Everyone’s a writer

The last thing I want to do is discourage people from following their passion, especially if that passion is to become a published writer. The emergence of e-Books, especially Kindle, has no doubt helped many writers reach their dream of seeing their stories in print. There is a major downside to this anyone-can-do-it formula, however: suddenly, every single person on earth thinks they can become an “author” by simply writing down words on a page, formatting them into book form, and posting them on Kindle (and/or any number of other e-Book publishers).  

So what’s the harm, you say? It’s not as if anyone is forced to buy a book they don’t want. Well, that’s true of course, but think about this: The more titles available on sites like Kindle, the harder it becomes to make your book get noticed. I had no idea how many titles were actually available until my daughter gave me a Kindle for Christmas. It would take literally days to browse every title in the catalog if you clicked on each entry to get a synopsis. (And if you don’t do that, how will you determine whether it’s a book you want to read?)

It used to be, if you chose the self-publishing format to have your work printed, it would cost a literal fortune—$50,000 and up. I know because several of those places approached me when I first began soliciting agents back in the late 1980s. They sent out form letters claiming they heard about my book from such-and-such literary agency, and would be honored to “publish” me. They were great at hiding the fact they were vanity presses in disguise. I was never desperate enough to bite on those offers, but other writers must have been as vanity (later known as subsidy) houses flourished for decades.

Thankfully most of these “presses” have vanished into the wind, and we have to assume that’s because of the emergence of e-Book publishing. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the ease of getting a book up and running brings with it an onslaught of authors who have no idea writing is a craft that requires a skill set like any other occupation. I wish I could say I expect the problem to fix itself with time; alas, it’s much more likely the exact opposite will come to pass.

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Patience, Virtue, Morality, and other lost arts

timeWe live in the instant age, which we can tie directly to the mesmerizing advancement of technology. On the surface, this makes our lives easier. When I first began writing, I worked on a manual typewriter that belonged to my grandmother. In my twenties, I was thrilled to have an electric typewriter! So much easier on my fingers, and a lot better looking result on the page. When I got my first computer in the late 1980s, a used Atari 800, which came with a dot matrix printer, I thought I was in heaven. No more carbon copies, no more typing over mistakes with white tape or using white paint to cover them up! Talk about the wave of the future.

By 1994, home computers were becoming commonplace. Our first was a Pac Bell 486. I barely knew how to turn it on, let alone use it. So I read the manuals for DOS and Windows 3.1 cover to cover until I understood how it worked. It soon became an everyday tool in my writing and a homework helper for my girls. Shortly thereafter, the dial up internet was born. Bills in excess of $50 a month, just to connect and stay online for a few hours a week. Hours to download any type of program or update. Disconnects along the way so you had to start all over.

Today, I have the majority of my music collection, which is extensive, on a digital “cloud” located somewhere in Apple’s Universe. Music that is accessible instantly on my iPhone with the swipe of a finger, or, if I want to get really fancy, via voice command to Siri. Speak into the microphone, and she finds the song and plays it. If I miss a TV show, most are available via aps from the networks. I can swipe my finger again, and watch a full hour long show. Or a movie. I can watch video clips of everything to basketball instant replays to the latest news conference in Washington. Amazing. No other way to describe it.

And as a writing instrument, the modern computer is far more elaborate than I ever could have imagined. When I was working on Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and the American Dream in the late 1990s, there was next to nothing insofar as research available on the internet. I had to check out books from the library, look at magazines and newspapers on microfilm, and then either photocopy or write down in longhand the information I was researching. Hoop Lore was done about 50/50, as more and more info became available on the net. If I were writing a non-fiction book today, I would expect that 98% of my research would be done from my office chair.

All of that is well and good. But as technology evolves ever faster, we are beginning to see the downside. It reminds me of the series finale of the TV show, Battlestar Galactica. (The Sci-fi network’s remake, not the original.) In that final episode, we learn that several characters have lived through numerous lives, with the society in which they live always ending the same way: technology evolves to the point where it destroys humanity.

Now, I’m not saying we’re going to be taken over by a mean generation of robotic Siris or anything like that. But, it is impossible not to see the effect this instant age is having on the younger generation. Think about that silly AT&T Universe ad campaign currently airing. A 6 or 7 year old boy rocking in chairs with his grandfather talking about how “back in the day” they had to watch TV in the room where it was hooked up. Or, the one that really irks me, the 12 year old boy talking to his brothers about how back in his time, it sometimes took a minute to download a song. I’m not sure who the brains at AT&T are gearing this nonsense toward, but for me, it’s so nauseating I would never consider switching to their service.

As for our day-to-day lives, I have noticed people becoming more and more rude, more and more demanding. They want what they want, and they want it now. (Most don’t want to pay for it either, but that’s a rant for another day.) My husband sees this every day in his contractor’s business. Clients who take months to make up their minds about what they want. Then, when they finally decide, they call him and ask if he can put their kitchens in that afternoon. When he explains others are now waiting ahead of them, many get irate and do whatever they can to spread nasty rumors about his business. I am now seeing the same thing on Ebay. I used to do a lot of selling on there 10-12 years ago. The service was fairly new, and the people using it, buyers and sellers alike, were mostly civil. Others outright friendly. I would estimate that I had trouble with perhaps one out of a hundred customers. Today it’s more like one out of ten. People pay instantly with Paypal, and then expect their package to be sitting on their doorstep the next morning. I wish I could say I’m exaggerating.

Recently, both Julia and I upgraded our computers to systems running Windows 8. Neither of us particularly likes it. It’s very different, geared toward (should have seen this coming) people 20 and under who live their lives walking around checking Facebook and Twitter every five minutes on their phones. When Julia voiced her distaste for this “upgrade” at a writing get-together last week and said she hopes Microsoft dumps it soon, our resident sage, Lesley, said “I don’t think we’re going to go backwards.”

Lesley is right, of course. There’s no going back. Technology changes on a daily basis, and we either strive to change with it or get left behind. I’m sorry to say that there are more and more days where I think I might just opt for the latter.

 

Sandy Hates Books!

We wonder why agents or editors are not responding with at least minimal interest to our queries, and along comes Hurricane Sandy to mess things up further.   I was just as oblivious as most writers, thinking in terms of energy and mud-soaked homes and offices, of friends back East without heat or electricity until I came upon this plea for help from a book store.

As if the hard copy book sales world did not have enough to deal with in terms of an ever- decreasing number of publishing corporations (turn that around to read “mergers”), Hurricane Sandy rolls in to decimate bookstore’s inventory. If I ignore this plea for help on the premise that I do not live in Brooklyn, then that will possibly mean one less bookstore in the USA, a circumstance which may or may not affect me.  

I look at it this way: Thanksgiving is coming up. I could redirect one dollar for toys or a meal to this bookstore. All I have to ask myself is if I am glad to be an American writer.

powerHouse Arena is the name of the Brooklyn bookstore whose inventory went afloat. See the pictures at

http://www.powerhousearena.com/

Another Seismic Shift in Publishing Land: How Will it Affect Writers and Agents?

If the merger between Random House and Penguin really goes through, let me tell you how that is going to narrow authors’ chances at getting agents, and agents’ chances of having a title accepted: a lot. From my own experience with a very good agent who had/has made a name for herself, an agent can only submit to one editor of a house, even if that editor is one of twenty editors in one of twenty publishing houses that are under the umbrella of a big name like, uh let’s see. . . . Random House, the largest publishing house in the world.

Penguin Group is owned by Pearson. I am familiar with this company because the Pearson representative for textbooks in my part of Central California can be communicated with by email only and will send out the requested exam copy that teachers express an interest in. However, Bedford-St. Martins, A U.S. company specializing in Humanities textbooks for colleges, is owned by the Bedford, Freeman and Worth Publishing Group owned by the Stuttgart, Germany-based George Von Holtzbrink Publishing Group.

The Bedford-St. Martins local book rep is someone I consider a friend, who meets me for coffee to discuss the new batch of books for next semester’s classes along with any other teachers I can get to come along. Then we discuss the book publishing industry at large. Being number two definitely makes The Bedford representative work harder! I doubt she takes a breath during the first ten weeks of any semester, when teachers and departments are considering books, because she seems to be in ten places at once.

But I drift from my topic, which is how the merger of two giants is going to change things. If the practice of only one submission per editor per house per megalithic publishing company holds as standard practice, agents already in the business will be relying even more (like they don’t already) on the 20% income from paychecks of writers who have already made it in the business,  New agents will. . . .

You fill in the blank. It is a changing industry. As long as people want to write, and people want to read, there have got to be ways that new writers come to the notice of readers. I honestly do not know where that will leave agents.

Why the media hates Kobe Bryant

Katie (my daughter) sent me a link to David Brooks’ NYT column this morning, “History for Dollars,” and pointed out how it parallels my heroes post from a while back. She’s right. Brooks talks about the dip the humanities and liberal arts degrees have taken in recent years, how students have abandoned studies that teach them how to immerse themselves in the emotional aspects of life (including language and writing) in favor of specialized careers they hope will pay them mega bucks upon graduation. And surprise, surprise, he even mentions Kobe Bryant in the mix.

The money angle Brooks raises is a topic in itself, and it certainly isn’t confined to college students. Salaries in the NBA have grown to numbers beyond my comprehension—and probably that of old school players like Jerry West, Charles Barkley, Magic, and Bird as well, guys who played basketball because they couldn’t imagine themselves doing anything else. I’m not saying today’s NBA players aren’t worth a lot of money; they have skills that make them stand out from 99.9% of the rest of us, and deserve to be paid accordingly. So no, my gripe isn’t with the annual salaries of $10 to $20 million being shelled out across the league, rather the lack of passion that accompanies the majority of those stellar paychecks.

I can name on one hand the players in the league today whom I feel play every game as if it’s the most important thing in their life at that moment, and, as previously mentioned, Kobe tops my list. He’s the type who would be doing this for free if that’s what it took to play the game. (Kind of like us hapless writers who keep writing for peanuts, hey?) Kobe’s passion for what he does is obvious to anyone who watches him play—and therein, I think, is why he is among the most hated stars in the league insofar as the media is concerned. They just can’t seem to accept the fact that someone could love what he does that much and be the best in the world at doing it. Or, to put it in simple terms: they’re jealous. And that’s too bad for them because they’re missing a once-in-a-lifetime superstar playing at the top of his game, and doing it with an unsurpassed passion that Brooks calls The Big Shaggy. If the Lakers wind up losing again to the Celtics in this year’s Finals, it won’t be because Kobe hasn’t given his absolute very best. As a basketball fan, I couldn’t hope for anything more.

LOST finale proves good storytelling is all about the characters

Like millions of others, my husband Jody and I watched the series finale of LOST last night and came away a bit dazed. My first thought was that Jack had saved the island and thus his island comrades—and I’m still leaning in that direction. Jody’s first take was they were and had always been dead. Further reflection this morning gave me another theory: that all the people who crashed on the island were in their own personal Purgatory; that each one’s individual mission had to be completed before they could move on to the happily ever Afterlife. Later this morning, I’ll surf about the net and read what others are saying, but for the purpose of this morning’s post, what’s important is what I and millions of other fans took away from the story on a personal level.

Prior to the beginning of this final season, Jody and I re-watched the first five seasons. If you haven’t yet done so, I highly recommend it. You’ll pick up a lot of little things you missed the first time through that just might change your entire outlook. Take Sawyer’s character, for instance. The first time through, I hated him with a passion. On second viewing, he became one of my favorite characters. And in fact, I loved ALL of them more the second time. Each one filled with human flaws, yet always able to rise to the occasion when the moment of truth arose. Charlie sacrificing himself in hopes it would save Clair and Aaron; Sayid finding himself able to deeply love and thus worth redemption; Hurley realizing he has so much more than money to offer to the world; Kate being able to forgive herself; Sawyer realizing he can love and love deeply; Sun and Jin’s tragic but remarkably romantic, teary ending; and, best of all, Jack’s leap of faith from reluctant to insistent hero. My only character complaint resides with John Locke. I think he deserved better than to die so the smoke monster could use his body, but perhaps after I have time to analyze and re-watch the show again, I’ll figure out why that had to happen to save him. And oh yes, Ben. The much hated, despicable excuse for a human being Ben. How wonderful to see him being a decent person in the sideways universe, and his ultimate decision to stay out of the church and the journey to the light until he has figured himself out. Well done on that one, LOST writers. Very well done.

Not everyone will agree this was a satisfying finale. Some will complain of too many questions left unanswered. What about the theories surrounding the mysterious island, alternate universes, and time travel? Naturally all of those elements added depth to the show, but in the end, who really cares? We watched LOST because we cared what happened to the characters. The people we came to know and love will live on in our hearts and minds for many years to come. And therein, of course, lies the key to great storytelling for without such characters, they can be no great stories.

Why I watch Judge Judy

When I began watching Judge Judy in the late 1990s, I became an instant fan—not so much of Judge Judy herself as the incredibly lame people who appeared on the show. I still catch the program at least a couple of times a week, usually via DVR. Among my favorites are cases involving women who have been burned by deadbeat guys—guys they knew were losers from the start (often via prison records). No matter how irresponsible and lazy the man, the woman suing him had, at one point, been living with him, hoping and praying he could be changed. The only change that occurred, of course, was the woman’s money moving from her own pocket into that of her lame-brain boyfriend and out the door, never to be seen again.

I also enjoy the cases where parents show up to defend their children, making excuses as to why their 12-year-old, who broke a neighbor’s window while playing baseball, or ran into their parked car with a bike, wasn’t really to blame. Even worse are parents who enable their perfectly healthy adult children, allow them to live at home rent-free with no job or responsibilities. The latter are plaintiffs in various lawsuits: non-payment of child support; borrowed cars that were wrecked while driving without a license or insurance; payback of loans that they insist were meant to be gifts. The list goes on and on, and so does the show because, apparently, there is no end to the number of lame people willing to go on TV and show the world just exactly how lame they are.

Watching Judge Judy helps me as a writer in several ways. The most obvious is that I get ideas for characters. Most of these people are way too pathetic to serve as main characters (what reader could take them seriously?), but I have picked up some worthwhile material to use with my supporting casts. I also find the show great medicine for that affliction that hits us all from time to time: the writer’s doldrums. You know what I’m talking about: those depressing days when we sit around feeling sorry for ourselves because we have yet to land that six figure contract. When I fall into this trap, I abandon my computer for my TV, watch a few episodes of Judge Judy, and presto! I feel instantly better. Much better. It’s a relief to know there are people out there who have accomplished so little with their lives that they’re willing to throw away a lifelong family relationship to sue a sibling for fifty dollars. And in front of a television audience of millions, no less.

Thanks for the inspiration, Judge Sheindlin. And keep up the good work.