Sunday, June 27, 2010

"Brave New World" for Readers, or More of the Same, Just Different?

In perusing blogs this week, I came across a link to this article by Laura Miller in Salon in which she contends that once self-publishing really takes off, readers are going to find out how awful it is to have to read through the slush pile.  She says, in part

You've either experienced slush or you haven't, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is....It seriously messes with your head to read slush....In other words, it's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it, and if the prophecies of a post-publishing world come true, it looks, gentle readers, as if that dirty job will soon be yours.
Miller seemed to think that readers are going to have to start plowing through a lot of slush in order to find anything good to read. My question is, how is that any different, really, than what I'm doing now? (Note: I'm not going to lay the negative connotations on the word "slush" that she puts on it. In the remainder of this post, "slush" will simply mean a LOT of something.)

Let's say I'm searching for something new to read. First, I have options of where to look - my own bookshelves, the library, a bookstore, an online book seller. Then I have a huge number of books to go through in order to find THE one I'm going to read. Part of the process involves eliminating what I don't want to read.  When I walk into a bookstore, I don't even bother walking through the sections that contain genres I don't care about. I go straight to those parts of the store that I believe will have books in my area of interest and my favorite genre. Then I start scanning covers and titles. Thinking about my trip a week or so ago (when I ended up buying the two books), I sorted the books in my mind without ever picking them up. If there was a vampire (or vampire-looking sort of being), or if the title seemed sort of trendy or angst-ridden, I didn't give it another glance. I zeroed in on those books that seemed to have some link to something historical.  I'll admit I also looked more closely at books with titles that started with "N," "O," and "P," since I'm at that point in the A-Z reading challenge.  My point is, going through the slush wasn't a time-consuming, mind-numbing process. I already have filters in place that help me wade through the slush, and I bet you do, too.

What happened when a title or cover art caught my eye and seemed to meet the conditions of my filters? I read the back cover blurb to get an idea of what the plot might be and who the characters are. It actually annoys me when the back cover is devoted to testimonials about the author's work; at that decision point, I don't want to know what someone else says about the author - I want to know about the story.  If the blurb passed the test, I usually flipped the book open to a couple of different points in the middle and read a couple of sentences, or a paragraph, or even a full page or two. The more I read on those random drop-ins for the book, the more likely I was to buy the book.  If the writing at some random point seems not so good, I assume there are going to be other problems, especially if the writing is not so good at multiple random points.  On the other hand, if the voice catches me right away (as it did with Ophelia), it's a done deal - I'm buying the book.

I guess I don't understand why Miller thinks having more self-published books is going to change the way people choose their books. We all have our rubrics for making choices, and those rubrics are going to apply, regardless of the number of possible choices available. I prefer not to read science fiction, so it doesn't make any difference to me whether there are 5 new science fiction books out there or 50,000. I'm going to be looking at historical fiction. If there are 50,000 new historical fiction books, I will sort them by looking for books about a particular time period.  I'm hoping the loosening of control on publishing will give me some more choice; I'm tired of having most of the limited few historical fiction books published each year focus on a limited range of historical time periods and famous figures (anyway, that's how it seems).

Unlike Miller, I'm not going to assume that anything published by some alternative to commercial publishing is "dreck." Sure, I agree that poor writing is painful to read. Believe me, I have suffered my share of pain through reading student papers!! I've also suffered some of that pain reading self-published novels. But I've read some self-published and small-press works that were pretty good and could have been really good with some more editing. I was willing to forgive their flaws because their characters were so likeable or because I got caught up in the story and wanted to know what happened. In the end, it's not who published the book; it's where the story takes me.

I say, bring on this brave new world! People won't give up and quit reading (as Miller seems to contend). Readers will continue to forge their way through the deluge of new work the way they always have - using whatever means have served them well in the past.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Not the Best for a Bedtime Read

The only time of day I really have a chance to read is when I go to bed. Unless the book is dull or I'm unusually tired, this usually works well. However, I'm thinking as I read The Heretic's Daughter that I may need to change my habit temporarily.

Every night when I read some of this book, my sleep is what I would call "disturbed." My daughter asked if that meant I'm having bad dreams. No, not dreams. But not peaceful sleep either. I think the problem is that I am so aware that something bad is going to happen (I haven't read ahead yet, but let's face it - we all know the Salem witch trials don't turn out well....) that my mind is trying to work it all out, even as I'm sleeping. 

It probably also has a lot to do with Kent's skill in evoking mood. At one point last night, I was reading about the clandestine trip Sarah and her baby sister make to an aunt's house to avoid the pox. As I read Kent's description of the cold night, I could picture it -- no, I could feel it.  Kent seems to be very good at creating sort of a sense of doom through the narrator's voice. As much as I am enjoying the book, part of me also cringes away from it. I don't know that I'm going to enjoy reading about the cruelty humans can inflict on each other, especially from the victims' viewpoint.  But reading is meant to stretch our worlds, right? Not just keep us comfortable.....

Saturday, June 19, 2010

You Don't Take an Alcoholic to a Liquor Store, and You Don't Take Me to a Bookstore

This was the week when I make the "sacrifice" to take my son to brass camp in another town (1.5 hrs away) so he can hang out with other brass players and get to work with a professional, touring tuba player. While he's doing that from 9-3, I'm hanging out at the big public library. Some sacrifice, huh?

This particular library has a little bookstore of used and discarded books, and I ended up buying a couple of books for my daughter to read.  I'm trying to get her to move past the Warriors series. It's not that I think anything is wrong with that series, but when she starts re-reading the same books over and over, I'd like for her to discover some of the other wonderful characters and stories that are out there. The two books were Chasing Redbird by Sharon Creech and Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett. She has taken Chasing Vermeer to her bedroom, so maybe she's going to actually read it. If she does, I'm going to try to get her to be a guest blogger.

So, I could justify that little incident of addiction by saying I did it for my daughter. But what happened yesterday has no such easy justification - it was all for selfish reasons!  After I picked up my son from his camp, we had three hours to kill before the camp's final concert. Eventually, we ended up at a chain bookstore (he suggested it! It's really not my fault, ha ha!). I meandered around for a while, waiting for him and idly looking at the science fiction and history for something that might make a good Father's Day gift for my husband.  Somehow I ended up in the teen section, and that's when it happened - all my willpower and self-control broke down.

At first, I was bemoaning (as usual) the glut of vampires and dark magic books that make up the teen section, and then I began to idly look for an "N" book for my A-Z reading challenge (see how innocent temptation appears at first?!). My intention was to find a title and then look for it in the local library.  But then I found A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly. I was interested in the blurb, especially when I found that the book is set in 1906 and ties in with Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy (one of those things I read a portion of as an English major years ago in college).  But I was able to put it back on the shelf and move on.

Then I saw Ophelia  by Lisa Klein, and I was doomed.  I've been interested in Ophelia since I found it browsing in one of those other "killing time" sessions spent in a bookstore. This time, though, I opened it and read a little, and I was hooked. It's not in the local library. I could probably get it on interlibrary loan, it was, so convenient.

There's probably a name for the psychological mechanism that worked on me. I probably could have resisted if there had been only one book. But to find TWO books that intrigued me, TWO books that didn't have any connections to vampires and do have some connection to history...let's face it, I didn't have a chance!

I have a wonderful summer of reading ahead of me!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Writing and Golf (or, What to Do, What to Do)

(This should be read in a matter-of-fact, non-whiny voice. It is not a pity party.)

I am about this close to calling it quits with trying to get published. And probably not for the reasons you would anticipate. I've been reading some agent blogs lately, and yeah, the numbers are staggeringly discouraging. One agent said he gets about 15,000 queries per year and takes on 3-5 new clients. But that's not what has discouraged me.  One agent answered my question about the future of historical fiction honestly by saying, "I won't lie. It's tough." I appreciate her straight answer, and although it's a discouraging answer for me, both as a writer and as a reader, that's not what has discouraged me.

Here's the discouraging part: I've been reading the comments left on those blogs, too, most of which are left by aspiring writers. And there are three attitudes that I'm picking up on that, if they are representative of "the game," just turn me off.  First, some people are just rude. It makes me think of what I learned about life in elementary school - some people try to make themselves look good (or in the case of these comments, clever or "with it" or saavy about the world of publishing) by belittling others in replies to those others' comments. I don't know why I'm surprised by that; aspiring writers are a microcosm of the rest of society, and there's a percentage of people in any field who are that way.

Second, I don't like the constant self-promotion (or promotion of one's work, I guess). I know in this competitive environment it's really important to get the word out. And I know that if you don't toot your own horn, no one else is going to do it. But some commentors manage to work in a discussion of their plot or characters no matter what the original topic of the post is.

Finally, and this one bothers me most, no one seems to be listening to anyone else. There may be 100+ comments, but most of them are discrete responses to the original post. Only occasionally does something like a conversation get going. Maybe I misunderstand the purpose of comments and am thinking of something that is more like a forum or discussion board. But I sometimes think the internet has made it all too easy for each of us to have our say without paying any attention to what someone else is saying. 

So....back to my original contention, that I think I might quit. I'm not a competitive person. I don't want to have to engage in those sorts of behaviors to "succeed."  I don't want to be famous. The only reason I started writing was because I wanted to tell the story. Somewhere along the way, I began to think writing was only worthwhile if it "paid off." I felt too guilty about spending time at the computer instead of playing with my kids or washing dishes if there wasn't going to be a product that could bring in something as return on investment. But you know something? I bet there are millions of golfers who spend lots of time on the golf course but never expect to play professionally. They do it because it is relaxing and enjoyable. Why can't I feel the same way about my writing?

Maybe I should put my story on the Kindle store for 99 cents and be done with it!

(The thing that makes me reluctant to do that, though, is that I might lose the drive to improve the story. If I had put my book out there when I first finished it two/three years ago, it would have been flabby compared to what it is today, when I'm trying to edit it into a form strong enough to attract an agent's attention. But then again, maybe I'm editing the thing to death. I just know that when I go back after a couple of weeks and read the chapters I've trimmed 500 words out of, I realize those chapters are MUCH better than before. It's pretty amazing how virile the language can be when every word is forced to carry a major load!)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

My First Failure of the Year

I decided last night that I just can't do it. Read The Mysterious Benedict Society, that is. At least not now. I've read about four chapters and I just can't get into it, although my son assures me the pace picks up. But every night after about two pages, my eyes are rolling shut, the book is wobbling around, and I fear some night it's going to hit me in the face. This is a thick book. If I can only read two pages a night, it's going to take ALL summer! And this particular book is not what I want to spend all summer reading.

The fact that one of my good friends sent a copy of The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent surely couldn't have anything to do with my decision......

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Disappointment of Unfufilled Potential

I'm still plugging along with my A-Z reading challenge. I had reached "L," which was supposed to be Twain's Life on the Mississippi. But a couple of weeks ago when I was at the library with my kids, I saw an "L" book on the shelf that intrigued me - The Lace Dowry by Andrea Cheng. The story is about a young Hungarian girl whose mother had decided to commission a handmade lace tablecloth as a dowry.  According to the book cover, the conflict of the story centers around whether the mother and daughter who are working on the lace will be able to complete it, and the main character's attempts to help them be able to do it.

I was drawn to the idea of reading about a different culture that I don't know a lot about, and the book was set in 1933, which meant it is historical fiction. So, although I am actually eager to read Life on the Mississippi, I decided to suspend it in favor of The Lace Dowry.  While I'm not going to say that decision was a mistake, I will admit I was disappointed in The Lace Dowry.

The main problem is that it was so sketchy. It started off all right, setting up the character of Juli as a girl more interested in reading and in science than in getting things lined up for an acceptable marriage. The conflict between Juli and her mother is also set up; her mother is going to force Juli to go along with the dowry idea and with taking dancing lessons.  Finally, we get to meet Roza and her mother, who will be making the lace. We discover that lace-making is tedious and hard on the eyes, and that both Roza and her mother are suffering from eye strain.

All of that is a decent setup for a plot. But this book just doesn't deliver. (Spoilers ahead!) About halfway through the book, we are told that Roza's mother has gone blind and they aren't going to be able to finish the lace. At that point, Juli's mother sort of loses it. She gets a job and seems to be pulling away from Juli. Juli cooks up a plan to get jeweler's glasses that will help Roza and her mother be able to finish the lace. She lies to her parents and buys the glasses, but when she goes to Halas (the country town) alone to deliver them, no one is at Roza's house. So Juli takes the glasses and sticks them in a drawer. After talking to her father, Juli begins to see her mother in a different light and tries to make up with her. That seemed to have turned out to be the main plot - that Juli and her mother, though different, would come to peace with each other.  But then in the last chapter, Roza suddenly shows up at Juli's door with the completed lace, Juli gives Roza the glasses, the end.

After reading that, you may be wondering what my problem is. Sounds reasonable as a storyline, right? But it has so many holes and things that come together by what seems to be very convenient circumstances. For one thing, if Juli's future is so important to her mother that she's willing to invest a lot of money is a very expensive dowry, why does she suddenly just give up on trying to "improve" Juli once the dowry is in jeopardy? Is Juli worth something only if she can make a good marriage?  How did Roza (an uneducated country girl) find her way to Juli's apartment in Budapest? What happened about the lie Juli told her parents - they find out, they are mad, and then suddenly that's just dropped. But worst of all is the timing of the dowry showing up and the gift of the glasses. 

My understanding of how a plot should work is that the main character should be the one who effects the key change that happens. That's not to say that other forces -- possibly very powerful forces -- aren't at work as well.  But in order for the main character to be worthy of his/her status as the protagonist, he/she has to make some kind of decision that sets something in motion.  If outside forces create all the circumstances that shape the character's life, then he/she is passive. We as readers are denied the satisfaction of believing actions DO make a difference and that people CAN influence what happens in their lives - and isn't that part of the reason we read, to escape from the stuff we can't control in our own lives?  That's why we love Harry Potter - with everything against him, Harry still struggles on and manages to change his world for the better. I'm sure you can think of multitudes of other characters doing the same.

Given that theory, Juli should have been the one who made it possible for Roza and her mother to finish the lace. She should have had to make a real sacrifice to get the glasses (possibly the short-term sacrifice of having her parents be angry at her), and she should have delivered them at a point when the future of the lace was teetering on uncertainty. But as it turned out, Juli's efforts to get the glasses were for nothing. She lied to her parents and made a trip to Halas on her own, only to end up stuffing the glasses in a drawer. Roza finished the lace anyway, and then when Juli gives her the glasses, to me it felt like an afterthought: "Oh, yeah, I got these for you."

That's not the only thing I was disappointed about with the book (the writing style was rather stark and barren, I thought), but that's all I'm going to elaborate on since it's getting late and everyone else has gone to bed.  I just think it's a shame that a story that could have been fulfilling ended up leaving me wanting so much more.

Friday, June 4, 2010

"Those Who Can, Do....

and those who can't, teach."

I'm sure everyone's heard that little saying. As a teacher, I was always a little sensitive to it, but a recent experience has put a new spin on the saying.

For the past three weeks, I've been teaching an Introduction to Photoshop class for 13 college students. Some of the students had some previous experience with Photoshop, but there were also people who had no prior knowledge of the program. I taught the class by using a series of 11 worksheets that went from the really basic stuff (rotating and resizing images) to more advanced concepts (layer masks and color balance). The final assignment was a portfolio of 6 original images that had been manipulated in some "significant way" using Photoshop (meaning they couldn't just slap a single filter over the picture and be done with it). Today was the last day of class, with a showcase of their work.

I was simply blown away by how creative most of the students' work was. One student had what looked like a series of high-end fashion magazine covers. One student had a lovely picture of a guitar body surrounded by a soft fade of sheet music. One student had a complex collage with a shark swimming through it. One student had a black/white image with yellow spots on an umbrella that was stunning in its simplicity. One student took an image of the University's chapel and put it into a snow globe in an image that would make a fantastic Christmas card for campus. One student was showing me how she managed to artfully remove an unwanted bystander from a picture of her family. One student couldn't decide on only six pictures, so her display took up two tri-fold boards and had eight (or ten) images. And I could mention others, but you might be getting tired of this.

I had seen snatches of their work over their shoulders during the past week (except for the magazine covers - that was a total surprise). One day after I'd seen the guitar picture for the first time (made by a student who had never worked with Photoshop before), it occurred to me that this is what teaching is about. To be painfully honest, I am not very creative when it comes to design. I appreciate good design and I know it when I see it, but I can't produce it. However, my teaching gave these students who DO have the creativity and the imagination the tools they needed to produce such beautiful works. It makes me proud and yet humble at the same time. It's ok that I can't "do" - I can teach.

I have the best job in the world.