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Being an unpublished writer is a little like being lost in the woods.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.”

The Secret of being a bore…

Square Peg in a Round HoleHelga’s Post #72: … is to tell everything (Voltaire)

Joe’s previous post, ‘Surprise, Surprise’ opened up a vast opportunity for discussion of planning a novel. Why? Because so much of a book’s ultimate success hinges on this one part of a story. After all, who doesn’t like a story that’s unpredictable? But, as Joe said, it’s not easy.

In my own writing, I never know during the planning stage how I will surprise my readers. If I would know myself there’s the danger that my readers will smell a rat and can figure it out well before they get to the dreaded, sagging middle. Ultimately, I want to surprise myself, and I often do when I have to research a certain element in my story. Suddenly information emerges that totally catches me off guard, and this forces me to change my plot. Often it leads to unexpected opportunities that make my story more quirky, more unique. I think that’s the main reason why I keep resisting the outlining process. I realize that mine is a flawed process, but getting an organic writer to do a scene by scene and chapter by chapter outline before writing the first sentence is like… well, you know the cliché of the square peg.

I would like to chat about another important element of a good story, related, yet different to surprise, namely Suspense. I know this has been over-discussed and over-worked, but I always find it fascinating to explore new angles.

First off, what elements create suspense in a story?

Two things have to happen: Conflict and tension (no, they are not the same as suspense). Interaction of juxtaposing opinions is conflict; interaction of conflict and players creates tension. Add a time element to tension and voila, we have created suspense.

Suspense is not created equal. It comes in a myriad of forms. Readers who love police procedurals will be thrilled with a nail-biting denouement of a shootout or last-moment capture of a villain before he blows up a school. Romance readers will get their pound of flesh (cliché intended), when their heroine faces the biggest betrayal of her life – the man she sacrificed everything for has impregnated her younger sister and she has to decide on how to take revenge, or, escalating the suspense, find ways to forgive. Perhaps a mother has to choose between saving her small child on the railroad tracks or cause the train with two hundred passengers to derail. Or something.

Suspense can also be much more subtle, yet no less intriguing. In literary novels it can take on psychological or emotional suspense, like the protagonist’s spouse slowly descending into mental illness, or her closest friend revealing a personality trait that devastates her and she may never recover from the loss of loyalty. Just as antipathy, dissimilarity of views, hate, contempt, all can accompany true love, according to Canadian media guru Marshall McLuhan. That too is suspense in the hands of a skilled writer.
Either way, suspense, will keep your readers’ noses in your book and have them line up at Chapters on the first morning your sequel is up for sale. I was surprised therefore when a friend and one of my beta readers of Taste of the Past (culinary mystery co-written with Paula) said there was too much conflict in the book. “These people are always fighting”, was her feedback. “It spoiled all that delicious food and the sunsets and beautiful Tuscan landscape.”

Did she have a point? At first reflection I dismissed her feedback as coming from a reader who does not appreciate the value and necessity of suspense and conflict. After all, ‘Cut quarrels out of literature, and you will have very little history or drama or fiction or epic poetry left’, said American sociologist Robert S. Lynd some decades ago.

Upon further reflection, maybe my beta-reading friend was right – or partially so. Perhaps we missed some subtle nuances. We wrote that book eight years ago, my first serious effort at writing a full novel. ‘Conflict in every scene’ was the credo we’d been taught and that’s the one Paula and I wrote by. Could it be that the conflict my friend referred to was too obvious, too in-your-face? Maybe the stakes weren’t clear enough or high enough and we might have over-compensated with too much outward and petty fighting. I hope we find the time to do a serious edit of our manuscript. After having the benefit of eight years of learning and practicing writing with our capable critique group, who knows what good will come of it.

But I am sure of this: I am loath to bore my readers. I’d rather start knitting socks. As Jean Baudrillard reminds us, the world’s second worst crime is boredom. The first is being a bore.