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).