The Writer is God

The Guardian reports that the only way to raise the quality of UK television series is to adopt the showrunner/writing room system prevalent in the U.S. They write, in part:

The only way to produce sophisticated, rich, long-running drama like The Wire or even ER is to use a team of writers who collaborate under a showrunner, a system the US studios has cracked. It's too much for even one great dramatist to write the whole thing, but you can't hire hack writers to work on episodes in isolation. Result: US viewers sit down to an evening of Damages; we get Casualty

The short Guardian piece was in response to a terrific essay by Peter Jukes in Prospect Magazine, where he wrote, in part:

in US television drama “the writer is God.” This is not because of literary cachet—it’s arisen out of aesthetic, technical and commercial need. Drama is incredibly expensive to make and economies of scale kick in when stories are told over 13 or 24 episodes. They cannot be written by one person alone, nor can they be effectively controlled by studio executives, actors or directors, whose talents by definition lie elsewhere. It requires a team of writers willing to develop character and narrative over a long haul, keeping it focused and fresh. It’s not the writer, singular, who is God in US television drama, but the role of the writer, generic, in the process.

 […]Although we are blessed with a tradition of great television dramatists, there’s no way that Alan Bleasdale, Dennis Potter or Jimmy McGovern could have written a dozen episodes of a show alone. We have recently imported the idea of showrunners for the resurrection of Dr Who and Survivors, but their power is limited, and the principle of collaboration doesn’t penetrate the lower echelons. Script editors and producers take a dim view of you talking to another writer without tight supervision. There is no financial incentive either. Why make someone else’s episode great when it might make yours look less good? Given that the running order can be changed at the last moment by management fiat, those collectively crafted character developments and story arcs will be binned anyway. Just write your own episode and cash that cheque.

I recommend Jukes' article, it's fascinating reading.

Editorial Guidance

My Uncle Burl Barer is an Edgar-award-winning author of a dozen books but that doesn't make the job of writing any easier…in fact, he's having some trouble with is current project.

There is something not right about my current book in progress, and it is driving me crazy. […] So far, at the request of my editor, I've done a complete restructuring of the book, and still it doesn't "sing."
Tomorrow I'm calling "headquarters" – the executive editor — and consulting on what I need to do to make this baby at least hum.

Thankfully, Burl has something most self-published authors do not… an experienced editor provided by the publisher at no charge to him.

Editors are the inspired clergy of the literature religion. They comfort, admonish and encourage. They bring out the diamond potential in our prolix lumps of coal. I am blessed with the editors at Kensington Publishing, headed by the resilient and insightful Michaela Hamilton. Mike Shol is currently editing the manuscript of Fatal Beauty, and it is all coming together. Whew. I pity authors who don't have the blessing of a world-class editor. I've been very lucky. My first book, THE SAINT: A Complete History was edited by Steve Wilson at McFarland & Co. I doubt I would have snagged the Edgar were it not for his guidance. One of the tragedies of self-published (ie self-printed) books is often the lack of editorial guidance, not to mention the lack of sales.

Sadly, many "self-published" authors have gone the vanity press route because they believe their work is perfect "as-is" and reject any suggestion that their book may be flawed in some way (which is one reason why the self-publishing companies are known as "vanity presses"). These aspiring authors don't recognize the importance of editing and rewriting, of having an experienced, and objective, outside perspective on their work. All they are interested in is seeing their book "in print" as quickly as possible without having to "jump through all those hoops" or letting anyone meddle with their "artistic vision." And that's why so much of what is self-published out there is unreadable slop.

What is it… Really?

TV writer & blogger Will Dixon has taken some points I raised on how mysteries are constructedand expanded on them as they apply to sf, horror and fantasy shows . He wrote, in part:

when it comes to constructing the plot for good genre mysteries (like X Files; Buffy; Angel; Firefly…and today you've got Supernatural; Smallville; Warehouse 13; Sanctuary; even Chuck, etc.), there is one question always be asked: 

What is it…what is it really. 

 (In the case of procedurals and investigative mystery programs like 'Veronica Mars' or 'Castle' or 'Bones', the mantra becomes: Who is it...who is it really.)

[…]Of course, this is just one aspect to telling a good mystery story. To take it to the next level, you also need to pick an overall theme to flesh out the episode.

Dixon offers some examples from Buffy The Vampire Slayer to back up his points. His observations are well worth reading.

The Mail I Get

I got an email today on Facebook from  somebody I don't know (I "friend" everybody except scammers and phone sex operators) from a writer's organization that I've never heard of. It read:

I've heard good things about you for awhile.

Maybe it's good timing that you just added me as an FB buddy.

Our scheduled speaker for November 14th just had kidney failure — and I'd be your new BFF if you could jump in and man the guns for that Saturday at about 6:30 PM.

I hope you can help a local boy out, here. ;-))

I replied:

I appreciate the invitation but I'm going to have to pass.

Here's what he wrote back:

I'm sorry and a bit surprised.
Good luck in all you do. Keep me apprised of your successes.

Maybe I'm just tired, or in a bad mood, but I have to admit, his reply really ticked me off.  He's  "a bit surprised?" What the hell is that supposed to mean? So here's what I wrote to him:

Why are you "a bit surprised?"

I guess that you assumed that I'm always available for any group that asks me to speak, any time, any where.

Or perhaps it didn't occur to you that I might have other obligations on Nov. 14…or that I might be on tight deadlines to deliver a script and a book by the end of November….or that I have spent too many Saturdays away from my family lately…or that I might have any number of other reasons for having to pass on being your speaker.

Or perhaps you simply assumed I'd drop everything for you and were "a bit surprised" when I didn't.

I don't know your reasons. But I was "a bit surprised" by your comment.

He got back to me a short time later.

Wow, I'm not sure what invoked that?!
"Surprised" that you were not succinct but curt – and that you weren't open to some amicable dialogue. "Surprised" because I'd heard good things about you….

What was he expecting? A tearful apology instead of a polite rejection? A detailed explanation and a plea for forgiveness? Or perhaps he was hoping I'd promise to speak to his group at my earliest convenience? Then again, maybe he would have settled for lunch and a dedication in my next book. 

From now on, maybe if I can't say yes to a request from a stranger, I just won't respond at all.

The Mail I Get

I got an email on Facebook from a somebody I don’t know (I friend everybody except scammers and phone sex operators) at a writer’s organization I’ve never heard of the other day. It read:

I’ve heard good things about you for awhile.

Maybe it’s good timing that you just added me as an FB buddy.

Our scheduled speaker for November 14th just had kidney failure — and I’d be your new BFF if you could jump in and man the guns for that Saturday at about 6:30 PM.

I hope you can help a local boy out, here. ;-))

I replied that I appreciated the invitation, but that I would have to pass. Here’s what he wrote back:

I’m sorry and a bit surprised.
Good luck in all you do. Keep me apprised of your successes.

Maybe I’m just tired, or in a bad mood, but I have to admit, his reply really ticked me off.  He’s  “a bit surprised?” What the hell is that supposed to mean? Why should he be “a bit surprised” that I’m not at his beck-and-call? So here is what I wrote him:

Why are you “a bit surprised?”

I guess that you assumed that I’m always available for any group that asks me to speak, any time, any where.

Or perhaps it didn’t occur to you that I might have other obligations on Nov. 14…or that I might be on tight deadlines to deliver a script and a book by the end of November….or that I have spent too many Saturdays away from my family lately…or that I might have any number of other reasons for having to pass on being your speaker.

Or perhaps you simply assumed I’d drop everything for you and were “a bit surprised” when I didn’t.

I don’t know your reasons. But I was “a bit surprised” by your comment.

I Was The Author Who Was There

Today I was a guest speaker at a gathering of 250 members of the American Association of University Women in Ventura. As always happens at these events, I had some bizarre encounters. 

There was another author who'd cancelled his appearance at the last minute because of a death in the family. During the morning signing, a woman came up to me and asked:

"Are you the author who isn't here?"

"No," I said, "I'm here."

"That's good," she said and walked away. 

I thought of a couple of better answers to her question after she left. I should have said "Yes, I am the author who isn't here"  just to see what she would have said next. Or I could have said "No, I'm just a hologram." I wonder if she would have touched me to see if I was real.

Another woman came up to me and asked me to sign a book to her. 

"Make it to Katie," she said. 

 "Why does your nametag say Phyllis?" I asked, just to be saying something.

"Because the woman didn't show up and I swiped her tag." 

 "Why didn't you use your own?" 

 "I'm crashing the party," she whispered and winked at me.

A better man than me would have turned her in but she bought a book, so I wasn't going to rat her out.

During my presentation, I mentioned my encounter with the woman who asked if me I was there. It got a big laugh. At the signing that followed, that woman came up to me and she wasn't happy.

"You humiliated me," she said.

"I didn't point you out or even look at you," I said. The truth was, I'd forgotten what she looked like so I couldn't have pointed her out even if I wanted to. "Nobody knew it was you."

"I knew I was me," she said. 

"That's always good," I said.

"I made an honest mistake before," she said. "You could have been him."

I still have no idea what she meant, but she bought a book. I withstood the urge to sign it in the other person's name. After her, another woman came up to me and told me how much she enjoyed my talk.

"I wish I'd gone to high school with you," she said.

"Why is that?"

"So I could have made love to you and married you," she said.

Okay, that totally threw me. I had no idea what to say. I just sort of stammered, signed her book, and she walked away. She was followed by a woman who had a burning question about Monk

"Is Monk ever going to get any?"

"You mean have sex?"

"Yes," she said. She'd actually asked me the same question during the question-and-answer session but I guess my answer didn't satisfy her.

"Well, the show is over, so no, I don't think so."

"What about in your books?"

I shook my head. "I just don't see it."

"I do," she said. "Vividly."

"You do?"

"I can tell you exactly how it would go."

"With whom?"

"Anybody," she said. "I could send you the scene and you can use it with any woman you want."

I politely passed on the offer.

I don't know what drugs the Four Point Sheraton was putting in the drinks, I'm just glad they didn't put any in mine.

The Cons and Cons of Self-publishing

I've been engaged in a discussion about the pros and cons of self-publishing over at The Kindle Boards and thought I'd share some of my comments here.  One person wrote a message talking about the reasons he self-published with a POD press. One reason he did it, he said, was because publishing companies are turning their backs on literary fiction. He said, in part:

Literary novels are a very tough sell to publishing houses. They want the sales of "Water for Elephants" or "The Time Traveler's Wife," but they, like movie studios, can't tell which books will do it. All they know is that they cannot publish many literary novels anymore. Thus, those of us interested in writing literary books as opposed to genre books have to find new paths. My agent at XYZ in New York received dozens of positive rejections on my latest manuscript, for instance. Many editors told him that my novel had them laughing–it was a fun read–but they didn't know how to market it if they were to publish my book. Thus, I'm trying to assist my agent by creating a platform independently.

That struck me as a lot of rationalizing….and not a lot of fact. There are a lot of literary novels published every day, some do well, some don't. There's a lot of "commercial fiction" published every day, some do well, some don't. Publishers never know which books will sell, and which won't. His comment about WATER FOR ELEPHANTS and TIME TRAVELERS WIFE assumes the publisher knew for certain they would sell. They didn't. No more than they knew GARGOYLE would flop (they thought it would be huge). So that rationalization doesn't hold…not that it was honestly credible to start with.

Real publishers are still publishing literary novels. They just aren't publishing his. That's blunt, I know, but that's the truth. the rationalizations may make him feel better about it, but the bottom line is the bottom line.

The market for ALL books, not just literary novels, has narrowed (the same is true for movies and tv shows, another field in which I toil). But good books will still get published. For example, my brother Tod's collection of very literary short stories, OTHER RESORT CITIES, was just published this week and he's on a national book tour financed by his publisher at this very moment. If nobody is buying literary novels, imagine how small the market is for collections of literary short stories…and yet, he's on a book tour. What does that tell you?

The commentor mentions that his book got "dozens of positive rejections." I'm sorry, but a positive rejection is nothing but a polite "we are not interested." They don't want your book. Period. If they can't market your book, that is a serious problem. And it's code for lots of things…bad writing, poor plotting, unsympathetic characters, cliches, boring prose, whatever. But what they are saying is, they don't think your book is publishable or something they can publicize effectively. And if a major publisher can't market it, the odds of you having any better luck with a self-published POD edition that few, if any, bookstores will stock and that few, if any, reputable reviewers will review, and that will have limited distribution, at best, is even slimmer. Yes, the publishing business is changing, but we are a long, long way off from POD self-publishing being the way to success or a wide readership…if ever. (Yes, there will be one or two exceptions….but that's exactly what they are, exceedingly rare exceptions).

I am not saying this from some exulted position — I may be a published author of dozens of books, but I also have had books rejected that are sitting in my drawer right now. Yes, I got "positive rejections," but I am honest enough to know what that really means….the books are unsaleable. In some cases, after a time, I've gone back and looked at those manuscripts and realized the editors were right…and saw the flaws I couldn't see before…and am thankful I wasn't foolish enough to invest money in self-publishing them anyway in the hope of being "creating a platform."

Someone else wrote that he considers himself a published author even though he selling his work as "self-published" e-books:

Frankly, even with my 1-2 sales a day, I consider myself a published author. I put a hell of a lot of work into my book, and even though only a handful of people will ever see it, I'm proud of it. And yes, I'm asking 99 cents for it, since having people actually pay money, even pocket change, gives me a little ego boost that gives me a warm fuzzy feeling.

I wrote that he may consider himself a published author — I may consider myself the sexiest man alive — but that doesn't make it so. He's not a published author. He's a guy who has printed his own manuscript (or put it in ebook format). There's a big difference between him and somebody who actually is a published author. In his heart of hearts, he knows that, too…or he wouldn't be striving to become one.

Someone else argued that self-published, POD novels are every bit as good, if not better, than what is coming from the real publishers. She wrote, in part:

Without a doubt, some of the best novels I've read this year are from independent authors. I'm sure these authors had good editors working with them. Beyond that, I don't think they had a lot of marketing behind them; I came across these novels through the threads here and from e-book blog postings. I think with good, cheap viral marketing a completely independent author with a good story and good editing can make a decent living right now, and things are just going to get better for them.

"Independent authors?" Is that the aspirational, PC term for self-published authors now? (The equivalent, I suppose, of aspiring writers who insist on calling themselves "pre-published"). Sorry, I'm not buying in.

Yes, publishing is in flux, but so far the only people making money off self-publishing are the vanity presses and POD houses. The paradigms aren't changing as fast as the self-published would like to believe they are, or in the ways they would like them to. 

Ebooks make up a very, very small percentage of overall book sales…the POD sales barely even register (the vast majority of POD fiction titles are sold to the authors and their narrow circle of families and friends). I would be interested to know how many POD authors are making a "decent living" off their work…and how much money they consider "a decent living" to be. How many of these POD authors, for instance, are making even $10,000 off their books (after recouping what they spent on printing, formating, etc.). Very, very few.

I don't believe things are going to get better for POD authors…if anything, I believe the narrowing of the publishing industry is going to make it even harder for self-published writers to get noticed…or accepted…by an ever-shrinking reading audience. One problem is that most of the self-published stuff is unmitigated crap. I'm sure there's some good stuff to read among self-published works…but that has not been my experience, or the experience of "typical readers" i know who've sampled self-published work.

Another commenter accused me of being "anti-writer" by attacking vanity presses. He wrote, in part:

Lee, I could understand your attitude if you were a president of a publishing company, but I'm surprised you're so hot-and-bothered against other writers.

I am not against writers — far from it. I encourage writers to never give up and to continue honing their craft. That doesn't mean flushing your money down the toilet, and harming your career, by self-publishing your work. What it DOES mean is that you need to learn to accept that some of your stuff might be clumsy, amateurish, unpublishable or utter crap…and to learn from it and move on. It means learning how the business works, what the professional standards are, and accepting the reality that there are no shortcuts to publishing success.

I am trying to warn writers away from the vanity press vultures who prey on the desperation and gullibility of aspiring authors by conning them with lies and false hope. And I am trying to stop unpublished novelist from making an expensive and embarrassing mistake that, in most cases, will do them far more harm than good.

Finally, a self-published author disagreed with my view  that you should stick your rejected manuscripts in a drawer and move on. She wrote, in part:

It's also, quite simply, a way to have your book read. Why else write? Certainly not to stick your novel in a drawer. Writers write so readers can read.

Maybe so, but not all books are worth reading…or ready to be read. It's ultimately harmful for writers to publish stuff that isn't ready for primetime, so-to-speak. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and you don't want to do it with a book that's not very good simply because you want to see it in print. 

Bottom line, I believe that self-publishing your unpublished novel is, 9.9 times out of 10, a costly and humiliating mistake. You will not make back your money and you will likely do more damage than good to your career. The odds of actually becoming an acclaimed, respected, and widely read professional writer by self-publishing your rejected manuscript is about the same as finding buried treasure in your backyard.

I am not saying you should give up being a writer if you are met with constant rejection. What I am saying is that you will be far better off — creatively, financially, and professionally — if you put your rejected manuscript in a drawer and write another book instead self-publishing it.

I am not saying that every book that's rejected by publishers and agents is a steaming pile of crap. However, you might want to honestly ask yourself why your book is being rejected…is it really because NY agents & publishers are old-fashioned, narrow-minded, bean-counting, creative cowards…or you don't know the right people or the secret passwords…or the system is geared to make money and not art… or the system isn't able accept something as brilliant and original as your work….or that nobody in the mainstream can appreciate your brilliance?

Or could it be that maybe its your work that is flawed in some way…or that you just don't have the talent, skill, or voice yet to make it as a writer? It's hard to accept that possibility, but rather than self-publishing what may be a substandard book…you might be better off trying to see the manuscript the way others have and learning from the experience…perhaps rewriting it, setting it aside, or going back and learning more about your craft.