Friday, January 30, 2015

Getting Paid

There's been a recent kerfuffle over the question of when and how a writer should get paid. Some people even bring up the question of whether a writer deserves to get paid, and if our current system of publication (and all it's options) is beneficial or harmful to writers. I don't have all the answers, but I feel it's important to point out some truths.

First, I have never understood the sentiment that somehow artists are supposed to be above money. That we create because we're inspired by our art and that getting paid diminishes it. True artists would continue their craft regardless of pay; they do art because they must, not because it's a job. Sorry - I just don't feel that artists are a special class of people, better than everyone else out there who needs to work for a living.

Don't get me wrong, I think writers (and all artists) are wonderful people who do something truly special and contribute to society in a very necessary way. The ability to create a story out of the depths of your imagination, to take a blank page and bring it to life with characters we care about - that's amazing.

But to be able to take some grain, water, and a little yeast and turn it into a warm and filling bread that provides sustenance to the world - that's amazing. To be able to impart wisdom to the youth, to inspire children to learn, grow, develop, and become contributing members of society - that's amazing. To be able to forecast derivative prices by understanding the complex intertwinings of financial markets - well, I guess that's probably amazing too.

Lots of people do special things. Lots of people love their work and have a passion for it. The idea that those people shouldn't get paid while the people who do something they don't really like but need to pay their rent and provide for their family should get paid - how does that make sense? People deserve to get paid if what they do has value to society. If you think art has any value, that in some way it makes our world better and is worthwhile to have around, then artists deserve to get paid.

How much, how often, when in the process - those are all questions for the market to figure out. If people are willing to pay an author ahead of time for their work (like an advance, or crowdfunding) then that's fine. Lots of other people get paid up front. If you personally don't want to buy something until you can have it in your hands (maybe metaphorically) and look it over, then that's fine too. Each consumer has the option of how to spend their money and shouldn't begrudge someone else their choice.

Should writers get paid enough to make a living from their art? Again, the marketplace will decide. Right now there is a lot of growth in self-publishing and support from writers for the Amazon model of direct to consumer efficiency and egalitarianism. But it's important to note that if the half million self-publishers out there equally split up the publishing pie, everyone's going to be hungry. Except Amazon. Amazon is taking their cut from the whole pie, so they don't really care how the rest of it gets divided up. I do believe they want to keep growing the pie, which is good, but as fast as that pie grows I feel the number of people lining up with forks will grow faster. So who wins in this game?

It's a very important question to consider who ends up being able to write for a living. If writing doesn't make enough money to provide for a basic life, then lots of folks are going to have to do something else. The people who can afford to write will be those who already have money, those who can live off their inheritance or a wealthy spouse, those who can afford to pay for their own marketing up front in order to enhance their piece of the pie on the back end. Those who are generally white and privileged.

I see that as bad for the art. I think art thrives when it receives contributions from many viewpoints, from those who don't live in a world that consists of nothing but art. Great art doesn't come from it's own struggle to exist, but from its creator's struggles with life. Some of the best stories come from those who live the hardest lives, but to expect those books will rise above the fray on the strength of their words alone denies the realities of the marketplace (and our world). In publishing, like so many aspects of life, money screams louder than beauty. I want great art to be rewarded well enough to allow the artist to create more. An artist should be willing to suffer for their art - but perpetual suffering shouldn't be a requisite for it.

I believe that writers deserve to get paid for their work, and I hope the system continues to find a way to pay them enough to be able to write for a living. That's my goal. I don't need millions. I don't care about fame or celebrity. I don't even care if anyone knows my name. But I love to write and I want to put the many stories that fill my head down on paper. I want to be able to take the time to develop them, to improve my prose and hone my craft. I want to create beautiful things that other people will enjoy. But my first priority is to put bread on my table and create a good environment to raise a child. If I have to choose between the two, many of my stories will go untold. That may or may not be a loss to the world, but it will be a big loss to me.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Story Notes: Plot-driven Novels

In the Literary world (Literary with a capital L), there's often a distinction drawn between meaningful, character-driven novels versus plot-driven ones. The suggestion being that 'typical' novels have a plot, but greats works of literature aren't limited by such trivial things. The character study, the poetry of the language, and the deep themes of philosophical discourse are what really matters. Hogwash. All stories have plots. Some plots are more involved and compelling, some are subtler and less dynamic, but a story without plot is a bunch of random words.

I don't want to go off on a tangent about what makes a story good and whose opinion matters. I want to focus on what plot really is and why I think the distinction above misses the mark most of the time. Plot is not simply the happenings in a story. It's not the action or events. For me, plot is conflict; the interruption of the storyline.

Conflict need not be big and broad. Sure, the bomb planted in the building and our hero's race to find and diffuse it is big-time conflict. But a knock on the door is conflict. It changes the storyline - the room is no longer silent, our protagonist no longer alone, and a mystery awaits on the other side of the door. There's a choice to respond to the knock or not, to call out or to look out the peephole, to leave with the newcomer or turn them away.

Whether you hope to make a book a page-turner by having lots of action and suspense, or you want to delve deep into your character's psyche and unravel the mysteries of life, you need to have change and development. Every new thought is a change, every new observance a piece added to the puzzle. Inward or outward, things need to happen in order for a story to happen. Without that you have a picture. But words represent thousands of pictures. All books are film in that regard.

So what does this mean for developing a plot? It means it's unavoidable. It doesn't have to be plotted out in advance or what you build your story around, but it will be there. As a writer, the important thing is to understand what your plot is and how it unfolds into the story you want to tell. If you get stuck, just let something change and see where it leads.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Why I Don't Review Books

As an aspiring author, I try to do all the right things. The main thing is to write, and to improve my writing. That always comes first. But you're also expected to build a platform. You're supposed to make yourself into a brand and interact with the wide world out there. Build a website (check), start a blog (check - you're reading it right now!), go on Twitter (check) and Facebook (check), review books on Goodreads (UNCHECK). Reviewing books is something I've had problems with.

It's not that I don't read - I definitely do. It's not that I don't have opinions about books - I have opinions about everything. But I find myself conflicted over the real purpose and values of reviews, and how authors reviewing authors fits into that world.

For me, the validity of a review for anything comes from the fact that the reviewer doesn't have any material interest in the product. I need to believe that they have no reason to be partial, one way or the other. Otherwise, how can I trust what they say?

All authors have an inherent interest in other authors. There is a certain truth to the fact that books are competition for each other. I wouldn't expect Pepsi to give me an unbiased opinion of a new Coke product. But lots of folks in the writing game take a different view - that we are all coworkers, that authors have a tough go of it and we all need to support each other. That's how I feel. But once again, that leads to bias. I don't look to a Google Maps engineer to give me the real lowdown on a new Google Phone product.

And beyond just authors, anyone involved in the publishing industry may have ulterior motives for what they say about a book. Agents supporting their agency's clients, editors talking up a friend's project, publisher knocking a self-published novel. I've seen all of that happen and don't know if it's true opinion or otherwise motivated. There's the appearance of possible impropriety, even if there isn't any actual wrong-doing. They may be completely honest and totally fair. But if I don't know them, I don't know if that's the case. And if I were to put my own opinions out there, I would just be adding to the confusion.

Besides, if I were to review books in general I would have to give negative reviews. I enjoy most of the books I read but I also find things that bother me in almost all of them. It's part of the writer's critical eye. If I censored that out (because I don't want to be critical of my fellow writers) it would undermine everything positive I said.

So I stay out of the review game except for a few exceptions. If a book is wildly successful I feel free to criticize it knowing I can't do any damage. If it's a book I love and I feel there are useful things to learn and discuss from a book, then I might bring it up here. But I'm not comfortable with reviewing in general.

Of course, that's just my opinion. I'm really not sure I'm right about it. I've heard some good arguments from others who choose to review. They feel it helps their readers get to know more about them, that as authors they have good insight into what makes a book good or what is lacking. Valid points. And their reviews don't bother me in the least (reviews should never bother anyone - we're all free to ignore those we don't want to give credence to for whatever reason). Everyone gets to make their own choices here.

And I do like the anonymous nature of statistics when looking at the overall ratings of a book. That gives me the opinion of the masses - an opinion I rarely agree with on anything, books included. But I'm also quite likely to read a book that gets rave reviews just to find out why other people like it so much, even if I know I won't. So review sites can be quite useful in that way, at least for me.

When choosing what books I read for enjoyment - that I only trust myself. I know what type of books I like. I'm good at picking out from reviews the information I want to get. I'm good at deciphering back-cover copy and reading a quick excerpt to judge the style of a book (from the middle - never trust the beginning of a book). I also have a few people out there whose opinions I have come to trust, so I'll listen to what they say a little more closely. But in the end, I try to let the book stand on it's own, and make my own choices for what lands on my bookshelf. I urge others to do the same.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Good & the Bad: Teen Movies

In an effort to share a little more about myself (I'm an introvert in real life), I've decided to start a series called The Good & the Bad. The idea is to let my readers know the kind of things I like and the kind of things I don't. And why. The why is important, for the reasons we do things matter far more than the things themselves. And I'll probably focus more on the good, because that's where the fun is.

So we're going to start with some movies, and this time I'm looking at teen movies. What makes a good teen movie and what ruins one.

The Good

One of my favorite movies in the past several years is Brick. There's a good chance that most of you haven't even heard or it. It got some nice critical praise, but never released why or saw much commercial success. It's a shame, because it puts a lot of the recent YA fair to shame.

Brick is about a high school kid (played so well by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, pre-Inception and Dark Knight) who investigates the disappearance of his semi-girlfriend. It's film noir, a hard-boiled detective story with modern day teenagers. That could fail big time, but what makes it work is that it hold to the genre tropes - plot twists, strong silent MC, dangerous dames, and a satisfying dreary but honest ending - but it does it with real kids. It doesn't have kids trying to act like film noir characters, but using modern archetypes (social loner, girl craving attention, meat-head jock, drug-dealing scum) to fill in the roles. It has an authenticity and individuality that's just plain fun to watch. (Joseph Gordon-Levitt's The Lookout almost made this list, but it's more properly New Adult aged than teen).

Heathers. It's a little old in some ways, but I think it still holds up. For those too young to remember it, it's Mean Girls with more mean (and more snark). What works about it is that it's satire - it gets crazier and crazier to the point that it's ridiculous (especially Christian Slater channeling Jack Nicholson), but the underlying truth is so real. The social hierarchy in high school is brutal, and people do crazy, despicable things to get ahead. But once you're in you're still not safe. Nobody is safe and no-one has it easy.

Another cult hit that seems to live on and even grow in renown is Donnie Darko. It's a hard movie to describe, and even harder to defend, but it worked for me. Once again, it was the real-ness of the characters instead of the storyline that sold me. Donnie's sense of loneliness, the nature of outsiders in high school, the youth understanding the hypocrisy of the adults, all felt real. I've watched the director's cut which focuses more on the time travel elements and felt it took away the heart of the movie. Sometimes the studio folks know better.

A few other teen movies worth mentioning. Easy A, Juno, Rushmore . Classics like My Bodyguard, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Say Anything. Silly fun like Bring It On, American Pie, Valley Girl.

The Bad

There are an endless number of bad teen films, most of them guilty of nothing more than trying to be cheap entertainment. I don't fault mindless entertainment for being just that, so I'm going to stick to movies that should have been good - or at least had the budget and players to be good.

I'm sure I'll get some flack here, but I thought Twilight was a bad movie. (Thought the same of the book). While it's a vivid world, and I think the movie does a good job highlighting the scenery and giving a sense of the connection between characters, the fundamental principle is too flawed for me. A dreamy girl who thinks of herself as plain but is adored by everyone somehow wins the heart (instantly) of a hundred year old man. Pedophilia anyone? Insulting gender roles and stereotypes much? I know it kicked off a craze; I know umpteen millions loved it. It's still not a good story on many levels and the movie-making was very trite and formulaic. Teens (and everyone who was once a teen) deserve better.

A movie that I wanted to like, and thought I would, was Swimfan. It had a dark angle to it and I know a number of people that really enjoyed it. But somehow it fell flat for me. I thought it tried too hard - it wanted to be realistic and scary, but I didn't quite buy into the obsession enough. It felt more like the characters were acting in a way to move the plot instead of a natural way that lead to a story. But if you bought into it, I can see how it would work, and I certainly won't fault anyone for liking it.

Sometimes movies are bad but I still enjoy them. Jennifer's Body would fall into that category. What's good about it is the relationship between the two girls. Amanda Seyfried somehow pulls off the awkward friend who still has her own personality. And while Megan Fox won't win any acting awards from me, she worked in this role. The crazier parts of this story actually had the same self-aware satire nature of Heathers, but I think that was missed by lots of people - especially those who marketed it. It's problem was that it tried too hard to be a real movie about a possessed teen, but it's strengths lay in the context underneath. It just got too buried under the gore and slow-mo shots of Megan's hips swaying. But if you don't mind a little camp, check it out and look at it from that angle and see if it doesn't shine a little.

How about you? Agree or disagree with my choices? Have any favorites that you recommend? Any hit movies that you hated? Feel free to share in the comments.