The Storytelling Life

If you are interested in telling stories I want you to do something for me. I want you to protect that desire from your friends, your family, your peers, your online acquaintances, the literati, the critics, the publishing world and, most importantly, you.

If you decide at some point that storytelling no longer interests you that’s fine. What’s not fine is to think there’s some metric by which you must measure success. And the last possible metric you should measure success by is money.

I’ve been paid for my storytelling skills more than once. I have been and am a professional writer. But the storytelling I’ve done that has made money is only part of my storytelling life. The epicenter of that life, the core of my storytelling drive, is the mystery and promise of the blank page. It has been that way since I was a child, and I have protected that core from every assault waged against it.

I have not, however, always put storytelling first. For much of my adult life I put relationships ahead of my desire to tell stories, and I have no regrets about that. To do anything else would have been unthinkable to me. If life is short, and it is, then it’s for damn sure too short to be spent satisfying an itch while the people you love go wanting.

There were of course times when I was frustrated. And there were times when I could have written but I wasn’t supported in doing so. But even during the worst of it I didn’t feel as if I had to make a final decision one way or the other. I didn’t have to choose precisely because I never intended to let storytelling go. What I want you know is that you don’t have to choose either.  Read more ]

The Ditchwalk Print-On-Demand Roadmap

As regular readers know, I put a collection of short stories on Smashwords four months ago, where it can be sampled, purchased and downloaded in various e-book formats. I now want to make a print-on-demand (POD) version of that content available, so people can order a physical copy of the book. (This post rejoins a conversation I had with myself — and many helpful commenters — shortly after making the e-book available. More here and here.)

Paranoid Overview
There are a lot of companies offering print-on-demand publishing to independent authors. I also know there are a lot of disreputable companies — known variously as vanity or subsidy publishers — whose business model is predicated on charging abusive up-front fees for middling or nonexistent services. Industry propaganda against fee-for-service publishing says that money should flow to the author, not from the author, but as I noted late last year that propaganda has always been a self-serving fraud. Authors can be ripped off by anyone.

For any independent author, controlling costs and maximizing each dollar spent is critical. Philosophically I don’t care whether costs are up-front, fee-for-service charges or back-end participation. What matters is getting the most service or product for my money. As a practical matter, however, minimizing out-of-pocket costs is important because it preserves operating capital. The longer I can keep my head above water the longer I can write, and the longer I can write the more chance I have of seeing a profit.  Read more ]

Apples Weekly and Oranges Godin

Yesterday Publishers Weekly decided to go bottom feeding for small-dollar fees from desperate, easily duped writers. On the same day, regarding his radical, forward-looking decision to abandon traditional publishing, Seth Godin finally got his multi-week campaign of hints and rolling announcements to go effortlessly viral. (Inconvenient historical footnotes here and here.)

At first blush this would appear to be perfect convergence. An old-school publication debases itself by pimping out its own client base, while a visionary independent leads a rag-tag band of revolutionaries into the future.

But wait a minute. To whatever extent such announcements (of both kinds) have become commonplace over the past year, it’s worth noting that the actions taken by Apples Weekly and Oranges Godin are differentiated by scale, not publishing philosophy. Apples Weekly is trying to solve an economic problem determined by its staff size and production demands. That it’s doing so in a desperate and ugly way is beside the point. Oranges Godin, as far as I can tell, only has to keep Oranges Godin alive, meaning his visionary approach to publishing is primarily a function of low overhead, not secret knowledge.

To be fair, after Publishers Weekly President George W. Slowik Jr. put his name on the ugly press release for PW Select, he probably spent a few minutes throwing up in a desk drawer — if not because of the program itself, then because his name was on such an obviously deceptive document. Whether Slowik cares about the writers he’s determined to fleece or not, it’s his job as captain of the PW Catamaran to make sure that it doesn’t sink. If that means cannibalism…well, that’s what it means.

Given that Oranges Godin probably has a few bucks in the bank, and his celebrity as a guru is clearly established, it doesn’t seem particularly brave of him to wander off into the wilds. Particularly when the wilds are a place he’s intimately familiar with, if not better positioned to exploit than the concrete jungle.

— Mark Barrett

Why Print Publishing Will Never Die

Turn on your TV on Saturday or Sunday during the day and you’ll discover that the great majority of shows are infomercials. That is, they are program-length commercials paid for by the companies presenting products and services in those shows.

In the evening you’ll see this is no longer the case. Instead of infomercials you’ll find actual programs — either original or syndicated — presented by the network or channel you happen to be watching. These shows are interrupted by short blocks of ads that have been sold to advertisers in the same way that the larger blocks of time earlier in the day were sold to infomercial creators.

The only difference between the day and evening hours is that at night the station believes it can entice an audience to watch its own programs — and by extension the ads that run during those programs, which in turn allows the network to charge for those ads based on the size of audience they capture. More audience at any given time equals more advertising revenue.

Running infomercials during the day is an open admission that a network or channel has thrown in the towel not simply on creating their own programming for that block of time, but even on the idea that they might present syndicated content (sitcom reruns, for example) as a means of attracting an audience. For that time slot on that particular day, taking money up-front from an infomercial provider produces more revenue than would trying to attract an audience by traditional means, And because the station is getting paid in advance it doesn’t care whether anyone watches or not. (Think about that.)  Read more ]

Advice vs. Opinion

My brother tells a funny story about someone coming to him for help. He politely listened to the person explain their situation, which went on forever, then gave his take. At which point the person turned on him like a lunatic and screeched, “I asked for your opinion, not your advice!”

In the aftermath of that anecdote I broke the concepts down to discern the difference between the two, and hopefully protect myself from a similar experience. Here’s the entire difference between opinion and advice:

  • Opinion = “This is what I think.”
  • Advice = “This is what I think you should do.”

That’s it. That’s the whole difference between telling someone your opinion and having the effrontery to give unsolicited advice.

I mention this because a peer had a similar run-in with someone in a professional context. While there’s no way to protect yourself from crazies, you can cut down on the likelihood that someone will take offense by framing everything from your own point of view:

  • If I was in your shoes…
  • If that happened to me…
  • I know how I’d feel if…
  • That happened to me once, and…
  • In my own experience…

That sort of thing. Whatever observations you want to make in reply, make them about yourself. There’s literally no difference in what you’re saying, but for some people it seems to make a big difference.

And in a business context, that could make a difference to you.

— Mark Barrett

The Barber

I had occasion to get my hair cut recently, by a barber named Rocco Scali. He’s been cutting hair in Brooklyn Heights for fifty years, tending the finely-coiffed locks that populate the nearby Superior Court along with the rugged noggins that once worked the now-defunct Brooklyn piers.

If Rocky has any celebrity himself — and he does; you can tell he’s a fixture because of the number of people who stop in to say hello — it’s the unassuming kind. He’s got an old-school barber chair the likes of which I haven’t seen in thirty-plus years (which I now covet), and the easy manner of a man who isn’t waiting around for other people to tell him whether he’s any good or not.

Over the years, one of Rocky’s more notable neighborhood clients was Truman Capote. In fact, after Capote moved across the East River to Manhattan he kept coming back to see Rocky several times a week. After only a few minutes in Rocky’s chair it’s easy to see why. Rocky’s personable, funny, sincere and committed to his craft. Not the kind of person you tend to run into much, no matter what the task or occasion.

Had anyone ever offered me the choice of meeting either Truman Capote or Rocco Scali, I would have taken Rocky — and not just because I needed a hair cut. I know what it’s like to be a writer. I don’t know what it’s like to be a barber for a neighborhood for fifty years, but having met Rocky I have an inkling of what that means.

In the press reports I’ve read about Rocky he’s referred to as Truman Capote’s barber, but I think that’s backwards — and I think Capote would agree. Rocky wasn’t Truman Capote’s barber any more than Rocky is my barber. We were both his clients, and the better for it.

$15 for a half-hour appointment, plus tip. No extra charge for the straight razor.

— Mark Barrett

On Being Cold-Blooded

For most of the summer I’ve been living across the street from the house where Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood. There’s not a day goes by that map-in-hand tourists don’t pause to take pictures, and on the weekend sizable walking tours stop for brief lectures from culturally earnest guides. It’s a pretty house, and unique to the area, and if you’re interested in owning a piece of history it’s on the market for $18 million.

I’ve never read In Cold Blood, and don’t plan to. I’ve long known about the horrific murders the book is based on, and a year ago I watched one of two recent movies about Mr. Capote. In retrospect I can only say I wish I’d skipped the movie, too. (Not that it was badly done.)

As I’ve written before, there’s a fairly strong connection between celebrity and literary success. More so than I think there ought to be. There’s also a fairly strong connection between sensationalism and literary success, and again I wish that wasn’t the case. Not surprisingly, combining these two commercial appeals can create a potent mix in terms of expected sales.  Read more ]

Ditchwalk at One Year

I started this blog with a focused set of objectives. I wanted to learn about the state of the publishing industry. I wanted to re-establish myself on the web. I wanted to meet people who are interested in storytelling and dialogue with them about related issues.

Check, check, check.

So what’s next?

I have a lot of things I want to write. Novels. Stage plays. Screenplays. Nonfiction.

I have the time and freedom to write these things, but the opportunity is not open-ended. I need to take advantage of this moment, even if it means making a lot of compromises in my life and giving up on other things I’d hoped and planned for.

All I know is that if I don’t do this I’ll regret it, and I work very hard to make sure I don’t have regrets.

There are no guarantees, of course. I could complete all of the drafts I hope to write in the next nine months and have nothing salable — either because the market isn’t there, or because what I’ve written is not very good. But if the choice right now is between relying on myself and counting on others, that’s not a hard choice to make.

I’ll still keep blogging. I’ll still keep an eye on the industry. But in general I think I’m up to speed on the big issues, and that most of what’s happening in publishing will sort itself out without my involvement.

The good news, and it’s very good news from my point of view, is that even as the market value of writing heads toward zero, the opportunities to reach readers directly keep growing. To the extent that a viable business model may not currently exist, worrying about business models before I have content to sell seems a bit misplaced.

The only useful convergence I’ve been able to identify seems to be spending time writing while the market continues to sort itself out. So I intend to write. A lot.

— Mark Barrett

The Dysfunctional Workshop

For the purposes of this post I’m going to break the universe of fiction workshops into three categories. First, there are helpful workshops that teach you something useful. Second, there are boring workshops where you learn little or nothing, but nothing bad happens. Third, there are dysfunctional workshops where you risk damage to your writing soul.

Careful readers will have deduced that this post is about the third category. What it’s not about, however, is legitimizing the self-centered writer — a malady considerably more prevalent in the writing universe than the dysfunctional workshop. There is a ton to learn about writing fiction, and some of the lessons you learn will be hell on you. There will be times when you will be so sure you’re right you’ll bet your life and still be flat-out wrong.

Nothing that follows excuses authorial narcissism. Fiction writing requires an author to constantly debate their own weaknesses and biases, even if only for reasons of self-preservation. Because if you can’t police your own nonsense, others will be happy to do it for you.  Read more ]

On Willow Street

I am a pigeon. A big-city pigeon.

I am walking. Another pigeon is walking behind me. We are looking for food.

When I stop walking you may notice I stand with one foot up, as if I am injured. When I walk, you may notice that I am dragging a small branch with me.

The branch is stuck to my foot. I don’t know why it’s stuck to my foot, but it is. I am dragging it around with me when I walk, and holding it up off the ground when I rest.

I walk in a straight line, just back from the curb. The pigeon behind me wanders. If you stop to look at me and my branch I will walk around you and continue in a straight line.

If you move in front of me again I will stop and wait to see if you leave. If you don’t leave I will wait longer. If the other pigeon sees something to eat lying on the sidewalk in your shadow I will run to the food and eat.

If you come too close I will fly a few feet away. I won’t fly any farther than I would otherwise, but you will see the little branch is not keeping me grounded.

If you stay back just a bit more, I will stop and hold my foot up. If you move around you will be able to see my foot, but you will not be able to see what is keeping the branch attached. It may be a wire. It may be that one of my toes is stuck through a split in the branch. I don’t know.

If you stay where you are, I will stay where I am. If you wait, I will wait, too.

And I will look at you and you will look at me and I will look at you and you will look at me and I will look at you and you will look at me and I will look at you and you will look at me and I will look at you.

— Mark Barrett