In the previous post I said there’s no relationship between writing quality and publication. Book deals are made for economic reasons, not because great writing makes the world a better place. If a prospective but marketable writer stinks, the industry will hire a ghostwriter, treating content as just another part of the manufacturing process.
I said the same thing in a recent spat with Jane Smith. I said the same thing when Sarah Palin’s book was announced. I’ve pointed to, and will continue to point to, incidents where publishers have failed to meet the same standards they routinely accuse unpublished and independent authors of failing to meet.
I understand why publishing wants to promote itself as the sole judge of quality and merit. Such status equates to power, and power in the marketplace equals money. But publishing’s credibility is so completely corrupted by its own actions that nobody in their right mind would take the sole word of a publisher, agent or editor when it comes to judging writing on the basis of quality, any more than one would try a case if the presiding judge had a vested interest in the outcome. Read more
I had occasion over the weekend to dig through some old boxes of scripts and stories I wrote years ago. I found some duplicate copies and stuff I no longer cared about and decided to get right of the dead weight.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard about writers burning their early works, but it seems to have been a fairly common occurrence. And I can understand the appeal. Fire as metaphor and ritual seems to be a human constant, signaling everything from death to purification to rebirth.
I had about five thousand pages to dispose of, and believe me, I wanted to burn them. I wanted the act, the warmth of the fire, and the ashes. Particularly the ashes.
Because we live in a world dying from greenhouses gasses, such things are frowned upon these days, and recycling is the norm. So I recycled.
But I wanted to look into that fire.
– Mark Barrett
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
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
For the purpose of this post I’m going to break all writing workshops into two groups. In the first group are workshops taken by writers who are learning craft. People in these workshops, whether students in a formal sense or like-minded individuals sharing a passion, are primarily interested in improving their writing skill. In the second group are workshops populated by seasoned writers who already have a solid understanding of craft. These workshops primarily help authors determine whether their fiction is functioning as intended.
To the extent that writers are always learning, and that all writers want their work to be successful, there is obviously some overlap between these two groups. Rather than argue any pure distinction, I will simply note that this post concerns writers who are primarily interested in learning the craft of storytelling, and who are taking workshops that support that objective.
There are a number of factors that can help or hinder the rate at which you learn the craft of storytelling. Here are three aspects of any workshop that are outside your direct control:
If the person running your workshop does not know how to moderate such a group, or if they lack the ability to articulate craft issues, the workshop will necessarily suffer.
The more experience workshop members have at giving feedback, the better the feedback will be. Better feedback — by which I mean more craft-focused feedback — will necessarily improve your understanding of craft.
Every writer learns at their own rate, and that rate is not consistent. (Think fits and starts rather than steady growth.) Other than writing as much as you can and participating in workshops, there’s not much you can do to speed the rate at which you learn. There is no crash course.
At best you might hope to control for two of these variables by asking other writers for recommendations, but in general you simply have to trust the fates to even things out over time. What these inevitable uncertainties should encourage you to do, however, is put a premium on variables you can control. Read more
In the previous post I said the entire point of a writing workshop is that it provides the best means by which an author can determine whether or not they’re hitting the literary target they’re aiming at. Because it’s so easy to go blind to one’s own work there is nothing more useful between conception and publication than feedback that tells a writer whether they are on or off their intended course. A workshop can provide that feedback.
The mechanics of the standard fiction/writing workshop are simple. There are variations and permutations, of course — some of which I comment on below, or will deal with in later posts — but the basics have been remarkably consistent over time.
Workshop Mechanics and Process
The general idea in a fiction workshop is that members take turns submitting (or ‘putting up’) stories for review by the workshop as a whole. The expectation is that each author will do as much as they can to perfect the story they’re working on before it reaches the workshop. In this way the workshop’s feedback advances the author’s knowledge as much as possible.
In advance of each meeting the leader of the workshop asks for volunteers to put up stories for the next gathering. Because writers are a skittish lot, and because fiction often dictates its own pace, trying to schedule individuals into slots that will be available weeks or months ahead usually does not work. Read more
There is so much cultural lore and publishing cachet attached to fiction workshops these days it’s hard to remember that workshops exist to server a utilitarian, craft-driven purpose. Leaving aside questions about the quality of a particular workshop, the history of a given program, or any famous alumni or participants who attended or currently participate, workshops as a process are important to writers because they provide useful and timely feedback that cannot be replicated in any other way.
Again, with emphasis: a fiction workshop is a tool that has proven useful to authors. Workshops exist to serve the needs of writers at a critical time, often at the end of a first, full, good-as-you-can-get-it draft, and not the other way around. If you are smart — and by smart I mean genuinely committed to learning your craft as a means of expressing your art — you will never, ever forget that. If you are not smart you will embrace workshops as a social destination, as an artistic echo chamber, as a church, or as a market. (I’ll have more to say about all that in a subsequent post.)
Just as a ratchet both solves and speeds the problem of turning a nut or bolt, a writing workshop is, in theory, the best possible way for a writer to determine if the words they wrote hit or missed the literary target they were aiming at. I say “in theory” because there are always ways in which a workshop can fail a writer in this quest. I say “best possible” because any other mechanism (and believe me, they’ve all been tried) inevitably introduces even more potential for confusion, error and abuse.
The reason a fiction workshop works, and generally works better than any other method of settling the question of authorial intent and accuracy, is the same reason that any broad-based sampling works. By providing more responses to the author, outliers are marginalized and there is at least the possibility that an informative consensus may emerge. As it was put to me in my very first workshop (paraphrasing):
If ten people (out a workshop-normal fifteen or sixteen) agree on a particular concern, it’s probably something you should take a look at.
And that’s it. The super-mystical reason why workshops are valuable is because they help authors focus on what worked and what didn’t work, and no other process provides the same kind of debate and response. The best you might do otherwise would be to send your work to fifteen people yourself, then compare the responses, but that would cost you considerably more time while precluding any discussion among the respondents.
Obviously, frequent participation in writing workshops may help speed the overall development of a writer simply because feedback can be delivered and processed faster and in a more concentrated way. This does not mean, however, that workshop-centric writers are better, or that participating in workshops is necessary for a writer to be able to grow.
The only way to know if a writing workshop will be helpful to you is to try one. In the next post I’ll talk about how workshops work and how you can get the most out of one.
– Mark Barrett
In yesterday’s post I made the case for my own rejection of the free/freemium content-pricing model, as well as the celebrity-first marketing model that seems to be its genetic twin. In a nutshell, the idea of giving away content in order to get people to care about me so I can monetize affection on the back end is not what I’m interested in doing. Were I the kind of writer who also wants to be a celebrity I could see the utility and appeal of that approach, but I’m not that kind of person. There’s nothing in me that wants to be on stage in a spotlight, and there never has been.
This leaves me with two choices. If conventional wisdom is right, and celebrity is a critical component of any writer’s ability to make a living, then I need to quit writing and do something else. The only alternative is the contrarian view that content in and of itself still does have some value in the marketplace. Because I tend to come by contrariness honestly, that’s the path I intend to follow.
If I’m right and conventional wisdom is wrong, then I’m effectively buying the content-first model at a discount. Later, when everybody realizes that celebrity is simply another endlessly-available, valueless commodity that they will have to root, grunt, scratch, claw and eternally fight for, I can leverage resurgent interest in non-celebrity content (formerly known as ‘entertainment’ or ‘knowledge’) and make a killing. Or something like that.
Obviously, the trendy idea that information or content has no inherent value rests on the bedrock premise of the internet as an free and open information pipeline servicing a world-wide society of hackers, spammers, pirates, griefers and anonymous cranks, as well as sundry meeker citizens. And I have no problem with that. I don’t think the internet should be regulated, or that people should be forced to give up their anonymity in order to join ongoing cultural conversations. If quality really doesn’t matter any more simply because there’s so much quantity, I can live with that.
However…it’s hard not to notice that comments about the ubiquity of internet content often dovetail with comments about the general lack of quality, value, merit, meaning or worth in that same infinite stream of words and ideas. And here I’m not talking about the difficulty of finding the good stuff. Rather, I’m saying that most of the stuff that’s out there is just plain bad not by my measure, but by anyone’s measure. Read more
I took a long ride on Metaphor (my imaginary horse) over the weekend, wandering more than aiming for anything in particular. On Saturday night we ended up in a little seaside town that would have been intolerable during tourist season, but was welcoming and sheltering in the windy gray of February.
After boarding Metaphor at the local stable just down the street from my hotel, I walked along the block-long main street, looking at the various storefronts and window displays. On the upwind leg I found the usual knick-knack shops and t-shirt shops, along with the local office of a national real estate brokerage, and the local office of a nationwide bank where you used to be able to borrow money to buy local real estate. On the downwind leg I surveyed the menus for fancy eateries — both promising to open again when people flew north for the summer — and one take-out joint that looked like it had died. There was a dentist’s office up a side alley, and a closed ice cream store that sold hand-packed and soft-serve, which seemed like both a commitment to customer service and a failure to commit at the same time.
And then I came across a gallery, and it was open. Read more
What are the economics of being a professional author? I know how much I’ve made as a storyteller in various mediums, but the book business is still pretty much a mystery to me.
To the extent that I’ve been able to fill in any blanks I owe individual authors for having the courage to talk about their own experiences. While each story is different, they’re all adding up to a useful composite, and particularly so given all the forces at work and changes taking place in the industry.
So how much money have I made from my Times bestseller? Depending on the type of sale, I gross 6-8% of the cover price of $7.99. After paying taxes, commission to my agent and covering my expenses, my net profit on the book currently stands at $24,517.36, which is actually pretty good since on average I generally net about 30-40% of my advance. Unless something triggers an unexpected spike in my sales, I don’t expect to see any additional profit from this book coming in for at least another year or two.
Is that a sobering reality? Easy money? I have no idea. I don’t know how many hours Lynn put into that title, so I can’t do the workaday math. Still, if you didn’t live a big city or have any consuming vices you could probably squeak by on that money, provided you had the same amount coming in next year…but then that’s not a given, is it? (Speaking of givens, Lynn blows up a number of myths in the post, and in the prequel.)
If you’re a literary fiction writer, how many books do you have to sell to call yourself a success? 7,000.
If you’re an online fiction writer, are there ways to monetize your content? Sure.
Update: Publishing your own RPG? Here’s what it cost someone to do just that.
I’ll post more as I find it. If you’ve already found it, let me know.
– Mark Barrett