What’s missing from the new publishing paradigm

I can’t help thinking that the last five years have been dramatic for the traditional publishing model. You know, the multi-barrier one where, to get published, you had to first attract an agent. Five years ago, a lot of writers’ blogs featured their representative, even if the writer was unpublished – but to even get an agent was a mark of status.

My books in the window...

Yes, this is an entire shop window filled with books written by me – 14 out of my 52 titles.

All that’s gone. As has the debate over ‘traditional’ (old paradigm: status) versus ‘indie’ (old paradigm: amateur/unpublishable). In some senses it’s opened the door for anybody to publish anything – what Chuck Wendig calls it the ‘self-publishing shit volcano’. But there’s also good stuff that would have been welcomed in the trad system.

I don’t think the old system has gone – I still publish through it. But it’s been joined by another. And in all the debate, one thing’s been missed – one thing both the old and the new models share.

Money. There isn’t any, either way.

The old publishing model’s been bent, and the money’s gone out of it, certainly in New Zealand. Advances have dropped – often to zero – as has shelf-life. Even a few years ago, publishers let stock sell through over 5-6 years. Now they’re often pulping titles after a few months if they don’t shift.

The online/self-pub model relies on marketing through the internet – meaning any author’s book is joining about a hundred million others, while their authors tweet, blog, Facebook and generally scream about them. ‘Buy my books, you bastards!’ The good stuff is drowned in the noise. The average lifetime sales of an e-book, I’m told, is about a hundred units. I can believe it.

Worse, the Gen Z idea that everything online should, by rights, be ‘free’ has collided with the fact that one way to compete in that noise-filled frenzy is to drop the price. And a chunk of those publishing don’t care, either – for them, what counts isn’t the income so much as being published.

To my mind the answer isn’t holding on to the old, like a tiger growling over the last scraps of its dinner – it’s one of adapting or dying. Nor can we blame the technology. The real change isn’t in the sudden application of the information age to book distribution and sales, but a social one in the readership – the people who part with cash for the books. Organisations such as Amazon merely facilitate it for a general populace who are driving the change. Bottom line is that book-readers like the convenience of the e-book.

In this new world, I also think the answer isn’t ‘free’. More soon. Meanwhile – your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writers are more than just what they write

One of the writing tropes to which I totally object is the notion that writers are defined by what they’re best known for – and that they’re somehow incapable of anything else. Or worse, not even capable of writing what they are acclaimed for.

Wright_AuthorPhoto2014_LoIt happens in an awful lot of places and ways, including fiction circles, where authors get tagged with whatever genre they’ve become known for, and that’s an end to it. If the author does do something different, they risk having critics treat them as if they are incompetent – as if the author has dared to step outside what they know and must, by default, be found wanting. That’s partly, I believe, why J K Rowling used a pseudonym for her detective novel.

The reality – as Rowling’s work makes abundantly clear – is that many authors are quite capable of tackling a wide range of things, brilliantly and with obvious quality. Look at Arthur C. Clarke, whose work ranged from science fact to science fiction (and he understood Einsteinian space-time).

To me that’s all to the good. Personally I couldn’t think of anything more limiting than trawling and re-trawling a specific small territory. I’ve written two books on New Zealand’s First World War, and unless something new occurs to me (which is always possible) that’s enough for the moment. I’ve done three books, to date, on the earlier New Zealand Wars – each ‘cutting into’ the topic from a very different angle. I do want to revise my main analytical volume on the period, but I haven’t much interest in doing anything more.

There is too much else to write about – new, interesting fields that pique my curiosity. Einsteinian space-time, for instance, though truth be told, I knew about that as a teenager – and won a regional science prize on the back of it.

And now?

Watch this space. Geddit? Space? Just remember that, when my next important writing thing happens. You’ll see. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing with proper pace – avoiding the thin and stretched problem

I posted the other day about the way authors can write quickly and well – it boils down to having good concepts for content, then being able to translate that content into a linear thread. But that isn’t the only issue authors have to tackle when it comes to speed.

A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf's coat-tails...

A writer rag-tagging at Gandalf’s coat-tails…

The other one is pace. A story – or, for that matter, an article or piece of non-fiction – can be brilliantly conceived and well written, but still run too slowly to keep reader interest. The example that always springs to mind when I think of this problem is Harry Turtledove’s ‘World War’ series, an alternate history saga in which lizard-like aliens crash the Second World War and force both Allies and Axis to co-operate.

I chugged my way through the first of these but didn’t bother with the rest. Why? Turtledove is an excellent writer; there’s nothing wrong with his ideas, characterisation or anything else. But the pace was glacial. There was a mis-match, to my mind, between the drama of the story concept and the speed at which that drama was laid out. The peaks – the elements that hold reader interest – were too far-spread.

It would have worked, I think, as a book about a quarter of the length – and maybe the whole ‘World War’ saga could have been reduced to a couple of modest volumes on that basis.

The inverse problem is when the book is too thin for the subject – when it charges, helter-skelter, into the concept it’s conveying without pause for breath. I always thought Dan Brown’s The Of Vinci Code (I know what I said) veered into that territory – though, for all the faults I can find with Brown, there’s little doubt about his mastery of pace.

That also happens in non-fiction; I’ve chopped my way through history books where the author has clearly got rather carried away with their research and subject matter, and where the publisher hasn’t felt able to deal with the problem.

Though sometimes they do – I recall, years ago, a historian complaining to me that the publisher had required them to cut out about a third of their book. On my own experience, I know that publishers don’t do that gratuitously.

It’s a bit like the effects of Tolkien’s ring: The Ring didn’t give extra life – it stretched out the life its bearer had. ‘Thin and stretched,’ Bilbo explained to Gandalf at one point. And that, it seems to me, is true of writing too. The length has to fit the concept.

So what’s the answer? There’s no single ‘ideal’ length; different concepts will have different natural paces to them. The trick is finding them. One rule of thumb, though, is not to try to write to an ambitious word length – too often, authors go for ‘scale’ and the bragging rights of being able to say they just published a 1000 page book, when the content doesn’t match up.

Symptoms of the problem in fiction include stalling – dredging for what comes next, or including scenes that don’t advance the character arc and plot. Or, in non-fiction, it can include sections that don’t strictly relate to the main subject matter.

All these things have to be watched for. And don’t forget – word-count isn’t a goal; it’s a tool for measuring.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

How to use a style sheet as a writing tool

How many of us have been confronted with the antics of a City Council where, even before the Roads Division gets to the far end of a short suburban street they’re resurfacing, the Lines Service arrives at the near end and jiggers up the brand new seal, so they can put the power cables underground.

Wright_Typewriter2What does this have to do with writers? An awful lot, it turns out. Write something long enough, and odds are on you’ll have problems with the consistency from one end to the other. Time and the realities of human memory takes the place of a dysfunctional bureaucracy. But the result is the same – end-point chaos.

It’s a problem in all the arts – witness The Fly (1957) where the lead actor was Dave Hedison in the opening credits and Al Hedison in the closing list (or was it the other way around).

Then there was Tolkien, whose writing technique consisted of endless authorial changes, with the result that the first edition of The Lord Of The Rings had much the same consistency as rough-mix concrete. So too did the first edition of Winston Churchill’s The Second World War, where he pursued his publisher with ‘overtake’ versions of the original text to the point where chaos’ umpire reigned.

It’s a problem true of any writing – fiction and non-fiction alike – and it gets worse the longer the writing is, and the more obscure the subject. It even comes down to capitalisations, consistencies of spelling, and a host of other minutiae that frequently slip under the radar of writers and even editors. The problem is that there’s no easy way around it. On my own experience, even multiple independent proof-reading passes don’t always catch problems. Though, sure as eggs, the author spots them 28 milliseconds after the brand new advance copy arrives in the mail.

But there are tricks to ameliorate the issue – and one of them is to prepare a style sheet – especially for fiction – with any quirky spelling, capitalisation and other content carefully listed off. That gives a basic reference point. A style sheet still doesn’t avoid the need for manual cross-checking: auto-replace and auto-correct help – and offer one way of quickly pushing a consistent usage or spelling into a document.

But both are incredibly literal-minded and often do dumb things, especially if you click the wrong thing in the instruction dialog box.

There is, unfortunately, no substitute for carefully going through a document, word by word.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

Writing skills need to be built from the basics

I am always intrigued by the fact that most of the ‘how to write’ and ‘craft’ posts I see floating around the blog-o-sphere are written on the assumption that ‘writing’ means ‘fiction writing’, and the challenges flow from the need to master content.

Essential writing fuel!

Essential writing fuel!

The problem in that – apart from the fact that writing is about a lot more than fiction writing – is that authors end up wrestling with the basic mechanics of physically writing something – as in, writing anything – at the same time as they are trying to master the complexity of content.

I think that needs breaking down a bit – deconstructing – to make it a simpler challenge. As the saying goes, the elephant can be eaten only in pieces (‘ewwwww!’).

To me, writing encompasses any form of written expression. My own writing encompasses short and long fiction (in which I was originally trained), non-fiction – academic papers, books, reviews – plus blogging. I can write other stuff as needed. All of it springs from a central core of ‘writing skill’ that I built up over many years, including through formal training.

And that’s the point. Once ‘writing’ as a skill of itself is mastered, the technique can be applied to any aspect of it. Sure, specialist knowledge is needed to create good content; and some specialist writing – such as advertising jingles – demands certain specialist knowledge. But that’s normal for any activity. But the basic ‘writing skill’ itself – meaning, the ability to assemble ideas into coherent and linear sentences, and to structure and style it according to purpose – applies anywhere.

I think it’s something that needs more emphasis. Get the fundamentals right, and a writer will definitely be on their way. That’s also something, I think, that isn’t given enough emphasis. Writing is often an assumed skill – something that arts students, or employees, or whatever, simply ‘have’. It’s from this supposition that those hoping to ‘become writers’ often launch – and promptly fall flat on their faces.

I look at it this way. A concert pianist doesn’t spring out of nowhere. Behind the scenes there are thousands of hours of structured learning, structured practise, and more structured practise. What’s more, the whole lot is built on a basic skill-set that (if it’s done right) applies to virtually any musical form and genre. The same’s true of writing.

Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

The secret to writing quickly and well

I discovered the other day that Isaac Asimov – one of the most prolific writers of his day in America – published 21 books in 1981 alone. Even he lost count of the number in the end: his net total was somewhere over 500, not including 117 to which he contributed, along with innumerable short stories, articles and so forth.

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What's it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er - introductions...

Yes, this IS my typewriter. What’s it doing on the Wellington Writers Walk? Er – introductions…

That puts him up there with Barbara Cartland (722 books) and Enid Blyton (600+ books) though I’d class Asimov as a far better writer than either – and certainly more versatile (his books are listed in 9 of the 10 major Dewey classification categories).

On my own experience, being seen as ‘prolific’ makes authors a target for cheap shots  – to this day I recall the time the Professor of Military Studies at Massey University tried that one on me, alas without first contacting me for the facts.

That still begs the question – how DO people write quickly and well? It’s a well known phenomenon. Take Asimov, for instance. He usually only produced two versions – a rough draft, then a final. And it was all brilliant. On a bad day, he was still brilliant. Yet other great authors take forever to produce something, constantly tinkering – Tolkien springs to mind.

There can be no questioning the quality of Tolkien, either. That said, some authors write very quickly – and very badly. And others write very slowly – and very badly. There’s also the issue of authors writing a lot, but without too much content. I still recall chugging through Harry Turtledove’s ‘World War’ SF alternate history and thinking that it was well enough written – but could have been a tenth of the length.

So what’s happening? Writing is all about concepts: about initiating a concept, and then about the translation of that concept – of the simultaneity of idea, which is how we think, into a linear thread. You can see where I’m going – people who come up with good concepts and who can translate those quickly to written word are going to write quickly and well. Asimov, for instance. Those who come up with good concepts and can’t translate them so fast – such as Tolkien – come up with the good stuff in the end. And there’s also the writers who have a good concept, can translate that concept easily into a linear thread – but who then stretch it, thin. On my experience the hardest part of writing is that translation of concept to linear thread – most people struggle with it, and it’s probably from this that the idea of ‘speed = shoddiness’ emerges. But it’s not true. More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015

How to know which grammar rules to break

The idea that grammar rules are made to be broken is one of the deeper tropes of writing. And it’s a death trap for the unwary. It’s easy to say ‘well, I don’t need to know the rules’. Actually, you do, because breaking them is an art. Do it right, and you’ll give your writing an edge – ‘eyebrows’. Do it wrong and you’ll end up with a mess.

Aha - now I can stop the Plorg Monsters from taking Earth's water!

Grammar – as technically demanding as my slide-rule (and way less than my Surface Pro…)

There’s a balance between rule-breaking and rule-following. For instance, take the habit that’s leaked out from advertising of starting sentences with conjunctions. That’s OK, but only occasionally. Or the run-on sentence – the very long, very extended sentence that’s technically ‘wrong’ but can have great effect when used right. Despite a repute for writing only short sentences, Ernest Hemingway was a master of that one, using it as a device to convey a long train of thought. It worked because he used it only every so often. I like both techniques. Other writers may not.

The biggest issue is getting innovation past editors, for whom anything other than grammatically correct plod isn’t ‘innovative’ but ‘wrong’. I’ve had arguments like that with editors. One time, I wanted to end a chapter with an incomplete sentence, a sudden dash, for particular effect. It kept getting ‘corrected’ by the publisher. I’d put it back, and the next proof would arrive with it ‘corrected’ again. (A lot of this had to do with bloody-mindedness on the part of the production editor, who I refused to work with ever again…) I’m not alone in that. To this day I don’t know quite how Franz Kafka managed to omit commas without his editor putting them back in.

Part of the issue is that a surprising number of authors don’t have full control of the written word – stuff comes out in ways they didn’t intend and don’t know how to fix. That issue goes away with experience, but editors inevitably feel obliged to ‘fix’ everything they see on the back of it. This means that authors who DO have full conscious control of what they are writing, and are able to play with the medium, often end up having their innovations ‘corrected’ by editors. Sometimes, though, that’s necessary – because the author’s innovation is too weird to sell. Jack Kerouac discovered that when he submitted On The Road as a single giant paragraph – no breaks. None. Nada. Zip.

His publishers thought that would make the book too dense and daunting to sell. He lost the editorial fracas that followed, with the result that the edition I’ve got has the paragraph and chapter breaks the editor inserted. More recently it’s been published in original ‘scroll’ form; but that, I think, is because the book is so well known that it’s become possible to leverage the established appeal. As it stood, the original editor was quite right; the market wouldn’t have accepted it.

So – break grammar rules, by all means, but make sure that the reasons why you’ve broken them are clear. And that means following one rule, without fail: will the reader clearly get the meaning? That’s a very hard rule to implement – for the simple reason that you, as writer, know what you mean.

But it’s difficult to separate yourself from the expression of those thoughts and imagine how they’ll be received by a reader. I often find stuff I write is received very differently from what I intend, irrespective of the care I take over clarity.

More soon.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015