Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Nature of the Beast

By Martha Reed

I live next to a ballpark and one of the first signs of Spring is when the Canada geese start stopping by. For the first few couple of days I hear them honking high overhead and then, about a week later they start landing. Taking a break, I guess, and even in mid-March that ballpark grass must look pretty green from two hundred feet up.

When I don’t feel like writing, or when a time constraint is on me and I don’t have a full hour to sit down and work, I stare out my window and think about writing. I’ve been in my house for twelve years – longer than I’ve lived anywhere else in one place – and when I think about it, I guess I can say I’ve written one and a half novels and four short stories while staring out this window. Last month, my sister the realtor wanted to show me a cute brick bungalow on the other side of town and I considered it, until I decided that I’d miss my view. I’ve been watching this hillside for over a decade and I can even show you a spot where I think a wild pear tree is growing, halfway down the slope. At least I think it’s a pear; the tree blooms bright white before any of the maples or oaks, and it must have been planted by a bird, because there’s no way a human being could have scrambled down that shale and survived to tell the tale.

When I’m watching the geese over in the ballfield, there’s always one goose who keeps her head up and her eyes on the horizon while the other geese are busy cropping grass. I think I understand that goose. As a dues paying member of Sisters in Crime, keeping alert is pretty much what I’ve been doing lately.

Publishing is a crazy business, and I speak from experience. I’ve been involved in publishing since 1980, back when dinosaurs ruled the Earth. Fresh out of college, I took a job as a financial typesetter – setting legally required documents like prospectuses and annual reports for mutual fund companies. During my rookie year, I worked for Pandick Press, the first print company to use ‘cold type’ – i.e. desktop publishing – when our main competitor was still pouring hot lead to make press plates. I remember how they laughed at us and at the amount of money we spent on technology since desktop publishing was going to prove to be such a passing fad.

Guess who’s extinct?

The next print shop I worked for spent literally hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to develop a software bridge between their in-house publishing process and commercial software easily available straight off the shelf. “The clients still need us!” they cried. Oh, how they cried.

Bye-bye, dodo bird.

If anything, the modern pace of change has picked up, not slackened, and what interests me is that the next generation of readers may not even be interested in text. I see it in the kids now: they’d rather learn from images.

To meet this new demand, there’s been an explosion of graphic novels lately, the kind of half-written, half-drawn material my Dad would have called fancy comic books. Even Hollywood, traditionally late to every party, jumped on the bandwagon in 2006 with the movie adaptation of Frank Miller’s 300. With a worldwide gross of $456 million, 300 generated a lot of interest in the graphic novel genre. It’s not a bad idea to follow the money, and that may sound cynical, but it’s the nature of survival: adapt or perish.

Personally, I think the foundation of modern storytelling has already mutated with the advent of an accessible Internet and its amazing, rapidly changing graphic interfaces. Reading words and translating text into imaginary images takes a higher brain function that just watching bright, loud pictures. Video is so much easier to enjoy and you don’t have to process a lot of complex thought to do it. You just react, and reacting is a fundamental human response. Look! A tiger! Run!

If wordsmiths are going to compete with advanced graphic programs and train the next generation to be text readers, we’re going to have to use any technology that connects authors to their readership. So, if the future means online e-zines, e-books or Kindle, so be it. Post sample chapters in PDF format on author websites? Great idea, have at it. What we can’t do is spend one more minute hanging on to an outmoded publishing paradigm from our golden, glorious past. That sun has set, that train is gone, Elvis has left the building.

It seems that in all the discussion of how to define modern publishing, we’ve forgotten an important, fundamental truth: how good is the story being told? It shouldn’t matter in the slightest which type of technology is being used to tell the tale. Firelight, candlelight, gaslight, it’s like arguing about the borders of a country that doesn’t exist anymore. If the current publishing paradigm doesn’t work, scrap it and move on. The winners in our brave new world will be those authors and publishing houses – regardless of size – who work the edges to develop new ideas into new processes and then adapt that process to the mainstream. They will be the ones who attract new readers and develop a loyal paying audience. George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and the crew at DreamWorks sure did.

Mac or PC? I say, why not both? Whatever works, as long as a great story gets told and you’re not the one left holding the bag of BetaMax tapes.


Tory said...

I agree, Martha. Think of special effects in movies. They don't amount to much if they try to substitute for story, not enhance it.

martha said...

Exactly, like some movies made from video games that are all effects, and no plot - brainless. Not like a great story, Pride & Prejudice, To Kill A Mockingbird, Rebecca, that you can go back to and enjoy again and again.

Joyce said...

I know I'm an old fogey, but I still prefer the printed word over anything else. I don't even like books-on-tape. To me, it's like cheating. I haven't even been to the movies for at least five years--maybe longer.

I know things are changing, but I'm convinced there will always be traditionally printed books. I will never, ever buy one of those electronic hand-held-reader-thingies. I want the book on paper!

nancy said...

You've hit upon two big issues, Martha.

One, the method of delivery of a book can be paper or any of the new forms of technology. But it's a *method of delivery,* not publishing.

But the quality of the story--yes, that's harder to define, isn't it? And especially among untrained or uneducated or those who write "by the seat of their pants" or readers who pooh-pooh literary fiction--most likely because they don't understand it--the discussion of good storytelling becomes an emotional one, not a dispassionate, reasoned, intellectual discussion. Is there something wrong with the emotional response? No. But a true publisher can help a writer better frame, structure or tell a story to make it more pleasing for all audiences. (Which has nothing to do with how the audience receives the book, but everything to do with the collaboration of writer with editor, marketer, sales staff, publisher and yes, reader. That collaboration is very difficult to discuss without really offending writers who've never experienced the process.) But the matter of excellence in writing often is lost in squabbles about distribution these days--a totally different subject you rightly point out--that should not be confused.

Anonymous said...

Right on (or should I say 'write on?')In athe end it's the novel, the story the reader wants regardless of the format - TR, Hardback, Large Print, e-book or audio. As an avid reader long before I became a published writer, I love books and these new ways to read and enjoy them are exciting.
Jackie Griffey

Kenna said...

Martha - this was a great post! I agree wholeheartedly. As I've said myself during the rather contentious discussion at SinC listserve, there are many, innovative business models for 'publishing' one's 'book'. What can groups like SinC do to help authors electing to follow one of these new paradigms of publishing?

And I while I agree with the post that says that the editor/publisher/author collaboration improves the resulting story, I fail to see why these new paradigms need to result in the loss of collaboration. The more minds involved in any project, in general, the better the result, and a story is no different. We are not talking about just the author changing their paradigm, but also the editor and publisher.

Thanks for your excellent article!