Just an ebook

“It’s just an ebook,”  she said with sweet self-deprecation and some regret.

Of course, the writer was apologizing for having gone through an indie publisher online, rather than spending years working through agents, a Big Five New York publisher and the long process of editing, rewriting to the editor’s wishes, then waiting for design, typesetting, shipping to bookstores, etc, all to end up with no control over the product and what amounts (for new authors, at least) to very nearly a single-digit percentage of the profits.

I was at a writers group meeting when I heard this.  I had a hard time not jumping across the table.

“It’s not JUST an ebook!  You’ve published a book.”

Ebooks — people buy them and hold them and read them and love them, and discuss them and recommend them and even loan them to their friends.  They are made up of the words, sweat, genius, joy and tears of the writer who had the vision and the dream, just as much as anything pounded out on paper.

To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a writer who was vilified by many readers and worshiped by others—a book is a book is a book.

Do we – nowadays – consider an electric car “just a car”?  As in, it shouldn’t be taken seriously?  Not like a gas-guzzling, climate-destroying, wallet-raping real car?  The price is the same, usually a heck of a lot more, (unlike, say, an ebook).  They’re made up mostly of the same parts, driven the same way, and they get you from point A to point B.  Would Chevrolet say that the Bolt is “just a car”?  Or would they say that it’s just as good as any other car – or even better?

Many people at the turn of the twentieth century believed that no cars should be taken seriously.  After all, they were just a weird bit of flash-in-the-pan technological silliness, whereas anyone who was worth anything drove a nice, quiet horse and carriage.

People came out to the fields to watch the new technology called airplanes, and they laughed.  Everyone knew that air flight was for the birds, so to speak.  Why bother, when it only took several weeks or months to take a train or a boat?  And that’s so much more gentile, dah-ling.

No one believed “movies” would ever be watched by serious citizens or acted in by real actors – after all, if you had an ounce of self-respect, you went to the theatah.  And once movies caught on and became respectable, who on earth would bother with a stupid little technological experiment called television?

Do you have a newspaper subscription?  Do you consider CNN.com and Twitter notifications foolishness?  Why not wait and get the story on your doorstep twenty-four hours later?

It used to be that writers were pressed to apologize if what they wrote was just a mystery or science fiction or a love story.  We now have crime novels that are considered Golden Age ‘classics’ of literature and science fiction that has won prestigious awards.  ‘Romeo and Juliet’ anyone?  I have it on ebook, and before that, I had a hardback copy – gasp!  It wasn’t on parchment written with a quill pen.  Is it, then, “just a play”?  And while people still pay lip service to ‘serious books’, romance novels are eagerly snapped up to the tune of millions of dollars a month.  A MONTH.

Oh.  That’s right.  If you want to make a lot of money, then you’re “just” a hack.  And if it’s not made of dead trees, it’s “just” a book.  And if you want to reach those millions of readers who prefer technology or appreciate convenience or simply can’t afford what the Big Five publishers are charging for paper, does that mean you are “just” a writer?

Come to think of it, what’s wrong with that?

How’s your writer’s bump?

Anyone under the age of twenty may not know what I’m referring to. (To what I am referring? Go away, Mrs. McCartney and your eighth-grade blackboard.) Even people born as late as 1985 may have developed that permanent callus that their boomer parents wore like a frat pin, that tough little malformation that grew on our right middle finger where the pencil or pen pressed as we spent twelve years chewing on our tongues and writing out the answers on a test paper. Or a job application. Or an honest-to-God handwritten letter.
I used to have a beauty of a bump, right above the nail on the left side of my finger. In those days before Facebook, I wrote letters. Lots of letters. To friends, to penpals in foreign countries, and even to Aunt Mary if my mother nagged. Such happiness, to fold the sheets perfectly, tuck them in an envelope and imagine the pleasure of my friends when the little package arrived.
I never wrote them on a typewriter, not when I was young – typewriters were for Della Street or Hildy Johnson or for writing the Great American Novel. No, I took my allowance (all one dollar of it) and went to Woolworths to shop for the latest in lovely fashionable stationery. I would spend hours picking through the shelves of boxes, unable to decide between lined stationery with kittens at the top or unlined with a breathtaking border of roses. And sometimes I’d try a new pen, if I had twenty-five cents left over. Most of the time Mom bought packs of ink refills and we’d unscrew the pen body and poke a new supply of ink down in it. My father grumbled about how lucky we were – they had to dip fountain pens in bottles of ink and it went everywhere.
I never noticed when the bump began to soften and disappear. It probably started some years ago when holding a pen to write more than my signature on a check caused my hand to seize up in a painful claw. I figured “hooray for the keyboard” and happily tapped blog posts, Tweets and entries on that twenty-first century form of family togetherness known as Facebook.
Until I posted a picture on my Facebook page and the entire file of photos, including the professional portfolio of an actor friend, ended up on the page as well, and I can’t remove it. I was so enraged that I seriously considered dropping Facebook entirely.
The problem is, I’m not sure my grandchildren or even my nieces and nephews have ever written a letter in their lives, and just try catching them on the phone. I compromised by continuing to read their posts, and made the decision to go back to writing letters.
I’m not comparing myself to Jane Austen or John Steinbeck, but who knows? Maybe someday my great-grandkids will be as intrigued by the quaint things I write about (and the quaintness of paper and pen) as I am by my father’s letters to my mother when they were young lovers separated by World War II. Voltaire left us novels, plays and essays, but how well would we know the man and his times without the twenty-thousand (yes, 20,000) letters he wrote? I can’t help but wonder how future historians will mine information about our era from “Tweets” and Facebook posts, even should these bits of our lives survive in virtual archives.
So I spent a few days trying to find stationery that’s not “letterhead” meant to roll through a printer, enduring blank looks from pimply-faced clerks at Walmart and everywhere else. I finally resurrected a miniscule selection at Staples. I bought new pens reputed to “flow easily”. (Boy, do they ever. My father would recognize the ink splotches all over the page.) I did some relaxation meditation, chewed a few aspirins and worked at producing a long letter for my kids. I didn’t do badly; it’s mostly legible. But, OUCH, my flabby unexercised writer’s bump is yelling like my thighs did after my first trip on an exercycle. I guess Aunt Mary will have to wait a few days for my genius.

When is a mystery not a mystery?

Yesterday I finished a book and was astounded.  Not by the quality of the writing, which was excellent.  Nor by the detail in the characters and the background, which was extremely enjoyable because I grew up in that setting and recognized the people and the places they inhabited.  No, what astounded me was that the author did such a magnificent job and then committed what is still considered one of the top no-nos for any mystery writer.

He didn’t introduce the killers until around ten pages from the end of the book.  Not a hint, no clue as to their very existence before that.

I can hear mystery readers crying “No fair!” all over the world.  Mysteries are meant to challenge the reader.  Half the fun is the head-smack at the end when we cry, “Oh, that’s what that meant!”  How can we enjoy the challenge if there’s no possible way we can even know of the killers’ existence until the very end of the book?  Much less try to ferret out the clues that give them away?  For all it’s virtues, the ending of this book was about as engaging as having the cavalry come riding to the rescue at the last moment, when we were never told there was a fort just over the hill.

Now, if a book is really good, even of literary quality, readers will forgive you for breaking a “rule”.  Or maybe not.  Anyone remember “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd”?  The outrage has died down, but the embers smolder and will flare up whenever the book is mentioned in a group of two or more mystery diehards.  Because the author was the great Agatha Christie, people went on to read her succeeding books, of which, after 1927, there were a heck of a lot.  Most were written strictly by the unspoken contract between mystery writers and their readers:  i.e., to give them a fair chance to see if they can spot the clues and prove themselves at least as smart as the sleuth.  Dame Agatha was, if not wholly forgiven, at least not kicked out of the “Detection Club”.  Although from what I’ve read, Dorothy L. Sayers held onto her grudge.

For all my pleasure in the people and places of the book I just finished, I have to ask myself:  do I want to bother reading the next in the series?  What if they’re the same?  What if they, too, treat the reader as a passive unthinking consumer and not as a partner in the creation of new worlds in our minds?  I read mysteries for escape, yes, like everyone.  But I also read to stimulate my mind, to see if I can beat the author by spotting the clues and a-ha-ing the red herrings.  It’s a pact, it’s a partnership, it’s a puzzle challenge.  And it’s a promise that every mystery writer is still expected to make, that we will “play fair” with our readers.

It’s why I don’t write suspense or thrillers.  They’re a different kind of promise, a different kind of escape.  I love to read them, and they are an escape I indulge in frequently for the pleasure of it.  I love following the characters through their dangers, holding my breath and waiting to see how they escape, accepting my passivity as I munch my popcorn.  I’m just along for the ride.  It doesn’t matter whether I identify the source of the danger on the first page or the last, as long as the trip itself is a good one.  I know what I’m getting when the blurb says ‘suspense’ or ‘thriller’.

Mysteries are a different animal.  Time was when they were all blended together and called ‘crime fiction’.  But readers have branched off, created their own clubs and divisions.  They’ve forced bookstores to have separate shelving for each branch.  Readers know what they want and when.  And when the cover says ‘mystery’, I want it to be just that.  A mystery.

Starting over again, again

They say change is good.  It wakes up the brain, stimulates the imagination.  Forces you to see what your eyes tended to slide over because you’d seen it so many times before.

So here I am, seeing green mountains instead of desert, rivers instead of dry washes, myriad birdsong instead of a single far-up cry of a hawk searching for breakfast down among the cactus.  It’s very relaxing after a year of conflict and disruption.  Maybe too relaxing.

I don’t know enough about the area to start plotting a murder mystery, although I’ve been told they do happen around here, no matter the seeming tranquility.  I’m tempted to write at least one more book about the desert and those wonderful cops who patrol it.  But can I remember enough to make it come alive, as I experienced it?  I could write of an amateur or even professional detective who has been transplanted, but that seems to have become almost cliché.  On the other hand, can I learn enough of the deep-down life here to really understand it?  I have no confidence of that, not yet, despite having personal “ins” to the police, fire departments and emergency services, not to mention the families.  A little more time, perhaps.

Meanwhile, I will try my hand at creating a plot in an area I am familiar with, enough to bring “real” people into it.  Maybe not the desert, but I have lived many other places – the Midwest, the Southwest, Mexico.  We shall see!

Kid in a candy shop (i.e. bookstore)

0420171417Good writers are always good readers.  But even in today’s world of cheap digital books it can be too easy to run up one hellacious bill.

Both of my parents grew up in the depression, and the maxim “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without” was a strong part of their psyche. My father was proud that he could support his family by himself and could give my sister and me an allowance, which was to cover most of our small desires and FOR WHICH we were expected to perform certain chores, such as making our beds and keeping our rooms clean.  If we sloughed off, we were docked our allowance.  I spent a lot of time at the library.

I was in junior high school when I offered my mother a deal: If they would double my allowance (from fifty cents a week to a dollar!) I would wash and dry the dishes every single night, no matter what. I was a bit miffed when I came home from my first out-of-town job and discovered that my younger sister was getting five bucks a week. For the same work. The aggravation of inflation and the cost of living.

But whatever, the thing I quickly learned in childhood was the value of putting in the work to earn the pay, and then budgeting that pay — I could blow the dollar on Cokes and comic books, or I could save up and buy myself a pair of nylons that didn’t have dried nail polish all over them to stop the runs.

These days I may have progressed from comic books to novels, but it’s still tough reining myself in at the bookstore.

Choices

0104170931    When I moved here, I looked around to see what kind of support systems there were for writers in the area.  I found one with some sort of “Writers League” name.  It had been around for a long time and seemed to have a lot of prestige, so when I saw they were giving a panel talk, I went down to listen and perhaps join up.

All of the panelists were “traditionally published”, which is great if you can get it.  I’m old enough to remember dreams of being some day published (back then ‘traditional’ was the only game in town).  I dreamed of being edited, coddled, feted and sent around the country on my publisher’s dime to meet people and sign my Great American Novel.

It’s a little different now, even if you do score a contract with one of the Big Whatever-number-they-are-now-it-keeps-getting-smaller.  No big travel budgets, no coddling.  You had better do a professional editing job (or hire it done) before you even send it in to the slush pile.  And if you aren’t a Gaiman, a Kellerman or a Patterson, good luck with that.  You probably won’t make the first assistant reader.  But that’s okay, because now, frankly, we have choices.

Which is how one of the panelists answered when someone in the audience said her daughter had written a novel and was thinking of self-publishing, and how did they feel about that?  The first panelist was a decent man, and although you could tell he didn’t think much of it, he tried to answer honestly.

“It’s one way to go,”  he admitted.  “Just tell her to be ready to do all the work herself.  Not just the editing, and not just all the marketing at her own expense, but the formatting, creating a cover design and discovering how to submit cover and manuscript to the right commercial platform, depending on whether you want ebook, paperback or both.  She will have to do it all.”

It was a fine, sensible answer.  Wannabe bestsellers need to realize how much work it is when you try to self-publish.  And if you hire someone else to do the work, odds are you won’t make your investment back.  But you will be published.  Do it right, and you’ll be up on Amazon within a month of sending it in to Createspace or one of the other publishing platforms.  Right up there with your name in lights.  Or at least on a search engine.

Then the next panelist leaned forward and said,  “Actually, people who self-publish are just lazy.”

Really?  Did you not just hear the warnings about doing all the work yourself?

He went on,  “They just don’t want to bother going through the rejection process.”

The rest of the panel bobbled their heads in agreement.

So writers only self-publish because they are too lazy to spend two years or more trying to get an agent or a publisher to pay enough attention to their manuscript to tell them how to rewrite it so they can send it in again.  And again.  And maybe again.  They’d rather go the lazy way and learn how to edit, program, and format their entire manuscript, along with learning how to design a cover and price their product.  And then how to set up at least five different marketing media platforms.  That’s so much easier.

He went on in this vein for some time, not letting anyone else have much of a say.  I don’t think he ever realized the point at which he had pretty much lost his audience.  No one was rude enough to get up and walk out right then.  But from the comments I overheard afterwards, a lot of people had decided that if this group was too elitist to stick their heads up out of the twentieth century and see what was really happening in the publishing world, then they had nothing to teach the rest of us.  That’s a shame, because I’m sure there is a lot they could share.  They just have to work on their presentation.