Thursday, December 15, 2011

How Amazon AND indie booksellers can succeed without trying to murder one another

I found an infuriating link on Twitter this morning entitled "Don't Support Your Local Bookseller."

I'll let that sink in for a minute.
Obligatory shot of a bookstore. Image by Polifemus on Flickr.

I was and will probably always be an advocate for indie booksellers because a) I always believe in supporting local businesses and b) I've enjoyed being an employee and a patron of indie booksellers for years. However, I'm also a huge fan of Amazon. It's convenient, it has a lot of great interface features, I can get books that would be impossible to find otherwise, etc. etc. etc. So I find it difficult to compare the two. It's kinda-sorta-but-not-really analogous to comparing, say, Wal-Mart and your local clothing store. Wal-Mart sells convenience (okay, they sell cheap plastic crap) in large quantities; the local clothing store may buy small quantities of quality product. Amazon and indie booksellers generally sell very similar or identical products, but the difference is the venue and the experience.

Customers of indie booksellers often don't go into the store with targeted intent. They go to browse, to see what's on the shelves, to handle the books. It's a tactile experience. Customers on Amazon may browse too, but more often I think people go on the site in search of something specific. They may find impulse buys and recommendations, so to speak, but mostly it's a targeted experience. I have to speak anecdotally, of course, since I haven't done any consumer studies.

There are a few factors working against indie booksellers. The first is, of course, Amazon's ability to stock huge quantities of millions of books and distribute them internationally. Indie stores are limited to a smaller, local group of patrons. The second and maybe more salient point is that Amazon can do a passable-to-good job of emulating the brick-and-mortar store experience. Notice the very slick visual displays of products and recommendations based on your purchase and browsing history (creepy but useful). It's super easy to browse, but importantly, super easy to find what you want. An indie store can't compete with Amazon in that regard. Customers have to rely on the booksellers themselves to find a certain item or to recommend books. This is hardly a travesty, but as the linked article mentions, human employees can't match computer accuracy.

A notable exception to the indie seller's local patronage is its seller's ability to distribute through Amazon's marketplace. Both the stores I worked in did up to 10-15% of their daily business this way (very rough estimate based on personal experience). All of these books were used copies of mostly out-of-print books that Amazon didn't stock. This is the indie seller's strength. Amazon's Marketplace virtual storefront is driven largely by these indie sellers. Amazon makes a tidy profit from commission on these items. I think this is actually a great concept: out-of-print and rare book distribution in one central location. Indie sellers can (and do, to a certain extent) use the Power of the Amazon Megalith (tm) to their advantage.

The problem is that indies just can't compete with Amazon when it comes to the biggest part of the market, which is new and recent releases. Indie booksellers do not "mark up" their product. They sell books for the list price, which is set by the publisher. Amazon marks products down. For every indie that can sell one copy of Dean Koontz's new novel for $25 (which they bought for not much less), Amazon can sell it for, say, $17, because they bought a bajillion and they have a distribution agreement with the publisher and so on.

All this means that indie booksellers are going to have to evolve. I'm not arguing that they're in some ways outdated and outmoded. I'm saying they shouldn't have to compete directly with Amazon. Why not work with the ways they can be successful? There will always be room for second-hand books and out-of-print books. Why not also take a cue from indie clothing stores and acquire small quantities of quality books--from, say, indie publishers? Wouldn't that be a match made in heaven? What if every indie bookseller only acquired books from indie publishers? Potential exposure and business for everyone. Indie booksellers can carry beautiful special edition hardbacks--pieces of art for book lovers who enjoy having physical books. There's a market that hasn't yet been tapped, and Amazon hasn't made special efforts to do so.

I'm really not here to debate the worthiness of Amazon as a business entity. I'm wary of it. I have a lot of problems with any company that seeks to create a monopoly. But I also think that because of its size and frankly genius business policies, it's provided some fantastic opportunities for consumers. I mean, you can get a Kindle for $79 now. A lot of people can benefit from this: people who don't live within easy driving distance of a bookstore, for example. They don't have to pay shipping on an e-book. A more significant example is visually impaired people who can't read print books. E-readers, Kindles in particular, provide a viable, cost-effective alternative to traditional book distribution. They make it so people who may not otherwise have opportunities to do so can have access to readable material.

I don't understand the Slate article writer's claim that consumers should not support local businesses like bookstores. Buy from corporations, fine, but the idea of avoiding a small business because hrr drr they're not Corporation X wrongheaded and frankly stupid. As an author, I would rather you buy my book from a local business or (gasp!) directly from my publisher. Supporting small/local businesses is better for the economy and better for you--ergo, better for authors.

Don't get me started on his last line, which claims that Amazon is "saving literary culture." Literary culture is not just one entity. It is possible to enjoy the convenience and accessibility of Amazon while also purchasing quality product of a slightly different kind from your local bookstore. Literary culture will evolve, survive and thrive even in a terrible economy because people need books. It's true that consumers require different things now and indie bookselling is a little slow on the uptake--but it needn't always be that way.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Balancing personal taste with a critical perspective

A lot of students tell me that they don't like a certain piece of writing because it isn't their preferred style of reading or writing. To quote one student, "If the style of writing is not what I prefer to read or write, I can’t handle it."

I'm all for allowing students to dislike certain pieces. They ought to form opinions about literature. Hell, there are some styles of lit that I just can't stand. I think what annoys me about the student's mindset is the implication that because the student doesn't care for something, or if it doesn't fit the student's definition of "good," it isn't legitimate and it lacks quality. Last year I taught Push, the novel by Sapphire. If you've never heard of it, look it up. It's grim. It's dark. Some students didn't like it for those reasons and didn't think it was "real literature," so they shut off, they complained to my boss, and I even had two people drop the class because they didn't want to read it.

To a certain extent, that's legit. It's their choice what they read and what they don't read. But to use a metaphor from Tiger, you can't say that a well-cooked corn dish is bad because you don't like corn. If it is technically, objectively well-cooked, then it's well-cooked. The same goes for writing. There are objective aspects of writing and reading--maybe not the same ones as cooking, granted, but a reader/editor can (and should be able to) acknowledge that a piece of writing has value and quality even if it is not to the reader's taste. Take Faulkner. I'm probably un-American in my dislike of Faulkner, but his writing is simply not to my taste. However, I still teach a couple of stories that are, objectively, very good. That is, they fulfill the purpose the author intended them to fulfill. They're not to my taste, but they're still fine examples of how a short story can be written.

I find that many (too many) people analyze stories on a completely subjective level, absolutely without any effort at critical thinking. They think that being a critic will take the fun out of it. Or something. I find exactly the opposite. Attempting to analyze theme and meaning deepens the experience for me and opens up new levels of appreciation for stories I like on a subjective level as well as stories I wouldn't otherwise like.

This brings me to editing. I've been a professional writing critic for a number of years on several different levels in several different capacities. I've read a lot of writing that was shitty objectively, and I've read a lot of writing that I struggled to appreciate but accepted anyway because I could see that the writer was achieving his/her/zir purpose. This capacity to appreciate that which you may not subjectively enjoy is a key skill for an editor to cultivate. If you edit professionally, you will read genres/styles/stories you don't care for. It's vital to understand the difference between aspects of a work you don't like and aspects that aren't successful or effective.

The best advice I can give in order to understand this difference is to assume that the writer is doing everything on purpose. Assume that the writer meant to choose that particular word or make that shift in authorial distance or twist the plot that certain way. You can question whether the author's choice is effective overall--that's your job as an editor, after all--but consider the author's purpose first. Does it fulfill that purpose? Does it fulfill the story promise? Then consider getting over it.

I've struggled with this myself. Some of my students/editing clients have written pieces that I absolutely would not read if I had the choice. They're just not the type of stories I enjoy reading for pleasure. I've had to train myself to consider what the author is trying to do and to help him/her/zir do it more effectively, for his/her/zir intended audience. Yeah, this is difficult, but as a teacher it's unfair of me to dock points because a story is not to my taste, and as an editor it's unfair of me to ask the writer to write what I want them to write.

Feel free to make a note of what you like/don't like/aren't sure about, because your input as a reader counts, but if you ever think, "I don't like this story/I think it's a crappy story because I hate zombies" (yeah, sorry, I really do hate them), take a step back and question yourself. Do you think it's crap because you find it cliche, or are you having a knee-jerk reaction to your hatred of the shambling horde? If I hadn't let my then-boyfriend talk me into watching Dawn of the Dead because of my unreasoning hatred for zombie movies, I wouldn't have grown to appreciate the parody aspect of the movie and understand its message. I grant that my skepticism of zombies in general lead me to question what possible value this 90-minute romp into absurdity had. That's not a bad thing. It made me a more critical viewer, which then likely allowed me to experience the movie in a deeper, more meaningful fashion.

I'm not saying that a reader/editor can't have opinions or can't dislike something on a subjective taste level. I'm advocating critical thinking. There's a lot of literature out there that is not to my taste, but some people like it and I can objectively understand why they like it. I found my intelligence constantly insulted while reading The Da Vinci Code, but I can understand why a bajillion people bought it and loved it. Many readers liked it for exactly the reasons I hated it. I wasn't Dan Brown's intended audience and that's okay. I would still have edited the fucker to death, but in the service of helping the author fulfill his purpose, not making the book into what I would rather read.

Whether you love or hate something you read, I think it's important to consider why you had that reaction. Understand that you may not be the author's intended audience, but consider whether the piece of writing works before you pass judgment.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

I can has publisher!


I have the Best News Ever. My novel, The Wicked Instead, has a publisher! It will be the first publication of Hard Limits Press, an awesome new speculative fiction indie publisher. You should follow them on Twitter (@hardlimitspress) for info on the unveiling of their logo and the launch of their website at the beginning of December. There you’ll be able to check out an excerpt from the novel.

For now, though, here’s the awesome blurb from Hard Limits:

Cary and Lindsay Delaney have always known they were special. Warriors for God, their father said, meant to bring about the Rapture, and every moment in their family’s isolated Ozarks compound was spent preparing for that day. Cary’s paraplegic injury put an end to that dream, however, and the brothers, now estranged from the father who once exalted them, find a different kind of magic in the streets of Springfield, Missouri.

Dubiously blessed with the title prince and heirs to powerful t├íltos magic, the brothers find themselves embroiled in a struggle for the health of the World Tree, the structure that supports not only their world, but every world. The Tree is rotting, and it’s only a matter of time before the corruption reaches its heart. Can Cary and Lindsay make their own way despite those who would use them for their own ends?

A coming of age urban fantasy with a twist, The Wicked Instead combines the voice of a redneck haint tale with an unerring modern sensibility and sensitivity. As much about struggling to survive and the bonds forged between unlikely friends as it is about fantasy, The Wicked Instead will change the way you think about the genre.

Doesn’t that make you want to read it? I know it does. The e-book release is scheduled for early next year, with print following shortly after.

Stay tuned for the cover image as well as an excerpt that will be released in conjunction with the launch of the Hard Limits website. I’m so excited!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Poi dog: thoughts about race

I have a complicated and confusing relationship with race. I'm a poi dog--I'm Hawaiian on my dad's side and white on my mom's. I look pretty non-white, though it took me a long time to recognize that. I joke that I'm the tallest Hawaiian woman ever (5'10") and I don't like coconuts or Spam (joke). I'm paler than most Hawaiians, but I have black hair, a fairly Hawaiian face, and I'm built like a Polynesian woman.

After my family moved to Arkansas when I was eight, I was raised white. Very white, as in my brother and I were part of the .1% non-white population of our small town. I never connected to the white southern culture around me, but I didn't identify strongly with Hawaiian culture because I was only raised with bits and pieces of it from my dad, who was never a present or a positive figure in my life. I always really wanted to connect to Hawaiian culture, because I sensed that it might be more welcoming than the white Arkansan one.

White people tend to think I'm white because they can't identify me. My legal name is also incredibly German, which doesn't help. At the same time, people saw me differently than they did other white people. It took me a long time to figure out that people were Othering me in part because of the way I looked. Growing up, I got called "exotic" or "ethnic" a lot by people who might have thought it was a compliment. They didn't understand that they were making me an Other, and I didn't understand it either. When people asked, "What are you?" (oh yes, it happened), I called myself Hawaiian, but inwardly I told myself I was more white than brown, even though I didn't want to.

When I went to college, far away from home, I noticed that non-white people of all varieties would give me this searching look as if they were wondering if they could call me one of their own. (Hawaiians are the only ones who can recognize each other and we can do it from 50 yards away. I'm only half kidding.) I figured I just had one of those faces. I still wanted more to identify with non-white groups than I did white people, because really, what had white people ever done for me besides confuse the hell out of me? Then, after college, I went to the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival and made a beeline for the Hawaiian booth, desperate to connect in some way to the culture I thought I should be a part of. After admiring the woven baskets, I struck up a conversation with one of the women at the booth. I mentioned that I was part Hawaiian but had never been to the islands, although I wanted to go and learn more about the culture. She gave me a "who cares?" look and promptly ended the conversation.

It took me a while to process her instant antipathy and longer to figure out why the hell she had shut me down. Years later, in grad school, I met a white woman who had grown up in Hawaii. She knew ten times more about Hawaii and Hawaiian culture than I did with my piecemeal knowledge from my dad and my own studies. She spoke the pidgen. It hit me then that this white woman, this haole, was more Hawaiian than I was because she had grown up on the islands and participated in the culture. I was confused and hurt because, well, I have native blood. My brothers and I were the first in our family to be raised completely on the mainland. I wanted to learn more about the people I was born to and instead had gotten shut out, again.

I'll back up here for a minute and explain: Hawaii is a colonized place with a dying culture. The story is, unfortunately, very similar to other native stories. The British stomped right in, as they tend to do, then the Russians, the French, the Chinese, the Japanese, of course more British, and the Americans stopped by to take advantage. Qualifications to be considered native for the purposes of government benefits is "any descendant of not less than one-half part of the blood of the races inhabiting the Hawaiian Islands previous to 1778." This qualification hasn't changed since it was first enacted in 1921. The problem here is, not unlike Americans in general, Hawaiians are all mixed. We're all poi dogs. So the natives have to decide somehow who gets to participate in the culture and who should be kept out. That's how minority groups work, unfortunately--they decide who gets to play in their sandbox and everyone else can fuck off. Understandably, because they need to feel safe.

Here's the thing, though. That kind of thinking breeds an isolationist philosophy, which isn't good for anyone and isn't good for the culture. When you start turning away people who honestly want to learn about and participate in your culture? Yes, we should all be concerned with cultural appropriation, but if a culture is concerned with perpetuating itself, inclusion is more beneficial than exclusion. Hawaiians have demonstrated their willingness to pass their culture on to those who may not look the same way they do, but they still (in my experience) exclude those who may have the same blood but haven't yet participated in the culture in a direct way.

Recently I saw my dad's side of the family for the first time in 14 years. All of a sudden I was back in a huge group of people who looked just like me and who acted the way I remember from my earliest childhood. I don't really identify with them on the surface, either, because I've spent half my life away from them. At the same time, that's the part of my family that has been most formative to the racial part my identity. That side of the family is a mix of just about every type of non-white you can imagine, but we were all taught to identify with the Hawaiian part of us. I'm left confused. In my daily life and in the larger American society, I'm caught between a group that doesn't want me because of the way I look and a group that doesn't want me because I've grown up elsewhere.

To me, all this brings up a couple of questions. What can we consider "race" anymore? Is it color or blood or identification? Who gets to participate in what culture? I'm of two minds on these issues. On the one hand, a minority group ought to be able to determine who participates in it. Minorities need safe spaces, and in order to create them, they have to be selective. But where does selectivity cross the line into exclusion, and is exclusion really healthy and fair?

The experience at the Smithsonian festival was a formative one for me. It's hurtful to be shut out of a group I identify with. It's just as hurtful when people don't acknowledge part of my identity. It's a complex issue and I'm still trying to work it out. What are your thoughts?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Writers' Platform-Building Campaign

I've always struggled with how exactly to build my platform, since my novels are hard to pin down genre and audience-wise. Self-marketing is vitally important in an e-book market, especially for folks who plan to go indie or self-pub, like me. Tiger linked me to the Writers' Platform-Building Campaign and I thought, hey, why not give it a shot?

So that's what I'll be doing starting today, August 22, through October 31st. If you're a writer, you should join me/us! The link above includes info about the campaign as well as instructions for joining. The list will close August 31st.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Apparently I'm a wimp.

I hate the phrase "Don't take it personally."

I received a rather harsh critique of The Wicked Instead recently. The critiquer wasn't wrong about a lot of things, but the way the comments were presented, heavily colored by the critiquer's personal biases, put me on the defensive. After I was done being pissed, I was devastated. I felt hurt, invalidated, attacked. The critiquer made some points that were valid and that I agreed with, but I had to sort through a lot of emotions that those words brought up. I'm still sorting through them, in fact. I wanted to get right to work fixing what was wrong yesterday, but I couldn't because every time I looked at my manuscript, I felt a crippling sense of dread and knew I couldn't handle it that day. A lot of writers act like this makes me a wimp. I should just push through the pain, walk it off, don't let them get to me. I agree with this to a certain extent. I won't let those harsh words cripple me forever. I won't let that critique make me stop writing, because it's something I love to do. Something I have to do. That doesn't make those words any easier to hear, though, and doesn't make my emotions any easier to get over.

Isn't it doubly invalidating to tell yourself you aren't allowed to be hurt by something that's hurtful? Writing is an incredibly intimate, personal thing. Yes, writers need to have thick skins, but the fact is, we also still have emotions and pushing aside those emotions doesn't help us as people. I am a goddamn expert at invalidating myself and my feelings (just ask my partner), but I can't ignore them forever. It isn't healthy and it doesn't help me as a writer. It builds resentment against myself, and what kind of writer am I if I despise myself?

People affect other people. If your parent/significant other/friend (or hell, even a stranger) says, "You look like shit in those pants," it's going to hurt. You can choose not believe the remark or use it as "critique," but doesn't it still sting? Shouldn't we be looking to examine the causes of our upset rather than pushing it away?

I'm not saying that either you take the critique whole-heartedly with a smile or sulk and don't use a bit of it. A broken clock is still right twice a day. A person who is generally full of shit can still speak the truth. You can still use harsh critique if you can come to a point where you can separate emotion from the remarks. And that's what's difficult.

It's not all on the writer to be the strong one and to push through it. An effective beta/editor will keep in mind that s/he is talking to a person with feelings. Some people just don't "get" it (tell me you've never had this feeling) because they don't read between the lines to grasp an author's intent. This isn't me being a special snowflake--when I critique, author intent is golden. My job as editor/beta/whatever is to help the reader reach his/her vision, not mine.

That's not to say that the editor should tiptoe around an author for fear of hurting his/her feelings, but there's a way to frame a critique, even a difficult one, in a way that doesn't automatically put the writer on the defensive. When people are defensive, they don't listen. It costs nothing to be diplomatic. Think of it this way: an editor wants the writer to take his/her advice. The writer wants that advice. But when the writer is feeling too defensive to take it, everyone loses.

My point is, writers, you're allowed to have emotions. You're allowed to be defensive. It's your choice whether you push those comments away or use them to your advantage, but that doesn't mean your feelings aren't valid. Figure out what's making you defensive. Is it the critiquer's tone? Are you feeling insecure/caught out at something? What is it? Is it something within the story that you need to fix, or is it some other factor? I think writers often forget that life influences writing and life is full of emotions. They're too intertwined to separate how you feel about life from how you feel about writing a lot of the time.

Fuck "Don't take it personally." Writing is personal. We can't avoid taking things personally. It doesn't make people wimps. The question is whether we can deal with those emotions in a healthy way so we can go on with the business of writing as better, stronger writers.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

On being gimpy

My body hates itself. And sometimes I hate it.

Since adolescence I've had problems with my joints, especially my legs. I'm flat-footed and knock-kneed (among other things) because of loose tendons. When I was probably 14 I developed bad knees, in part as a result of a couple years being a catcher in softball. Doctors told me I just needed to lose weight--keep in mind that while I've always been above the "acceptable" BMI, I've never been visibly obese. I probably don't need to tell you what hearing "just lose weight" from all sides does to an adolescent girl. I didn't, really. My weight in proportion to my height has remained the same pretty much throughout my life. I've gone to a chiropractor on and off since I was 15 or so because of my bad knees and big tits, which put extra strain on my back. (I told you my body hates itself.)

When I was 19, I injured my shoulder and then my lower back while fencing and ended up in physical therapy twice. After seeing me walk, the physical therapist looked at my legs. He said, "Did you know your left leg is a lot shorter than the right one?"

...

No. I did not. It turns out that my left leg is 3/8" shorter, which is a significant difference. It's been a major cause of pretty much every lower body problem I've ever had. The physical therapist said some people had surgery to correct it, but unless I absolutely had to, he recommended that I take the much-simpler route of getting a heel lift. I immediately flashed back to visions of my art history teacher from a couple years before, looking at her right shoe. The sole was a good inch thicker than the left one, and I always wondered what was up with that. Well, now I knew. The therapist must have noticed the look on my face because he said the lift was just a shoe insert. If I wanted to wear heels, he recommended having the right one cut down 3/8" to compensate. That simple.

Well, for a long time it really was that simple. The heel lift has really done wonders for my lower body comfort. My chronic knee pain has all but disappeared except for occasional flare-ups. My hips hurt sometimes, but mostly when I was PMSing--likely a symptom of yet another body rebellion, PCOS. Within the past year, though, I've been experiencing more and weirder symptoms. Last summer I avoided putting on real shoes for weeks at a time, mostly wearing flip-flops. I started experiencing pain at the top of my left foot. I figured out through Dr. Google that it was likely caused by a severely over-pronated foot (something I already knew). I bought some arch braces to see if they would help, because ten bucks for braces is a lot cheaper than a couple hundred bucks for a doctor's visit and x-rays. I avoided wearing heels. That helped for a long time.

And then in May this year I did something really dumb, for me. I walked six miles in a day. I hadn't walked that far or that long in well over a year. And I did it without the arch brace. (Told you it was dumb.) My foot came back to haunt me. Well, okay, back to the arch brace. A week later and my foot was feeling much better, only my hip now despised me. It feels approximately like there is a nail sticking out of the top of my femur into the side of my hip joint. Dr. Google and I suspect hip bursitis, but since this happened after I lost my insurance (of course), I can't afford the doctor/specialist/x-ray/whatever combo. The hip starts hurting about 20 minutes into my daily walk and keeps hurting until I stop. It's also impossible to sleep comfortably without a very firm body pillow to prop my hip, and even then I have to turn regularly during the night like a rotisserie chicken. Awesome.

The whole reason for this round of body bitching is that today I woke up and my hip was achy before I ever really started walking around. Fuck this, I thought. I broke down and bought a cane. Nothing would do but I also go to another store after I bought it. And I'm pretty sure I've never felt so self-conscious in my life.

People stare at me a lot. Most of the time I'm not sure why--maybe it's because I'm an Amazon who is just non-white enough to confuse people. Most of the time I find it amusing, but this time was different. I'm pretty sure as I was walking through the store the reason for the looks wasn't "weird tall girl" but "OMG Y U HAS CANE U NOT OLD!" This was rather starkly demonstrated when I passed an old guy with a cane and he gave me the hairy eyeball.

Well Jesus. I'm sorry. I know I'm only in my mid-twenties and all, but my body fucking sucks.

Maybe I'm over-thinking this, but it seems like if you're young and in a wheelchair or on crutches or have a white cane or a guide dog or whatever, people stare, but their discomfort is laced with pity. But I couldn't help thinking these people didn't pity me--they didn't think I was legit. I kept wondering, am I not gimp enough? What is it about a walking cane that's different from any other assistive device? Is it that I don't have any obvious signs of injury like a cast or a brace, or that canes are often associated with old people?

I don't get it.

The part of me that is always amused when people stare for no reason thinks, fuck you guys, stare if you want to. But the insecure part of me thinks, maybe I'm not legit enough. That's not going to stop me from using the cane, because I'm tired of my hip hurting and I don't want to do more damage, but the self-consciousness is not so different from the kind I felt when the doctor told me I just needed to lose weight. I keep thinking, oh, I probably did this to myself. It's not that bad. I certainly don't need to advertise it.

Yeah. That is some deeply flawed thinking. Thanks, doctors, for helping fuck that one up for me.

I have no conclusion to this post other than to state that I'm frustrated with my body and my thinking right now.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Are you f-ing kidding me? Why I will not buy or sell a 99 cent e-book

Photo by jhritz, from Flickr Creative Commons
Nathan Bradsford created a poll asking readers what a fair price for an e-book is if a hardback costs $25. (http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2011/06/are-attitudes-about-e-book-prices.html). It actually relieved me somewhat that half the respondents said that e-books should be priced at $5-$10, which seems to me an acceptable range given the lower production costs of e-books vs. print. Several people mentioned the 99 cent e-book trend. While there were no obviously WTF comments there last time I checked, it reminded me of how much this trend bothers and disturbs me.

A mass market paperback (the small kind) costs around $8-$10 now. They're fairly cheap to produce, but given the price of materials and labor, that $8-$10 starts to seem fairly reasonable. E-books can be produced much cheaper because there are no "real" material production costs. However, if a book is published by a press, the press has to pay editors, copy editors, proofreaders, formatters, cover artists, etc. The press also has to make money to operate. It costs a lot of money to run a business, yo. Distributors also take a cut (nomnom). After that (and only after), the author gets paid royalties.

But that's the thing. Authors should get paid for all the work they've done. And the cheaper the book, the less money the author makes. Let's see. I've spent 14 months on The Wicked Instead. If I could count up the hours I'm sure I'd be boggled. This is before cover art, copy editing/proofreading and formatting. So if my book is priced at 99 cents, what does that say about how much I value my own work? Yes, please give me 45 cents for fourteen months of work and a hundred thousand words.

I don't think so.

Now, you might inform me that if a mass market paperback is sold for $8, then the author, receiving 10-15% royalties, probably isn't getting much more than that per book. Well. Here's the thing. We (those involved in the publishing world) have to decide who will benefit from the lower production costs of e-book pricing. It really ought to be the authors. I don't just say that because I'm an author, although yes I would like to get paid for all that work, thanks, but because it's fair. Who does the bulk of the work? The author. I'm not discounting the invaluable work of production staff, who also deserve to get paid, but it the fact of the matter is, it's the author who actually produced the piece to be sold and the author who pretty much continually gets shafted. The salaries of production staff get paid by the company, who gets revenue from multiple sources. The author has that one source of royalties. One.

E-book publishing has a lot going for it in terms of flexibility. E-pubs can take risks because if something flops, they're not forced to eat the cost of all those unsold paper copies. What does this mean? Well, it ought to mean that the industry becomes more author friendly. The spirit of entitlement that comes with buying and selling ridiculously books baffles and angers me. If I sell a book for 99 cents, I'm telling you that that is all my book is worth, so you, the consumer, will start to believe it.

You know what? We pay for things. This is how we get on in the world. I mean, let's face it, the market is already pretty reader friendly. Readers can buy print books from second-hand shops (a practice I fully support, by the way) or borrow from friends or get books from the library. Yes, e-books are harder to trade or lend. I don't dispute that and I think the industry can go a lot further than it has in making these practices accessible. But again, these practices ought to benefit the author in some way.

I would venture to guess that most people wouldn't think twice about paying money for any other item crafted by human hands. I mean, hell, I've paid $50 for a hand-made decorative clay bowl before because it was freaking gorgeous. I'm paying the people who produced that gorgeous bowl. I am not entitled to pay any less because maybe the potter got clay on sale. That means, yay for him, that he can make more money, keep his business open and keep producing gorgeous clay bowls.

Call me crazy, but to me the purpose of e-publishing is to be different and better than traditional publishing, not just to be a clone. The publishing industry ought not to be just about selling a product, but about supporting the person who created that product. Feeling entitled to buy things for less than they're actually worth is consumerism at its very worst.

Authors: if you believe in your book, price it like you believe in it. Readers: if you believe in books, pay for them like you believe in them.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

I'm a bad motherf--shut your mouth. A few simple rules for conversation.

I'm a supporter of shutting one's mouth when appropriate. I do not, however, believe that those appropriate situations are as common as many people think they are.

People tend to avoid conflict at all costs. It's instinctive, we're social creatures and think disharmony or lack of consensus is detrimental to a group, blah blah. And yet Americans, at least, often like to remind each other that this country was founded on the principles of freedom of thought and was built on difference rather than similarity. You can't have it both ways, people. What I mean is, you can't support freedom of thought and difference and avoid conflict at the same time.

It took me a long time--most of my life--to learn this lesson. Most of my formative years were spend growing up in a household in which conflict or difference of opinion was not allowed, so I had to STFU. As I've grown older, though, my tongue has loosened and now, well, I kind of have a hard time shutting my mouth even when others think it might be appropriate to do so. I suppose I got tired of not being allowed to express myself, so I slowly found ways to do so. I distinctly remember my mother sad-facing over my first tattoo, telling me it would make it hard to find a job. I told her that if there was a workplace that didn't want me just because of a non-offensive tattoo, I didn't want to work there anyway.

This growing inability to STFU got me in trouble when I moved to Minnesota, where shutting your mouth is the order of the day--I venture to guess that it was a big part of why I'm now jobless. I was encouraged to lay low and not make waves, along with other various cliches, but I...didn't. And here I am. Do I regret it? No, because again, if they don't want me as I am, I don't want to be there. Does it suck? Well, yeah. But I suppose my tolerance for letting people treat me and the things I care about however they want has come to an end.

And that's really what it comes down to. How much do you care?

When involved in a discussion, the two phrases guaranteed to make me want to punch you in the face and pull your eyeballs out with my fingers are, in no particular order, "I'm sorry you feel that way" and "Let's agree to disagree." There is no faster way to invalidate me and what I am saying and make yourself look like an asshole. What you are saying, essentially, is, "I don't like what you're saying so I'm going to stop talking about it."

You realize that instantly makes you a jerk, right? If you are having a discussion in which you disagree with the other party, the goal should be to come to a mutual and respectful understanding of one another's viewpoints. I've come to the realization that I'm never going to change anybody's mind. You have to change your mind yourself, or not. But what I can do is help the other person understand what I am saying and why, and maybe s/he will come to a decision on his/her own. But if I get shut down with "let's agree to disagree," we can't come to that mutual understanding. And neither of us have learned anything. Again, you can't support difference/diversity and avoid conflict or disagreement. No two individuals are going to share the same opinion about something. You can agree not to attempt to come to an exact consensus, but agree to come to mutual understanding.

Don't shut the discussion down. But by the same token, don't be a dick about dragging your conversation partner through the mud of your opinions, either. As I mentioned above, you're not going to change anybody's mind all by your lonesome, especially not by beating someone with an Opinion Bat.

So here are a few guidelines for when to shut it and when to open it.

Shut it when...

  • Someone presents solid, credible, factual evidence to the contrary. What I mean is, if you present something as fact and someone proves you wrong, be a grown up and admit you were wrong.
  • You will wound someone unnecessarily with your words. I'm not talking about challenging someone's beliefs, but if your intent is to wound, just STFU.
  • You can't provide enough logical or empirical evidence to support your claim. In other words, don't present your opinions unless you can prove you know what you're talking about. Do your research. Form your logical claims before you express them
  • You are not (yet) prepared to have your beliefs challenged. This is okay, believe it or not. I won't get into in-depth conversations about things I don't know enough about, or things I'm still trying to figure out, with a stranger.
  • Someone else is talking. This seems like such a simple thing, but if you expect respect while you are speaking, give it.

Open it when...

  • It's important. Especially if it's important to you.
  • It bothers you. But be prepared to defend why it bothers you.
  • You believe in it. See caveat above.
  • You think it's bullshit. See caveat above.
  • You have something to offer the conversation, whether it's knowledge or insight. This is not a free pass to spout off about whatever you please, but if you have something to say, "I don't want to make trouble" is not a good enough excuse not to speak. People need to hear your voice, believe it or not.

Long story short: listen first. Talk second. But talk.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Life decisions and new beginnings and all that

Well, it's been a while. Between May 23rd and now, I've made some big changes. The biggest is my decision to move to Seattle and take a break from teaching. I'll be applying to PhD programs (in Seattle and elsewhere) with the hope of beginning PhD work in fall 2012. I have no idea what exactly I'll be doing in the meantime. Okay, scratch that, there's plenty I can do in the meantime, but as far as work goes, whatever.

I also gave On a Twisted Tree a new title: The Wicked Instead. Tiger and I have decided that we're writing parallel stories that will tie together later on, so Twisted Tree will be the name of the series. I've often joked that I can't write a short story without it turning into an epic series, and...it's so true. We've mutually decided to go the self-publishing route. I'm not sure when I'll be planning to release The Wicked Instead, but I suspect it has a bit more editing to go through before it will be completely ready for formatting, etc.

The last but certainly not least important piece of news is that I've started the second book in my branch (no pun intended) of the series. I'm waffling between titles at the moment, so I'll just tag it Tree Book 2 for now. I'm 1700 words in. I expect to post excerpts now and again on my Tumblr. If you haven't followed me there already, I hope you do.

That's all for now, I think. I've been working on another substantive post for a good long while now and hope to finish it in the next few days.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Joplin

I'm sure that if you haven't been under a rock for the past 24 hours, you know about the EF4 tornado that blew apart the city of Joplin in southwest Missouri. About two hours before that, my current city narrowly escaped an EF2 tornado that tore a chunk out of North Minneapolis. Damage was reported less than five miles from my place.

Needless to say I'm a little shaken today. I spent much of my life within a 150 miles of Joplin, have been there and have friends with families there. Everyone I know/know of there is well and in one piece, but many people are not, and the damage is extraordinary. I've BEEN to that Walmart that was obliterated. I've seen that convenience store. It's just unthinkable. I know awful natural disasters happen all the time, but this one really hits close to home. I've been close to tears on and off all day reading about/seeing the damage in articles and photos.

If you can, please donate $10 to the Red Cross by texting REDCROSS to 90999. It will add ten bucks to your next month's phone bill. Joplin needs it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Spring-summerish

I am absolutely convinced that I have a weather curse. When I travel, or when I move somewhere, there will be severe/unseasonably severe weather. When I moved to Arkansas, they had the worst winter anyone could remember. When I moved to Ohio, the university closed for snow days for the first time in 13 years. When I moved to Baltimore, they had the hottest, driest summer in years. When I moved away from Baltimore, I was followed by a tropical storm and wandered back into the hottest, driest summer there had been in Arkansas in a long time. Most recently, I moved to Minnesota and we had the longest, coldest, snowiest winter since 1991. I was also told that tornadoes almost never happen here, yet we've had two tornadoes touch down in the area in the past two weeks. I happened to be out on the balcony watching the storm come in when I saw the rotating wall cloud Weather.com mentioned. Fortunately it never produced a tornado in this area.

Such is my weather curse. If I ever move near you...I'm sorry.

Aside from the severe weather, though, it's finally spring in Minnesota and it's quite nice. The only other problem is that I'm allergic to something here (probably some kind of tree) and my seasonal asthma has returned. I'm back to being surgically fused to my inhaler and doped up on allergy drugs galore. This is not, unfortunately, helping my current state of mind. You see, I lost my job a little over a month ago. It's a long and sordid story, but the fact of the matter is, I now have to move somewhere by the end of July, and I have to find out where that somewhere is ASAP. I'm certainly not without options even if I don't get another teaching job, but I sort of need to know, like, last week. The interviewing process takes time, which is something I don't have much of.

And yet, I have too much of it. Kate of Candlemark & Gleam and Tiger are coming to visit at the end of June and we're all going to CONvergence, and I start online teaching at the beginning of July, but until then, the unstructured time might just do me in. I am really bad at relaxing and having too much time to myself. I am getting stuff done, primarily revising On a Twisted Tree again and editing Natania Barron's Pilgrim of the Sky, and I've been leaving the house for a while every day, but I've still gone a bit stir crazy this week. Part of that is because I managed to upset my bum foot on a six-mile hike along the river, and now I'm unable to walk for long periods like I'd prefer.

It seems like everything has piled up on me at once like a big wet blanket of suck. I could use a break from it. But, I am getting revisions/edits done, and I found all seven seasons of Big Cat Diary on Netflix Instant Play. I used to watch it whenever it was on Animal Planet as a teenager. Yeah, I'm totally nerdtastic.

Friday, May 13, 2011

It is an Editing Day

I've been pecking away at some edits of On a Twisted Tree after Tiger had a pass at it. Today I got into the first substantial ripping apart of scenes, where Tiger noted some pacing issues. I spent a good two and a half hours on two scenes, complete with much screaming and hair-tearing. Fortunately these scenes seem to be the biggest issue in the entire book, so if I get them patched up, the rest should (might) be a bit easier.

There are some issues with some secondary characters, and I don't know if I'm too mentally tired to deal with them or what, but I just can't figure out how to fix them. There's one character in particular who's kind of featureless. He's always been that way in my mind, so I have a hard time figuring him out enough to put him on paper. I'll have to come back to him, I suppose. I hate when that happens because characterization is one thing I'm generally very good at.

So, now that I've exhausted myself with my own edits, I'm about to dive into Natania Barron's Pilgrim of the Sky. I saw a very early version of it but haven't seen it in quite some time, so I'm excited to get to read it.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Why We Need Monsters

My most recent Netflix obsession is Destination Truth, which is like Ghost Hunters but with legendary creatures instead of spirits (most of the time). Most of the investigations prove inconclusive, but the host maintains that legends like this persist because they're integral to part of the culture they belong to. The question is, why?

Recently, I saw an episode set in the Amazon rainforest. I don't remember what the creature was, exactly, but one of the experts posited that the native people sometimes claim they see the monster when they really see a jaguar, because being scared of a jaguar is far less legit than being scared of a gigantic lengendary creature. Most of us Western folk are sure being scared of a 200-lb cat that can eat your face is pretty damn legit, but I guess if you live in the jungle you're supposed to be used to it.

It seems that's the role of supernatural creatures in any society, really: to have something it's okay to be scared of. Take  mainstream American culture. We're not supposed to be afraid of any number of terrifying things in the average adult's life: work, relationships, parenting, bills, whatever. When you live out in the country, you're a pussy if you're scared of tornadoes and snakes and bears. You should be wary of them, but you shouldn't show it. We're expected to just deal with it, like the Amazonian natives are expected to deal with jaguars, because this is the life we're born into. It's the life we tell ourselves we've chosen to live (because Americans are all about choice). But who, honestly, ISN'T scared of these things?

So we have to give ourselves an outlet, something that we are allowed to fear, whether it's ghosts or gnomes or Bigfoot or werewolves or El Chupacabra or whatever. Even (maybe especially) in our ultra-logical American culture, urban legends persist despite evidence to the contrary. And rather than scoff at these legends, many people embrace them--and really, they ought to. They're coping mechanisms. We have any number of shows like Ghost Hunters and Destination Truth because we love to think that there might be real critters or real spirits out there. We like horror movies, especially monster movies, for the same reason. We love UF and horror because even if there's no plausible reason to believe that these magical beings exist, it's an outlet for our fears.

This need for an outlet is one of the many reasons why I think people are obsessed with paranormal stories. They really aren't anything new, but in the past ten years, they've grown wildly popular. And it's no wonder. What happened ten years ago? 9/11, anyone? Americans live in constant, legitimate anxiety over real-life issues of terrorism. But as we've seen from many people's reactions to Osama Bin Laden's death, it seems like we're all supposed to be over it. I mean, it happened soooo long ago. (This just goes to show how short the American memory span seems to be getting.)

So it's gauche to say, "Look, I'm afraid every time I get on a plane that it's going to get hijacked." In order to make this fear more legit, we have to add, say, motherfucking snakes on that motherfucking plane. It seems ridiculous, but is it? Sure, when you live in the country you're not supposed to live in fear of the occasional copperhead or rattler, but when there are snakes dropping out of the overhead bins? The stuff of nightmares, dude.

Of course, UF is not always terrifying; it's not horror, where the general mood or tone is one of fear. But we still want to believe that supernatural creatures exist among us in the world we're familiar with, whether they're our friends or our enemies. Sometimes we humanize them, give them our problems (relationship troubles, late bills, broken down cars). Sometimes we make their lives ideal (mansions, six-car garages, Swiss bank accounts). But in UF, especially, the antagonist (or one of them) is always supernatural. Man vs. the paranormal and the extraordinary. This theme goes back to the dawn of time, to Gilgamesh and Beowulf. We're all totally allowed, at least within the framework of the story, to be afraid of the supernatural. When we're not supposed to be afraid that we won't be able to pay bills and eat at the same time this week, we can turn to supernatural stories instead. In a way, it's cathartic.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Revision finished!

Today I finished the revision of On a Twisted Tree. Or at least, the first major revision. It comes in at around 117k, which is 6000 words longer than the original draft. Most people trim. I end up expanding. Ha.

I'm trying not to sink into the post-novel "aww, man, what do I do now?!" blues. Because I have another novel to plot and other projects to work on. The sequel to Tree is still very amorphous in my mind, but so was Tree when I first started out. I just have to tease out that one major thread of plot that needs to be solved. It's very hard not to sit down and go at it immediately, but I honestly could probably use a mental break, and my work semester isn't 100% over until next Thursday.

I have another blog post of substance brewing in the meantime. I just need the first line, which, to quote Thomas Tallis from The Tudors, is almost everything.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Redneckery

Much of the inspiration for the characters and settings in On a Twisted Tree comes from "you can't make this shit up" experiences, either my own or my mother's. You see, my mom, who was born and raised in upstate New York and southern California, was once the Yankeeist Yankee ever to Yank. She's where I got most of my Yankee, I'm sure. But little bits of redneck have started to creep in over the 17 years she's lived in Arkansas. A couple years ago, she married the biggest redneck ever to walk the earth (and I say this with all affection, because I really do love the guy), and it's just gotten more pronounced.

Case in point: today we had a conversation that consisted of the following:

  • The state of the flooded creeks in town
  • Selling the purebred purse dogs they breed
  • My stepdad's professional fishing activities
  • The woodland squatter under their house
    • We think it's a skunk.
    • Cat food is better for trapping skunks than dog food (don't ask me how I know this)
    • She needs to call the neighbor to shoot it if she traps it while my stepdad is gone.
At least she hasn't gone feral enough to pull out the shotgun and shoot it herself.

Her mix of redneck and Yankee is kind of adorable. She's sent me phone pictures of the cows in the back yard, for example, as if they are something novel, and a few weeks ago she sent me a picture of the fiberglass owl (pictured--normally used to scare off birds who might nest in inopportune places) that my stepdad pulled from the lake the previous day while fishing. Which they put in the back yard, of course.

You can't make this shit up. And you see why I have to write about rednecks.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Writing patterns

I write really good beginnings, I must admit. Understand I'm not bragging when I say this, because beginnings are about the only part of writing I'm really good at, ha. It's a rare project where I've actually needed to fiddle with the beginning too terribly much--in fact, I can only think of one project in which I actually changed the beginning substantially. That project is still on the shelf because I can't figure out what the hell to do with it. Happily, On a Twisted Tree's beginning is still very strong. Aside from some inconsistencies, I really didn't have to revise much in the first third of the novel.

Yes, beginnings are easy for me. Part of the reason is that a story sits in my head for a while before it ever comes out. I have to know what the first scene involves and even what the first few lines are before I can start. I try not to make that one of those lame writer crutches, but it kind of is. Even the novel that's still sitting on the shelf still bears the original opening lines. I think it's because I have to capture my own interest before I can capture anyone else's.

Another part of the reason that the first part of Tree in particular turned out well is a combination of half planning, half pantsing. I tend to plan a little before I start writing these days. In the first third, though, I pants quite a bit. One scene inspires another, one character inspires another, etc. Building up a project is easy, and in my typical projects, pretty successful much of the time.

And then I get to the middle, where I actually have to do something with all of those doors I've opened and all of the plot threads I've begun. I can start making connections, weaving the threads together, seeing what's behind the doors, cliche cliche cliche. The middle, though, usually takes anywhere from three to ten times as long as the beginning. I wrote the first 30,000 words of Tree in about a month, IIRC, between sometime in May and sometime in June. The middle took me until probably January. I get to that point where I'm like, "....Fuck, what do I do with this?" Yeah, you know what I'm talking about.

Here's the funny part. I write good beginnings. Middling middles. Disastrous endings. It's not that they lack in quality as far as writing or plotting goes. The plot is actually pretty tight in the ending of Tree, because I'd finally figured out where the hell I was going. And that's just the problem. Almost a year later, I'd figured out a number of things I didn't realize/didn't bother figuring out in the middle. I figured out at least half of the world building /character/plot loose ends in the last two weeks of writing Tree. The last 10,000 words or so. What results is a hot mess of exposition and development that should have happened a hundred pages ago. I had about a week of constant crisis writing that last 10k because I finally had to deal with some gigantic soul-swallowing plot holes. They were fairly simply resolved, but that means that, in the revision stage, I'm now doing an awful lot of cleaning up after myself in the middle.

I'm not really complaining. I write these blog posts because my own writing foibles amuse me in an ironic kind of way and I tend to write in hyperbole. I'm thankful for my analytical brain and my ability to solve my own problems. Er. At least as they relate to writing. Sometimes I wish I was more patient, though, so I could work this stuff out before I had about 70,000 words that look like a kaleidescope of scenes that I have to make into a real picture. But, in the words of a hypocrite who hates it when writers say this, that's not really how I work. So it's back to self-janitoring.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Revision progress

I have an insanely ridiculous amount of work work to do this weekend. I have to draw up a proposal for my division meeting next week, which will then go to one of the administrative bodies on campus if approved (eek), I have to organize student papers for workshops for one class and grade two sets of papers for three other classes.

So what am I actually doing this weekend? Revising On a Twisted Tree. Natch.

I've only managed to pick through about 30 pages in the last week, but today I hashed out a revised outline for the whole novel, noting where I need to add scenes from whole cloth or revise the ones I have to fit the breakthroughs I made in the last couple weeks of writing. One of these days I will develop a more efficient writing process that does not involve pantsing the first two thirds and then figuring everything out in the last third, in the most agonizing, frustrating way possible, complete with OH MY GOD THIS SUCKS I HAVE RUINED EVERYTHING I AM AN INCOMPETENT LOSER I SHOULD BE DRAGGED OUT AND SHOT BEFORE I BUTCHER ANOTHER WORD moments.

In the last couple of months, especially, while Tiger (http://tigergray.blogspot.com) and I have been half-seriously futzing around with our future crossover, I've solidified a lot of ideas about Tree and the world and characters I'm working with. I'm eternally grateful and tickled that Tiger found my initial suggestion of, "Hey, let's throw our characters together!" intriguing enough to do this, because the book definitely would not be the same without him. And by that I mean it is totally more awesome because of him.

In other cool news, be on the lookout for a character interview with Amara (http://amaras-place.blogspot.com) and the Delaney boys sometime within the next few weeks (time permitting for all parties involved), as well as an author interview with Tiger and a character interview with his protagonist too. If you'll allow me the shameless plug, Amara runs a really great m/m book blog, which you should check out immediately. She did an author interview with me in March, and she's just awesome.

I am writing two different blog posts at the same time. Please save me from myself.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Draft 1.0 complete

Okay, y'all. It's messy and chaotic and not at all pretty yet, but I just finished Draft 1.0 of On a Twisted Tree.

This is the longest solo project I've ever done--I estimate it a little over 100k, but as a big chunk of it is handwritten still, I won't be sure until I start typing all of it. It took me a little under eleven months, in between summer jobs, moving, starting a new job/new life. It's the most personal thing I've ever written, and I'm proud of it, even if it is still a little ugly.

Now, many edits are ahead. But I will rip through those.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Something that needs to be shared

Stop. Right now. And read this link. (http://therumpus.net/2011/03/the-careless-language-of-sexual-violence/)

How many times have you seen a news story like this floating around, one about sexual violence, or heard a news story on the radio or on TV, and just flipped past it, without paying attention to it? It might be well-intentioned--there are things so horrible you don't want to think about it. I'm not too proud to admit I've done it. I block it out. I try to pretend it doesn't exist. That eleven-year-old girls don't get gang-raped and then blamed for it.

That has to stop. Now.

I blame this on ignorance. Many people seem to come by it honestly--they really don't realize how pervasive rape culture is. We're an advanced society, right? We know rape is bad and awful and wrong. We accept it. So that must be it. It must not be important anymore. Fuck. That.

When I was 13, I was molested. And I never told anybody. This is the first public admission I've ever made. Why? Because I blamed myself. And because nothing I ever saw or heard ever encouraged me otherwise. Because as much as I heard "rape isn't your fault," why would I listen, when every other nonverbal message said the contrary? And let's talk about molestation for just a minute. Somehow, a brutal rape often carries less fault and more victimization than molestation. How many people have stayed silent, like me, for almost half their lives because of this idea?

I had the idea that I was going to post this big essay about rape culture, but I can't. I need to, because something needs to be said, but right now I am just...it is too much. Too. Much.

If you don't read that article, if you don't process it, if you don't take a hard look at how long you have tolerated rape culture, and if you are not upset enough to at least spread the message, please never speak to me again. And I am dead serious.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Absolutes in writing--POV

Tiger showed me this article (http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/headhop.shtml) earlier about point of view shifts, headhopping and authorial intrusion.

There is exactly one paragraph I sorta-kinda agree with in this article.
There are a lot of best-selling writers who use headhopping, authorial intrusion, and other viewpoint bugaboos. If it works for them, fine. Usually, they can do this because they are skilled at creating seamless transitions from headhop to headhop. However, you don't have that experience.Without that experience, you're better off avoiding headhopping altogether. Remember, you have an obligation to write the best book possible. If you don't have the skill to tell readers about multiple viewpoints within one scene, then don't even try it. 
 I really wish the author made that caveat at the beginning of the article rather than the end, because I'm slightly more disinclined to chew her face off now, but I'm still going to do some gnawing, because I hate absolutes in writing style. Do I have some absolutes? Yes. They are few and far between, but they are present. But not, typically, in matters of style, least of all POV.

This article claims that "headhopping" (switching POVs multiple times in succession in one scene) is, essentially, Completely Wrong and Bad. So is authorial intrusion, which I gather the author takes to mean stopping action to tell the reader about a character's background or whatever. I think author voice is important, but I'll get to that in a minute.

The categories first, second, and third person came, essentially, from the New Critical approach to literary criticism. This was a very scientific way of looking at the story that sought to categorize and label everything so it can be observed within a story. You might recognize this approach from high school: discover a text's meaning(s) (though usually only one) by "breaking down" a story into observable parts. POV is one of those observable parts. As annoying as New Criticism is, it's persisted because we like the idea that we can label things. Teachers especially like it because it gives them something to teach, and it gives students something to remember and model. When I say something is third person limited, my students can tell me why by observing the text.

In reality, though, POV is never that cut and dried. It's almost impossible to narrow down POV into five neat categories (first, second, third limited, third omniscient, third objective). I much prefer to identify authorial distance--that is, how far the author's voice is from the narrator's. In third omniscient, the author's voice is almost synonymous with the narrator's--or at least, the narrator is a persona belonging to the author. In third limited, the narration "should" (at least according to teachers/books) be filtered through one character's perception at a time. In second person...well, who's the narrator? Is it the author telling you what you are doing, or is it you? In first person, is the narrator the author, or is it the character, or somewhere in between? It can depend entirely on how much the author chooses to step in. And this can change moment to moment. Sometimes the author will pop in to make an editorial remark and then back out.

Hemingway typically writes in third person objective. People do stuff. People say stuff. There's almost no author voice to tell us how things are. We're supposed to judge for ourselves. Perfect example: "Hills Like White Elephants."

But then, in the last paragraph.
He picked up the two heavy bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks. He looked up the tracks but could not see the train. Coming back, he walked through the bar-room, where people waiting for the train were drinking. He drank an Anis at the bar and looked at the people. They were all waiting reasonably for the train. He went out through the bead curtain. She was sitting at the table and smiled at him.
Dude. He used an adverb. "Reasonably." This is a violation of the authorial distance he's established throughout the entire story. Adverbs are always someone's opinion. In this case, you could interpret it as either the character's voice or the author's voice. They were waiting. How? Reasonably. This is the only adverb used like this in the story. No, really. Check it out. (http://www.gummyprint.com/blog/archives/hills-like-white-elephants-complete-story/)

Was this a mistake? Come on, it's Hemingway. Of course it wasn't. But neither can you say that this sentence, this word, is pure third-person objective any longer. It complicates the issue of purity in POV. And it's remarkable how effective that violation/complication can be.

Let's take first-person POV as another example. I really don't like it in general, at least for longer texts. My reasoning is, nobody is a completely reliable narrator, especially when it comes to him/herself. It's almost impossible to see character growth in first person simply because, honestly, how often are we aware that we've changed? In order to show character growth, the author has to step in. Has to. This might come in the form of another character stepping in and saying, "Dude, you've changed" (awkward and I hate it) or subtle cues to help illuminate readers. But being in one character's head offers an extremely narrow view of the world that must must must be mitigated by the author.

And then you have stories like "A Rose for Emily." The story is told by the collective "we," referring to the townspeople, but Miss Emily is the protagonist. WTF? How do you label that?

Complicated. Un-simple. None of it is wrong, either.

To recap/expand: POV is anything but simple. There are more than four categories of POV. Authorial distance plays a part in complicating POV to an infinite degree and this is not a bad thing.

So I challenge anyone to say headhopping is wrong. It can be wrong for a particular story in the sense that it isn't effective, but it isn't outright wrong. Neither is "authorial intrusion." Sometimes your reader needs to know something and you have to tell them. There are more and less effective ways to do this, but it's never just, "Oh, don't ever do this."

I understand where the author of the article is coming from. I tell my creative writing students not to do certain things (present tense, headhopping are two examples) because inevitably they will do it exactly wrong because they don't understand it. You have to be able to control it and make it work for you. And typically, no, beginning writers don't have that kind of control. The problem is that saying "never do this" makes people take that advice literally and propagate it. "OMG headhopping! That is wrooooong." Well. It works for the story. The author did it consciously. Why is it wrong? It's a rare "writing principle" indeed that will hold up 100% under close scrutiny.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

What you can get away with

I've written a couple things with Tiger Gray in the past couple of weeks that made me feel like I was personally responsible for the deaths of at least a million kittens, and another scene yesterday that made me feel like I had spent the night curb-stomping puppies. I made Tiger uncomfortable with it. I consider this a weird kind of success, because it's meant to be uncomfortable.

The scenes in question involve a character who is absolutely, positively and in all other ways repugnant to me. I've written some twisted, nasty bastards in my time, but this one gets to me. You can read more about him in this post. He isn't the protagonist, however, so he can get away with being an unbelievably evil doucheface.

Switching gears slightly (I swear this is going somewhere), I read a post by Tiger the other day about rape in fiction. And it reminded me of an experience I had betaing for someone who decided to use rape as a major plot point in a (romance) book. More specifically, this person's protagonist date-raped his love interest.

Now, to me, this is not okay on a number of levels. 1) in the romance genre, 1a) it's really, really hard to get away with rape as a major plot point, period. 1b) especially when it's one of the romantic pair. 1c) especially when it's both of them. 2) The rape was portrayed as a stepping-stone for the characters' relationship. WAT. Yes, I said that, and I'm not exaggerating. 3) It's really hard to get away with your protagonist doing shitty things in any genre. Much less rape.

Sympathy Through Consistency

Why is it so hard to get away with this? Because readers still expect protagonists to be "heroes" in some way. Even anti-heroes may not have a lot of heroic qualities, but when it comes down to it, they always do the "right thing," even if it's for the wrong reasons. You may not like them, but they are sympathetic because they adhere to our built-in sense of moral rightness in some form or fashion.

Inevitably, someone will argue with me about this until the cows come home. But why shouldn't protagonists be able to do shitty things? Look at Dexter! Yes, well, I will point out that in order to be consumable by the public, Dexter still has to have human qualities like a code. He doesn't rape anyone. He doesn't kill children or anyone who doesn't "deserve" it (though there's plenty of moral gray area there). And Dexter is also up front about the fact that he's a serial killer.

This novel character, however, was a squeaky-clean romance hero before he up and date-raped somebody. I mean, from a solely logical standpoint, rape isn't about sex--it's about power. If you (and I'm using "you" as the hypothetical author here) set up a character who had issues with power, I might believe he could rape somebody. I mean, seriously, it takes a seriously fucked-up person to think rape is an acceptable course of action. But if your character is seriously fucked up and you make me believe it, I might be able to sympathize with him.

My point here is that you cannot let your otherwise agreeable protagonist do shitty things and still expect him/her to be sympathetic. If you want a character to be sympathetic, don't then shatter the reader's connection with the character by showing them shocking behavior that doesn't really match up with the reader's previous impressions. Be up front.

Sympathy Through Justifiability


Going back to Dexter again, viewers can, at some level, justify Dexter's actions. Yes, he's a sociopath who kills people and then cuts them up into pieces  Yes, he really is monstrous. But we're able to justify murder of "bad people." We can understand how that might be acceptable. When heroes in classical tales or modern books kill people/beings, it's perfectly acceptable of those people/beings oppose the hero. Anti-heroes, especially, can get away with a lot. They can torture, maim, imprison, beat, maroon, abandon, neglect, whoever, as long as whoever they're torturing/maiming/whatever is playing for the opposing team. We might be aware that doing these shitty things isn't something a really nice person would do, but because the actions are established as justifiable, we can think, well, that's okay.

Rape, however, is never justifiable. I feel safe in assuming everyone who isn't a psychopath agrees with me.

It doesn't really matter if rape can be justified using your internal story logic. Okay, so the rape has to happen in order for one character to realize his feelings for another. In a romance plot, that's pretty important. But here's where real life intrudes upon fiction.

Your protagonist is a rapist. He does not get to exist as a romantic character anymore. End of transmission.

Sympathy and Respect


I sympathize with someone (real or fictional) when I can respect them and their motives. If a protagonist does something truly awful, but s/he has other respectable qualities, I might still be able to respect him/her. It depends a great deal on what that is. It has a lot to do with understanding, too. If I can grasp, at least on an intellectual level, why a character does something, and that understanding doesn't involve the phrase "the author is an asshole," I can respect him/her.

Now, this understanding doesn't come from the character him/herself. Note I said "the author is an asshole" not "the character is an asshole." Your character can be so full of shit s/he's choking on it. My characters are regularly chock full. But you have to help me understand what's going on that makes your character(s) that way. If you pull shit out of thin air and stuff it down their throats, I'ma be unhappy.

If I can't understand your character or think your reasoning is full of shit, I won't respect him/her. If I don't respect him/her, I don't sympathize with him/her. And then you've lost me.

To sum up:

  • Your protagonist can't rape somebody in romance.
  • Your protagonist can't do something "bad" that's wildly out of character and expect to remain sympathetic.
  • Your protagonist can do shitty things if you can make them justifiable.
  • Rape isn't justifiable.
  • Sympathy comes from respect, which comes from understanding, which comes from the author.
I think you can get away with a lot in fiction and people will still read. But you, as the author, have to prove to the reader that there's a reason they should let you get away with it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Yay! I did my first ever author interview with Amara from Amara's Place. You can find it here. We were introduced through a mutual friend, and she is awesome.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Frustrated

Feeling a little frustrated with myself today. I'm already uncomfortable with the way this scene is going and I'm not sure what to do about it. I think it's mostly that I don't really know if I need it, but I should have it. Which probably means I need to go back and re-evaluate why, because my reason is "this character hasn't made an appearance in too long." I try to make every scene have more than one function. This scene kind of came out of nowhere as I was writing another one, and another reason for my frustration is that I'm getting impatient to get toward the end.

Even as I'm typing this, though, I think I might have worked out another function. Still not sure if I need the scene, though. Argh. Oh well. I'll stand by my policy of letting someone else (beta reader or editor) decide that. Sometimes I just don't have the distance I need from my own writing to make a judgment call either way.

I'm having an irritable day all around. Irritable mostly with myself.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Plot, pacing and the purpose of a story

Generally, when I begin a story, I have a concept and a situation in mind. I do my damndest to create a plot outline with major events--in other words, stuff happens. But then I get into exploring the characters and this might cause different stuff to happen than I originally intended, or more stuff happens in between the major plot points than I originally intended. This, by the way, is why I cannot write a short story to save my life.

When other stuff or more stuff happens, I worry about pacing. I'm pretty good at determining/approximating pacing in an outline, but in scenes I'm kind of blind to it (at least when I read my own). I know that every scene should serve more than one purpose, but sometimes the purpose isn't clear to me until after I've written it--or else, again, it changes. Incidentally, if it's still not clear to me then, I often end up ditching the scene.

Take the scene I'm writing now. I realized two characters who will eventually be involved in a romantic relationship needed some time to interact on-screen, as it were. I know this isn't a good enough reason to write a scene, but one character needs to explain something to another anyway. Yeah, uh oh, the dreaded Info Dump Scene. This is what has me nervous. I enjoy organic worldbuilding and hate when the writer makes me pause while s/he explains a bunch of stuff to me, but in this case, these are things the reader needs to know and the protagonist needs to know before too long. I figured I would just write the damn scene already and figure out if it was necessary or prudent after I had the first draft complete. That's just how I roll sometimes.

The scene turned into an interesting discussion about what makes a human/a person. Is being human and being a person the same thing? That's one of the sub-thematic questions in the entire series I have planned, so it worked rather well. So I'm not too worried about it now.

I was talking to Tiger Gray the other day about the central conflict/central choice in a story. He had finally figured out his and I was a little confused about mine. You see, this was supposed to be one book, but as is typical of me, it turned into a series. So I know the overall conflict, but this story arc needed one, too. I came about it in a really roundabout way writing it, so I suppose it was only appropriate that I figured out the central issue in a roundabout way, too.

See, I read "Barn Burning" by Faulkner and had to analyze it for my students. It's a coming-of-age story about a son's conflict with his father's choices, and the son's need to make his own choices.

DING DING DING.

Reading that story could not have been more unintentionally well-timed. That's pretty much exactly what On a Twisted Tree is about: the Delaney brothers learning to make their own choices and become their own people, despite (and because of) the consequences. Their choice is to whether to obey the people who swear they have their best interest in mind or take a risk and strike out on their own. It's been there all along--it just took me reading someone else's story to realize it.

Yeah. That's how I roll. Nothing is ever really straightforward.

Friday, January 28, 2011

My characters drive me to drink

Uurrgghhh, you guys. I'm currently writing a universe-crossover with Tiger Gray and exploring new dimensions of a truly vile character, Cary and Lindsay's father, Lewis. I don't mind telling you all that he's heavily modeled after my own dead-beat dad and is a blatant attempt to exorcise those demons through my writing. Add onto that a heaping scoop of the religious insanity I grew up around, and...yeah.

The problem is, I have to write him. This guy is emotionally abusive/neglectful, cowardly, psychotic and the captain of the cruise ship that cruises De Nile. The current scene involves my wading tits-deep in De Nile, which is filled with with Psychosis Crocodiles and a heavy dose of cruelty. Even for a short scene I have to psych myself up for him. In a scene like this, I must drink. And then possibly bathe in bleach.

Now, I have and will torture my beloved characters. I also write some pretty psychotic characters. Some of them are downright scary because they come out of my brain. Very few of them have affected me like him. Maybe it's the personal connection that bothers me so much, but this bastard makes my skin crawl. I guess, though, that that's a good thing. I find that the more I elicit emotions in myself while writing, the more effectively I elicit them in my reader.

STILL THOUGH.

I will now go back to my raspberry bitch beer.