Following up on the previous post, I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider where we are as a culture, and how we might evolve in the future relative to independent authorship and self-publishing.
The current explosion of interest in self-publishing is being driven by a number of factors, not all of them constant. I believe that as long as the internet exists, people will use it to reach out to each other without engaging the services of middlemen and gatekeepers. That goes for everything from private conversations to business — meaning, ultimately, that every attempt to mediate those direct connections will ultimately fail, if only to inevitably be reborn in some slick new guise. Whether we’re talking about sites like Facebook or device manufacturers like Apple, they’re all simply along for the ride, even as they purport to be driving the revolution.
What’s important to remember with regard to self-publishing is that what we are witnessing today is the explosive origin of what will be a future norm. As such there’s a built-in, pent-up demand for this new opportunity that simply won’t exist in the future. It’s not just kids or hipsters who are learning how to use the internet to do things like self-publish books, it’s everybody, all at once. In a generation or two, however, it really will be only the kids who need to be taught. Like young drivers they’ll learn at a developmentally appropriate age how to use the same self-publishing tools their older siblings, parents and grandparents have been using most of their lives.
Today there are clearly a lot of people who have always wanted to self-publish a book or two. Whether those books are collections of family recipes or deranged manifestos, until now these personal works have been financially and technologically beyond the reach of most would-be authors. This pent-up demand, again, crosses all generations, but over time — and perhaps a relatively short amount of time — that demand is going to be flushed out. Yes, there will be people who decide to pursue self-publication either as a hobby or avocation, but most would-be self-publishers will produce the titles they’ve always wanted and then stop. Or they’ll hang out a shingle and try to make a few bucks helping other independent authors realize their own pent-up dreams.
It’s also important to note that there’s a perfect convergence right now between the availability of self-publishing and the amount of time people have on their hands. If you crater the economy and drive millions of people into unemployment, they’re going to look around for something to do. If they’ve always wanted to self-publish a book they now have the time, and can probably afford to get it done. They may even have extra motivation to explore self-publishing as a means of making a buck or two when a couple of extra bucks would really be handy.
For these reasons, then, I think the current avalanche of demand for and interest in self-publishing will necessarily decrease — perhaps quite precipitously — as people find more time-consuming and remunerative pursuits, and as pent-up demand becomes satisfied over time. Which means those writers who are determined to take the long view, both in terms of future works and the value or present works, will almost certainly find themselves in a less-crowded market in the future. Which strikes me as a very good place to be.
– Mark Barrett
Whether you’re a dabbler, seasoned pro or tortured soul, pressing keys on a keyboard takes time. The more time you have available, and the more disciplined you are about protecting that time, the more productive you will be as a writer.
PCMag.com has an article up today about telecommuting and productivity, but because all writing is work — whether you’re getting paid or not — anyone trying to find regular writing hours at home can profit from the piece.
– Mark Barrett
Writing is a solitary pursuit often requiring long periods of self-imposed isolation in order to complete a given work. Whether the end product is a book, script or blood-scrawled scroll, many writers compensate for the inherent loneliness of authorship by leading bawdy social lives centered around chemical binges and chaotic if not ultimately destructive relationships. While I fully support any writer’s determination to find a healthy work-life balance, not all writers are constitutionally inclined to such interstitial exuberance.
If you live a fairly quiet life, as I do, the time you spend writing may not seem all that different from the time you spend staring at the wall, flipping channels, surfing the web, or leaning on the open door of the refrigerator for the fourth time in twenty minutes. Such mind-numbing activities may actually increase the appeal of the writing process, turning each typo and turn of phrase into the most galvanizing thing that has ever happened to you, but the banality of such an existence presents a problem. Where more outgoing writers survive secluded toil by subsisting on memories of social conquests and defeats, or even pending legal action, mild-mannered types are at serious risk of cerebral whiteout, where the isolation necessary for work merges indistinguishably with the vapidity of down time.
While it is possible for introverted writers to break up the monotony of their non-writing life by engaging in socially acceptable forms of self-abuse like exercise or watching the news, the real problem with being a low-key person in a low-key profession is that it’s often hard to find motivations that can withstand the darkest hours of the writing process. Where your more socially engaged writer always has an intellectual foe they’re determined to prove wrong or embarrass, or a object of fancy they aim to seduce with the words flowing from their fingertips, the loner writer (not to be confused with the antisocial writer) often struggles to remember why they’re subjecting themselves to torment when they could just as easily be staring at a crack in the ceiling. Read more
I grew up with a reverence for authors. If you made a movie, or wrote a play or directed a play or starred in a play, that was cool, but if you wrote a book (fiction, and to a lesser extent non-fiction, but to a greater extent philosophy) you were somebody. Authors weren’t just artists using the medium of words, they were culture.
As the internet has devalued writing it has also demystified authorship in ways that I think are unique to the times. From the dawn of the first printed book until the public began expressing itself en mass I think a reverence for authors has been the norm. To be published was to be validated in ways that most people could only aspire to.
This does not mean, however, that any cultural stewardship claimed by the publishing industry was real. Far from it. Publishers have engaged in gatekeeping for no end of duplicitous purposes, and the people populating those power centers have never shown the slightest hesitation in abusing whatever trust the public placed in them. Where power, money and desire meet you can scoop cockroaches by the pound and never see the bottom of the barrel.
So complete was publishing’s power over the concept of authorship that anyone who attempted to publish outside the industry was deemed by all to have admitted failure. A painter could work in solitude, a musician could compose for an audience of one, a filmmaker could go independent, but to be a real author — to be a part of the culture — you had to sign a contract with someone else and give them editorial control. Read more
I have a love-hate relationship with radio. I love when a song comes on that I enjoy, whether it’s one I’m already familiar with or something new. I hate everything else, including songs in heavy rotation, announcers using compression mics, commercials commercials, commercials, and incessant announcements about many songs in a row a station will play before brutalizing me with commercials, commercials, commercials.
I have various writing moods, and not all of them are music compatible. When I’m in the mood for a backing track, however, having a steady stream of songs I don’t have to manage, and that won’t be interrupted by histrionics, feels good. I can’t say I’m more productive while I’m listening to music, but there’s something about music that makes it easier to find a writing groove, and particularly a rewriting groove.
I have a lot of music on my computer, ripped from old CD’s, but even choosing which tracks I want to hear can be a pain. I either have to invest time in creating playlists that go quickly stale or I have to choose something new when each CD ends. I know there are a lot of music options available to me over the internet but until recently I didn’t know somebody had solved all my music problems in a way that would leave me utterly satisfied. And all for free.
If you haven’t tried Pandora yet I urge you to give it a look and a listen. Not only is it a free streaming music service with no commercials, you can program your own stations by adding artists that define the music that station will play. The algorithms behind the selections are not obvious, which I like, but with a little trial and error you can easily create a station that serve up a good mix of artists you included as well as songs from similar artists.
My main list has about twenty artists on it — mostly late 90′s alternative rock. I’ve added a few new artists based on songs that were played outside my playlist, and I’ve removed two artists to keep the station from wandering too far afield. On the whole, however, I couldn’t be more satisfied with the result.
Which leads me to the only caution I have about this service. It’s been a constant in my life that anything I really enjoy disappears soon afterward. If I find a favorite restaurant it either closes or burns to the ground. If I find a favorite food item in the local grocery it is soon discontinued for lack of purchases by anyone other than me. So it stands to reason that by enjoying (let alone recommending) Pandora I am ensuring it will either quickly die or go to a monthly subscription price, at which point I’ll think long and hard about paying for it before deciding not to.
Until then, however, enjoy.
– Mark Barrett
The final section of Hill’s book is also the most personal. Departing from the twin subjects of fiction and craft that bound the rest of the work, Hills writes of his own experience with nonfiction and of the eternal self-abuse that is any kind of authorship.
If you are serious about making writing an ongoing part of you life, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself sitting in a dusty corner, staring across the room at your desk, wondering if you’ve lost your mind. You’re going to experience a crisis of faith that has no bottom. You’re going to think that you’re doing it all wrong while every other writer is doing it with ease.
When you do, this chapter will remind you how wrong you are:
If the way my mind works when I’m trying to write has any resemblance to the way real writers’ minds work, then I pity them all. When I have time to write the ideas aren’t there — or if the ideas, then not the words. Forcing myself to put the words on paper helps not at all: insights become platitudes as phrased when under self-imposed duress. You see?!
I’ve long been thankful that someone had the guts to admit that writing is a nightmare. Not a sexy, drunken-binge nightmare or a death-tempting, drug-addled nightmare or an artistically obsessed, relationship-killing nightmare, but a self-imposed, lost-at-sea nightmare. Because the romantic, angst-ridden writing process portrayed in the movies, and often by authors themselves, is a fraud. Writing is hard even when it’s going well, and most of the time it’s not going well.
Hills ends the chapter in a two-page-long, single-paragraph monologue that I reread whenever I feel like banging my head on my desk or taking an axe to my computer. And every time I read it I laugh and am reminded that I am not alone.
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction your success will be determined by your ability to merge multiple, fragmented lines of thought into a coherent and focused whole. Whether writing about the actions of imaginary characters or addressing a real-world subject you’re going to lean heavily on reason and logic to find your way, and sooner or later you will get lost. At that moment the best thing you can do for your sanity is remind yourself that what you’re trying to do is really, really hard, and all the more so if you’re trying to do it well.
As a fiction writer I find Rust Hills’ book to be an invaluable aid. As a writer I find this chapter to be soul-sustaining.
Writing is a solitary pursuit that routinely destroys good people. I want you to have your dreams but I don’t want them to break you. Whenever you run aground, this chapter will make you laugh and remind you that you are not alone.
– Mark Barrett
Rust Hills comes at fiction-writing from a decidedly literary perspective. What does that mean? Well, this:
I’ve got a shelf of how-to-write books, and they all seem to me pretty much dreadful, especially the ones about the short story.
Then I’ve got another shelf of books, some of them seem to me great. These are college textbook anthologies of short stories, with analyses of the stories that sometimes get quite technical.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking what you really want is the how-to-write books, because you want to learn how to write, not how to read. Believe me, I understand: I’ve been there, and I”m no great fan of critical analysis. But Hills is going to throw you a curve in a minute and I don’t want you to miss it. Read more
The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. If you’re interested in improving your storytelling craft I encourage you to follow along. Original announcement here. Tag here.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking you’re not a short story writer so this book won’t help you with your flash fiction, novellas or novels. Wrong.
Short stories are the smallest form of fiction that can be fully realized. If you can write a short story you can write anything — either by subtracting elements or by adding complexity and scale to increase the length of the work. More importantly, understanding the mechanics of this tightly-knit form exposes the mechanics of all other forms as well, meaning you can directly apply any lessons learned to your storytelling life.
I won’t promise that you’ll click with this book the way I did. For me it was a confirmation of a hundred things I’d felt and come to believe about writing, all compiled in a simple accessible volume. What I can promise is that you’ll never think of fiction writing the same way again, and you’ll have at least one ah-ha moment along the way. Worst case scenario: it won’t make your writing worse, and will almost certainly make your writing — and your writing life — better.
To make sure we’re all on the same literal page I ordered the latest version of the book: First Mariner Books edition 2000. I will be commenting on each section of the book in a separate post, but quoting sparely in order to respect fair use and copyright. While you certainly don’t need my commentary to profit from Hills’ book, you’ll need a copy of the book to fully profit from my commentary. Or the book.
First up: Rust Hills’ introduction to Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, and why it shouldn’t scare you away.
– Mark Barrett
I happened on a documentary yesterday on the National Geographic channel that I feel compelled to recommend. Called Alone in the Wild, it documents Ed Wardle’s attempt to spend ninety solitary days in the Yukon wilderness. Putting the challenge in context, Wardle has twice summited Everest. (You can see a page about the show here. I haven’t been able to locate a DVD, and the documentary doesn’t seem to be available on Netflix.)
If the title or subject matter evokes anything for you it will probably be the similar story of Christopher McCandless, whose fatal journey Into the Wild was turned into a book and subsequent movie. By absurd chance I happened to read the original magazine article about McCandless when it first came out in 1993, and my reaction then is the same as my reaction now: I’m not surprised that someone who knew little or nothing about surviving in the wilderness died after only cursory study and inadequate planning.
I want to stress that I take no satisfaction in the fact that McCandless died. The arrogance and ignorance he displayed is the flip side of adventurism and daring, and had he lived he might have profited from the experience both personally and financially. I do think, though, that there is a human tendency to perceive conception as the greatest obstacle to attainment. It’s not the doing that’s the hard part, it’s thinking of something to do that takes real ingenuity.
Over the course of my life I’ve come to believe that this is exactly backwards. In the storytelling world it doesn’t take long to realize that great ideas really are a dime a dozen — or a gross. It’s execution over the long haul, draft after draft, and the realization of detail in the final polish that makes any idea shine. But that’s not fun to contemplate because it presupposes a life of hard work and apprenticeship, when what everybody wants to do is fall out of bed and land on fame and fortune. Read more
For some time I’ve been wanting to talk about what I believe is the best book ever written on the subject of storytelling.* Rather than simply identify it and applaud, however, I’m going to walk through the entire book in a series of blog posts. If you’re interested in grounding your storytelling with a solid foundation of craft I encourage you to buy a copy of the book and follow along. I don’t promise it will change your life, but I’m confident you will profit from the discussion, and perhaps considerably so.
The author of the book is L. Rust Hills, the former long-time fiction editor at Esquire magazine. I was fortunate to meet Rust when I was a fiction writing student, and he had a profound effect on my understanding of storytelling as a craft. From him I learned more about how fiction is constructed than I did from any other source, and I remain indebted to him for that instruction. (Mr. Hills died in 2008.)
The good news is that most of what I learned from Rust Hills comes from a small book he wrote that is still in print. Titled Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular (WIG&TSSIP), Hills’ book treats every aspect of fiction writing as a craft technique, and shows how specific narrative choices create specific effects. Rather than resort to formulas, Hills focuses always on the author’s intended effect, and whether or not the author accomplished that objective. The goal is never replicating a form, but rather accomplishing the storytelling goal you intend to accomplish for your intended readers.
It’s true that Hills was a dedicated proponent of literature, so you might be worried that his book is a ponderous tome. Nothing could be further from the truth. WIG&TSSIP is plain spoken and accessible to everyone. Too, the points and observations he makes about writing literature apply to every kind of storytelling. If you’re a genre writer or tend to favor a particular formula, reading Hills’ book will improve your writing without asking you to abandon your beliefs because it will make you aware of the interconnectedness of your words on a deeper level.
If you’re interested in the craft of fiction — either as a writer or a reader — I encourage you to get a copy of Hills’ book and follow along. In order to give everyone time to find a copy or have one delivered I’ll be starting the discussion in about a week.
* Yes, that’s a bold claim. Regular readers know I don’t hype recommendations, but in this case I think the praise is warranted. I’ve read a lot of how-to books on fiction writing and nothing else has ever come close.
– Mark Barrett