Perfect Skin: A Novel by Nick Earls
A finalist in the 2003 Australian Comedy Awards and adapted into a feature film in Italy (Solo un Padre, Warner Brothers/Cattleya)
“Readers should enjoy this amiable, well-crafted and genuinely romantic book.”
Table of Contents
- BEA: Fight for Air
- BEA Self-Pub/Owen/Litte/Greenfield: Kobo’s Platform
- Social Media/Guillebeau: Beware Music Men
- Self-Publishing/Carnoy: Those Other Options
- Social Media/Kim/Ingram: The Mouse That Rebeled
- Craft/Bell: Now Hear This
- Craft/Neugebaeur: By Every Other Name
- Craft/Friedman/Gardner: An Editor and an Agent
- Craft/Bakopoulos: The Gleam of Hellas
- Craft/Henkin: The Glint of Danger
- Craft/Zobal: Not Even a Glimmer
- Last Gas: Smoke and Bradbury
Why is it that a lot of people can look at the same set of facts and come away with completely different conclusions?
That’s Barbara Kingsolver, an author for whom I have a lot of respect. She was talking at one of the author breakfast sessions at Book Expo America (BEA), which is soon, mercifully, closing.
I say mercifully because I find BEA the most discouragingly retrograde event of the year in publishing. It’s old-school swag-’n'-swagger, the hawking of wares not to customers but to intermediaries, an anachronistic holdover in a business still having trouble recognizing profound change.
Kingsolver’s line was not about BEA. She was talking about climate change. She’s a biologist by training, and her new book, Flight Behavior (November 6, HarperCollins) is about how rural farmers of the South, where she lives, are the least likely to believe scientific assertions about climate change — and the most likely to be affected by it.
Somehow the theme of denial felt awfully close to home.
The publishing colleagues who man the booths and pavilions of BEA are some of the people who may be most gravely affected, at least as far as their work lives go, in climactic changes coming into the industry.
It has occurred to me that the profession in which you’re least likely to get a book contract is: writer.
With Stephen Colbert sitting onstage with her, Kingsolver steadily walked out onto a limb as she talked about “celebrity chefs, celebrity housewives” and “celebrity celebrities” — who do get contracts.
She went on, chatting her way through publishing transitions of the past:
Many, most, all of these steps have been about making books more accessible…paper started edging out parchment. You know what people said: “This paper doesn’t do it for me, I have to feel the skin of a dead sheep for the words to work.” The physical form and distribution of books has changed radically again and again, and we complain and we get over it, and what endures is the book.
Having to hope she’s right, I took a different tack this year, and it proved a good decision. I focused on one of the conferences that stands as a satellite to the huge show.
BEA is not a conference. I hear a lot of people calling it that. It’s not. It’s a trade show.
Think of the major auto shows. Manufacturers roll out their new models and their loopiest prototypes, and they stage innumerable stunts involving dry ice and colored lights to make members of the press and major dealership representatives become excited about what’s rolling off the assembly lines for the next season.
This is close to what BEA does. At its cash-cold heart, the exhibitor floor is a maze of booths and pavilions in which publishers hawk what they have coming up. Even the heartiest literature is reduced to “the product” in such a context.
Way beyond author platforming, this is major salesmanship of a kind that author Lois Lowry noted has been around for decades — she spoke at the 1987 edition of BEA, she said, when the event was under another name and set in Washington.
At BEA today, self-publishers walk the carpeted aisles and try to give away copies of their books, preferably to a reviewer, an influential blogger, eventually to anybody who will take a copy, anybody at all. There’s something depressing about these self-published authors trying to gain traction amid the chrome and teak of the big companies’ displays.
As Jane Litte wrote this week in one of her day-wraps, BEA: Day 2, Kobo announces self publishing platform and Bowker releases ebook reading data:
Essentially, publishers and other vendors set up booths and then advertise their wares to the other BEA attendees who are primarily booksellers and other industry individuals. The trade people are everyone from those who sell the cardboard containers that hold the racks of books at the bookstore to printers.
The event is about mass buy-in. I’ll cheer for your list if you’ll cheer for mine. And do, please, have one of our tote bags.
Kingsolver, author that she is, has a different take on the marketing challenges to come:
We are all jockeying for the attention of the consumer, the reader, whom we now call the consumer. Trying to wrestle a little bit of attention from those Angry Birds.
I took shelter in the comparative intellectual sanctuary of Mike Shatzkin’s and Michael Cader’s Publishers Launch BEA Conference.
I watched people drift in and out of the room from the simultaneously running IDPF Digital Book Conference — quite a bit of interest was generated by the Launch agenda.
These huge conference gatherings take place in the lower-level convention salons of the airless Javits Center as the trade show thunders along upstairs. And after 5 p.m., the people of the industry! the industry! all head out to various parties thrown by publishers and startups to tweet each other across Manhattan’s twilight.
Kingsolver, these days, is trying to take a long view:
It’s always been like this. My point is the literary reader is a small but probably stable demographic. We have our place. We absorb and pass on information in a way that endures.
I’m not as reassured as I’d like to be by Kingsolver’s good efforts to say that the forces of commerce and entertainment have always challenged the writer’s ability to get across, although I certainly appreciate her effort to ease the worry.
On the other hand, it was good to hear and see presentations and panel discussions in the Publishers Launch conference — I recommend this series of conferences to you. They’re responsibly put together and expertly run.
The outfit’s Jess Johns, in fact, somehow managed to set up a table for my all-day live-tweet coverage with a power strip — a back-saving grace over having to hunch-’n'-tweet all day from one’s lap.
Among the standouts of the day was a panel focused on what’s changing about the agent’s role amid the new pathways authors have to publication.
Simon Lipskar of Writers House dominated the session moderated by paidContent’s Laura Hazard Owen, making the case that agents’ work has changed from what once might have been the passion of personal advocacy to a new demand for — and reliance on — the “harder” proofs of metrics and analysis. Lipskar made his point well:
It’s a big change in how we think. We’re doing math. A new skill set for agents. We’re stats geeks.
Jennifer Weltz of Jean Nagger suggested that as the obligations and opportunities of authors expand, so do the jobs of those authors’ agents:
We see ourselves as our authors’ advocates in everything they have to tackle to survive this market.
Laura Dail of Dail Literary concurred, and spoke to the fact that once-traditional approaches can become fragmented in a multi-platform market:
We do deals right now where it makes sense. We’re looking for partners. If e- and print, great.
And Tim Knowlton of Curtis Brown talked of discovering a contract that mentioned “electronic rights” — from 1966.
More takeaways from Publishers Launch BEA (we hashtagged it #LaunchBEA, in case you’d like to review the day’s tweets) included some of the fine globalization context that Shatzkin brings to the annual Digital Book World Conference.
In this case, Ed Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives captured a growing tendency for non-US publishers to consider moving into American markets. In US to Face Domestic Competition from Overseas Digital Publishers, Nawotka quotes panelist David Cully of Baker & Taylor:
“Territorial rights barriers can’t stand and are falling. When a book goes on sale, it goes on sale — if you go online on the internet, rights are being violated each in their own way. I think the market will deal with it financially. Publishers are recognizing that the rights they once acquired, will have a different value.”
Javier Celaya of Dosdoce, Nawotka notes, described the translation faculty backing the coming competition from offshore. Celaya:
“A lot of European publishers are holding on to their own rights in an effort to create their own markets.” While the United States has “no tradition of translation, and those books that are translated are considered ‘difficult’ books,” in markets like Spain, France and Italy, as many as 30-40% of all books are translations.
In addition to selling English-language e-books in countries like Germany and Sweden, Penguin has made significant investments in ramping up e-book sales in countries like Brazil and China, according to Barton. Penguin has also been translating its e-books into foreign languages including Korean and selling directly into those markets. The program is a “pilot” for the future, said Barton.
In the afternoon, a Publishers Launch surprise: Authors Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi (president of the Science Fiction Writers of America), and Charlie Stross joined Macmillan’s Fritz Foy to announce a coming online DRM-free store at Tor.com, opening later this summer.
An ebook with DRM is unlikely to be readable in five years’ time, 10 at the most.
We have backup from our publishers…to do enforcement of copyright.
DRM in effect says to readers they’re “foolish enough to buy this book instead of stealing it.”
And meanwhile, the Great Satan of Seattle hovered over all, sending a shudder through the Javits just as things got under way with the news that it was buying publication rights to 3,000 backlist titles from Avalon Books.
Michael Cader at Publishers Lunch wrote it up:
Amazon director of business development, rights and licensing Philip Patrick notes importantly, “None of these titles have been digitized yet and we know Kindle customers will delight in this great new offering.” The acquired titles will be issued by the various West coast Amazon imprints, and “will continue to be available in print for booksellers and libraries nationwide.”
Like English weather, if you’re not happy with the options you have for self-publishing, just give it about 10 minutes and something else will turn up.
As the hardest working woman in show business, Laura Hazard Owen, wrote from under a chair somewhere in a conference at BEA, Kobo is the latest outfit to give us a self-publishing platform, branded with the Norman-Rockwellian name Writing Life.
Writing Life is in beta tests with 50 authors now and will launch in English by the end of June, “with new language and country-specific support added in the coming year,” Kobo said in a blog post.
One reason you read Owen, by the way, is that she’s good about spotting companies’ poison darts and calling them out on it. Yea, even when they’re aimed at Seattle. You see her do this quite handily in Kobo launches e-book self-publishing platform, “Writing Life.”
On its website, Kobo takes a jab at Amazon: “Unlike some self-publishing portals we could mention, Kobo doesn’t bind you to us. Publish to Kobo and take your ePub to your adoring fans, no matter where they might be. You’re free to sell your eBook the way you want.”
Now she counters, emphasis mine:
To be fair, Amazon’s KDP doesn’t require exclusivity, but its KDP Select (which lets self-published authors include their titles in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library) does.
PR trash talk. My, what we’ve taught the Canadians, huh?
The main difference between Kobo and Amazon is outlined in the press release: Unlike competitive self-publishing tools, Kobo allows authors to set their book price to “FREE” at any time without restrictive exclusive agreements, in addition Kobo pays 10% higher royalties on sales in many growing international markets and allows authors much more freedom on pricing.
And for some clarification on that point about royalties, here is Jane Litte, as referenced by Owen, in BEA: Day 2, Kobo announces self publishing platform and Bowker releases ebook reading data.
The terms are 70/30% (that’s 70% for the author) for books priced between $1.99 and $12.99. For books under $1.99 and above $12.99, the author gets 45%. There is no download fee or hidden costs.
And there’s a DRM-free element here, as Litte clarifies in her nicely parsed interview with Mark Leslie Lefebvre, Kobo’s chief of self-publishing and author relations.
The author can choose DRM or avoid it.
One of the chief features will be bringing (Kobo’s) signature gamification to the writing process. By the end of the summer, authors who use the Writing Life platform will earn badges for selling books in multiple countries (Globetrotter badge) as well as for doing things like working late at night (Midnight Oil badge). The badges will be socially shareable so writers can interact with each other through the Kobo tool.
So, you know, maybe your book sucks but you can still be the Mayor of Kobo.
The long term plan for Writing Life is to have all authors, many of whom may not even use the Writing Life tool to publish and sell their books, interact with the interface to track sales, track social engagement with their books across the Web and, of course, earn and share badges.
“Of course, earn and share badges.”
I’ll just say that again. Badges.
Greenfield again, this time on the element of baked-in social mediation planned for eventual integration into the platform:
In addition to gamification, high on the company’s product development roadmap is integration of social tracking tools that authors can use to see when readers comment on their work on Facebook or using Kobo’s embedded social reading tools. Notifications for authors about when their books are trending in certain countries or on certain, highly specific best-seller lists is also a high priority.
And here’s Lefebvre, very likable guy, talking up the Writing Life to an unseen Mercy Pilkington from Good e-Reader on video at BEA. At 1:20 on the tape, Lefebvre answers a question from Pilkington about why the platform is — ostensibly — going to focus so heavily on tracking data for authors on their books. Lefebvre answers, in part:
We are treating indie authors the same way we’d treat publishers, with the same sort of respect and love and giving them the same sort of tools and analytics we’d give publishers. We’re finding in a lot of cases that indie authors are thirsty for that data. Nobody’s going to get behind a book than authors, themselves. We want to give them every ability to control that book and to take advantage of detailed data.
Badges, shmadges, if Writing Life truly delivers on what Lefebvre is talking about here with industrial-grade data to let authors track and dashboard their sales patterns, authors may find this route worthwhile.
This blueprint does not involve secrets, shortcuts, or gimmicks. There are no visualization exercises here.
I like what Guillebeau has to say about tangible, actionable concepts and steps to be taken. Too many others’ advice to writers comes off as a latter-day version of Harold Hill’s Think System from The Music Man.
In that hoary 1957 show by Meredith Willson (revived currently by Zelda Fichandler’s Arena Stage), a whole town is bamboozled by a con artist who claims he can teach the school band to play by having them “think” they are instrumentalists — if their parents will buy the pricey band instruments. You get “Seventy-Six Trombones” as the big finale, then you go home feeling all warm and fuzzy.
I’m tired of inspirational/motivational bloggers inevitably selling band instruments, or their own books. Their basic message normally is that if you just “think” you’re an author — and if you really belieeeeeve in yourself, Lena Horne — you’ll be a bestseller, damn it.
By welcome contrast, Guillebeau continues:
If you think you can manifest your way to money simply by thinking about it, put this book down and spend your time doing that. Instead, this is a book about practical things you can do to take responsibility for your own future.
In the same way that Book Expo America is too much a casbah of the crass, our many inspirational bloggers are denizens of denial.
They try to teach would-be writers that success is one big motivating thought away; that a poignant prayer can ordain a career; that “whispering hope” can be pounded into coin and rendered unto Caesar as unclean but comely commerce.
This is crap. And I regret seeing the creative community of writing worked over from time to time by preachers of such prattle.
Guillebeau gets the job done:
Make no mistake: The blueprint does not tell you how to do less work; it tells you how to do better work. The goal isn’t to get rich quickly but to build something that other people will value enough to pay for. You’re not just creating a job for yourself; you’re crafting a legacy.
I begin with one caveat: The whole e-book market is rapidly evolving..I’ll do my best to keep this column up to date.
And, of course, David Carnoy at CNET may soon be working to update his How To Self-Publish an eBook column with the news of Kobo’s Writing Life (which is supposed to go live late this month). Carnoy’s next edition will be an even more valuable asset than this June 1 iteration for authors who want to consider self-publishing.
He takes each major self-publishing platform/service provider and breaks down the highlights to help writers make some better-informed decisions.
Carnoy also offers some general rules of thumb, such as:
Avoid any outfits that don’t let you set the price: This is one of the cardinal rules of self-publishing an e-book. You must be able to control the pricing of your e-book. If you want to sell it for $0.99, then you should be able to sell it for $0.99.
And even without the ins and outs of the new Kobo-ness included, the post is invaluable if self-publishing in the DIY is what you’re considering.
Users can pick and choose what content they’ve shared through Facebook and Twitter and turn it into a post on a larger page. Or they can create an original post with their own media. There’s a bookmarklet for pulling in images from other sites, similar to Pinterest. And there’s analytics for each post so you can see how many people are reading it.
In Kim’s Ex-Huffpo CTO launches RebelMouse, a social publishing platform, Paul Berry, the project’s principle, says:
Right now, most of the world is on Facebook or Twitter, usually both. You’re spending way too much time and struggle and getting way too unsatisfactory results on your own website. You need something to bring it together, to show who you are and that’s true of individuals and companies.
You just thought you were doing fine, you see?
You can get a very cool look at a live example of this Mouse in action, however, if you like. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram has got his mouse in full rebellion here. Ingram is a prolific and widely followed journalist, so there’s a lot for him to work with.
One of the more interesting features of his RebelMouse page, I find, is that it keeps populating with older material as you scroll down. I’m guessing it might be on a two-months-of-material cycle, as it seems to show me Ingram-alia back to April 7 or 8.
Have a look, see what you think. In a way, it seems the Mouse is just a way to make your social more…social.
If it’s going to just bots-itself together like a Paper.li rag — and it does seem that once it’s set up, it’s just aggregating your stuff — and if you’re really having all that trouble with your site that Berry believes you are, this might be the ticket.
On the other hand, the folks I know in publishing are already so social, they can barely walk. And the real question for Berry and his, uh, Mouse, is just how much time this one’s going to take. Because maybe we need to put on the brakes when it comes to adding social media — even a medium that shows off our media.
Today I’d like to focus on the writer, and the single most important characteristic for success: Self-discipline.
James Scott Bell is one of those deceptive souls whose affability belies the kind of drive that only a healthy level of discipline can support.
That’s right. Even more than talent. Talent is overrated. The ability to get tough, stick with it and produce words beats lazy literary giftedness every time.
That’s from his latest column, The Most Important Characteristic Every Writer Needs in the Kilt Zone, as I so annoyingly call it. It’s the Kill Zone, actually, the group blog he’s on, not a swatch of plaid in sight.
It’s the only white-on-black site I’m willing to read, in fact (light font on dark background, why is this thought smart?), and that’s simply because Bell is there.
Bell sees things being handled by an “inner drill sergeant.
Your own inner drill sergeant…has four areas of concentration.
- Motivation – You’ve got to go into this with the thought that nothing will stop you.
- Action – If you take action every day toward your goals you begin to feel unstoppable.
- Assessment – A few books in I knew I’d become a good plotter, but decided my character work needed improvement.
- Time Management – The best book on the subject I ever read is now sadly out of print: How To Get Control of Your Time and Your Life by Alan Lakein (but you can pick up a used copy via Amazon’s used book sellers. You can have one for under $5. Well worth it).
You’ve got to get yourself pumped up to do your work, which is producing the words. One way to do this is with visual motivators. When I first started I got a coffee mug with WRITER written on it. I looked at it every day.
You have your orders.
I’m not naming any names, but I have seen Twitter brawls break out over the use of “aspiring.”
Annie Neugebauer, apparently ready to risk it all, takes up the often contentious topic of writerly terminology, egged on in part, I fear, by my own tilt at “what’s really ‘indie’” over at Writer Unboxed. She’s somewhere waaaaay down Patrick Ross‘ The Artist’s Road with What the Heck Should I Call Myself, Anyway?
Some terms are pretty quickly handled. Such as “writer” and “aspiring writer.” Here’s the former:
If you write, you can call yourself a writer. This is not an elitist club.
Here’s the latter:
If you write, you don’t need the “aspiring.” This is a term best used for very casual hobbyists who would like to write more often, or interested parties who would like to get around to writing someday. And those people probably aren’t reading this blog.
“Author,” Neugebauer asserts, means you’re a writer who’s been published. Her take on “aspiring author” — not to be confused with an expiring author — is a bit reachier:
Every writer I’ve ever known would like to be published someday…Thus, I vote that we veto this term and replace it with “writer,” which sounds more confident and implies the same goals.
Clearly, Neugebauer has never run into the people I have, who insist they have no interest in being published. “I’m just writing for myself and the sheer joy of it.”
The sheer joy of it.
Know what? I believe those people no farther than I can throw them. And they’re usually on the husky side, so I’m not going to be heaving them around too easily. I think that stuff about “just writing for myself,” is either:
- An amateur’s idea of setting everybody up for — surprise! — the big book they one day intend to beg you to read and endorse, and/or
- An amateur’s wade through a slough of self-doubt so deep that he or she can’t even gather up the stuff to say, “Hey, yeah, of course I’d like to be published.”
Why “amateur?” Well, have you ever met a professional writer who could tell you that she or he didn’t want to be published?
Obviously suicidal, Neugebauer goes on into the “indie” vs. “self-publishing” debate.
The clearest-cut difference between these four terms is payment. Authors who go through traditional publishers or independent presses usually get paid an advance that they then earn out through book sales. These authors keep their advance regardless of the success of their book. Authors who self-publish or use vanity presses put their own money up-front to cover printing costs, and only get “paid back” if their book makes money.
I’m afraid that’s going to mollify no one. Small, independent presses sometimes can’t pay advances. Large publishing houses that do pay advances aren’t generally classified as “independent.” And, of course, nobody who calls himself or herself “indie’ will admit to ever having heard of Sundance or Bob Redford or trying to park in Park City.
Sometimes “indie” is just a grab for the sunglasses, you know.
Now, at this point, Neugebauer isn’t done yet. But she’s faltering.
She goes at “commercial” vs. “literary” vs. “upmarket.” She goes at “scholarly” vs. “expert” vs. “professional.” And just after trying to handle “award-winning” (which grade of elementary school were you in at the time?), she throws in the towel as the “bestselling” swamp waters close in over her head.
Okay, forget it. Call yourself what you want. If you believe you’re being truthful, go with it.
Which, of course, is the fun, breezy way we manage never to get any actual, serious standards into place on such things. It’s a basket-case industry, baby, come on in and represent yourself — or misrepresent yourself — anyway you like.
We’d pitch a self-publisher’s Kon-wrathful screaming fit if medical people behaved this way, wouldn’t we? Well, of course we would.
That’s why it’s a little disappointing that Neugebauer doesn’t stick her landing. I don’t hold it against her. Not a bad, or easy, exercise, actually, just going over what’s in front of us, what’s behind us, what eludes us all.
But her tossing in the towel does make me wish we could get back to her headline and change “heck.” A big, sprawling, novice-overrun vocation like writing is at this point? This is hell.
Next time you talk to an EA at a conference (when you’re not pitching), instead of thinking about all the things you want from them, or devising clever ways to influence them, simply be curious. Ask questions like, “What’s the most challenging part of your job?” Or, “What do you look for in a partnership with an author?” Or, “What do you wish every author knew before they entered into a partnership with you?”
Jane Friedman, now transitioning to her new position as an editor at Virginia Quarterly Review, has a guest post at agent Rachelle Gardner’s site on How To Influence Editors in a Way That 90% of Other Writers Don’t.
Editors and agents (EAs) feel guilt all the time. Why? Because it’s never fun or a completely neutral act to reject someone.
And in a nearly parallel post, Gardner this week has written about the 13 Things You May Not Know About Agents.
When we’ve tried to sell your book but we’re not successful, we’re probably almost as disappointed as you. Not only are we often emotionally invested, we’ve put in a lot of time for no paycheck.
Like Friedman, Gardner is a champion of straight talk that cuts through the mystique. And in this duo of posts, two professional roles that can cause writers confusion and, at times, outright fear, are exposed for their own vulnerabilities and concerns. Gardner:
If we say we don’t want to submit a particular project to editors, we’re probably trying to protect both of our reputations (the writer’s and the agent’s).
Here’s revealing, healthy disclaimer, the kind that can offer sensitive authors something closer to a peer relationship with the professionals they meet. Good reads from smart talents.
As I was delighted to find Amalia Melis’ lyrical meditations on Greece’s agony through Glimmer Train, I’m glad now to discover (yassou!) Natalie Bakopoulos, whose Whose Are You? is in the latest bulletin.
The Greek poet George Seferis wrote in his diary: “Man is always double: he who acts, and he who sees himself acting; he who suffers, and he who sees himself suffering; he who feels, and he who observes himself feeling.”
The complexity of the Greek world today, the terrible modernity of its economic plight and its forced national introspection, echoes what Bakopoulos says in her essay here.
This nation is a living legend credited with giving us the very essential foundations of our own ethos. And now, its furiously derided by the Europeans and by so many others tied to the euro’s impracticalities.
This sort of intense self-awareness is rooted in the writer’s experience, which Nadine Gordimer says is made from the “tension between standing apart and being fully involved.”
What Bakopouls wants to tell you about is perfectly understandable, it’s not “Greek to me” or you, spend a minute with it.
Once, on a quiet, not-too-hot day on a wonderfully uncrowded beach on the island of Kythnos, my cousin and I stood with our feet in the water, talking. Further down, someone had dragged a four-post bed out into the sand, and an old yia-yia, dressed in requisite black, took her afternoon rest there, beneath a tree. When she awoke, she made her rounds to see what she might have missed.
“Girls!” she called to us. “You’ll catch cold!” And as she got closer, she examined our bodies up and down and then focused solely on our faces. She did not recognize us as locals.
“Tinos eiste?” she asked, her face tilting with curiosity. Whose are you? Or, to whom do you belong? She hadn’t meant the question to be complicated. But I’m still unable to give her an answer.
Bakopoulos’ lesson for us here is about the writing identity. How hard is it to write if you don’t know who you are? Maybe we should ask how easy is it to write if you don’t know who you are?
I’ll see Bakopoulos her gift of those lines of Sefaris and raise her a few lines of my favorite Paraskevas Karasoulos:
Like lands that once were joined,
Like islands, our lives separated,
How can I travel to you?
How can you come here without sails?
See how we open ourselves to something deeper and darker about craft when we move past the daily bloggers’ whines:
When I began writing my novel, which is set in Athens during the military dictatorship, she (Bakopoulos’ late aunt, Eleni) sent me gorgeous letters filled with details of the period: a trip she remembered to Istanbul, a hike on an island, a frightening run-in with the military police. She offered me the past, perhaps as a type of self-preservation.
Pebbles turning in the tide at Naufplion, we’ve stepped right off into something rare. She’s talking memoir-gone-fiction.
How worried she was I’d get something wrong. And as I wove so many of these stories into my novel, how much I worried the same.
Every writer is faced with the same question: do you write about what you know or what you don’t know?
True? True. So:
What they need to do—and here I’m quoting a former writing teacher of mine—is write what they know about what they don’t know or what they don’t know about what they know. In other words, they want the advantages of both closeness and distance.
Novelist Joshua Henkin’s next effort, The World Without You, is due out this month from RH’s Pantheon. In his brief essay at Glimmer Train, he looks at his Brooklyn College graduate students, their inclinations and preferences, and he discovers a fascinating trend:
My graduate students, many of whom are quite talented, are for the most part so afraid of being over the top that they’re subtle to the point of obfuscation.
Have you ever felt this constraint? I have. Sometimes I think “believability” can bedevil writers as readily as “discoverability” can.
In the theater, we used to call this “kitchen sink,” and it started most notably with playwright John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. “Kitchen sink drama” was the “angry young man’s” answer to a corrupt post-war social structure that offered a rising generation a future no more colorful or interesting than the drab, cold-water-flat settings in which it was played. This form of theater was highly influential in many forms of arts and entertainment at the time. It drove creative artists to generate dialog and characters so realistic — naturalistic, in truth — that actors were accused at times of “mumbling” onstage.
Henkin goes on describing his graduate students’ dilemma:
They think they’re being subtle, but the reader has no idea what they’re talking about.
And what’s first to go out the window, as Henkin says — when the fear of “going too far” gets to you — is your interest in your own characters:
I tell my students that if they don’t care about their characters, how can they expect their readers to care about them? I’m not saying they have to like their characters; caring about your characters is something entirely different. In the end, the key is to be as direct and as emotionally honest as possible.
Smart material, Henkin’s message. His students are lucky to have him.
I believe writers should risk being over the top…You don’t want to descend into sentimentality, but it’s worse, I would argue, if your work lacks sentiment. And in order to get sentiment, you have to risk sentimentality. I tell my students not to be so afraid of being cheesy. They can always revise.
The unspeakable cannot sit in a place. There is no place to sit.
In our third of three craft-oriented essays in the current Glimmer Train bulletin (↬ Jane Friedman), Silas Dent Zobal takes on what’s not sayable, not writable, in “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed.“
And in treating so difficult a topic as his own desire to directly, pointedly address death — “I want to talk to you about dying” — he cannily breathes new life into any thinking writer’s interest not only in craft but in the creative context itself.
We need more work of this kind, much, much more. At least when pieces of this calibre and risk come along, the community of writing is a basket case worth exploring.
As an undergraduate, I worked part-time at a home for the developmentally disabled. I went in early in the mornings before the residents were awake, and got breakfast ready. One morning, when we, my coworker and I, went to rouse everyone from bed, I found a dead woman. Her name was Gaye. She was in her room on the floor. She had had a seizure in the night. Her blood had settled, so that the bottom half of her was bluish and her top half white. My co-worker, whose name I no longer remember, administered CPR. I heard Gaye’s ribs crack.
That’s one example Zobal gives us, he of the Nathaniel-Hawthorn-ish name, of the kind of thing he wants to address in his work. And the value here — don’t misunderstand this — is not in any form of shock value, nor of some kind of taboo of topic or detail.
This is not, let me hasten to assure you, the kind of thing we have right now among several of our more gifted folks, in which dirty language and fantastical raunchiness are substituted for the bona fide gravity those talents could be manipulating.
After college, I worked for a time as a bicycle messenger in Chicago. Sometime in the summer, I heard over my radio that a pedestrian had been struck and killed by a car. I rode over to see what was left to see. The body had been removed. Firemen had arrived to clean up. They hosed down Wacker Drive. The street, with all that water, looked flooded with blood.
This is difficult material, and thank God and/or Zobal for that, your choice, I’ll go with Zobal. If you’re tired of the bake-a-cherry-pie tedium of How To Keep Your Characters Dry When It Rains blogs — and Fifteen Ways To Tell Whether You”re an Outliner or a Panster — get a snootful of this:
What bothers me is this: I can’t really write about these things, none of them, or what they mean to me, or how I come back to them time and again, at turns thoughtful, or grieving, or angry, or with the kind of quiet loneliness that overtakes us all, I think, no matter how surrounded by people we are (and I am, by Jove!; my house is a circus of children and animals) when we’re struck by how wildly out of control this business is, our lives, and that it ends often without notice, and often poorly, and often with a great deal of pain.
This “craft?” It’s about why you write, if you do, at all. It’s about why you fail, if you do, and when. It’s about the unholy workarounds we all seek and — you know what? — sometimes find:
I write about it, over and over again. Every single time that I try, I fail. And finally, almost despite myself, I begin to incorporate the failure into the story. That is, failure becomes part of the mechanism. What else can I do? Maybe if I let my failures begin to dictate my story’s shape—then I can draw a circle around the thing that I have failed to say. Does that make sense to you?
It does make sense to me, yes. I hope it does to you.
A lot of booth-and-totebag rubbish can be redeemed, can’t it, when somebody, anybody in the writer corps, starts talking seriously again and leaves the sillier creatures of publishing to chew each others’ legs off at their trade-show parties.
And, by the way, about that inspiration/motivation thing I’ve written about earlier in the Ether? If you can read Zobal here and not return to your work inspired to do what needs doing, you may need to think seriously about your idea of yourself as a writer.
The noble Zobal’s kind of ambiguity is just about impervious to display schemes at Javits:
This is all a little ambiguous, isn’t it? That’s what I want to tell you. Here, right here, is where you can find the heart of the heart of your story. Not in a place but in no place. Not in clarity but in ambiguity.
Those aren’t books. You can’t hold a computer in your hand like you can a book. A computer does not smell… A book has got to smell. You have to hold it in your hands and pray to it. You put it in your pocket and you walk with it. And it stays with you forever. But the computer doesn’t do that for you. I’m sorry.
Bradbury’s death at age 91 has cast a pall over publishing. To consider why this author’s passing has such an impact, it’s important, as Ingram knows, to develop a wider picture of the stance this man took against so much of what we’re rushing toward in our industry.
Tirelessly examining our media upheavals, and with special emphasis on newspapers and their successors, Ingram gets to a point about Bradbury’s intent that might surprise some readers and filmgoers:
Although books are outlawed in Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury said in interviews that his main purpose wasn’t to argue against censorship (although that’s clearly a sub-theme). Instead, he said he was trying to paint a picture of where society might be heading, as books and other old forms of media and entertainment were being replaced by what he saw as shallow and frivolous alternatives like television shows. In this future, Bradbury argued that books would become outlawed because people themselves would become increasingly anti-intellectual and see them as suspicious.
Ingram, in crediting Bradbury with highly pertinent concerns, comes out on a more hopeful note, seeing the tools, devices, systems, and upheavals we have today as carrying as much potential for good as for evil.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty of brain candy out there, or that shallow amusements and distractions created by YouTube or 4chan users are any more uplifting or redeeming than a TV sitcom, because they aren’t. But the tools that we have now are capable of so much more, and there are many people using them for those purposes — and the potential benefits of that are almost unlimited. Bradbury’s dystopia serves as a useful warning about the dangers of amusing ourselves into stupefication, but there is hope yet.
Let’s hope Ingram is right. Let’s prove Bradbury wrong. We have to, really.
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