Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Will E-Readers and Tablets Change the Publishing System?

A couple days ago, my colleague at PC Mag, Tim Bajarin, wrote a column about how tablets and e-books could change the way writers publish. In the piece, he stated that writers could get a bigger cut of their book profits by selling them directly to readers through an online retailer. He writes:

"Creative writers could easily bypass a publisher completely, in much the same manner as an independent developer, keeping the lion's share of the profits. The royalty on an e-book sold through a publisher is currently around 20-percent, while developers get 70-percent from downloads sold through app stores."

Bajarin goes on to say that because of the multimedia capabilities of e-book readers, authors could integrate elements such as photography, audio, and video into their books to enhance the experience.

As far as the direct-to-consumer model goes for authors, I feel we still need publishing companies (or at least a marketing company) to do the promotion. This can include working with bookstores for readings and in-store signings, booking appearances on radio and TV, and generally organizing a book tour. Putting such tasks on the author can be not only burdensome but completely unsuccessful. Publicists and PR people already have the connections, and it would be hard for individual writers to have their calls returned by Barnes & Noble execs. It is hard enough for emerging literary writers to be noticed over the din of the genre bestsellers, not to mention trying to get readers to find and buy your book on the Web.

Multimedia capabilities are definitely a cool idea, but will they enhance the reading experience? Many of us turn to books as a linear escape from the multimedia chaos of Web sites. Will writers use bells and whistles to compensate for lousy writing?

What do you think? Submit your comments.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Writing to Music

Music is a vital part of my life. Although I've never been in a band or played an instrument (besides doodling on the harmonica), I've always been surrounded by musicians. And I get every penny's worth of my Rhapsody subscription by consistently checking out new releases. I even participate in the penultimate annual music dork celebration called Burning Man (not the festival in the Southwest). Each year I get together with about 6 friends (a few of them musicians) and we burn each other CDs of our favorite albums of the year. There is even a presentation portion in which participants make their case for including an album on their best of list.

I do most of my work to music, including writing. The writers I've spoken to about this are divided on the issue. Some find it distracting while others find it inspirational. For those like me whose jobs entail sitting at a desk in front of a computer all day, the right music can make your writing time feel more like unwind time and less like a second job. There are a couple of things I've learned about writing to music to avoid distraction and maximize productivity.

  1. Try instrumental or ambient music. Lyrics can be distracting to those trying to compose words into sentences. If you don't like classical or jazz, try an indie band with the right atmospheric feel, like, say Sigur Ros, God Speed You Black Emperor, Tracker, Mogwai, and so on.
  2. Try music you know well. If you want to listen to music with lyrics, try playing songs you know so well you barely notice the words. My choice here is Neil Young.
  3. Find music that matches the tone of the piece. If you're writing a fight scene, try some heavy metal or punk. Or you can play down-tempo songs for more somber moments in your piece.
  4. Create a giant writing playlist. Switching from album to album and perusing your collection for the next group of songs for your writing session is an easy way to get distracted. Have a go-to playlist you can play quickly to get yourself started. Put it on random if you want to mix it up.
  5. Explore new artists. In your down time, use Pandora, Slacker, Last.FM, Rhapsody, or another music-discovery service to find new, inspiring bands and artists.
So for what it's worth, here are my top 10 albums for writers.

  1. Sparklehorse - "It's a Wonderful Life"
  2. Neil Young - "Decade"
  3. Portugal, The Man - "It's Complicated Being a Wizard"
  4. John Coltrane - "A Love Supreme"
  5. Pink Floyd - "Animals"
  6. Midlake - "The Trials of Van Occupanther"
  7. Bon Iver - "For Emma, Forever"
  8. Iron & Wine - "The Shepherd's Dog"
  9. Alaska in Winter - "Dance Party in the Balkans"
  10. Pretty much anything by Angelo Badalmenti, Bernard Herrmann, or Thomas Newman

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

(No) Beating a Retreat to the Hudson Valley

January 5. This date is bearing down on me. January 5 is the due date of my first-born daughter and also the deadline I've set for finishing my novel. Working full time, teaching, and simply living in New York City offers distractions galore. I have been mucking along at the pace of a '78 Chevette with three wheels, so I decided to get the hell out of Gotham.

One of my favorite professors from grad school, Darcey Steinke, turned me on to religious retreats. Being a recovering Catholic, I was initially not eager to return to the dark tower. Steinke is the daughter of a minister and has done many such retreats. She has also written extensively about her complex relationship with religion. Anyway, the point is this: Many monastaries, convents, and other religious retreat centers offer a nice room, quiet atmosphere, and sometimes meals at a fraction of what it would cost to either stay in a hotel or go to one of those artsy writing retreat centers.

In November 2006, I did my first retreat at St. Mary's Convent in Sloatsburg. The place was empty, the accommodations were very comfortable, the surroundings were beautiful, and the nuns fed me as if I were Joey Chestnut.

This year, I chose the Retreat Ministry at Olmsted Center--also known as Camp Olmsted. This facility is run by the Methodist Five Points Mission. In the summer, Camp Olmstead is a camp for inner-city kids. In the fall, they host small retreat groups. As it happens, there were no groups booked for the weekend I wanted to attend. Therefore, I got the gigantic Manor House, and pretty much the entire grounds, to myself. The Manor House sleeps about 20 people, and you could easily get lost in its labrynthine hallways. I tried not to remind myself that I was walking into the perfect setup for a horror film.

Camp Olmsted, by the way, is located in Cornwall-on-Hudson, a little over an hour from New York City. Besides having all day to write and edit, I also hiked a trail up Storm King Mountain and spent a half-hour sitting on a rock overlooking the majestic Hudson River Valley. I also walked into Cornwall to explore this quaint town. Among my wanderings, I downed a couple beers on a corner stool at Tom's Tavern.

Aside from recharging my battery to go the final miles of the novel marathon (which has been almost 4 years in the running), I also got back in touch with silence (more on this in another post). Some other highlights:

  • Hearing coyotes at night howl in syncopation with the volunteer fire alarm
  • Spotting about 12 deer on one walk into town
  • Viewing Storm King Mountain on the Manor House's roof deck under the full moon
  • Not being killed by a murderous grounds keeper or raped by ghosts
If you're interested in doing a retreat in New York State, here's a good site to start your research.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Finding the Faces of Your Fiction

Currently, I'm engaged in an activity I should have done months ago: Compile more detailed profiles for the characters in my novel (including photos). Being a visual learner, I need to see photographs of my characters in order to bring them to life in my fiction. For "Plainfield" I realized that some of the characters were thin (even the protagonist) because I didn't have a good mental picture of them. Therefore, I scoured through online yearbooks from the period (1950s), Google Images, and family photo albums on Flickr looking for my characters. I had no real criteria other than trusting my gut to match my mental image with a face online. I spent hours doing this, thinking up different (and often random) search criteria. Sometimes I would just search the character's name and find all the people named Walter. Other times I searched a character's profession, such as "teacher," "sheriff," and so on. My thinking is that on some metaphysical level, a teacher out there will match my teacher character (people of a certain physical nature are attracted to certain jobs).

The problem with searching this way is that often I would get images tagged with my keyword, but that didn't show anyone--just a pic of a place, a car, a building, etc. After a little digging, I discovered an article on Ars Technica detailing a cool trick to take advantage of Google Image's facial recognition feature. Basically, do your image search, then append "&imgtype=face" to the end of the result URL. Hit Enter, and the results will be reloaded with only those that contain faces (as in the screenshot of this post). Click here for the full article. This is a pretty cool little trick for fiction writers who want to create in-depth character profiles that include photos (and not those of people you know).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Do You Need Novel-Writing Software?

A reader of this blog recently e-mailed me asking for a recommendation for a novel-writing software package. A few months ago, I reviewed some of the major novel-writing suites for PC Mag ("Ten Tools for Your Bestseller"). For Windows users, I thought yWriter4 was the best all-around package for writers. And the fact that it is a free download makes it an even better value.

But the question remains: Does using novel-writing software significantly the process or greatly reduce the time it takes to crank out a decent draft? Obviously, writers have been creating magnificent literature for hundreds of years without computers or novel software. So here's my take: If you are a beginner, working on your first novel, or without much academic training, this software can be very helpful. At its core, most novel-writing suites are organization tools. They use the scene as the basic building block of fiction and shape their programs around that premise. Any package worth its salt should let you create character profiles, scene summaries, plot and story arcs, setting descriptions, and more. Such features can be incredibly handy for those who constantly struggle to keep notes and outlines organized.

Keep in mind that most suites are better utilized when you are at square 1 in the process, instead of trying to incorporate the software in the middle of writing or editing your novel. Also, I've found the word processors in these programs awkward. Most are not nearly as powerful or feature rich as Microsoft Word. Another problem with novel-writing software is that it will probably be difficult to use for those who are accustomed to tactile, physical world notebooks, index cards, and even sketch pads. And since these programs are often very robust, you can easily spend more time writing character profiles, scene notes, and summaries than actually writing your novel. Finally, if you're not diligent about backing up and you have no hard copies, your entire novel--outline, manuscript, everything--can be obliterated if your computer dies or is stolen.

I think the best way to approach novel-writing software is to download yWriter4 and give it a shot. If it appeals to you, you can stick with it or go for one of the for-pay packages. Writing a novel is one of the most difficult things you will ever do, and no software can change that essential fact. It is also one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had, no matter whether the novel gets published.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Write on the Dark Side

For anyone out there looking for an alternative to Microsoft Word, I recently found out about a cool word-processing app from Lifehacker. The program is called Darkroom, and it's perfect for those who are easily distracted by the menus, toolbars, flashing IM buttons, and other features of modern computing that are both multifunctional and aggravating. Darkroom is a throwback to the old days of computing, with green Courier text on a black screen. Darkroom is configured for full-screen, so there are no menus or toolbars to get in the way. But there is still enough functionality to do basic tasks like scrolling up and down quickly, perform word counts, change font color, and so on.

I was in a slump with my novel when I discovered Darkroom, and it really helped me stay focused and hit my daily word counts. And it's a very small download, so it doesn't consume the system resources many other word processors do--and you can run it even on an old system. There is also a version for Mac OS called WriteRoom and even an online version called DarkCopy, which you can use anywhere you can get Internet access without downloading and installing the app. In the breakneck pace at which technology moves, it's nice to see a throwback program that reminds us of the old days when computers actually increased productivity.

Monday, March 31, 2008

What You Can Learn From Genre Writers

During my MFA program, the mere mention of "genre fiction" sent my fellow writers a-cringin'. There is a feeling of superiority that literary fiction writers have over writers who write mystery, romance, science fiction, erotica, and so on. Even most lit journals clearly specify that genre writers need not apply. I'm not defending genre writing in terms of prose or other artistic considerations (there's the lit snob in me again). But recently I was researching different drafting and editing methods online, and the best advice out there seemed to be from genre writers. Here's one good example from YA writer Holly Lisle.

In terms of productivity, genre writers have literary fiction writers beat. With the exception of a few truly exceptional literary fiction writers (Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, John Steinbeck, Charles Bukowski, Joyce Carol Oates, etc.) genre writers outproduce us about 5 to 1. You could stop me right there and try to slap me down with the "quality over quantity" argument, and in some ways you'd be right. But too often literary fiction writers look at each book as his or her magnum opus, and therefore spend 10 years writing them and often never finish them.

I think many genre writers have a healthy understanding that this is a job as well as a craft. You write a book, then try your damndest to get it published, meanwhile already starting on your second book. You could also say that it's easier for genre writers to write books fast because many write serials starring the same characters or the plots are formulaic to that genre. We lit fiction writers are not as original as we think, however. In fact, if I had a McGriddle sandwich for every "Mom with cancer" short story and half-ass metafiction novel I've read, I'd be fatter than James Gandolfini.

There seems to be a healthy acceptance in the genre world that what you write will be used and eventually end up in the bargain bin or landfill--because it will. Craftspeople like woodworkers, ceramists, and jewelry makers produce artistic products, sell as many as they can, and make more. Every writing instructor will tell you that writing a lot is the only way to make you a better writer. I realized that I was writing my novel particularly slowly because I was afraid of finishing. I didn't know what was next. But after getting some good advice online, I realized that I have to finish this damn book already and start the next one.