Thursday, February 19, 2015
The Times They Are A'Changing
Today we get to talk about writing. It’s taking me longer than I expected to type up Mountain Lion King. Because I’m a slow writer, by the time I got the second half of the book done, the first half had been sitting around for at least three months. Now that I’m typing it onto the laptop, I’m stumbling over all sorts of plot holes and awkward sentences and whoa, hold it moments that somehow got by me while I was typing the longhand version onto the old system in order to get a printout. I’m pretty much rewriting the whole first half of the book. Depending on how long that takes me, I might end up rewriting the back end, too. The good news is, I’m making it better. There may still be plot holes, but they’re smaller now. Plot dips?
For the writers in the audience: it really does help to let your deathless prose sit and cool off when you’re finished. Two weeks to two months to whatever you’re comfortable with. Ray Bradbury recommended letting them sit for a year. Of course, he was one of those workaholic types and wrote more short stories than novels. He probably had so many drafts lying around the house he could write one and polish another while letting three more age. Like I said, I don’t write that fast. I did the write-one-while-another-sits phase on the same book. I do not recommend that.
I do recommend multiple drafts. This newest version doesn’t suck as much as the first one I churned out. Because I’m a pantser, I make things up as I go. I have a better idea of my story and characters by the end than I do at the beginning. That necessitates a second draft, so I can bring the whole thing together into harmony. The third draft is the cleanup. I may need a fourth draft on this one. If the best possible book results, why not?
If you’re one of those folks who edits as they go, or turns out a publishable draft first crack out of the hard drive, good for you. I need to get all the ideas down on paper, then trim and prune and polish until I get it right. I used to love playing with clay in art class, too. It’s so much fun to take that shapeless blob and turn it into something pretty. Maybe there’s a connection.
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I’m currently reading a book called The Bestseller by Olivia Goldsmith (probably best known for writing The First Wives Club). It’s about a fictitious New York book publisher, the people who work there, the writers they screw (literally and otherwise), and the journey five books and their authors take through acceptance to published novel. Only one will become a bestseller, and it’s not the one you think. Or maybe it is. When it comes to her characters, Goldsmith believes in punishing the wicked and rewarding the good, so process of elimination should lead you to the winner.
When this book was first published back in 1996, it was considered a contemporary novel. Given the radical changes in publishing over the last twenty years, today you could probably call it a historical, or even a period piece. This book debuted into a world with no Twitter or Facebook or epublishing, with characters who crafted their novels on typewriters. (One of them receives a brand-new word processor during the course of the story. Holy zot, honey.)
Because the book deals with mainstream/literary hardback fiction, some story elements may still be relevant. Others, not a chance. For instance, one subplot concerns a writer who kills herself when she can’t take the rejections any more. Her mother finds the last remaining copy of her daughter’s book and sets about getting it published. All fine and good, for 1996. Today? C’mon. New York doesn’t want to publish your book? Screw ‘em. We have Amazon now. Type it into your computer system, get yourself a cover, push “Upload” and you’re good to go. Want a hardcover copy? Go to CreateSpace. Print on demand has eliminated the need for print runs and storage. You can order a short run and sell locally at those tiny indie bookstores (yes, they still exist) or out of the trunk of your car. If that character had waited even five more years, she wouldn’t have had to kill herself.
There are a couple of things I’m hoping aren’t still true, but may be. Of the five books, one is by a Danielle Steele-type known commodity and another is written by the publisher. The other three get picked by blind luck (the suicide’s mother haunts publishing houses and finally catches a sympathetic editorial assistant; the British girl starts dating a man whose sister is that same sympathetic EA; the college professor shows his book to an agent he once brought in to speak to his English class). Not one of them got accepted by sending in a manuscript, the way we’re told to by publishers’ Submission Guidelines pages. The suicidal author tried that, and look where it got her.
I’m also worried about that happy tradition of publishing, the advance. You know, the money they pay you before the book comes out. In The Bestseller, they talk about five- and six-figure payouts for even first-time writers. I wonder if that’s still true? Remember, this is hardcover mainstream fiction we’re talking here. Genre’s a different story. Back when The Bestseller was first published and I was still writing SF/fantasy, I think a $5000 advance for a first-time paperback original was considered a good deal. I wonder what it is these days? I suspect it’s not much different.
If you go digital first or digital only, you don’t even get the advance. You get a higher percentage of royalties (30%-45%, on average) and the books come out faster (months instead of a year or two later), but until the book goes on sale you’re on your own for expenses, and if your book tanks you’re SOL. Only the publisher comes out ahead. That much hasn’t changed.
I’m betting that within another ten years everything’s going to go digital first, with print runs only for the biggest sellers, and advances as a whole will become a thing of the past. The only books you’ll be able to find in Barnes and Nobel with be those by “brand” authors and popular series. And diet books. Those never go out of style.
Meanwhile, the rest of us will be reading indie books on our iPADs, or reading fan fiction for free. That’s where the action’s happening. If you don’t believe me, check out the pedigree of 50 Shades of Grey. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to write The Bondage Diet Book. Wonder how big an advance I can get for that?