Your past blocks your path

Don’t look behind for your past; it’s ahead of you blocking your path.

Patrick Ball (patrickball.com)

“Unrelateable” Heroes: new coinage, old problem

Are we in a new era of word coinage?  Bill Morris, who publishes on-line at The Millions, thinks so.  He offers “fracking,” “illliquid,” and “repurpose” among other coinages.  In the following excerpt, “relateable” is a new coinage in the context of a story’s main character.  It’s particularly relevant to writers concerned with how readers might respond to an “unsympathetic” (i.e., bad-ass) protagonist.

                                    EXCERPT FROM:

“THE DEBASED ART OF COINING WORDS: A GLOSSARY”

by Bill Morris

“Relateable – A character in a novel or movie who has qualities that readers or viewers can easily recognize, identify with, and embrace. It’s a barometer of our culture’s watery values when the highest praise for a fictional character is that he or she is familiar, unthreatening, and easy to like. It reduces novels and movies to the level of a high school popularity contest, and it goes a long way toward explaining why so few Americans travel to remote, exotic, difficult locales. What ever happened to the glories of the unfamiliar, the discomfiting, and the odious? I’m thinking specifically about John Self, the scabrous, lecherous, loathsome – and hilarious – protagonist of Martin Amis’s best novel, Money [a Suicide Note]. He’s loveable precisely because he’s so…I hate to say it…he’s so gloriously unrelateable.”

        The full article is interesting and funny, not too long, and worth a tumble.

BookTalk Nation — Check it out

I have “discovered,” after about a year of hearing about it, an interesting, engaging, and useful blogsite called BookTalk Nation.  On it you can hear  half-hour interviews with authors of fiction and non-fiction books.  You access the interview by computer at booktalknation.com or by phone (212/563-5904).  This is a fairly new enterprise sponsored jointly by The Authors Guild and the independent bookstores who join.  Hearing/seeing the interview is free, while profits from book sales resulting from each interview are shared, half by the “home” indie bookstore conducting the interview and half divided among the bookstores that have joined BookTalk Nation.  (Full disclosure:  I get a huge pile of nothing for telling you about all this.)

It’s a very cool idea, allowing writers to escape our lonely, harsh lives—You know, “sit down and open a vein”—to hear how other writers do it, what their lives are like, where their inspiration and characters come from, etc.-squared.  So, go to booktalknation.com and see if it’s good for you.  Hit the “HELP” key in the upper right corner of their home page for answers to most of the questions you may already have.

The next interview is with Will Schwalbe, author of The End of Your Life Book Club (non-fiction), Thursday, March 7 at 3:00pm Pacific Time.  The next fiction tallk is Tuesday April 2, 7:00 PM EST / 4:00 PM PST with Christina Baker Kline, author of Orphan Train.

Oh, almost forgot.  If you have a book already published, you can click on a button at the lower left of BookTalk Nation’s home page to offer yourself for an interview spot, along with an indie bookstore you’d like to conduct it.  Which is a nice switch, the author getting to select the interviewer.

My love-hate relationship with writing advice

I do not write in isolation.
I have a spouse (roommate/compatriot/lover/best friend) who expresses strong ideas about my lack       of self-promotion.
I am in three critique groups, each worthy of my devotion.
I have attended various writing retreats/programs (Centrum five times).
I was in a masters degree writing program (UC-Davis) before blowing town.
I spend several computer hours each day reading and researching about writing.
And it’s relevant to this piece that I began writing for publication well before the computer age, producing books, daily journalism, and academic stuff.

But I sometimes wonder whether I wouldn’t have been better off, writing production-wise, in a cell, solitarily confined.  How much have I gained from all of those (these) writing-related activities?

I cherish the comments I receive in critique groups, because the folks are usually paying attention to the work, though I use maybe one out of five comments.

I seldom go to writing conferences anymore because they yank me out of writing-mode, and most of the general advice I’ve heard before. The specific advice applicable to my pages hits home (is useful), again, maybe one in five.

As to writer-blogs and the bounties of the internet in general, it’s like trying to squash a one-pound slice of chocolate decadence cake into a four-ounce Chinese take-out container.  (Well, maybe not, though some of you will resonate to my meaning.)  Along with the tons of horrid junk available on the www, we can find some great stuff—Anne R. Allen’s blog, The Millions, Kristen Lamb , Jane Friedman, etc.—but even these take loads of time.   Sure, you can access the stuff fast, but you still need to digest and use it at far less than warp speed.  (One answer, of course, is for humans to evolve into cyborgs, which is not the sort of progress I would hope for.)

Maybe the origin of my problem lies way, way back in childhood.  “Shmuck!,” my mother used to say (not actually; it just felt that way), “Your eyes are too big for your stomach!”  I want the advice, but I don’t want it.  It takes too much time to get, then mostly reject.

So, who says I have to spend the time seeking it?  But if I don’t, then maybe I’m missing things.  A new writer-help program or product.  Insight or information about selling (a term I prefer to “submitting”) my writing.  New tricks for an ever-trickier trade.  The wonders of self/indie-publishing vs. the horrors of traditional publishing.  And vice versa.

And what if Asteriod XXX-fortyskugelfogwahwah passes too close to earth and wipes out all our data and programs and chapters?  What will literary (more or less) civilization do then?  Go back to the methods of Faulkner, Hemingway, Mansfield, Woolf, Huxley, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Wharton, Lawrence, Ferber, etc.?  Wouldn’t that be awful, to have a new generation that wrote with less advice and minimal machinery?

Laszlo Luddite, guest poster

E-book readers pull data from you sub-rosa. So?

Lynn Neary (NPR, 1/28/13) recently did a report on the electronic tracking that Amazon, Barnes & Noble and probably others do of our e-reading, not only what we buy, but how we read it.  Maybe the first issue is that of privacy.  Do we, the purchasers/readers of books, want the sellers and the writers of books to know if we stopped reading, where we stopped, did we read passages on particular pages more than once, etc.?  Some readers, of course, will take the standby position that since they are doing nothing wrong, it matters not to them that they are being tracked.  As this particular post is not intended to be political, we can tackle that question another day, though the privacy issue may linger in one’s mind.

From a purely publishing/writing/reading stand-point, according to best-selling author Scott Turow, president of The Authors Guild,

I would love to know if 35 percent of my readers were quitting after the first two chapters, because that frankly strikes me as, sometimes, a problem I could fix. Would I love to hitch the equivalent of a polygraph to my readers and know how they are responding word by word? That would be quite interesting.

(A polygraph hitched to your readers, Scott?  Now that is interesting.)

Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Egan (The Goon Squad) says, in contrast,

…this speaks to the question of how important market research really would be for me as a creative person … [It’s] interesting to know, but should not really be predictive or part of the creative process.”

I for one (or 2 or 3, depending on whether dog and/or cat are on my lap) read in idiosyncratic ways, which I challenge a computer program to make heads or tails out of.  For example, I read several books at a time (upstairs book, downstairs book, and on my Kindle, from which I may read from several books, depending upon mood, need, or interest of the moment).  Sometimes I “quit” reading a particular book for several months.  Sometimes I quit a book “permanently,” meaning it’s lost my interest…until it regains my interest.  Sometimes I dump a book.  But if Scott Turow thinks I stopped reading at page 50, because that’s where it got boring, it may have been boring from page 3 and I just waded through until it got unbearable.

So, I don’t believe “they” can make accurate and useful marketing or editorial decisions from my patterns.  While I know that such decisions are made by computers from aggregated data (i.e., lots of readers), I believe my reading patterns are closer to normal than odd-ball.  In fact, if you want to read reactions to this new sub-rosa electronic feedback tracking game, check out the comments at the end of Lynn Neary’s NPR article.

Which goes to one of my favorite maxims that applies at least to the last 100+ years:
Just because something can be measured, doesn’t mean it should be measured.

So, what do you think, not only about your reading patterns being tracked in the background (sub-rosa), but what editors/publishers and writers might make of the data, for good or ill?