Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Book news you might have missed in the shadow of larger events...

In the wake of world events, it's easy to lose track of even the biggest doings in the bookworld. Compared to earthquakes, volcanos, civil wars, air raids, and nuclear meltdowns (not necessarily in that order, of course) it gets difficult to think about anything else right now.

via: wikipedia commons
Even though I no longer get ink on my hands most days, I still try to read the whole newspaper every day, even when the headlines are less than encouraging.  My dad taught me that it's important to stay abreast of even the stories that seem less important or ones that wilt in the shadows of larger events.  Because those are the stories that are more likely to affect you directly, even if it takes awhile.

Here are three book-related news stories you might have missed in the shadows of the larger stories unfolding worldwide...

Neither a borrower, nor a lender be...

Earlier this week, Amazon apparently backed away from e-book lending, revoking access for the third party Kindle application "Lendle" which allowed those who signed up to lend e-books to others who had signed up for the service as well.  Only those willing to lend could borrow and vice-versa.  According to Lendle's initial statement, the letter they received from Amazon cited concerns that their app would hurt Kindle sales.

A day later, Lendle was back up and issued a statement saying that Amazon's concerns were with a part of their app which synced their service with the user's Kindle library.  Lendle deactivated the 'Book Sync' app and they were back in business.  How or why Book Sync was of concern wasn't entirely clear in the initial statements from either party.
"Late today, we received an email from an Associates Account Specialist at Amazon informing us that their concern only relates to our Book Sync tool, which syncs a user’s Kindle books with their Lendle account. Amazon informed us that if we disabled this feature, our access to the API, as well as our Amazon Associates account, would be reinstated. We appreciate Amazon’s willingness to modify the position stated in the original access revocation email and work with us to get Lendle back on line. We have complied with the request to disable the Book Sync tool (which was a very useful, but non-essential, feature of Lendle)."

-Lendle's official statment regarding revocation & reinstatement
Was this another Amazon cockup and a demonstration that they've finally learned how to correct course and move on before it becomes a thing?  The difference in reasons cited between one day and the next would seem to imply that it was.  Actually, I hope it was, because it would indicate that Amazon is learning from their past missteps.

The ability to lend and borrow e-books is a step in the right direction for e-book providers and publishers.  As Neil Gaiman stated in the video I posted a few days ago, new authors are found via recommendations from friends.  "This was awesome, you have to read this, here borrow mine..." is a phrase that launched a thousand literary careers and a phrase that should never die out if the publishing industry wishes to thrive. 

An unsettling development...
The most recent iteration of the Google Books Settlement was rejected by the judge who is overseeing the case.  The judge found that the settlement was too much in favor of Google and gave them too much power in the developing digital marketplace.
"...Citing copyright, antitrust and other concerns, Judge Denny Chin said that the settlement went too far. He said it would have granted Google a “de facto monopoly” and the right to profit from books without the permission of copyright owners. Judge Chin acknowledged that “the creation of a universal digital library would benefit many,” but said that the proposed agreement was “not fair, adequate and reasonable.”

Read the full story in the New York Times
Born to be Kurzweil'd
Noted futurist Ray Kurzweil and Baker & Taylor (a literary distributor) perhaps inadvertantly dragged his landmark Blio project into the fray surrounding AT&T's announced plan to buy T-Mobile.  Blio, you might recall, is a free e-reader app designed to create a truly immersive and interactive e-books experience.  I may not be anti e-book, but most of what they can do has been pretty pedestrian thus far.  The Blio is the happy exception and its abundant possibilities for cross-platform use legitimately wows me.

How all this will be impacted by the AT&T acquisition of T Mobile is anyone's guess at this point...
"Bob Nelson, president of B&T’s digital group, said the deal allows T-Mobile to deliver “premium bonus applications to its customers. Blio brings e-books to life, in vivid color and with a variety of enhanced features, including audio read along, Web browsing from inside the book and its patented Read Logic technology.”

-via Publisher's Weekly

And that's the highlights from this end of the publishing pool -- things I think we would be well served to pay attention to, even in light of more pressing concerns in Libya and Japan.

My thoughts continue to be with my friends in Japan and all across the Pacific Rim.  In case you've been living in a cave and haven't yet heard, you can donate $10 to the Japanese Red Cross by texting REDCROSS to 90999.  The amount will be added to your cell phone bill.  You can donate more, of course, by contacting the Red Cross directly.

Click to find out more

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Writer's Dreams & Stranger Things

I rarely remember my dreams, which have always been largely dominated by nightmares anyway.  But last night, I had a sort of strange writer's version of the "Came to school unprepared for the test" sort of dream we all remember from school.

In the dream, I was a kid again and I had been cast in the title role for the movie adaptation of "Howard Carter Saves the World".  And even though I was just a kid, my fellow cast members and the director kept coming to me, demanding to know what this or that meant and asking me to explain all of the jokes to them.

Man, I was just a kid, what did I know about cold fusion and time travel?

Every time someone approached me to demand that I explain myself, my eleven-year-old mind froze and I stammered out a nonsensical answer that failed to satisfy anyone.  Ere the end, I was being chased around the set, Benny Hill style only not as funny and without the saxophone music.

I won't inflict the casting decisions of my dreamworld upon you.  I'd prefer that you mentally cast the story yourself.  And anyway, whatever you think up will probably be better than the three-ring circus that my mind whipped up.

I did get to wear a wicked cool jet pack for part of the dream, though.  So I guess that's something at least.  Right?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Writers & Fear :: Finding the courage to put your hands on the keys...

Flashback Friday - At the dawn of 2010, I challenged myself and my readers to actually go away (good thing I don't have ads on this blog or I'd go broke, right?) and to get writing.  Of all the posts in that series, this must be my favorite...

At the dawn of this year, I stated my goal of getting you to write -- persuading you to set aside whatever is getting in your way and just sit down and put pen to paper or fingers to keys. This is not because I think everyone needs to be a writer (there's plenty of competition out there, thank you) but because I know there are a lot of people out there with ideas swirling in their heads just waiting for permission to proceed.

It's worth noting that in most cases, power isn't given, it's seized by those ambitious enough to go after it. And it's up to you to do so with your literary aspirations as well. At least in the realm of fiction, no one can give you permission to write about a subject; you have to just sit down and do it and to hell anyone who tells you that you can't.

That almost sounds silly, but there are seriously plenty of people out there frozen with their fingers over the keys. I've met a lot of them. I can't imagine what they're waiting for. There's no government agency or academic institution or critic out there with the power vested in them to license authors, at least not in America.

If you live somewhere that does that sort of thing, you might want to consider emigrating to someplace that doesn't.

There are no entrance exams for becoming an author. If you want to write, you just have to put your butt in a chair and your fingers on the keys and do it. That's not to say it's easy or that you'll have immediate success or that a degree in English lit or creative writing wouldn't help you, but formal training is not strictly necessary either.

A lot of bad books come from people with lofty degrees. Remember that Enough so that I remain unconvinced that it helps more than it hinders. I am convinced that in order to be a writer you need only a love of words, the desire to dream out loud and a willingness to stick it out as you figure out how to do it.

Reading is the only meaningful apprenticeship for a writer. The classroom may ice the cake or it may stifle you, but the library and the bookstore is a wide-open field of study, an embarrassment of riches. The only way to learn how to write is to read. Read everything. Good books, bad books, classic books, trashy romance novels, history books, poetry, plays, comic books, screenplays... everything you read has a lesson to teach for good or ill. Everything you write is a reflection of what you've read, as an echo of those you honor and a rebuke of those your revile. Still not convinced? Fine.  

By the power vested in me by absolutely no one at all, you have permission to write.

There. Now you don't have any more excuses.  Get back to work.

The Buggywhip Defense League

I'm a big fan of buggy whips, and you just can't find anywhere to buy them anymore.  Sad, really.

In recent weeks I've been accused of being a Luddite, a snob, a hipster, and a Luddite hipster snob.  Just because I prefer printed books to the digital ones.  Or was it for whining too much about Daylight Saving Time?

Might have been both.

Earlier today, someone sent me a link which implies I'm a "Book Fetishist", which has implications I don't care to delve into here.  Though here's a hint to the guys who wrote that: you're not going to win a booklover's heart by handing them a gutted book unless it was used to smuggle another book into the former Soviet Union or something.

Preferably with the smuggled book still inside.

I do love books.  I love the sensory experience of them and feel that I retain more of the text reading paper rather than the screen, but contrary to what is apparently a popular belief, I'm not anti e-book. Being anti e-book would be like being anti paperback. In point of fact, I'm fully in favor of someone making this digital marginalia idea from the New York Times a reality with all due haste.

If they do that, I will be first in line for my ticket.  Please make it available for the Kobo.

I am blessed with a personal library that runs into the thousands of books, some of which I inherited, some of which were gifts and some of which I bought when I was a bookseller and could get them at a steep discount.  I grew up surrounded by them and cannot imagine a house that feels homey without them.  Not everyone has that luxury and not everyone has the space to store them properly even if they can acquire such a collection.  Electronic formats allow someone to acquire such a collection at a significantly lower cost in terms of both money and space.

I don't think that any booklover in his right mind would begrudge someone that joy over a simple matter of silicon & pixels versus paper & ink.

Just mind those user's agreements.  Read it before you click "I agree".  Know what you're signing away in terms of rights and privileges, because you're not getting them back.

The part of the digital domain that does bother me is the part that eliminates bookstores.  And mayhap that does make me a Luddite or one of the other things I've been called.  Nevertheless, I posit that the ecosystem that grew up in support of the written word is not the Cult of the Buggywhip as it is often portrayed.  It was the support system that gave rise to our literary culture. A support system which at present, no one has presented a replacement for it that seems to have the chops to go the distance.

I'm not actually talking about publishing.  Publishing will evolve and the publishers will evolve or not as their survival instincts dictate.  Publishing will find a way to survive, they always do.  I'm talking about bookstores.  Indies, Barnes & Noble, Borders, the lot of them.

Only recently has the Googlebooks launch made it possible to buy e-books from my local bookstore (and this time I am talking about the indie bookstores such as our beloved local independant Elliot Bay)
There's nothing wrong with reading books on an e-reader any more than there's anything wrong with listening to music on an MP-3 player, but I'm not a fan of leasing any of my media.  And while the comparison between music and books is tenuous at times, I mention music specifically because of the death of the independent music store that used to be a part of the culture of every city.

To throw that away in the name of convenience is a crying shame.  When you throw out the bathwater, don't be surprised if you look down and the baby's no longer there.

And if that makes me a Luddite, a hipster, or a snob, then so be it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A Rabbit Problem :: The dangers of writing the extraordinary character

Flashback Friday - This post first appeared on 1 July 2009.  Have you ever written a Bugs Bunny into your book?  Welcome to my world...

I have a rabbit problem. Not in the garden, in my books. And if your characters are as capable as Jack Reacher or as smart as Sherlock Holmes or as beautiful as a fashion model... or in anyway presenting themselves to you as nearly super-human, then you have a rabbit problem too.

Legendary Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones also had a rabbit problem. He was possessed of a set of characters with the ability to bend reality to their whim in order to triumph over what seemed to be overwhelming odds. And at the head of the pack was a rabbit named Bugs.

"Golden Rule. Bugs must always be provoked. In every film, someone must have designs on his person: gastronomic, as a trophy, as a good-luck piece (rabbit's foot, which makes as much sense as a rabbit carrying a human foot on a key chain), as an unwilling participant in a scientific experiment [...] Without such threats, bugs is far too capable a rabbit to evoke the necessary sympathy."

-Chuck Jones "Chuck Amuck"

Take the above quote and insert "Sherlock Holmes" or "Jack Reacher" or "Calvin" from Calvin & Hobbes in the place of Bugs and you'll see the problem that Conan Doyle, Lee Child and Bill Watterson faced every time they sat down to write.

If you can take your lead character(s) and insert their name and gender into the above quote, then you're in the Radio Flyer wagon with Arthur, Lee, Chuck and me, staring around at the sea of rabbits. Welcome aboard!   The blonde kid with the tiger is in charge, so don't smart off.

If a drama is derived from ordinary people in extraordinary situations, is it worthwhile to examine the extraordinary person in the extraordinary situation? Of course it is. It's just a matter of how you go about it.

The first thing to remember is Chuck's admonition that the supremely-capable character acting unprovoked will elicit very little sympathy from the audience. The corollary to this is that watching someone who is smarter than the subject matter waltz through the story is boring to boot. The Rabbit has to meet a challenge worthy of his efforts and attention or I'm not going to read your story and most of the editors I've met won't either.

Incidentally, if your character is so talented and capable in every realm and situation, I humbly submit that you need to rethink the decisions that led to your writing a novel about Superman. (Unless you really are writing a novel about Superman, in which case good luck and Godspeed because I'm as big a geek as as the next guy.)

There's a trap that catches just about every writer early in their writing career: It's insanely easy to create a fantasy alter ego that is everything we ever dreamt of being. And because as a breed, writers tend toward the bespectacled introvert more than the opposite. (There's a fine line between being stereotypical and merely archetypal.) With godlike powers, we can make manikins of words that are smarter, faster and better than any human being could ever hope to be.

There are degrees of extraordinariness and I should take a moment to poke some holes in...

Contrary to what detective novelists and television have taught us, a genius IQ does not automatically come with a detective's badge, Oriental lineage doesn't come with a black belt in the local martial art and very few CIA employees ever get issued a Glock and a license to kill. Those things are all cliche's. That's not to say that there aren't any genius PI's, Japanese kids trained in Ninjitsu or CIA hitmen in the world, just that there's a fine line between stereotype and archetype and in a fictional setting the scales are too often tipped toward the wrong side of that equation. (mixed metaphor alert!)

The cliche has a place in writing and life and we should treat them in the manner that they so richly deserve: subversion. Playing against audience expectations is part of the fun of writing the extraordinary character.

Drag your Rabbits out of their element. Give them a reason to get involved and then challenge them by forcing them to act in a realm beyond their expertise. Play them against themselves and keep doing it or you're going to end up running afoul of Chuck's Golden Rule. At which point, you might as well lobotomize your rabbit and let the hunter catch him.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Skeptic Crosses the e-Rubicon :: E-books & Digital Rights Meditations

The other day, my wife came home with our first e-reader, a Kobo, and all my careful research on the best and rightest of the electronic readers went out the window.  Why?  Price.  The Kobo was on sale for about $75.00 at the Borders liquidation in my town.  At a price point like that, how could any ardent reader resist?

Yes, my wife bought an e-reader at the Borders liquidation sale.  A sentence so laden with irony that you'd need a hacksaw to cut it.

Thankfully, the Kobo is e-Pub friendly and does a good job displaying .PDF's which were my main requirements.  I reckon that the amount of paper I save printing out reading and proof copies of my stories will offset the cost of this new widget twice as fast as the others I've looked at.

Being cross-platform friendly is nice.  The price was nice.  In fact, I suspect the Kobo people might look back on the Borders liquidation sales as a watershed moment for their device.  Already attractively priced well below other e-readers, I suspect that many people who were on the fence about the things might make the leap based upon price alone.

Food for thought at any rate.

Digital Rights Meditations...

The e-Pub format is a nice step in the direction of creating a digital library that is truly a movable feast, but not quite the whole way.  With some effort, you can carry your library from one device to another, but you still don't 'own' your books.  Honestly, I think we've given up entirely on the concept of ownership.  Of our music, of our computers, our phones and our video games.

Honestly, even though it brands me a luddite in most circles, I find it all a bit sad.  Sony is suing the hell out of a kid who figured out how to reactivate a function of the Playstation that was on there when he bought it, the option to install a different operating system.

If you think about it, prosecuting someone who wants to update or run "unapproved" software on a Playstation is a bit like Nissan prosecuting me for dropping a new engine in my Xterra.

Actually, it's exactly like that, except that Nissan didn't force me to agree to a ream of terms and conditions before they would allow me to start the engine the first time and then update and change the way the car works periodically without my permission.

I wonder how long we'll have to wait until that does happen?

I also wonder how much case law will be on the books already when it happens, which will tell us that while we're allowed to own the cars, we're only allowed a limited license to their engines and won't be allowed to sell them second-hand because that would rob Nissan or Toyota or GM of the sale of a new one.

Think about that for a moment.

Because no matter how the advertising copy of the electronic booksellers is written, you don't buy an e-book, you buy a license to access one.  A license that can and will be amended and revised or revoked as the licensor sees fit, as many American libraries discovered last week to their chagrin when Harper Collins changed their minds on how they were going to go forward on library loans of their e-books.

And as loud as the uproar might be, Harper Collins didn't do anything wrong.  They were acting well within their rights as licensor.

All of this relates to e-readers because I've never once picked up a new author without someone I trusted first handing me a copy of one of their books to read, which got me hooked.  So when I see publishers or other authors saying that a library or book loan is tantamount to piracy or theft, it makes me wonder if they're really paying attention to which writers are doing  well with young readers in the new publishing paradigm.  Not the older readers that keep the established mega-sellers like James Patterson aloft, but the future readers that will be buying books for decades to come... writers like Neil Gaiman.

I found out this morning that a company called Calibre has made finding and listing DRM-free e-books their business model for a new site.  It will be interesting to see if they succeed on that model.  Though, I sometimes wonder what the founders of Project Gutenberg think about the many e-book purveyors who are essentially re-packaging their content and making a note of how many free e-books they have available...

Friday, March 4, 2011

Implementation :: The Tools Are Not the Trade

Flashback Friday - This post first appeared 23 January 2010, revisiting a long-running discussion I've been having with myself on how ritualized my writing experience has become.  What if I had to give up coffee tomorrow?  The mind boggles. . .


Acknowledging that I'm at risk of painting with too broad a brush here I feel that I can say with assurance that on the whole, writers love rituals. Every writer's book and blog I've read talks about their ritual at some point, the ingrained habits that get them "into the zone". My writing certainly gains some sort of psychological homefield advantage when I'm writing in my "nest" or at a table in my favorite cafe.

I don't want to make it sound more metaphysical than it is, but there does seem to be some energy in those two places that agrees with me. At the very least, the effort seems greater if I write anywhere else. 

A lot is made of the implements that a writer uses and I'm no saint in this respect. I chortle periodically over some bit of trivia (like Wallace Stegner's typewriter) because it reinforces some portion of my own writing ritual. It's certainly easy to see how this can go from force of habit to becoming as superstitious about our rituals as any NHL Goalie, and slip from harmless habits into the realm of compulsive need. But I'm here to tell you that the tools are irrelevant. 

There's a tendency to get too precious about the creative act and obsess overmuch about the tools at the expense of the creation. Writer's blogs (like this one) abound with lengthy introspection on the mystique of writing, obsessing about the meditative stroke of the golden nib across a page or the percussive "ka-CHUNK" of the typewriter hammer striking the page. 

Ultimately, it's all baloney. At least insomuch as it's purely psychological, the writerly equivalent of Dumbo's feather. And I've found that as much as this psychological trick helps, it also it sets us up for writer's block. Ask yourself what happens when you lose the feather? Misplace your nice fountain pen or run out of ink for your funky old typewriter? Or (paying it back) if you can't get to your favorite writing spot? How do you keep writing on the road if your cafe table or easy chair or desk are a thousand miles away?

The only way to create and sustain a writing output is to make your writing a movable feast. Revel in your materials and your environment all you want, but always keep in mind that the pen isn't doing the writing, you are. Because in the end, writing is about sitting your butt in a chair in front of a computer, day after day and week after week, putting words on a page. 

No matter what we want to believe, it remains work, not a mystical act. I mentioned handing out Moleskine notebooks and pens at Christmas to those in my immediate vicinity who had mentioned to me the desire to write without actually writing anything. But with all due respect to my friends at Chronicle Books (the moleskine makers), a Mead spiral notebook would do just as well -- my current novel began on the back of a coffeestained napkin for heaven's sake. 

If the ideal tool or writerly setting frees your creativity in some fashion, go for it, but I'm here to tell you that the tools are irrelevant to the process and to get too wrapped up in them is to invite writers block at a crucial moment sometime in the future. 

Whether you're using a quill pen or a laptop, it's about getting from the first word to the last as effectively as possible. When the obsession with writing in a particularly "writerly" fashion becomes an obstacle to writing. Get used to writing in different places, at different times, with different instruments. The ideal time to write is when the ideas are fresh, with whatever comes to hand, whether it's a typewriter, a laptop or the pen you stole from the waitress.

But don't steal a pen from your waitress, it's not nice.