Internet … Great Tool and Time Sink

I’m thinking how much the Internet has changed the world.

Back before the Internet, it was difficult, time-consuming and sometimes expensive just to get information.  Whether it was refinishing a piece of furniture, learning how to play the guitar, or wiring a light fixture, there were often no instructions.  Finding what you needed involved finding a knowledgeable person, going to the library or the bookstore, sending off for a catalog.

Now, the difficulty is filtering the massive amount of good, dubious and bad information on the net.  I have read several short books (generally badly written) on how to publish.  I have three conflicting sources on page layout.  It’s almost as time-consuming as it was before the Internet.Danny_Media

On the other hand, I’ve found a cover designer whose work I have been able to inspect in detail.  She lives in Nigeria.  Her contact page tells one a lot about the reach and capabilities of the Internet. As I write this at 2:00 pm Eastern Daylight Time in the States, Danny is on line at 7:00 pm in Nigeria.  She made a delivery 3 minutes ago and 346 people have liked her enough to rate her.  That’s a long, long way from the local Yellow Pages I grew up with.

New world.  Full of challenges and opportunities.

The Agony of Genre

I check agents’ sites occasionally, and yesterday I saw a note that a person had incorrectly classified her book as a ‘thriller’ in a query letter.  The agent said (quite correctly, I think from the query) that the book is suspense, not a thriller … but that’s okay, she said, because “thrillers are hard to sell these days.”

Ahhh, visions of my history with venture capital, when someone would have a Big Honkin’ Idea, would get funded and (shortly) acquired.  Within months there would be a dozen minor variations on the original idea looking for money, some of which would be funded.  Then the market would be saturated with look-alikes, and VC attention would turn to the next Big Honkin’ Idea.

So it is, I fear, with the thriller genre in commercial fiction.  I have two finished thrillers, one in rewrite and another in design.  So this is of some concern to me.

Once upon a time, the “thriller” plot turned on some big problem, something that would hurt thousands or millions.  Somehow the story’s protagonist, often an ordinary person (not cop, PI, lawyer, etc.), would discover some important detail and be pursued by bad guys until he or she was successful in exposing the bad stuff.  Then, sometime between Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects (2006) and her Gone Girl (2012), her marketing department made Gone Girl a thriller.  After that, there were a lot of thrillers came out. Most were suspense (the general classification above thriller), but ‘thriller’ sold.

It’s looking more and more like I’ll self-publish at least my first novel.

Reorganizing

I’ve changed the site around a bit. I am approaching completion on novel number three (Fail Deadly) and am sketching out number four.  There’s a new page on this site (Novels) with the blurbs for the first three stories.  Those of you who have had to go through the difficult process of creating a blurbs, please don’t hesitate to tear them apart.

Evolution of Agency?

I just had an interesting and hopeful experience.  At least one literary agency is wrestling with the issue all have been struggling with:  the tsunami of queries made possible by the Internet. And this one, Bookends, seems to have cracked the code of how to deal with the flood in what people from other industries would consider professional.

The Old Way … The New Way’s Worse

I’m readying myself to take my first novel to market and have thus been looking at agents’websites.  A pretty standard note encourages submissions, then says something like:  “Unfortunately, due to the large number of queries and submissions we receive, we cannot acknowledge receipt, we cannot enter into correspondence about our decisions, and we cannot return material.”

In the world I come from, that would be an admission of failure to manage one’s business. Nerve-wracking to be sending one’s work into a black hole.

Bookends uses an online submission form, then gives an address where one can track the progress of one’s submission.  Fight technology with technology.  Good for Bookends. For me, the change is hugely positive, because it cuts off the loose ends that are endemic with the send-it-off, wait, wait, wait cadence of most query activity.  It also made me realize that small, ongoing pain of not knowing is worse than the pain of rejection.

Anyway, kudos to Bookends.

… AND Spencerhill Associates, using same form

… AND the great online resource, query tracker.net … which has apparently bridged the gap between keeping track of a writer’s queries and managing the submissions literary agents receive.  BIG kudos on helping the industry put at least a toe in the waters of twenty-first century electronic media!

No Genres!

Louise Penny, quoted in the New York Times book review, August 24th:  “I don’t buy into the notion of genres, perhaps for obvious reasons. I think that’s an effective marketing tool, but nothing more. Good storytelling is good storytelling. There are no borders or boundaries in literature and to try to define is to limit. Finis.”

Oh, Joy! Wonderful! Even ends in fine, archaic Latin.

… But, oh, yes.  She’s published.

Genre, Storytelling, Literary Fiction

I recently applied to a contest that asked, as part of the upload, what the genre of my novel is.  I answered dutifully, Thriller.

Yes, I know that the judges have to have some way to classify submissions, and I have just read a bit about plot, timing of events, when backstory is best introduced, and so on.

Problem is, I am reading Redemption, a fine story of New Orleans by Frederick Turner.  I have studied New Orleans music and give presentations about it.  Turner creates 1913 New Orleans – Storyville in particular – with such skill that you swear you’re there in that so steam, seamy, funky place right along with his protagonist Fast-Mail Muldoon.  When you read his descriptions, highly articulated, precise, and unafraid to use a full vocabulary, you think “Literary Fiction.”  Turner doesn’t mind taking a healthy paragraph to describe the quality of the mud on the banks of the Mississippi or a chapter to let Fast-Mail Muldoon ponder lost love. But if Turner were to submit to my contest, Redemption’s genre would be Historical Fiction/Suspense.

Just a reminder for me that fiction writing is story-telling.  Storytelling is about language; thus all fiction ought to be “literary,” and the whole point of telling a story is having a compelling plot.

Perhaps a banal observation, but I’m relatively new to the business side of writing.  It’s easy to get lost in trade arcana.

Wearing a Suit and The Oxford Comma

I went to a shiva yesterday for a friend’s mother.  It was in the evening.  A bit uncertain about dress, I wore a conservative suit and a tie.  When I arrived, I realized most of the people were more casually dressed.  A bit embarrassed, I mentioned to a friend that I felt overdressed.  He said, “Don’t worry about it.  You’re never overdressed in a suit.”

And yes, this does relate to writing.  Modern punctuation trends seem to be minimalist to the point that one is occasionally confused (as in “Let’s eat Grandma.”).  My tepid response to this trend has been to drop the series comma before ‘and.’  The editor says No … stick with the Oxford comma (red, white, and blue).  The publisher can always take it out.  But one is never overdressed in the Oxford comma.

 

 

Pitch Conference

Ahh, the pitch conference.  Three minutes to explain your darling child of a novel to a polite but dubious agent.  Three minutes for her to ask probing questions that tear it apart.

I enjoyed most of the Writers Digest pitch conference in St. Paul, Minnesota last Saturday.  The classes were more reminders of ideas we writers should always have in our heads than anything new.  Mystery writer Kristi Belcamino reminded us to “get in late and leave early” so that you give the reader the essence of an action, rather than all the steps (hearing the knock, walking to the door, turning the knob).  Set up a ticking clock. (To know that you have to catch a flight to Istanbul is just information.  To know it’s an hour before takeoff and you’re still in the security line raises the stakes.)  This is stuff most writers know, but I, for one, tend to bury important things in prose, then have to trim.

I had some hope of discovering how a self-published work of fiction finds readers.  For all the good ideas, warnings, and suggestions, there was not much there.

Possibly the best takeaway for me was a session in which first pages of novels were read aloud to six agents, who then indicated when they would stop reading.  One of the pages read was from a talented author in my Wednesday critique group. The agents had comments similar to those the critique group had when its members read that first page.  Heartening to hear that the group is on point.  Also very interesting to hear the agents’ take on what works and what doesn’t.  Good writing is necessary, but not sufficient.

In any case, the experience kicked me into yet another rewrite.

Overhead

Overhead:  That concept they lay on you at the auto dealership when you wonder why it costs $70 per hour to fix your car.

Overhead:  A life concept I too often ignore.

mechanic bill

I digress today from writing about writing per se to talk about the real-world business of writing. Specifically, is this new age better? Or just different?

Surely, we have resources we never had before. Google maps, Wikipedia, thousands … nay millions … of specialized websites. I said in the last post that I was able to scope out and define a little town in Austria right from my comfortable chair in Minnesota.

Wonderful, but …

  • Arriving home from a trip abroad, my good old HP printer doesn’t print. Turns out Apple’s latest update of its OS is probably the problem. That cost three hours and led to a new printer.
  • WordPress.com explains that my podcast hasn’t passed through to iTunes, depriving it of 80% of its listeners. Nobody knows quite why. I’m looking into a separate website. Several hours squandered there.
  • Audible/ACX, the Amazon audiobook service, hasn’t responded after having told me there’s “electrical noise” in my audition file. Serializing the first novel as a podcast is on hold.

Overhead!

I don’t know about you, but I realize I should allow for all this overhead when I set my expectations about what this wonderful world of technology promises.

The Novel and Budweiser

Word has it that Amazon has taken yet another step in the value chain that is writing. They have the distribution part down pat, and the production part? Well, they have that, too. So where does a restless creative force go next? Pretty obvious: The making of the product, which is to say, the writing.

In the near future, if you’re a hyper-qualified Prime member and you’re knocking around Amazon looking for something to read, you will be able to tell Amazon the genre and the plot elements you’d like and their algorithms will whip up a story for you and drill it right into your Kindle. And you wondered where art comes from.

Now, maybe I’m biased, but that strategy will (of course) work well for Amazon in the short run, but I bet the result will be a Budweiser.

There is a little town in Bohemia called Budvar. Folks have been making beer in BudvarBudvar since before recorded history, and it is good beer. When you’re next in Vienna or Prague, ask for a Budweiser. You will get a beer from that little town in Bohemia, and it will have only a vague resemblance to the Budweiser you can get in the States. The beer from Budvar is the modern version of the beer Budvar has always made, and its flavor is a function of a master brewer’s palate.

When the Budweiser from Budvar arrived in the States, it was probably pretty similar to the delicious stuff that now comes from Budvar. But in the years since, it has been run through consumer testing, the cost accounting department, the advertising department, and so on. The result is essential Crushed Beerbeer. Beer stripped of any taste that might offend. It is light. It is bubbly. It is aggressively anodyne, if that is not an oxymoron.  It is high-priced water. As a result, not surprisingly, a whole new industry has sprung up – Craft Beer, aka beer that tastes like beer.

So, I’m wondering how long it will take for automata to reduce writing to its essential drivel and for Craft Writing – aka Not Drivel – to triumph once again.