Writing on the Ether: Inspiration Nation


Inspiration Nation

If they’d asked me, I’d have nixed both the spelling “Syfy” and 95 percent of that TV channel’s programming.

But all I need is their slogan for a few minutes.

“Imagine greater.”

I’m over this inspiration jag in the writing community. Inspiration, or the pursuit of it, becomes our little drug so easily. Our Google Readers are RSSonant with the sound of Lena Horne: You have to belieeeeeeve in yourself. You know the posts. “Six Ways to Drag Yourself Across the Carpet to Your Computer One More Time.” And “Don’t Let Fear Keep You From Writing that Book Nobody Wants To Read.”

Motivational specialists want you in a fellowship circle to stare down self-doubt and weak will together. In Protestant church groups, you cross your arms and link hands with your colleagues to pray. But the thing about a fellowship circle is that you can’t write in that position. And the thing about inspiration is that if you have to look for it, then you’re not the writer you want to belieeeeeeve you are, Lena.

If you’re right for writing, you’ll know without bloggers. You’ll simply get busy.

So put me down as expirational on these aspirational inspirationals. Good work is its own inspiration. Imagine greater, all by yourself.


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In the eye of the book-holder

Our quest to extract meaning from information has taken us more and more towards the realm of visual storytelling—we’ve used data visualization to reveal hidden patterns about the world, employed animation in engaging kids with important issues, and let infographics distill human emotion.

Maria Popova gets at Visual Storytelling: New Language for the Information Age just as we rev up toward the inaugural StoryWorld Conference + Expo with some smart ruminations nearby:

A printed page is a 2D rectangle of fixed dimensions. On the infinite canvas the possibilities vary widely, deeply, and as Will Ferrell’s character in Old School might say: in ways we’ve never even heard of. Some possible shapes here: a 3D twhirlable cube with content on each side, or pyramid-shaped ebooks.

That’s Peter Meyers musing on the theoretical meanings of The Infinite Canvas: Really Big eBooks & What We Might Put in ’Em –”an elastic space that does things no print surface could do, no matter how big it is.” He’s speaking today on this at the Books in Browsers confab.

And as for that thing formerly known as journalism–Pew Research Center’ has put some together survey results on The Tablet Revolution and What it Means for the Future of News – complete, of course, with infographic so Ms. Popova doesn’t come beat them up about not being visual enough.

Eleven percent of adults now own a tablet computer. About half get news on it every day, and three in ten spend more time consuming news than they did before. But contrary to what some in the news industry hoped, a majority say they are not willing to pay for news content on the devices.


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Everybody really is a critic

The interests of books-as-artifacts and books-as-arguments are, in general, misaligned. Books are great, definitely, at capturing ideas. Books are great at claiming cultural ownership of ideas. Books are great at generating speaking gigs based on ideas. Books are great at getting authors paid for ideas. But books are much, much less great at actually propagating ideas.

Megan Garber sees the “ridiculous and refreshing” in the clash between Evgeny Morozov and Jeff Jarvis over Jarvis’ book Public Parts and Morozov’s New Republic critique of it. She writes In a networked world, can a book go viral?, “Here is a work of book-bound nonfiction—chock full of claims to be assessed and arguments to be discussed—that is actually being assessed and discussed. In a public forum! Discourse, and everything!”

Garber does such a good job that Jarvis (whom Morozov calls “the Internet’s loudest guru”)  becomes almost contrite:

As Garber notes, I say in Public Parts that I should try to make my next project — if I choose to undertake one — different…Start with Kevin Kelly’s 2006 essay in The New York Times Magazine arguing that authors would come to support themselves with performance — and John Updike’s appalled reaction to this “pretty grisly scenario.” I’m not suggesting that authors become merely actors after their books are done. I’m suggesting, as Garber does, that talks, events, symposia, blogs, hangouts…should come before the book.


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Speaking of Kevin Kelly (and nine of his friends at a time)

Last year to promote the launch of my book What Technology Wants, I offered to appear at your place of work in the month of January and give a one hour talk if your group would purchase 25 copies of the book…Now, to promote and discuss the new paperback publication..I will be hosting a series of small, 1.5-hour Google+ Hangouts with any group that purchases 9 paperback copies of my book.

Gang up with eight other people and author Kevin Kelly will have you in a Hangout With the Technium. Details are here. Not that Kelly has anything to worry about. I like the limb he puts himself on when he offers something like this. May all writers find such confidence in their (shh) platforms.


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Reverse ferret! Our Amazon-whipped publishers need help

Three major publishers have announced in the US that they would allow their authors to access book sales data directly online…Some have suggested that the motive behind the initiative is to combat Amazon, which gives authors access to data on their titles from Nielsen BookScan and also allows them to check their sales ranking compared to other books on Amazon…The big question is whether this new wave of Author Care is to be consistently applied across all publishers.

Martyn Daniels nails the latest head-hanger for major publishers in A New Era of Author Care? Coming to it all as a journo, I’m baffled to confirm with industry people that one  reason media appear to embarrass publishers so easily is that the publishers have no press-agent presence to speak of. No creative forces of their own generating The Book-Mongers’ View. All that dignified silence. Was it simply indefensible to withhold sales data from authors in the past? Or is there a role here for some good flacks to explain why the suits are doing so much blinking in the blazing sunlight of Amazon?

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But then, there’s the $AMZN earnings report

Though representing only a small percentage of Amazon revenue, much of the hoopla surrounding the report centered on the Fire, which ships to consumers on November 15th and retails at $199. The new touch-screen, color tablet may generate little-to-no operating income for Amazon, but is likely to help it reinforce its stranglehold on the company’s e-book sales market share, according to analysts and industry observers.

Jeremy Greenfield, newly arrived editorial director at Digital Book World, looks at Amazon’s 3Q report of  “a net income of $63 million on revenues of $10.88 billion.” In Kindle Fire Burns Amazon Earnings, to Fuel E-Book Sales, he gets it into context for bookly folks who view Amazonia primarily as a disruptor of publishing. A comment on this post is worth noting, too. Thad McIlroy has done a lot of thinking about how much Amazon may lose initially on each Kindle Fire. In his comment on the Greenfield piece, McIlroy neatly posits:

Amazon is a content company that sells hardware and Apple is a hardware company that sells content.

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What we don’t see

Agency model ebooks are masking even greater declines in Amazon’s profitability than are readily apparent. Agency ebook commissions go straight to the company’s gross margin; they are recorded as all income.

Michael Cader at Publishers Marketplace (you need a subscription for this one) has a canny bit of analysis, Accounting House of Horrors? What Agency Does to Amazon’s Reports. If you’re willing to dally for a few minutes in the details, you’ll get a look at how Cader figures that “agency pricing” of ebooks—prices set by publishers, not by Amazon—”suppresses the reportable growth in Amazon’s ebook sales, though the company is valued by investors as a growth engine.”

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Guy comes by with the truth

The dust of disruption continues to choke us, of course. You might look in on The Times’ Room for Debate commentary on the topic Will Amazon Kill Off Publishers? to find Michael Wolf cinching it:

What Amazon is doing is applying a technology industry mind-set to a very old business with lots of legacy infrastructure. Given how slowly publishers are changing their economic arrangements with writers, it is quite frankly like watching a hot knife cut through butter.

And how well Wolf sets up our Loudpoet, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez–whose interview with my host here, Jane Friedman, is just ahead, watch for it. “What matters,” writes Wolf, “is who owns the relationship with the reader.” And in The Truth About Disruption in Publishing, Gonzalez is all over it like a suit from Barney’s:

Truth: Consumers control the future of media, and right now, Amazon, Google and Apple have their fingers on our collective pulse…But they are neither infallible, nor immune to being “disrupted,” themselves…there’s arguably a lot more opportunity than DOOM! on the horizon for most publishers, whether they be fledgling upstarts or savvy established players…My optimistic hope is that, unlike the music industry, we’re going to see the publishing industry actually grow…If you work in the publishing industry and are expecting any less, it begs the question: Why not go work somewhere else?

Did I mention imagining greater?

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How we talk to each other. And how we listen.

I tweet a lot of Rachelle Gardner‘s advice for writers because she’s an agent who works hard to straighten out misconceptions. And she’s just highlighted a point on which our Givers of Guidance may want to take some care.

Here’s she is on the 18th of this month in a post called Author Marketing and Platform: It’s All About the Numbers. Then here she is on the 25th  in Novelists: Stop Trying to Brand Yourself. On the 18th, neither “fiction” nor “nonfiction” is invoked. “What publishers want to see is your platform expressed in numbers.” By the 25th,  comments apparently have made Gardner realize that the National Kitchen Table of authors-in-waiting needs a bright line.

Carol (a commenter) and other novelists: I advise you to STOP thinking about branding. If you’re blogging and using social networking to try and build a platform — no matter where you are in your writing career, you should instead: Focus on identifying your target audience.

Here’s Chuck Sambuchino, getting into Writer Unboxed on The Difference Between Your “Current Platform” and “Future Platform” to say, “Let’s be clear.” So, twist my arm already:

Let’s be clear: If you’re a fiction writer, you want a platform. If you’re a nonfiction writer, you need a platform.

And independently, from the 23rd, here’s Christina Katz, author and platform-trainer to the entire population of Oregon, in Writing, Not Branding, Is a Platform Builder’s First Move.

Pressure to “create your brand” before you begin writing and publishing your work is going to get in the way. It’s going to make your writing self-conscious. It’s going to make you think that you are “somebody” when nobody has read any of your stuff…because as crazy as this may sound most “writers” get discovered via their writing.

I like Katz’s post. I’d like it even better if it had touched on how nonfiction and fiction people need to handle her good advice about craft. Obviously, everybody needs to write well, and getting that down is Job One, Mr. Perot. But there’s also a competing understanding out there that it takes years, not months, to raise a viable platform. And I suspect that more than one fiction writer has gotten into the carpentry class for nonfiction and reached for the hammer and nails prematurely.

Update: In response to this whiff of Ether, Katz has written a three-part series of posts, Can We Resolve The Platform Divide Between Nonfiction & Fiction? Here’s Part 1 and Part 2, with Part 3. Do check out these posts.

Kristen Lamb, meanwhile, in The Dark Side of Metrics, ties it all back to Gardner’s original lesson on numbers as an expression of platforming. She parses it for both sides of the Formica tabletop:

If you are a non-fiction author, work to get that number up there, but again, just check in periodically. You just need a ballpark range, and, if you want to publish NF and your Klout score is the same as your mother who can’t work the Internet…then get to work. Fiction authors? Just look to make sure you are engaging and influencing…If an agent expects you to have the same Klout as Justin Bieber, then maybe look for another agent.


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How many agents does it take to spell “light bulb?”

Agent Rachelle Gardner: How many agents does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Agent Steve Laube: Without a platform, you can’t reach the lightbulb.

Before you get all up in a snit, Merriam-Webster shows both “light bulb” and “lightbulb” as valid. And  here are more answers to Gardner’s question.


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Moving markets in mysterious ways 

The biggest thing all genre fiction has in common is its popular appeal. Genre writers know that when their book is published they will have a group of readers waiting for their release. It’s like having a built-in, established readership. Genre fiction writers bring books to the people—books that are usually accessible, interesting, and entertaining. Genre fiction’s goal is to pull readers into the world of the story instead of distracting them with the intrusion of heavy use of literary devices or the author’s opinions/viewpoints.

Elizabeth Spann Craig with her husband Mike Fleming runs the Writers Knowledge Base (and Mike is introducing his new Hiveword for writers, free trial available). In Dying of envy—the Elizabeth Craig mystery interview , with Victoria Mixon, she gets off a frank, journeyman’s explanation of genre fiction, how it works and where it stands. She neither disparages other forms, nor does she torch for genre. She just says it. Mysteriously refreshing.

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Mysterious marketing in nodal ways

Sales nodes are groupings of books that are likely to be purchased by the same reader, often similar in style and genre, sometimes even by the same author. Nodes of five or six books are most effective. Any more, and the marketing becomes unwieldy; any fewer, and promotion and sales opportunities could be lost.

Author Carolyn McCray gets down with vampires, werewolves, and romantically inclined demons at Digital Book World to redefine covens—”An author with only one book may partner with other authors or publishers and form a node with similar titles—in How to Boost Your Online Book Sales With “Sales Nodes”  While Matt Mullin, DBW’s community relations manager, has a worthwhile thinker at his own site, based on how McCray’s recent incantations “have me thinking about how far we have to go in optimizing our marketing efforts for new titles” in 3 Book Marketing Lessons That Surprised Me (or, Unknown Unknowns in Publishing) For example:

Carolyn found that she had a far better clicks-to-sales ratio in her SEM (mainly through Google AdWords) when she removed the About the Author section from her Amazon page. Her explanation is that an Amazon product page functions similarly to a glossy magazine ad – a product description should be enticing and light, not overburdened with copy.


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Epizeuxis, epizeuxis, epizeuxis

There are over sixty different rhetorical devices. Some you’ll be surprised to learn you already know (i.e. analogy). Here are eight, along with an example of each.  These (among others) are ideal for fiction, but can also be used in non-fiction.

That’s the ever-rhetorical Stina Lindenblatt in Spice It Up! with some terms that could get you arrested in Liechtenstein. Don’t touch that anadiplosis, you don’t know where it’s been.


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We’d barely started

If you are writing a story that aims to go deeper than the events, perhaps you don’t want to tie everything up or explain everything… Stories don’t always have to give us answers. Sometimes the questions they give us are as important.

Roz Morris probably hadn’t saved her file yet on Should you tie up all the ends when you type ‘The End’? when Katie Weiland put out her own guidance on the matter in 5 Elements of a Resonant Closing Line.

Finally—and a bit contradictorily—the closing line should indicate that the story isn’t over, that, in fact, the lives of the surviving main characters will continue long after the reader closes the back cover.


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“Fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day”

In Henry V, Shakespeare offers us an opportunity to see the horror that results from pursuing winning only for its own sake. This is why St. Crispin’s Day ought to belong to Shakespeare’s play, and not the historical Henry’s battle…In a sense, the best counterpoint to Henry is Shakespeare himself, who has managed to take a shallow, dishonest man and turn him into the subject of a profound, candid work of art. That’s the kind of accomplishment I want to celebrate.

As you may know, Edward de Vere is about to have his own day in Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous, opening Friday. Here’s Stephen Marche on it in the Times. And the Shakespeare Oxford Society pillories him mercilessly—apparently writing by committee, judging from the lack of a byline.

The advent of this new pass at the 17th Earl of Oxford makes me appreciate Guy Patrick Cunningham’s cunning observation, Celebrating St. Crispin’s Day, all the more. The honor, as he says, lands on the side of writerly power—even when “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers…” are just having a dramatist’s smoke blown up the asterisks in our history books.

Imagine greater.


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Porter Anderson

Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, and a senior producer and consultant formerly with the United Nations World Food Programme in Rome and INDEX: Design to Improve Life in Copenhagen. As a journalist, he has worked with media including CNN, the Village Voice, and the Dallas Times Herald. He’s based in Tampa.

Image: iStockphoto / urbancow


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