Monthly Archives: April 2010

Science Fiction: In the Future, Will a Book Be A Book, or an App?

Kindle on a shelf

For an unpublished fiction writer, the world of publishing is sort of like Australia. I’d like to visit some day, but it’ll take years to save the money and time off to get there.

So Ken Auletta’s “Publish or Perish,” in the April 26 New Yorker, about the iPad, the Kindle, and the publishing business, read to me like an investigative report on incremental changes in Australian visa policy. I’m interested, but the world the article talks about doesn’t seem immediately relevant to my writing efforts. It doesn’t really matter to me, today, as a writer, whether an e-book costs $9.99 or $14.99. But maybe one day, if I’m lucky, at least some of my livelihood will depend on the outcome of today’s negotiations between publishers and Amazon and Apple. Relationships between authors and publishers and distributors of their work, as well as attitudes toward self-publishing, are very slowly changing, too, and the result may affect how my work gets to the world.

But since I’m in the “creative phase” of producing my novel, the part of the article that interested me most was a paragraph that describes a coming sea change in the way we see books:

In Grandinetti [of Amazon]’s view, book publishers—like executives in other media—are making the same mistake the railroad companies made more than a century ago: thinking they were in the train business rather than the transportation business. To thrive, he believes, publishers have to reimagine the book as multimedia entertainment. David Rosenthal, the publisher of Simon & Schuster, says that his company is racing “to embed audio and video and other value-added features in e-books. It could be an author discussing his book, or a clip from a movie that touches on the book’s topic.” The other major publishers are working on similar projects, experimenting with music, video from news clips, and animation. Publishers hope that consumers will be willing to pay more for the added features. The iPad, Rosenthal says, “has opened up the possibility that we are no longer dealing with a static book. You have tremendous possibilities.”

While the “value-added features” Rosenthal describes sound like the special features you find on DVDs—all added to the movie, rather than an integral part of it—the idea of a non-static book could be more than that. People have been speculating for years about how the Internet could transform fiction. Those speculations haven’t amounted to much—yet. But I think devices like the iPad and Kindle could change that. A revolution may not happen super soon, but I plan to be writing fiction for a long time, and I’m intrigued about what the world of fiction might look like in a decade or two.

Will the “multimedia book” become a literary form in and of itself? What will it look like? And will I want to write one?


Writing a Novel Is Rocket Science

This will sound immodest: I’m a pretty good writer.

I don’t excel at much else. Sure, I’m a good friend, daughter, sister, life partner, and mom, an OK cook, a better cookie-baker, a decent though occasionally distracted driver, a reliable employee. I’m definitely not good at sports or art or music or gardening. I can sew passably well, but nothing too complicated. I speak a second language, but I’ve gotten rusty at it, and I’ve forgotten how to crochet and knit. When I wrap presents, the folds aren’t crisp and clean, the tape-work is often sloppy.

But writing, it’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was six, and people have told me I’m pretty good at it.

The problem with being a pretty good writer is it lulls you into complacency. Just because you can write pithy correspondence, solid poems, essays that get published, and short stories your well-meaning college professors tell you are New Yorker-worthy doesn’t mean you know a damn thing about writing a novel. Writing a novel will kick your butt. You’ll be amazed by the amount of stuff you don’t know, no matter how many novels you’ve _read_ in your life.

I’ve often said writing a short story is a sprint and writing a novel is a marathon. But that metaphor doesn’t capture the convoluted complexity of novel writing. Think about how much gets left out when novels are turned into movies. Writing a novel is rocket science. It’s intricate and exacting. Get one plot detail wrong and you have to go back over your careful calculations from start to finish.

So why write a novel? Why not just stick to the “easy” stuff?

I’ll write about those questions soon, and I’d love to hear your thoughts in the meantime. I’m also contemplating a post about “Publish or Perish,” the New Yorker’s article about the iPad, the Kindle, and the future of publishing. Stay tuned.

What keeps you from making time for writing?

Here’s what keeps me from writing:

6:30 a.m.-7:45 a.m. Wake up and get self, husband, and toddler ready for the day

7:45 a.m.-8:10 a.m. Drive toddler to daycare

8:10 a.m.-8:20 a.m. Extract self from daycare

8:20 a.m.-8:30 a.m. Drive to work

8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Work, with 1/2 hour break for lunch

5:05 p.m.-5:15 p.m. Drive to daycare

5:15 p.m.-5:35 p.m. Coax toddler to car

5:35 p.m.-6:05 p.m. Drive home

6:05 p.m.-8:00 p.m. Make and eat dinner, go for walk with family, clean up kitchen, bathe toddler and put him to bed

8:00 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Watch television, talk to husband, check Facebook, write blog, pay bills

10:30 p.m.-10:45 p.m. Get ready for bed

10:45 p.m. Go to sleep

Sure, there’s room for writing in that 8 to 10:30 period. But by that point in the day, I’m often gablosted and just want to veg.

Tonight I wrote for an hour and a half or so, because my husband cracked the whip. Surprise, surprise, I feel much happier than I do on the nights when I don’t write (which is most nights).

So, wanna play my misery poker and tell me what keeps you from writing? Or better yet, share your tips for carving out the time to write. I’ll share some things that have worked for me in a future post.

You don’t have to write every day

Perhaps the most frequent advice I’ve heard about writing is “write every day.” In past years, I’ve tried to follow the gospel, resolving to write daily, and occasionally succeeding for short periods of time.

But I’ve come to think beginning writers need to hear a different kind of advice. They’ve got plenty of insecurities–they don’t need prescriptions they can easily fail at.

If I could work on my novel every day, I would–not just because doing so would help me finish the novel or make me a better writer, but because I love writing fiction. But I have a full time job and a family, and many days I don’t have the time or energy to write.

Let me boil down my philosophy: You don’t have to write every day. You just have to write.

The people who preach about writing every day are saying that you shouldn’t just talk about writing the great American novel or whatever it is you want to write. You should do it. And I agree. But writers have to figure out for themselves how to make time for writing.

More on that challenge later.

I am the opposite of this

Laila Lalami, author of “Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits” and “Secret Son,” blogs about her novel in progress. She keeps her notes and drafts in boxes. I do not do this. I often don’t even take notes when I’m doing research. I like to keep everything in my head. This means that sometimes I have to do the research again, to fact check myself. But I prefer it that way.

Lalami is right when she says the writing process is idiosyncratic. Anything you read anywhere about writing process is someone’s opinion or personal practice. And that thought will lead us to my next post.

Novel gazing

Try this neat trick: Walk into a roomful of toddlers and yell, “Belly!” Before you can say “button,” every child in the room will have lifted his or her shirt to show off a swath of midriff.

When I was writing the first few chapters of my novel, I wanted feedbtoddler bellyack. I wanted to know if I was on the right track, if the setting was believable, if people cared about the characters. Otherwise, why invest years of my life in this thing?

But once I got going, sharing my work-in-progress didn’t make as much sense (most of the time). I’ll write more on the challenges of workshopping a novel, or getting feedback on it in other ways, in the future. For now, let’s just say that in the beginning, a writer working on a novel is like a toddler, willing to flash belly far and wide. Then the novel matures and keeps its shirt on until it’s in the adolescent or early adult stage, willing to don a bikini. Maybe that bikini-wearing novel is the final draft.

What the world needs now, is another blog about writing like I need a hole in the head

In April 2006, I started writing a novel. I’m still writing it. Clearly, I need to start a blog like I need a hole in the head.

But blog posts on the topic of working on a first novel have been writing themselves in my head for several weeks now, and I NEED TO GET THEM OUT.

My idea is to write about what it’s like to write a first novel, not as an expert — someone who’s completed the task — but as someone in the trenches. Someone who’s learning as she goes along. I’m writing for other first-time novelists, and for people who’ve always wanted to start writing a novel but haven’t gotten around to it yet, and for people who’re writing they’re second or third novels but still feel like novices, and for anyone who loves the craft of writing.

One of my writing teachers likes to quote someone-or-other who said that when you’re writing a first novel, you’re learning to write _a_ novel at the same time that you’re learning to write _this_ novel.

I’m going to say that it’s like parenting: You’re one person, with one parenting philosophy (or maybe several vying for supremacy in your mind), but depending on the kid, you might deal with a situation differently. And maybe the first novel is kind of like the first kid. You’re less confident, more nervous about your choices. You do everything too carefully or not carefully enough.

Here’s another analogy that is less elegant but better describes my experience: Writing a first novel is like deciding to bike across the United States, but all you have is a trike. You start at the Atlantic and reach the Pacific, but then you realize that you really need to make the journey on a bike. But you don’t know how to ride a bike. So you get a bike with training wheels, and you do it all over again. And then you think, I really ought to take the training wheels off.  You make the journey one more time, and this time, maybe you go through the Plains States instead of the Rockies. Or maybe you decide you really want to go south instead of west.

As I write my novel, I keep feeling like I’m going over the same ground over and over, or that I’m cycling in place. There’s progress, but it’s often much slower than I would like. I keep thinking the end has to be in sight sometime soon. And I know it will be one day. But it’s a long haul.

What’s does novel writing feel like to you?