Friday, August 12, 2011

The White Rabbit's Dilemma

"I'm late. I'm late for a very important date." The White Rabbit checked his pocket watch, twitched his long ears, and tugged down a corner of his waistcoat. "I'm late. Can't stop or off with my head." He ran off with Alice chasing after asking, "Why? What's so important?"

It's not verbatim from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, but the gist is about right. The White Rabbit raced to and fro across Wonderland while the Caterpillar puffed on its hookah and contemplated the fate of the Underverse, which is where down the rabbit hole leads. It all comes down to time. Time enough to do what needs doing and time enough to relax and do what you really want to do. It's all about time.

The same is true for people on the surface of this planet, people rushing to and fro, checking their watches, cell phones, and clocks wherever they happen to be, checking their look in mirrors and windows on businesses everywhere, to make sure they are looking good and on time. It doesn't pay -- or so the saying goes -- to be late or look less than perfect, unless you're homeless where hygiene and the best designer clothes just will not do. The right look, the right time, the right everything -- and no one thinks about the finer things in life or what all those gadgets and time-savers are actually saving time for.

People spend more time in the bathroom washing away every scent that doesn't come out of a bottle or from a jar, bar, or potion. Teeth must be whitened and hair washed, conditioned, gelled, moussed, fluffed, blown dry, and tousled to look just right. Clothes must be pressed, dry cleaned, washed, and hung on special hangers -- wire hangers just will not do. Drapes, curtains, furniture, cappuccino machines, milk frothers, food processors, blenders, microwaves, griddles, grills, juicers, pulpers, composters for trash and food, and all the spices, herbs, and flavorings to make breakfast, lunch, and supper memorable meals with plenty of sweets and cakes, pies, tarts, turnovers, and cookies. Everything must look and taste the best and no one must be bored.

So much time spent rushing around making sure everything looks perfect, smells sweet or spicy, making money to buy things that must be cleaned, polished, wiped, and looked at, time spent accumulating things at prices less than fifty years ago would have been considered insane, and all done with the television and stereo blasting and nothing is really getting done, especially if you're a writer.

I always wanted to be a writer, says the person who is certain that being a writer is a life of ease and personal appearances, book signings, readings, and cashing huge royalty checks, but I never had the time.

No, they didn't have the time because there were too many other things in the way ticking like bombs that must be defused or at least put on pause while they exercised, watched TV, ran the kids here and there, and generally wasted time fussing with complicated recipes or going to get dinner and bring it home because there was no time to cook. How much is lost because we think we don't have enough time.

It all comes down to time and time is mostly wasted. If you can write 500 words a day, that comes out to two typed pages, you can write a book in a year. Write 1000 words a day, four pages, and cut that time in half, finishing a book in six months, 180 days. That's two books a year, and if you're middle-aged, that would still be sixty books over the next thirty years, providing you have thirty years, and forty books over twenty years isn't too bad either. If you're in your twenties, do the math. Two books a year and a working life span of at least forty years and that's eighty books. It is possible when you break it down to basic math, but it's not the pages that will get you, it's the time.

Time lost. Time wasted. Time spent moaning and groaning. Time used watching television whilte talking on the cell phone or playing games on the computer or chatting on Facebook, LiveJournal, or Twitter. Any number of blogs or web sites beckon and begged to suck the teat of time and leave nothing for writing, for living the dream you've been harboring in some secret locked part of a mind cupboard.

Technology is supposed to save time, give time for other more important things, and I don't mean shopping, networking, socializing, or whatever it is you do with the time that is left over from not having to do things manually, the hard and slow way. Typewriters made writing books easier (for writer and publisher) by making the words legible and set in a specific format. Word processors took it to the next level and left behind Wite-Out and correction strips, carbon paper, and special erasers, and computers took the process one step further, saving the words and pages in the correct format on floppy disks and then on thumb drives, about the length of the thumb. The words don't take up much space in ones and zeroes, and a 16GB drive will save thousands of books -- if you write them -- but it all comes back to time. Making time, having time, spending time -- to write.

When there were fewer gadgets and time saving devices, people had fewer demands on their time and fewer sirens seducing them to waste time. Work got done. Meals were made and dishes washed and put away. And books were written, and what books they were -- and are. It's all about time.

We all have the same 24 hours each day, but how we spend them is up to us. We can spend the time working to acquire more things to make life easier that will suck up more time away from that dream of writing books, which is not necessarily a glamorous life, not down here in the trenches where the words are written, stories are plotted, characters are given life, and books are put together, but it is a life that offers some rewards, not the least of which is satisfaction in seeing dreams come to life. It's a life. It's a choice -- a choice in what to do and how to spend all those hours saved from other labor, a choice that means turning your back on the seduction of things and get down to the nitty gritty of writing a book. Two pages a day or four pages a day, or ten pages a day, it can be done. All it takes is time.

Do you have the time?

The battery in my watch is dead.

The above is 1137 words, a little over four pages, and it took me 20 minute to write. How about it? Have you the time?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Riots, Powder Kegs, and Time

Parents out of town and teenagers, left to their own devices, will have a party. It's like the reason for climbing Mt. Everest, or any big mountain, because it's there. Food, alcohol, plenty of space, and the parents are gone, so why not have a party. That's how I see the riots in England in the wake of a constable's death. It's a reason for a party or, in this case, a riot. A chance to break into shops and take whatever is wanted -- or needed.

In times of economic difficulty, especially in the heat of summer when tempers are short and the temperature is high, cities and towns are like powder kegs with fire burning nearby. One inch to close and BOOM! The constable's death was an excuse, not a reason, and the powder keg blew with stunning force. Shop windows were broken and contents damaged and stolen. Police were called out to keep order and one bookseller, whose store was in the heart of the rioting, kept his cool. He is reported to have said that if the rioters want to steal his books it was fine with him; they might learn something. That's the thing about books, they change a person's perspectives, feed a hunger for education, and provide a safe place to play and imagine a different life. It's why most authors write books, too, and, evidently, why booksellers get into the business of selling books to the public.

Borders, a bookstore that has been an institution, is now closed. The remaining stock will be parceled out to remainder shops or other bookstores to satisfy some of the chain's debts and the stores will remain empty, homes for spider, or will morph into something else: a dance club, a big box bargain or scratch and dent store, or even a getaway for drug addicts looking for a safe place to shoot up or smoke themselves into a different reality. Too bad they didn't get hooked on books and fall into worlds created just for getting away from reality and imagining a different life.

It wasn't in a Borders bookstore, although I spent many hours on Sundays when I was living in Texas, reading, sipping fruit juice, water, or hot chocolate, writing in a journal, or reading a book I picked from the shelves, but in a Waldenbooks bookstore in the Westgate mall in Columbus, Ohio where I got my first taste of worlds and adventures that would change my perspectives and my life. That was where, from across the store, I caught sight of a book cover with three people on it, grouped together like a force of nature. I was drawn to the Science Fiction and Fantasy aisle of the store and I picked up the book. It was Three Against the Witch World by Andre Norton. I was fascinated by the blurb I read and bought the book, taking it home with me. I haven't looked back at that moment for a very long time, but, last night while I was being interviewed for a biography about Andre, that moment came back to me as clear and sharp as it was the moment it happened nearly forty years ago. I was in full reverse mode, sharing the books and stories that I remember best, and talking about a friend who is now gone, a woman who became my mentor, and we met in a bookstore.

I received a Kindle a few months ago and I thoroughly enjoy being able to download books to read. The Kindle is light and convenient and the battery lasts quite a while, especially if I turn off the screensaver. I found that out the other day when I had to recharge it, thinking I had a lot more time on the battery. Even though I already own A Storm of Swords in paperback (part of a four-book boxed set), I decided to buy and download the book to my Kindle. Am I the reason Borders went out of business?

As self-centered as I can sometimes be, I know I'm not the reason Borders closed their doors. Bad business practices is what did Borders in, otherwise Waldenbooks, Barnes & Noble, and Books-a-Million would close their doors and call it quits. All of those bookstores, Borders included, sold more than books. They also sold CDs and DVDs of music, movies, and television shows, stationery, magazines, and pens, and some of them sold coffee and food. No one person or lack of people is responsible for Borders going under. It's like the riots in England, no one precipitating event caused people to slip their tethers and go berserk. It's a lot of different reasons catalyzed by a single event or series of events. Borders was a powder keg and someone lit a match too nearby, so it blew.

I don't mourn Borders too much. There are still bookstores with little cafes where I can sit on a Sunday sipping iced cappuccino and read a book on my Kindle or write in a journal, and there are plenty of small bookstores that will now get the book buyers and browsers who once frequented Borders.

These are volatile times financially, politically, and businesswise, powder kegs with fire sparking and burning nearby. There is no telling which powder keg will explode first. Anything is possible. There might be some good Samaritan who will put out the fire and put move the powder keg to a safe place -- or not. Nothing stays the same for long. Everything changes.

One thing never changes and that is the need and desire for knowledge and a place to get away from the cares and woes of the world, places that can be found in a book. Like the bookseller who said, "Let them break in and steal the books. They might learn something," I, too, am confident that what people want can be found between the pages of a book -- print and electronic -- wherein is contained the wisdom of the ages -- and quite a few silly and bad stories. Jump in, the reading's fine.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Price Fixing and Other Publishing Games

A year or so ago, Amazon knuckled under to the big publishers and agreed not to discount their ebooks any more. It was a tough decision and Amazon hung out as long as possible, but in the eleventh hour there was nothing to do but bow the head and take it like a big corporation should. It was tough to see the end of that fight . . . but it's not over yet.

It looks like Apple and the Big Publishers are facing a lawsuit for price fixing. Imagine that. Apple and the big publishers wanted to keep Amazon on a leash because Apple and Steve Jobs were afraid that Amazon would get into the movie and music downloading business, and Jobs wanted that corner of the world for himself. Guess it came back to bite him in his nether regions and he may be forced to give up hsi dream of world domination.

A few days ago, Steve Jobs, looking very thin and ill and having some trouble navigating the stage, unveiled the Apple iCloud, which is similar to the Amazon Cloud Drive, and how even the Mobile Me, which Jobs admitted was a bust, would be incorporated and the annual price, which was $99/year for Mobile Me, was now free. It was a moving moment for the audience, as was the demonstration of what iCloud will do, and that is synch all input from the cloud to every device -- as long as you own Apple products (Mac, iPhone, iPod, etc.).

The thing is, in business you don't beat the competition by making them play on a different field or by taking them off the field completely, but by playing head to head and toe to toe and may the best man win. That is not what happened with Amazon last year and not what is happening now.

On forums all over the Internet, people are complaining about paying near hard cover prices for ebooks. The perceived value is that a file endlessly downloaded and formatted once should not cost as much as a hard cover, paper and board book, and even more than a paperback because there are no physical resources involved. Militant readers are calling for boycotts of the big publishers and waiting on books they really want to be remaindered or become available as secondhand books. Either way, publishers aren't paying attention and neither it seems is Steve Jobs at Apple. They can't see readers are beginning to fight back.

To further expunge all mention of Amazon or links to Amazon in ebooks, books sold in the Apple store through Smashwords must have no mention of Amazon, or any other bookstore, and no links are allowed, which cuts an author's chance to cheaply market their ebooks. Not everyone owns a iPhone, iPad, or Mac and authors know that. Making links to other bookstores is one way to provide access to books and offers a few alternatives for point of sale. When I submitted the revised version of Among Women to Smashwords I was told I had to take down all links other than Apple iStore links or my book would not be distributed at all. Apple's draconian measures affect all the bookstores where Smashwords distributes ebooks, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Diesel, Kobo, Sony, etc. Since when does one store have the right to determine what is and is not allowed for other stores? Never, until Apple got into the price fixing and smash Amazon game.

Add to that little titbit, the news that the big publishers' accounting systems are out of date and sales of ebooks are being under reported. In other words, more ebooks are sold than are reported and authors are not getting paid royalties for all ebooks sold. That's not news to authors. We know what is and is not going on with our money.

Publishers have been playing an end game that is going to cost them the reason for their existence -- authors. Self-publishing is looking better and better, even if an eStributor, as Joe Konrath calls agents to help package and manage sales of ebooks, is involved. Even though it was not their intention, it looks like the big publishers and Apple, under the guidance of Steve Jobs, who has not gotten over what happened in the beginning days of computers and operating systems, are going to have to pay for their price fixing and cavalier attitudes towards authors and competitors.

Every day is a new day and in the publishing word outside of the behemoth that traditional publishing has become, each new day hammers a new nail into the coffin. When you add in factors like literary agent, Andrew Wylie's railing against the 30% share of the market distributors like Apple and Amazon get from publishers and calling on publishers to stand firm against such tactics. The Jackal, as Wylie is called, said that Amazon and Apple should be willing to go quid quo pro and give publishers 30% of sales of iPads and Kindles to publishers if they wanted to protect the 30% they demand stating, "They [Amazon and Apple] have the device, but they cannot sell it without the content." Wylie's deal with Amazon to sell ebooks of his clients' back lists seems to fly in the face of his stand against Amazon and Apple, especially in the face of Random House publicly censuring Wylie by calling him a competitor instead of a deal broker between authors and publishers.

Yes, boys and girls, this is a volatile age we live in and the battles in publishing have just begun. Personally, not having to deal with agents and the ponderously slow time table of publishers seems more and more like a smart move, especially when my own publisher can't be bothered to send out quarterly statements quarterly and prefers to do it annually. Granted, the sales have been slow, but they have picked up and here we are in the third quarter without a single word from the publisher. At least Smashwords and Amazon pay every month without fail, no matter what royalties have been earned.


Monday, August 08, 2011

When All Else Fails -- Discipline

One of the most wonderful things in the world, at least for me and those like me, is writing. One of the worst things in the world is not writing, at least as far as being prolific is concerned, or finding oneself unable or unwilling to write. That's where discipline and habit come in.

The act of writing is a choice for some, a necessity for a few, and an addiction for others. Writing is more than just putting words on the page, virtual or paper. It's a calling and a curse. It's joy and sorrow and heartbreak and proof of life and heart and mind and determination. Without putting too fine a point on things, in order to be viable as a writer, as a published writer, it is necessary to develop, learn, or get into the habit of writing, to be disciplined. Often, discipline is the only thing that will keep a writer going when the going is hard and there seems to be no other way to get the words down.

It takes six weeks to create a habit and a lifetime to keep it going. Stephen King, in his book On Writing, writes about his daily regimen, his habit, his discipline and everything he does to make it happen. Even on vacation in England, he continued to write; he doesn't believe in taking days off. The result of his discipline is an impressive body of work.

I remember a story about a 19th century writer who worked in the local post office. He got up early in the morning and wrote for a specified amount of time, shutting himself in his room to write. When he finished one book, he didn't rest on his laurels or allow himself the luxury of marketing, networking, socializing, or post publishing blues, he picked up another sheet of paper and began his next book, continuing to write until his time was up and he must leave for work. That is discipline, and it is also commitment to the task.

As I've struggled with moving forward on the latest book, I've found that I have lost steam, lost headway in the process. I let the book sit for too long and have had trouble getting back into the minds of my characters -- at least on a conscious level. Unconsciously, all the characters are there, especially my narrator, and she speaks to me at odd times -- most often while I'm sleeping. The only trick (and it's not really a trick per se) I know is to just get on with the business of writing, keep the fingers typing and the pen full of ink and moving across the page. I cannot afford to let this book drop out of sight because it is a good book, an interesting book full of all kinds of contradictions, surprises, truths, and a fair amount of horror. What I have lost, other than time, is that forward momentum that propelled me through the last book in two weeks. That's what I need now.

Since I'm out of the disciplined habit of writing every day at the same time (I prefer early in the predawn hours because I tend to be more focused and creative at that hour), it's time to get back into the groove and rebuild my habit, reforge the discipline necessary to get through this rough patch.

Writing isn't all champagne launches and standing room only queues of fans waiting for a moment to hobnob with the author and get a signature on a copy of the book. Writing is like anything else that is worth doing -- a long hard slog at the worst of times and a determined one foot in front of the other procession down the path without side trips.

Back into the breach I go, full of determination and knowing that what comes out at first may well and truly suck, but will get easier and better with time -- with discipline.

Heigh ho, heigh ho, it's off to writing I go.

If you're having trouble getting the words onto the page and can't seem to get them just right, the only thing left to do is write and keep writing and then, in the cold harsh light of day, go back through and edit, rewrite, and do what's necessary to turn the straw into gold. You may find that some of that straw glistens already and what you thought was sub par may be better than you hoped.

Discipline is the key to keep going and the fear of the page or failure or success or whatever is bothering you will fade away as the daily writing habit kicks in. Don't let it fool you. Vacations are optional and there will always be time for that hour or two or five when it's you and the page and the words.

Good writing.