Monday, April 26, 2010

Steve Almond Self-Pubs!!!

Steve Almond, who once sneezed and the residual "At-choo" found its way into a mid-tier literary magazine, just self-published a short work on writing, and he goes into his reasoning for the decision here.

With John Edgar Wideman, that makes two established literary writers self-pubbing so far in 2010.

"So what?" you contend. "These writers are both well established players in the game. Of course they can self-publish. They already have a readership."

Very true, but ten years ago, few literary writers would consider self-publishing, at least publicly. The commercial publishing world had developed--for some good reasons, some others not so good--a bias against self-publishing. (There are these things called vanity publishers who charge the writer way too much for...Oh, you've heard this one.) And despite self-publishing's honorable lineage that includes names like Joyce and Austen and Twain, most literary writers were afraid of the contemporary stigma of self-publishing. They wouldn't dare dip their toes in that pool for fear of some catching some E. coli-type virus that might contaminate their entire literary careers.

Scary stuff, but in the late 1990s/early 2000s, with the advent of print-on-demand technology, all of a sudden there was a way to self-publish without dealing with vanity vermin, and without a huge up-front investment in books. And while there were still plenty of companies that charged too much for this new service, there were others that didn't. The world was developing a new way for a writer, at least financially and at least on the front end, to go it alone.

While writers of other genres started publicly experimenting with this new form of publishing, much doubt still persisted in literary circles. For many in this group, a deep mistrust of anything that cost a writer money ruled. How little money and how good the product were of no consequence. If it was self-published, it was evil. Nice and clean, black and white. (Oddly, the opposite of the nuance and complexity literary fiction is known for.)

So, a decade removed from the democratization of publishing, at least two literary writers--tired of the narrowing perspective of commercial publishing and craving a chance to design their own books--have publicly taken the self-publishing plunge. Minds can change after all. It just takes a while.

Will these literary writers make self-publishing any easier for those who don't bring a huge readership and a cadre of cred with them to their project? I don't know. I like to think it bring us closer to a day when every book will be judged by its ability to engage rather than by its method of publication.

Yours in laying down the law,


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Monday, April 19, 2010

Drummer wins Pulitzer, Drummer wins Pulitzer!!!


My first thought was, "Hell, if a drummer can do it..."

I'm kidding. Big congrats to Paul Harding and Bellevue Literary Press. I'm thrilled that a novelist/musician won it, and I'm thrilled that, for the first time since A Confederacy of Dunces, a small press won it. I'm keeping a very close tab on myself; if I start to show signs of jealousy, feel free to knock some sense into me, but also remember what I said two weeks ago about firsts.

Of course, I had to go digging for everything I could read about Harding, and I came across this interview at Bookslut. Interestingly, this is what he had to say about the relationship between being a writer and being a drummer:

"They scratch the same itch. I've said this a bunch of times. The differences are superficial and obvious ones. Which is being a drummer in a rock band is loud and you're on stage and doing it in front of thousands of people. Being a writer is quiet and solitary. To me it's just circumstantial whether I pick up a pair of drumsticks or whether I open a laptop. I feel like I'm a transmitter or something like that. Whatever comes through I start tapping out on the drum set or tapping out on the keyboards."

I have to admit this is exactly the opposite of how I feel about the relationship between writing novels and playing music. When writing a novel, I feel like there is absolutely nothing else in the cosmos that wants me to do it. It is all uphill, all work. Here's a word, here's another...Wait, are those the right ones? Should I switch them around? Am I going in the right direction? Is there anything good on YouTube?

Music, for me, is something that comes from inspiration, the transmitter thing Harding speaks of. If I get a musical idea, I find a guitar and strum away. In a day or two--maybe a week or two--it's pretty much as good as it's going to be.

My novels, as we explored last week, only get better with more work, to the point that they're never really done.

So, I'd advise you not to listen to this Paul Harding character and his views on writing novels and composing music. I mean, what's does he know?

Only enough to win a Pulitzer.

Congrats, Paul!

Yours in laying down the law,


Try Ghost Notes, the award-winning novel, in print form for just $5.

Try Ghost Notes the Audio Book as an unabridged digital download.

Or try Ghost Notes the Ebook.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Have You Ever Revised A Novel and Made it Worse?

This may come as a surprise to many, but I have a big, big problem with self-publishing.

Many of you have gone--or are going--through the process of writing a book. It's quite a journey, even if the journey is one of those quiet ones that happens only in your head...and on your computer screen.

And if you've written a novel, you've also probably revised a novel. It's part of the process. You want to make it better and better.

Here's my question for you: Is novel revision ever a bad thing?

I've been writing novels, daily, seriously, for something like 14 years. In that time I've completed two novels, and I'm just about finished with a third. I don't count the number of drafts I do on each one, but I tend to go through a novel at least six times changing big-ticket items--plot, character, character motivations, etc. Then I read through it many times, my focus getting more and more narrow, until I'm fixated only on grammar, spelling and typography issues. That's when I call it done.

I have to admit there is no such thing as "too many" when it comes to passes through my works. In my opinion, they could always use one more. My work never tells me it's done. It's usually something I have to tell myself. "After four, five, six years, isn't it time to get it out there?" "Can I really justify dedicating any more time to this thing without knowing if anyone wants to read it?" These questions speak more to my emotional state than to anything within the work.

With each novel, there is a draft that I sense is the final one, and I try to make the thing perfect by the end of that draft...and then I give it one more quick draft, just to make sure...and then I read it--just read it--for any last-second issues.

And then I have to stop, save the work as "MyMasterpieceFinal," and send it out into the world.

And therein comes my problem with self-publishing.

Self-publishing allows many writers to call their final draft their final draft, whereas commercially published writers still have, at minimum, an editor, and probably an agent, who will go through that manuscript at least one more time with a keen eye for its weaknesses. This process, I gather, can take months--even a year sometimes--and it can't help but make those final manuscripts even more final. Extra-final. Super-final. FINAL-final.

Of course, self-published writers can hire their own experts to edit their works, but most don't. We'd rather save that scratch for book design, or marketing. We need to watch every penny if we expect to profit. Editing is one thing we should be able to do ourselves, so we try our best.

But how about you? Are your novels ever finished, even when they're "finished"? Or do you agree with William Faulkner, that great works are never finished, only abandoned?

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Monday, April 5, 2010

"The First"

I received an email about a week ago from a writer I don't know. This writer had the idea of writing a novel set in the world of rock 'n' roll, and when she came across my novels, which are set in the world of rock 'n' roll, she was upset because she wanted to be the first to come up with the idea. "You broke my heart," this writer said.

First of all, we can all relate to having an idea and wishing to be the first person to think of it. Whether we're actually first or not is up for debate, but it feels like we're first, and that's enough to make us a little possessive of the idea.

Still, I'm hardly the first novelist to tackle the world of rock 'n' roll through the novel form. How about Perrotta, or Hornby, or Doyle, or Delillo? Each of these novelists wrote novels centered around rock 'n' roll. Not contemporary enough? How about Powder by Kevin Sampson, or The Carpet Frogs by Alan Arlt? Each of these novelists got to the genre before me, and they write about roughly the same era that my novels are set in (1990s).

But here's the funny part about being first: If you want to write fiction in some kind of subgenre, what you really need are writers who have had some success in that subgenre before your query letter passes over an agent's desk.

"No way," you say. "That would blow the whole point. I want to be first."

Well, to be the first is great, but in 2010 a commercially published novel needs to be more than just the first to render a specific subject matter. It needs to be done very, very well.

Everyone knows I like baseball metaphors, so here's another one. If you're going to be the first to succeed with a novel in a certain subject matter, your book needs to not just be a home run but a grand slam. Either it is, or agents and editors are going to find your novel's flaws, and with no track record of that kind of novel succeeding, they have a reason to look elsewhere for something that might have a more built-in audience ("I vant to suck your blood").

Any idea, in and of itself, is worth almost nothing in the novel world. A rendering of an idea can be a masterpiece. If you're upset because a writer got to your idea first, then do it better, and no one will remember you weren't first. They'll be too busy calling you the best.

Try Ghost Notes, the award-winning novel, in print form for just $5.

Try Ghost Notes the Audio Book as an unabridged digital download.

Or try Ghost Notes the Ebook.