Archive for June, 2011

Enter the Gatekeeper

I’m going to go out on a limb in this blog and propose something that everybody will almost certainly reject.  I think blogging and self-publishing need some sort of gatekeeper.

The explosion in self-publishing by electronic format is going to open the door to some of the most bilious writings you ever cast your bleary eyes on.  Self-publishing is fine, if you know what you’re doing, but it shouldn’t be a catchall to allow writers with little or no training in writing to flood the market.  Traditional publishing has always had a gatekeeper of one sort or another such as an agent or editor or other individual whose job was (and still is) to pass judgement on a new manuscript and make a decision about whether it meets minimal standards for legitimate publication.  With e-publishing we’ve opened the gates to everyone, and I’m sure the number of books that normally wouldn’t pass muster as a manuscript in a traditional venue will proliferate exponentially as everyone and his grandmother decides, “Hell, I can write a book that’ll be a lot better than that last f***ing Pulitzer prizewinner!”

There are editors at publishing houses, there are editors at newspapers and magazines, people who make the hard decisions about what gets out and what doesn’t.  That’s the way it’s been for centuries, ever since the printing press was invented, probably even before.  Someone had to decide what got printed and what didn’t.  Even in today’s world, printing a book takes time and money, paper and ink, and a willingness to take a risk that the book will sell.  Electronic publishing has eliminated paper and ink, but the risk still remains.  Just because a book is published doesn’t mean it will be any good, or that it will sell.  At the very least, the presence of an editor or publisher has cut out the really crappy stuff.

The real problem is, of course, the internet.  Anyone can now express his/her opinion, regardless of violence, depravity, mental illness, you name it.  Opinions that wouldn’t see the light of day in a legitimate print magazine now come blaring at us in full color and CinemaScope, even surround sound.  In some respects that’s good, of course.  It gives everyone an equal platform from which to bellow his views.  But we also have to waste our time wading through tons of mindless crap just to get to the important and reasonable.  Just look at the comments on news stories on electronic news sites.

Someone needs to decide which manuscripts at the electronic publishing “houses” get published and which do not.  With the ease of availability and use that electronic publishing gives us, it’s to our advantage to insist that anything that gets out is of the same quality that we have insisted on all along.


Regular or Self?

As the time approaches for the editor who’s taking a look at my first novel to make his report (I hope it’s either good or bad, not indifferent) I find myself wondering about which form of publishing I should use for the final product.  Should I try the old standard method and find an agent and let him/her send it around to publishers?  Or should I try the “new” way and self-publish with an electronic book publishing group like, for example, Smashwords?  To be or not to be…

Lots of reasons and advantages of both.  Going with a traditional publisher gives me, a first-time novelist, access to the ideas, opinions, and expertise of professionals who have been down this road before.  An agent with experience in what makes a novel work; a publisher with background in all the little details that bring a book into being.  The editor, the proofreader, the cover artist–these are all part of the process of publishing a book, and usually taken care of by the publisher.  (At least that’s my understanding.)  I certainly don’t have that kind of experience and I might be foolish not to take advantage of it.  Wouldn’t cost me anything, either.

On the other hand, self-publishing means I don’t have to go through the time-consuming process of finding an agent.  That can take time, especially for a first-time author.  I would have to persuade him/her, without a good history in publishing, that I’m someone it would be to their advantage on which to take a risk.  That could take years.  Also, I’d have to wait for the agent to find a publisher.  Self-publishing, on the other hand, is exactly what it says it is: published by myself.  There’s a heady elegance in that concept.

They say that self-published authors get a higher percentage of the purchase price of the book as royalties.  The number I’ve heard most often is 70%, as opposed to 10 to 20% for traditionally published books.  But there’s a catch to that argument.  If a book is e-published and available on Nook, Kindle, and so on, the cost is usually in the $1 to $4 range.  A traditional book can be $15 for hard cover, $6 to $10 for paperback.  Seventy percent of a $3 book is $2.10, but 20% of a $10 hardback is $2.00.  Not much difference.

I like the aspect of publishing that puts the hard copy on the shelf where the customer can see it in all its glory, especially with a bright, colorful cover.  An e-book is a line on Amazon, perhaps with a small picture of the cover.  You can’t hold and caress an e-book.  You can’t get the author to sign your e-copy, unless you want him to scribble all over the back of your Kindle.

Self-publishing, if done properly, requires that the manuscript be edited to perfection.  Developmental editing, copy editing, etc., all contribute to the success of a book, regardless of how published.  For the self-published author, these cost money, and have to be paid for up front.  The cover artist has to be paid–more expense.  I’m not rich (far from it!) so I might have to pay for the editing of the second novel with the proceeds from the first, the third from the second, and so on.  Could get tricky and time-consuming.  Having the publisher take care of that helps.

Yet, if I self-publish, I get control of the process.  I pick the cover, not the publisher.  I make the decisions on marketing–well, publishers don’t do that anymore anyway.  I’m already on Facebook, and I blog regularly (What!  You’ve never read my blog?), a good start on making my brand known to the world at large.  You gotta have a brand, they say.

So, what will it be?  Self-publish and make my own decisions though I take my chances, or the traditional way and let others do some of the work for me?  Too bad there isn’t a hybrid method that combines the best of both methods.  In any event, I’ll let you know.

PS.  How do you like the new font?

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Violate the Rules

You’ve probably heard the old maxim, “Rules are made to be violated.”  Sadly, many of us take this to an extreme sometimes: don’t run red lights, don’t turn left from the right-hand lane, don’t follow too closely, signal before changing lanes, obey the speed limit, etc., etc.  You get the idea.  In traffic, rules guide the flow of cars along the road; in writing, rules guide the production of written material.  The rules have been put down to give us a guide to better writing, specifically, to allow us to present our ideas to others with a good chance that those ideas and concepts will be absorbed with the understanding we intended.  The rules have survived for hundreds if years, dating back even to some of the Greek philosophers.

Yet, rules are made to be broken.  (Not in traffic, hopefully.)

Nick Mamatas, in the July, 2011, issue of The Writer magazine, wrote an article about not starting your story with a hook.  This has been a rule for a long time, at least as long as I’ve been writing, over ten years, certainly very much longer.  You gotta grab the reader right away, the rule says–hook him with an attention-getting concept right up front.  Mamatas doesn’t like it.  The hook, he says, is “the motor of the story–it can be the twist at the end, the broad concept, the compelling change a character undergoes…whatever makes the story worth reading.”  He wants the author to tantalize the reader, not hook him.  That’s the way to keep the reader reading; let him know there’s something worthwhile in this novel or short story.

I like that idea.  Writing should be good enough to keep the reader interested, not bore him into putting the book (or whatever type of e-reader he has) down.  If you can do that by breaking the rules, more power to you.  What other rules can we break?  Lots.

But there’s a problem.  Just breaking the rules for the sake of breaking them isn’t likely to lead to good writing.  A writer has to know what the rules are before he can break them.  An that’s why we follow the rules to begin with.  That’s why the rules were established in the first place, to give beginning writers a guide to go by to produce viable works.  As with any vocation, you gotta know the rules–the basics–first, before you can break them.  Just breaking the rules willy-nilly would lead to gobbledygook, unintelligible crap and unconvincing drivel.  Your message wouldn’t get across, and that’s what you’re trying to do.  You can’t play baseball without knowing the rules, you dare not become a physician without knowing the basics of medicine, you wouldn’t become a plumber without knowing the basics of plumbing.  But once established in your profession, breaking the rules becomes possible because you know what will happen if you do, and are sophisticated enough to work around it.

Violate the rules, sure.  But be careful and realize what you’re doing.

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Here’s a few things I’ve been thinking about for the past week or so.

This past Friday I went to the bookstore to get another book to read.  I bought another science fiction book and a magazine.  When I got home I wondered how many books I had bought since moving to Albuquerque about seven months ago.  I figured five or six.  I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the book I just bought was the 11th book purchased here in ABQ.  I didn’t realize I had gotten so many, but, it’s true.  Reading is an important part of my life.  I read largely science books and science fiction novels, though I’ll crossover into other areas, too, for example, Blood and Thunder, The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West, by Hampton Sides, and A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold.  Whether the book I read is related to my attempts at becoming a sci-fi novelist or not, I feel it’s always good to keep one’s mind in the pages.  I read not only for the information in the book, but to see how the book is put together and how the author lays out the narrative.  I like to compare his/her style of writing with mine, and so often I’ll read a passage that may not come across as well as it should have and say to myself, “I would have written that in this way….”  I look at chapter headings and at characterization, and mentally compare the work I’m reading with the novels I’ve written and am in the process of writing.  Frequently, I’ll get good ideas about some obtuse aspect of the novel, ideas that I can put into use.  In short, reading is good for a writer.  It keeps your hand and head in the business of writing.

We, as a country and as a people are constantly bombarded by pundits who disparagingly comment on the state of US science.  It’s not what it used to be, they say and it’s going downhill, and we’re being overtaken by science performed in foreign countries.  And so on and so forth.  Blah, blah, blah.  Perhaps some of that is true, but have you noticed that the largest number of Nobel prizes given out still goes to US scientists?  That’s a good reflection of the state of US science, but from my point of view, there’s two other factors that support the fact that US science is still strong.  I used to work in medical schools and hospitals in the US, and so many of the students, post-doctoral fellows and residents in those schools are foreign nationals.  More in the US than probably anywhere else.  Many of these people go back to their home country to practice science or medicine, but many stay here.  With so many people coming into the US to train, doesn’t that suggest that they’re coming because this is where the cutting edge is?  Where else is the cutting edge?  Russia?  Getting away from biology and medicine, the US is where the internet was developed, where large facets of the software that run today’s computers were written, where the hardware was developed, even though it’s used all over the world now.  Doesn’t that suggest something?

Getting back to writing, I’ve started using word counts now.  I am currently working on the third in my sci-fi novel series (I sometimes use the word trilogy, but that’s such an overworked word).  I’m in the primary stage of the novel where I’m just putting down the rough draft of the novel.  Just put it down and keep going.  To do so, I’ve started keeping track of the word count, to see how many words I write each day.  I try for 1000.  But I’m not sure this word count thing is the way to go.  I’ve heard of lots of people who use word counts and swear by them–1000, 15000, 2000, I’ve seen them all.  Many prominent writers use them.  But I find myself sometimes putting down things I know I won’t keep in the final draft just to meet that word count goal.  Good idea?  I’m not sure.  Perhaps, perhaps not.  The jury is still out.  I may have more to say on this later.

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