Saturday, March 26, 2011


I attended an SCBWI conference recently and heard lots of talk about writing and editing and agenting and the future of publishing. What’s that future? According to one speaker it is a decentralization of publishing, way fewer brick and mortar bookstores, and way, way fewer libraries. Printed books? They’ll limp along for a while and then fade a way. It will be a brave new world of e-books.

And out there in blogland, from a multitude of sources, I hear again and again talk of the end of bookstores and of printed books. A lot of people compare books to music and say that it will be just like what happened to CD’s and music stores.


Maybe not.

Nobody knows, of course, but I do think of Mark Twain who read about his death in newspapers when he was sitting at home and quipped, later, to those same newspapers, “Rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

Is there an e-book revolution happening? Of course. Will it change things? Of course. But people do like the “new” and a lot of people who love their new readers might not want to use them exclusively once the newness has worn off. Also, it’s in the interest of reader sellers to make this “revolution” seem as overwhelming as possible. So you hear things like—there won’t be any bookstores in five or ten years and certainly no libraries etc…

But are books like CD’s? I don’t think so. People like the feel of a book in their hands. They have a loyalty to it, a relationship with it. No one had that kind of loyalty to CD’s. It just isn’t the same kind of experience. Some people say that the generation that is coming to reading now will not have that loyalty and this is probably true. UNLESS it isn’t. We’ve had several generations now growing up with videos. And now we can get movies not just with videos/DVD's but in many, many other ways without leaving our house. And the quality is excellent. So why do people? Leave their houses, I mean. Why do so many people still go to movie-theaters? They watch movies at home AND they go to movie theaters because the experience of seeing a movie in a theater still appeals to them.

I think there are plenty of people who will just read e-books in the future, but I also think there will be people who will read e-books and will still want to read printed books (I’ve read teens saying that so much of their life is spent starring at screens they enjoy looking at a page of print) and like going to bookstores and libraries. It will certainly be fewer than yesterday and today, but they’ll be around for some time yet.

Or so I think today.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Uninvited Characters

I was minding my own business, writing along, when a character I didn’t invite into my novel showed up. He just started talking and I knew that he had something interesting to say. Did I let him stay? YEP.

Here’s what I think about early drafts and sometimes even later drafts; if a strong character appears, I should hear him out, try to see how he might fit into the story, what he can add. I think these characters don’t really appear out of nowhere. If you’re connected to your manuscript and you’re in the story, they show up out of a need.

And sometimes they’re some of the most interesting characters you write.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Okay, it's not brain surgery

Writing is juggling many things at once and not thinking about any of them while you’re in the act of writing. There are just so many areas of concern: voice, character, plot, setting, language, and on and on. If we think about them while we’re writing, there’s a good chance we’ll freeze up or go into a kind of stiff, forced writing, or maybe make the wrong choices. And the wrong choices can be deadly in a novel. The wrong choices can lead you to other wrong choices and then you’re halfway through the novel and you’re thinking, HOW THE HE** DID I GET HERE? WHAT AM I DOING HERE? THIS ISN’T MY BEAUTIFUL NOVEL. THESE AREN’T MY BEAUTIFUL CHARACTERS (and before you know it you’re in a Talking Heads song—sorry, off topic). It’s not enough to write well. I’ve said that before, but it’s something worth saying again and again. A lot of people write well. A lot of people turn out good sentences. We have to do a lot of things at once to make the right choices or be able to go back in revision and evaluate your manuscript and figure out how to make the wrong choices right.

Writing a novel is a very complex act. Okay, it’s not brain surgery, but it’s difficult. I do think being aware of the many aspects can help a writer focus on a manuscript’s weaknesses in revision and avoid getting stuck on focusing too much on just one aspect. For example, and I have to admit I’m guilty of this myself sometimes, if your novel has serious structural problems rewriting and rewriting the first sentence 2000 times isn’t going to help. You have to look beyond the sentence and try to figure out the structural problem. Anyway, being open to changes in revision is a big step toward improvement of a manuscript.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Serious Nature of Comic Fiction

I believe a novel can be funny and serious. My work usually is (to the best of my ability) funny and serious. My latest novel, ALIEN INVASION & OTHER INCONVENIENCES, begins with this line “It takes less time for them to conquer the world than it takes me to brush my teeth.” It’s about what happens after the aliens take over and kill most of the inhabitants of our world. It’s about slavery and imperialism and ecology. There’s a lot of death in it. And, yet, if I’ve been successful at all, there’s also a lot of humor in it. You can write funny & serious and they can both even exist on the same page. It’s not easy. It’s walking a tightrope of tone. But it can be done.

Why is it so surprising to people that the comic and the serious can exist in a novel? Aren’t we humans this way in life? Don’t we cry at weddings and laugh at funerals? Sometimes in the saddest moments, even when we've lost someone, we’re reminded of some quirk of that person or something they did and we laugh even as tears fall from our eyes. Sometimes, as at weddings or intensely joyful moments, we’re so happy we cry.

Great comedians make us laugh at tragic things sometimes. Through their vision of a situation or verbal constructions they can make something sad funny. And it is a sad observation that many of the funniest people have a deep melancholy in them that allows them to be funny. Mark Twain said something like the secret source of humor is not joy, but sorrow. He should know.

Most of us are some mix of funny and sad and funny and serious and comic and tragic. I love fiction that mixes the two. Some examples of variations of these qualities are the following: STONER & SPAZ, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, A GOOD MAN IS HARD TO FIND, HUCK FINN, FEED, ELSEWHERE, GODLESS, SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, and THE TRUE STORY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN to name only a few.

In my opinion there are many, many stories, both realistic and speculative, that mix comedy and serious intent. They’re the ones I’m most likely to fall in love with.