Archive for July, 2012

Copies All

I was watching an episode of Antiques Roadshow a few days ago and an interesting phenomenon occurred to me.  The things that people bring to the Roadshow to be appraised are always objects.  Objects of one sort or another.  The Roadshow doesn’t value ideas.  Other than the philosophical implications of this concept, it means that books and other–to use the term du jour–intellectual property rarely appear on the show.  Occasionally a first edition of a popular book will come up, as will old collectibles from long past movies or TV shows, and I even saw someone get an appraisal on the shooting script of “Gone With The Wind,” but the ideas and concepts behind the books and movies never make an appearance.

Many of the objects that appear on the Roadshow are mass-produced, or at least produced in some quantity, such as a Rookwood vase or Tiffany lamp.  What distinguishes a valuable object from a run-of-the-mill thing is the quality the artist put into making it, hallmarks of both Rookwood and Tiffany.  Some things, though, are one of a kind, such as paintings and sculpture.  A painting by a well-known artist might be appraised in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Do you have an unknown Frederick Remington or Van Gogh in your basement or attic?

All of these are one-of-a-kind.  Not copies, though copies may be made.  (The copies are never worth anywhere nearly as much as the original.)  Writers, however, are prolific producers of copies.  When a writer pens a story, the manuscript itself is basically worthless.  It’s just for the publisher to use to produce the book.  It’s the story that matters, the story within, the intelligence and mentality that produced the story.  A first-edition of Moby-Dick might be worth a lot of money, but over the 100+ years since it was first published, millions of readers (myself included) have enjoyed the book for its story, not the design on the cover.  Where is the original manuscript of Moby-Dick, anyway?  Anybody know?

Not that this is something to worry about.  We writers deal in ideas, in stories that require a human mind and brain to become fulfilled.  We are producers of copies, not single masterpieces, though I certainly wouldn’t mind owning a previously unknown Grandma Moses or Norman Rockwell.  And the more copies we sell, the better.  Writers don’t generally value their manuscripts.  Those are working objects, not the final product.  The final book is a collaboration of the author and the publisher, who in turn gets help from editors and artists and printers to put out the book.  That’s a far cry from a starving artist toiling alone in an unheated basement battling tuberculosis and rats and running out of titanium white.

The digital revolution has just made the manuscript even less important.  I don’t currently have a printed copy of either of my two finished science-fiction novels, they’re on flash drives, a concept that Charles Dickens likely wouldn’t understand.  I can email the novels around much more easily than I could hard copies (how did paper get to be considered “hard?”).  I could, if I so chose, even have them published in electronic form without a printed manuscript at all.

It’s not the manuscript, it’s the idea behind the book that matters.

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Here today, gone tomorrow…

I’ve heard over the past few weeks about a new wrinkle in publishing: books in which the ink disappears in a few weeks or months after you start reading.  That’s right, the ink changes to colorless from its usual (I assume) black so you can’t see it anymore.  After a while you can’t read the book; it’s just blank pages.   I can’t say I’m impressed.  It sounds like a gimmick that won’t stay around for long.  At least I hope not.

Apparently after the books are printed and bound, they’re wrapped in an air-tight package which keeps the ink from fading until the purchaser unwraps it and exposes it to air.  So, if you buy one of these ignominious books, you damn well better finish it within the time limit or you’ll never get to the end.  If it’s a mystery, you’ll never find out whodunnit.  You’ll have to wait for the movie.  Good luck.  I wonder if they’re going to make movies with images that turn colorless if you don’t watch them within a certain length of time.  That would be good for the Kardashians.  Or Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This brings up a tremendous number of possibilities: CD’s with data that fades within a certain time period; DVD’s that go blank after a few months;  politicians that disappear a few days after election (I might vote for him).  Bullets that turn to dust a few weeks after opening the package.  What happens if the book wins a prize?  Do they take back the prize after the ink fades?  The prospects, encouraging and disheartening, are endless.

All seriousness aside, I don’t think I want any of my books published this way.  Actually, it’s almost an insult to the author.  After working so hard on the book, when someone buys the book and begins to read it, the author’s hard work is gone.  Vanished like a politician’s scruples under a microscope.  How does that help a writer?  How does that help a library?  The purchaser can’t keep the book for reference anymore.  (I wonder if they’ll publish dictionaries with disappearing ink.)  He can’t loan the book to a friend.  He can’t go back and read it again if he really liked it.  These are all hallmarks of great books.  Does this mean that if an author autographs a disappearing-ink book he has to use a pen with disappearing ink so his signature will also fade away?  There’s just so much negative about this process, I’m against it.  This is just another right we as authors will have to retain in our contracts with publishers.  I wouldn’t want my publisher putting out books in disappearing ink without my permission.

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Hollywood and the Big Bang Redux

Back on September 27, 2011, I blogged about the TV sit-com, The Big Bang Theory.  I suggested I might continue to watch it in reruns, but left the promise open.  Well, I’ve tried to watch, wondering how Hollywood would handle science and scientists and their interaction with non-scientists.  I’ve come to the conclusion that looking to Hollywood for advice on social interactions is like looking to Bashir Assad for advice on peaceful co-existence.

My difficulty with the show was the way the character of Sheldon was written.  He’s such a caricature of himself that the characterization comes across as completely unrealistic.  I’ve found over the past several months of trying to watch the show that I just can’t work up any sympathy for the guy.  Though the show is successful precisely because Sheldon is such an ass, it brings up an important point about writing fictional characters.

Normally, a character in a novel or short story has to elicit some sort of emotion.  Either like him or hate him, something has to arise.  Usually, we like the protagonist, but dislike the antagonist.  Like the western where the good guy wears the white hat and the bad guy wears the black.  A character that just sits there and can’t arouse some sort of emotion in the reader isn’t going to make it off the page into the reader’s mind.  He isn’t going to care about him, one way or the other.  And this is what Sheldon is.  His character is so poorly written and so far out of touch with reality that I find it difficult to care–good or bad–about him.

Not only that, but some of the backstory events–which come out every now and then–are so unrealistic as to be ridiculous.  For example, the main characters all seem to pal around with Sheldon from episode to episode, yet he antagonizes them so much that in a real world, most people would have left him alone a long time ago.  This forced co-habitation is grossly unrealistic.  Sheldon lives in a two-bedroom apartment that, he says, he can’t afford alone and has to engage a roommate to share the expense.   Curious, because Sheldon, as a PhD physicist at a prestigious university in Southern California, should be making a salary in the high 5 figures, if not low 6, and yet he can’t afford an apartment?  Penny, the girl across the hall who works as a waitress at a local restaurant, can afford an apartment–in the same building, mind you–on her salary of minimum wage plus tips.  Also, the elevator has been out of order for several years, yet it’s the only elevator in the building, a situation which violates at least three codes: the local building code, the fire code, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.  Sheldon has two PhD degrees and an IQ that can’t be measured, yet he can’t learn to drive a car.  Come on, guys, who are you trying to kid?  Were I to write a novel with this kind of grossly inconsistent backstory, an agent or editor would insist on substantial revisions.

In short, The Big Bang Theory is so poorly written I have trouble getting into it.  As a beginning writer, perhaps I’m too conscious of the details of writing.  But even I know one thing about writing, that the reader (or audience) has to care about the characters, one way or another, for the writing to work.  The premise of the work has to be realistic, and the setting has to be consistent and reasonable.  This is especially true in science-fiction where an alternative universe has to be explained carefully and fully to the reader or audience for it to work.  The Big Bang Theory isn’t presented as science fiction, but it’s not the universe you and I live in either.  Oh, well, back to M*A*S*H.

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Writing for Young Adults

I heard a very interesting talk the other day at one of the regular meetings of SouthWest Writers.  The talk was given by Johnny D. Boggs, an accomplished western writer who talked on writing for young adults.  He made several important points about YA writing, some of which I figured out for myself, but some I didn’t know but which, on reflection, seem logical and reasonable now that they’ve been brought up.  A review here seems important to those of us who might want to write for YA in the future.

Young adults don’t read?  That was the conventional wisdom at the time, say in the early 1990’s, but Harry Potter proved that wrong.  And young adults (I’m talking about the age group approximately 6 to 16 years old) weren’t simply caught up in the Harry Potter craze, they latched onto the Harry Potter books as soon as they came out.  It was as though kids in that age group were ready to read–ready and willing–and Harry Potter was merely the flash point that got them going.   Later came The Twilight Series and Hunger Games books among others geared toward YA, and the chase was on.  Now YA books represent a significant part of book sales in the US (at least), a point you can see easily for yourself the next time you visit your local bookstore.  (You do visit bookstores, don’t you?)

One point Mr. Boggs made was that boys tend to like books where the main character and protagonist is a boy, but girls tend to read books almost equally divided between protagonists that are male and those that are female.  Witness Harry Potter.  Those books were read almost equally between girl readers and boy readers.  You could see that if you went to one of the “unveilings” of a new HP book.  The bookstore would be heavy with approximately equal numbers of boys and girls.

Books for YA nowadays aren’t as dumbed down as they used to be.  The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew were fine books in their time, but now they’re dated, reading like children’s books, not books made for the more sophisticated YA and teens of today.  Generally, the vocabulary for today’s YA books isn’t much different from that of “adult” books, though there may be some exceptions.  Kids today grow up faster than we, their parents and grandparents, did.  High-tech communications has made them more sophisticated and cosmopolitan, more experienced and streetwise.  For better or worse, that’s the way it is.  Sex, violence, foul language–the kids are familiar with it.  I understand some YA books have a glossary in the back, just to give the reader a short-cut to learning the new words he may run across in the book.

I’m not likely to write a YA novel, but I can’t say that for certain.  Perhaps I will in the future.  But whatever it is I write and read, the die is cast.  Young adults, coming off Harry Potter and all the rest, are going to be hungry for good “adult” books in the future, and it will be up to us to supply them.  Adult books that aren’t “dumbed down” to meet a perceived reduction in the mentality of the average adult reader aren’t going to sell to the sophisticated readers coming along in the near future.  A word to the wise is efficient.

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Breaking the Writing Rules

Well, they say that rules are made to be broken.  Actually, rules are made to be followed and broken only at your own (and possibly someone else’s) risk.  This is certainly true in writing, though the risks of breaking the writing rules are somewhat different from breaking the rules for, say, driving.  Break the driving rules and someone could be killed.  Break the writing rules and you may produce a masterpiece.  I’ve had a few run-ins with the rules lately–that is to say, breaking them lately–and I thought I’d pass on my thoughts.

Show, don’t tell.  I blogged on this topic a while ago, but it bears repeating.  You can’t write a whole novel without telling something.  A novel that showed everything going on would be so huge and turgid it would be impossible to read.  But, how do you know what to show and what to tell.  Generally, you show the important things and tell the less important.  Let’s take an example from recent pop culture.  If you’ve ever watched Seinfeld, you know that the character of George Costanza was written to be distinctly paranoid, in fact he shows signs of true paranoid schizophrenia.  But, were you to write a novel about the characters of Seinfeld, you couldn’t just state that George was paranoid, you’d have to show it.  It’s an important a part of his makeup.  Show him in a paranoid rant, write dialog that shows his distrust of others, of how he feels everyone (or at least certain people) are out to get him, show him in a way that takes us deep into his paranoia.  You wouldn’t even have to use the word “paranoid” at all.

On the other hand, suppose Jerry, Elaine and George met at the coffee shop.  That’s the type of thing you could tell in a novel.  It’s a small item, it sets the scene, and perhaps the mood of the characters.  Telling that they met there might be something you could get away with, you don’t have to go into detail about showing them entering, or sitting down, or ordering, or talking, or whatnot.  It speaks for itself in just a few words.

Other rules I’ve run up against are the rules that beginning writers are held to a different set of rules than experienced writers.  Why, I don’t know, yet, we beginners are encouraged to read the masters and learn from them.  But sometimes that isn’t well received.  I read a book by Tom Wolfe where he started the book with a rather lengthy description of the main character.  So, I figured this is at least an acceptable way, if not the best way to begin a book.  But when I did it, I got shot down with comments like, “no, you can’t begin with a description of the main character.  You’ve got to grab the reader right up front.  This is dull and boring.”  But I wanted a description of the main character up front, so I left it.  Break the rule.  Go for it.

Another rule I’ve broken has to do with the length of my novels.  I tend to be long-winded and my books have been coming out around 120,000 words.  Yes, I know what you’re thinking.  That’s way too long.  Yet I see books of that long and longer on the shelves at my bookstore all the time.  This is true in science fiction and fantasy, especially fantasy.  Yet us beginners are supposed to produce a book of 70,000 to 80,000 words as a first novel, God forbid anything larger.  Horse radish.  I produced a novel of 120,000 words, and unless I can pare it down more–which isn’t likely at this time–at that level it will stay.  Break the rules.  Throw them to the wayside.

Break the rules, yes, but be careful what rules you break.  You have to know the rules first in order to break them well.

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