Survival guide for writers


Silk’s Post #75 — All of us writers know we walk on shifting sands.

Paula’s vivid last post, “A clear and present danger” sounded the alarm about the survival of books. With ebooks quickly becoming the new standard, is the printed book doomed?

This spun my mind to the inevitable follow up questions: With the printed book’s demise, is the publishing industry doomed? With the publishing industry’s fall, is the writer doomed? If the writer is doomed, what the hell am I thinking, spending my best years working on novels that I hope will get published – and read – one fine day?

All good questions. I found it disquieting to contemplate these issues.

With all this doom in mind, I hopped across the blog lilypads from Joe’s latest post, which re-blogged Christi Gerstle’s post on her great blog Novel Conclusions, and thence to the delightful infographic titled “YA Retellings” put together by the team at Epic Reads.

After all that blog hopping, I had to stop and have some refreshments, specifically a Cuba Libre and some cheese puffs (but they were organic, so it’s okay). While I sipped and crunched, I rethought the whole doomed book thing.

See, this YA Retellings Infographic – while it sounds like some kind of techno new-age thing that only texters under 30 could possibly understand (the kind of thing that makes people who first used a computer after they were 30 feel really old) – was actually a charming, colourful, hand-lettered chart that traced the provenance of the huge number of YA novels which derive their plots from fairy tales, classics and other timeworn stories. While quite sophisticated in content, it looked like a decoupage that had been put together in a 4th grade classroom. Lots of fun. I could almost hear the shrieks and giggles and smell the Elmer’s glue. Loved it.

Of course, that set me to googling “storytelling.” (Warning: do not try this at home unless you have virtually unlimited research time on your hands.) No matter. I didn’t need to follow every link to see the blinding truth.

Let me explain, in fairytale terms.

Being an unpublished writer is a little like being lost in the woods. You spend a lot of time (and angst) trying to find your path, always aware that there’s no search party out there looking for you. You’re more or less on your own. If you don’t negotiate your own route through the maze of writing and publishing barriers you’ll encounter, your book will never see the light of day. And the harsh truth is that you won’t really be missed by the reading public.

Bummer, right?

The last thing you need to discover is that a new and nearly insurmountable barrier lies ahead in this forest – a gulch that’s becoming wider and deeper every year, swallowing unwary writers without a trace. That rumoured chasm is the crack of doom into which the printed book industry is predicted to tumble to its death.

I’d been walking in my own dark, eerie writer’s woods for a while now, trying to find a track in the murky shade … stumbling over roots and slashing my way through thorny underbrush … hearing strange, threatening, animal sounds behind me. And now, it seemed I had to also worry about the entire forest floor giving way under my feet. But just as I was wondering how I’d lost myself in this novel-writing wilderness … Bam! … there it was. My epiphany.

I emerged from the gloom to find myself on the open coast, sun shining and the ever-moving, eternal sea stretching out before me in every direction.

That sea was storytelling. As old as humankind. The lifeblood of culture. Maybe the key to  survival itself.

All this hiking necessitated a refill of my bowl of cheese puffs and my empty glass.

But once I’d glimpsed this basic truth, I stopped worrying about books, the publishing industry … all of it. These are the transient manifestations of storytelling today (or maybe yesterday if you want to be pessimistic). But they’re just storytelling vehicles, as cave walls were once storytelling vehicles. As bards, griots, shamans, dramatists, minstrels, monks illuminating the dark ages by hand, Gutenberg mechanizing the printed page, radio soap operas, comic books, television dramas and sitcoms, Broadway and Hollywood have all been story delivery mechanisms. And now we have the Internet. Another medium.

Marshall McLuhan had it right: the medium is the message.

But his famous phrase, which sounds simple but isn’t, remains widely misinterpreted. (For a mind-boggling and enlightening explanation, check Mark Federman’s essay “What is the Meaning of The Medium is the Message?”) I won’t attempt to summarize the substance, but the lesson I took from it is this: change is inevitable and unpredictable; try to stay ahead of it, and understand the difference between the transient and the timeless.

My point is that stories are not going away. Not now, not ever. Of this I feel reassured. And stories need storytellers.

That would be us. The writers.

However, we may need to start thinking about being writers in a larger context than the book publishing industry. Let’s call ourselves storytellers, and have a little more faith in the power and importance of storytelling. Storytellers have always been revered, and so should we still be.

Or, as author Philip Pullman put it: “After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.”

5 thoughts on “Survival guide for writers

  1. Great inspirational insights, Silk! Your last paragraph sums is up nicely, and since we do have nourishment, shelter and hopefully companionship, we will always need and love stories. That’s part of the human condition. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this timely topic.

  2. Thanks Helga! I just wanted to make the distinction between storytelling/writing, and the delivery mechanism for those stories. The latter may be shifting, but the former (and the need and appetite for it) is enduring. A little shift in perspective may help me/us keep the faith!

  3. I love your use of the fairy tale analogy – of us being lost in the woods and trying to find our path – so true. But the character walking through the woods is usually the heroine who prevails after following her quest – I think by the end of this post you’ve found your path – and given those of us who also periodically worry about the death of the book / publishing some breadcrumbs to follow. You’re right – focus on the story and not on worrying about the medium.

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  5. Pingback: The doubt doldrums | Harvesting Hecate

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