Saturday, April 16, 2011

Conversational Chicken

It begins in childhood, the need to be noticed, to prove we are worthy of notice. With the first words, a child defines himself by his parents. My dad can lick your dad, little boys say, hands curled into fists and chin thrust forward. Little girls go to their fathers, too, but not for a fight. A little girl's dad is defined by his job. My dad's an aerospace engineer, one little girl says to another whose father works in a warehouse or is just a cop, never really understanding what an aerospace engineer is or what he does. It sounds impressive and that's enough.

As children grow into adults, they learn the meaning of aerospace engineer and leave it behind to count their possessions: a color tv in a neighborhood where most tvs are black and white, a sporty car for teenagers, a great vacation to somewhere exotic or at least trendy, and the one upmanship continues as children grow into their own identities and rely more on their own accomplishments: graduated in the top ten percent of their class, or the top one percent, accepted to the Air Force Academy or submarine training in the navy, and the accomplishments pile up. Job, college, career, and so on add to the list until the day when children become adults and are measured by their bank accounts -- or by their fame, or infamy.

I remember the first time I was able to say, "I'm a writer," which was followed by, "Anything I'd recognize." A blush and a lopsided smile and, "Probably not unless you read -- magazines." I squelched the urge to stop at 'read'. Everyone reads. The disappointed "Oh," was all it took to deflate my pride and here comes the fall.

I've learned to point to my published accomplishments, but not all of them. No one would stick around for a list that long, and nothing was really all that noteworthy, unless you count the Chicken Soup for the Soul books or the Cup of Comfort anthologies. Everyone likes a feel-good story and I've contributed my share. I'm a little less willing to come out with "I'm a writer these days" because it is followed quickly by, "I always wanted to be a writer." I manhandle my inner smart aleck into a dark closet because she wants to say, "Since about five seconds ago," and sneer. This is quickly followed by a disclaimer. "But I just don't have the time."

The ability to commiserate with someone who doesn't have the time to be a writer has long since eroded and been placed by, "Do you watch TV?" The person nods and I add, "Give up 30 minutes a day of TV and you will have the time to write." I can see the wheels turning. They've been caught dissembling, but these hive minded people adapt. "But you could write it for me. I have a great idea for a story." I cringe inwardly while I am regaled with what is at best a derivative combination of whatever is the flavor of the month and the heart rending story of abuse or addiction, neither of which I want to touch with a ten meter cattle prod. I have stories of my own to tell and I do not have the time or inclination to pursue someone else's disjointed confession or hodgepodge of vampires, werewolves and space ships.

This is what I call a conversational game of chicken. I offer solid advice and they counter with excuses and story ideas that are horrendous at worse and boring at best. Been there done that. Once again I counter with, "That's the kind of story you'd have to write yourself," all the while looking for the nearest exit or trot out a convenient, and true excuse: "I have to get going. I have to finish working on my book." I am after all a busy writer and my stomach isn't as strong as it once was. There is also the added complication that my inner smart aleck has just broken free and is struggling for control of my voice.

Everyone thinks it's glamorous to be a writer, which is true if you're Jackie Collins or Scott Turow, but here in the trenches it's not so glamorous. Most of us in the trenches still have day jobs. We are wage slaves carving out a few hours, or minutes, to write. We sacrifice.

Four years ago, I gave up watching TV and had the cable cut off. It was sucking up too much time. I haven't even turned on the TV in months, about six months to be exact. It sits gathering dust in the living room where books are piled on every available surface, books I've read and reviewed and really need to get boxed up and carted off to Goodwill or Volunteer of America, those that aren't proofs or ARCs, which cannot be sold. I almost look forward to ebooks since they don't take up much space and the big publishers who end them take them back after 55 days. No stacks and piles of books to box or worry about. I might even be able to reclaim my living room one day.

My day is segmented into wage slavery, reading books for review and writing. I manage to sandwich in eating (when I remember), the occasional shower and even brushing my teeth. There's not much I can do about the going to the bathroom; that controls me, I don't control it, at least not any more.

Yes, it's a glamorous life I lead, most often wearing the same clothes for days because I don't get them sweaty or dirty sitting at the computer. And there are more times than I can count when I'm busy marketing, promoting and finally able to get into the writing zone where time has no meaning. That's the best, when I'm in the Zone. Nothing else matters until I realize that it's nearly 4 a.m. and I still have to get up for my daily stint of wage slavery -- but only for two more years.

More has been piled on the sacrificial altar of writing: vacations and buying books. I have decided that the more money I save, the sooner I can quit my day job and have the time to write full time and maybe breathe the occasional dose of outdoor air without having an errand to do or a schedule to keep. I look forward to those times. I don't mind the sacrifice because the end result is me being able to write full time and that's worth giving up anything. There will be time for buying books to read for pleasure and vacations to warm and sunny places (or cold and snowy terrains in secluded cabins with a big fireplace blazing away), and there will be time for leisure and unbroken sleep and the occasional restaurant dinner with linen napkins and waiters and sommeliers, just not right now.

There is no way to get all that into a short game of conversational chicken, although it would work admirably to run off any would-be writers who have always wanted to write. Instead, I smile and nod as I back away and head for the nearest exit because I have work to do. After all, if they're not willing to sacrifice a few minutes of television every night, it's not likely the will ever be anything more than someone who has always wanted to write. No sense letting my inner smart aleck out of the closet for that.

The Final Push

Well, it's done. The proof arrived and was perfect this time, thanks to help from CreateSpace and the program I bought to embed italics in the text. Another small purchase for me and a big step toward publication. For whatever it is worth, Among Women is now a live book and ready for sale. I bought the first twenty copies for myself and for reviewers.

There is no doubt when I began this journal six weeks ago that I had no idea what I was doing. All I had to rely on was the knowledge gained from more than twenty years of experience in writing, research and publishing from a completely different angle. I had more than enough experience in putting together newsletters, magazines and articles, but this was a big undertaking, and one that I am glad I decided to pursue. All that experience and knowledge went toward my own publishing freedom and I feel a bit heady from the experience.

There are lots of self-publishing companies out there willing to take the money of the inexperience, naive and gullible and I avoided those traps. I could have spent a lot more money than I did. Most of the money I spent was on marketing, which is always the biggest part of the budget, especially when self-publishing, but it has been worth it. I learned a lot of new things, figured out how to work the system to my benefit and produced, with the help of some really good people, a quality book. I didn't do it alone. From the editing to the cover art and to the knowledge I borrowed from others more experienced than I am, this project that has meant so much to me for over thirty years and now flying free. That feels like a big success, and it is. Whether or not reviewers and critics and, most of all, readers, think of the book at least I know it's the best I can do. I may change my mind in a few years, but as it stands, I'm satisfied.

Going it alone has been a scary but exhilarating experience and one I will pursue again, next time with fewer errors and slow downs because I know how to do this. No wonder so many traditionally published authors with much more experience than I have are deciding to go this route. What took my last publisher nearly a year and what would have taken a much bigger publisher two years to accomplish, I did in six weeks, notwithstanding the writing, editing, rewriting and polishing of my book. The next book will be better for having done the journey once.

One thing I know is that without the technology available and the help of my friends, I would not have made it this far. I also would not have ventured so far into unknown territory had I now read Joe Konrath's blog and followed his example. He was the first of my contacts, but not the last, and I am grateful to all those who have gone before. After all, someone has to blaze the trail and I hope my trials and tribulations will serve to provide a clearly marked trail for the others who will eventually follow.

From concept to manuscript to ebook and now into print, Among Women has made it. Now all I have to do is provide siblings to share the space and the wealth. This is one dog that certainly hunts.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Book Review: A Special Relationship by Douglas Kennedy

When Sally Goodchild talks herself onto a Red Cross helicopter, she is in for a while ride, but it doesn't end while being shot at in Somali air space or after she is turned back in a Red Cross van going the other way, nor does it end when she meets Tom Hughes; that is just the beginning of a very wild ride.

A Special Relationship is a wild ride on the order of Toad's Wild Ride, the book and the amusement park versions, but what really struck me is how sketchy the men in the novel appear. It took me a while to figure out that Sally doesn't see men very clearly and this seems to be how Kennedy wrote Tom Hughes and the rest of the men she encounters. Sally is more comfortable and sees women more clearly, although through a muddy glass at times, which may be indicative of the way she sees the world -- at a distance. She is insulated from the world in many ways, with her pregnancy, with the illness that keeps her bed bound in hospital during the final three months of her pregnancy, from her child when he is born due to trauma and depression and from the rest of the world.

Then it struck me that A Special Relationship is a novelization of a newspaper report and Sally is a newspaper reporter after all. Newspapers don't get into the deep emotional issues and seldom get too personal with anyone, even in profiles, preferring to see things from a distance with what is intended to be a neutral eye. There is a very newspaper reporter feel to Kennedy's novel that is at once comforting and a little disconcerting, especially when there is plenty of emotional earth to mine, and yet the earth remains undisturbed, a reporter's eye view of a very emotional and difficult story that still, for all its distance, engaged and surprised me.

Despite the postpartum depression, which seems to be a subject Kennedy has returned to, the real horror of the story is how distant Sally feels and how she chooses to suffer in silence when her husband is being a jerk, about the deaths of her parents, about so many things. That silent suffering seems to be more a woman thing than a man thing, at least in Kennedy's view since he writes mostly about women and from the female perspective, something he does very well.

I look forward to reading more of Kennedy's work and to finding out how he manages the male perspective in other books and from the other females' points of view.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Balancing the Elements

This morning I read an article on editing and it suggested that Show Don't Tell is not the only rule in the book. It isn't, but that has been the rule for a very long time. I didn't know that Sol Stein and Donald Maass popularized the technique to "modernize storytelling." As the author suggested, we need to be more catholic in our tastes and styles of writing and embrace more than one style.

The short story I spent the weekend critiquing is predominantly dialogue with no sense of place or time or much in the way or characterization. All the characters nod, grin, shrug and sigh with nearly every confrontation, which is pretty much all interactions. Only a couple of characters had any real quirks or speech patterns that set them apart from the rest and that's because their dialogue was written in colloquial style. There are a few descriptions of the ship, as would be expected in a space opera, but very few of those. The main character checks his appearance in a mirror at the beginning of a story and describes what he sees, but other than a few brief remarks about a couple of characters, there is no real sense of how the characters move, talk, react or are and even less to set the scene or give a sense of place and space to the environs.

The other big problem is that the dialogue is used as an information dump for the background of the story and there is very little action except in one short sequence. It reads more like a script than a short story and I found myself writing "show don't tell" or "show me how he moves and acts" more than once, outside of adding comments about "grinning again, nodding again, sighing again" in almost every line on every page. There is no emotional range and I do not feel connected to these characters. Now I wonder if telling the writer to show me what's happening and how the characters inhabit the space of the story is wrong.

Uh, no.

While there is room still for Show Don't Tell, there is also room for exposition, something that particular piece lacks. Don't tell me the character grinned when you just told me the other character grinned and the character in the next second grinned and sighed without telling me how they looked and how their grins are different. Give me something to work with. Is that wrong? Do we expect too much of our characters? Wasn't Shakespeare able to convey in dialogue alone what Tybalt and Puck and Henry V were like? Yes, but he was Shakespeare and he knew how to write.

What I strive for in my own writing is balance between dialogue, description, inner monologue, and exposition. It's not easy and I do struggle with it some times, but I do have more of a grip on facial expressions and emotions than grinning, nodding, sighing and shrugging. I expect more from my reading that such generic and unimaginative terms and reactions. It is as if the writer took no effort with building characters and used stock phrases and words to convey his meaning. I doubt he really has a handle on the characters except as pawns in his own science fiction chess game, and very little imagination except for technical details.

While I don't dislike the story of a 100-year-old battle cruiser running a plague beacon and waiting to be found and returned to its planet before the surrounding systems can glom onto it and use it against the rest of the universe, I want more than dialogue and vague facts. I want to be engaged. I want to be able to lose myself in the story and not run headlong into a brick wall of typos, information dumps and bland characters. I want action. I want life. I want a good story that isn't ruined by its lack of attention to detail. I want him to show me something or at least tell me something good.

Do we ask too much of writers so that we end up with a generic soup of writing that is formulaic and unimaginative? I wonder.

I have two novels currently jostling for position inside my mind (more, if the truth be told). One is a post apocalyptic vampire story that is anything but run-of-the-mill vampires. Imagine an earth where here has been eternal winter for 200 years and humans living underground and guided by vampires, while on the surface of the planet in domed cities vampires rule humanity, cloning and raising them to do the menial tasks and provide a steady supply of food. As the earth begins to warm and come out of nuclear winter and the underground humans return to the surface to begin life anew, they need one thing, DNA to re-establish plant, animal and human life, information contained in DNA banks beneath the domed cities. The vampires in the domed cities need fresh DNA because they have cloned the clones until there are too many replication errors and the blood is thin. They need food.

The other novel is a Victorian gothic where morals and science and superstition collide until a man is split and a serial killer spawned.

Each novel requires different styles and techniques, but the one thing that remains the same is the need to put the reader in the scene and let him feel and sense everything that is happening. The reader needs to be invested in the story. Can the reader lose himself if the book is all dialogue or if he is bogged down in exposition and description? I doubt it. The real techniques lie somewhere in between, a balance of style and Show Don't Tell and pacing that is matched to the story and the time period. Therein lies the hard part, finding that balance.

In the end, it's all about what the reader needs and how the writer can provide that. The writer must craft his tale so that it's something he would enjoy reading as much as he enjoyed writing it. Editing, that's never fun and is something else again.

I can write a whole book in two weeks and get the structure laid out, but it takes a bit more time to find the balance and add muscle, sinews, nerve and flesh to the bones. It takes even more to add style and flair and clothe the characters; that's where polish comes in, and where I balance all the elements as best I can.

I doubt I'll give up the tenets of Show Don't Tell, but I'm also not averse to using whatever techniques and style will create a book that I want to read when I'm finished, balancing all the elements until the book is worth reading.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

More Bread and Circuses

An agent asked a question on her blog about why authors really wanted to go with traditional publishing in this day and age of easy access to self-publishing. Almost all of the answers were the same. Many writers wanted the resources (copy editing, marketing, promotion, covers, etc.) of traditional publishers, but most repeated reason was validation.

Self-publishing and traditional publishing have co-existed since the beginning. In the early days, an author went to a printer and paid him to typeset his work and many authors, or their spouses, as in the case of Virginia Woolf's husband, set up their own printing pressed and called themselves publishers. It was the only way to see their work in print.

As Barry Eisler said, getting an advance from a publisher is a short term, or long term, depending on the deal, loan against future advances and self-publishing, or indie publishing, means putting your own money up front. It's not for the faint-hearted. Then along comes Mark Coker with Smashwords and changes everything, offering a free publishing model, complete with do-it-yourself instructions, to publish your own work for free. Coker does offer some other services and allows cover artists, editors and proofreaders to advertise on the site (without recommendations)available for variable fees. This is far different from the vanity publishing model where ancillary services cost more, often a lot more. As I've said before, publishing in the 21st century is rapidly changing, and it's a change that agents and big publishers really don't want to see. Why? Perceived value.

If agents and publishers can continue to convince authors that their best and most accepted route to publication is through them, and that validation comes only with a big publisher and agent behind you, then indie publishing will always be marginalized and the authors diminished in the eyes they see in the mirror each morning.

On that same thread, I mentioned that Mark Twain was a self-published author and the agent responded that Twain's books were classics and had sold thousands, even millions, of books. She missed the point I was making to someone else on the thread that validation can come from indie publishing. Even her response to me that because Twain sold millions of books that made him valid and his work worth noticing. She has it backward.

When The Celestine Prophecy became a wildfire best seller, it wasn't due to a big publisher or an agents because several of both had rejected the book. It wasn't until the author James Redfield put his own money into the venture and sold thousands of copies before publishers and agents flocked to his door to offer their services. The same is true of Amanda Hocking and several other authors too numerous to mention. Redfield, Twain, Hocking and others validated their belief in themselves when they put their time and efforts, and even money, into getting their work before the public. The traditional publishing world just grabbed onto their coattails and came along for the ride.

The publishing world is full of such tales and I seriously doubt that scenario will ever change as long as publishers and agents hold the keys to what they keep touting as the kingdom of validation. It is in their interests to criticize indie publishing and the few who have made it and keep everyone's eyes focused on validation -- on being a real writer. They have no jobs and no product to sell if authors catch on that they can do the same thing themselves and do a better job, as is the case with some of the error-ridden books that have come out of publishing in the past few years, often with terrible covers and no marketing or promotion to speak of.

I am reminded of an old movie about a young man who took New York by storm with his debut novel. The movie was Youngblood Hawke, played by James Franciscus, who was a truck driver and took NYC by storm with his first novel. His book is optioned for a play by a has-been actress and Hawke becomes the toast of the town. His second book is an even bigger success but his third book bombs. What I remember about the movie is the part where the third book was published with bigger type and with generous margins to make the book seem bigger than it is; it's called cheating, and the critics caught on and mentioned it. Hawke eventually goes back to Kentucky to write another book and there the story ends.

In order to capitalize on sales of Hawke's previous books, the third book, which the publishers knew was not a winner, was given the treatment to make it look better than it was, but content always tells. A flashy cover, great end papers and gilding on the edges make a nice looking book, but it all comes down to the words. That is what publishers and agents don't really get. They give million-dollar deals to celebrities that are ghostwritten and hype the dickens out of them, riding the fickle tide of public interest that soon wanes, but they give the public nothing tangible. What they give the public is a modern version of bread and circuses. Is that validation? Is Snookie, the girl from The Jersey Shores who got punched in the face, really worth reading about? Does she have anything to say beyond what she's already said? Then why is she getting a million-dollar book deal when good writers are politely and thoroughly rejected? Because publishing is gambling that Snooki's book will earn back their advance.

Outside of the freak factor and celebrity mania, there is nothing of value to offer the public, except more of the same dreck. There are no interesting stories, no good writing and no validation for writers unless they prove themselves first. Snooki has proven that she can get people to look at her, but that's about all. An MTV teen mom is coming out with two books about herself, but from the ads, I doubt the book will be worth buying or reading. More bread and circuses.

Meanwhile, on the indie front, there are terrible writers who are slapping up any old thing on Smashwords and Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but that is nothing new. Garages, attics and dumps are full of boxes of vanity published books that never sold and were not worth publishing, but there are always vultures. With the new technology available and the bad taste left in the mouth of traditionally published midlist and best selling authors, they are flocking to do it themselves and reap the benefits, only one of which is money. They are seeking to be validated in their belief that good books written well and with professional covers and editing (yes, some of them actually do pay editors and artists) will sell -- and they do -- by the thousands. Indie publishing will find its level and there will be midlist writers and best sellers who emerge from the press and whose work will endure as long as Mark Twain's, or even beyond. They have the reins and they're not going to take their obligatory lap around the colisseum before fading into the sand.

Agents and publishers fear the technology and they fear the authors who are flocking to indie publishing to get a bigger share of the pie, but most of all to be validated. Agents and publishers will never go away, and maybe agents will turn their businesses into e-distributors, as Joe Konrath speculates, while publishers keep doing the same old things the same old way and expecting different results. I believe that is the definition of insanity.

Instead of taking a hint from the exodus of solid midlist writers who have earned millions of dollars over the course of their caareers, publishers will keep the focus on validation and the services they offer. It's true, they have hundreds of years of experience, nearly half a millennium, in knowing how to manipulate the public and authors to stay on top, and that may be changing. Publishing is sliding down the chute, but it isn't out. They have too much to lose and too much money invested in their monolithic businesses to quit. Whether they reinvent themselves or continue with business as usual is anybody's guess, but from what I read on the agent's blog, the belief that only traditional publishing can offer what an author values most, validation that what they have produced is worth publishing, will not change until more authors like Barry Eisler, Joe Konrath, Amanda Hocking and even Mark Twain show them the way.

There is room for traditional and indie publishing without slinging mud and denigrating what the opponent has to offer. It's a matter of the bottom line, not the immediate value, but the long term bottom line, which is something traditional publishers never think about. Publishers and agents focus on the immediate bottom line, on immediate perceived value, but that will change.

If Mark Twain can do it, so can other authors, and I hope I'm one of them. It's not about how you got your book to the market and onto the shelves, but that you did and people picked them up, bought them and took them hold to read and then told their friends who told their friends who told their friends until people began to speak their name in whispers and then in shouts.

Publishing shouldn't be about bread and circuses, keeping the masses fed and entertained for the moment so they forget when they get home there is no bread and no more circuses. Publishing should be about bringing good books to the masses and feeding their souls and their minds, not just their bellies. Only time will tell which way the wind blows, but I'd say the wind from indie publishing that whispers validation is growing in strength and offers, as it has always offered, a different path to acceptance and success. Publishers seems to be more interested in EX-clusion than IN-clusion and that may be their downfall, or maybe it's just their dogma. The long term bet is on a mutually effective and useful co-existence with bread at the circus and at home. Keep your fingers crossed.