Friday, March 29, 2013

WTFriday: Litera-toor

In today's Salon, novelist J. Robert Lennon takes issue with the notion that young writers should immerse themselves in contemporary literary fiction. His argument isn't that they shouldn't read it at all, but rather that there's plenty of great material in other genres and other time periods to build a satisfying and varied literary diet. Only getting creative stimulus from a single group of people writing the same kind of thing at the same moment in time will lead to "hackneyed, insular, boring writing."

I couldn't agree more.*

The real WTF moment is that we're still having this conversation because there's still a prejudice in the literary establishment against work that doesn't fit the literary fiction formula. There are enough incisive, well-written genre fiction novels that we shouldn't be under the impression any more that important things can only be said by characters navigating their relationships over fair trade coffee in Greenwich Village.

Detractors define genre fiction by its cliches and its worst examples. Yet Lennon points out that cliches and bad writing exist in literary fiction, too. Somehow, however, writing about another disaffected thirtysomething who can't escape the ennui in his relationships and his job is a lesser sin than writing about another monosyllabic P.I. with a shady past, another repressed-yet-passionate Victorian noblewoman, or another space academy prodigy who's going to save the day.

But there's an aesthetic hierarchy at work here, and just as it's more acceptable in most circles to follow Monday Night Football than The Bachelor, people are more likely to get eye rolls if they reveal that the self-loathing and sybaritic protagonist of the book they're reading is also a werewolf (thank you, Glen Duncan).

*Of course, I wouldn't agree that "literary fiction is fucking boring," but then again, I tend to pick and choose my reading material across genres, so I'm probably not digging deep enough to get to the boring stuff.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Go to your happy place

New research reported in The New York Times suggests that a walk in the park really is just the thing to clear your head and reduce stress. Portable EEGs attached to a dozen volunteers walking through a changing urban and leafy environment showed reduced brain fatigue and increased mental calm when volunteers were in the green spaces.

This is good news for people with the opportunity and inclination to stop and smell the roses in the middle of a busy day.

Now, if only my study had a view like this...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013


The hardest vices to eliminate are the ones you can disguise as virtues. One of my bad writing habits is prepcrastination.

This includes procrastinating either (1) writing or (2) finalizing and submitting work for the sake of "planning and preparing."

Prepcrastination can take many forms:

  • Excessive (internet) research. Sometimes, I might need to know what The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 looked like. But I don't necessarily need to follow the rabbit trails that lead to the Great Chicago Fire, the Gilded Age, or Sol Bloom (thank you, Wikipedia). The trick is knowing when enough is enough.
  • The 9th circle of peer critique. It's good to get second, third, and fourth opinions. It's good to get feedback from a variety of readers. At some point, however, there's a reasonably finished* product. Some readers will like it, and some won't (kind of like a real book), but it's time to submit and move on to the next project.
  • "One more read-through." I once decided that my standard for knowing when I'd revised and edited my manuscript enough was when I could read through it without making any additional changes. That was a mistake. Maybe more experienced and more polished writers will disagree, but I find that there's always room for improvement, and I tend to notice those areas each time I review. Perfection is like the Easter bunny, and I'm trying to learn not to go looking for it.
  • Reading books and blogs about writing when I should be writing. As with research, some of this is helpful, but it's often a means to avoid staring at a blank page and a blinking cursor. 
  • Composing a 200,000-word Excel spreadsheet for a 90,000-word novel. Yes, continuity and consistency are important. And some of us benefit from outlining more than others. But if notes require their own concordance, they've probably outgrown their usefulness.
It can be difficult to tell when I'm laying necessary groundwork and when I'm putting off the daunting tasks that carry a risk of failure. This is where an inner BS detector comes in handy.

*I know, nothing's ever really finished, but you have to stop somewhere.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Library book sale!

I went to a used book sale this weekend benefitting my local library. As these things go, a lot of the fun was in combing the tables to find gems amidst all the Danielle Steel titles (sorry, fans).

In the end, I came home with a nice loot. When paperbacks are a dollar and hardbacks are two, you don't have to feel too guilty.

Pictured above are The Digital Plague by Jeff Somers; Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi; New Spring by Robert Jordan; Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen; Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut; Button, Button: Uncanny Stories by Richard Matheson; Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson; Life, The Universe, and Everything by Douglas Adams; and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.

Does anyone have any thoughts or recommendations about these titles? Which one would you read first? If you look closely, you can probably tell what I've started reading.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Cthulhu comes to Kickstarter

Yet another pairing this week that I never thought I'd see: "Lovecraft" and "children's book."

A writer and illustrator have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for their illustrated retelling of H.P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu. And yes, it is intended for children.

What's most interesting about this project, though, is not the idea of a Lovecraft book for kids, but rather a book campaign on Kickstarter. The idea behind crowdfunding is that strangers chip in to cover the cost of a particular project. For many types of projects, the need for up-front cash is obvious: music albums may require instrumentalists and studio time, and films carry costs associated with shooting equipment, not to mention fees for renting certain locations or props.

But books? Aspiring authors have always written in their free time, without any guarantee of a payout at the end, and with no real costs beyond pens and paper, typewriters, and word processors. Even if you're self-publishing, print-on-demand arrangements allow you to purchase copies as you sell them, with little or no up-front cost.

All this is to say that Kickstarter for books appears to be less about raising money and more about raising (and gauging) interest. It's not a bad strategy; if you can convince someone to commit $25, chances are you can convince them to spread the word about your book.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Persepolis banned in Chicago schools

Marjane Satrapi's acclaimed graphic novel about growing up amidst the oppression and censorship that accompanied the Iranian Revolution has been banned from Chicago schools.


Persepolis had been part of the seventh-grade curriculum. Chicago Public Schools (CPS) reportedly removed the book from syllabi because of images of torture that appear on one page of the novel. The Beat posted an image of the controversial page.

Classroom classics such as 1984 also contain scenes of torture, and while there's arguably a difference between reading about something and seeing it, the images in Satrapi's novel are hardly graphic, particularly in her simple style.

What with recent controversies over young adult novels such as Laurie Halse Anderson's Speak (to name one), the reaction to CPS's Persepolis ban could set the tone for future debates.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Amazon gets "literary"

I never thought I'd put "literary fiction imprint" and "digital-only series" in the same sentence, but it appears that Amazon has already done that. They're launching "Little A," a literary fiction imprint, which will publish (among other things) short stories in their digital "Day One" series.

And yes, you may notice that one of Little A's authors is James Franco. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

WTFriday: Question bias

Practitioners of social sciences and hard sciences alike have observed that you can't study a phenomenon without risking some change or moderation in the very thing you are trying to examine. In social sciences, this frequently comes out in the way questions are asked, and the bottom line is that word choice matters.

A recent Pew Research study looks at careers and parenting and specifically notes that, more and more, mothers and fathers are spending their time in similar ways. It appears that this was intended to be a pretty broad study, so the New York Times points out a particular question that the study asked...
In your opinion, what is the ideal situation for young CHILDREN: mothers working full-time, mothers working part-time, or mothers not working at all outside the home?
...while noting that there was no parallel question asking about how much time PARENTS (in the non-gendered sense) should spend at work or at home.

What's interesting is that this both limits the conclusions one can draw from this survey, and it also furthers one of the notions (the idea that mothers should be the caretakers) that this study should be researching. 

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Storytelling vs. worldbuilding

An article about the Narnia series caught my eye over at Publishers Weekly. It's an excerpt from Rowan Williams's new book exploring C.S. Lewis and his famous stories. What grabbed my attention the most was the contrast between Lewis's slim, narrative-focused books and feats of worldbuilding in the fantasy genre:
Narnia is a very long way from Tolkien’s Middle Earth. And Lewis seems to have had little or no interest in filling out the details in the way Tolkien--or Terry Pratchett--loves to do. He pays no attention to questions of what language his imagined people speak (Narnians and their neighbours in Calormen do not seem to need interpreters). He spends little time in elaborating details of culture or tradition (the Calormenes are taken over almost wholesale from the Arabian Nights, or so it seems at first; there are some qualifying factors, as we shall see).... His good friend, the poet Ruth Pitter, challenged him about how the Beaver family in The Lion manage to produce potatoes for their meal with the children, given the wintry conditions that had prevailed for most of living memory; not to mention oranges, sugar and suet for the marmalade roll . . . Tolkien, one suspects, would have produced an appendix on the history and architecture of greenhouses in Narnia.
This reminded me how much more I enjoyed the Narnia stories than Tolkien's novels. I was in elementary school when I read the Narnia books and early/mid high school (at the latest) when I read Tolkien, so maybe I would feel differently if I read them now. Maybe the lack of explanation would bother me in Lewis's works, and maybe I'd have a greater appreciation for Tolkien's detail.

Nevertheless, as long as it's been, what I remember is being enthralled by the stories in the Narnia series and bogged down by the endless background in the Lord of the Rings series: what the ancient elven heroes did, what the dwarves are eating for dinner, and what everyone is going to sing about it all.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Email is the new text message

Matthew J.X. Malady argues in Slate that we need to drop email signoffs. State your business, then state your name.

It's not often that you see a writer make the case that we need to make email even less like "proper" writing. I've seen enough Joycean ramblings that I'm not going to argue that we actually remove structure from emails any time soon.

Then again, I can agree that many signoffs come across as pretentious and insincere. But I'd also argue that the real offenders are vestigial corporate-speak (that wonderful lingo that also gave us "leverage" as a verb and "vertical" as an unscalable concept). 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"The Indian male Candace Bushnell"

This is how the New York Times describes Durjoy Datta. Based on the write-up, I might liken him a bit more to E. L. James. Without as much kink, perhaps.

Datta has apparently won literary fame and success among young Indian readers for his novels about love and sex among young Indians. It appears that his dimples also help.

He's another author who's making a name for himself with popular appeal rather than Literary-with-a-capital-L aspirations. In just a few years, he's already published a handful of ellipsis-heavy titles.

Good for him, but two observations in his write-up gave me pause. The first was that he apparently wrote his first novel without actually reading any others (and keep in mind, he was a middle-class college student at the time, so access doesn't seem to be an issue). I'm a firm believer that it's difficult (and presumptuous) to write good books without reading a few.

Second, the article pointed out that Datta tends to describe his female characters through the male gaze (with an emphasis on the length of their skirts and the extent to which male characters would like to get biz-ay with them), so it's surprising that most of Datta's fans are women. Not that ladies can't enjoy raunchy fun, or books written from a distinctly masculine perspective, but one hopes that fans will demand more depth in Datta's female characters.

Friday, March 8, 2013

WTFriday: Stranger than fiction

There's a story in today's New York Times about a theoretical particle physicist who met a bikini model online and got caught attempting to smuggle drugs out of Argentina. It's the kind of story that seems like it could make a good thriller novel, or maybe a caper film about a bumbling professor lost in South America.

And as with many stories, what's most interesting about this one (in my opinion) is the characters. It's tempting to feel bad for the physicist until you realize (among other things) what an incredible narcissist this guy was. After all, he was a 64-year-old man specifically looking for an 18-to-35 year-old wife so that she'd be able to bear him children. At least he admits that what drew him to the model was that she "was in the top 1 percentile of how women look."

This didn't seem to give him any pause. As he admits that he's "in the top 1 percentile for intelligence," he seems to think that they were a perfect match. Of course, anyone as high on himself as this guy was would consider himself a catch.

The real irony, however, appears at the beginning of the article. After hearing about how much attention his prospective bride (in his words, it was "almost a certainty" that this woman would marry him) regularly receives from men, he wonders:

Does this stuff inflate her ego?

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Risky business

The latest publishing scandal features a cast of Random House's digital-only imprints (Hydra, Alibi, Loveswept, Flirt) drawing up contracts that take all life-of-copyright rights from authors and, in return, leave them with the bill.

Random House's position is that their new model, which offers a fifty-fifty profit split between the author and the publisher, could potentially turn out to be a sweet deal for authors.

Of course, this sweet deal doesn't include an advance of any kind for the author, and as we mentioned, it strips the author of all rights to her work for all of eternity. These terms are to publishing contracts what rewound odometers are to used car sales. They're just not the kinds of things that reputable companies do.

Naturally, folks like SFWA president John Scalzi and Writer Beware guru Victoria Strauss aren't buying it. They point out that the methods used to calculate profits in a sample Hydra contract leave open the kinds of loopholes that would have made Arthur Anderson proud. While the author's share of costs is only deducted from his share of the profits (as opposed to his actual pocket), the extent and fuzziness of the cost items have raised concerns that publishers will make money on in-house expenses ("You see, our marketing department has a high overhead. Our paperclips are made of gold.") while the "profit" to be shared between the author and the imprint disappears.

Risk-sharing and profit-sharing models aren't inherently bad ideas, and it's tempting to dismiss criticism of the new contracts as so much hand-wringing by a bunch of artist-savants who, for all their writing ability, can't read a balance sheet and won't let go of 1960s publishing models.

However, I think it's the divide between the business-savvy and the business-oblivious that's raised so many hackles. There's the perception that the Hydra/Alibi/etc. contracts are taking advantage of authors' relative ignorance. After all, they seem targeted at un-agented, previously unpublished authors. Many authors have embraced self-publishing models that entail more risk and do require out-of-pocket payment. The difference is, authors in these situations are usually making decisions about how their money is spent, and in many cases they're also getting transparency up-front about their costs.  

And yes, when big publishers talk to novice authors about "embracing new models," of course people will be suspicious that the big guy trying to pull a fast one on someone too inexperienced, and too eager, to know any better. That goes with the territory of being a dominant player in any industry.

Major publishers seem to recognize that they still have a brand-name advantage with readers and booksellers, and that's why so many writers still hold out for an offer from the big six. What's disconcerting is that they appear to be trying to take advantage of this, with Random House setting up these e-book only imprints and, recently, Simon & Schuster launching an expensive self-publishing service for authors. That publishers are finding ways to make money off of the people they wouldn't give a standard contract inevitably feels predatory. Furthermore, I'm guessing that Random House won't be shunting its Anne Rice- or Justin Cronin-level authors to Hydra any time soon, which makes me wonder how long publishers like this will retain their clout if they're diluting their brand by trying to make a buck off of their slush pile rejects.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Literally ridiculous

GalleyCat reports that three well-respected dictionaries have literally expanded their definitions of the word "literally." Here's the addendum in Oxford Dictionaries:
In its standard use literally means ‘in a literal sense, as opposed to a non-literal or exaggerated sense’, as for example in I told him I never wanted to see him again, but I didn’t expect him to take it literally. In recent years an extended use of literally (and also literal) has become very common, where literally (or literal) is used deliberately in non-literal contexts, for added effect, as in they bought the car and literally ran it into the ground. This use can lead to unintentional humorous effects (we were literally killing ourselves laughing) and is not acceptable in formal contexts, though it is widespread.
There's nothing like a new word (or new uses for an old word) to ignite academic flame wars between snooty traditionalists and unwashed populists. Should dictionaries impose definitions on the language-using public, or should they adapt to reflect the way people actually speak and write?

In this case, it seems a little silly to alter the definition of a word to include the exact opposite of what it (literally) means. 

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Now on primetime: more books!

There seems to be a trend of adapting novels and book series for television, and if the 2013 pilot lineup is any indication, that trend isn't going away any time soon. Of course, we're also living in an era of remakes, but we won't get into that just now.

What's particularly interesting is that at least one of the new shows (Intelligence) is based on an unpublished novel.

I suspect two primary reasons for all of these adaptations.
  1. Studios are increasingly risk-averse. I suspect this relates to the preponderance of remakes (Spiderman again???), too. If you have a decent book (or graphic novel), you not only have a starting point for your script, you also have an audience (and likely, an evangelistic one). I know plenty of folks who won't read the book after they've seen the movie (or the show), but I've never met anyone for whom the reverse is true. In fact, most of those people seem downright excited to see a good book adapted, and they help build buzz in the process.
  2. Story arcs are so hot right now. It seems like arc-less shows are a thing of the past. With so many ways to keep up with television series, longer and more complex storylines are less a barrier to entry than a necessary hook. Since authors and comic book writers have long since composed their own works this way, it's no surprise that novel and comics would offer some of the long-term structure that shows need.
"Uh, guys. Could we develop this one? Even the title is a book."

Monday, March 4, 2013

The tricksy thing about critiques

Lately I've become involved in several beta reads and critique groups. It's rewarding, and it's a good learning experience for me as a writer, but I'm aware that it's better to give no advice than bad advice. As I evaluate my suggestions and comments, I frequently find myself struggling with these two questions:
  1. If I were reading this for pleasure, would I have noticed a problem? I don't read to critique the same way I read for pleasure, and I suspect this is true of most people. When I'm critiquing, I tend to read more closely and with the assumption that there will be things to fix.

    This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It's good because there always are things to fix, even though I may ignore those things in pleasure reading. It's not so good because there's a line between "fixing" and "nitpicking." 

  2. Do my edits make the story clearer and crisper, or do they simply make it more like the story I would have written? This can be a tricky distinction because people (myself included) often make choices in their own writing based on what they think works best. While some stylistic choices (such as the liberal use of adverbs) may be more black-and-white most of the time, others may be more flexible.

    Being an omnivorous reader helps me see a piece through the lens of what the author is trying to accomplish. For instance, I may accept a particularly terse style if I recognize that the author is writing noir. Similarly, I won't have the same expectations for a first-person narrative that follows a teenage girl as I would for one that follows a middle-aged scientist.
Some styles are like apples and oranges. Others are plum, broccoli, and big purple eggplant.