Table of Contents
- In Praise of the @GreatDismal
- Contradicting Our Contradictions
- “You haven’t done this?”
- Two Ethers Ago: Amazon’s Goodreads
So taken was I with William Gibson’s 2003 Pattern Recognition that I bought the jacket. I still have and wear my Buzz Rickson William Gibson Collection MA-1 Intermediate Flying Jacket. It got me through a Danish winter. Say no more.
Gibson’s book, which I recommend if it’s new to you, is focused on a branding specialist with an uncanny knack for recognizing patterns.
She’s a fascinating, strong lead, Gibson’s Cayce Pollard—not least because she’s effectively allergic to the very logos and other trappings that corporate clients might spin from her genius.
I’d like to have seen what the late director Anthony Minghella could have done with Gibson’s book; it lives in the sorts of personality-loaded textures Minghella loved. (He wrote and directed the screenplay of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and won the Academy for his direction of The English Patient.)
Now, this is a somewhat sauntering entry into today’s column, isn’t it?
That might give you a clue a to the sort of pattern recognition I tend to find myself doing—or flattering myself that I’m doing—as I ply my journo-ferret act through the Ether’s sister gases of the industry! the industry!…blog posts, news articles, survey results, book-release details.
Autocorrect. My pal Loren Ipsum, yeah.
— William Gibson (@GreatDismal) September 1, 2013
I’m no Cayce Pollard, not even in my Buzz Rickson. But I see small consistencies running alongside me from time to time, clever spacings between them, the same slant of light flashing around them. Sometimes you’ll see me tweeting something as your “Blog Sommelier,” suggesting you pair one writing with another.
3 Rights of a Novelist: 1) To have a cover that reflects the book’s content 2) To promote the book, not the author 3) To break a deadline — Jonny Geller (@JonnyGeller) September 3, 2013
In that vein, I want to show you a small collection of pieces that I think—and maybe I hope—are indicative of a positive drift in the digital disruption for authors. Being blissfully (or shamefully) science-free, I’m not concerned here about whether three moves make a mamba or four comments constitute a conga line.
I’m not saying “trend” or “meme” or “tide” or “surge” or “migration” or “my gracious,” either. I’m simply saying, hey look at this:
This will seem like an odd question from someone who expends a lot of energy giving writing and publishing advice in a half-dozen arenas: attending a weekly critique group, writing a monthly post here at WU, participating on online writing forums and Facebook groups, fielding e-mails from aspiring writers, retweeting links to smart writerly advice through Twitter, and on and on: What’s the point?
That’s where I met her in person, in fact. Jael McHenry is a fellow Writer Unboxed contributor, and we met in the gorgeous home of Jay and Christy Cashman in Boston during Grub Street’s The Muse and the Marketplace conference—which featured about 800 people doing their best to make the most of a lot of “smart writerly advice.”
Do you really need writing advice? Following advice perfectly doesn’t make anyone into a great writer. You can follow every rule and still write clunky sentences, unbelievable plots, and wooden characters.
Her piece is Is Advice a Vice? And you can recognize a pattern of just such questions right now.
I’ve found that one of the most difficult parts of teaching for me is that the students never learn, if you will: the class just keeps coming in new, term after term, fresh and needing the same material the last one did. To a teacher, the world can appear perpetually in need of instruction.
— Peter Ginna (@DocSyntax) September 4, 2013
And with so many people newly heading to that International Kitchen Table to write—internet-inspired aspirationals—the advice mill, the training hubs of our big conferences, the special exchanges of “tips ‘n’ tricks,” sure, all certainly have a place. But how well do we handle all this?
Soon you’ll crack open a fortune cookie to read: The wisest writer puts his or her manuscript in a drawer for a month, and then looks back at it with fresh and rested eyes. Lottery: 06-18-07-04-25-11
(OK, whichever of you creates A Writer’s Fortune cookies, I get a cut of that action, call for instructions on where to deposit those checks to me.)
There is a lot of advice out there. Some of it is superb, truly helpful, first rate mind-opening guidance. One of the best examples of this I’ve run into lately was Chuck Palahniuk’s piece on thought verbs. I wrote it up in Ether for Authors at Publishing Perspectives, in Craft: Maybe It’s Not the Thought That Counts.
But how many of us really know how to use all this advice? Particularly when much of it is written by writers for other writers, how much of it is a case of the sight-impaired leading the hard-of-hearing?
Does anyone ever worry (you may remember that I like this analogy) that all these how-to books for writers by other writers start to come across like John Updike’s ladies of the church who fund-raise by selling cupcakes to each other?
Before we get back to McHenry, let’s look at another take on how so much of this advice lands on us.
I’m sure you’ve read countless books and blog posts on methods of writing your book. Perhaps you’ve been advised to write a sh***y first draft, a la the incomparable Anne Lamott. Alternatively, you may have heard the advice, edit as you go, so that your revisions are not so overwhelming. Hmm. Which method to choose?
And what about the “plotters vs. pantsers” debate? Some writers prefer to plot out their whole novel and work from an outline. Others call themselves “seat of the pants” writers — they have a rough idea of where the story is going but they don’t really know until it unfolds itself as they write it. (Sounds scary to me, but whatever.)
Gardner’s piece goes for the creativity cycle crowd:
There’s the whole “time of day” issue. Some folks swear you’re at your most creative in the early hours, and insist that you should get up before dawn and hit the computer. But others are aware that they’re most creative late at night.
And critique groups:
Many people swear by them. I recommend them all the time. But… critique groups don’t actually work for everyone.
Her piece appears within three days of McHenry’s.
If you send a rough draft to an agent, it’s going to get rejected. That thing better be polished almost to the point of self-publication. That means you workshopped it, had it critiqued, had some beta reads, have done seven, eight, nine full passes through the work on your own. You’ve read it aloud, looking for typos. You’ve had a text-to-speech program read it aloud, listening for typos. You haven’t done this? Neither path will lead where you hope.
“Neither path,” in Hugh Howey’s The Work is the Work. The Path is the Path. refers to self-publishing vs. traditionally publishing. Writing from the 71st annual WorldCon in San Antonio—between McHenry’s posting and Gardner’s—Howey is struck by what sounds almost like a paralyzing quandary for some:
I’m seeing this conundrum a lot at WorldCon. I’ve met a lot of authors weighing their options, seen a ton of hands shoot up in panels hoping for that one last piece of advice to push them off the fence one way or the other. There’s a path on both sides of that fence, and writers can see crowds beating the grass flat. They can see the books that lie along either way.
In the past, some lone pioneers tried to forge their own self-sufficient trails and others paid through the nose for the vanity-publishing route. But a movement toward self-publishing on the scale we’re seeing now is unprecedented. Much advice about it is, by definition new. Some of it, surely, is untested.
We fear self-publishing because of the stigma, but it is rapidly fading. We fear it because there are so many bad books out there, but those aren’t your books. We gaze longingly at the beautiful hardbacks lined up in the store windows, but those aren’t yours either. And the path didn’t make them that way. Not all that way.
And, like McHenry and Gardner, what Howey is here to tell you is that you know what you need. You know, or you’ll find out.
The secret…is this: It’s just advice. Anything that anyone says about writing or publishing, on the internet or elsewhere, is just advice. It’s not a secret or a rule or a magic bean. It might help you out or it might not. It might save one book and wreck another. But the right advice at the right time can save you a lot of heartache and frustration.
Here’s my point: Don’t let anyone talk you into “one right way” of writing your books. Ask people for their input and recommendations, try different things, and make up your own mind. Don’t be afraid to experiment. If something’s not working, try something else. Do what works for you! Don’t apologize for it, don’t feel the need to justify yourself, and don’t feel like you have to try and fit in. Just like at Burger King… have it your way.
The work is the work. Whichever path you choose, it won’t become drek just because you self-published. Books don’t rub off on each other like this. If anything, you will shine by comparison. And along that other path, where the books are all professional and polished, you can’t see the ones that didn’t make it. The slush pile is buried. It’s behind those bushes, out of sight. The work is the work.
The self-reliance required to delineate helpful advice from something else comes more easily to some than others. But it probably has never been more important for writers than it is today.
At no time in history have so many been able to say so much to you with such ease.
Both from within the industry and from outside it, their advice flies at you, continually. Just as you sit down to write, it slams it into your inbox each day. Every time you think you’ve worked out the big kink in that chapter, you’re pelted with new guidance by a rain of tweets. You’re afraid to live without it (what if you miss something really smart and good?) but you can barely think your way through it—it awaits you in terse comments and it slaps you silly in starred rankings.
We are an information economy. We’re an advice culture.
— Ginger Clark (@Ginger_Clark) September 4, 2013
So I like this little pattern I’ve spotted, questioning it all a bit, reminding ourselves that it’s just advice (not scripture), you can have it your way (not theirs), and, as Howey says, “How far you get is up to you and the work you put in, either way you go.”
Enough advice from this column for today, too.
Our friend Howey, a man of so much heart, suggests you get past the recognizable patterns of “do it this way” and “no, do it that way”:
Stop looking at those crowds and those books. Look at the work in your hand.
What’s your experience? Do you find sometimes that the pressure to take in all the advice becomes a hindrance, in itself? Or are you handling it comfortably and moving ahead on-pace?
A footnote here. Having mentioned above the “Blog Sommelier,” one of the pairings I’ve suggested this week involves the Ether of August 22, WRITING ON THE ETHER: When Bad Things (Seem To) Happen on Good Sites. Our good colleague Nathan Bransford has posted his own thoughtful piece on what his headline terms The Bullies of Goodreads.
What’s very helpful here, in addition to his careful assessment, is the appeal he makes:
The truth is that it’s hard enough to write and publish a novel without having to worry that…that immense effort will result in getting unfairly slimed and harassed by a pack of online bullies. It’s not hyperbole to say that there are talented authors out there looking at this landscape who will conclude it’s not worth it, and great books that won’t be published as a result of this culture if it continues. This really has gone too far, and the tide needs to turn back. People writing these reviews need to wake up and recognize the humanity of the authors they’re trashing and think of the people they’re hurting. It’s eminently possible to write a negative review without abusing the person who wrote the book.
We’ve learned this week that the new Paperwhite Kindles coming from Amazon have a Goodreads integration feature in them. Here is Laura Hazard Owen at GigaOm on it in A new, faster Kindle Paperwhite will start shipping September 30:
Book-based social network Goodreads, which Amazon acquired this spring, will be integrated into the device in a post-launch software update, with access to Goodreads from the top navigation bar on the new Paperwhite. The company notes that “We’ve made it easy to take every Amazon purchase you’ve made — print or digital — and add it to Goodreads.” VP of Kindle Content Russ Grandinetti told me the Goodreads integration will arrive sometime this holiday season.
This kind of integration is something I’ve hoped we’d see develop as one result of Seattle’s smart acquisition of the reader-recommendation site. And as such a functionality approaches, the question of a culture of hostility, even in a relatively small part of Goodreads’ huge operation is a serious one.
I have a lot of faith in the best intentions of Goodreads’ and Amazon’s administrations. And I like to remind people that the Goodreads community has 20 million members: we’re talking about moderating something the size of the Australian or Sri Lankan population. Almost two-thirds as many people as live in Canada. Would you like to moderate that?
Bransford’s commentary is, as is usual in his writings, the kind of level-headed, intelligently concerned look we need at this odd development. I commend the piece to you.
Many of us want to see Goodreads succeed and we applaud Amazon’s association with it.
And its only success can be as a welcoming, supportively honest environment of respectful recommendation and discovery.
Still waiting for page turn buttons to make a comeback 🙂 http://t.co/2N6kjr5vbt
— Craig Mod (@craigmod) September 3, 2013
Main image: iStockphoto – Oberbaum Bridge, Berlin, by AndreaRoad