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Nathan Bransford is the author of JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW, a middle grade novel about three kids who blast off into space, break the universe, and have to find their way back home, which will be published by Dial Books for Young Readers in May 2011. He was formerly a literary agent with Curtis Brown Ltd., but is now a publishing civilian working in the tech industry. He lives in San Francisco.
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As you probably know if you have ever been asked to ponder the relative benefits of trim size and paper stock and e-book conversions, there is whole a lot more that goes into a book than just writing it.
Another way of thinking of publishers is not as companies that decide your fate as an author, but rather as companies that offer the authors they've chosen to work with a comprehensive package of services.
Here are the basic services traditional publishers provide for an author, why these services matter, and how this is (and isn't) changing:
Editing and Copyediting:
While the myth that editors don't edit is alive and well, the truth is that books are edited and copyedited at traditional publishers (please please please know the difference between editing and copyediting). This affords a certain degree of quality control. Now, sure, we've all spotted typos in books, which infect us temporarily with disproportionate outrage and a jolt of smugness. It happens. But all you have to do is read this blog on a regular basis to see the horrorshow of typos that results from text published without copyediting.
Editors and copyeditors (yes, still), provide professional editorial expertise that improve books. I'm sure you've heard they don't edit and copyedit anymore. It's not true.
Cover, trim size, interior design, illustrations/photographs, font choice, paper choice, etc. The best-designed books are works of art.
Printing and Distribution:
Once the books are actually produced, someone has to get them into bookstores and e-bookstores. Traditionally this has been the irreplaceable service offered by publishers. Not only would they make the books, they would draw upon their reputation, sales teams, and infrastructure to get print books into bookstores in large numbers.
Even in the e-book era distribution still matters. There are new e-book vendors cropping up every day, and publishers have the scale to sell their e-books in as many venues as possible while dealing with all of the accompanying electronic conversion headaches.
Publicity and Marketing:
At minimum publishers get their books sent out for review and do some basic advertising. When a publisher turns on the publicity and marketing fire hose for their biggest books, they will manage book tours, author appearances, giveaways, major advertising campaigns, co-op, and much more. Publicity and marketing aren't everything, but they can provide a major boost.
Patronage (i.e. an advance):
While debut novelists almost always have to figure out how to write a novel on their own time and dime, publishers nevertheless offer nonfiction authors and previously published novelists money in advance of writing the actual books, which both rewards authors before their book actually comes out and theoretically supports them as they're writing it. Obviously the degree of support this affords the author depends on the amount of the advance, but money up front that the author doesn't have to pay back even if the book tanks ain't nothin' to sneeze at.
Aside from all the tangible services publishers offer authors, there is one intangible element: cachet. There is something to be said for the sel
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As much as I have been enjoying the Monday Page Critiques, I'm afraid there's been a noticeable downward tick in participation, comments, pageviews, etc., and I worry that it was getting a little stale as a regular blog topic. Ratings were too low, alien plotline didn't catch on with viewers, had to make room for new J.J. Abrams show, you know how it goes.
So rather than devote every Monday post to the page critiques, I shall be returning Monday to original topics.
BUT! Weekly Page Critiques will live on in the Forums, where I'll host weekly Friday Page Critique threads with the exact same idea. I'll link to them in This Week in Publishing to remind everyone to click over, and hopefully the Forums will be a better place for the critiques. Please continue to enter one page in this thread if you'd like to have your work critiqued.
And now, since this could hardly thus far be considered a proper blog post, I will leave you with the most hilarious cat video I have seen on the Internet. Everything is better with hilarious cats:
There were a few controversies this week in publishing. Firstly, if you have ever attended a conference with the fabulous YA Author Ellen Hopkins, you know that in addition to being a brilliant writer and storyteller she's also a terrific, honest, and inspiring speaker and devotes a huge amount of time to mentoring up-and-coming writers. So it was very distressing to hear that she was dis-invited from the Teen Lit Fest in Humble, Texas, due to a librarian's complaint. In the wake of the news about Hopkins, several additional writers subsequently withdrew from the event in protest.
Secondly, bestselling author Jody Picoult made some waves this week when she accused the NY Times Book Review of a white male literary fiction bias in the wake of Michiko Kakutani's rave about Jonathan Franzen's upcoming novel FREEDOM. While I leave it to you the reader to agree or disagree with this characterization of the NYTBR, PWxyz's Jonathan Segura recalled the Kakutani/Franzen spat of 2008: After Kakutani slammed Franzen's memoir THE DISCOMFORT ZONE, calling it, "an odious self-portrait of the artist as a young jackass: petulant, pompous, obsessive, selfish and overwhelmingly self-absorbed," Franzen shot back, calling Kakutani "The stupidest person in New York City."
And in further controversy (or is it?), industry sage Mike Shatzkin wrote a post that characterized print books, as "On a path to oblivion." The crucial takeaway: "Indeed, the insistence by some people that they will “never” give up the printed book — which leads to rather ludicrous glorification of the smell of the paper, ink, and glue and the nonsensical objections that the screen would be unsuitable for the beach (depends on the screen) or the bathtub (I can’t even imagine what the presumed advantage of the printed book is there) — must ignore the fundamental dynamic. Print books aren’t getting better. Ebooks are." No doubt there will be lots of reactions to this article, and we have already been discussing this in the Forums.
Once you have followed the gentle suggestions in the How to Write a Novel post and done gone and written yourself a novel, (or if you've written a nonfiction book proposal), it is then time to see what the world thinks of it. The first step in this process if you are seeking traditional publication is to find an agent.
Please check out this post about how to find a literary agent, since a query letter is not the only way of going about it. But chances are you will at some point have to sit down and write one of these beastly missives. Here's how you do it. What to Know Before You Start
A query letter is part business letter, part creative writing exercise, part introduction, part death defying leap through a flaming hoop. (Don't worry, you won't catch fire and die during the query process though it may feel precisely like that at times). In essence: it is a letter describing your project.
The first thing to know about writing query letters is that there are as many opinions out on the Internet about query letters as there are, well, opinions on the Internet. You will find lots of dos and don'ts and peeves and strategies and formulas. The important thing to remember about this is that everyone is wrong except for me. (Just kidding. The important thing to remember is that you will need to choose the ideas that work best for you).
As the immortal Douglas Adams said, don't panic! Write the best letter you can, be yourself, don't overthink it too much, don't sweat it if you realize the second after you sent it that you made a typo or accidentally called me Vicky. If an agent is going to get mad or reject you over something trivial like that they're probably not the type of person you'd want to work with anyway.
The second thing to do before you write the query is to research. This is because you need to do your darndest to:
1) Figure out which agents would be the right fit for your work - Three basic things to figure out: a) does the agent represent your genre, b) do they represent something too similar to your project, c) do they seem like they would be a good fit for you. The answers should be a) yes, b) no, c) yes. 2) Figure out the agent's submission procedure
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We should probably first agree that this is a rather large topic. One might even call it rotund, ginormous, massive, weighty, of-gargantuan-proportions, etc. But lately I have heard from several would-be writers with a very common sentiment.
I want to write a novel, I think I can write a novel, but for the love of Tim Gunn, how in the world do you write a novel?
And that brings us to the most important advice I can offer in this How to Write a Novel overview. If you try and hold the entire novel in your head all at once and attempt to imagine it in its entirety and all of its various ins and outs, your brain will suddenly become so heavy that you will topple over backwards and pass out.
Don't be intimidated by the bigness of the task. As the great Donald Trump would say: It is a 'UGE task. 'uge. The best thing you can do is to break a novel up into some comprehensible components that you can think about in a coherent fashion and try as hard as you can not to be intimated.
Contrary to the myth of the writer sitting down blindly and letting their inspiration spill onto the page, whether you're a thorough outliner or an adherent to the school of write-as-you-go-I'll-edit-later, I highly recommend having at least a rough sketch of the below elements in place before you sit down and type "Chapter 1: It was a dark and stormy night."
The Main Plot Arc
This right here is the spine of the book. It's what happens, it's what you build around, it's the main event. When people ask you what your book is about, this is what you tell them.
I like to think of every novel, whether it's literary fiction or genre fiction, as a quest: Every quest has:
1) a starting place 2) a first step 3) a journey (the biggest chunk of the novel) 4) an ending
Take a look at all of your favorite novels - they have a starting place, then something sets the main character's world ajar, then the character embarks on a literal or figurative journey with significant obstacles, and then an ending, where the character either ends up somewhere new or ends up back where they started but irrevocably changed.
There are millions of variations on this quest, whether it's a journey through the mind, battling personal demons, or flying through outer space, but every single novel is about a character or characters who start in one place and end up somewhere else. That journey, physical or emotional or hopefully both, is the heart of the novel.
Obstacles of increasing intensity, with ups and downs
If the most challenging obstacle your main character faces happens in the first half of the book: the reader will be bored in the second half. If your character gets everything they want and always has "up" moments: the reader will be bored with the predictability. If your character only has "down" moments and things get steadily worse and worse with no hope whatsoever: your reader will either be horrifically depressed or start to think everything is unintentionally funny.
Thanks very much to the intrepid WilliamJJones for offering his page for critique! Random.org has been very good to Mr. Jones lately as he was also randomly selected to be a participant in Be An Agent for a Day II. Now if he would just buy a lottery ticket for me we should be all set.
This is a solid page and it's hard not to be struck by the essential question: is the voice in the protagonist's head their own or someone else's? Who is this mysterious other person? Where are the voices leading the protagonist? There's some good mystery here that will keep the reader wanting to find out what happens next.
This page gets off on solid footing and I think it works reasonably well as is, but aside from the usual tightening-up edits, I have one sneaking worry about it: vagueness.
It's so difficult to build mystery in an opening. There's a very tricky balance between giving the reader what they need to know to understand the mystery vs. leaving some questions unanswered so it's mysterious vs. holding out on the reader by leaving out too many details, and I feel like this page may tilt just a bit too much to the latter. The (very) rough rule of thumb about building mystery, especially with first person narratives, is that the reader should see/know roughly what the narrator see/knows. When a first person narrator isn't letting the reader in on what they know they risk feeling like the author is holding out on them.
There are moments in this page that feel like the author is cheating a bit with a first person perspective (e.g. "The cameras had not detected this person." - how does the protagonist know this?), and there were other times when it felt like the protagonist was unnecessarily withholding detail from the reader. The mechanics of this: "The classroom door opened easily despite being locked." go unexplained (though perhaps will come later). This: "If this person was like me, I would get an answer" will have the reader saying "like what?" "what answer?" And this: "I thought I knew where the person was going" had me saying, "Well, why can't I know where the protagonist is guessing this person is going?" One or two of these on their own would probably be fine and contribute to a sense of mystery. Add them up together and the reader might feel like the narrator is being overly coy.
The last point I'd make on vagueness is that while the narrator seems to be aware that they are listening to voices in their head, aside from casually wondering if they're going crazy the character seemed oddly ambivalent about the voices, and I wasn't sure I fully believed that - if you were aware of the voices in your head wouldn't you be scared/awed/trying to get rid of them/something by them? And I was similarly confused by how nervous/apprehensive the protagonist is. While he/she quickly hides and breathes a sigh of relief when he/she isn't caught, he/she then feels no urgency to leave. So is this character scared or not? Why would they nearly escape and then feel no urgency to leave?
Overall, while I think this page is already in a reasonably good place, I feel like it would be just a bit stronger if the reader were let a bit more inside the protagonist's head and that just a bit more personality and emotion were infused into this opening.
Title: I'm a Nobody Genre: YA Fantasy 250 Words
I obeyed the voice in my head without question. The classroom door opened easily despite being locked I was confused by this - at first in a good way, but then as the mysteries accumulated I started feeling a bit held out on. I closed it silently and turned to the dark room. Moments later the sound of footsteps came from the hall. They were fast and sharp. They grew
Monday! In a further further-attempt to make the blog more navigable, I've gone back and updated the post labels so that hopefully they are a bit more comprehensive, and I will try to continue to be good about that.
See, watch this. Monkeys. Now I shall tag the post monkeys! Also every post is better when monkeys are mentioned.
As of this posting there were 434 posts in the thread, and the number that the good machine at random.org gave me was..........
Congrats to WilliamMJones, whose page is below:
Title: I'm a Nobody Genre: YA Fantasy 250 Words
I obeyed the voice in my head without question. The classroom door opened easily despite being locked. I closed it silently and turned to the dark room. Moments later the sound of footsteps came from the hall. They were fast and sharp. They grew closer, until they were just outside the room, and then they began to fade. I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I had almost been caught trespassing.
It was nearing midnight, and the school’s security system was working, but I felt no urgency to leave. The cameras had not detected this person. “Someone else can do it too?” I asked.
I obeyed, throwing open the door and chasing the source of the footsteps through the dark halls.
I knew that hearing voices meant someone was crazy, and obeying the voices without question made them dangerous. But I wasn’t crazy or dangerous. The voices in my head were always right. I didn’t know what that made me.
If this person was like me, I would get an answer.
I followed the source of the footsteps through the school, past the main office and into a hall full of dull green lockers. I thought I knew where the person was going, though I couldn’t be sure. After two more turns and a walking through a short hall past a security camera, they were in front of a door. It looked like every other door in the school, with an oversized steel doorknob and peeling red paint.
First up, if you are in the San Francisco vicinity I will be on a panel hosted by the good people at GigaOM regarding Disintermediation in Publishing the morning of August 25th. It's free, the panel I'm on is with the CEO of Smashwords, author Simon Wood, and the Director of Marketing at RAND, it's free, the other panel is with the CEOs of Vook and Scribd and the Director of Digital Publishing at Adobe, it's free, did you notice how I'm the least qualified person in attendance, it's free. Register here!
Oh, and you may have noticed a few blog enhancements that I instituted this week. At the bottom of every post there are now suggested links for your perusing pleasure, and yes, I know lots of them are This Week in Publishings and I will soon append dates to these so at least you'll know where you'll end up when you take a ride on the This Week in Publishing Time Machine. Bellow those links is a fancy dancy Facebook Like button for your sharing-with-friends pleasure, and down below and to the right is a new official Tweet button that will easily allow you to post the link to Twitter should you so desire.
For the latest on the whole B&N is possibly up for sale thing, as per usual Michael Cader is there with a completely essential rundown of their boomerang end of the week (subscription). A quick summary: CEO/founder Len Riggio has been resisting efforts by billionaire shareholder Ron Burkle to increase his stake in the company. After the announcement last week it appeared a settlement was close, then at the last minute negotiations broke down. Meanwhile a judge ruled that the poison pill that prevented Burkle from increasing his stake was valid. Then Burkle announced a proxy fight to remove Riggio. Cader feels that all this means some sort of deal to take the company private is the most likely outcome. Please check out his summary for more info, and if you don't already subscribe to Pub Lunch please consider it.
Anticipating the publication of Suzanne Collins' MOCKINGJAY, The NY Times featured an article noticing the trend of adults reading children's literature, including a tres exclusive bookclub circle in New York devoted exclusively to kids books. Even more scandalous, though unaddressed by the article: lots of adults are wr
While I have previously tackled the perennial conversation topic/game/complaint Today's Publishing Industry Would Have Never Publishing Such and Such Genius Old Book Because Everyone in Publishing Today is a Freaking Idiot, there is a component to these complaints that I would like to delve into just a tad deeper.
I find it curious that whenever this comes up, 99% of the time the "example" book that supposedly wouldn't be published today happens to be a rule-breaking and/or idiosyncratic and/or conventional-wisdom-defying classic. ULYSSES or THE SOUND AND THE FURY or INFINITE JEST or MOBY-DICK etc. etc. etc. And more curiously still, the thing that most of these books have in common is that they were written by an author who had already established huge followings and credibility the old fashioned way.
The Hits Before the Hits
J.K. Rowling did not start off writing 200,000+ word books for middle graders where important beloved characters, ya know, die. By the time she wrote GOBLET OF FIRE and ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, the longest in the series, she had the audience's trust to delve extremely deeply into the world of her novels and to explore a deep emotional palate, deeper than may have have been possible with a debut.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote THE HOBBIT, a more conventionally told tale, before dropping the epic THE LORD OF THE RINGS.
James Joyce wrote DUBLINERS before ULYSSES. David Foster Wallace wrote the relatively trim (467 pages) THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM and had a zillion short stories published everywhere that matters before he wrote INFINITE JEST. Herman Melville wrote conventional travel memoirs before publishing MOBY-DICK (which famously was a bust at first).
In other words, these writers built their audience before they tried to break all the rules.
The Keith Hernandez Rule
There is a classic Seinfeld episode where former Mets baseball star Keith Hernandez is on a date with Elaine, and he's worrying about whether he should kiss her. Then he thinks to himself, "Wait a second, I'm Keith Hernandez!"
Writers who have achieved "I'm Keith Hernandez!" status haven't just achieved the trust of the publishing industry, they've achieved the trust of readers, who will stick with them longer than they would have otherwise if it were a debut. They've earned the ability to delve in deeper into a world or into an idiosyncratic style than would normally be possible because they have gained the authority to do it.
This is why it's dangerous to try and get too far out there before you've achieved Keith Hernandez status. Yes, there are occasional 200,000+ word debuts and yes, there are books that sometimes break the rules in advance.
But for the most part, if you're going to take a journey with someone deep into the wilderness, the first step is convincing the other person that you're a good guide.
Last week we discussed writing vs. storytelling and parsed out how it's often the storytelling and not the sentence-to-sentence prose that is drawing people in when a book is extremely popular.
Let's imagine two sliding scale spectrums:
0-10 on the writing scale And 0-10 on the storytelling scale
10 writing, 0 storytelling would be experimental fiction and other prose-centric musings without much/any story. 0 writing, 10 storytelling would be novels where the story is fantastic but the prose is basically indistinguishable from another book or otherwise not very strong.
Everything in between would each be a combination of strengths. For instance, 7 writing/10 storytelling would be well-written edge-of-the-seat genre fiction, 10 writing/10 storytelling would be a book that melds beautiful (if challenging) prose with expert plotting, and 10 writing/6 storytelling would finely wrought novels where we mainly admire the writing.
So. How important is writing vs. storytelling to you? Which is more important to you when you choose a book? Do you have a sweet spot? Do you gravitate toward a certain combination of writing and storytelling? Do you have limits?
Speaking personally, my favorite books are close to 10/10, but as long as the storytelling is great I'm very willing to skimp on the writing scale. I can't do less than about a 5 or 6 on storytelling no matter how good the writing is.
[commercial voice] There are pernicious writerly germs out there infecting pages all around the world. Left uncured they can be fatal. Talk to your book doctor or literary health provider if you notice any of these symptoms:
Yoda Effect: Difficult to read, sentences are, when reversing sentences an author is. Cart before horse, I'm putting, and confused, readers will be.
Overstuffed Sentences: An overstuffed sentence happens when a writer tries to pack too many things into one sentence in convoluted fashion, making it difficult for the intent of the sentence to come through and to follow it becomes an exercise in re-reading the sentence while making the sentence clearer in our brains so we can understand the overstuffed sentence, which is the point of reading.
Imprecision: When writers just miss the target ground with their word using they on occasion elicit a type of sentence experiential feeling that creates a backtracking necessity.
Chatty Cathy: So, like, I don't know if you've noticed but OMG teenagers use so much freaking slang!!! And multiple exclamation points!!! In a novel not a blog post!!! And so I'm all putting tons of freaking repetitious verbal tics into totes every sentence and it's majorly exhausting the reader because WAIT I NEED TO USE ALL CAPS.
Repetition: Sometimes when authors get lyrical, lyrical in a mystical, wondrous sense, they use repetition, repetition that used sparingly can be effective, effective in a way that makes us pause and focus, focus on the thing they're repeating, but when used too many times, so many times again and again, it can drive us insane, insane in a way that will land the reader in the loony bin, the loony bin for aggrieved readers.
Shorter Hemingway: Clipped sentences. Muscular. Am dropping articles. The death. It spreads. No sentence more than six words. Dear god the monotony. The monotony like death.
Non Sequiturs: Sometimes when authors are in a paragraph one thing won't flow to the next. They'll describe one thing, wow can you believe that thing that happened three days ago?, and keep describing the first thing.
Description Overload: Upon this page there is a period. It is not just any period, it is a period following a sentence. It follows this sentence in a way befitting a period of its kind, possessing a roundness that is pleasing to the eye and hearty to the soul. This period has the bearing of a regal tennis ball combined with the utility of a used spoon. It is an unpretentious period, just like any other, the result of hundreds of years of typesetting innovations that allows it to be used, almost forgotten, like oxygen to the sentence only darker, more visible. And it is after this period, which will neither reappear nor matter in any sense whatsoever to the rest of the novel, that our story begins.
Stilted dialogue: Character #1: "I am saying precisely what I mean!" Character #2: "Wait. What is that you are trying to tell me?" Character #1: "Are you frickin' listening to me? I am telling you precisely what I am feeling in this given moment. And I'm showing you I'm really angry by using pointed rhetorical questions and petulant exhortations. God." Character #2: "Sheesh! Well, I'm responding with leading questions that allow you to tell me exactly what you mean while adding little of value to the conversation on my own. Am I not?" Character #1:"You are totally doing that. You totally frickin' are. Ugh! I'm so mad right now!"
The Old Spice Guy Effect (excessive rug-pulling). The character was standing on a rug. He falls through his floor to his death! The rug was actually a trap door. But wait, the character was already dead. He merely faked falling through the trap door. But wait, the trap door was actually a portal into another world. The character was actually alive, he just thought he was dead. Now he's really dead. Or is he? I'm
Thanks very much to Petronella for offering today's page, which instantly had me wishing that I had six brains, one of which would be plugged into a vast library. Um. When can I sign up for the surgery and do I need to bring my own Novocaine?
Honestly though, it's a very compelling premise and I'm curious about where this character will be taking their six brains. However, I had some concerns about the prose in this page, and there are two main culprits: imprecision and overstuffed sentences.
An overstuffed sentence happens when a writer tries to pack too much into a sentence in convoluted fashion, making it difficult for the intent of the sentence to come through and to follow it becomes an exercise in re-reading the sentence while making the sentence clearer in our brains so we can understand the overstuffed sentence, which is the point of reading.
Basically: overstuffed sentences tend to go off in unexpected directions (one clause doesn't lead directly to the next) and/or are filled with superfluous detail that obfuscates rather than clarifies.
There are two overstuffed sentences in this page ("I learned of other things I needed to know about when the day came for me to leave the gestation tank in which my body took form." and "Others of my kind would guide my automatic motions, and later teach me to undertake the volitional movements, which would be with me for the rest of my existence.") that would benefit from having superfluous detail removed or otherwise clarified (see below in the redline).
And in terms of precision, there was phrasing that didn't quite connote what the author intended and some grammar/spelling errors that tripped me up.
If this paragraph were smoother, the visceral experience of a character slowly becoming conscious with multiple brains would be more immediate and gripping.
Thistledown: Genesis Genre: Science Fiction
Chapter 1: Jay’s Story: Birth
I became aware when the first of my six brains activated. At the same time "At the same time" doesn't really connote "simultaneously" for me, which is how it's intended here. It's more commonly used to mean "However," so I had to re-read it when I realized it was intended to mean "simultaneously", the Library, a vast fount of knowledge, linked to my newly activated brain. One of the many librarians allowed me access to but a tiny part of the vast database. In_spite of the small size of the area I find this confusing - is it a physical area? We don't normally think of electronic databases in terms of physical space , I delighted in all the knowledge I found there . Into my dark, silent world came light in a rainbow of colours, and sounds in a range of tones. I learned of otherabout the things I neededwould need to know about when the day came for me to leave the gestation tank in which my body took form. It would be a long time before that would happen this feels confusing since it's in first person/past tense and presumably the narrator would know how long it took. Maybe just say "I spent X days/months/years in that state?. In the meanwhile, I played in my part of the library.
Moments before my birth, the second of my brains activated. This one governed movement, both automatic and volitional. Others of my kind would guide my automatic motions, and later teach me to undertake the volitional movements, which would be with me for the rest of my existence. This feels like it should come later - do we need to know this now?
I waited, impatient to be born. After an indeterminate period of time Reads
Don't let any San Franciscans trick you -- yes, San Francisco is having the coldest summer in fifty years, yes, San Franciscans will complain like the dickens and act like it's the apocalypse with a side of brimstone, but press us and we will reveal that no, we don't want to trade with your heat wave, thankyouverymuch. The complaints are a ruse. You've been warned.
As of this posting there were 410 posts in the thread, and the number that the good machine at random.org gave me was..........
Congrats to Petronella, whose page is below.
Thistledown: Genesis Genre: Science Fiction
Chapter 1: Jay’s Story: Birth
I became aware when the first of my six brains activated. At the same time, the Library, a vast fount of knowledge, linked to my newly activated brain. One of the many librarians allowed me access to but a tiny part of the vast database. Inspite of the small size of the area, I delighted in all the knowledge I found there. Into my dark, silent world came light in a rainbow of colours, and sounds in a range of tones. I learned of other things I needed to know about when the day came for me to leave the gestation tank in which my body took form. It would be a long time before that would happen. In the meanwhile, I played in my part of the library.
Moments before my birth, the second of my brains activated. This one governed movement, both automatic and volitional. Others of my kind would guide my automatic motions, and later teach me to undertake the volitional movements, which would be with me for the rest of my existence.
I waited, impatient to be born. After an indeterminate period of time, the top of the tank slid aside and a blurry red-lit world revealed itself. Two pairs of hands helped me to a standing position. The owners of the hands wiped the clear birth fluids from my body, making certain most the the jelly-like substance fell back into the tank.
Lots and lots of links to get to, but first I wanted to give a heads-up about the upcoming Central Coast Writers Conference in San Luis Obispo on September 17th and 18th. Spots are still available, and there will be keynotes and workshops and all kinds of good things. I'll be giving a speech on the internal combustion engine (or maybe the writing life, haven't decided yet), I'll be doing a query game/workshop, and there will be more! Here's the website, hope to see you there!
The great TV show "Lost" may already have begun fading a bit from the cultural waters after its much-discussed finale, but it's been on my mind a lot lately. I thought I'd take a slight detour from our normal topics into the world of television and culture. (Spoilers below and all that, but seriously, you've had enough time now.)
The first season of "Lost" in 2004 was a tour de force - it combined the chills and thrills of classic suspense and sci-fi television with the promise of deeper characters with relevant and complex backstories. While HBO had been experimenting with more intelligent TV and the DVD/Tivo era was affording more narrative possibilities for serial shows, "Lost" was really unlike anything that had been attempted on network television.
In case you have never seen the show, it revolved around castaways who crashed on an extremely mysterious tropical island with a strange smoke monster.
I loved the Walt!!! out of this show. The elements that elevated it above X-Files meets Gilligan's Island were twofold:
1. The flashbacks, which interwove the events on the island with the mysteriously intertwined back-stories of the characters. 2. The mysteries, which layered upon further layers and folded back on each other like a Matryoshka doll wrapped in a seashell buried in quicksand on a planet where EVERYTHING IS MINDBENDING. There is a massive website devoted to keeping it all straight.
But if there was one signature element of the show, above all else it was the WTF moments: strange, unexpected, thrilling, out-of-nowhere moments that added to the mystery and blew our minds. Whether it was the discovery of a hatch on the island, then a light coming through the hatch, other people on the island.... all the way to time travel and immortality, these WTF moments were the show's fuel. But not all of the mysteries ended up being solved.
The High Price of WTF
Introducing a shocking mystery in a TV show (or any story) is kind of like borrowing from the future - the viewer gets a jolt of excitement in the short term with the expectation that they're going to be repaid with an explanation down the line. When a polar bear comes running through the forest on a tropical island, you naturally think, "WTF!! How did that get there!!" And then you keep watching/reading until you're told how it got there.
Thus, the price of a WTF moment is that the storyteller owes you an explanation. They've borrowed, narratively, from the future.
But throughout the entire run of "Lost," just when it looked like the characters were on the cusp of figuring out something meaningful and giving the viewers some answers, BOOM, the writers hit the audience with another mystery. Jacob! Time travel! Russian with an eyepatch! Walt is soaking wet! Ben is good! Evil! Good! Evil! Good! Meek! Giant statue with four toes! OMG the island is at the bottom of the ocean!
The writers spun mysteries upon mysteries upon mysteries, all the while maintaining the illusion that there was a master plan, that they had everything under control, that there was an explanation for it all, and the mystery would be solved in the end. Pretty soon the number of mysteries had exploded and snowballed to the point that I was tuning in just to see how in the world they were going to explain it all.
And when the debt came due in the final season, rather than spend the precious final episodes tying things together and giving
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Now, the idea that fiction as a whole has become culturally irrelevant is patently ridiculous when you consider that people are currently buying TWILIGHT underwear and when Avada Kadavra has been a trending topic on Twitter the last few days. The novel is far, far from dead, and Carolyn Kellogg at Jacket Copy wrote a gleeful takedown of Siegel's article.
And let's also acknowledge that this is not a new idea. Here's a post from The Guardian in 2001 wondering about the end of literary fiction, and here's one from the Times in 1992 predicting the end of the novel as we know it due to, wait for it, hypertext.
But could there be something to all of this hand-wringing this time? Sure, J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer, and James Patterson are some of the bestselling authors of all time and have created cultural tsunamis, but that's genre fiction. What about literary fiction? Do our current literary luminaries pack the same cultural punch as their counterparts did in the past?
Major publishers are publishing fewer literary novels. Review space is almost nonexistent. The Internet has empowered the crowd at the expense of elites. Could it be real this time?
And if we are witnessing a slow decline in the impact of literary fiction, what's behind it?
In the comments section of last week's post about the one question writers should never ask themselves when reading (retroactive spoiler: the question is "do I like this?"), some people took the post to mean that I was essentially saying that if a book is popular it must be well-written, ergo the most popular books are the best written.
Not what I meant!
Now, partly this is a confusion of terms, because are we talking about "writing" as in prose or "writing" as in overall craft or are the books we like the ones that are well-written and the ones we don't like are the ones that aren't?? Everyone tends to mean something different when they talk about "the writing."
But for the most part, and you'll see below what I mean, I think when people criticize the "writing" they mean the sentence-to-sentence prose, so let's just go with that definition for now.
And let's also get one thing clear up front: there absolutely has to be a certain level of writing for a book to work, and I personally think the degree of writing quality in bestselling books is underestimated by many aspiring writers. I host page critiques because smooth and polished prose aids storytelling and in today's publishing world you need an extremely high degree of craft in order to be published.
But once you've reached a certain degree of professional-level writing, the further levels and degrees of writing is not the be all and end all of a book's success.
What I meant by last week's post is not that every popular book is written phenomenally well, but a popular book is doing SOMETHING very well, and it's far more valuable to try to pinpoint what that writer is succeeding at rather than simply dismissing a book as being horribly written just because you don't like it or just because the prose isn't top notch.
It might be the suspense, it might be the tension, it might be the pacing, it might be the setting, it might be the characters, or even more likely a combination of several different elements. But if a book is phenomenally popular, something is working that is attracting readers, and no, it's not just the marketing.
What people don't seem to remember is this part of the interview:
"People are attracted by the stories, by the pace and in the case of Stephenie Meyer, it’s very clear that she’s writing to a whole generation of girls and opening up kind of a safe joining of love and sex in those books. It’s exciting and it’s thrilling and it's not particularly threatening because they’re not overtly sexual. A lot of the physical side of it is conveyed in things like the vampire will touch her forearm or run a hand over skin, and she just flushes all hot and cold. And for girls, that’s a shorthand for all the feelings that they’re not ready to deal with yet."
Whether or not you agree with King's assessment about Meyer's writing, at the very least he's making a distinction between writing and storytelling, or at least what I assume is a distinction between prose craft and storytelling craft, and is acknowledging what he sees as working in Meyer's books.
Yes, good writing aids storytelling, you need a certain level of writing for a book to work. But just because you don't care for the prose doesn't mean there's nothing that's working and nothing to be learned.
Do you have any thoughts on the distinction between writing and storytelling? Do you see one as being more important than the other?