Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Tuesday, May 2, 2006
Waxing Moon
Jupiter Retrograde
Pluto Retrograde
Cloudy and cool

First three chapters of Real (43 pages) revised, typed, revised, emailed.

Response: How fast can you get me the rest of the first 100 pages?

Reply: As fast as I can. In a few days.

Unsaid: It would be a whole lot quicker if there was a signed contract involved.

It’s not that I’m holding back; it’s simply that I’m uncomfortable in being under this kind of time pressure to submit something that can’t possibly resemble a final draft. Do I want a contract prior to a finished book? Sure, even though it’s highly unusual in this situation. But, I know how much I learn from the revisions, and how much revisions improve my work. I don’t want to blow an opportunity with something that’s not in its best shape. As I’ve said over and over in my column, I believe it’s important to “finish first.”

How fast can I finish the first draft of a novel? No clue. How fast can I finish the first draft of this novel? With large stretches of uninterrupted work time, by the end of May. However, the likelihood of that, especially with The Situation escalating yet again, is small. Plus, if I have to put aside paying work to concentrate on the novel, I need to have money coming in during that time (since I don’t live off anyone else, but earn my own money). A contract and an advance would certainly buy me, literally, the time and space to do a first draft quickly. Even though, by the protocols of the business, I don’t have the right to want it, on a practical level, I want it anyway.

Something about the whole situation is not quite sitting right, and I can’t put my finger on it. Which is why I want the paperwork. I did my homework, but . . .

A couple of people have asked me to comment on the controversy surrounding the author of Opal Mehta . . ., which is now being pulled from the book stores. I haven’t read her book; I haven’t read the two books that contain similar passages. So I can’t comment directly on that. I want to give her the benefit of the doubt. There are plenty of times when I’ve re-read something of mine and thought it sounded familiar. I’ve hunted down to find out if I’m simply cross-pollinating my own work (which I sometimes do on purpose, and sometimes by accident), or if I’m too close to something else. Usually, I’ve pulled from my own work. Even if another writer and I share an idea, most of the time, my cadence is pretty distinct and separate. I have caught a couple of pieces where I felt it was too close to something else already out there. In those cases, I’ve either rewritten substantially – either changing the POV, which allows me to explore a different voice – or dumped the piece.

I also think the editors should have caught the similarities. They’re well-read, right? So how could they not notice? “Oh, they read so much, it all melds together.” Well, isn’t the editor’s job to find the unique, breakout book in a unique voice?

One of the problems in publishing is that there’s so much formulaic work being published. If I read six chick lit books, I don’t remember any of them, nine times out of ten. They share a voice, they share a plot, many of them get on my last nerve. Once in awhile, there’s a unique one – but damned if I can remember a single title of one I truly, truly enjoyed right now. There’s a place for the genre – it’s fun, and when I’m stressed, I’ll read one and donate it somewhere, enjoying the brain candy and not remembering a darn thing about it.

It’s like in the mystery genre – there are far too many books published where a character quirk is in place instead of a fully rounded character. Or, one author in particular who churns out the manuscripts at an alarming rate, in another genre – I read several of the books because I figured I could learn something. All I learned was it seemed to me the writer only used “global replace” each time for character name and location.

Publishers yap that they’re looking for something unique, yet, in reality, they want sure sales.

And the bottom line, in this particular situation? If Mehta’s author hadn’t received a $500,000 advance and so many people weren’t envious and/or jealous of her, I bet no one would have ever mentioned it.

Yet another double-edged sword in publishing. Personally, I’d prefer a lower advance and a long-term marketing plan that allows the book to build and bring in royalties over time. However, unless your agent squeezes out every last drop up front, the publisher won’t pay enough attention to the book, no matter how good it is, in order to set up the right marketing plan in the first place. So you’ve got to cost them a ton of money up front in order to make them do their jobs.

“Oh, but so many books are published every month publishers can’t possibly create individual attention for everyone in their marketing plans.”

That’s cop out bullshit. This is the publisher’s job. The same way it’s the plumber’s job to snake out the sink, or the neurosurgeon’s job to drill a hole in the head and relieve the pressure. The publisher is in the business of finding good writing, presenting it beautifully, and letting people know it’s out there so they can buy it and enjoy it.

I think, within twenty-five to thirty years that the major publishing houses will crumble like the decline of the Roman Empire and small publishing houses, many begun by good writers who learned how to market because they had to do it all themselves, so they figured, why not start a publishing house and give myself a salary for all this work? – will create a renaissance in good writing.

Because people always want good stories. They need them. Sometimes it’s brain candy. Sometimes it’s life-changing literature. There’s room for all of it.

On a snarky note (on my part): A few years ago, a writer published a thinly-veiled fictional account of her experience in a high-profile workplace. It became a best seller, movie rights were sold, etc., etc. I tried to read the book and found it unbearable. The writing was weak, the characters cardboard. It wasn’t finely honed satire; it was merely mean-spirited. Well, chickie’s second book crashed and burned last year. Okay, give her a break. Critics sharpen their knives for a second book if a first book’s sold well, taking great joy in carving up someone they’ve previously praised. Chickie is late with the third book because she has “writer’s block” and the chapters she sent her editor are reportedly so bad she’s been advised to toss them out. If I was being kind, I’d point out that some people only have one book them. If I’m truly saying what I think of all this, having read the first book . . .well, let’s just say I’m going to keep my mouth shut.

Not every book is going to be a best seller. Not every book should be a best seller. A writer should be able to play and experiment. That’s what’s being lost in the current market, often, and that is why I think the publishing industry is imploding.

Give sane advances. Let writers experiment. Support and market the book for more than its first week out of the box. Look at each author as a ten or fifteen year investment, not as a three month hot property, or, if it’s someone who sells briskly, someone who has to turn out a manuscript once a year like clockwork, without being able to try new things.

Not knowing the author of Opal Mehta. . ., I have no idea if she did what she did on purpose, looking at it as a shortcut, or if she genuinely didn’t realize the similarities. But she is not the only one who should be taken to task. I think this situation, and the situation with James Frey a few months ago, spotlight some of the major cancers that are eating the publishing industry.

Off to the theatre.



At 11:40 AM, Blogger Eileen said...

"Publishers yap that they’re looking for something unique, yet, in reality, they want sure sales."

This observation is true, and represents the dicohotomy that is present in the publishing industry, as well as the music industry, the film industry and in television as well. It's too bad, all of it, it's a lose - lose situation for everyone.

If your instinct in dealing with this publisher is telling you that something doesn't seem right, I have a feeling that you're absolutely right!

I'm sorry to read that The Situation is escalating again. I hope that with the peaks and valleys that you're journeying through it, that right will win out overall.

At 12:28 PM, Blogger Ann said...

What an interesting discussion!!
I know nothing about this author or the book, so I can't presume to comment on that, but I think another problem is publishers seem to go "ga-ga" over teenage "protegies," (I think this author just started college) and forget that maybe due to their age the publishers should be a little more careful than for a more seasoned writer.


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