It seems like the whole publishing world is going through a transitional time right know, between moving from print to digital book formats, authors taking on more of their own marketing & promotions, and non-publishing companies all of a sudden offering publishing and distribution. Our authors, Nichole, Scott and Ellen share their views on the future of publishing--as well as dive into some tips about writing timeless stories and their biggest pet peeves when it comes to storytelling. Everyone has a pet peeve when reading a book. Share yours with us in the comments. We would love to hear your opinions on this month's topics!
1. There has been a lot of talk this past month about some publishers moving to an only ebook format and Amazon getting into the publishing game. What do you think all of this change in the publishing world means for a new author?
Scott: This is a contrarian view, but I think the changes for a writer will be small, or at least gradual. Unless the whole definition of a book changes -- like if we get to a point where all books are interactive and have online components. So, for example, you could have a book where, instead an exclamation point, an animated Chihuahua would bark at the end of a sentence. Until that happy day arrives, though, story is still what matters most, regardless of format. There will be different routes for getting published, but on an individual level, the process will still be arbitrary, frustrating, time-consuming, luck-dependent and, at times, miraculously joyful. So it will still require determination, skill, and good fortune in crazy quantities. Once you get published, though, your problems will be over. No, I mean your problems will begin in earnest. Don’t ebooks and Amazon add up to fewer independent bookstores? Don’t new authors need indie stores more than ever? I fear I’m making myself sound old here, so you should probably forget everything I just said. How about this: Ebook or not, new authors (actually, all authors) need a platform -- a way of connecting with an audience that goes beyond just writing a good book. I also believe the Detroit Tigers will win the World Series.
Ellen: I agree with Scott that the changes - which have been happening steadily over the past decade or so - will continue to occur. As new authors, we have to stay aware of what’s going on, and try to be flexible and open. My rule of thumb in the eight months since my book was published has been to essentially say YES to anything offered, whether it be in the traditional publishing avenues or online, print or ebook-related (as long as it’s legal, ethical, and affordable!)
Nichole: My novel just went up for pre-sale through the online booksellers the other day (eight months early, naked without a cover), and a friend emailed me saying, “I’m holding out for an option to buy for my Kindle!” I guess it makes me old-school that my heart sank a little. I hear people loud and clear who say they love e-readers, though I’ve haven’t read a book that way yet myself. I’m not sure what the profit analysis is for authors’ take-home from e-books vs. print, though I hear it’s not likely to be as helpful in helping me put the kids through college someday. That said, new readers are new readers.
Ask your writing questions to our authors. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
2. What do you think the qualities of a “timeless” story are (and I don’t mean anything having to do with time travel)?
Scott: The writing teacher I worked with for years told me recently that all stories are about loss. He cited, as an example, “Goodnight Moon.” And he was dead serious. We were in a rental car, driving around a very large lake when he told me this, so I had a long time to consider it and I decided it was true at a certain level. Loss, and what characters will do to prevent it, and how they manage to get over it....keeping some level of dignity for themselves and some element of love for others. In some ways, it’s the flipside of the Joseph Campbell archetype of the hero on a quest, although loss sometimes motivates the quest (e.g., Luke Skywalker.) I’m kind of glad my teacher told me this after I had finished my book, because I’m not sure it’s helpful to be that analytical when you’re trying to find the magic of a story. Faulkner’s Nobel Prize speech about writing from the heart, not from the glands, also comes to mind. Google it -- you can listen to it online.
Ellen: My education in fiction was similar to Scott’s: fiction is about TROUBLE. Trouble is timeless, as are the varied human responses to it. But, rather than thinking about the timeless nature of the stories I’m writing, I find it more useful to concentrate on the particulars: why is this individual character having these particular emotions, causing her to do these actions? I think we can arrive at the same “timeless” situations - the profound questions and attempts at answers of the human condition - but hopefully avoid the stereotypical pathways to get there.
Nichole: Since Ellen and Scott have addressed what IS timeless (namely, universal human emotion—love, yearning, suffering), I’ll address what might not be: Topics that are gimicky or trendy without going further to say something lasting about the human condition. Don Quixote and Heart of Darkness might be outdated in their modes of travel, but those were just the vehicles for the message. The film “Wall Street” has become laughably iconic for its cordless phone the size of a loaf of bread, but the depiction of 80s greed might prove it to be a classic. I’ve never seen “Sex in the City,” but its Jimmy Choo shoes might outlast its.... [fill in the blank]. Or not.
I once wrote a piece about modern technology making easy plot devices obsolete, but the truth is, a good piece of writing will always rise above the constraints of time if the book is substantive. As culture ages and makes the book dated, history will look on it kindly as a period piece (e.g. Gatsby) rather than something trendy and fleeting.
Ask your writing questions to our authors. Email email@example.com
3. I had a writing instructor in college that said she would give an automatic “F” to anyone wrote a story then in the last line revealed that the protagonist woke up and it was all a dream. What is your biggest pet peeve when it comes to storytelling?
Scott: I’m glad I didn’t have a writing teacher like that, because I would have spent the whole semester trying to write a story where I earned the right to have the protagonist wake from a dream in the last sentence. There must be a way to do it. I don’t even know this instructor, and she’s already got me a little peeved. More seriously, most of the things that bother me are tics that I’ve tried to drum out of my own writing. Like using double adjectives: a tiny little place. A whole ‘nother story. On the other hand, I’ll let an attribution modifier live if it’s justified. (“He said, helpfully.”) I think one or two per book is okay, and I get peeved at the zero tolerance crowd, which seems to include everyone but me. The tic that bugs me most, though, is the fragment repeated for emphasis. It’s a problem. A big problem. I would never do that. Never.
Ellen: I had a teacher like that too. She said every writer gets to write three dreams, over an entire career! I guess I understand it, because dream wake-ups are often used as a gimmick, to trick the reader into thinking one thing is happening, when it’s really something else. Probably my pet peeve is gimmicky plotting, which I see as breaking the agreement the writer makes with the reader early in the work of fiction: this novel will be about X, and we’ll go there together. Sometimes, of course, the narrator is unreliable, or there are massive twists and turns. But if those changes feel too gimmicky (like someone telling the story really died in the crash, and the whole book couldn’t have happened), as a reader I feel cheated, and I don’t like feeling cheated.
Nichole: The dream wrap-up doesn’t bother me as much as some other things, particularly if it can be wrapped in lucid uncertainty. Atonement did that, as well as the film Inception and the TV series Lost, and I didn’t feel cheated—I wanted to find someone else to talk to about it, pronto. I think what bothers me more is facile ways of conveying emotion or information—looking in a mirror; things left out too-conveniently for others to find (“wow! imagine, this love letter to someone else right there in mom’s purse all these years!”)—that show an author picking up the first tool in the bag or the easy stereotype.