Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Only 7 (or 21 or 69) Stories Ever Told

Over the years, many people have claimed that there are only N stories to be told.  The number N has varied from as low as one to as high as sixty-nine (that I could find).  For those adhering to the "there's only one story to be told" philosophy, what is the story?  "Stuff happens".  Oh, that's so useful.

In William Foster-Harris's The Basic Patterns of Plot1, he says there are three stories:  happy ending, unhappy ending, and literary.  That's better than "stuff happens."  Why don't we divide stories into those with an odd word-count, and those with an even?

Some of the more sophisticated N-way categorization may have a use in a high-school English classroom, but I still don't see its use to a writer.  Take, for instance, Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories2.  He lists stories of; overcoming the monster, rags to riches, journey as quest, journey as voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth.  Of course, there's also Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces3.  Sure -- you can probably fit any story you can read into one of the available categories.

Unless the book you're trying to categorize is Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past4, which many would say doesn't even fall into the allegedly all-inclusive "stuff happens" category.

I don't want to delve into the question of whether or not an author should pick a category, a master story, to pattern their next novel on.  If it works for you, do it.  If you don't pick it beforehand, it may jump out at you when your manuscript is complete.  Cool.  But to me, the entire issue is a distraction:  I won't be thinking about master stories as I write or plan my next novel.  Neil Gaiman is with me on this one, or rather I'm with him -- he said he stopped reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces half way through.  He didn't want to know that stuff.


What bothers me is when the argument morphs from "which category can we put a given story into?" to its seemingly obvious (to some) corollary "there are only N different stories that can be told."  I object to that.  Strongly.

Every person's life is a story.  We not only speak of "life stories", but each life has a beginning, middle, and end, just like a story.  Each life has characters, main and otherwise, that act out the story.  Stuff happens.  Everyone gets a journey to take, obstacles to overcome, monsters to fight, ups and downs, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth.  Is everyone's story the same?  Of course not.  Is your story the same as mine?  Is mine the same as a 14th century slave in Italy?  Is the slave's story the same as the current Queen of England?

We can draw parallels between the slave and the queen or between any two lives:  it's one of the things humans tend to do, but it doesn't make the stories the same.  Why not just say that no story is ever worth reading because you always know how all stories turn out? -- They end.

You might argue that when I say "N different stories",  I should be saying "N different categories of story."  Then should I say there are N different kinds of people?  I don't believe that.  I won't let myself be limited like that.  Neither way of thinking about it (as categories or as stories) helps me to write, and I can't see how it can help anyone else, either.

In writing, as in life, we have more than enough things trying to limit us, hold us back, pigeon-hole us, shake our confidence, make us second-guess ourselves, put crimps of various sizes in the creativity that makes us who we are.; we don't need any more negativity.  I hereby declare that there are an infinite number of stories to be told:  an unlimited number of choices for each of us to make in our lives as well as our writing.  Choose wisely.  Even choosing not to choose is a choice.

Every choice creates a new story.

1.  Haven't read it, don't plan on reading it.
2.  Haven't read it, don't plan on reading it.
3.  Started reading it, stopped when I figured out what he was getting at.
4.  Haven't read it yet, but it's on my list, and coming up soon.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The End of National Library Week

Last week was National Library Week in the USA.  So today marks the end (the end of the week --  hopefully not the end of the library).   It seems to me that we're overdue (that's a library joke) for a look at that great community institution.  I love libraries, especially good-sized, well-stocked ones.  I love them for their books, not for their meeting rooms or their public internet access or their DVDs or even for their used book sales.  I don't think I'll love them for their e-books in the future.

I mistakenly thought Ben Franklin created our library system, but though he was a great guy, he missed the boat on this one.  Actually, the boat hadn't been invented yet.  Franklin helped create a precursor:  a library company where those who bought stock in the company could borrow books.  It turns out we have Peterborough NH to thank for the first town-supported public lending library pretty much as we currently know it.  Hurray for NH!  And (miniscule) federal funding for libraries only began in 1956.  Wow.  I thought the feds had been involved from early on.  Here is the history of the American public library from The Straight Dope.

Libraries (and publishing) have dealt with some ground-shaking changes in the past:  paperbacks, for instance.  Cheap books!  How could the publishing industry survive when people would no longer pay for hardcovers?   The publishers survived paperbacks quite well, thank you, and the libraries grew, as did readership in general.  Now we have the arrival of the e-book wave.  Will it wash the library from our landscape?  Is the end near?

I assume that printed books will continue to be made available for a considerable period of time after e-books take over.  Decades.  I think this my personal preference leaking through.  I like paper.  Yes, it's inefficient, dirty, wasteful, polluting, and irresponsible to pulp forests for paper that all too often winds up in the landfill after one read.  But I like my books.  And an e-reader isn't a hands-down winner on the environmental front.  Yes, you can carry an entire library on your e-reader, and enlarge the font (one of the few real advantages of an e-reader that I might make use of), and you can get new books without waiting and without driving to the store.  But I like my books.  Did I say that already?  I also like not having to send my e-reader in for repair, or having the battery run out, or having it fail and lose what I was reading.  Paper books are fairly well protected against a host of failure modes.  They can still be ruined by fire and water, but your e-reader won't handle those well either.

I like the smell of books, the feel of books being held and carried, even the sound of books being opened or placed on a table.  I can still remember the smell and dry dusty feel of a book I took out of the library in my teens:  a book that hadn't been checked-out for over 30 years.  [It was "Night Flight" by Antoine de Saint-ExupĂ©ry, and it was a wonderful book -- its long wait for me to check it out was probably the result of its having been mis-shelved.]  That was a discovery I was not likely to make anywhere but in a library.

So what happens to our public libraries when paper books are gone?  Will the companies that are trying to take over the book world even allow digital books to be lent out anymore?  Sure, the libraries have special lending powers granted by copyright law, but there's no guarantee that their power to lend will remain.  Make no mistake; what libraries currently have is power, special power for the good of society.  Companies like the Big A and the Big G (and the other Big A, for that matter) aren't set up for the good of society -- they're in it for money.

Do libraries become museums no one ever visits?  What do we do with all that shelving?  How about the imposing buildings that house all that shelving:  buildings that never have anywhere near enough parking spaces?  They won't work as convenience stores -- they've got lots of shelving, but not enough parking.  Hmmm.  Not enough parking, but....

We could turn them into drive-thru hat-checking facilities.  The cars wouldn't stay in the parking lot (it's a drive-thru, after all), and those shelves would hold a lot of hats.  Think about it.

Okay -- scratch that.  Maybe, for a while at least, they would become paper book recycling centers.  Books are often considered hard-to-recycle (though this week I found out that we can now put paperbacks in our weekly recycling carts), and, well, the library building's already full of bound books that have become unnecessary.  But after the recycling effort has petered-out because all the books are gone, what then?

Anyone for firefighter training?

But seriously, where will people drop off their obnoxious kids for the afternoon?  Where will their obnoxious parents talk loudly on cell phones about highly personal legal / health / hygiene issues while leaning a grubby shoulder against the "No Cell Phones Allowed" sign?  Where will people choose to stand in a long line to check out their books with a real live person rather than whiz through the self-checkout? Where will teens rush the ultra-slow-motion elevator while the 60-somethings puff their way up the stairs in half the time?  What will all the "friends of the library" do for fun on Tuesday nights?  It could be the end of the world as we know it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Blank Page Paralysis

"Be intent on your actions, and only your actions; never allow yourself  to be motivated by the fruits of your actions, or fall into laziness."  (The Bhagavad Gita, 2:47)  This could be a writer's mantra.  "Write.  Write for the sake of writing.  Don't stop."

Last night a friend called.  He had to prepare a speech, and didn't know where to start.  Funny thing is, he'd already gotten a good start:  he'd figured out what form it would take and what it would be about.

But he didn't know where to start.  It sounds silly when I put it that way, but most of us have been in the same position.  It's blank page paralysis.  The page insists on staying blank even though we have thoughts to spew over it.

I advised him to "just start writing."  Where you start writing doesn't have to end up as the beginning of what you're writing.  It doesn't have to show up at all in the finished product.  But you have to get off the dime.

When you begin a novel, does the first line you write always end up as the first line of your finished work?  Of course not.  It doesn't even work that way for something as informal as an email to a friend, for heaven's sake, so why should a novel or a speech be any different.

My friend is a good writer, and I mean both that he writes well (he sits down and produces output, not stopping until he's good and ready), and that his output is well thought-out, readable and entertaining.  He'll do fine.

Part of being a good writer is skill, and the rest is discipline.  Notice I said skill, and not talentTalent is a loaded term -- too many people think you're born with (or without) talent, so they won't work at it to develop it.  Defeatists.  A skill, on the other hand, is something you practice or go to trade-school for.  Anyone can develop a skill.  And anyone can write (well) if they are willing to work at it.  (Some people need a great deal of work indeed.)  You need the discipline to develop that skill and not slack off.  Then you need your discipline again to carry you the rest of the way:  to use and hone your skill on a consistent basis so that you get the work done.

To come back to the quote at the start of this post, you should do something for the doing of it, not for any expected results.  The hoped-for results may or may not appear.  If they don't, and you were banking on them, then you wasted your effort.  If, however, you were doing for the doing, writing for the sake of the writing, then nothing was wasted.  If pleasant results spring from your writing, so much the better.  The fact that you're focusing on the writing rather than getting published (or giving the speech) can only make the writing better.

If you're stuck on a writing project and don't know where to go, working on another project might be a good solution.  If you're stuck on a writing project and you know exactly where to go, then start.  Start anywhere.  You can always come back later to tweak, smooth, hammer, and slice -- you always do, right?

My guess is he's already over his crisis, but does anyone have any further advice for my friend?

Sunday, April 4, 2010

E-Book Futures

All sorts of people have made predictions about e-book market penetration.  I'm making my own.  What qualifies me?  I am a technologist who has been studying the publishing industry in-depth for a few years now.  How good are these predictions?  Don't bet money on them being correct.

The first question is what is the market we're talking about?  I'm going to consider only adult and YA fiction.  I don't have any comment on non-fiction, textbooks, or children's lit.

A lot depends on pricing models and exclusivity.  In the video game industry, for instance, there are many titles you can only get on one platform.  The (painful) equivalent would be that if you wanted to read anything from Cormac McCarthy, you could only do it on a Nook, but Neil Gaiman's work could only be bought on a Kindle.  How many e-readers would you buy?  My hope is that even the marketing departments of these companies can see that the end result would be fewer people reading, fewer books sold, and less money for themselves (for everyone, really, but they only care about their own bottom-line).

On the other hand, the whole thing could move to a consumables basis.  Sell the e-reader for cost or below, and make money on the product -- the content -- the e-books themselves.  I like this approach because the reader is paying for what's important.  When you go to a restaurant they don't charge you $10 for a plate and let you fill it with whatever you want, right?  They charge you for the food, and part of that goes to pay for the plate and the service and the building. [Unless you go to one of those buffet places, and you do pay $10 for your plate.  Argh! -- but then you eat too much, so would that mean people would read too much?]

Non-Predictions (to get them out of the way)
  • How will the agency model work out?
  • Will Amazon / Apple / Google shutdown all the independent booksellers?
  • Will they shutdown the bookstore chains?
  • Will the combined presence of all those e-readers destroy the stores instead?
  • Will the "you don't own that e-book, you're really just leasing it from us" issue dampen the market?
  • Will DRM (I'm talking about intrusive DRM), and the lack of lend-ability turn off readers?
  • In 2015, 50% of all adult fiction be sold as e-books.  It will be driven by dropping hardware prices and by the Romance market, which has already become a leader in the e-book transition.
  • I predict a $50 e-reader at Walmart by Christmas 2014.  It'll be crap, but it'll have a (perhaps unhealthy) influence on the e-book market and buyer expectations.