Saturday, January 24, 2009

Barriers Fall

Over on her blog, thriller writer CS Harris quoted an article on the future of publishing.

I can, kind of, maybe, see where the writer's coming from. Just not sure if I agree. Or I do agree, but only kinda.

Seems like he's trying to extrapolate the changes in music onto book publishing... in the Dickensian era. Or maybe I'm getting it wrong.

Yeah, as the e-reader becomes ubiquitous and novels-on-paper attenuate, barriers to entry will lower. (Basically, a barrier to entry is something, land, equipment, information, a printing press, necessary to enter and compete in a certain business. Keeps the riffraff out. More here.)

And lowering barriers of entry always changes the game, any game.

One time this happened with books was the late 40's, early 50's, when some clever fellow noticed that GI's would tear the covers off their books to make them more portable and thought to market a book small enough to stick in a pocket, with a cheap paper cover.

The paperback made publishing cheaper and easier. This lower barrier of entry made it economical to publish 'trashy' stories to regular folks. There was a hue and cry then, too: death of quality, who will find the good stuff in a sea of lurid covers, etc.

And yeah, those pulpy paperbacks of the 50's-70's did give us a lot (A LOT) of best-forgotten trash, but they also gave us some fine authors who might not have found a voice without that cheap platform making the risk worthwhile.

On a side note, those trashy paperbacks are gone, but my understanding is that it was a problem with the distribution companies, NOT the publishing houses.

I believe the rise of the e-book will make for one big change, but it's a doozy: Publishing houses will cease to be Distribution Monopolists, no longer protected by the fact that they can afford a printing press and fleet of trucks. They will be Quality Portals, providing a certain amount of signal to rise above the noise of your Aunt Bee's Online Cookbook.

And even when the barriers fall, the early competitors often start with a significant advantage in the form of big pots of money earned before any dirty old rascal could join the game. The same advantage Random House now employs to make sure their picks are front and center when you walk into Borders will be the same advantage they employ to be at the top of your screen when you shop at iBooks.

The only real way the existing houses can fail is if they refuse to change. It does happen. But somehow I doubt that *every* major house today will fall by the wayside. More likely, one or two may fall, most will change and continue, and a new house or two nobody's ever heard of now will grow to be a major player. It's just how these things play out.

Sure, it's easy to imagine a wild and woolly future democracy where the new literary stars emerge by offering their books free on MySpace, but this crusty old cynic still sees those brash young lights jumping at the chance to be picked up by someone with the marketing muscle to, you know, pay them.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


I got up at 5:30 to watch it live. I'm glad I did!

While I have no plans to move back to The Old Country any time soon, I really am happy that y'all seem to be back on the right track.

Just remember this fundamental of story structure:

While the Dark Lord

and his Toadying Creature

have been defeated, and a Force for Good takes the Throne of the Land,

a New Evil shall rise from the ashes.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What Counts

Hard toremember sometimes, when we write: what counts.

Robert Heinlein was the first to clue me in: a good few of his characters were writers, adventurers who'd had adventurous lives and thought nothing could be easier than writing about their real-life experiences.

They soon found that the only way to successfully write adventure was to forget what they knew.

Some of us have this problem. Some writers have the opposite problem: I call it research-itus, where you research and research until you kno w every in and out and the subject lies dead under your fingertips.

I'll be honest. Along with a lot of writers, my process is half close-my-eyes-and-remember, half close-my-eyes and-imagine.

Remembering, I'm back with the the thump-thump-THUMP of my heart as a blade flashes in the sunlight, the vague brutality (like lightning looking for a place to ground) that drew me to nerve centers, floating ribs, weak places in joint-construction. This is very hard to turn into interseting reading.

Very. Hard.

To tell the truth, (and I want to tell y'all the truth), trying to chronicle these moments, however cathartic, leads to damned boring reading. The excitement is more taking that, and imagining...

More often, I read the other guys: writers who've done so *damned* much research and just. Can't. Wait. to show it. Whether it's the average rainfall of California or the three easiest takedowns against an armed assailant, these writers really, really, *really* want you to feel the depth of their research.

Guess what, all of us:

It don't matter.

Research doesn't count. Not really. Neither does experience.

What counts?

Words on a page.

We write words. Some of us draw pictures. A few of us do both. But, as always, the main thing is the story.

Tell a story the audience can't wait to hear, and they don't give a damn about your research. Or your experience.

They just want to hear what happens next.

Don't believe me? Check out the Iliad. Homer had all the access he wanted to seasoned veterans, men who could give him any detail he wanted about spear-maintenance, overlapping-shield tactics and the friner points of battlefield injuries.

What survived the last two or three thousand years? Achilles dragging Hector's body behind a chariot. Athene stepping in with her poisoned arrow. Helen, lovely and troubled, standing at the ramparts of Troy.

Gilgamesh? Nobody gives a rat's ass about the finer points of Bronze Age warmaking, only that the big bastard set out in a small boat to battle one hell of a big serpent.

More recently: most *real* pirates plundered tar and timber, rope and rum. Compare that shabby truth to the story told in Treasure Island, and be thankful RL Stevenson's research and experience wasn't of a higher caliber. In the end, every one of us who makes a mark on paper is just like Blind Pew...

In other news, Shauna gave me a lovely award. I'll pass it along when I'm sober. Meantime, thank you very much Shauna. Glad you find a little bit you like in this blog...

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Going Down

While Christchurch sweltered in the summer heat, BamBam and the Tiny Dynamo and I explored an underground cave, complete with rushing subterranean river.

My favorite phrase from the gubbment's website: Please observe the warning signs about entering the cave - it has claimed lives. You must be properly equipped if you plan to walk through the cave.

We had jandals and shorts and one flashlight between the three of us. Most of us survived.

The limestone cave twists and weaves for about half a kilometer underground. The water is cold and strong, the rocks beneath the surface rough and punishing. Lots of places, the going was tough, but there were no helmets, guideropes, safety barriers or anything else. You slip, you whack yourself on the rocks and try not to be washed away.

A lot like writing, in a way. Of course, the cave is a lot easier to navigate than a seat-of-the-pants plot-- all we had to do was keep crashing upstream until we hit the waterfall at the end. ;)

Just downstream from the waterfall (near the end of the walk) is a beautiful wee lagoon, calm and deep and perfect for a swim, if you can stand the temperature. (having the body fat of a nine year old child, cold and I don't get along...) Of course, coming back to the city to find the tar melting on the roads, an icy underground river didn't seem so bad.

Today, I'm pleasantly banged up and lightly bruised.

It was awesome.