Tag Archives: writing

Commodity or Magnum Opus?

Some people blow through a book in a day or two, while others take a couple of weeks or more. Many people just inhale them like a sweet breeze, one after the other, without stopping in between. I’m worse than that — I just forget the endings of books I enjoy. (Truth is, I don’t even finish books I don’t love.) To most avid readers, books are not only an unquestionable right, but they are taken for granted as a vital component of life.

It’s like when the tourists cruise through the Sistine Chapel, look up and say, “Look honey, Michelangelo’s painting, now let’s go get some spaghetti.”

But to a writer who may spend a year or more writing the damned thing, think about how we feel when we see a pile of books stacked up 5 feet high against the wall of a summer cabin and the proud readers saying, “We read all of these books this summer!” It’s an intractable dilemma. It’s not easy to write a book, and for some it’s extraordinarily difficult and a compelling feat. So when a reader zooms through it and moves on casually to the next one, how are we to reconcile this disparity?

Think of the planning, outlining, and writing. And writing. And writing. Then the editing, proofing, and rewriting. And rewriting. And editing some more. And then the synopsis. And for some who choose to submit their work for mainstream publishing, the sterilizing and demoralizing query process. Then the rejections. More queries. More rejections. Finally the agent, then the selling to the publisher. The reworking of some parts. The publisher meetings. The marketing meetings. The marketing. For the DIY writers, the layout–the horrible horrible layout process, then the pre-marketing, the blogging, the begging for interviews and reviews, the vetting of e-book/free-book websites, the setting up your website and trying to figure out the e-commerce plugins and CSS and HTML, the tweeting and more tweeting, the artwork, the printer or POD joint, the price gouging, the amazon threads that will make you gouge your eyes out, the paltry and late checks from your method of distribution.

And some asshole reads the thing in a weekend?

There it is, that’s the truth. We are at odds with the very mode of entertainment we choose to pursue. We can’t possibly ask or expect the reader to study and appreciate every word and page as we did; we don’t want them to know how we made the sausages, after all.

This supports my argument that short fiction, novellas, and experimental-length and format fiction should not only have more of a platform, especially with e-books, but that more authors ought to put out more of this type of work. ESPECIALLY with more e-books, because readers will devour even more of our work with this enhanced format, right? RIGHT? So all the better to fill up our tanks not with the predictably dull 80,000 word novels, but with interesting work that we can package with other media to deliver in the increasingly sophisticated (but still clunky) devices for reading.

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Are You Scrooge McDuck?

Scrooge McDuck couldn’t get enough of what he thought he wanted.

He was never happy with what he had.

No matter how much money and things he collected, he always wanted more.

Sound familiar?

Even if you’re not a materialistic, greedy bastard, you want more from your writing career. But what’s so bad about that? It’s ambitious, right? For some, we want our writing to be our career, and so ambition and wanting more is a catalyst for that success we envision.

Writing makes me happy. I am likely not talented enough to see my writing rise above most other independent writers’ work and so I must accept that the term career does not signify the end of my day job. So logically, my objective then is to write for my own sanity, and when I choose to make it public, the bonus feature is to receive accolades and critique from other trusted peers–writers, friends, strangers–who take the time to read my work.

So that should be enough, right? RIGHT?

Sometimes I feel like Scrooge McDuck, who always wants more out of the words I put on paper. I struggle as the victim of the competitive spirit of the little industrious writing community, even despite my fiercely independent status. I want to earn more fans and readers. I want people to love my work and discuss it. I want Focus Features to come knocking to make films of my stories.

And then I feel shame. I should be pleased and content with having the ability to write what I can.

Oh fuck that.

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Attention

What kind of attention do you want, as a writer?

Your first instinct, if you’re someone I hang around with, is to say you’d like any and all attention, just to get your writing some visibility. You are so confident in your work (hopefully) that you are anxious, eager, and bursting at the seams to get more eyeballs on your work.

You are willing to throw it all in for that attention. You’ve blogged exhaustively. You’ve been nice to people you don’t know and don’t so much care about all over the internet. Your Twitter life is overtaking your own, all for the sake of gaining fans, followers, readers.

You are reading every piece of shit and every mark of brilliance you can get your hands on so that you can raise your own bar for your work product. The book review process is painful for you, with little feedback or responses. You feel like you’ve built the only platform you can, but…

You admittedly whore yourself all over the blogosphere, commenting everywhere and trying tactfully to get your plug in wherever you can.

You hang on opportunities to get a  reading, or a mention on some notorious blog.

You study those stats, analyze the analytics, and query to death your traffic. You’re doing everything you can, in between your day  job, your kids, your mortgage, your in-laws, and the goddamned lawn that needs to be mowed. Fuck.

So here comes an opportunity, you think, to really blow yourself out of the water. To really shine. You need something because everyone around you is raising that bar, doing video book trailers and podcasts, and selling just a few more through the Amazon threads (or so they say), than you are.

And you are better. You know what will bring attention to you. You didn’t want to talk about politics, or religion, or baby-killers, whatever the hell it will take to bring attention to yourself, just to get more eyes on your work. But then all of a sudden, you think, maybe being shameless isn’t as shameless as it may seem. Everyone else is doing their thing, why are you keeping to the book and maintaining all of the integrity that you feel may be the one thing holding you back?

So you go ahead and make that post or you label yourself in such a way that, well, labels you. You lay it all out.

Have you LOST YOUR FUCKING MIND?

Not necessarily, but you’ve lost yourself. You lost your objective. What is your objective? You are an independent writer. You need to be proud of your work and the few readers who do appreciate your writing and art. Not that you shouldn’t aim higher because you always should. But just leave it at that, will you?

Indie writers are surrounded by exponentially-expanding ranks of competition for a diminishing group of readers. There are enormous opportunities, but you have to love what you’re doing because you love writing and talking about writing and reading about writing and arguing about writing to feel any glory. Or else you really have lost your integrity.

And so then what the fuck are you doing if you have no integrity?

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Opening My Eyes and Tuning In

I took the earphones out and shut off my music. Then I opened my eyes, as I grabbed a seat on the downtown 4 train at about 5pm last Friday. It’s the New York City subway and oddly, there was a sense of lightness, content, and connection. I’m not sure I know how else to describe it. I made eye contact with several people, instead of looking at the floor, reading, or gazing into a parallel universe.

Two older women stepped on and there was a friendly fuss over seats given up for them. Then one lady began to hum and sing. At first I thought my ears were deceiving me. Then I looked right over at her and she leaned back in her seat and smiled as she sang what sounded to be hymnals, in French. I thought she might be Haitian. Within moments there was banter–the aloof high schooler who put down her summer reading to listen and observe leaned over and smiled. The guy who looked like he just busted out of Riker’s peered over and smiled, glancing around at others to engage them in this woman’s unprompted muse.

Anyone within earshot had pulled out their headphones. And interestingly this woman wasn’t singing to be heard, necessarily, as subway performers often do. She was singing out of pure joy.

I don’t know, or remember, what pure joy is. The hours and days after giving birth to my two kids was pure joy; and then later seeing each take their first steps. But I don’t otherwise have joy. So the next best thing is to witness someone truly bursting with joy to the point of song.

This sounds entirely sentimental, I know, and very much out of character for me. But I learned just a little bit about the benefits of connecting with the environment–as hostile as it sometimes may be–and by observing the emotions and expressions of others, even strangers.

Can I inject a little of that sensibility into my writing? I hope so, since much of [my] writing is drawn from personal experience, but more realistically, that experience may just be second-hand. Witnessing expressions of a range of emotion and having the sensibility to observe and document is important. Then the beauty of writing is to take those snapshots and articulate them so the reader is right there with you observing and feeling, whether it is a fictional or true experience.

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This Is Not About Sports. Ok, It Kind Of Is.

I was listening to Boomer & Carton on WFAN (New York area sports talk radio for those outside my universe) yesterday morning on my horrendous drive to work and they were discussing the sorry state of the Mets. (Always glad I’m a Yankee fan.) On just about every show, there is just one itty-bitty item that sets off Boomer Esiason that you would never expect, and he gets all heated and passionate, and then they move onto the next thing. Yesterday, at about 6:15am, Boomer went on a tirade against the Mets pitcher Oliver Perez accusing him of not having the mental gumption to get through a competitive game. He said that Perez just didn’t have the competitive spirit–the backbone of sports–that major league baseball requires to be successful.

While I was zoning out and waiting for the talking heads to get to a real baseball team with prospects for a successful future (e.g., the Yankees), I perked up when I heard Boomer articulate his thoughts on this pitcher.  I couldn’t help but get drawn in to what was not only a message from one very successful former professional athlete to a struggling pro, but the debate about Perez’s fundamental talent versus his competitive spirit, and psychological make-up of someone facing enormous public pressure.

And so there it is, my proposed baseball analogy that you all know and love about me. Some will have stopped reading already, but I do contend that perhaps we should be having a parallel debate about how come some writers just don’t succeed despite their talent. It’s been very easy lately to paint those writers as fundamentally flawed if they can’t market themselves and leverage technology–independent or not. While that is true to a certain extent, the notion of competitive spirit is something we don’t hear much about in the independent writing community. Many of us are indeed talented, many are not, and yet the success rate doesn’t necessarily reflect those proportions respectively.

So what does having the gumption to bear enormous pain (rejections), adversity (bad reviews), dealing with a weak link in the team (lack of publishing support), and come out of it a better athlete (writer) mean? It means coming out fighting and focused on prevailing. Setting your objective to W-I-N and never faltering is how professional athletes continue on despite injuries, losing streaks, and media-bashing. So then we writers have a few lessons to learn about channeling our mental energy when preparing to launch our work into the world. When I used to train as a boxer, my trainer would keep telling me, “Don’t be afraid of failure, you have to go all the way.” I didn’t understand what he was saying. I only learned what it meant when I met people who indeed never took a step ahead because they were petrified of failing, so they stayed still. Static.

As Lefsetz says (geez, I never quote that guy…thanks, Mike Cane), half-assing it will never get you anywhere.

Well, fuck, man, I have a day job, car payments, debt, school loans, and most importantly, two amazing beautiful little kids to support. I am implicitly half-assing my writing “career”, and so what do I expect–a 5-picture deal from MGM to adapt my stories to the screen? Hell no. Ain’t going to happen. Writing is not the lottery.

It’s not that I don’t have the competitive gumption. I’m not even giving myself the opportunity to effectively compete because of the obstacles I’ve set up for myself. If I really, REALLY wanted to be a widely-read author, I’d quit my dayjob, sell the house, learn to love eating cat food, take my kids out of their school and put them in the public system along with the meth addicts here in my town, and write 10 hours a day. For 10 years. And eat cat food. And go out every weekend to force myself into readings EVERYFUCKINGWHERE. I’d be writing up and down everywhere for every magazine, journal, and internetz blog I could get access to.

I’m not doing that. Are you?

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The Legacy of Publishing’s Ownership of Work

There are a couple of things here that you may think are unrelated but I’ll try to bridge the gap and make a coherent argument in support of my thesis. I contend that the history and very institution of publishing has lent itself to a culture of a lack of ownership by authors and artists, resulting in today’s hysterical clamoring on privacy issues.

You all have a better sense of the publishing industry since Gutenberg than I do, so there’s no need to retread. So just think about how difficult it is to turn that Titanic of a beast around in just a few short years. I’m no industry apologist–I think that’s been made clear–and I’m not saying that we should give it some time. I’m asking that we reconsider how we are framing the debate around the breakdown of the traditional publishing industry; the rise of the independent author; the risks and opportunities of technology to serve readers, established authors, and independent writers; and the implications of copyright, privacy, and ownership on all of the above. Here are some of the areas through which we have to change our perspective in order to offer thriving solutions:

Agents. While agents have no doubt played a pivotal role in mediating the publishing industry’s desire for total control of a text and an author’s rightful assertion of ownership, they have also perpetuated that very dispute. How? They haven’t fought on behalf of writers for their fundamental rights, because that is not their role, traditionally. Sure, a good agent has fought for more money, bigger marketing budget, a favorable contract that matches the author’s strengths. However, agents have supported the passive-aggressive nature of the publishing industry in recent decades by fighting within the publishing companies’ own rules.

See, what I mean by that is this issue of framing our own perception of things. We have to work outside what we know as the traditional boundaries. Isn’t that what successful technology innovators do? Next:

Ownership, Privacy and Copyright. I never thought I would get hung upon this, but every day we are seeing some outrageous assertions of ownership, and not by the authors. Where the hell are our writer-brethren taking to the proverbial streets and proclaiming their ownership of their works? Because we are seeing press releases and contract clauses and Terms of Services stating proudly that the content deliverer retains at least some aspect of the rights to the work in perpetuity, or some godforsaken thing. Come on, y’all, that’s just ridiculous.

What I’m trying to get at here is that writers have been utterly de-fanged over the years of publishing industry beatdowns, reinforced by agents. We need more Stephen King and less, well, of everybody else. (Which is to say, we need more writers who tell the industry paper-pushers to fuck off. See Hunter S. Thompson’s comment to this effect.)

It’s not rocket science. It just means operating outside the “Terms of Service” and when enough of us do so, and if we create a strong enough demand in the marketplace for our work, miraculously those terms of service will derive from our side of the dispute, not the publishers’.

Now I’m not talking about bunnies and unicorns: this is going require a tremendous amount of discipline. Which brings me to my next point:

Desperation. This is the reason why the industry as we know it has perpetuated. Writers in general are desperate for exposure and that potential big gain from a publishing contract. So what do they do? Give it all up. That’s right, they give up their e-book rights and derivative marketing rights to a marketing department full of 22 year old interns with no budget who foil that author’s attempt at success because they don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. But the writer is ok with this, because they know that the risk they’ve put on the table is worth the possible reward. Wait, not it’s not. The rewards of signing with a major publishing company suck, and the chances of a $1 million book contract are nil, so why not publish yourself and instead play the lottery each week for a better chance to win? BECAUSE WRITERS ARE SO FUCKING DESPERATE THEY ARE BLIND.

I guess we could consider what it is that has made writers so desperate. Maybe it is in our personalities: we create something and put it out there and hope for accolades, because that piece of writing is an extension of ourselves. Maybe writers are just talented people who didn’t get enough love and so this is what they do. Except I’m not a shrink and couldn’t possibly assert any truth there. All I know is that when there is a mass population (there are a shitload of writers) who require such enormous public accolades, with a finite number of readers (and by extension a finite amount of money you can earn from selling your work which is in effect a measure of that public love), there are bound to be disappointments. Lots of disappointment.

Is it social Darwinism of writing? I don’t accept that because it assumes a framework from which to judge good or bad writing and assigning it a successful or unsuccessful stamp. But clearly our expectations must change or else we are all headed for continued disappointment.

Democratizing the world of reading and writing will help everyone, I’m sure of it. No more hardcover books, sold at ridiculous prices–there’s just no need. No bottlenecks and gatekeepers needed any longer, you are relieved of duty. The internetz can enable this democratization of the book and content marketplace, but let’s just keep aware of the vultures who prey on writers’ naiveté  or their unwillingness to blaze their own trail, instead of following the trail of peanuts right back to the monsters that ripped out their teeth.

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Ego vs. Self

I’ve taken a beating lately. Most of us go through periods when we take beatings pretty intensely. I always keep going back to that stupid adage, What doesn’t kill you now makes you stronger, and think how meaningless that is. But I wonder now if it’s not as stupid and cliche as I once thought. I say that because as the beatings continue in one form or another, I am wondering if I will emerge with a consciously different perspective–a different person, so to speak.

In the context of taking a beating as a writer, as we know our personal lives infect our writing–for better or for worse. So when our egos undergo a gang rape, can the true self overcome the bruised ego and help us channel our energy to develop more acutely interesting art? I sure as hell hope so. I mean, the reality of experiencing shitty things is subjective: there are people I know well who are currently experiencing massively worse shit than I have lately. But that’s not the point here. Whether my true self can continue to write and write effectively while my ego whines and bitches and moans about how awful things are is going to ultimately define my future as an artist.

This is the turning point, I guess, right? When the real cliches harken, “This is what separates the men from the boys,” et cetera. Do I give up and pick up knitting, or television, or do I keep on keepin’ on and trudge through this fucking disaster and hope that the words I pump out continue to provide me and others some degree of gratification. Because that’s why we write, right? For gratification in one degree or another?

I listened to a story on NPR about people not quitting despite these horrendous odds. Marathoners and such. And what seemed to be consistent were the spiritual journeys many people experienced when their true selves pushed them to their finish line, rather than succumbing to their egos telling them to stop.

But see, I’m confused. I don’t know yet the distinct voices of my ego and my true self. I’m not even sure I have two distinct voices in there. That’s what is making healing through this mess even harder to deal with: I can’t even trust the voice that keeps telling me to go on, since continuing onward seems to just present more opportunities for failure and pain. Keep writing, and people will keep telling you it’s shit. You’re shit. I’m shit. Maybe they’re shit, but it doesn’t really matter, now that the shit is out there, right?

The rebirth of a writer when a personal revolution like this is occurring can be pivotal–more of you have a better grasp on literary history than I do. The high points can be high, indeed: there are no limits. But that same philosophy can be paralyzing, knowing that all of the choices ahead can be either a minefield or a diamond mine. Or neither.

This isn’t really a question of whether I will continue to write. No doubt I will, despite it all. It’s now a matter of what I put out there for others to read.

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