Monday, July 21, 2014

Farewell, But Not Much Ado

So I just realized it's been ages since I posted here. I'll provide two reasons for that, because it's very important to tell people a story that deflects blame from your own essential lack of seriousness or commitment to a project.

First, I've been having a very interesting life, and the more interesting it gets, the less time I have to chew pens and write words about writing words. Except the words I get paid to write, of course, which are very interesting indeed. To me, at least.

In June it was a whirlwind tour to meet booksellers, bloggers, and interested parties all around America, including the Book Expo in Manhattan. Signed thousands of pre-release special edition books and posters and things. Director of publicity at Tor, Patty Garcia, held my hand half the time and prayed for luck the rest of the time and it all went very well. Only missed one flight, went to one wrong airport, and closed my head in the door of a single taxi, despite touring something like eighteen destinations in twenty-four days.

In July, which it still is, I moved to London for a few months to be with my bride, who writes television, and who has her own show over there. We've been in a lovely sublet in Bayswater and I've got my own Oyster card so I can take the bus and tube round everywhere. Sun, rain, all sorts of delicious weather. Pubs. Museums and points of historical interest. The British Library. Mountains of research for the next couple of books. Broke my right foot. And writing, naturally. Wrote the first third of the first draft of Accidental Giant so far.

But this idyll cannot go uninterrupted! So I've come back to Los Angeles, where I am now parked in my new expensive chair, the seat of which is a bit sparsely padded. Not going to lie, saddened by this chair. Today I have an interview with the press, then it's off to San Diego ComicCon 2014 where I'm on a panel concerning reinventing fairy tales, which I have done, so qualified for that at least. Then it's back to London.

That's all perfectly reasonable, excuse-wise, for not writing on my blog.

But here's the other thing.

Personal blogs, I suspect, are dying out. I know mine are. I've got to migrate all the old stuff from my art blog into tumblr or similar, because I'm posting over there about once every eight months. I've said most of what I have to say about writing on this blog, and it's gotten somewhat repetitive. There must be fifty unfinished posts drafted here that I haven't resolved, but I don't much feel like sorting them out.

You see a lot of blogs -- many of the ones I used to frequent fall into this category, blogs from the roaring nineties and the oughts -- wherein the frequency of posting drops, then the last three or four posts fall farther and farther apart until it's really awkward, and there's the story about moving to a new town, or a new job, or another kid, or no time or no money, and then silence. Or one last bittersweet farewell post, and then silence.

I suspect the format has been drowned by the relatively new short-form media like Twitter. Also, there are now professional bloggers, which wasn't a thing fifteen years ago. There are a few personal blogs with enough hits to stay perky, but most writers are working as bloggers-adjunct for some more established media presence -- or have teamed up to work as contributors to a bigger blog. The great age of personal enthusiasts hammering out their personal views on whatever obsession they enjoy for week after week, year after year seems to have ended.

The economy has a lot to do with this, I believe. Blogs are an indulgence. See this post. If you're not self-employed or independently wealthy (I'm in the former column), you don't have time to make ends meet and pursue your hobbies or interests the way people used to do back in the good old days before -- hey, you kids! Get off my lawn and turn down that awful music. Where was I? Ah yes, blogs are becoming an unsustainable indulgence.

Which is a pity, because a life lived simply to stay alive, rather than to splash around in its infinite possibilities, is a life largely wasted, I think. Plugging along at survival is how earthworms, crabs, and mice spend their time. I do wish we as a species could sort out how to create societies that value and support the advancement of their constituents and the general welfare of the world, rather than rewarding a handful of people for having loads of money and punishing everybody else for not doing so, but that's my airy-fairy utopianism showing. A person with a well-curated blog is someone not paying proper attention to their real job, right? Better to send a tweet every fifteen seconds from your desk at work.

And of course blogs now have to generate clicks and hits and eyeballs and ad views or they're not serious blogs, either. With proper keywords under each post, which I never bother with, so I escape Google's attention. At my peril. There's no point doing anything on the internet these days unless it might  go viral, after all.  A blogger talks about going viral. You won't believe what happens next! But when blogs first appeared, that was the whole point: they were these neat little well-furnished niches where you could visit the inside of somebody's head. It was intimate and fearless and pretty much every blog was a labor of love. Obscurity was half the fun. It's all about controversy now, and popularity. The nerds have had their revenge, and ironically it made them popular, and now we have a deficit of quality nerds.

So I'll leave this stuff here, and maybe somebody will ask me to write a book about writing because of it and I'll be playing the game properly. Maybe I can become an Expert People Seek Out. But otherwise, I can't really see spending an enormous amount of time writing these immense long posts about the ground ball rules of writing that me and six other people will read. I'm not upset or angry or disappointed, just acknowledging that personal blogs, which were once the most agile of communication formats, have become downright ponderous.

Maybe I'll toddle by and jot down anything that requires a long dissertation. This is here. It's a place to park things. But I doubt if I can commit to maintaining any blog when there are such quick ways to toss an idea out there in other formats, and so little real purpose to composing lengthy screeds like this one.

The 1965 Beatles song Nowhere Man? I've come to realize it was about a blogger.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Book Expo America

Tor, my new publisher and as dedicated an outfit as ever put out a book, shipped me to Manhattan for Book Expo America. This is the big American book event where everybody gets together to hawk titles, meet the makers, and complain about Amazon. Javits Center, you cavern of wonders!

I spent most of the week getting to know bloggers and publishers and booksellers and librarians and all the folks who work in this most excellent world. Everybody's worried about the future, everybody says the business is in jeopardy, but what I saw was a heart's love of books that I don't think the grasping claws of commerce can ever tear out. For people worried about the future, everyone seemed extremely excited about the future.

Signed a lot of ARCs (Advance Reader's Copies, see above), chatted with genuinely fascinating authors -- John Scalzi, Skylar Dorset, Alaya Dawn Johnson, so many others. Book bloggers are a hoot, too. I love these people. My publicist Patty Garcia (you might know her as the bassist for the Rats of New York) is behind my enormous head in this picture, which is apropos because she has been shadowing me through everything, making sure it all works out.

As with the last couple of weeks, for the next couple of weeks I'll be bouncing all around the US talking to booksellers and distributors and librarians, which might sound like a cynical attempt to move more units -- except these people are also readers. That's the thing we all have in common. We all love books. So we get together and mention my book to be polite because Tor is paying for lunch and then we get excited about all the books.

I have found my people.

Monday, May 26, 2014

How To Guarantee I will Never Use Your Platform

                                       Oh, Medium is the new awesome blogging and 
                                       writing platform? Sounds great!



                                       Um yeah.

Author clicks over to Blogger, writes this post.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Delivering Notes In Collaborative Writing

Collaborative writing is a bruising business. Knowing how to deliver useful notes that move a project forward, rather than paralyzing the writer (or making enemies) is a vital part of the process. It's the difference between evaluation and criticism.

I’ve learned these rules (which are not inviolable, but let's call them rules) through collaboration on all kinds of writing projects -- both as a contributor and as the director of the process. I've been guilty of all of the transgressions described, and I've been the recipient of them. 

The most collaborative form in the United States is television writing, but the concepts set out here are applicable to theme park writing, advertising, motion picture screenplays, even novels and journalism. These rules work in any situation in which writers must critique other writers -- and are especially germane for the person in charge, who will set the tone for everyone else. Speaking of tone, this list reads like a series of admonitions -- don't do this, don't do that. I suspect I'm guilty of violating at least two of them even as I write them down, in fact. Rather than tinker with them until they sound like inspirational poster messages, however, I present them in their stern original form, and beg your forgiveness if I could have made 'em friendlier.

-- Most of all, keep it professional. Don’t try to air personal differences, insecurities, or grievances within the context of delivering notes. When you do that, you’re revealing your opinion of the writer, not the writing. Both will suffer.

-- Respect different voices and approaches to the craft. Writers should not be expected to act as stenographers. If you want to write everything yourself, do so.

Pursuant to which:

-- Don’t instruct professional, working writers in the basic craft of writing. This isn’t a question of giving your colleagues the benefit of the doubt. It’s a question of respecting their professional experience. *

–– Be consistent and stick to the story outline. Asking writers to come up with a bunch of different versions until you happen to find one you like is guaranteed to create a train wreck. It’s bad for morale. It’s bad for the project. It undermines the authority of the work that precedes it.

At the same time, it’s important to: 

-- Allow writers to follow the material where it leads. If someone finds a new or different way to do something, it shouldn’t be shot down simply because it’s not precisely what was outlined; there will always, always be a better way to do a thing. Ask them why they think it is better.


-- You can’t read the minds of the writers. There are a million micro-decisions that go into any piece of storytelling. In your notes, always enquire why a particular choice was made rather than simply dismissing it out of hand. There may be a good reason something is the way it is.

The reverse is also true:

-- Writers cannot read your mind. Don’t expect them to come up with exactly what you had in your head. Rather, decide whether the desired intent has been conveyed. If the mood, theme, and story move forward in the direction desired, it’s successful writing. If there is a reason why some some specific element must be written in a particular way, it should be noted in the outline beforehand.

And do think about your reasons:

-- Know the difference between mandate, opinion, and whim. A mandate is something that must be a certain way, in order to meet the needs of the project. An opinion is how you personally react to something. A whim is whatever pops into your head. The first is a basis for criticism, the second is a basis for discussion, and the third has no authority whatsoever.

-- If you hate something, say so. Don’t try to sugar-coat it by making the writer work ten times as hard to guess what you’re talking about.

-- If you love something, support it. Make sure any changes you wish to make don’t undermine that good material.

And finally:

-- Relax. It will all change again anyway.

* Sometimes, as in any endeavor, someone will prove to be unqualified for the task. That is a separate problem which should be addressed outside the writing process.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Advance Reading Copies

Always a kick to get the first few specimens of a book. These are paperback, while the retail version will be hardcover, and the jacket design isn't final yet, but pretty much all the words and pictures are in here.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Brief Ukulele Discursion

I know this is a writing blog, but my dear friend the Great Buz Carter has made this fantastic tool, which will be of interest to our fellow ukuleros who seek to write chords and tablature for the ukulele.

He coded this thing himself. It's comprehensive and amazing and simple. Watch the video for a quick-start review of how it works, and then start making a library of excellent songs nobody can find on the internet.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Big Bang And Storytelling

"What if I believe this just because it is beautiful?"

I think as a storyteller that's a question I ask myself all the time. It's where 'kill your darlings' comes from. It may be where purple prose comes from, as well -- writing that is so ornate it draws attention to itself. The storyteller is just as likely to be swept away by the tale as the reader, which isn't good for the story.

Storytelling has incredible power. In the video linked at the beginning of this post, we mortals have no idea what Professor Chao-Lin Kuo is saying to Andrei Dmitriyevich Linde and Renata Kallosh. It's a bit of an equation. But Linde is so astounded to hear it he needs it repeated three times. Kallosh embraces Kuo, a complete stranger. It's difficult not to be moved by the intensity of emotions flowing between these three people. We don't need to know what the message means. We can see what it means. It's the biggest news these two people have ever received.

Kuo instinctively told them the shortest, best story he could. He might have attempted a preamble outlining what had happened in the fifty years since Linde predicted this discovery would be made. But he didn't. He simply went ahead and supplied the proof.

Yet Linde, whose mind is as rigorous as a human mind can possibly be, still cautions himself: "What if I believe this just because it is beautiful?" That's something we storytellers need to ask ourselves every time we set out to spin a yarn. 

Charles Dickens was prone to sentimentality, and some of his work suffers from it. The death of Little Nell (in The Old Curiosity Shop) would make Richard Wagner blush for its emotional grandiosity.
  Oh, it is hard to take to heart the lesson that such deaths will teach; but let no man reject it, for it is one that all must learn, and is a mighty universal truth. When death strikes down the innocent and young, for every fragile form from which he lets the panting spirit free, a hundred virtues rise, in shapes of Mercy, Charity, and Love, to walk the world, and bless it. Of every tear that sorrowing mortals shed on such green graves, some good is born, some gentler nature comes. In the destroyer’s steps there spring up bright creations that defy his power, and his dark path becomes a way of light to heaven.
Nonsense, and Dickens knew it better than anybody. Death is death, and the world is no less cruel because a child dies than because a leaf falls or an insect is trampled. But he was so carried away by the terrible necessity of destroying his creation, so overwhelmed with grief, he went on like that for several pages before he could set aside his own response and resume the mantle of storyteller. He got wrapped up in the sorrow and beauty of the moment, became the witness to his own story, and in so doing lost the power of objectivity required to convey that story to readers without prejudice.

One of the reasons we tell stories is to illuminate new ways of looking at the world, or to see it from a perspective not our own. The weakest stories, the weakest prose, reveal nothing new, but reinforce what we expected to find. If the villain is perfectly evil, the protagonist perfectly noble, the scenery straight out of a travel book, the plot precisely according to genre, we get nothing but refinement of what's already been established (at best). There's no inquiry, no discovery -- only a quest for perfection. What is perfection, if not beauty?

I suspect Dr. Linde wasn't thinking about fiction when he qualified his reaction, but we won't suffer from applying that question to our own work: "What if I believe this just because it is beautiful?"