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Saturday
Aug062011

Borders' Demise and the Fate of Tangible Books

   With the pending doom of one of the largest retail bookstores and the current rise in ebook sales, I can't help but wonder what is to become of my most beloved format of literature: the physical book, that lovely tome of murdered and pulverized trees glued in a hefty stack and etched with processed ink.  Yes, they can be bulky and difficult to carry (Oh, us fantasy authors, why must we write a minimum of 500 pages per book?!).  Yes, bookshelves can consume the majority of space in a room (esp. for bibliophiles), and then spill their contents onto your dresser, bed, laundry basket, etc.  God forbid one should fall on you if you bump into it, or look at it funny.  No one will ever find you in time.  I've had friends swear never to help me move again because of having to shlep my boxes of books up flights of stairs.  I honestly thought they would swear to never be my friends again after that!  They almost staged a protest complete with signs right by the moving van!  But despite their weight in bulk, there is something (pardon the horrible choice of descriptive wording here) "magical" about the physical book.  The smell (new and used), the sound of each page turning, the ache in your wrist after holding it up for too long (but you're so happy because that means it was a good read), fighting the wind because it keeps trying to turn the pages on you...  There is an EXPERIENCE to that.  It's something you can't get out of an ebook.  Plus, whenever people come over and you have to leave them standing in your living room, what's the first thing they look at?  Your bookshelves!  It's an excellent way to get to know someone.  It's also a great conversation starter or something to fill an awkward lull at someone's place.  I just have a hard time imagining a future with no tangible books where someone grabs their host's Kindle off the coffee table and starts scrolling down the menu to see what ebooks they have.  Even more awkward would be to ask, "Can I look at your Kindle?".  Uh... What?

   With the disappearance of Borders, then, does this mean Barnes and Noble is soon to follow?  They've already been up for sale.  Local bookstores have been struggling for ages.  I can't imagine that once the big corporations are gone, WalMart, Hastings, and Target are going to be able to keep the tangible book industry afloat, so what will this mean for publishers?  Currently there aren't any bestselling "ebook only" publications coming from them.  At least from what I've seen.  Normally the tangible book comes out, and the ebook follows at a lower price if it follows at all.  If all that's available are some bestsellers in hardcover and paperback that Amazon and aforementioned chain stores can push, ebooks are going to have to bring up the majority of sales.  Already, though, I'm hearing of authors finding creative ways out of these contracts with the publishers, or finding loopholes to gain more money.  The publishers don't seem to be taking these ebooks seriously yet.  Perhaps they should. 

   And what about childrens' books?  Young adult books and teen readers I can see making it into the digitized format no problem.  Textbooks on Kindle?  PLEASE!!!  They're already working on that, and coming up with "rental" programs for them.  Beginning readers, board books, etc...stuff for the really young children just learning to speak and read?  No way.  They love to get their hands on those books and turn the pages (and tear them apart, too, but, hey, we all did that).  It's about interacting.  So maybe thanks to them the physical book will never truly go away.  Eric Carle and his blinky fireflies will be around for a while, and so will that gluttonous caterpillar. 

  Where then will that leave the public libraries?  Will they become a cache of the antiquated format?  A treasury of what once was?  How will they keep up with new titles if they are not printed in physical form?  Would they be able to obtain enough funding to establish a rental system for ebooks like companies are doing for the textbooks?  I sure hope so.  I'd hate to see them struggle.

   So with all this in mind, I'm still digging through my old stacks of tangible books, looking for the ones I haven't read yet and plowing through them.  I own a Kindle.  I've put everything I've written onto it and am converting my books into proper Kindle format to sell.  I love that I don't have to carry a huge tome around with me and can instead have this sleek looking leather bound electronic device instead that weighs practically nothing.  However!  It does not smell like a book.  It makes an odd clicking noise when I 'turn pages" instead of an actual page turning noise and I miss that.  I can't tell how far into the book I am by its thickness anymore.  I can't easily skip ahead to a random part and read it, but have to go page by page (I don't know why I like doing that, but I do...it's one of my favorite things to do with a book I'm enjoying).  I can't dog-ear pages, and it won't look like I read it when I'm done with it.  There's something oddly satisfying about a book looking like you've read it, esp. when you've read it more than once.  It looks loved.  It looks experienced.  An ebook always looks fresh and new.  Maybe that can be exciting, too.       

     

Saturday
Jul162011

The Real and Writing

   So it's been a while!  I just got a new job working in the molecular genetics department at the university hospital.  It's kind of funny, but I feel as though I've come around full circle to my original intentions in going to college at UNM. 

    Once upon a time there was a little goth girl who aspired to be a marine biologist.  No, I'm not kidding.  When I was a kid I loved dolphins and whales, sea stars, squid, sharks, anglerfish with their bioluminescent lures, all that stuff.  Okay, fine, I still do.  One of my first attempts at a novel was when I was about 10.  I planned on writing a "biologically accurate" tale about a dolphin who was separated from his pod and had to travel all over the ocean to find them again.  It started with his birth and, surprise, surprise, he was separated from his mother by tuna fishermen.  Well, by the nets separating the pod, dolphins getting caught in the nets, the boats chasing them off, etc.  Actually, though, the way I wrote it was very brutal because I had been watching graphic footage on the Discovary Channel of the fishing boats (via protesting groups), and wrote exactly what I saw.  It was incredibly sad.  Most of the pod died from drowning (the poor little protagonist saw their corpses caught in the net as he swam by crying for his mother...PTSD ensued not too long afterward), or died after being hauled onto the boat and their bodies were tossed back into the sea. 

   Still friendless at this point, the little dolphin encountered sharks where he lost a portion of his dorsal fin (more PTSD) and got lost.  I think after this he fell into a deep depression and finally made a friend out of a crab or jellyfish or something.  I can't really remember, but it was something really small that was a pain in the ass to keep around.  I didn't know what to do with the dolphin after this and felt I'd taken on much more than I could handle, so abandoned the project.  I mean really...what can you do with a baby dolphin who really isn't weaned and is swimming around with a jacked up dorsal fin in the middle of the ocean talking to a jellyfish?  Logic tells you that the little guy is doomed.  Maybe even at 10 I knew better.  I think the whole thing is saved onto a floppy disc for my Apple IIc in my closet and is probably irretrievable at this point.  (sigh)  Oh, well, that's beside the point.

    So I've loved marine life and even at 10 years old was on some eco conservationalist kick.  When I first went to college my plan was to study marine biology in Seattle.  Reality struck me when I realized that unless I was super lucky and managed to get a job in some marine park or zoo, or could get tons of grants, most likely I would be working for the government testing the ocean for pollution levels or doing horrible projects like one I heard about while I was there.  Get this: in order to test a new method for oil spill clean up, some brilliant neanderthal proposed dumping tons of crude oil into a "sectioned off area" of Puget Sound (ie- there are floaties on it to keep it from spreading over the surface, but it will still sink, and birds can still land in it, fish will still swim in it, etc) and lighting it on fire.  Yes this was actually proposed and was in the newspaper.  Fortunately someone grew a brain and shot it down.  I wept to think that as a marine biologist I might have to do something like that, or test the water after. 

    Onward back to NM where I attended UNM with a major in creative writing and now a minor in biology.  After much though, and much plinking away at my keyboard in Seattle, I came to the conclusion that my passion was and always will be writing.  Here's a funny thought.  1996.  Not too far in the distance past, yes?  I was still lugging around my old Apple IIc to type on.  It went to Seattle with me.  (I believe it had its own purpose there.  Secretly it may have been stalking Bill Gates.)

      So my intention was to fuel my science fiction writing with my biology minor.  I am a firm believer in the "write what you know" mantra.  If you know nothing, you can write nothing.  If you don't know it, research it.  So what better way to write about the science that I love so dearly (genetics and cellular physiology was included in this because I found these loves in Seattle), than to keep up with the times and find new material every day?  Well, education is one thing.  Granted it inspired me because I could actually now understand what I read about, and I could put it into a format that others could comprehend.  Or, I could pick and choose.  What helped even more, however, was just reading about the current issues, or even past issues and applying them to the present.  Always adding the "What if?" inspired me greatly. 

    Where my education fit in, and where it continues now, is in how I can interpret the material and make it believable.  By working in the lab, I can write a totally believable story with a researcher, or geneticist, or anything having to do with a lab in a general way.  I know where to go and who to ask for information to help when I get stuck.  My job is my lifeline.  But that's the obvious. 

    Or is it so obvious?  Sometimes it seems like far too many writers take their readers' suspension of disbelief for granted.  It is so easy to look at a picture of a beaker, or a sword, or a gun and write about using it.  It's even easier to read someone else's description and paraphrase, esp. if it's of a place where you've never been.  A far different experience, however, is to actually use that beaker, or that sword, or that gun (and not to kill someone, smart asses).  I can't tell you how much difficulty I had in writing "Kraysh" when I was trying to describe the forest using NM field guides and online pics, and then winter came and I went backcountry skiing and took my notecards with me.  Those descriptions wrote themselves after I went into the woods myself.  It was the same writing "Scourge of the Bone Cages".  There is no way I could have written that if I hadn't even swung a Japanese sword. 

  Now I'm not suggesting to study something for years to master it before writing about it.  For example, in the case of the sword, just pick it up and actually swing it.  Go to a class or two.  The first couple are usually free anyway.  Shoot a gun or two.  It makes a world of difference, and the readers will appreciate it.  I know I do.  Actors study dances and movements for weeks, sometimes months for roles.  I believe as writers that we are obligated to our readers to give them some semblance of authenticity, too.  At least as much as our tiny little purses will allow anyway.           

Saturday
Jul022011

Questions For All: Cliched Plotlines

     There are positives and negatives to this topic.  After all, chiched plotlines are what both drive us to read our favorite topics and what could potentially deter us from picking up a new author or delving into a new genre.  So here are two questions for all:

    What is your favorite cliched plotline?  What is your most despised cliched plotline?  (There is a reason why I don't say 'least favorite' here because that would still imply that you still like it.  I say 'most despised' because I want to know what cliched plotline, upon encountering it, makes you throw the book across the room or immediately turn the channel on the TV with such disgust that you then want to wash your brain out with Clorox bleach.)

      My favorite is the psychotic character.  I know that's not a plotline, but I don't really care how the psycho got into the story as long as he'she is there.  It's also a little more particular than just the general "babbling nonsense" kind of psycho character who wanders aimlessly and who the main character encounters for a brief moment, interprets his/her words or tries to, and then moves on.  This type of psychotic character has to have more of a stronghold on the story.  (From here on I'm going to say "they" and such because I get annoyed typing he/she all the time...I know it's "grammatically incorrect", but...well...deal.)  THEY (mwahahah) can be the main character (preferred, but not common) or a supporting/secondary character.  They can have a tragic backstory that has led to their going/being crazy in the story (preferred), or they can just have been born that way (much less common, and far more difficult to write).  All I'm looking for is that the character is clinically crazy.  If they have a definable disorder that I can recognize...awesome.  If they are a sociopath...fantastic.  Auditory and visual hallucinations?  Even better.  They just need to be there in their craziness.  If their psychosis is part of the story I am in my glory reading/watching the tale (see Batman, Dexter, American Psycho, Natural Born Killers to name some well knowns).  If it's a side factor, great.  I'm still game.  Many of my friends have often recommended books to me solely using the phrase "The main character is crazy" or something similar and I've snatched it up.   

    For those of you that have read further into the Assaudian War series, or who have read my fantasy novel Kraysh, my favorite cliche may sound a little familiar.  For those of you that haven't and enjoy this sort of plotline, these two series are just for you.  They are massively different, of course.  The Assaudian War is written from Caroline's perspective, the young abused noble with corrupted magic.  She struggles with this magic to keep it from infecting her mind and, she believes, turning her into Zurigan the Animal Assaud.  Kraysh, however, was a novel I wrote in response to Lord of the Rings.  I'd wondered to myself, "What would it be like for me to write a novel from the evil character's point of view?  But not an evil character that had any trauma, or abuse, or anything like that to have made it evil.  Just a character who is evil for evil's sake, and a character who can't be redeemed or turned good."  Thus was born the psychotic and inheritantly evil creature Kraysh, and a world that I had the most fun creating so far.

     Now, the psychotic crazy that I enjoy writing is not one of nonsense.  It's resembles nothing of Alice in Wonderland or even Richard Adams' Watership Down (Fiver) and The Plague Dogs (Snitter) though those are two of my favorites concerning the crazy secondary character types.  My psychotic characters, or as I often put it, my characters that are "a bit off", are coherent (most of the time) and rational (often too much).  The basis of my "a bit off-ness" comes wrapped in studies of dissociative disorders (related to multiple personality disorder though none of my characters suffers directly from that), sociopathy, schizophrenia, migraines (not in any way related to psychosis although it can feel like you are losing your mind or suffering a stroke while experiencing one...and Caroline does begin to suffer these because of her tainted magic in The Vein to Gainsay), anti-social disorders, addiction, and sado-masochistic relationships. 

      The most damaged characters make for the most interesting characters, especially if they are trying to hide it.  They may not ALL be crazy, but many come damn near close.  Caroline is "a bit off" from the start and progresses in very interesting ways because of the tainted magic that she can't get rid of.  Kraysh would never admit that she's a sociopath because she can't be anything else.  The rest of them, well, they speak for themselves. 

       

  Onto the second question: my most despised cliched plotline.  Easy.  Rescue the wimpy ass secondary female character.  Seriously?  Are we still doing this?  Come on people!  It's 2011 and you still can't think of a better plotline?  Wow.  The new twists nowadays are that she starts out as a strong character like a modern day woman, but she still needs to be rescued.  Even if she started out strong, the fact that she has to be rescued in the end makes her a lame character to me because of this cliche.  I can't help my prejudice.  They even put this cliche on top of other plotlines just to have it there.  I don't understand why this plotline is predominant among the male hero stories.  I just don't get it.  Maybe it's a guy thing.

     Ok.  So I gave my favorite and most despised.  Now I want to hear yours.     

Monday
Jun272011

Potato Chips

   There's always been this bit of "writerly" advice that oftentimes becomes hypocritical from some people who give it, namely those who call my work "too wordy and descriptive".  It's my favorite advice, and I give it all the time: write what you want to read.  I follow it with every word I put to print, and I follow it with everything I read.  It, unfortunately, is also why I have become an incredibly finicky reader and don't read much fiction.  This is not because there aren't good stories, but because, I think, of some other bit of very, very bad advice floating out there.  I saw a glimpse of it in a tweet I follow quoting Anne McCaffrey (hopefully out of context): "Don't try to impress your reader with style or vocabulary or neatly turned phrases.  Tell the story first."

  Now, I agree with the "don't try to impress" part.  One should never force style.  If you're sitting there focusing on every word like you're folding origami, you're losing flow.  However, if the story is streaming from your mind and you find yourself furiously typing an entire novel in that general manner, by all means this is probably how you write.  Fine tuning, as always, is essential in the editing, but to trim out natural vocabulary or style just seems...well...very wrong.  I liken it to lighting your carefully concocted floral arrangement on fire and saying afterward, "It was just too damn colorful.". 

   This seems to be the trend though: remove style.  Remove description.  Remove anything that might be cause to slow the reader down a bit.  This a part of the "bestseller" mindset.  Chapters must be three pages or less, double spaced.  Characters can have no more than a one sentence description, though most don't even have that.  Make sure you use a mash-up of easily describeable material with a twist as a selling point.  Never mind the other widely popular advice of "don't write for the market" because if you can't describe your work using other authors' works, you can't sell yourself.  I'm not kidding on this either.  Publishers, editors, agents (book and screenplay alike) eat this up.  I went to a screenwriting conference in Santa Fe and the first thing they told us before setting us loose to pitch to agents and producers was to compare our screenplays to popular and successful movies and ideas.  Black became a mix of Tim Burton does Thirteen.  I got nods of instant comprehension every time. 

    One of the bits of advice I got as a new writer (and I can't for the life of me remember who said it to me, but it's the best advice I think I ever got) was to never write passively.  "What's that mean?" I asked.  "Use your keyword search," my advisor continued,"and type in the word 'was'.  Replace every one with something else."  I think I tried it out on one of my short stories and I was appalled with how often I'd used the word was.  It wasn't even in the sense of was -ing.  I used it for descriptions, too, like "His hair was stormy grey.", or "She was atop the hill when the fighting broke out.".  Ugh.  How boring!  I left in a couple because, well, I frankly got sick of it, but I really got a sense of when might be an appropriate place to use "was" in a novel (hardly ever), and when wasn't.  At a few conferences, editors gave the same advice.  What I'm seeing now, however, is a resurgence of this word in the "write for bestseller" market.  More lazy writing.  It's like they're deliberately inspiring people to write badly. 

   I hate to say it, but even Stephen King has fallen prey to this style.  I recently finished "Under the Dome" and, although I enjoyed the moral at the end, I have to say it was written very poorly.  Over 1000 pages and you would expect some character description in there somewhere.  Nope.  Every other verb?  Was.  The unfortunate side-effect of reading novels written like this is that you don't really read them.  You skim them.  Yeah, you want to know what happens, but not necessarily for the right reasons.  In my books I want people to read on because of the characters, because of what they're thinking and feeling, because of what they're experiencing and not just because of what's happening around them.  When you skim a book without really absorbing the text because there isn't anything to absorb, you just want to know the ending.  You might as well skip to the last chapter and save youself a heap of time.  It's like watching TV, but not paying attention until the last 10 minutes because that's the big reveal.  That's what this "bestseller" style reminds me of.  3 page chapters?  Commercial breaks.  Passive style?  Made for TV. 

  I don't know about the rest of you, but I prefer heart and soul in what I read and write.  I want fully textured worlds and characters that stimulate my brain, not skeletons with twist endings.  If I can't tell one author's work from another, I'm not going to bother, for something is off there.  Would you listen to a band's music if it sounded exactly the same as everyone else's?  Why write that way?  Media for the masses is like mass producing potato chips.  They might be tasty, but they're all the same thing, and they're not very memorable. 

   So really it's not really anyone's place to say you can or can't write a certain way.  You can write any way you want.  Whether people enjoy it is a totally different affair.  Whether you sell it is something else entirely.  Meshing the three together seems to be about what you want to do with your story, and what you can live with.  As for potato chips?  No thanks.  I hear they make you fat anyway.            

Friday
Jun242011

Comics and Black

  I was invited very last minute to attend the Albuquerque Comic Expo and be on the Local Filmmaker Panel Fri. June 23 from noon until 1pm.  We're scrambling to get some copies of the movie together as well as the score and buttons which will be on sale at the Comic Warehouse stall all day. 

  Soon enough we're going to connect Black to this website, probably with its own page associated with Atmospheric Productions, my independent film company.  Websites and Black so far have all managed to be difficult children indeed, so consolidation is in order here.  If anyone asks me tomorrow what the most difficult aspect of filmmaking has been I'm going to say websites.  They are my bane! 

   All marketing of Black, including the film festival entries that we'd been working on over the summer, had been put on hold last fall once I'd gone back to college.  Full time college took all my time, but perhaps now that I've adapted and with the resurgence of copyediting on the books and marketing going on, Black will resurface.  It's odd in a way.  It seems that the books may be easier to promote now than the movie.  How ironic. 

    For any interested that haven't seen it yet, here's the link to the Comic Expo's official site:

http://abqcomicexpo.com/

  It shall prove to be exciting!