extribulum

Archive for August, 2012|Monthly archive page

Pulitzer Prize Waning

In Uncategorized on August 31, 2012 at 10:00 am

So, earlier this year, the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction failed to be awarded. There was a lot of handwringing and shock about it in publishing/literary circles, and a lot of opinion giving, because writers do love to give opinions.

The news story says that the judges could not give any single book a majority, and so the prize wasn’t awarded. This isn’t exactly common, though it’s not unprecedented — apparently it was a crap year in 1976 too, since no award was given in 1977.

The books that are submitted for the Prize go through a screening process first, with a three-person jury, and the three finalists are then submitted to the board for consideration. If the board doesn’t like any of them, it can go back to the jury and request a fourth book be submitted, but apparently they didn’t even bother.

It is a bit baffling; the board won’t discuss how selection works or why the decision was made, though I’ve spent long enough studying PR and con men to suspect it was done to generate buzz about the Pulitzers. Because unless you are a journalist or writer, and even then really only among journalists and writers, who gives a damn anymore? Any book shortlisted for the prize is already well-known to the public, and it’s not like I or anyone I know outside of publishing was scanning the papers on April 16th, waiting to see who won. But if the prize doesn’t even get awarded, people are going to (however briefly) take note.

The other option is that they wanted to be assholes and tell the literary world it wasn’t good enough, but I will kindly give them the benefit of the doubt and assume their ulterior motives were merely mercenary, not cruel.

It does kind of make me want to submit The Dead Isle, though. Did you know your book doesn’t have to be published by one of the big six to be considered? I checked the bylaws, and there’s nothing anywhere against submitting a self-published book. Anyone can submit a book, as long as they fill out the entry form, pay the entry fee, and send four copies to the Pulitzer offices for jury reading. Mind you, that $100+ price tag is a bit steep for me, but it’d be pretty funny.

After all, if nobody won last year, I figure I’ve got as fair a shot as anyone.

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Don’t Know? Ask.

In Uncategorized on August 27, 2012 at 9:00 am

About a month ago I came across an article in one of the websites I read, and it listed a bunch of “tools for writers” and, more specifically, for self-publishing writers. These lists are sometimes really helpful, and sometimes not so much. This time, most of the sites were either ones I already knew about or ones that weren’t relevant to me — I don’t hire professional editors because I am poor, and some writing websites are fairly obviously aimed at people who are just starting out. It sounds like hubris but I don’t generally need tips on getting motivated to write or finishing what I’ve started or certain elemental tricks of the trade. They clash with my technique or talk about aspects I’ve already incorporated. Artists have very specific individual styles, and sometimes theirs just don’t mesh with mine.

I did come across one website that was by writers, for writers, which looked interesting and professional enough that I thought I’d give it a shot. Sometimes these things pan out.

This one is making me bonkers.

Many of the writers seem obsessed with what readers want, but they’re not very good at figuring it out. They have two essential pathways: shrug and admit that nobody knows what readers want, or do that and then try to write “universally”.

Writing universally is very difficult and very dangerous because trying to please all the people, all the time, generally makes you bland and boring. Nobody takes risks if they’re trying to make sure everyone loves them. Which is not to say that one should try to offend people intentionally, or shouldn’t care about giving offence, because causing hurt is the opposite of the goal of most art. Art is meant to elevate, not demean, or if it does take a shot it should be at the proper targets: hypocrites, the powerful, the cruel. Molly Ivins said “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.”

When I was in college I read an article about a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” that had been translated into Japanese and performed in Japan. When the lights went down on the final act, the audience was in tears. It was described as the ultimate example of universal writing, that this quintessentially, forcefully American play could elicit such a reaction from people who came to it from a totally different culture. But it also made sense, because it is a play about the attempts of ordinary people to attain immortality, to leave their mark and be remembered, and how often our attempts are thwarted by the society we live in. It’s a lofty goal, to write about something so huge with such sincerity, but making it interesting and engaging requires a great deal of talent and skill that not everyone possesses. Certainly if I did, my books would sell better.

What makes me crazy about this website is that the writers seem to come at the question of what readers want with a degree of hopelessness, with the certainty that nobody knows what readers want. There are two problems with this hopelessness:

1. Writers are readers. We are “the public” same as anyone. We’re not isolated gurus on mountains. If we’re doing our job right, we’re eclectic readers, critical thinkers, and students of the market. There is no reason a writer should need to consult some mythical, homogenous “public” in order to know what to write about.

2. Everyone else is a reader too. Everyone around us reads something. It will rarely be the same thing. There is no single “public” to write for, because the public is made up of individuals exactly like us, who have different tastes, different cultural backgrounds, and different personal histories. That said, if we pay attention to the people around us and actually ask them what they think, we stand a very good chance of learning how to write for them.

I keep wanting to grab these people and yell extribulum at them, which would be funny seeing as how they’d have no idea what this means and I’d look like a crazy person. But it’s true: they’re so wrapped up in what people want, and meanwhile here I am, giving away my first drafts so that I can find out, deliberately asking people what they want, always trying to learn what stories people like to hear and how they like to hear them so that I can combine this desire with my own and make a good story that people want to read.

A lot of people, when faced with large and frightening problems, seem to forget they can ask questions. I don’t know why we’re so afraid to ask questions, though I suspect it has something to do with the assumption that a smart person will already know the answer. But the first thing I do when I don’t know where to start is to make a list of questions I have to answer. Usually asking the question shows me where I have to go to answer it.

The end result is, of course, that I removed the website from my reader feed. I’m busy reading books and industry news; I no longer have the time for people who keep discussing a question without actually asking it.

The Devil’s In The Details

In Uncategorized on August 17, 2012 at 9:00 am

One of the trials of self-publishing a book is the incredible attention to detail it requires. Typesetting and cover design in particular, and I kind of love those because there’s a system involved, but also other elements of well, from marketing to pricing.

(Ironically I sat down, wrote the above, and then — because I was on decongestants — forgot briefly what I was going to talk about.)

I’ve found that a very important aspect of the “attention to detail” portion of selfpub is how you name your files. I have three separate word documents labeled with variations on the theme of “Nameless – Paperback Final Draft”. Three. I have no idea whether they’re the same file. I was young and foolish then…

I’ve pretty much mastered this with Dead Isle, thankfully. There’s the final paperback draft, the final PDF draft, the final ebook draft; each has a final cover draft and the ebook draft has a final marketing image. I keep numbered copies of each earlier draft too, because I’ve found the only way I am willing to do the ripping-out and rewriting necessary to make the story the best it can be is if I know, somewhere in the murky depths of my hard drive, there is a copy of the old draft with everything I liked intact. Just in case.

There are two conflicting sayings about all of this:

  1. God is in the details
  2. The Devil is in the details

And the funny thing is, in this one instance, there’s no “original” of either one. Nobody knows where each originally came from or which came first. They mean drastically different things to different people, too. I’ve never really been able to decide which one I like more: the one that to me means that divinity can be found in the smallest things, which is very “his eye is on the sparrow”, or the one that reminds us that the smallest things are the hardest, and the easiest way of corrupting the work as a whole. Anyone who has worked in computer programming probably favours the latter.

There are many things requiring attention to detail that I am not good at — mathematics, pastry making, interpersonal relations — but I appear to be trainable in some things, at least. A lot of it is to do, as Joe Orton put it, with Apollo and Dionysus. The creative urge is instinctively chaotic, Dionysian, while the discipline of writing calls for just a little bit of the orderly Apollo. And let me tell you, once the story is told, it’s all Apollo, all the time until the final product shows up.

And then, if history is any judge, you have a small nervous breakdown and recover and go back to Dionysus. There’s a reason he’s the patron god of the theatre.