Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Indie Games

Sue Grafton caught some flak recently for disparaging comments about the rise of indie/self-published authors.   She later apologized, saying her comments were based upon her experiences from when she first got into the business forty years ago, a time when self-publishing was equated with vanity publishers, meaning charlatans who would drain your bank account  in exchange for doorstops and paperweights (New York Times and USA Today bestselling self-published author, Jaime McGuire, has a great blog post about her experience with a con artist passing himself off as a legitimate agent before she took matters into her own hands and self-published).  Not sure why Sue Grafton is so behind the times – Joy Fielding, who came on the scene about the same time as Sue Grafton, brought this article into class and said pursuing e-books as a means of getting your work out there had some merit and was worth looking into.

Joy, you rock.

Publishing is curious in that, it really is one of the few artistic industries where doing it yourself is looked upon with the worst kind of derision.  Think about it.  There are movie theaters, film festivals, and cable channels that celebrate the indie movie maker.  The enterprising singer-songwriters who start their own labels to record and distribute their music are hailed for bucking the system.  But if you self-publish, you’re considered a lazy hack who couldn’t get published the traditional way. 

Publishing seems to be the only industry where this type of entrepreneurial resourcefulness has been discouraged.  The message has been don’t self-publish because no self-respecting author does it and no good will come of it.  It’s like telling a chef not to open his own restaurant because chefs don’t open their own restaurants.   

Maybe it’s partially because writing is seen as a highly intellectual pursuit and one not everyone is adept at.  Writing is so subjective, though.  For every critically acclaimed book/author who can’t crack the New York Times Bestseller list, there are writers who get savaged by the critics (and even readers) yet sell books like hotcakes (regardless of which category you fall into, if we’re calling ourselves writers, at the very least, we should all learn the basics of writing.)

I think ebooks are becoming the publishing industry’s version of the indie film.  A lot of authors who couldn’t get past the “gatekeepers” are redefining publishing by presenting their fresh, fun and unique voices in a new and exciting way.  Even more interesting, many of these authors find themselves in the position of entertaining offers from the big publishing houses. 

The publishing industry is only going to keep evolving and pooh-poohing these changes is a waste of time.  The best thing an aspiring writer can do is keep trying, keep learning and above all, keep writing.



Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Odds and Ends

I couldn’t decide on just one topic this week, so I’m throwing up some randoms:

Follow the Crowd
I had a baffling exchange with someone last week.  They were condemning anyone who leaves one-star book reviews on Amazon, saying they should just stop reading the book instead if they don’t like it.  They went on to say that anyone who didn’t like popular/critically acclaimed fiction probably couldn’t grasp anything more literary than a comic book.

There was one esteemed book in particular that she felt everyone in world should love, because…everyone in the world did love it (or so it would seem – it has a healthy amount of one-star reviews on Amazon).  I mentioned a member of my family with multiple advanced degrees who read said book and thought it was terrible.  The retort was something along the lines of “well, she’s wrong, because everyone loved that book.”


While I had several issues with these statements (mostly the flawed logic), my biggest beefs were the assertion that 1) if you don’t like what everyone else likes, there’s something wrong with you and 2) in particular, if you don’t like so-called “highbrow,” critically acclaimed literature, you must be an idiot.

There are numerous critically acclaimed, award-winning everyone’s-reading-this-so-you-must-read it-too books that I’ve read in my lifetime that I just don’t care for.  And on the flip side, there are an equal amount of award-winning, critically acclaimed books that I have read and loved. 

And the great thing is, either way, I’m entitled. 


The Next Big Thing?
Last week’s big buzz was all about the Kindle Fire HD.  There was also the introduction of Kindle Serials, which allows users to subscribe to a serial novel.  Instead of buying the individual segments, you buy the book up front and the installments are delivered to your Kindle automatically.  No line, no waiting.

This is a pretty brilliant idea. 

No judgment, but in a nod to my youth, this summer, I scooped up “The Sweet Life” (the new series based on the old “Sweet Valley High” books) like candy out of a busted piƱata.  The new series provides an update on what the Wakefield twins and their pals are up to today.  The six-part e-series was released in weekly installments and silly plots aside, I was hooked. 

Amazon says with the Kindle Serials, it wants to put a modern spin on serialized stories of the past and will allow readers to provide feedback, helping to guide future story.  Kindle Series means a built-in audience, audience buy-in and the ability to expand the audience as the word-of-mouth grows.

I’ll be very curious to see how this progresses, but on the surface, brilliant.

It’s Not As Easy As You Think
New York Times bestselling author, Sue Grafton, caught some heat over the summer for disparaging remarks about self-publishing, saying the self-published are, “too lazy to do the hard work,” and “that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy…without bothering to read, study or do the research…learning to construct a narrative and create character, learning to balance pace, description and dialogue takes a long time.”

She has since apologized, calling self-publishing “a whole new thrust for publication that apparently everyone has been aware of except yours truly.”

I agree with her that you’ve got to do the work and learn the craft.  Where she’s dead wrong is the assertion that it’s easy.  You take on ten times as much work as Traditional Authors of Publishing’s Past; you’ve got to write the book, find an editor or edit it yourself (risky), find an artist to do your cover, format it, market it, build a platform and lather, rinse, repeat with the next books. 

Self-published authors don’t have the muscle of a traditional publishing house behind them to do the heavy lifting.  There was a time when all you had to was write (which, as we know is often easier said than done).  Today’s evolving marketplace means a lot of the old rules just don’t apply anymore. 

It’s a new day…carpe diem!


Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Devil is In The Details

A few months ago, while messing around on Amazon in search of some new material for my Kindle, I stumbled across what looked to be an intriguing little ditty about people mysteriously dying in a neighborhood.  I’m always up for a good suspense novel, so I downloaded it and dug in.

Well, I was pretty shocked by what I read.  And I don’t mean because it was such a delicious, twisty story that I couldn’t put down; it was because the writing was what I would have expected from a 12-year old, not an adult claiming to be a professional writer – and who’s charging money to boot.  This was a self-published piece, so I know some people say you have to make some allowances. 

There’s allowances and then there’s just turning a blind eye.

If anything, you have to elevate your game even more to overcome that “self-published” stigma of poor quality and amateurish writing (and frankly, calling the writing “amateurish” is being kind).  None of the characters were described beyond such shallow terms as “hot,” “good-looking,” or “disgusting.”  There was hardly any dialogue and a mountain of redundancies.  Not to mention typos galore, poor vocabulary and atrocious grammar.

In reading this particular book, so many of the BASICS were missing, I had to wonder if the author 1) had ever read a professionally published book; 2) asked anyone to read the manuscript for them before publishing it. 

While much of the writing that populates popular fiction is, shall we say, subjective (*cough*, “Fifty Shades of Grey” *cough, cough*), the truth is, besides the aforementioned basics of good grammar, syntax and vocabulary, there are some standard conventions we as readers should expect to see in a book and as writers, we should all be adhering to, such as: 

1.     Describe What The Characters Look Like
It’s not enough to say your character is “beautiful” or “handsome” or “ugly” or “impressive looking.”  WHY are they beautiful, handsome, ugly or impressive looking?  Are they tall, short, fat, have acne, thinning hair, or a neck littered with moles? Describing what people look like adds depth and richness to the characterizations.  

In “Gone With the Wind,” Margaret Mitchell gets right to it on page one when describing Scarlett O’Hara: “Her eyes were pale green without a touch of hazel…magnolia-white skin…her new green flowered-muslin dress…set off to perfection the seventeen-inch waist…and breasts well-matured for her sixteen years.” 

It’s even more interesting when you give them a flaw – like make your protagonist beautiful, but give her slightly crooked teeth or a limp or one green eye and one brown.  It’s not necessary to describe a character to within an inch of their life – in fact it’s distracting to do so – but give the reader SOMETHING to hang their hat on. 

2.     Make them Talk
Years ago, I read a book that contained a line of dialogue so awful, I still remember it to this day.  Two characters were talking about TV shows, when one asked the other, “Did you ever watch Show X?  It was a short-lived TV show that ran on CBS.”

Come on, now.  Who says “short-lived” in everyday life? (and mind you, this was a traditionally published book, which just goes to show bad writing isn't limited to the self-published). It would have been more realistic to say something like, “Do you remember Show X from a few years ago?  It wasn’t on for that long.”  Or even, “Did you ever watch Show X? It came out a few years ago, but it was only on for a couple of episodes.”

Admittedly, dialogue is tough.  It serves a multitude of purposes; it develops your characters, moves the story forward and provides conflict.  And it has to sound realistic.  Big job.

Elmore Leonard is considered a master at writing dialogue, winning praise for the whip-smart, snappy banter between his characters.  In a recent profile of Leonard, the “L.A. Times Magazine” says his dialogue twists, snaps and curls in the actors' mouths."   

Granted, we’re not all going to be able to do what Elmore Leonard does, but we can at least shoot to make our characters sound realistic.  Listen to conversations around you and take note of the cadence and the tone.  Also, have the dialogue count for something.  Don’t just say your characters had a nice dinner.  What did they talk about during dinner?  What plot points can you drop into that conversation? 

3.     Describe Everything Else
Similar to character descriptions, this one sometimes gets the shaft.  Giving a little bit of description as to what a room looks like or what something tastes, sounds or smells like, such as the crunch of sand between bare feet as the salty sea air washes over…you get the point. Using the five senses to paint a picture brings the story to life.

Sometimes, this can go overboard.  I read a suspense book years ago where the author described each and every meal the characters ate in excruciating detail.  This wasn’t a cookbook or book where one of the characters was in the food industry.  The overdone descriptions about food added nothing to the plot and just distracted from the story.  

Setting the scene anchors the characters, yet moves them and the plot forward.  Consider this vivid description from “The Firm,” of a crappy car:

“The ancient Mazda hatchback with three hubcaps and a badly cracked windshield hung in the gutter…with three job offers on the table, a new car was four months away.”

The description of this car really highlights the precarious financial situation Mitch McDeere and his wife, Abby, are in.  Sure, you can say, they’re poor and have a stack of bills and you kind of get the picture.  But giving this one little detail fleshes out the predicament while serving as a subtle, yet far-reaching plot point; when Mitch goes to work for the Firm, they’re gifted with a brand new BMW, which is one of a series of traps that sets them up to be sucked into the Firm’s nefarious Web.  Small detail.  Big payoff.

I never read that book I downloaded.  I gave up about 20% in before I skimmed through to the end before deleting it out of my Kindle altogether.  I can forgive a lot of things, such as occasionally stilted dialogue, the odd typo here and there, excessive exposition (if it’s interesting at least.  If it takes a character ten pages to walk into a room, I’m outta there), plot holes (seriously, if anyone can tell me what the motive for murder was in the otherwise highly-entertaining, “S is for Silence,” by Sue Grafton, I’m listening) convoluted plots – even paper-thin plots – if the writing at least is solid.  I can’t, however, suffer through bad grammar, limited vocabulary, and mangled syntax.  I do need there to be some meat on the bones of the characters, some descriptions, some dialogue.

Isn’t that what a story’s all about?