Thursday, May 27, 2010

In Which I Rebel Against Social Norms

I was wondering the other day if I had to write myself as a character, how would I do it? Which details would I choose to get across the essence of my character, so readers could instantly understand the "type" of character they are dealing with?

Then I thought some more, and realized that I might be a deeply weird person. To wit:

I don't own a cell phone. I have no desire to own a cell phone. It's true that I work from my house, so my need for a cell phone is somewhat obviated, but still. Not including my five-year-old, I'm literally the only person I know who doesn't own a cell phone.

I don't own a watch. I think the last watch I owned was a black plastic digital watch in fourth grade. I hated the way it made the skin on my wrist smell. LIke a belly button, but worse.

I wear no jewelry at all, except a wedding ring. And I didn't start wearing my wedding ring until 3 months ago, after almost ten years of marriage. I don't wear necklaces, bracelets, sunglasses, or earrings either.

I can't stand elastic in almost any article of clothing, and I won't wear clothes that have printed words or images on them.

Given the choice, I'll cut my hair twice a year—so it goes through stages. Very short, almost buzzed, then longish, then truly long. Then I cut it.

I'm terrified of cameras—and yet I've recently discovered that I actually really like doing TV. Somehow, that's not intimidating or scary, but exhilarating. I make weekly TV appearances on a local morning show, BUT I have trouble watching myself back on screen, so I often don't.

Even I think I have bad taste in music, but what can I say? I have the musical taste of a 15-year-old English raver. I like loud beats.

I like extremely spicy food, motion in all its varieties (spinning, roller coasters, even "the spins"), swimming in cold water, and being outside in rainstorms.

People often think I'm distant, which is true, but not for the reason most people think. I'm not unfriendly, shy, introverted, arrogant, or anti-social. The truth is, I'm usually distracted by what else is going on—and by what else, I mean what's going on in the immediate environment. I'm less interested in people than is perhaps socially acceptable.

And it goes on. If I was writing myself as a character, I'd look at this list and think they're mostly quirks. But there's a common theme that runs through all this. My wife would say I have sensory issues; I would say that I'm focused on experience rather than relationship, and I'm overaware of sensory input. This is why I can't wear most jewelry, or carry around things like phones and beepers, why I like strongly flavored foods, and why I have trouble focusing on conversations right in front of my face. It's all too distracting. I can't concentrate when I'm constantly playing with a ring or watch. On the other hand, strong sensations tend to focus me on the moment, and it's nice.

Isn't it like this with characters in books also? What looks like a collection of quirks and oddities is in fact united by a common thread ... a fundamental personality type that has both positives and negatives. It's true that I sound slightly autistic, but I'm also hyper-observant. I rarely miss anything going on around me, even at the expense of the conversation I'm currently sort of having.

So that's what I'm looking for as i write: a uniting thread with my characters that pulls together all the little quirks.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Million Jilted Girlfriends

I've been edging around this self-publishing question for a while now, and it finally struck me what I find so off-putting about the whole thing.

But before I go there, I'll say this: I have no doubt, zero, that the old business model for publishing is on its last legs. It will morph into something new, in the very near future. The traditional role of agent/editor/publisher will change, and at least for now, individual authors have unprecedented access to mass distribution. A window of opportunity has opened for people who are well-positioned to take advantage of it, and it's exciting to see authors empowered and a new urgency around the book industry. I love it, and I'm even working on a few of my own projects for this brave new world of publishing.

And yet ... I've had this niggling unpleasant sensation about the e-revolution and self-publishing wave. It's like a toothache, but less specific. For the longest time, I couldn't figure out what was bugging me. I'm an entrepreneur by nature, right? I love it when writers get paid for their work. I love the idea of writers finding their own audience and the ability of technology to democratize publishing. And yet ...

I read JA Konrath's post yesterday about an article Publisher's Weekly ran about his deal with AmazonEncore. He called the article an "epic fail" and went on to detail some significant factual errors in the article. Worse yet, in a way, Konrath himself wasn't quoted in the article, and the reporter took some significant liberties with her editorializing. I'm a reporter myself, so I know a lousy article when I see it, and that was a lousy article. And yet ...

Then I read the comment thread and I had this very strong image. I pictured a whole football stadium of jilted girlfriends, all yelling at once about how their ex-boyfriends all got crabs and ha ha, sucks to be them. It's a toxic mixture of triumphalism, thin-skinned pique, gloating, and I-told-you-so. I was almost moved to comment, but then I figured there was no point in setting off an argument on someone else's blog. I wondered how many of those angry commenters have been unable to place books with traditional publishers. Then I realized it was probably all of them.

Like I said, I think this technological revolution is amazing and awesome, and there's no pretty way to create a new future. You have to break some crockery. But I have a feeling ... just a little tickle ... that all of this triumphalism is premature. There is a window of opportunity right now, as e-readers proliferate and people rush to stock up their new gadgets. But let's be honest ... this isn't how markets really work for long. After a while, they organize. After the initial rush passes, they consolidate. Before long, someone will figure out how to control and monetize the distribution channel.

And even if I'm wrong about all that, even if "they" are right that we stand on the threshold of a new era and New York publishing is truly a sinking ship that will soon be vaporized by a million $1.99 e-books, I still think it's a dangerous thing to drink too much wine made from bitter grapes.

Friday, May 14, 2010

What Makes You Happy?

This whole post is TOP SECRET and will hopefully self-destruct after you've read it ... but I've been involved in this weird episode lately. One of my gigs is editing for a very, very, very large POD self-publishing company. I can't really say which one, and I can't get into specifics at all here, but just bear with me.

Basically, when a self-pubber signs up with a POD press, they have an option to buy various publishing packages. I'm one of the contract editors who might end up with their manuscript if they buy a certain level of editing. Most of the time, I don't think about the writers themselves—I do a lot of these books, so it's just another editing job. But sometimes I'll look up the person and see who they are.

One of the books I recently edited was a YA book, and I felt moved to look the author up. Turns out she's keeping a blog about her experience with this POD company. So there I was, reading about her experience of me doing my job and the various travails of waiting, spending thousands of dollars, and her relatively high anxiety level over the future of her book and her decision to use a POD press.

Boy. Talk about living in a world of mirrors.

I finished her book and sent it back to the publisher. But I was unsettled. For the first time, one of these authors had become real to me, and I could totally empathize with her mix of anxiety, insecurity and pride in her book. At the same time, I knew almost objectively that she has no real chance of selling this book. It's a virtual knock-off of another best-selling book, with major problems of its own, and she'll face all the obstacles any POD author faces.

Part of me felt sleazy for doing this kind of work at all. But then ... part of me felt like, at least in this case, I had the ability to give her part of the experience she was looking for. So after I sent the book back, I contacted the publisher and asked them if I'd be allowed to generate an editorial letter. They said yes (even though it's not required), so I whipped up a 2-page critique of her book on a meta-level. I wasn't overly harsh, but I gave her my straight opinion on the fairly major things that need to be fixed. I signed it Your Editor.

I've been waiting these past few days to see what would happen next and how she would react to my letter and the job I did. Today, she updated her blog with a happy post about how she's "loving" the POD experience and I did a "quality" edit. She also said she was so happy to be self-publishing because it meant she didn't "have to change anything I don't want to change." Which I took to mean that she's disregarding most of my letter.

The whole experience really got me thinking. I was talking to someone recently who compared my job to Simon Cowell, who famously tells people they should stop singing because they'll never be any good. Truthfully, that's 100% of the writers I've edited through this POD company. Even the best of them aren't very good. I wouldn't buy a single of their books. So I get it: they are fools, chasing a pipe dream, and I am not only enabling their impossible dream, i'm profiting from it. I'm the editorial equivalent of the girlfriend experience. And yet ... part of me can't help but to wonder: is it so wrong to help these writers live a dream, no matter how foolish it is? Isn't that what we all want, at least a little?

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Give Me Your Eyeballs

Mostly because I love the taste of a fresh eyeball.

Just kidding.

As you might know, I'm a site guide for I run a website on houseplants for, which means I'm the resident houseplant expert and I have near total control over this website. My website is one of 750 discrete sites on the network, each run by a different site guide. In total, attracts about 60 million visitors per month, which makes it one of the 50 largest websites in the world.

I've been at this for almost two and half years now. It started off pretty small, because I was basically starting from scratch. But then I added content and articles, and over time, it built. I just got my site metrics for last month, and let me tell you, it gave me serious pause. I'm contractually prohibited from giving out my numbers, but let's just say this: my little houseplants site put up traffic numbers last month that would make many bestselling authors blush.

It really got me thinking about the changing nature of what it means to be a writer. I think the "writer" of yesteryear is a dead animal. Instead, the writers I've observed who are successful use the same techniques they teach us at to grow a site. It's all about eyeballs. You want to control the most eyeballs as possible. You want to create an immersive "universe" centered on your subject. Your subject can be houseplants, or it can be your novel, your imaginary world, or if you're very good, the reflected light of your sheer awesomeness. Whatever it is, it should be narrow enough that you can wrap your arms around it, but interesting enough to attract your particular audience.

And it should be interactive. There should be interaction between you and the people who visit your universe—in the form of blog comments, emails, and forum posts—and interaction between the visitors themselves, usually in a forum. The point is that you want to give people as many chances as possible to join, talk, contribute and react. In a way, you're less a writer than you are a host at a big themed party.

I've been following a few writers for a a number of years (I'm thinking of two in particular). Both of them have done an amazing job of creating a true community built around their books, the worlds they've created, and their aesthetic. In both cases, these authors are infinitely accessible—they hang out on their own forums, they answer every Facebook message, every email, and respond to every comment. In both cases, they run forums and/or blogs that attracts tens of thousands of people every month, usually repeat visitors.

I think in the future—especially as e-books destroy the print business model—distribution will fade in relevance. Instead, we'll see the rise of the Metric Writer, someone who knows how to build, measure and maintain an audience in a vertical silo built around a complete entertainment community: books, video, a steady stream of blog content, short stories and novellas, active forums, linked social media, and author availability.

Personally, I think it's a very exciting time to be a writer.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Genetic Potential

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about genetic potential. As a gardener, I'm always hoping to bring my plants to their maximum genetic potential. Basically, this means growing the plant to its perfect form. And it can definitely be done—ask any hyrdoponic gardener about their nutrient schedule and you'll quickly see there's a world of difference between a plant that's carelessly stuck in the ground in bad soil and bad light and one that is pampered on every level.

Plants, I think, are pretty cooperative when it comes to their genetic potential. They WANT to achieve their full potential, and they respond beautifully to the right conditions. People ... not so much. People are frequently self-destructive—they smoke, they eat too much, don't exercise, jump out of perfectly good airplanes, whatever. For people, it seems that the experience of living itself means trading away your genetic potential.

But as far as books go ...

I've been editing and critiquing a lot of novels lately for some reason, and it struck me along the way that my job isn't to make a book better. Not really. My job as an editor is to help the author bring her book to its natural genetic potential, or at least as close as possible. Because better is my opinion. It's subjective. But it's a safe bet that every writer starts off with a vision of their perfect book. They know how it sounds, how it feels, the emotions and themes it conveys. But like a war plan, this book rarely survives contact with reality. So an editor's job is to suss out the spots where the perfect book in your head didn't translate to the page and suggest ways to get it there. The editor's job is NOT to fix plot points, add or delete characters, etc.

I guess the hard part for lots of us is that the genetic potential of any particular book might not be all that great. That's a tough thing to recognize—when even the best version of a story is still missing something. And I think that's when people start getting desperate and adding character quirks or weird plot twists or, in the words of another blogger, throwing a dragon into the story randomly to spice things up.

Anyway, as a side note, I didn't post a Storytellers prompt this month ... I'm taking a little break from the prompts for a while. I know there are a few people who have asked when/if I was going to do another prompt, and I think that's awesome. We had some really good stories here, and I loved the give-and-take between the writers and commenters. So it's not over forever, just for a while ... and thanks if you had ever written anything for a prompt.