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Posts Tagged ‘digital publishing’

Fiction and Form

In Uncategorized on September 5, 2014 at 10:00 am

A note on this post: I’m going to be linking to a lot of fanfic below, not all of it appropriate for younger readers or work computers. Each link is followed by a rating in parentheses; please check the rating before you click. Teen+ ratings may be safe for work but may contain profanity or some sexual references; Explicit ratings contain explicit sexual material and may also contain violence and profanity.

Which, hey, if you’re looking for sex, violence, and profanity, does make your life easier, really.

A while back, there was a meme going around tumblr asking people to name ten books that have stuck with them, which eventually morphed into ten fanfics that have stuck with them. Maeglinhiei, who if my memory serves has been reading my stuff and hanging out in the cafe for quite a while, mentioned that one of my stories, Sublimation And The Snitch (Teen+), was on the list. In specific, one reason was “it’s the first time I encountered a fic not as ‘fic’ but in a different media, so to speak”, which is a lovely compliment, and got me thinking.

Sublimation And The Snitch is certainly not a traditional prose narrative; it’s framed as an essay about the application of Freudian and Jungian psychology to the game of Quidditch, and it uses that structure to explore relationships between students at Hogwarts school. The statement of it in that way — the first time someone encountered a story not as a story but as a narrative hung on a different framework — struck me as interesting. I remembered the first time I’d encountered fanfic that was outside the norm, and I thought about how fanfic continues to play with untraditional structures in a ratio that is far higher than published fiction.

I rarely encounter fiction written with the diversity of format that occurs in fanfic, and I think my experience in that sense is fairly common. Even so, the further out you go from the traditional Aristotelian dramatic arc, the more surprise you get. When readers encounter one of my other fanfics, A Partial Dictionary Of The 21st Century (Explicit), they usually comment on how difficult it must have been, because it is literally a story told as a series of vignettes attached to specific words. Having dicked around with fictional structures for twenty years at this point, it didn’t seem all that strange to me, but then I’d been dicking around with fictional structures for twenty years.

There are a ton of what might be called noncanonical structures in fanfic. My work in these areas is not the only work out there, but it’s reasonably representative: there are fanfics as essays and dictionaries, as collections of summaries and quotes (Teen+), as magazine articles (Teen+), as illustrated stories (Teen+), and with segmented structures (Teen+) — the “Five Times” or “Four Times And One Time” formats are a quite common genre at this point. I’ve read fanfics that are the same story told from two different points of view (Explicit). Fanfics exist as lists (Teen+) and as collage collections of social media (Teen+) or letters and postcards (Teen+) written by various characters involved.

Fanfic is safe for narrative experimentation because nobody is making a living at it — not the fanfic writer or their editor, not the people who run the archives where fanfic is posted. The reader pays nothing for it and usually, because it’s free and there, reads a lot more of it than your average reader of fiction reads in books. The risk in writing experimentally in fandom is extremely low; the worst consequence is a negative comment, and the much more common negative consequence is simply not much attention, which — while unpleasant — isn’t exactly punitive.

I have a distant hope that self-publishing, as it becomes more and more common, will perpetuate this low-risk environment for experimentation. At this point, because of print on demand services, self-publishing for the author is as low-risk as fanfic; there’s no upfront cash output, especially if you’re typesetting and cover-designing yourself, and most writers who get that far were writing for the pleasure of it anyway, not an imagined financial reward.

For the reader, self-publishing is a much more high-risk endeavor. Trying to find the diamonds amid the poorly-edited vanity novels and badly typset cookbooks can be a task. It’s the old gatekeeper problem again. But at least on the back end, the opportunity for experimentation is there.

I want to find a way to uplift the idea of the nontraditional narrative structure. I used some aspects of nontraditional structure in Charitable Getting and in The Dead Isle, and I’d like to use more. At this point I have a long list of books unwritten that I ought to be working on, so the nontraditional novel will probably have to wait its turn, but I feel like creating a space for these formats in original work is an important task, and one that deserves someone’s focus, whether it’s me or a reader elsewhere.

So if you know of books written with a nontraditional structure, or if you know of any sites about nontraditional structures, please let me know! Perhaps I’ll make some kind of compendium.

Novels And Conferences Post X-Files

In Uncategorized on August 15, 2014 at 10:00 am

All right. Last week we talked about the relationship between digital communication and brickspace data relay a little. Let’s see if we can hook it into fiction and books this week.

It was once said of George Bernard Shaw that his essays were the price you paid for his plays, which would make less sense if you didn’t know that he often put his essays into his plays, thinly disguised as monologues. Shaw was a radical, an egotist, and an essayist to be sure, and like most writers throughout the ages he attempted to convey a message using fiction.  He wasn’t the first to do so — I just really love that quote about him because I think it applies to a lot of storytellers. The price you pay for a good story is often your absorption of, collusion in, or at the very least momentary complicity with the ideology of the author. That’s the point of most fiction reading, after all — to put yourself into a story. This isn’t automatically a bad thing; some authors have ideologies well worth adhering to.

Prior to the mid-nineties, these stories were heavily gatekept by economic necessity. Between Gutenberg and — for amusement’s sake — let’s say the  first episode of The X-Files in 1993, anyone could print a screed or a story or a play and distribute it, but you were paying your own way, especially if you didn’t turn an eventual profit. Which meant you had the kind of cash to spend on that, or a patron who would spend it for you, be they a wealthy donor to your cause or a publisher interested in selling your book.

When we talk about twentieth century gatekeeping we primarily talk about the publishing industry pre X-Files which, being in it for the money, published books that they thought would sell. They published compellingly written books, pop-appeal books, scandalous books, or books by someone who already had fame riding on their side. (It is also important, if not necessarily directly relevant here, to point out that the only people who generally got a look-in for consideration were white dudes, so assume that the above was not applied in an equal-opportunity setting.)

The communication of data has always required resources — the ability to pay for printing, the ability to travel to a conference, the ability to purchase ad time. This is still true in the digital age. You must have access to a computer, which must be connected to the internet, and you must have a basic level of literacy plus either training in digital communication or the time necessary to train yourself in its arts. This is not an insignificant burden and it is the reason we have the term “Digital Divide”.

That said, these resources are much easier to procure than at any other time in human history: libraries offer free access to computers and the internet, MOOCs offer free tutelage in internet use, and if you have a laptop or a smartphone you can get wifi at McDonalds for the cost of a cup of coffee. People often have access to computers and internet through their workplace if nowhere else. And people who have the money to buy a computer and pay for monthly internet are still potentially paying far less for access to mass-communication tools than they would have for most of human history.

This kind of mass communication somewhat invalidates the old reason we met face to face at conferences, as I discussed last week, but conference culture has been slow to catch on. It also invalidates, in some sense, the old reason we published nonfiction books. Don’t get me wrong, I love nonfiction and I read a lot of it, but the same information can be conveyed through the internet. A lot of scientists and historians have blogs, and STEM podcasts are proving very popular (my personal favorite is Caustic Soda, run by non-scientists with science guests). The reason we still turn to nonfiction books is narrative — a book forms a more cohesive experience, and even a nonfiction book still tells a story. And there are people who legitimately prefer reading a book to reading a screen.

So what about fiction books? Are we returning — or could we return, and should we return — to the serial model? Serial novels worked like gangbusters in the 19th century, when rising literacy rates and lowered printing costs made newspapers, and magazines like the Strand, available cheaply for mass public consumption. Internet readers seem resistant to the concept of fee-based fiction online, but Netflix has proved the fee-based consumption model at least functions, and Amazon is attempting to change peoples’ minds with its “Netflix for books” (with understandably limited success, given the traditional definition of “netflix for books” is library). Bloomberg recently suggested that the fight between Amazon and publishers currently going on over print books is sad to watch because it’s already irrelevant — that fee-based access to books in a permanent cloud will be the new face of publishing. Their logic was unsound and their research was shoddy, so I can’t recommend taking the linked article too seriously, but they are suggesting an Amazon-derived model that has realistic potential. It may be too soon to tell — or the people handling the big data may not want to share their results yet. I’m just a paladin author, usually with no publishing house to my name, so it’s difficult for me to say.

I also, last week, discussed the idea that in some cases a website about a subject could draw more attention and accolades than a presentation about the same subject, and could actually provide fodder for a better presentation. This is the new, non-gatekept marketing: hook ’em online and get interaction going, instead of shouting advertising at people and hoping something sticks. “Going viral” is a dream that has yet to be bottled, because nobody seems to be able to quantify what drives the nature of a viral meme, but going viral has never been as helpful as a long-term, hooked in, loyal and interactive fan base, known as the “long tail”. These are difficult and can be expensive to build, but the long-term return on investment is much greater, as long as the product continues to please and engage the consumer.

As an author, attending a non-author day-job-oriented conference, what I think I carried away is a confirmation that primary digital engagement is often a step in the right direction — but that not a lot of people have caught on yet.

And as I’m writing this on my authorial blog, I may be preaching to the choir.