Friday, December 29, 2006

Lost Voice

I've always thought that in one respect writing short stories and essays is easier than writing longer pieces. Simply because you can hold the entire thing in your mind, it is easier to find your "voice" for the piece. Once you know what you want to say and you can find the tone, the speech and the pacing for the writing, you can often blow it out in a wonderful flow.

A novel is usually different because the pace of the story goes through many more changes than a typical short story while an essay's doesn't often change at all. So a blog entry is something that in theory could flow like water with the proper voice, just like any short piece, but what happens when it doesn't? What happens when you've lost your voice?

In short, the piece isn't very good. Cleverness is usually absent, as is elegance with the language, and too often insight and intelligence. I'm writing this because of my last three entries, which I wasn't "feeling" while I wrote them. Their creation was more mechanical than organic; the pieces didn't feel alive, more like funeral notices or financial report copy.

When I'm working on a novel, I have a certain amount of "good" time I can spend putting actual words on paper. After that, and I can feel it when it happens, the voice dries up and goes away. I can keep pushing the words out but once I've lost that loving feeling, it just ain't as good. Ever.

This happens to me somewhere between eight hundred and two thousand words, usually around twelve hundred, so at least I can get a good chunk done each session. This is one of the reasons I'm not so attached to using specific word counts as a benchmark. My goal is to write throughout that useful period, while my voice is still on key, and be happy for what I can get.

Replying to e-mails is fun because I can often use the original message as a jumping off place and spit out something clever or quirky or, I hope, just plain entertaining without having to come up with an original voice. Sort of a call and response where the one helps dictate the other.

So while sometimes I feel I have a voice for these entries and I'm as pleased with them as I can be as essentially first draft pieces, sometimes it's just plain forced. In those cases, as possibly with the last three entries, there is some information or opinion that is worth reading despite the fact that they may be stylistically challenged.

But that's writing, I think. Just imagine if you never felt it, if you never found your voice, on any piece. Ugh. It might even drive me back to the IT business. Double ugh.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

They'll Screw It Up, Part 2

Sometimes "tomorrow" can mean "two or three days from now." I got sick. Just a cold, but you put that with the Chronic Fatigue garbage and time stretches out into an unpleasant, time wasting, consumptive void. So blech to the world.

To wind up the discussion on how the publishing industry will/would undoubtedly screw up a print on demand (POD) delivery model, I think we just have to look at what they're doing now and extrapolate. In other words, new technologies won't translate to new problems; the publishers will bring the old ones along into the new world. While I'd like to believe they could throw out the old and create something new, I somehow just can't.

Here's an example. Go into a bookstore and compare the price of a public domain book, say anything by Charles Dickens, and the current offering of a John Grisham or Michael Crichton. With books of the same binding type, the prices are the same. I don't get that. With no royalties to pay or marketing costs to cover (the classics sell themselves) you'd think the books would cost less. But they don't.

So if a POD model would allow a publisher to generate a book without a potential return, and with freight paid for by the consumer, the books should cost much less. I'm sure the transition costs along with the new ways of marketing and advertising would prohibit the price actually coming down. (Yes, that's sarcasm.) I think books have been at the point where casual book buyers have been mostly priced out of the market. A POD model could bring them back (and used book buyers like me) in a big way.

The other thing that would really scare me would be the quality of the books. Currently books are published in varying degrees of quality, from the paper to the binding to boards. There's one publisher I can think of that sells hardcover first editions for the same price as anyone else's hardcover first editions but that are created to the lowered standards of book club editions. The paper is thin and transparent, the binding is glued and not sewn, and the boards are of a low quality paper covered cardboard. I actually have skipped their hardcover offerings and bought the paperback versions. I don't feel so ripped off and the paperbacks may actually last longer.

Without the tactile impressions a well crafted book makes on the consumer in the store, what are they willing to produce through POD? I've bought a few books that are essentially replicas of long out of print historical accounts available from POD publishers. They're similar to the Peter Rabe revivals I wrote about a few posts ago: the books are trade paperbacks, with thin paper covers that seem to permanently curl as soon as the ambient humidity reaches ten percent, and weak or non-existent cover art.

In short, they take away all the features of a book that excite the senses of a bibliophile, a collector, or anyone who appreciates quality. And no, I don't want them to offer a premium edition for fifty bucks and a POD version for fifteen. Books should always be for the masses, not for a moneyed elite, and there shouldn't have to be a trade off in obvious quality.

Would a POD model work? If the publishing industry could partner with the bookstores as alternatives to online only shopping, if they could produce a book with quality on par with most of today's hardcovers, and if they would apply the savings of the new system toward the cover prices of the new books, sure.

Maybe it could happen that way, but I doubt it if only because it would require the kind of thinking that's seemingly absent from the way they do business today. But if Richard Curtis is correct and POD is inevitable, than I fear they'll screw it up. Fewer books will be sold and they'll go on blaming it on video games and Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. Sure. Tell that to the crowds at B&N and Borders next Friday night.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

They'll Screw It Up, Part 1

I began this thread after it occurred to me how much my book buying habits have changed over the years and what would happen if everyone else began to do it, too. On Dan Simmons website, agent Richard Curtis is writing a series of articles on the future of publishing. A few months ago I read the first or second one, didn't like it because while possibly accurate, I had to walk away from the negative tone. (When I saw him at a conference a few years ago I had the same reaction: books may go away, but I don't wanna believe it and I don't wanna argue about it, either.)

For some reason I looked at his current installment and in it he's predicting a full turn to a print on demand (POD) model, which is what I started talking about yesterday. So if he's correct, and he says he always has been, this is going to happen.

But when/if it does, they'll screw it up.

Books are sold on consignment, which means booksellers have the ability to send back whatever they don't sell for credit. When return rates are low (Curtis says in the beginning the rate was about ten percent) this can be a good system because it encourages booksellers to stock more and varied books than they may otherwise be able to handle. But when the returns are high, the publishers end up eating a lot of their investment. This of course leads to higher book prices, fewer risks taken and books published, and most of the bad things that we associate with the publishing biz.

(For an excellent discussion of the entire process, read Michael Seidman's "From Printout to Published." It was out of print the last time I checked but it's worth looking up a copy. Online ordering to the rescue.)

It has been proposed for years that the consignment system be ended but like most things, it's a good deal for the bookstores (especially since most of them appear to be struggling) and a whole lot of pain would have to be gone through to get to the brighter pasture on the other side. Pain that many of the bookstores may not be able to stand. As I've said repeatedly in this blog, lower prices would mean more sales, more books being read, more books then being published, and the entire industry could be put on a healthier footing.

But what if they went to a straight POD model? The consumer would browse for the title on line, order it, the publisher or store or printer would do the printing and binding, and ship it to the buyer's doorstep. And he pays for shipping. Suddenly there would be no returns, no wasted inventory, and a much greater efficiency would be achieved.

As with any major change to a system, there would be a host of significant problems that would need to be solved. Chief among them has to be the bookstore itself: what becomes of it? When I lived in Florida, every bookstore I saw on Friday and Saturday nights was packed to the gills. It was literally difficult to find a parking spot, the same way it is at shopping malls during holiday time. Gives me hope for humanity.

Bookstores could receive a copy or two of new books that customers could browse and then order, either for later shipment or in-store pickup (there are actually machines that can print and bind books while you wait). The bookstore would receive a commission for each book sold.

If bookstores became extinct in favor of online shopping only, people without internet connections would be excluded, but that problem may take care of itself over time. And without a bookstore, with offerings from many different publishers, what kind of internet presence would we see? As a consumer, searching different publishers' websites would be cumbersome, annoying, and such an impediment it's difficult to see how it could work. The publisher's identity simply isn't relevant to the typical reader. It's the book, stupid, and the author. Or the genre, the cover art, the blurbs, or just about anything else.

I think this would mean an online bookstore would be crucial, or possibly some kind of umbrella site. The problem with this is that we already have them (Amazon, BAMM, etc.) and again, the existing bookstores would be crushed.

So while a zero return, POD model would mean huge efficiencies for the publishing world, the transition costs could quite possibly kill the patient. If I frequent my local bookstore and either don't have an online connection or have a security phobia, I'm not going to be interested. And what about the personal experience of viscerally examining the books themselves, their weights, their looks, their smells? Those things don't translate well over the internet.

But let's say Curtis is correct and this shift is an inevitable one. It won't have a terribly huge effect on my own buying habits, BUT...

They'll screw it up. As certain as Curtis may be that it will happen, I'm equally as scared that they'll do it the worst possible way. And I'll write about that tomorrow.

Monday, December 18, 2006

They'll Screw It Up, Intro

We have a wonderful independent bookstore in town. They have a wide selection of books, some CDs, a few maps, and a huge toy store and children's section downstairs. Every time I go in there it always seems a fair number of people are browsing inside. The other day I was thinking how unfortunate it is that I don't hardly buy anything there.

There are good reasons for this. First, way too many of the books on their shelves are in less than "new" condition. Many of the trade paperbacks are slouched sideways, carelessly returned to the shelves and not straightened by careless shoppers. Paying full price for an unread but used looking book seems too much.

Second, they don't typically have the books that I'm currently looking for. This isn't necessarily their fault although they could carry books from Hard Case Crime or classics like Flaubert.

Lastly, there's the matter of price. Paying nearly thirty bucks for a hardcover book is expensive, especially when I can get it cheaper one of three ways: buy it online from Amazon, buy it used, or wait for the paperback.

My feelings on the publishing industry's pricing practices and how they relate to sales have been stated in earlier posts, so I've already talked about how paperbacks are less of an option now than ever. As for buying a book used, if I find a copy online that indicates the book is a hardcover, in new or like new condition, and can be had for cheaper than a paperback (trade or otherwise), including freight charges, I'll buy it. I buy new from Amazon for those very few writers whose work I must have now and in new and collectible condition. James Lee Burke's books, for instance, or the collected short stories of Theodore Sturgeon.

There are two things that I don't do, as way of following my own personal ethos: I won't browse in a bookstore, find something I like, and then go shop for it online. If I discover a book in the bookstore that I want, I'll buy it there and compensate them for their existence. The other thing I won't do is feel bad that by buying a used book I'm denying an author some royalties coming from my pocket. The publishing world is the publishing world and I can't make up for their poor choices with my pocket book.

To put all this another way, I buy most of my books without going through the traditional publishing middleman, the bookstore. Part of the reason is the onhand selection, part of the reason is the condition of the books, and part of the reason is price. Publishers see this sort of unholy practice in a bad light, leading to the previously posted comment about creating books that are poorly made and disappear over time, eliminating the book's ability to be resold. Disgusting.

But what would happen if the industry cut out the middleman? What if they embraced a full print on demand (POD) model? The consumer could go online, order a book, have it printed, bound and shipped to his door step without ever setting foot in an actual store. After all, this is what I do now, isn't it?

Like most things, if done right, shifting to a full on POD system could benefit everyone concerned. If done the way the publishing world is doing things today, it would be an unmitigated disaster. We'll talk more about this tomorrow.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Breaking Out

Recently I unveiled one of my largest fears to a good friend of mine. He's an aspiring writer as well, and he has a unique sense of humor and perception that could translate into some very interesting and readable work.

I told him that for a long time I've had the worry that I won't produce a work that's unique or original, that has a spark of something that myself as an individual can bring to a novel that nobody else could. An original voice, perhaps. In other words, I like how my first book turned out but it isn't special. I didn't try too hard to sell it and my last rejection came from an editor who said that while the writing is publishable, the plot and the characters didn't overwhelm her. Still, she says, it should be able to get me an agent and blah blah blah.

The book languishes in the drawer mostly because I agree with her. I think the best way to get published is to write something that demands to be published. An unpublished book that is just as good as some published ones doesn't mean it is itself worthy of publishing. Whatever it says has been said. My first book just didn't say enough.

A selling author can get away with writing without risk and indeed, even writing the same book over and over, because of the fact that their established name on the cover will translate to a certain number of units sold. But these later works would never have broken them out. (This ties back to earlier posts about writers who write two good books and then settle into a routine of continuous mediocrity.)

One very good way to write that book that demands attention is to find that unique voice and give it what it needs to create something memorable. Analysis of "the novel" won't do it, nor would a mastery of grammar or even a certain flair with the language. I think the writer has to have it somewhere inside him, and then be brave enough to find it, bring it out, and give it its head. Every time I hear would-be writers talk about what publishers want or what's selling today I cringe because I can just sense the lemming-like mentality, the follow the leader mindset that puts the jackboot on not just the creative process but an individual's unique creative process.

Hopefully I'll find mine. Hopefully my friend will find his. Hopefully sometime in the future Joe Blow will be able to walk into a bookstore and find them both.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Playing catch up

Climb back on that horse...

While the dust still hasn't settled up here, it's clear that it won't for a while. Now that I have a stable internet connection and even if the computer is still a self-stopping space heater, there isn't much excuse for either blogging or getting off the pot. One of the mental blocks is that every time I come up with a notion to write about, I shelve it behind the others that I was going to write about before I was without connectivity. So I need to clear the backlog with two or three entries to open things up again.

One of the things I was going to write about was Neal Stephenson's "Cryptonomicon," a massive book found for some reason in the science fiction section. Stuck in the temporary apartment waiting for our house to be ready, I wanted to find a really big and involved book, something like James Clavell's "Shogun," and then submerse myself in it.

I wasn't sure what to get but I started out by looking for Dan Simmons' "Ilium" but they didn't have it. Then I saw the Stephenson and since I've heard about the book before, and was aware that he'd followed it up recently with a trilogy of equally massive books that were getting some attention, and bought it.

Whatever pithy things I had to say a few months ago have receded into the depths but I can still summarize my thoughts: it kinda sucked. It does so many things wrong that in a work of this size simply call themselves out in a white flaring light. Small cracks become gaping defects.

In short, the main character is not consistent. He is portrayed through exposition as a socially awkward genius yet in every interaction or speech he's more adroit than James Bond. Secondly, in the midst of serious fictional characters, he throws in a cartoon depiction of Douglas MacArthur that simply doesn't fit. Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry (or is it Tom? Whichever one is the mouse...) works because of the kind of movie he made; it wouldn't have come off in "Gone With the Wind." This isn't the book for it.

Third, a twenty page speech by a major character with a seriously annoying name (he's almost always referred to by his full name) shows perhaps the worst sin of all: the author is too in love with his characters. He clearly finds them and their lives and opinions more interesting than his own story. This leads to a truly silly (anti) climax where a barely mentioned character from the protagonist's past is gunned down in the jungle in his best formal wear. Where he came from is barely established, his motivations sketchy at best, and the fact that he exists at all is another sign that Stephenson, while a prolific typist, is not comfortable with his own story. Typing a lot doesn't equate to quality plot creation.

In the end the book, for all its length, is barely interesting and nowhere near the immersive experience anything over a thousand pages demands to be. This would have been an okay three hundred page novel. As it is, it's an overused tea bag supplemented with some ketsup soup. And his following trilogy, what he calls his Baroque Cycle, uses these characters' ancestors on trip through history. You can have it. The thing is, the actual length of the books, at least "Cryptonomicon," is not the problem (with apologies to the appropriate tree loving organizations), it's the quality of the writing they contain. I really do want to keep reading LONG books that work, that NEED to be long, like the aforementioned "Shogun."

Hmmm. My old paperback copy has disappeared. But there is a bookstore in town. And maybe now they're stocking the Dan Simmons books. Maybe I'm just a sucker.