What would Stephen King do?

King-on-writingSilk’s Post #159 — If you want to learn to be a good writer, you could do worse than read Stephen King. The guy is a legend, but let’s check his credentials anyway:

  • Published 54 novels, 6 non-fiction books, nearly 200 short stories. Yes, he’s been busy.
  • Sold more than 350 million copies of his novels. That’s certainly impressive.
  • Won too many awards to list, including Hugo Award, Bram Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the National Book Foundation, National Medal of Arts … Oh, you get the idea.
  • Written 39 stories that have been turned into movies, including 5 Oscar nominees. Nice sideline, eh?
  • Is reported to be worth 400 million dollars. That should impress anyone who likes to measure success in dollars and cents.

If you’re a writer, though, one particular book nestled in this vast body of work was written just for you: Stephen King On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft. As the huge horde of hungry, not-yet-published writers like me know very well, there’s no shortage of books on writing and publishing written “just for us.” Your shelves, like mine, may be groaning with them. In fact, there’s a whole industry built around selling advice and support to “emerging” writers.

A lot of the books on writing are useful (although prescriptions ought not necessarily be taken as directed), but you probably never heard of most of their authors before you aspired to become a published writer yourself. You can count on your fingers the books “for writers” penned by that super elite level of authors, the bestselling superstars.

Besides King, the ones that immediately come to mind are Ray Bradbury (Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity), Elmore Leonard (10 Rules of Writing), Janet Evanovich (How I Write), Elizabeth George (Write Away), P. D. James (Talking About Detective Fiction), Walter Mosley (This Year You Write Your Novel), Annie Dillard (The Writing Life), and the prolific Margaret Atwood, who has written three books on writing, writers and the writing life (Negotiating with the Dead – a Writer on Writing; Moving Targets – Writing with Intent 1982-2004; and In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination). A few of these books are in the “how to” or coaching category, while others lean toward memoir, but they’re all valuable and often quoted.

Yet the one that stands out most for me is Stephen King’s On Writing. I must admit that King had me at the epigraph, where he set the tone with a pair of quotes:

Honesty’s the best policy.
— Miguel de Cervantes

Liars prosper.
— Anonymous

And the book only gets more circular and thought-provoking from there on, as it spirals deep into the organic heart of King’s writing life. It begins with 100 pages of memoir, called “C.V.” I call it confessions of a congenital writer. This section is larded with gut-wrenching real-life moments. Life is messy and mysterious, it tells us.

We then get to a tiny section titled “What Writing Is,” only to discover that it, too, is messy and mysterious. He opens this section with an answer to its title: “Telepathy, of course.”

Then King proceeds to demonstrate by drawing us into an imaginary scene where writer and reader experience a “meeting of the minds.” That’s the telepathy part, styled as a magic act. It’s a story about storytelling that reminded me of the famous scene in the 1976 movie The Last Tycoon, brilliantly acted by Robert De Niro, with the punchline “the nickel was for the movies.” (You can see it here on You Tube)

King then completely shifts gears, diving into a short how-to section called “Toolbox,” in which he reads us the usual creative writing teacher’s riot act in an entertaining story form. (King was, in fact, a high school English teacher at one time.) He begins with the holy trinity: vocabulary, grammar, style. These are not optional. He steers us to Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style as our bible. He warns that hell awaits writers who use adverbs.

Then, happily, class is dismissed and he launches into the section we were waiting for: “On Writing.” Surely this is where the magic is revealed, where King will give up his secrets and teach us how we, too, can become bestselling authors in X number of steps.

At this point, if you’re reading the book, I recommend you go back to the second of King’s three forewords, which begins, “This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit.” This is a good reality check.

I won’t elaborate on what’s in this section of the book. You should read it yourself. But I will tell you some things I learned from it. There’s nothing pedantic or even very structured in this book because King is, first and foremost, a storyteller, not a how-to list maker. What I took from On Writing are more like illuminations – ideas that lit up in some brain cell for me as a result of going along for the ride, of reading a non-fiction book written by a great fiction writer.

These are my own interpretations, not a literal list from Stephen King:

The joy of writing: Writing should be a joy. If you love it, you do it. You build your life around it, not the other way around. And that includes omnivorous reading.

The fear factor: Writing is emotionally and intellectually challenging as well as demanding of your time, and taking criticism can be bruising. So you need to have lots of that joy on tap, lose your fear of failure, and just keep writing.

Nature + nurture: Writing your head off is bound to make you a better writer, but you also have to have some native talent to become a really, really good one. Conversely, native talent will not make you a really, really good writer unless you write your head off.

Writing and storytelling: Good writing is a commandment, but storytelling is the holy grail. Writing = the craft; storytelling = the magic. You can learn a craft; magic rises intuitively from the inside out. Craft has rules; magic does not. Writing is a skill; storytelling is a talent.

Storytelling and plotting: These are not, not, NOT the same thing. A story is a tale with a life of its own. A plot is a plan, a map of how to sequence and structure the telling of the story.

OPs vs. NOPs: Forget the binary debate between outlining vs. organic styles of writing (outline people vs. non-outline people, or plotters vs. pantsers). There is no “right way.” Do what feels right. Your first draft will fall somewhere on the spectrum of imperfection no matter how you approach it. At best it will need cosmetic surgery, at worst it will be a Frankenstein that needs errant body parts re-attached in the right place. The story rules. Serve the story, not the process.

Characters drive story: Without characters, there is no story. Without characters who are real, dimensional and engaging – characters worth caring about – there are no readers.

Use your imagination: “Write what you know” isn’t a restriction, it’s an invitation. What you know – or can find out – are the answers to a constant stream of “what if?” questions you must pose. Those answers can come from your own experience, your probing imagination, or your research. Push your intuition and logic. Truth isn’t an average of likelihoods.

Use your senses: All of them. See, feel, hear, smell settings. Listen to dialogue. Pay attention to body language, micro-expressions, conflicts hidden under the surface. Taste foods, air, water, sweat from effort, sweat from fear. Do it every day, wherever you are. Recreate it in writing so that readers sense it too.

Making it matter: Some stories arise from a theme. Some themes emerge organically from a story. Either way works and can be enhanced in rewrite. Themes are a way to give a story more layers, deepen readers’ connection, make it matter to them, make it memorable. You can write a good novel with no theme, but why would you leave out this dimension?

Does all this seem familiar? Probably. Pick up any book on writing and you’ll find these topics covered somewhere, often prescriptively. Funny how you can “know” something – read about it, understand it intellectually – and yet not really experience that “aha!” moment at a deep, intuitive level until someone or something causes you to look at it through different eyes.

That’s what Stephen King’s On Writing did for me. I think it was because of his ability to create a story about story, to personalize it through the memoir material woven through the book. It was a hard book for him to write, every word “a kind of torture,” he admits. He began it in 1997, got half way through it, and put it in the drawer. Eighteen months later, in June of 1999, he “decided to spend the summer finishing the damn writing book.”

Two days later, he was fighting for his life after a horrendous accident in which he was hit by a van while walking down a country lane in Maine. It shattered his leg and hip, broke his ribs, chipped his spine. His story of this personal trauma in a section titled “On Living: A Postscript,” is a dramatic denouement to On Writing. The shock of it lit up the entire text of the book for me, like a bolt of fork lightning.

Five weeks after his accident, King picked up his half-finished manuscript of “the damn writing book” and began to write again:

That first writing session lasted an hour and forty minutes, by far the longest period I’d spent sitting upright since being struck by Smith’s van. When it was over, I was dripping with sweat and almost too exhausted to sit up straight in my wheelchair. The pain in my hip was just short of apocalyptic. And the first 500 words were uniquely terrifying – it was as if I’d never written anything before them in my life. All my old tricks seemed to have deserted me. I stepped from one word to the next like a very old man finding his way across a stream on a zigzag line of wet stones. There was no inspiration that first afternoon, only a kind of stubborn determination and the hope that things would get better if I kept at it.

And, of course, things did get better. Exponentially better.

If the story of this book does not touch you as a writer, it’s time to take up something else. It certainly touched me. While I’ve always acknowledged his great talent and loved a number of his novels – which are mostly outside my genre comfort zone – I’ve never aspired to write like Stephen King. I still don’t.

But what On Writing has inspired me to do is to be more like him. Hence, my new compass point: What would Stephen King do? I’m pretty sure I know what the answer will be nine times out of ten: just keep writing. 

This is the first in an occasional series I’m planning to do on the 5Writers blog of reviews/discussions of books on writing. Stephen King seemed a good place to start. After all he is, well, the King.

Midsummer trivia – part 2


Silk’s Post #136 — Are you still at the beach? Hanging around the patio? Lounging by the pool? Good! Me too.

Last week I dished up a few, slightly off-the-wall, trivia bits about writers and the writing life for your entertainment. We are a strange lot, writers. Why not revel in it?

Here’s another short blast of midsummer writers trivia you should be able to easily scan over the span of a nice, frosty mint julep or an iced tea – and still have time to slather on some more sun screen.

Without further ado, here are this week’s offbeat trivia bits to add a little spice to your otherwise idyllic summer leisure time. Don’t want you getting too comfortable and complacent swinging in that hammock.

William S. Burroughs – Murdering my wife turned me into a writer!
No, it’s not a headline from the National Enquirer. One of the most bizarre and scandalous bits of author trivia of all time has to be the story of the tortured (but celebrated) “beat generation” author of Naked Lunch and Junky. Of course, it wasn’t trivial to Burroughs, and certainly not to his common law wife, Joan. In 1951, the troubled couple, then living in Mexico under the influence of a variety of addictive substances, ended a fateful evening with friends at the Bounty Bar in Mexico City with an impromptu staging of what Burroughs called their “William Tell act.” Joan balanced a highball glass on her head and William tried to shoot it with his handgun. He shot low. You get the picture. Rest in peace, Joan. Eventually fleeing back home to the US (he was convicted in absentia but received only a two-year suspended sentence), Burroughs wrote in the preface to his novel Queer, “I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would have never become a writer but for Joan’s death and to the realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing … I have no choice except to write my way out.” Don’t try this at home, kids! (Sources: Defining Moments in Books, Cassell, 2007; Wikipedia).

Harlan Ellison – How much is that writer in the window?
Speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison has had over 1,700 short stories and other works published, for which he has won multiple Hugos, Nebulas and Edgars. In his colourful and sometimes obstreperous career, he has acknowledged himself to be “possibly the most contentious person on Earth”. One of his more unusual projects, beginning in the 1970’s, was to write “public compositions” in bookstore windows to demonstrate that writing is “a job … like being a plumber or an electrician” rather than some mystical art performed by “magicians on a mountaintop somewhere.” But these were not readings. He would simply sit in a store window and churn out publishable stories, often based on prompts from others, while onlookers gaped and sought autographs. It was writing as performance art, all in the service of bringing the process of creating literature into daily public life and dispelling the notion of a writer as a distant introvert. (Sources: mental_floss; Wikipedia).

A dozen writers who wanted to become politicians
With thankful acknowledgement for my source, The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace (Bantam, 1977).

Yes, it’s usually the other way around. When you see a politician on a talk show today (and we’re seeing more than anyone deserves to right now), it’s a sure bet that they’re either running for office, or hawking a book – often both at once. But many successful writers have tried their hand at running for office, whether due to their strong convictions or their outsized egos, and this particular lot all failed – which may have been a blessing for both the citizenry at large, and their readers who were looking forward to the next book.

1. John Greenleaf Whittier — this Quaker poet made an unsuccessful bid for a US congressional seat in 1842 after having served in the Massachusetts legislature. He went on to become a leader in the anti-slavery movement.

2. Victor Hugo — this flamboyant French poet, novelist, dramatist, and advocate of republicanism – author of Les Misérables among many classic romance titles – confidently declared himself a candidate for the presidency of the French Republic in 1848, to no avail. He later won a seat in the National Assembly after returning from exile after his political bete noire, Napoleon III, fell from power.

3. Henry George — in 1886, this economist and author of Progress and Poverty ran for the office of New York City mayor on a radical labour ticket. Among other things, he advocated the abolition of private land ownership, finishing second in a close three-man race – behind Democrat Abram Hewitt, but ahead of Republican Theodore Roosevelt.

4. Jack London — the San Francisco born sailor, adventurer and author of The Call of the Wild served a brief jail term for vagrancy in his youth, and emerged a passionate Socialist at age 18. He campaigned unsuccessfully to become mayor of Oakland on the Socialist ticket in 1901 and 1905 while still in his 20s, attracting more publicity than votes.

5. H.G. Wells — an active member of the Socialist Fabian Society, Wells ran as a Labour candidate for the British Parliament in 1921 and 1922. While fans were more than ready for his writing, including enduring science fiction classics such as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, voters were clearly not ready for his political perspectives, including a belief in the inevitability of a World State.

6. Upton Sinclair — another Socialist candidate (rather a common thread among writers), the author of The Jungle, among other classics, ran for Congress, governor of California, and US Senate. Switching to the Democratic party, he then tried unsuccessfully for the governership again in 1934 during the Depression. A lifelong social activist, he is credited with the line: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

7. Gore Vidal — as a Democratic nominee for Congress in upstate New York in 1960, he polled ahead of the successful presidential candidate John Kennedy in his district, but still lost to the Republican. Thereafter, his political influence was delivered through his role as an essayist and commentator, and in his political and historical novels, such as The City and the Pillar, Myra Breckinridge, Burr and Lincoln.

8. James Michener — somehow, in between writing popular tomes like Tales of the South Pacific, Hawaii, Chesapeake and Centennial, this prolific author found time to run for Congress in Bucks County, PA in 1962 on the Democratic ticket.  Although he lost the election, he never lost his interest in politics

9. William F. Buckley — journalist, political commentator and founder of The National Review in 1955, he was America’s leading conservative intellectual for decades, and a keen rival of Gore Vidal. Running for Mayor of New York City in 1965, he lost to the Democratic candidate, former Yale classmate John Lindsay. Calling on his own experience with the CIA, he later wrote 10 well-regarded spy novels.

10. Norman Mailer — this giant of 20th-century American literature, who was known for his creative non-fiction (The Executioner’s Song, The Naked and the Dead, Armies of the Night) and for co-founding The Village Voice, became yet another writer who sought the Democratic nomination for Mayor of New York City (1969). Using a characteristically brash slogan, “No More Bullshit,” he predictably didn’t make the cut.

11. Jimmy Breslin — running mate of Norman Mailer in 1969 (cited as “the most literary ticket in history”), this novelist-columnist (Pulitzer Prize for Commentary) campaigned for Council president for the City of New York – and lost. However this gave him time to do lots more of the investigative journalism he was famous for.

12. Hunter S. Thompson — the king of “gonzo journalism” and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone magazine, Thompson described himself as “a foul-mouthed outlaw journalist”. His titles included Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. His run for sheriff of Pitkin County, CO (which includes toney Aspen) in 1970 on the Freak Power ticket started as a political stunt, then turned serious when he got unexpected support. But he still lost. Probably just as well.

That ends my summer trivia diversion. Hope you enjoyed it. Now let’s get back to work.

Happy summer!

Midsummer trivia – part 1


Silk’s Post #135 — Midsummer in the Northern Hemisphere is a time for idylls. Reading on the beach under a floppy hat. Lounging in the cockpit of a boat. Setting off on an outdoor adventure. Floating in a pool. Playing lawn games. Catching a late sunset. Paddling a kayak. Puttering in the garden. Dining al fresco. Beachcombing. Sipping fancy drinks you wouldn’t touch in a more somber season. Watching fireworks. Strolling in a park. Swinging in a hammock.

The call of midsummer tempts even the most serious writer to abandon creation in favour of recreation. Surely, these complement each other.

But if you’re not holed up indoors pounding the keyboard while the sun shines and the rest of the world plays, you can, at least, recreate like a writer. Idle midsummer moments are perfect for giving your imagination a workout. Today’s daydreams are tomorrow’s killer plots. People-watching with a writer’s eye can spawn unforgettable characters. Whiling away a summer afternoon with a good book is never time wasted.

In the spirit of such genteel pursuits, here’s a very short collection of (slightly dark) trivia about writers and the writing life to add a bit of grit, amusement or amazement to your leisure time. If nothing else, you can impress your literary-minded friends with your arcane knowledge.

How the New York Times Changed the book publishing industry!
Imagine a world without the New York Times Bestseller List. The publishing industry was very different in 1942, the year this list was born with little hoopla. It is now considered to have signalled a revolution in the industry that once was viewed as “a gentleman’s profession”, transforming publishing into a multimillion dollar marketplace in which books are often treated (and valued) more as commodities than works of art. Not counting the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling (whose dominance of the charts literally spawned a new, separate NYT children’s bestseller list in 2000), the title of top fiction author on the list – both in terms of number of weeks (790) and titles (65) – goes to Danielle Steel (both records are as of 2009, the latest list I found). Of course, the whole concept of “bestsellers” and how they’re calculated is perennially controversial (see my post on What you never knew about bestsellers). However, what’s undeniable is that every author and agent alive lusts for a position on the New York Times Bestseller List. End of story. (Sources: Defining Moments in Books, Cassell, 2007; NYT Best Seller List).

The 1820s – bad news comes in threes for English romantic poetry
Our baby boom generation witnessed our own eerie (if predictable) series of deaths of our cultural icons in the 1960s. Hendrix, Joplin and Morrison, all left their musical mark in their brief periods of stardom and were dead before they turned 30. For English romantic poetry lovers of the 1820s, the bad news also came as a triptych. First to go was John Keats in 1821, the victim of tuberculosis at the age of 26. A physician who had treated his own dying brother for the disease, he knew what was coming when his symptoms arose, and spent his final three years writing furiously. In 1822, it was Percy Bysshe Shelley’s turn to cast off his mortal coil, ironically last seen “reclining on the deck of his boat, Don Juan, reading a copy of Keats’s latest poems” just before he drowned off the Italian coast in a freak storm. The controversial Lord Byron lived to see 36, but was apparently plagued by deformities, health issues and a monstrous sexual appetite before he succumbed to complications from malaria in 1824. (Source: Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody, Harper & Row, 1989).

A dozen authors who wrote bestsellers while in prison
Source: Inspired by The Book of Lists by David Wallechinsky, Irving Wallace and Amy Wallace (Bantam, 1977 – still one of my favourite books to get lost in).

1. Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet) — began writing his epic poem Henriade while doing an 11-month hitch in the Bastille, Paris, for writing poems against the regent in 1717.

2. John Bunyan — wrote most of Pilgram’s Progress (published in 1678 and rated in a 1950 survey as the most boring classic ever written) while imprisoned in Bedford County Jail for 11 years after holding Puritan services that offended the Church of England.

3. Miguel de Cervantes — while jailed in 1597 in Seville, Spain for “deficits as a naval quartermaster”, he began writing Don Quixote.

4. John Cleland — worked his way out of debtors’ prison at Newgate, London through the  unique means of producing a pornographic novel which a publisher had offered him 20 guineas to write; thus was created Fanny Hill, or the Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure in 1750.

5. Daniel Defoe — while serving an indefinite sentence for seditious libel in Newgate Prison, London (which seems to have seen it share of naughty writers), he wrote Hymn to the Pillory in 1703 (Robinson Crusoe didn’t come along until 1719).

6. Adolf Hitler — while “writer” is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Hitler, it was his work Mein Kampf that inspired the Nazi movement and brought him to power; the book was begun in 1923 while he was serving a prison sentence in the fortress of Landsberg for organizing the failed Beer Hall Putsch, and obviously he was in a very bad mood.

7. Richard Lovelace — jailed in 1642 for his royalist activities, this Cavalier adventurer penned the poem “To Althea from Prison” during his 7-week stint in the Gatehouse at Westminster, which contained these famous words: “Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage;/Minds innocent and quiet take/That for an hermitage.”

8. Jawaharlal Nehru — served a total of 10 years in a British jail between 1921 and 1945 for his continuing leadership of India’s fight for independence, during which time he wrote Glimpses of World History. By 1947, he was prime minister of the new nation for which he had written a Declaration of Independence in 1929.

9. Marco Polo — whose famous Travels of Marco Polo memoir was dictated to a fellow inmate while he served time as a prisoner of war (between Venice and Genoa) after his capture in 1298.

10. O. Henry (William Sydney Porter) — convicted in 1898 of embezzlement of funds from a bank in Austin, TX while working as a teller, some of his best loved short stories were written in his cell while in federal prison in Columbus, OH. Perhaps appropriately, he’s considered the master of the surprise ending, engineering his own reversal of fortune when he went on to become a prolific and successful short story writer in New York, where he penned 381 works.

11. Sir Walter Raleigh — served 13 years in the Tower of London beginning in 1603 for treason after the death of his patron, Queen Elizabeth I. Always claiming his innocence of the crime, some might consider his sentence poetic justice for popularizing the new craze, tobacco, which he brought to England from the New World. In any case, he wrote his History of the World while in the tower.

12. Oscar Wilde — imprisoned in Reading Jail for homosexuality in 1895, he wrote De Profundis and Apologia during his two years of incarceration and hard labour, emerging a broken man who died a pauper three years after his release, at the age of 46.

Ah, too bad to end this on such a tragic note. Poor Oscar. He certainly would have had a better time of it today, virtually anywhere in the civilized world.

If you liked this, I have more trivia ready to go next week. And after that, we all get back to work, writing our butts off.

Happy summer!

Writing through adversity


Silk’s Post #132 — After all that rah rah excitement and recommitment to writing generated by our terrific writing retreat only two weeks ago, here I am finally getting to my Monday post on Wednesday. Do shots of enthusiasm last only a week? What happened?

The Mother of All Colds, that’s what happened. It’s so exhaustingly, frustratingly miserable that I’m tempted to regard it as something higher up the food chain of infections … bronchitis, pneumonia, some kind of exotic flu that has a name so long it’s known by its dreaded acronym.

But no. It’s nothing fancy. Just a cold. Something that doesn’t really impress anyone because we all get them, and then we all get over them. I won’t gross you out with the details, but the consequence of this (so far) 10 days of mind-numbing, energy-draining phlegm production is that I’ve been working at about half speed, at best.

(Newsflash: my husband just walked in and told me that, after careful research down in the village – otherwise known as local gossip – he thinks what I have is the latest plague raging around our island, a new mutation of the old Hong Kong flu from the 1950s, or 1970s, anyway sometime last century. Apparently it lasts a month. Goody.)

But no matter. It all started me thinking … what if I really did have some awful adversity to cope with, something that wasn’t going to go away anytime soon? Or maybe ever? Am I in any way prepared to overcome that, to write through it?

The truth is that I’ve had a reasonably easy time of it since I’ve been here on Earth, as lives go. My improbable chain of luck – one that statisticians will tell you beats the odds at a lottery-winning level – began with being born in the first place. All those competing sperms, and mine won the race! Of course, if you’re reading this, you can also count yourself a winner from the get-go for the same reason.

I was also lucky to be born where and when I was – a wealthy country in the 20th century. There were no bombs falling (although we were, we thought, all prepared in case some did by having air raid drills in elementary school). People weren’t running around shooting each other, at least not in our neighbourhood. There were good drugs around (like antibiotics and polio vaccines), but not many bad ones (like crack cocaine and meth). And even though we ate stuff that everyone now knows is horrible for you (like Twinkies), and all the adults (including virtually everyone on TV) smoked like chimneys, we were pretty healthy. At least compared to the many countries in which children, we were told whenever we pushed our perfectly good spinach or lima beans to the edge of the plate, were starving (and, no you can’t send your leftover spinach to them, just eat it).

I grew up “middle class,” (Hey, remember those good old days when there was a big one?) Yes, I realize not everyone in the United States and Canada had the same lucky experience, and that’s just my point. Even my lifetime circle of family and friends has been, generally speaking, stable and supportive. Sure, a few heartbreaks, but nothing truly devastating. My health (apart from this #@%*&!!! cold) is also pretty much in the middle of the spectrum. Not perfect, but not dramatically debilitating.

In other words, I have little experience coping with real trauma. With life-changing adversity. With fear and terror. With displacement. With truly painful, chronic, disabling or life-threatening illness or injury. With abuse. With addiction. With stifling prejudice or oppression. With hunger or poverty. With war or threat of war where I live. With untimely, gut-wrenching loss of loved ones. With natural disaster or devastation.

No. My drive and determination can be slowed to a crawl by a simple cold. What a wimp.

It made me think about the incredible hurdles writers and other creative people have had to overcome to produce their art. There have been some true heroes, though they’re rarely celebrated for their bravery and persistence in the face of adversity.

It’s almost shocking how many famous authors are said to have suffered from dyslexia or a similar learning disability, for instance: granddaddy of fairy tales, Hans Christian Anderson; novelist and screenwriter, Stephen Cannell; legendary American novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald; children’s author (Captain Underpants), Dav Pilkey; Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer, Richard Ford; Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright W.B. YeatsFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe author, Fannie Flagg; celebrated American author (World According to GarpJohn Irving; prolific British author, Bernard Taylor; and Madame Bovary author, Gustave Flaubert.

The grande dame of cozy mysteries, Agatha Christie suffered from a related disability called dysgraphia, which is described as “a writing disorder, characterized as a learning disability in the category of written expression” whose sufferers may have difficulties with certain letters, often will write the wrong word when trying to formulate their thoughts on paper, and have problems with both motor and orthographic skills and spelling. Apparently, she couldn’t even balance a chequebook.

There’s also a long list of authors who are thought to have struggled with what we now recognize as ADD/ADHD. One of them was George Bernard Shaw, who wrote more than 60 plays and won both a Nobel Prize and and Oscar for Pygmalion. Science fiction pioneer and godfather of steampunkJules Verne, who had trouble in school and reported having a hard time focusing, was also thought to have undiagnosed ADD or ADHD.

Of course, there’s an even longer list of writers who have famously suffered from depression, from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice and Stephen King. Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, who today is probably the world’s most commercially successful writer, was once a suicidal 20-something single parent and struggling writer. She sought help for her clinical depression and obviously overcame this writing hurdle in spectacular fashion. Not so fortunate was poet Sylvia Plath, whose treatment with antidepressants in 1963 began, it seems, too late to stop her suicidal compulsion.

When it comes to authors who have overcome physical adversity, addictions, personal tragedy, poverty, abuse and a whole spectrum of other obstacles, a whole book could be written. But here are some extreme examples that make me feel ashamed of myself for being distracted from writing by my own insignificant hurdles.

There was Irish author and poet Christy Brown, for example. His famous autobiography My Left Foot documented his struggles as a cerebral palsy victim who was incapable of deliberate movement or speech for years (except, of course, his famous left foot). His family life no doubt toughened him up, as he was one of 13 surviving children out of the 22 born to his Catholic parents.

French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, once the editor of Elle, suffered the rare neurological condition known as Locked-In syndrome after coming out of a coma after a heart attack. While his mind was normal, his entire body was paralyzed. In the last two years of his life, he “wrote” an entire book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which he composed in his head and dictated one letter at a time to a (very patient) interlocutor, by blinking when the letter he wanted was reached in a repeated recitation of the alphabet. His book was published two days before he died.

And do I even need to mention the deaf, blind, prolific author Helen Keller?

Well, that’s made me feel so much more ambitious and less sorry for myself that I’m going to just blow my nose, swig some cough syrup, and get back to work.

Branding for writers

IMG_1540Helga’s Post #109: April 10 has turned out to be a rather interesting day. This year – more on that later – as well as ninety years ago. That’s the day F. Scott Fitzgerald published “The Great Gatsby”. A few notes below in honor of the book’s anniversary.

Fitzgerald struggled mightily with the book’s title. The one he was last documented to have desired was “Under the Red, White, and Blue” (A good thing his publisher won out). The novel is widely considered to be a literary classic and a close contender for the 20th century’s best American novel. (It’s neck to neck with To Kill a Mockingbird and Grapes of Wrath, depending on who is judging). Not everyone agrees. Regardless, what makes the book a classic is how Fitzgerald educates his readers about the garish society of the Roaring Twenties by placing a timeless, relatable plotline within the historical context of the era. In contrast to the theme of the book, Fitzgerald was not among the highest-paid writers of his time; his novels earned comparatively little, and most of his income came from 160 magazine stories. Scott and his wife Zelda did spend money faster than he earned it; the author who wrote so eloquently about the effects of money on character was unable to manage his own finances.

But this post is not entirely about “The Great Gatsby”. I just found some of the background of Scott Fitzgerald noteworthy. In a roundabout weird connection (that only writers can fabricate and spin), my own April 10 was sort of an experience of the opposite of Fitzgerald’s garish society. Perhaps opposite is too strong a word, too dramatic, but it was at least an extremely toned-down version of American garish society.

And what a great experience my 10th of April was. (Unfortunately though I didn’t get any writing done except for this post).

The day started with discussing that we are going home to Canada in three weeks. We really should pack in some unusual experiences while we are still here in the California desert. My husband’s love for eclectic music and venues combined with my hunger to explore the unknown got us searching how to combine our foibles.

We went about our research independently and agreed to draw straws in the end. I have no idea whether it was serendipity, or being married for more than 30 years, or maybe, just maybe, due to a subconscious desire to please the other, that we both chose the same place. Or perhaps it wasn’t a coincidence at all, considering we both watched an intriguing Anthony Bourdain documentary about the place some time ago. Long before we decided to become snowbirds.IMG_1559

Whatever, karma or logic, we agreed on Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace, a place high in the Mojave Desert. This unique place was a living movie set once, but today people come for the music and mesquite BBQ. It’s a simple place. Some might call it a run-down shack.Pioneertown_pappys I think it’s romantic. Because of the people who visit and especially those who work there.

It’s got an interesting history. In 1946, a group of Hollywood investors founded Pioneertown with dreams of creating a living movie set — an 1870′s frontier town with facades for filming and interiors open to the public. On the outside were stables, saloons, and jails, and on the inside were ice cream parlors, bowling alleys, and motels. Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Russell Hayden, and the Sons of the Pioneers (for whom the town was named) were some of the original investors and personalities who helped build and invent Pioneertown. More than 50 films and several television shows were filmed in Pioneertown throughout the 1940′s and 1950′s. In 1946, where Pappy & Harriet’s stands today, was a facade used as a “cantina” set for numerous western films well into the 1950s.

IMG_1539Should you ever be in the area and want to visit, you can put it into your GPS as 53688 Pioneertown Road, Pioneertown, CA. I would urge you to do so if you are a writer in need of visual inspiration or have a penchant for any of the following:

  • A drive through scenery so awesome you’ll forget to breathe
  • Some very, very ‘interesting’ tattoos (all genders)
  • A stage that continues to be graced with some of the most talented and eccentric bands and musicians anywhere to be found
  • The best and biggest ribs you will eat in your life
  • Margaritas and beer served in Mason jars
  • The friendliest, kookiest (in a positive sense) servers on the planet
  • Washroom graffiti that makes you pause long enough for your ribs and Mac and cheese to get cold
  • Did I mention the bar?
  • Totally casual, all ages and walks of life
  • And the people. Especially the people

A writer can ask for little more.IMG_1551

Now I just have to find a way to get a few scenes into my novel where I can use those images that are branded on my mind.

Wishing you rich and colorful images to draw on in your own writing.

Erin Go Bragh


Silk’s Post #123 — In honour of St. Patrick’s day tomorrow, I thought I should poke around a bit for something to say about Irish writers. That was hours ago and I’m still lost in the deep, often surprising, maze of literature that has flowed for centuries from this small (it would fit into the State of Maine), ancient, island nation.

Or nations, with an “s”. And there lies but one of the complexities of Ireland. Everyone knows about the Troubles, of course. But I suspect the only people on earth who really understand the fraught history of Ireland are the Irish.

But, lest I draw the ire of the Irish by my lack of a nuanced understanding of the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (which is part of the United Kingdom), I should really scurry back to the safety of discussing literature.

And even that is like stepping into an unknowable world. Just think for a moment about what the Irish literary tradition is famous for. Okay, got it?

No you don’t. Because, like a magical trickster (and you know who I mean, he wears a jaunty green hat and keeps his gold at the end of the rainbow), Irish literature can’t be captured so easily.

One thing you might be able to say, with some truth, is that Irish literature doesn’t flinch. It sometimes delights in mourning. It’s often infused with irony, humour, nostalgia, philosophy or melancholy – characteristics it shares with the time-honoured art of discourse at an Irish pub.

(Henry Spalding’s Encyclopaedia of Irish Folklore and Humour illustrates the connection with this pick-up line, said to be overheard at O’Banion’s Beer Emporium: “Pardon me, darlin’, but I’m writin’ a telephone book. C’n I have yer number?”)

Yet it can be light and playful, like a limerick. Or iconic and experimental like Ulysses. Or powerful and absurd like Waiting for Godot. Or dark and haunting like Angela’s Ashes. Or magical and enchanting like The Chronicles of Narnia.

What do you say about a national body of work that equally embraces every form of writing and storytelling:  jokes, songs, tales, poetry, drama, short stories, humour, horror, philosophy, political satire, fantasy, novels, memoirs – and has left its indelible mark on each?

How many of you are aware that each of these leading lights (among many, many others) share an Irish heritage: Jonathan Swift, W.B. Yeats, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, George Bernard Shaw, Maeve Binchy, Brendan Behan, Edna O’Brien, Eoin Colfer, Anne Enright, Sean O’Casey, C.S. Lewis, Emma Donoghue, Iris Murdoch, and Bram Stoker?

Silly me for thinking I might be able to nail Irish literature with some glib summary in a blog post. Hah! I may have a drop of Irish blood in me (doesn’t everyone?), but I’m not foolish enough to attempt such blarney. Instead, I’ll let some of the loquacious Irish authors speak for themselves as a St. Patrick’s Day tribute to the creativity and wit that the Emerald Isle has given the world …

“Writing in English is the most ingenious torture ever devised for sins committed in previous lives. The English reading public explains the reason why.”   — James Joyce

“Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy.”   — W.B. Yeats

“To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.”   — Daniel Patrick Moynihan

“Your battles inspired me – not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead.”   — James Joyce

“I think being a woman is like being Irish … Everyone says you’re important and nice, but you take second place all the time.”   — Iris Murdoch

“That’s right, there’s free beer in Irish paradise. Everyone’s jealous.”   — Kevin Hearne

“Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”   — George Bernard Shaw

“The earth makes a sound as of sighs and the last drops fall from the emptied cloudless sky. A small boy, stretching out his hands and looking up at the blue sky, asked his mother how such a thing was possible. Fuck off, she said.”   — Samuel Beckett

“We Irish prefer embroideries to plain cloth. To us Irish, memory is a canvas – stretched, primed and ready for painting on. We love the “story” part of the word “history,” and we love it trimmed out with colour and drama, ribbons and bows.”   — Frank Delaney

“Thankfully the rest of the world assumed that the Irish were crazy, a theory that the Irish themselves did nothing to debunk.”   — Eoin Colfer

“When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious.”   — Edna O’Brien

“The History of Ireland in two words: Ah well.”   — Niall Williams

And from Bill Barich (A Pint of Plain), who is not an Irishman, but clearly knows his pints: “H.L. Mencken’s Dictionary of the American Language supplies a long list of slang terms for being drunk, but the Irish are no slouches, either. They’re spannered, rat-arsed, cabbaged, and hammered; ruined, legless, scorched, and blotted; or simply trolleyed or sloshed. In Kerry, you’re said to be flamin’; in Waterford, you’re in the horrors; and in Cavan, you’ve gone baloobas, a tough one to wrap your tongue around if you are baloobas. In Donegal, you’re steamin’, while the afflicted in Limerick are out of their tree.”

If you’re toasting St. Patrick tomorrow, I hope your celebrations do not result in any of the foregoing conditions.

Slainte mhaith!

Shocking revelations about debut novels


Silk’s Post #99 — Maybe “shocking” is a bit strong, or maybe I’m just easily shocked. Or maybe it’s just a cheap trick of a headline.

But now that you’re here, let’s talk about the somewhat depressing truth that we unpublished, unknown writers live with every day: the top reason a person buys a particular novel is because it was written by an author the purchaser has already read. This is a simple fact of fan behaviour.

This means that if you, the unpublished author with the unfinished book in progress, actually make it to “The End” (most don’t), and then manage to get through several rewrites that succeed in improving your novel to a level that is truly ready to pitch (again, you’d be in the minority of unpublished writers), and then actually get an agent (unlike most), and then that agent manages to sell it to a traditional publisher (good luck on that one, too), and one fine day you actually see your debut novel on the retail bookshelf … that is where the most unlikely miracle of all has to happen for your book to break into the bestseller list.

Readers have to risk $10 or $20 of hard-earned discretionary cash on a book by someone they’ve never heard of in hopes they might like it – rather than pick up the latest novel by one of their favourite authors, which they have every expectation of enjoying.

So is your debut novel doomed?

The shocking answer is: absolutely not.

I started thinking about it while reading my book club’s selection for September, The Rosie Project, a charming first novel by Aussie writer Graeme Simsion (2013, HarperCollins). Above the title on the cover were the words “The #1 International Bestseller”. Lucky bloke, that Simsion, I thought. One in a billion.

But then I thought back to some of our other book club choices over the past couple of years. Hmmm. Weren’t there some other debut novels on our list? Yes, there were:

  • The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
  • The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
  • The Best Laid Plans, by Terry Fallis
  • The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
  • The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson
  • The Outlander, by Gil Adamson
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka

In fact, of the 27 novels my club has read together, eight of them were debut efforts – nearly 30 percent. This is a much higher percentage than the industry average of first novel deals as a proportion of all fiction deals signed in a given year, which Publishers Marketplace apparently shows to be about 10 percent. This may mean that my little book club is especially adventurous when it comes to book-buying, or it may mean that popular fiction genres (mystery, romance, sci fi and the like), which typically don’t get on book club lists, are more dominated by “name brand” authors.

But who cares? It still adds up to hope for unpublished authors.

Shocking Revelation #1 is that something like 10 percent of fiction deals are for first novels, according to my (admittedly not exhaustive) research. (That does sound high, but to hear some doomsayers talk, any measurable percentage of debut deals would be shocking.)

Shocking Revelation #2 is that a healthy number of these win prestigious awards and become top sellers – and that’s just in print. Clearly, the indie market is where a growing percentage of debut novels get published today. (An interesting hybrid story is that of Terry Fallis, who, after many rejections of The Best Laid Plans, went ahead and self-published with stunning success, before being picked up by a traditional publisher after he had proven his marketability).

Shocking Revelation #3, for me anyway, is how many bestselling and prizewinning novels over the years have been first novels – books that made their authors so famous that we don’t think of their first titles as debut efforts anymore. Many are “household name” books, so legendary they seem to have always been there, like the mountains or the sea.

The ultimate debut novel Cinderella story, as most writers are probably tired of hearing, is of course the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling. But there are many more eye popping examples. Here is a list, culled from several websites, of some famous first novels:

  • Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte
  • The Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison (his only novel)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (her only novel)
  • White Oleander, by Janet Fitch
  • This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe, by Fanny Flagg
  • Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier
  • Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
  • Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon
  • The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd
  • Dr. Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak
  • The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy
  • The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht
  • The Lovely Bones, by Anna Sebold
  • Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell
  • The Notebook, by Nicolas Sparks
  • The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, by Rebecca Well
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
  • The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Dafoe
  • The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, by Kim Edwards
  • Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
  • Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer (yes, that Twilight)
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenberger
  • The Descendents, by Kaui Hart Hemmings
  • Deja Dead, by Kathy Reichs
  • The Kite Runner, by Khalid Hosseini

What do all these first novels have in common, besides being publishing miracles?

They’re very, very good; they have the “it” factor. (Yes, you can argue that, but success speaks for itself.)

What do all these writers have in common, besides being both good and lucky?

They persisted. (No, you can’t argue at all with that.)

Just think of all the fantastic novels that have been written over the centuries that you’ve never heard of – because they simply stayed in some aspiring writer’s bottom drawer and never were published, or maybe even finished.

Woody Allen once famously declared that “80 percent of life is just showing up”. He was talking to us. To writers. Here’s what he said about what he said:

“I made the statement years ago which is often quoted that 80 percent of life is showing up. People used to always say to me that they wanted to write a play, they wanted to write a movie, they wanted to write a novel, and the couple of people that did it were 80 percent of the way to having something happen. All the other people struck out … they couldn’t do it. That’s why they don’t accomplish a thing, they don’t do the thing. So once you do it, if you actually write your film script or write your novel, you are more than half way towards something good happening. So that was, I’d say, my biggest life lesson that has worked. All others have failed me.”

In a pursuit that’s freighted with so much angst and complexity, isn’t it refreshing to hear advice that’s so simple, and so obvious?

Debut novels get to be bestsellers because they’re great in some way. So make yours great.

Even more fundamentally, they succeed because the writer persists and gets the job done. So keep writing.

Shocking Revelation #4 is that, against all the considerable odds that aspiring writers are constantly lectured about, debut novels do get published and become bestsellers. Miracles do happen, so believe in yourself.

And get to work.

Self publishing – changing times

Joe’s Post #106 –

I’ve had the chance to talk to two people who’ve been there and done that. Karen A and Matt B. They’ve both gone the non-traditional publishing route, though Matt has also had success in the mainstream. I think they’ve both given me some things to think about – A lot of things to think about, actually.

kriswebNow I need to add someone who’s had massive success following both paths. Kris Rusch. I’ve been down to workshops run by her and her husband, Dean, and I have to say they are 2 of the best people in the business, giving so much of their knowledge to unpublished writers like me.

I am going to reblog from her website, and while it’s only one blog post, I want you to check out her whole site.

I mean, hey, if it’s information you want on the publishing business, it’s like one-stop-shopping at her site, she got it all. In fact, she has so much great information on there, she could make a book.

Oh, wait, she did.

kris booksThe Business Rusch: Changing Times


Kristine Kathryn Rusch

As I have mentioned many times in the past, my industry—publishing—is changing.  I have written a few posts about it, but generally, I have avoided the topic.  My reason is simple: this business blog, and the Freelancer’s Guide before it, are geared toward the general business reader, not just toward everyone in the publishing industry.

However, the changes in publishing have become, at least to me, the elephant in the room.  I’m going to deal with them in the next few posts, and I hope you general business readers who are not in publishing give me some leeway.

After all, these changes do have an effect on you.  You’re all readers and consumers of electronic publishing or you wouldn’t visit this blog.  I have a hunch you’re also readers of books, or you probably wouldn’t have stumbled upon me.

Right now, if you read all of the blogs and articles, listen to the pieces on the evening news, or walk into a bookstore, you hear a confusing amount of information about the future of publishing.  Some sources claim it’s going to die an ugly death.  Others say everyone will stop reading.  Some claim that reading will increase. Still others believe that the publishing industry as we know it will collapse by 2012.  A few believe that publishing has become completely irrelevant.

Only a few seem to understand that one thing will remain consistent.  Readers will want to read somethingStephen King has a great take on this. He points out that the book is a delivery system for a story.  Readers want stories, and readers will chose the delivery system they prefer so that they can consume that story.

The same thing applies to nonfiction, of course.  Nonfiction provides information, and readers want that information.  In some cases, the book is no longer the best delivery system for that information.  Witness the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, which has always—from its inception—been unwieldy in book form.  The OED has decided the next volume will be entirely online, which is a much better delivery system for their product.  We still need the OED’s exhaustive derivation of words.  Now we don’t need a magnifying glass to read it.

What is happening worldwide is that the delivery system for the things we read—fiction, nonfiction, plays, poetry—is changing.  In addition to the book itself, we now have online books.  We have e-books.  We have audio books.  And we have books with enhanced content. The new delivery systems have created new ways to consume stories—stories that wouldn’t exist outside of the new delivery system, like the cell phone novels in Japan and the multimedia app books reaching iPads here in the U.S.

Each group involved in the old system of publishing has new challenges.  And the challenges are different for each group.  Existing publishers must change their business model to accommodate the growing e-book phenomenon.  Writers (and other creators of content) must figure out on their own the best way to get their creations to consumers.  Bookstores must figure out ways to become relevant as books, audiobooks, and e-books become available at the touch of a finger.  And readers have to figure out what they want to read, and how to find it in the growing and changing marketplace.

I’m going to deal with all of that in the next few weeks.  But first, let’s look at what’s really happening to the publishing industry.

Most people compare the changes in the publishing industry to the changes experienced by the music industry in the last twenty years.  This is a scary comparison, particularly for big publishing (which is what I’m going to call established publishers).  The record labels (which changed their name from “record labels” which was accurate to “labels” which wasn’t to “studios” which isn’t accurate either) suffered greatly in the last twenty years. The profits to the labels went down significantly, many went out of business, and most are a shadow of their former selves. They do survive, but in a diminished capacity.

The musicians suffered as well.  First they got screwed by the labels, who wanted an increasing piece of the pie.  The labels have always mistreated the artists, especially financially.  The problem was bad in the heyday of the industry—the 1950s and 60s—but it became even worse in the 1980s.  Unless an artist  became a blockbuster star, that artist could not maintain a career in the industry because of the financial baggage the label itself put on the artist. If you want to know more about this, read Jacob Slichter’s So You Wanna Be A Rock And Roll Star (or really, any book on the music industry).

Add to this the constantly changing format of the music you bought.  In my lifetime, purchased music went from the 78 and the 45 to the 33 (the long-playing album, which is short by today’s standards) to the 8-track to the cassette to the CD to the MP3.  Music buyers got sick of repurchasing their entire collection for a new system.  (In 1990, I sold all my albums because I couldn’t get a turntable any longer.  I regret this now.)

The music marketing system was vastly different than the book marketing system. In short, music consumers were used to hearing songs—or entire albums—for free on the radio before they purchased.  Most consumers play their music over and over. When the radio stations consolidated, and the independent stations vanished, free music disappeared for all but the most successful artist. CD prices went through the roof, and music stores tried to compensate by letting you listen for free. But listening once for free is not the same as constant airplay on your favorite stations.

Fans fought back by sharing files, which then cut into the music industry’s profits.  The music industry fought file sharing hard, not understanding where it was coming from.  File sharing came from two major areas: first, music wasn’t available online in the early days and second, price point.  The price to buy a single had become prohibitive.  Either you had to buy the full-length CD, which cost too much, or in a very few cases, you could buy the single for $3 (in the 1990s!)  Music lovers didn’t want 12 songs; they wanted one. And they didn’t want to spend $3 for it.  It wasn’t until the advent of the free download as a promotional device that the music industry started to recover from piracy.  And then the sale of the 99 cent single online boosted music sales all over again.

The final difference is this: the music industry has several arms: the sheet music publishing arm, the album/CD/MP3 arm, and the performance/concert arm, all of which were (and still are) profitable.  The sheet music arm which was the most profitable a hundred years ago is the least profitable now.  A few years ago, the concert arm became the most profitable with the loss of album/CD revenue, but the recession has killed the high end concerts except for the megasuperstars.  The MP3s have become profitable, but not at the monetary numbers of the late 1980s (although the number of actual purchases have gone through the roof on all types of music).

In other words, the music industry is now a shadow of its former self.

For those of you who are about to write me a screed, let me add this:  Yes, I know, the changes in the music industry are more complicated than that.  Other factors came into play.  Yes, piracy is wrong.  Okay.  I know. But this particular post isn’t about the music industry.  It’s about publishing.

Publishing has and always has had a completely different business model than the music industry.  About the only thing they have in common is that they are both part of the entertainment industry and they both need the occasional blockbuster (big hit/artist) to survive.

But the book industry never gave its product away for free on a mass level to entice purchases.  Books rarely get read over and over again.  Nor have books constantly changed form since they were introduced.  Until recently, the biggest technological change in the publishing industry was the introduction of the printing press so that books didn’t have to be laboriously copied by hand.

Although writers have gone on tour and made money—Charles Dickens’s speeches in the 19th century drew capacity crowds—the concert arm really doesn’t exist for book publishers.  Most writers who get appearance fees are not contractually obliged to give that money to their publishers.  And most writers don’t receive appearance fees, period.

To top it off, the book industry treated its artists much better than the music industry. The music industry tried to take everything, from the copyrights of the songs a singer/songwriter wrote to the bulk of the recorded music profits to most of the income from concerts.  Some writers have lost everything to book publishers because the writers didn’t know business well enough to understand their contracts, but generally speaking, publishers haven’t screwed their artists—at least not as thoroughly as the music industry has.

The music industry’s greed in two areas—the price of CDs and the price of concert tickets—caused its sales figures to go down long before the technological change hit. And the only reason profits remained the same or went up was because the recording industry jacked up prices.

You see a similar phenomenon in the movie industry at the moment.  Profits are still high, but ticket sales are down dramatically from ten years ago partly (mostly) because ticket prices are so astronomical.  (The movie industry has yet a different business model, which I will not get into here.)

The differences between the book industry and the music industry are so extreme that comparing the industries is like comparing apples and flowers: they both grow, they both have a finite lifespan, sometimes they’re both red, but they’re not at all the same thing.

Instead of looking at the music industry as the model for what’s going on in publishing, look instead at the television industry. To do this, you have to go back decades.

From the moment television sets became available across the country, somewhere around 1955, television programming consolidated into three networks: The American Broadcasting Company (ABC), the Columbia Broadcasting Company (CBS), and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).  (PBS is a different phenomenon altogether; but it did join the line-up most places in the late 1960s.) These broadcast networks developed local affiliates all over the country to help distribute the broadcasting signal. Those affiliates had to agree to broadcast only ABC’s programming or NBC’s programming, although when I was little (the early 1960s) a few local affiliates were still protesting that.  The affiliates had to agree to broadcast network programs at selected times. The evening block was untouchable, but other times—late night, mid-afternoon—could be given over to local programming instead.

Big stations, like KTLA in Los Angeles, developed a lot of local programming and sold it to the networks, but small stations like KATU here in Oregon didn’t have the resources to develop such programming. So the smaller stations ran as much network programming as they could.

The networks developed some content on their own, but outside providers—production companies (think DesiLu for I Love Lucy)—developed most of it.  Networks, in other words, became the delivery system for the content.  (Publishers are the delivery system for books, which are generally produced by outside services [writers].  Occasionally publishers produce their own content [think house names], but mostly, they contract out the content.)

Television networks wanted a count of the number of people who watched each program.  (Think of this as the sales figures for the program—a show like Bonanza, the most watched show of its long run—could have upwards of thirty million of viewers; a news program, like the NBC Nightly News, might only get ten million on a given night.)  If you didn’t like the programming on the big three networks for, say, the hour between 8 and 9 p.m., then you settled for the show you liked the least or you read a book.  If you missed Star Trek’s latest episode on Friday night, then you missed that episode.  Period.  You might catch it in reruns—if the network deigned to rerun that episode at all.

If the show didn’t attract enough viewers to win the timeslot or to satisfy the advertisers, then the show got canceled.  In other words, no more national delivery.  This happened to Star Trek in Season Two, and only a write-in campaign by viewers allowed a Season Three.

Enter cable television in the 1970s.  It became a nationwide phenomenon in the late 1970s with the advent of Home Box Office (HBO), a channel you could pay for that would provide movies only a few month old direct to your home.  You have no idea what a revolution that was.

You also needed to have a good discretionary income to add HBO to your TV line-up, because it was extremely expensive.  My parents bought HBO in its first year in Wisconsin because my mother loved the movies and she watched television all day. But she soon realized that the programming repeated over and over again, and she would have been better off going to a few movies than paying for premium service.  So my folks canceled.

I didn’t own a TV from 1978 to 1983—I couldn’t afford to buy one—so the gradations of change in that period are not as clear to me. But somewhere in that period, local cable channels became regional channels which then became part of a basic nationwide cable network.  Around that point, too, someone got the bright idea to do new programming on cable—although the new programming was mostly news because news was cheap to produce.

By the late 1980s, we had 57 channels (and nothing on) in the words of the songwriter.  By the mid 1990s, we had hundreds of channels and a lot of choice.  You could watch new shows on USA or Lifetime (which started with movies) or the SciFi channel (now SyFy) and never again look at a network show.

Also in this period, the DVD got introduced and someone got the bright idea to put old shows on DVD. DVDs worked better than video tape.  In order to have a full season of say, Classic Star Trek, on videotape, you needed one tape per episode, but you could put four episodes on a DVD, not to mention a few “extras.”  Eventually, the TV industry got smart and put season one of a current show on DVD, releasing that a week before season two started.

Then the internet came in, and now you can download last week’s episode of your favorite show off Hulu or the show’s website.  You will never ever miss an episode of your favorite program again.

Has all of this expanded viewing gotten rid of network television? Of course not. But what it has done is this: the number of watchers per show has decreased dramatically.  Forty  years ago, Hawaii Five-0 could command one-third to one-half (or more) of all the people watching television that night; now the revamped Hawaii Five-O commands about 14 million viewers when it’s aired.  It gains about 4 million more viewers within the first week, because those viewers recorded the show on their DVR and watch on their own schedule. That’s all the advertisers care about. They don’t care about people like me who watched that first episode nearly a month after airdate.

Because of the advertisers, television needs as many viewers as possible as quickly as possible.  That’s how TV makes its money.

From a viewer’s point of view, we’re in TV heaven. We can watch any show from any time period at any hour of the day or night—and we do.  In addition to watching the current seasons of my favorites (and trying to see the new shows), I’m catching up on the first season of The Closer, which is several years old.

For the big three networks, revenue has declined with the audience per show. The new Hawaii Five-O is highest rated new show of the 2010 fall television season, but its numbers are pathetic compared to its predecessor.

But don’t let anyone tell you that the Big Three fail to make money. They still have the highest viewership of all the television channels. As a Hollywood producer who wants to buy one of my projects told me just last week, he wants to sell my work to the networks so that we’ll get the biggest audience—and the biggest payday.  But if the Big Three turn us down, we’ll still have a lot of options.

Nowadays, if you want to write, produce, and sell a television show, you have hundreds of places around the globe to sell it to. And that doesn’t count webisodes—web-only television episodes.  The thing is, if you sell your television show to cable, you can have four million viewers and be considered a success.  In the 1960s, four million viewers for a primetime TV show would have been laughably small—and that show would have gotten canceled.

How does all of this apply to publishing?

Simple.  Quite honestly, until a year or so ago, the major publishers were the only game in town if a writer wanted a national or international audience.  If you didn’t get into a big publisher’s program, your book either got put into a drawer or put out by a regional press.  Instead of selling tens or hundreds of thousands of copies, your book would sell maybe 500—and no one outside of your region would see it.

With the wild success of the Kindle, all of this changed.  For the first time since the development of the e-book twenty years ago, readers found a good way to consume the form.  Combined with Amazon.com’s huge backlist, the Kindle provided a voracious reader with a constant stream of books twenty-four hours per day if the reader wanted it.

The Nook, the iPad, the Sony E-Reader, and soon-to-be countless other devices have continued this phenomenon.  Writers whose books are easily available in e-book format have seen their sales increase (at last count) by 197%.  This will continue to go up as more and more e-readers penetrate the market.  Right now 9% of all books sold are e-books.  Some estimates put that number at 50% within five years.

Does this mean big publishers will go away?  Heavens no.  No more than the television networks (or the  music studios, for that matter) went away.  Big publishers will still be the biggest game in town. But their share of the pie will become smaller.

What all of this means is that readers now control what kind of content they consume.  Instead of easy access to the bestsellers and blockbusters, limited access to all other titles, and no access to the quirky unusual title, readers can now read whatever kind of book they want.  Most readers will mix current books with books published ten years ago, quirky with blockbusters, big with little.  Readers don’t care who published the book just like television viewers don’t care who produced the TV show.  They just want to be able to read what they enjoy.

As readers, our choices have just expanded, and will continue to expand, in exactly the way television has done, until we reach the point when most people will not read the same books, just like they don’t watch the same shows.  The proliferation of content, and the forms in which we can consume that content, matches television as well.  Readers can choose between an e-book, a hardcover, a used book, reading online—a huge variety of different ways to look at a “book.”

From the perspective of some writers, this is a tremendous thing. But it’s not a boon to all published writers.  Nor is it a boon to all publishers or all booksellers.  The changing landscape means that there will be short-term winners and short-term losers.

The only group that I can say firmly will benefit from this as a group (meaning everyone in that group) is readers.  Readers will get to finish a book series that big publishers cancel before it ends because the writer can afford to finish it now.  Readers can buy a book published five years ago right now on an e-reader, instead of scouring libraries and used bookstores, hoping to find a copy.  Readers will be able to chose between everything that’s being published, not just everything that’s available.

And of course, the book—the hardcopy book—will remain.  Unlike the music industry which never really settled on a form, the book industry has had the bound book as its form for hundreds of years.  It works.  It’s permanent.  So if you read a book on your Kindle, and want to make sure you have a copy you can access forever and ever, no matter how e-readers change, you’ll buy the hardbound book.

I’m very excited by these changes, but I belong to two of the groups that benefit.  I’m a reader, who has fallen in love with her Kindle and her iPhone (and who still reads hardbound books).  I’m a midlist writer with a long track record who will be able to make her entire backlist available again.

But because of my background as a retail store owner and as a former publisher, I understand the concerns of the booksellers and the publishers.  I also know that blockbuster bestselling writers have some things to worry about as well.

I’ll explore all sides of this changing landscape over the next few weeks. I will also draw more upon this analogy in the weeks ahead.

One note: things are changing so rapidly in publishing that in the time it takes me to write these blog posts, some subtle changes will occur.  I’m teaching right now, so I wrote this in my free time from October 17-20.  In four days, some parts of the landscape changed—small parts, mind you, but they changed.  That’s how quickly the sands are shifting.

So if you’re at all part of the publishing industry, keep up on the day-to-day industry news.  It’s essential—and will be for the next few years.

I’ve been taking part in the change by writing a business essay every week on my blog and asking you, the readers, to support this effort.  No big publisher pays me to write these.  What brings me to the computer week in and week out is you.  So thank you.  And if you like what you’re reading, please contribute, comment, or share the post.

“The Business Rusch: Changing Times (Overview)” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

– See more at: http://kriswrites.com/2010/10/21/the-business-rusch-changing-times-overview/#sthash.4KXi9lYP.dpuf


I would highly recommend you see more. Honestly, it’s gold.

As she said, though, not all of it is up-to-date, so please check out her subsequent postings.

Thanks to Kris for letting me reblog this.

I hope it helps anyone interested in where the industry is at and where it’s going.


Lost for Words

Illustration: Christian Tate

Illustration: Christian Tate

Helga’s Post # 80:  Few things in life are as frustrating as having to abandon what you love most and yield to what has to be done. The necessities. The drudgeries. The self-imposed tasks of feeding the monster called ‘improving your life’.

Like shelving writing for something as mundane and trifling as selling the house in which we have lived for a quarter of a century. By the time it’s finally ready to be listed I feel like a robot. My office is gone, converted into a bedroom to show buyers there is enough room for an extra kid in the family, should they wish to expand. Trying to double-guess a décor that the average prospective buyer finds alluring feels demeaning, but apparently necessary if you want to sell. As a result, our house has become a stranger. Or, I admit, maybe we are the strangers that don’t fit the mold. In any case, the house is no longer ours, at least in appearance. Twenty-five years of familiarity suddenly a thing of the past. It feels a bit like breaking up a long-standing relationship.

But really, when it comes right down to it, it’s just a place. Four walls and a roof. A tiny spot on a map. When we leave we will take with us those things most dear, our music, paintings, and things collected over the years imbued with memories of places visited and of special events.

And then there is the garden. That’s a little more challenging to part with (although the upkeep is becoming more cumbersome each year). As I have done since we moved here, I get enjoyment from tending to the countless shrubs and perennials planted over the years. I know everyone of them – the rhododendrons, azaleas, weigela , and the tiny fragrant alpines in my rock garden. I know exactly when each comes into bloom, year after year, and which ones will follow. They are like constant and loyal friends. I will definitely miss them. Perhaps another, smaller garden is in our future.

All to say, with these somewhat unnerving and time-consuming events I had to relegate my writing to the proverbial backseat. Am I making excuses for not having written a single word of the new novel that the 5 writers have decided to embark upon?

Before you nod, read on. My neglect only applies to the ‘act’ of writing. While no actual words have yet filled the first blank page, my mind was active and often went into overdrive. There are many hours during a sleepless night that can produce amazing results for planning a new novel. The difficult task is deciding which of the many ideas born at three AM or thereabouts will stand the test of dawn. While I haven’t ‘produced’ a tangible product just yet, meaning I have nothing to hand out at our group’s meeting next week, I did the groundwork. I spent countless hours pondering potential stories and plots, comparing, discarding and in the end selecting a few that spoke to me most loudly in the wee hours of the night.

Isn’t that part of writing? In fact it’s one of the most crucial parts of writing a novel. “To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David McCullough once said.

As writers, we’re likely both devoted to our craft and eternally frustrated by it – and that holds true for even the most talented writers, according to a recent article in the Huffington Post, titled ‘How To Think Like A Writer’. We could all use guidance from the greats on how to hone our powers of thinking and get those creative juices flowing, the article claims. Here are some tips, tricks, quirks and habits – some quite tongue in cheek – that might inspire us to think like a writer:

Study the greats.

Hunter S. Thompson was known to transcribe Ernest Hemingway’s novels in full, just to absorb the words — he typed out The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms in the hopes of absorbing as much wisdom as possible from his literary idol.

Observe everything.

Practice the art of observation daily and everywhere — perhaps a writer’s greatest asset. “Read, observe, listen intensely — as if your life depended upon it,” says Joyce Carol Oates.


Joan Didion 1970 (Julian Wasser/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)


Daydreaming may get a bad rap — but it can help connect you to what you think and feel, the source of all good (and bad) writing. As Joan Didion once pondered, “Was it only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought?”

Write from your own truth.

Gabriel García Márquez used to advise young writers, based on his own experience, to write what they know. “If I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told.”

Make writing your top priority. Henry Miller

Henry Miller wrote in his 10 commandments for writing that the serious writer must put his craft above all else. “Write first and always,” he advised. “Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.”

Find your creative inspiration, wherever it may be.

Gertrude Stein once said of the writing process, “It will come if it is there and if you will let it come.” Novelist Patricia Highsmith took a stiff drink before writing to reduce her energy, and subsisted on a diet consisting only of bacon, fried eggs, and cereal. Friedrich Schiller, writer, philosopher (1759–1805) kept a drawer full of rotting apples in his workroom, saying that the smell urged him to write.Patricia-Highsmith-in-1962-Talented-Mr.-Ripley-US-1st-Edition

Know what you’re getting yourself into.

Want to live the writer’s life? Great. But make sure you’re not just infatuated with an imagined ideal of your artsy existence. Margaret Atwood wrote in The Guardian: ‘You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there’s no free lunch. Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.’

Take it one day, or sentence, at a time.

When a writing assignment or grand idea is sitting in front of you waiting to be put into words, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the scope of the undertaking. But like any great work of fiction or non-fiction, there’s only one way for it to be done: One word, sentence, and paragraph at a time.

Just do it.

Stephen King knows a thing or two about being a prolific writer. And it pretty much all boils down to this: “Read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”

And do it with joy.

As Joyce Carol Oates advised in rules number 1 and 10 on her list of rules for writers “Write your heart out.”

And that’s exactly what I am planning to do in the months to come.

Pages written this month:            0

Plots created in my mind:            >100

Plots narrowed down:                  ~10

I steal from the book thief

book-thiefSilk’s Post #79 — Okay, I not only steal, I lie about it. I’m not actually stealing from The Book Thief, the wildly successful New York Times bestseller and (as they say) now a major motion picture. I’m re-purposing the words of its author, Markus Zusak, in an interview found on the website of his publisher, Random House.

First, let me take one step back. I started a book club a couple of years ago. It was an odd thing for me to do, as I’d never belonged to one, nor thought of myself as a book-club type of person. But I had some women friends I wanted to get to know better and I knew they liked to read, so I rolled the dice. I thought: If it turns out not to be fun, I’ll just sneak away quietly.

It turned out to be fun. My bookie friends turned out to be some of the most amazing people I’ve ever known. And the book club turned out to be more of a book and food and wine club. So – home run all around.

One of the unforeseen benefits of the book club is its contribution to my writing life. When eight of us met last week to talk about The Book Thief and watch the movie – over home made chili, home baked breads, local artisanal goat cheese, good chocolate, and (of course) wine – our host opened the discussion by playing the online author interview.

I loved what I heard Zusak say about writing as much as I loved what he had written. First, I was a little shocked that he has been “classified” as a writer of Young Adult fiction, including The Book Thief, which is anything but lightweight. In his charming Aussie accent, this under-40 phenom (five books published to date, all acclaimed) cut through all the over-thought, sometimes patronizing, “expert advice” we’ve all heard and read about writing. And he did it in the most humble, polite and sunny manner imaginable, with a gentle knife.

Zuzak’s family suffered the experience of Nazi Germany, he explains, as Germans who  were reluctantly swept along in the mass insanity of Hitler’s dream. They were victims too, and the family narrative he grew up with inspired him to tell a story of war and death, loss and betrayal, from a different perspective.

The interview also gave me a different perspective on some things every writer needs to understand: Is writing all about getting published, or is it really about something else? What does it mean to “write what you know”? What importance should be given to “genre”? Why write at all?

Here are some of Markus Zusak’s answers to these deeply personal questions. My answers may be different, and so may yours. But I think Zusak’s perspective is a wonderful reminder that rules are there to be broken, and that the truths about what it means to be a writer, and how writing should be pursued, must come from your own heart.

markus-zusak“I wanted to write a 100 page novella, and I got carried away and it turned into a book.

“There’s that saying that War and Death are best friends, so who better than Death to narrate this story set in Nazi Germany, because Death was everywhere at that time and place. Then I thought: What’s the opposite of this all-powerful Death? Ah! A vulnerable Death. What if Death was afraid of us? What if Death was haunted by humans? It makes sense, because Death is on hand to see all the terrible things humans do to each other. And I realized then what the book was about – trying to find beautiful moments in ugly times.

“Probably the most asked question about the book is: Where should it sit on the book shelf? Is this a Young Adult book or is it an Adult book? I didn’t sit down to try to write a good Young Adult book or a good Adult book. I just tried to write someone’s favourite book.

“The other thing to remember is I thought nobody would read the book. You know, a 500 page book, set in Nazi Germany? And the narrator is Death? How do you recommend that to your friends? And I thought: No one’s going to read this. So I may as well do this exactly how I want to do it. Follow my own vision for the book.

“I think half of writing a book is just forgetting that there’s a world that exists beyond the book. To be a writer, I think, has nothing to do with being published in some ways. If a ray of light came out of the sky and told me: Your next book will never see the light of day. It won’t be published, you won’t be paid a cent, and nobody will ever read it … and the question is: Would I still write the book? The answer is: Definitely yes. And that’s what makes me write my next book, knowing that is true.

“To me, writing should be fun.”

I say: Amen.