Perspectives of a Writer and Musician

Issues related to writing, publishing and playing jazz music: One man's muse.
by Al Stevens

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Location: Florida, United States

Friday, June 08, 2012

Great writing: What is it?

The members of a writing forum are trying to explain to one another what constitutes great writing. Like pornography and jazz music, one cannot define it, but we know it when we see it, and it can be defined only by example.

I consider Steinbeck to be a great writer who also told good stories about well-defined characters. But if you apply today's standards to his great works, he couldn't get past an intern gatekeeper. His openings, exquisite and enduring as they are, would be ripped to shreds on the Share Your Work forum of a writer's discussion group. Not enough action. No hook. Too much telling. Too much backstory and description.

But such great writing.

You can see for yourself. Search the Kindle Store for Steinbeck and use the "Look Inside" feature. Do the same for Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Rawlings, Vonnegut, Lewis.

It has been said that "It was" is the weakest construction in the English language and that writers should avoid it at all costs. Another rule? A loaf of horse hockey, I say. Aren't we glad Dickens didn't know that rule?

Great writing does not rely on formulae and the rigid rules laid down by editors, critics, and reviewers. Imagine Rabbit's mental meanderings during his nighttime drive through the roads of Pennsylvania written according to the rules. How bland would that be?

If your book keeps me up all night, makes me forget to take time out to eat, and keeps me away from my computer, then you are a great writer.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Shift Happens

In the previous installment, I discussed writing in the future, but I didn't actually get past the present. That was the foundation. To get to the future let’s continue with the “now,” with the ongoing paradigm shift from traditional print publishing to electronic publishing. That's the framework. Soon we'll add siding and a roof.
What does an author need in order to write and publish an e-book? The technology is here and available. If I’m telling you anything you don’t already know, you’re already a bit behind the curve and need to get caught up. But by getting the basics out in the open, we can be on the same page.

Word processors, standard e-book file formats, converter programs, and online distribution services all combine to make possible the publication of authors’ words and images as e-books. Social networking, websites, and blogs provide for a measure of promotion. You know that because you've heard it countless times.

And we have all that today. On the cheap. If you already have a computer, an internet connection, and a publishing-centric skill set, you can write, publish,and promote an e-book without spending a dime. How? By using free software and free online services for everything. That’s right, it’s all free.

You will hear that you absolutely must not under any circumstances edit your own book or design your own cover. Conventional wisdom says, you suck at it, you'll do it wrong, leave it to the professionals. (Actually, it's those conventional professionals who say it. Guess why.) I'm not going to tell you that. It isn't my call. I don't know what you can and cannot do. It's your book, your money, and your decision.

Why e-books? Why, indeed. Because they are the wave of the present and the tsunami of the future.

Do you doubt that the physical book is in decline? Well, look around. It’s already happening in some quarters. Remember when we always got a fat trade paperback book explaining the use of our new software? Or a CD-ROM? Now we get a URL printed on the box. Box? What box? Surf the web, pay online, download. We don't need no stinkin' box.

Look at the prices of mass-market and trade paperbacks in the stores. Not the brick and mortar bookstores but in Walmart, Sams, and that ilk. Dirt cheap. And that's all that will be left when the last bookstore closes. Publishers can't make money at those prices. Neither can writers. The only avenue of reasonable option is digital publication and online distribution.

The publishing industry until recently has strenuously resisted any shifts away from print publication. They were in classic denial because revenues and a monolithic business model were at stake. Seeing what's coming, though, many of the big publishers are coming around. But there is still an undercurrent of concern, given the paranoia that accompanies the realization that readers can readily share unauthorized copies of digital books.

Did I just say the C-word? I did. Copies. Do you enjoy watching self-righteous sanctimony in full bloom? Go on any readers discussion group and bring up the subject of e-book pirating.

Because of the potential for unauthorized copying, another big change is coming. I predict that the digital revolution will eventually turn the world of intellectual property law on its ear. Of this prediction I am sure. You might not like it, you might fight it and argue that it can never be, should never be, but to resist is futile. It will happen. It will take a while, because powerful watchdog institutions exist whose main objectives are to preserve the status quo, protect the intellectual property of huge conglomerates, and perpetuate the watchdogs’ own existence. They are formidable, but they will expire.

I'll talk about ways we might use technology to manage protected distribution in a coming installment. After I get it figured out, that is.

Back to the digital paradigm shift. What does an author do about it? First learn to write for digital media. Actually, there’s not much to change there. A book is a string of narrative text and perhaps images organized into chapters. A new method of delivery does not change a book’s contents or how they are authored. Not yet, anyway.

The only decision authors will make in the near future is whether to self-publish e-books or to engage and use the services of an e-publisher. You’ll get lots of advice about which way to go, but not here. I am one of the few authors in this business who admits to not having that answer. Things are changing too fast. My crystal ball is cloudy on that issue. I don’t have an agenda either. That’s rare when words about publishing get tossed about. But it’s fun to watch.

I am also among a growing number of authors who have self- and trade-published, and I plan to continue doing that. That’s a good foothold on firm ground whichever way the tides change, the winds blow, the towel sticks to the wall.

Add metaphor and mix.

Lots of rambling here. In the next installment I might actually get down to speculating about what’s coming. Or could be coming. Or should be coming.

A Writer's View of the Future

What does the future of publishing hold, and how will authors deliver their works to readers in the near and distant futures. Those of us who expect to live and write at least another ten years should prepare ourselves for whatever form writing will take, what we will have to know, and what tools we will need.

It seems that almost every year new technologies emerge that enable new media for content delivery, media that were unimaginable not long before. Today's media are e-readers of various forms, and today's content is the e-book. The concept isn’t all that new, but mass acceptance of it has hit the marketplace like George of the Jungle slamming into a tree.

Advancements in technology will continue, so perhaps we writers should look ahead and predict how things might evolve to affect the ways readers read and authors write. Well, “predict” is a tad optimistic. “Speculate about” is more like it.

Writing is communicating. In recent times we’ve seen three major paradigm shifts in written communications, all of which were enabled by technology. E-mail, texting, and e-books. Let's concentrate on e-books.

A quiet revolution in publishing is underway.

• Online sales of e-books are now topping online sales of print books.
• Bookstores are closing, falling prey to online stores.
• Libraries struggle as the economy erodes the budgets of non-essential services.
• Newspapers are almost extinct as more people get their news from television and the Internet.

Print media across the board are in a decline, and that includes books. Consumers are moving away from printed books in huge numbers. Like the Big Bang, that movement started slowly but speeds up exponentially.

Resistance is inevitable. People cling to tradition and fight to preserve what they hold dear. They prefer, they say, the look, feel, and, heaven help us, the smell of a “real,” tangible book. They like to pull books from shelves, thumb through pages, jot notes in margins, stuff bookmarks in there, bend down the corners. They enjoy the sensory effects of a tangible book.

Why? Does a tangible book deliver content better than an electronic one? That’s a subjective measure. I think we prefer tangible books not because they do a better job but because they’re what we used when we learned to read. Fun with Dick and Jane was a page turner.

But, you say, the printed medium is as old as the Gutenberg press. How could it be replaced so readily and so quickly by some new-fangled do-dad? To that I say, consider the horse. Horses were domesticated and adapted for labor and transportation some 5000 years ago, and it took the automotive industry less than twenty years to virtually eliminate the horse for any practical use. Relative to the horse, print publication, at only about 550 years old, is still in its infancy.

Progress seldom respects tradition.

So stand back, old-timers. Your “real” book is on the endangered list, soon to be found tucked away only in museums and the collections of wealthy, eccentric old people. Very much like the 78 rpm record, the 8mm movie projector, and the stereopticon viewer.

Traditionalists will strenuously object to these predictions. They say it’s the same old broken record. They’ve heard it before. Such changes will not come to be, they say, for no reason other than that they don’t want them. Such hangers-on will be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the future. Many of those who work in traditional publishing are so entrenched in that business model that such radical changes threaten not only their livelihoods but their sense of well-being.

The same thing happened to buggy whip weavers a few decades back.

Just as you can still find vinyl records and turntables, real books will always be available for those few who want them. But the civilized world at large will ignore them.

Like the pay phone.
More to come...