Thoughts From AWP: Beyond “Media”

Several panels had the word “transmedia” in their titles, but there was little agreement on the definition of “transmedia.”

We all understand “media” to mean the manner by which the message is transmitted, but after that,  neither authors nor publishers nor academics could agree how adding “multi,” “trans” or “hyper” exactly change the noun. If those of us meant to be experts in the field can’t agree on these definitions, it’s no wonder the reading public is confused and therefore hesitant to adopt.

Here are some of the common terms used:

  • Multi-media: a piece that orchestrates text, audio, and video elements in the narrative. Any one element may stand alone and therefore be primary, but the secondary elements don’t necessarily stand alone. A poem read to music over a movie of waves lapping the shore would be multimedia.
  • Transmedia: a piece made up of two or more elements that can stand alone (even if they don’t constitute a separate narrative).  Transmedia can include elements like websites, social media feeds and email to augment a narrative. A transmedia experience may have a movie that tells one story, a book that tells another, and an album whose songs tell another, all of which work together in one complete, over-arching narrative.
  • Augmented e-book: a text that looks like a regular e-book (a faithful electronic reproduction of a physical book) but with added video or audio elements that create a more entertaining experience without necessarily adding any additional meaning to the text. Depending on the age of the intended audience, either the text or the pictures will be the primary element. Most augmented e-books are directed at younger audiences.
  • Hypertext: an online method of creating text that allows for user-interactive, non-linear narratives. Because most hypertext creation engines are strictly online, they can link out to any other kind of online content, or contain audio or video clips.
  • Apps: a self-contained program designed to fulfill a particular purpose –  normally, in narrative cases, to allow a user to interact with a text in specific ways designed by the author of the app. Depending on the app, users might be able to navigate the story in particular ways, add material to the text, or create elements that go along with the text.

The good news is that whatever an author can think up can likely be done with today’s technology. For authors who operate in more than one element – text, music, video, programming, etc. – this allows for an easily-distributed version of that vision.

The bad news is that for those people who are trying to teach technology to younger generations, there’s no good way to create a textbook that addresses the realities of the space. Both hardware and software are evolving so quickly that a curriculum created in August would be out of date by December. What needs to be taught instead are the modes of thought that go into looking at what exists and imagining what might be. Teach children the basics of storytelling, and then allow them to look out at the world and think about how to distill its essence and create something new and wonderful.

Thoughts From AWP: The Rise of Art Books

I talked in an earlier post about the rise of letterpress, but there’s another interesting small-publishing phenomenon on the rise: art books. I’m not talking about coffee table books full of photographs of works of art. Today, art books are text, paper arts and programming, exploring the outskirts of the literary landscape.

Art books are exploring that area where authors justify why a given story should be published as a paper book or an e-book. Some of the most innovative new art books exist in both worlds, where innovations in the physical book, like special inks or folded or cutout papers are complemented by innovations in the e-book, like an app that interacts with the text or pictures in the print book, or adds audio or animation elements.

The art books I’ve seen, both at AWP and at other conferences I’ve attended in recent months have fallen into a few groups:

1. The “mainly paper” book

These books, like J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S., are paper first and foremost, and their main value is in their physicality – they have elements that cannot easily be replicated in an electronic medium. However, in what looks like either an attempt to wring as much cash out of a big project or a nod to the fact that everyone’s doing e-books, the publisher puts out an e-book that is in no way an equivalent experience to the paper artifact.

2. The multimedia book

Some authors have been so inspired by a place or event, some outside thing, that they use the capability of electronic media to incorporate music, video, snippets of spoken word, etc., into their book. Katherine McNamara has done some lovely work in creating multimedia experiences to bring work that she has authored and/or published to a new level. The result is a rich, immersive experience for the reader.

3. The “art for art’s sake” books

The possibilities of programming, where code is its own language that can be clumsy, workmanlike or elegant, offer the literary author both challenges and opportunities. Text can be displayed, remixed and interacted with in endless ways, and the most innovative e-books challenge our notions of the “book” means, or how we “read.”

4. Furthering the conversation with the reader

Some art books take advantage of the fact that a tablet can accept input, and allow for user interactivity within the text. There are still choose-your-own-adventure type hypertexts, but there are also books that allow the reader to add to the text itself, inserting a little of themselves into the work, and expanding the author/programmer collaboration.

Part of the value of art books isn’t just the cachet of creating something unique. For most art books that involve digital production, programming and literary authorship, learning to work as part of a team where no one piece – the words, the images or the construction of the paper book or the programmed app – has primacy can be an important experience.

What’s important about the most innovative, challenging art books is that they are the proving ground for the future of text. The adoption of new technology is a bell curve – the first few pioneers, the trickle of early adopters, the bulk of people who wait either until all the bugs are worked out or it comes down in price, and then the long tail of Luddites and procrastinators. Lots of innovations never make it out of that pioneer phase, but those that do will filter down to the more conventional authoring masses in the form of improved, easier-to-use software and devices that store more data and present it in a greater variety of ways.  Paying attention to what’s happening on the leading edge of the curve can offer writers new ways to tell the stories they’re already crafting.

Thoughts From AWP: The Truth About Self-Publishing

There’s no getting around it – self-publishing is a fact, and more writers are not only taking advantage of it, they’re experiencing levels of success only previously possible with the resources of a big publisher. But self publishing is muddying the waters of the publishing industry, making roles and procedures that had seemed clear only a few years ago more uncertain.

Who’s publishing their own stuff? The Kindle Store is full of the traditional “not up to publishing standards” kind of fiction. The sort that isn’t well-written or well-edited, that shouldn’t have seen the light of day. But two new streams are blowing that group out of the water. The first is already-published authors whose back catalogue works are enjoying new life as e-books. Hugh Howey quoted one of his early mentors (whose name I, alas, did not catch) as saying “take care of your back list and your back list will take care of you,” and that’s exactly what these authors are doing – allowing their back lists to take care of them by finding a new audience. But Hugh Howey himself represents the second stream: self-published authors who have looked at the publishing industry and replicated it for themselves. They’ve perfected their craft and spent the time editing their work to a professional standard. They’ve used professional layout tools to make their books look as good as anything coming out of a Big Five publishing house. But 100% of the money is coming straight into their own pockets. Howey has written many articles about how self-publishing can be a more lucrative income stream for authors than working with a large publishing house.

Which is not to say that there’s no room for the traditional publishing house. Howey himself has recently made a deal with Simon & Schuster for his Wool series in paper books.  Amazon, home of Kindle Direct Publishing, has an entire division that does nothing but look at the books that self-published authors are putting out and find the ones that are picking up speed. They are uniquely positioned to use their traditional imprints, Thomas & Mercer, Amazon Crossing, 47North, Montlake Romance, Grand Harbor Press, etc., to snap up those self-published works that look like they’re catching on, and put the resources of Amazon behind them, while taking a cut of the profits.

Howey was able to put out a professional product because there are so many excellent self-publishing tools available for little or no cost. Authors thinking of going this route will need to understand clearly what needs to be done, and be prepared to either do it themselves or to pay a professional: editing, typography and layout, illustrators, publicity and distribution. The cost of putting out a less-than-professional product isn’t just a lack of sales. It’s a loss of credibility with the reading public when you put your next book out.

The people who are experiencing great success have one thing in common. I call it “the Netflix effect.” I don’t have cable, so I tend to find television shows on Netflix. When I find one I like, I’ll watch the whole thing, one episode after another. I don’t even think about getting cable anymore, because the thought of watching a show I like and then having to wait a whole week before I can see the next episode is just too much. Howey has put out twelve books in the last few years, and those people who come to his books and enjoy them can consume them like potato chips. He said that his goal was to ignore his sales numbers and focus entirely on writing for the first ten years.  As a result, with very little publicity, Howey has managed to sell millions of copies of his titles.

So, perhaps that’s the takeaway – if you’re an author looking to get your book to market, think about what you’re solving for. Authors with many books under their belts have different needs than first-time novelists, who have different needs again from mid-listers on their second or third novel. With the publishing world still morphing, authors can make many of their own opportunities.

Thoughts From AWP: The Return of Letterpress

One of the most pleasing themes of this year’s AWP was a return to handcrafted books. Some will argue that handcrafted books never left, but the popularity of hand-binding, typesetting and letterpress has only come to the fore in the past couple of years.

According to many panelists, hand-bound books, broadsheets and chapbooks are physical artifacts that will never be replaced by the impersonality of e-books. While e-readers are convenient and often cost much less than their physical counterparts, the physicality of each book is a distinct experience: its thickness, its typography, the way the pages wear as it is read. Every book experienced on an e-reader may have distinct cover art, but the physicality of the device is always the same. That artifact, the book, can commemorate a specific time and place. Especially if you’re a fan of a particular author and get a copy of your favorite book signed, or if you take a book on vacation with you, it’s easy to associate it with the experiences you had while you held it in your hand – the page you tore stuffing it into your bag before boarding a flight, the drip of fruit juice where it spilled as you sat on the beach while reading.

For those interested in the creation of printed books, the physicality of creating an artifact is in itself a means of expression. Choosing a typeface, papers, designing covers and title pages gives the bookbinder total artistic control over every aspect of the book’s design. Many hand-binders create runs of fewer than a hundred copies of a given book, making each copy more like a limited edition artwork, and less like a mass-market printed book. Nowadays, when even authors who print their own books use some kind of word processing software to write their works, and the process of hand-binding a book can provide a welcome antidote to hours spent sitting in front of a computer. As more aspects of our life – our jobs, our entertainment, our communication – involve sitting in front of a screen, many people are looking for ways to get away from their computers and into handling real objects in the real world. But although most aspects of book binding are strictly physical processes, there are certainly ways that the computer age has impacted letterpress printing. Computer-printable plastics used in the creation of letterpress plates, typesetting for aspects of a work that would be difficult with physical type, digital means of image creation can all contribute to a hand-bound book without destroying its satisfying physicality.

But perhaps the most satisfying aspect of book bindery is its potential to build community. Maybe you love setting type but hate the smell of glue – find a friend who’s not thrilled with the fiddliness of typesetting but loves binding. Teams make the work of things like daily-produced broadsheets or larger runs of hand-bound books easier, and the finished book becomes an artifact of creating not just of beautiful work of literary art, but a community of like-minded souls.

Buy Me a River

Quick, what’s the first thing you think of when you hear me say “Lange & Söhne Grande Lange 1″?  How about “Keith Lloyd”?  “Flora Danica”?  Or “Kallista Archeo Copper?”

If you are a normal person, you don’t think anything. These things have no meaning to you. And why should they? If you wear a watch, you likely wear something that was either a gift to you, or something you bought for less than a year’s wages, a brand that you’ve heard of – Timex, Swatch – something like that.

You also would have no reason to know that Keith Lloyd makes bespoke suits for men, that Flora Danica is the world’s most expensive china, or that if you want a Kallista Archeo Copper tub, you’ll be shelling out $70k for it.

I had to look these names up. I don’t have any of these things, and I don’t know anyone who does. When writers put details like these into a work, they may think that they’re adhering to “show don’t tell,” but if what you’ve shown me is something I can’t comprehend, you’ve just failed.

I’ve railed about the laziness of using brand names as description before, but in the wake of the news that another Dan Brown potboiler is coming down the colon, I felt it time to mention it again.

The High Cost of Writing

I know lots of people who can write anywhere. They go to coffee shops, libraries, they get up at four in the morning and write at their kitchen tables. I know other people who have some theoretical set of conditions under which they can write, but they can’t articulate what they are and can only point out what they are not. As in “I can’t write in my apartment. It’s not the right space.”

I don’t really have either problem. There’s writing I can do anywhere, and I do. I’ve had days where I’ve cranked out 10,000 words and still had time to do fun stuff afterward. Lately, though, getting time and space to write has been hard.

When I wrote a piece about a musician, I sang all the time. When I wrote about a woman who leaves her parents’ home to have an affair with a married man, I fought with my parents. I’m not the sort of person who has to go out and do something before she can write about it, but I do tend to take on the emotions of my characters.

It’s taken the occasional toll on my marriage. You see, my husband loves me. He loves me in that “can’t watch me suffering without trying to make me feel better” way. He also works from home, just like I do, and occasionally, he needs to ask me something or tell me something or show me something. Knowing that he could come walking in any second makes it difficult to really lose myself in writing scenes that require some extremes of emotion. If I’m writing anger, I’ll yell at him. If I’m writing a sex scene, I probably won’t get much more writing done.

The piece I’m writing now is full of self-doubt, loneliness, longing and fear. On Monday, I took advantage of being alone in the house for five hours to get some work done. I put on the playlist that I reserve for the project I’m working on, I re-read the stuff I had already written, and I thought about what had to happen next. And then, I began to cry. I kept blowing my nose and wiping my face with my handkerchief, but within fifteen minutes, it was soaked. So I got another. And another. My shoulders were shaking, my breath hitching in my chest, my lips were getting chapped from the hanky. Every once in a while, I had to stop typing because I had to put my head down on my desk and howl. Then, back to typing.

After a couple of hours, I had finished three thousand words. I had a whacking headache, my face was red and swollen, I had run out of clean handkerchiefs and I was exhausted. My family came home, but it was hard to enjoy their company. For all my exhaustion, I couldn’t fall asleep, though. Being over-emotional does that to me.

It wasn’t until the next day, after a wasted morning of trying to work but not being able to concentrate on much, that I gave in an napped. And when I say “gave in and napped,” I mean “passed out on the couch in my office.”

I admonish myself for not writing as often as I should, but if every couple of hours of productivity costs me a day of down time, I think I should be a little easier on myself.

No Elves Allowed

I had a conversation with a friend from my MFA program today. We’re both reading slightly different stream-of-consciousness novels and wondering how everyone started re-writing Mrs. Dalloway. I feel like so much of what I read in the program is derivative of something else – Hemingway, Faulkner, Pynchon, Woolf (although, funnily enough, not Proust or Tolstoy). Everyone’s writing realistic fiction, trying to frame events that we’ve all experienced first- or at most, second-hand with a voice that makes them sound relevant and urgent and more important than anything in real life.

The whole “voice” question comes up all the time in our studies, and in things related to our studies. In the magazine I edit, I had one editor question the “voice” of a first-person essay because she didn’t think that the author’s “voice” matched the actual story of her own experience. Seriously, that’s fucked up.

And it occurred to me that when I’m reading genre fiction, I almost never worry about voice. For that matter, I don’t worry about a whole lot of the conventions of “literary” fiction, because all that matters when you’re reading a genre story is the story. This is why books like Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey sell bazillions of copies, even though everyone in the world acknowledges that they’re barely literate rubbish: people like the stories they tell.

I haven’t read either of the books above, because I like my story to come passably well-written as well as thought-provoking, so I end up reading really good sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and magical realism authors, and I always end up thinking “I would love to write like this.”

Did I mention I’m getting my MFA? And you’d think that, since I’m in a program specifically meant to make me into a better writer, I’d have a chance to hone and perfect that, right? The problem is that there are good mentors in our program – mentors who are attentive readers, willing to give really in-depth, line-edit feedback to my writing. There are also mentors who really like experimental writing and genre fiction. There is precious little overlap.

Many of the mentors claim that they don’t “understand” the conventions of genre fiction, but I’m not sure that they’re any different than the “conventions” of any other kind of fiction. Tell a good story. Have compelling characters. Build some tension. Does it matter exactly how vampires work? No. Everyone who’s ever written a successful vampire book has made up their own rules, but as long as those rules are consistent within themselves, no one minds. Does it matter whether your fairies (or, if you insist, faeries) are good or evil? Nope. Whether robots are our friends or enemies (or both)? Not a bit. Whether the aliens can pass for human? Nah.

What I’ve always loved about genre fiction is the way it explores what it means to be human by juxtaposing humans with other things and thinking about those differences. I’m not convinced that humans are the strongest, smartest, most compassionate species in the galaxy (which is how we’re always portrayed, which, as a trope, embarrasses me) but I like thinking about what makes me human as opposed to robot or vampire or elf queen. Because when I think about what makes people human, I get to think of all people at the same time. All races, all genders, all religions, all classes and nationalities. They’re all included.

Maybe I’d have liked Hemingway if there’d been more spaceships and fewer guys fishing. Maybe Faulkner would have appealed more to me if there’d been less racial tension and more species tension. Maybe I’d like Woolf more if there were fewer first-world problems, and more multiverse problems.

Therein Lies the Tale

Once again, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with people about what’s important in writing. As an editor in chief, I’m not the first person to read anything that comes to our journal. First, we have assistant editors who look things over and vote them up or down. Then we have editors who look at things and recommend them to be published. Then I look everything over and give it a yes or no. Well, actually, I give it a yes. I’ve only said “no” once, and I was outvoted.

Sometimes, I look at things that have been submitted and I fall in love with the story they’re telling, but other editors on the staff don’t like them because they’re not technically dazzling or have a shining, crystalline story structure or…honestly, sometimes I have no idea why the other editors hate them.

Then I read a piece in The Atlantic, and it all became clear. The journal for which I am EIC is affiliated with an MFA program, and all of the editors, myself included, are current or former students of that MFA program. We’ve been drilled by Rick Moody about varying our sentence structure. We’ve been inspired by Susan Orlean to carefully balance fact and judgement. We’ve been told by everyone who’s ever written anything to “find our voice.” (I would have made that a hotlink, but when I googled  “find your voice,” I got 1.1 billion results. Billion. With a B.)

So what do we do with those stories that are less than technically perfect, but where the writer is telling us something we haven’t heard before? Some experience they’ve had that is so surprising, so inspiring, so thought-provoking, that you find yourself thinking about it and referring to it long after you’ve finished reading it? I would like to think that our egos as writers are enough in check to be generous to that writer. As generous as the New Yorker editor obviously was to that writing student, but I have to be honest.

Every one of us is human. We are all, at various times, jealous, petty, nitpicky, prejudiced, or fearful, and we don’t always have control over those emotions any more than we have control over when our bosses are going to put a whole bunch of work on our desks and say “this has to be done by the end of the day.”

I finished reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest this past week, and it took me a couple of days to distill my thoughts and feelings about it. In the end, I ended up writing a 13-page annotation, complete with subsidized time section headings and footnotes. I mentioned on Facebook that I had finished it, but that I didn’t know anyone else who had read it so I had no one to talk about it with.

What followed was a thread in which those of my friends who had read it weighed in briefly, and those who hadn’t gave me their reasons for not having read it, and the adjective that I heard the most often was “pretentious.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, vis-a-vis Infinite Jest, because it’s not the story of how rich people know more, are better looking and deserve more than everyone else. Nor is it a mundane story told using unnecessarily large words. It does demand a certain amount of attention, but so does Anna Karenina, an even longer book that I’ve never heard called pretentious, although it does contain a lot about the privilege of rich people and unnecessarily large words.

At heart, Infinite Jest is about the gross and frightening appetites of human beings. For love, for approval, for honor, for money, for an undefinable happiness that they cannot construct for themselves, but must purchase new each day in a different form, while not throwing out yesterday’s happiness. I don’t suppose that’s a new story, but it’s told in a way that is off-putting to a lot of people, and (as I’ve learned in the biography of DFW that I’m currently reading) Wallace had a great deal of trouble during his lifetime getting people to recognize the worth of his writing.

Maybe that’s it. The more uncomfortable a subject makes people, the more they’re going to look for something else about the story that bothers them. The voice doesn’t sound “genuine,” the sentence structure doesn’t vary, there are too many or not enough commas, they don’t know the difference between “there” and “their.” It keeps them from having to say “I don’t understand or relate to this material,” or “this portrays people like myself in an unflattering light,” or “I disagree with this person’s worldview.”

Just Be Nice. Is That So Hard?

In the last seven days, I’ve been talking about the submission process whereby writers submit their writing to publications. I’ve had a couple of Facebook discussions with literary journals about our acceptance/rejection process, and then I’ve had a couple of experiences of my own, one as the submitting writer, one as the editor. And they’ve brought home to me the fact that everyone in this process treats each other badly more often than not.

First, both Facebook discussions centered around how editors treat submissions. How do we feel about the use of form letters for either acceptance or rejection? How do we handle work that needs some polish to be publication-worthy? These questions were posed by other literary journals who were obviously feeling torn between trying to get through the crazy number of submissions journals typically receive in a publishing cycle, and feeling like they’ve treated each of those submissions with care and respect.

In that discussion, other editors weighed in saying that given the demands on an editor’s time, accepting work that was less than finished wasn’t a great idea. We get such a lot of work that is already finished, and the most I’m willing to correct would be a typo or some punctuation. In addition to reading submissions, I have to take care of the business end of the publication, as well as layout, etc. And I’m a writer myself. With a family.

The writers, however, all seemed sad that editors couldn’t take the time to give line edits to every story, or to go back and forth with them re-working things until they’re perfect. From a writer standpoint, I understand the feeling that submission is an arbitrary process. That, while most publications say “read a copy of our journal to see what we publish,” it’s hard to know whether a certain story caught the editors’ eyes because of its style, or because the writer was a friend of the staff, or because the editor had a dog like that when she was a kid and it struck a chord. It’d be really nice to hear from an editor exactly where you’ve gone wrong.

In looking at the comments left by editors in the journal I edit, the most common comments are things like “too much passive voice,” “chronology of events is unclear,” “there’s no conflict in this story.” These are things that would take far too much work to fix. Some of them are things that indicate the writer needs to get some basic education in the craft of writing. There’s no way I have the time to teach someone how to write in the context of being an editor.

I am grateful that the rejection letter our journal sends out is thoughtful and respectful. So much so, that we routinely receive thank-you notes telling us that the submitter felt encouraged by our rejection and would submit again. I’ve also been known to put in personal notes to authors whose work I really liked, asking them to let me know if it gets placed elsewhere so that I can tell people. I think it’s important to be encouraging as well as honest.

Today I received an email from a potential submitter to my journal. This person had emailed before, telling us that we didn’t know how to do our jobs, that we were making his life difficult, that if our journal doesn’t pay, he was going to put us on his list of markets that didn’t pay and tell all his friends. The email was peppered with words in all caps and multiple exclamation points per sentence. I ignored it. When I received a second email from him stating again that we were incompetent, I had to wonder what he thought he was going to accomplish. If I told him that my journal paid a hundred dollars per word, did he really think that I would see a submission with his name on it and think “Oh, great!”? I would never retaliate against someone for sending me a rude letter; it’s more about the fact that if you’re using your caps key and exclamation point to carry the force of your words, I don’t hold out much hope for your writing.

Then this morning, I received a reply regarding a story I submitted on Friday to an anthology publication. The reply was perfunctory, not what we were looking for, etc., but it was also at the end of what was obviously an email string relating to that story. The other commenter had written “boring to me.” Nothing else. I wrote back to the woman who had sent the original email to tell her that it might be wise to double-check before sending responses containing comments from other editors, and that, while feedback is often helpful, that the word “boring” was neither instructive nor professional. The woman was mortified. She wrote back apologizing, even offering to help me re-work the piece, but I passed on her offer. She did tell me that I had taught her an “eye-opening lesson.”

You know what it was? Be nice. As an editor, be nice and respectful when you handle the submissions of writers. Give them honest feedback if they ask for it and you have the time. Send rejection letters that acknowledge that writing is subjective and that you appreciate the writer’s efforts. Don’t be rude or dismissive. And writers – the same goes for you. You’re asking editors to put their own reputations and the reputations of their publication on the line by publishing your work. Maybe what you wrote is stellar, maybe it was terrible, maybe it was somewhere in between but just didn’t strike the fancy of the editor who read it. But if you’re going to interact with publishers, don’t be a jerk about it.

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