notice that my "Following" list is empty. And I can't read the one, lonely tweet that I released into the universe the night before. I assume TII (This Is the Internet) and write it off as a case of "technical difficulties" until I notice the bar at the top of my screen notifying me that my account has been suspended.

At this point, I wonder what I could have possibly done in less than 12 hours to get blocked. After brushing off my initial suspicion as paranoia ("All 17 people you followed conspired to block you. You forgot the secret Twitter handshake. Next time, read to the bottom of the Terms & Conditions."), I decide that there has to be some mix-up, so I follow the links and appeal my suspension.

The instant email reply explains that it appears that I am managing multiple accounts. I'm not sure why Twitter would think this, unless of course "ElectronicInker" sounds like a corporate duplicate of another account. Still, it would have been awesome if Twitter could have tried to verify this before suspending me, right? "First world problems," I know, but no one wants to look like a social media delinquent.

Anyhow, my account is back now, but I hope Twitter will handle account discrepancies a little differently going forward....

Photo: "Ruppell's Griffon Vulture" from Flickr user minicooper93402. CC-BY license.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Don't stop the presses just yet

Anyone who reads up on the state of publishing and traditional bookselling could be forgiven for thinking that the alleged "e-book revolution" is coming (and it will be televised); the printing presses will be dismantled by tablet-wielding maniacs; bookstore owners will make a doomed last stand in their shops like some loner in The Walking Dead; and paperbacks will go the way of the dodo.

It's always a little surprising, then, to learn that print sales still dominate e-book sales.

No doubt, of course, that e-book sales have carved a chunk out of print revenues. And, to be sure, many brick-and-mortar stores are suffering, and one culprit is competition with online retailers. But the news isn't all bad for print enthusiasts.

Shelf Awareness looks at a recent survey that concludes that less than a quarter of books purchased are e-books (although the figure is rises to 40% if you only consider fiction).

More interestingly, John Scalzi recently posted sales figures for Redshirts, one of his most recent novels. It's been out for a good six months now, and the trade paperback version was released a few days ago (to say nothing of mass market paperback).

Scalzi's handy pie chart clearly shows that e-book sales take the most blueberry (or rhubarb, or pecan, or buttermilk if you'd rather go there). Yet even Scalzi, with his near-ubiquitous web-presence and tech-savvy fanbase, made about a third of his sales in hardcover. I expect that this number will increase as the paperback versions spend time on the shelves.

You hear nowadays of authors starting out with digital self-publishing or migrating that way once they've made a name for themselves. Yet Scalzi's data is a good example of why this can be risky behavior, particularly if you don't already have a large online fanbase. One could argue that readers who don't find a book in their preferred format will buy it in another, but Scalzi is dubious that these sales numbers are fungible across formats (and so am I).

Furthermore, the same Shelf Awareness article mentions that readers discover new books at a much higher rate in bookstores than they do through online retailers. Similarly, Scalzi makes some good points in the original post and in a follow-up post about the marketing and exposure benefits that come with having a traditionally-published book on the shelves. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Haters gonna hate

Not surprisingly, the latest controversy in the world of books relates to a Michael Jackson biography. Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson has found itself in the center of a metaphorical minefield, not unlike its late subject.

Not your superfan's biography.

The New York Times reports that book has generated a tidal wave of negative reviews from rabid MJ fans who, like the Elvis impersonators in 3000 Miles to Graceland, can't bear to hear any ill spoken of their dearly departed superstar. They claim that the book spreads false and derogatory information about the King of Pop, and to be honest, I don't care a whole lot about that part (I wasn't going to read it anyway). What does interest me is the fact that, seemingly in response to these (and other*) attacks, Amazon temporarily suspended sales of the book.

As the author, Randall Sullivan, astutely noted, "This is a suppression of free speech in the name of free speech." With certain notable exceptions, Sullivan (and others) have the right to write and publish information that others may find objectionable. And others have the right to voice their objections, but through what means? Should opponents confine their protests to comments in the free market of ideas, or is it reasonable and ethical for them to fight to see those ideas they dislike banned from that market?

I'm going to argue that the attack on Sullivan's book was unwarranted and unethical because it constitutes an abuse of mediums that are intended to increase rather than restrict the flow of information.

First of all, Amazon's reviews policy is designed to prompt buyers to write the kinds of reviews that "inform purchase decisions." To that end, Amazon expressly forbids the kinds of promotional reviews that marketing companies and family members post to boost product sales as well as negative reviews from competitors hoping to drive business away. Amazon even prohibits shoppers receiving refunds from posting reviews.

With that in mind, it's not much of a stretch to say that it's an abuse to post comments intended to prevent anyone from buying a book simply because the poster is ideologically opposed to its very existence. This is kind of like me going to a restaurant and telling my friends, "Don't order the oysters. They are terrible here. I hate oysters." While there's a time and a place to discuss the merits of an arguably-less-than-worshipful book about MJ (not to mention oysters), it is not in a forum intended to inform people who have an interest in such a thing.

Second of all, I'm going to take a wild guess here and say that most of the MJ defenders probably never actually read the book. I'm confident in this guess because, for one thing, the attack campaign started before the book's actual release, and for another, sources such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times have actually described the book as "largely sympathetic" and "humanizing." It's a very different image from the malevolent rant conjured by the book banners. Not to mention that, if all of these folks slamming the book had actually read it, I'm guessing its sales figures wouldn't be so dismal.

Of course, this is all news. With a slew of brand-new five-star reviews on Amazon (and an average rating now of three stars), Sullivan still has a chance to make lemonade.

*Amazon (and only Amazon) received complaints that the book was "defective." Unless readers had forgotten that books are essentially rectangular things with lots of paper in the middle, it's unclear what was wrong with the copies.

Friday, January 18, 2013

WTFriday: College sports

In the list of rants near and dear to my heart, the question of how (taxpayer-funded) educational institutions became athletic clubs is pretty high up there.

An article in The Atlantic looks at increases in spending for college sports and makes the point that, with a few exceptions, most college athletic programs are not self-funding (through ticket sales, etc.) and require additional university spending to stay afloat.

But, one could argue, don't sports programs raise schools' profiles? Don't they encourage alumni donations? I'm sure they do, but how much of the donation money goes to academics, and how much is directed back into athletic programs? I'm sure numbers vary widely between schools, but I'd be interested to see them.

Extracurriculars are, by the way, a good thing. Sports programs, debate groups, and orchestras all allow students to develop talents and interests (as well as interpersonal skills) that don't necessarily relate to their studies. I think it's healthy and positive to allow students to pursue activities outside of their majors. But it seems silly to dump tons of money on one or two specific activities that are participatory for just a few students. It also seems silly to demand time and effort from those students to a degree that it's a running joke that college teams are populated with education majors.*

It would be nice to return to a time when student athletes were expected to spend more time in the library and less in practice. It would be nice to see alumni donate as much for a new science lab as they would for new stadium equipment. It would be nice if universities praised and touted their Nobel laureates as much as they do their star quarterbacks and centers. I doubt these changes would make games much less interesting for students and alumni who love the sports and love their schools.

*Nothing wrong with educations majors, but there seems to be a reasonably common understanding that it's (one of) the least-demanding degree tracks.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Earlier this week, Nathan Bransford referenced and discussed a post that Curtis Brown agent Sarah LaPolla wrote just before the holidays. Both address the differences between legitimate and "shady" agents while acknowledging that (a) novices with industry ties can still make great agents and (b) many "shady" agents have the best of intentions. The explanation here is that a new agent who's worked at either a publishing house or an established literary agency has the contacts and the industry knowledge to succeed. By contrast, someone without this background may not even know exactly what it is that she doesn't know.

Warnings about enthusiastic agents who are honest, hardworking folk but who could still sink an author's career can be frustrating for writers (like myself) without representation, but the advice makes sense. LaPolla explains that her apprenticeship taught her how to select manuscripts from the slush pile and how to work with contracts. This last one seems particularly important if you're interested in things like your royalty rate and sub-rights.

What she doesn't explicitly mention is the relationship that agents need to cultivate with editors at specific publishers and imprints. Knowing an editor means knowing his tastes, his current lineup, and his current wish list. It can also mean getting a response back in a couple of weeks (or a couple of months) as opposed to several months. Or a year. Or never.

And since you generally only get one shot at impressing an editor with your work (this is why agents do not want their clients to make pitches on their own), it helps to have a good advocate. I'm more likely to try the mystery dumpling at dim sum if the recommendation comes from someone whose tastes I know and appreciate (and someone who knows my tastes, as well) than if it comes from the guy pushing the cart around.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sequel confusion

I recently started reading Justin Cronin's The Twelve, which is the sequel to 2010's The Passage. While two years isn't exactly an eternity to await a sequel (*cough cough* A Song of Ice and Fire *cough*), I've been surprised to note the difficultly I've had in recalling more than the major plot points of the first book.

Um, where exactly are we?

The real culprit here (as opposed to the elapsed time) is likely the fact that both books are doorstoppers with enough characters, events, and timelines to occupy a few other novels. You could probably distill The Passage into an outbreak novel, a family drama, and a dystopian quest story. There's a lot going on.

Now I am in the tricky position of trying to recall ancillary characters from the first novel who now have expanded roles, remember what happened to the major characters at the end of the last book (there were some cliffhangers), and fill in the gaps on Wikipedia without stumbling across plot points in the second book (oops).

This is why it would be kind of awesome if authors with long, complicated series released Cliff's Notes with their new books. Stephen King did this with The Dark Tower novels, and George R. R. Martin does this to an extent in the appendices that list characters by house/affiliation.

In the absence of an author-approved recap, however, there's this summary at The Plot Spot. It's a thorough read if you don't mind the ad popups.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

'Tis good to receive

One thing that I've realized about myself as I've gone through more critiques and beta reads (not to mention pitches and query submissions) is that I don't typically take things all that personally. That's not to say that my writing doesn't still feel personal, or that I don't feel an initial roller-coaster lurch in my stomach when I first receive a bundle of feedback, but it doesn't usually go much farther than that.

How did I get to this point? I suppose it's a matter of maintaining a certain perspective and putting myself "out there" for feedback enough that I'm used to the experience. It's also relevant that, for me, no interpersonal exchange really matches the horror of the "Oh, you're a writer? What have you published?" type of question. Owning up to a muddled action scene is a cakewalk.

Since outlook has a lot to do with how a person responds to a potentially uncomfortable situation, allow me to present mine:
  • I don't see a critique as a definitive statement about myself as a person or myself as a writer. I may not always write my best, but I don't worry that my friends and family will forsake me for it. Nor do I take negative feedback to mean that I am a crappy writer. I am a writer who makes mistakes, and I am a writer who is learning to do better. Related to this...
  • I believe that I can correct the flaws in my writing. I believe this because I already HAVE corrected lots of problems in my own drafts. You want to talk about clunky prose? I once had an unhealthy attachment to the adverb (and I continue to cut this foul suitor out of my MS with the glee of a bitter ex trimming college photos). I used to see myself as one of those writers who "can't do dialogue," and while I'm still no Elmore Leonard, I now enjoy both the process and result of composing it. There are two relevant points here. The first is that I tend to believe that I have whatever skills are necessary to improve as a writer. The second is that I then tinker, rework, and revise in order to improve.* I don't, in other words, envision a boundary in front of me and think, "Well, it's the end of the line; this is as well as I'll ever write." Now, to carry this idea forward...
  • I don't perceive specific limits on my ability to improve as a writer. This does not, of course, mean that I believe I will one day become the best writer ever. It just means that, with work, I know I can always improve. This perspective helps me see critiques not as soul-crushing explanations of why-I-suck, but as tools to help me improve and achieve masterful writing more quickly. Total win.
  • As Zen as this all sounds, I am competitive by nature. I do feel that I have something to prove, both to myself and to every person to whom I have ever mentioned my writing habit. I am personally invested in honing my skills and in doing something productive with them. And I am confident enough in myself to believe that this is possible.
  • I pat myself on the back for feedback about things I do well. Lots of creative types end up in a depression spiral because they focus on negative comments and ignore the praise. I let myself bask in the warmth of accomplishment. This way, when I get to the negative feedback, it reminds me that I can get it right.
I guess the sum of all this is a delicate cocktail of confidence ("I can do it!") and pragmatism ("But with lots of work!"). The trick is to avoid the oceans of complacency and despair that lie on either side of this balance. There be monsters.

*A guy in a local writing group once observed that the real learning-and-growing process for writers comes with revisions, not with first drafts. I suspect he is onto something.

Friday, January 11, 2013

WTFriday: People-watching in NYC

One of the pleasures of travel is people-watching, and NYC is (in my opinion) one of the best cities for it. Spouse and I are here visiting Super-Cultured Sibling (and enjoying some of the shows and events Super-Cultured Sibling has raved about), and there are two seeming trends here that make people-watching so lively: 
  1. New Yorkers are confrontational* 
  2. New Yorkers talk to themselves
I realize that I'm generalizing here, but let's just go ahead and say that it's a trend I've noticed relative to other places. And it's not necessarily a bad thing, just something that's interesting to observe.

And as a caveat, I have been called many things, and confrontational is certainly one of them. But some of the folks here make me look like Gandhi. For instance, just last night, I went to a pizzeria for a quick dinner, and a young lady and her boyfriend walking ahead of me, engaged in a reconciliation that still carried the tone of an argument (see Point 1). 

They entered the pizzeria ahead of me, and while the boyfriend went to hold a table, the young lady stood at the counter to order their pie. While she was waiting, the guy behind the counter said, "Move over, honey," as he slid a pizza to another guy that the young lady did not see. To which the lady replied, "I got a name, you know" (see Point 1).

Now, what I'd like to draw attention to isn't the debate about whether it's appropriate or respectful for someone to call a woman "honey," but that the conversation for these two kept going. On both ends, and seemingly independent of one another.

While the guy behind the counter established a one-man chorus of "'Ey you. How's that? Ya like that better? 'Ey you, move! 'Ey you," the lady kept reminding him (or herself, or the other guy behind the counter, who looked uncomfortable by this point) that her name's not "Honey," that's all she's saying, why's a guy think it's okay to call her something like that, and what's this guy's problem, anyway? The amusing thing was that they both kept in the same argument by repeating the same things (Point 1) and mostly to themselves (Point 2). It felt like I was watching Goodfellas.** 

Furthermore, when the lady returned to the counter to pick up her order, the barbed banter resumed, and it was actually quite hard to tell whether they were playing with each other or really scrapping.

*That's not to say they aren't also very friendly and helpful when no conflict is present.

**I am now convinced that this movie is as long as it is because almost half of the conversations seem to be a series of repetitions.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Because the music that they constantly play / Says nothing to me about my life...

One fun thing about creative media is how they influence one another. The right music can really make a film just like the visual spacing of text on a page can add rhythm to a passage. Similarly, some images and songs capture a mood or moment so perfectly that revisiting them is like sounding an emotional tuning fork. They re-center you.

And as far as moody bands go, one of my favorites is The Smiths. The Pope of Mope himself will be playing in Brooklyn this Friday, and it appears that he'll be revisiting some of his old Smiths songs.

I love his music both ironically AND unironically....

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Everybody wins

For those of us who were concerned about mergers between the large publishers, the new year has already given us reason for good cheer. Shelf Awareness reports that Macmillan has entered a distribution partnership with Entangled Publishing, an indie e-book publisher. Macmillan's St. Martin's Press is also embarking on a joint venture imprint with Entangled. I'd imagine that Entangled's 350-odd authors are happy about all of this, and so am I.

Giving an indie publisher the resources of one of the Big Six Five without completely swallowing the little guy in a massive corporate apparatus seems like the best of both worlds to me. Not that I have anything against the large publishers, but to the extent that writers worry about big publishers' tastes being somewhat homogenous, David and Goliath partnerships like these could make the publishing world a more generous place for writers.

Speaking of generous, Publisher's Weekly reports that Entangled offers its authors 40% royalty rates on digital books. I wouldn't mind seeing that become more common.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Books to read: a New Year's list

I stumbled across io9's list of "10 Science Fiction Novels You Pretend to Have Read" today, and I'm pleased to say I've read 4.2 of them (Cryptonomicon, Dune, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell1984, and I'm giving myself partial credit for Delany's Nova since Dhalgren is on the list).

When you identify yourself as a writer, people sometimes expect that you've read everything. While this is kind of silly, there's something to be said for being well-versed in some of the more important and famous works, particularly in your genre.

Besides which, the books I have read on this list have been stimulating and enjoyable, so I can't complain too much about needing to get through the rest. In the meantime, I'll continue to 'fess up when conversation turns to a novel I haven't read. That's usually a great opportunity for me to ask my interlocutor about said book since it's good to hear about something new.