Why The Publishing Industry Can Suck My Dick

novels, publishing, women

I decided a year ago that I no longer want to publish books through the traditional publishing industry — even though that was my singular dream since I was nine years old.

The publishing industry is dead. Between ebooks overtaking print sales and chain stores dictating what gets published, the business is finished. It’s inefficient, outdated, bloated, corrupt, and it has willfully buried its head in the sand all these years, to the devastation of writers’ careers and literature.

It deserves to die. The publishing industry is racist, sexist, and it heavily favors white male authors over others, especially in literary fiction, which produces the next generation of American literature. If women and non-whites can’t get published and can’t get reviewed and can’t get on prize lists, we will not be able to contribute. For that reason alone it deserves to die.

Meanwhile, the rise of internet technology has brought authors closer to our audiences and given us the chance to give ourselves careers. No longer can an elite group of racist, sexist anachronisms shut the door to the rest of us. Any of us can make literature. The gatekeepers that kept so many of us out are failing because prejudice always fails — how can a business that limits the chances of large groups of people possibly succeed? Greatness always surges through.

I’ve been working on a new novel project that I’m very excited about and that will involve interaction and participation with readers. I’m not ready to publicize the project yet. However, Seth Godin’s announcement that he’s leaving traditional publishing behind is huge, and since I’ve already decided to do the same I decided I should say so. With a huge bestselling author like Godin going, the world will follow. I have no sympathy for big publishing. They had their chance, and thousands of young novelists like me had their careers thwarted or redirected because of their incompetence. I am very happy to have the T.V. and screenwriting career I have today, which I wouldn’t have had were it not for the inadequacy of the publishing industry. But now the way I feel about it is — they don’t fucking get to publish my novels. I will publish them myself. Because I’m better at marketing myself than they are. I’d rather sell ebooks than print — because that’s what I would rather buy.

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I just spent an hour searching the internet for statistics about the racism and sexism in the publishing industry. Couldn’t find any — I know I’ve read some before, so if anyone can send some, please do. However, anyone working in this business knows about it already. Here are a few pieces I did come across:

Literature Gender Gap. Majority of readers are women but 30% or less of books published by literary houses are by women: http://su.pr/2Ag3sO

Some male critics review male writers by a 3:1 ratio. http://www.bookslut.com/blog/archives/2011_02.php#017213

http://www.slate.com/id/2265910/pagenum/all/#p2

http://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2010/08/all-the-sad-young-literary-women/61821/

http://www.thefrisky.com/post/246-jodi-picoult-accuses-book-reviews-of-favoring-white-male-literary-darli/

http://amyking.wordpress.com/2009/11/04/why-weren%E2%80%99t-any-women-invited-to-publishers-weekly%E2%80%99s-weenie-roast/

http://www.complete-review.com/quarterly/vol3/issue4/sexist.htm

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And these statistics excerpted from an article by T. K. Kenyon (see link below): Percentage of book reviews for male authors vs. female authors for 2006 in major review publications: 56%:44% Percentage of book reviews for male authors vs. female authors for Jan-June 2007 in major review publications: 63%:37% Percentage of book reviews for male authors vs. female authors for at the New York Times Review of Books (very influential): 72%:28% Ratio of male book reviewers to female reviewers at the New York Times Review of Books: 2:1 Percentage of articles written by men to those written by women in the five “thought leader” magazines: 3:1 Percentage of male book buyers to female: 45%:55% Women constitute only 17 percent of opinion writers at The New York Times, 10 percent at The Washington Post, 28 percent at U.S. News & World Report, 23 percent at Newsweek and 13 percent at Time. Overall, only 24 percent of nationally syndicated columnists are women. From: http://www.bloggernews.net/112350

What You Need To Know About Cliche

advice, novels, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

One of my creative writing professors in college — Joyce Carol Oates — used to draw lines through words, sentences and entire paragraphs of our stories and write above the rejected pieces: “cliche”.

This was very painful.

We wanted nothing more than to please her — we admired her.

I admired her. I wanted her to like me and approve of me and say I was a good writer.

So when she wrote “cliche” on my stories, I found it upsetting.

She told us “a cliche is anything  you’ve ever heard before.

This definition seemed too harsh, too limiting to us. We protested. Wouldn’t there come a point where you were just writing stuff you hadn’t heard before, to avoid cliche?

Indeed, she told us a reviewer once wrote of her that she writes as if to avoid cliche. Still, we had no excuse to lapse into lazy habits.

Joyce was brisk, fresh, controlled, and she expected the same of us.

I often walked home from her class stirred up. I was either elated because she had praised my work, told me I was a good writer, or despondent because she had marked it all through, dismissed it.

But the power of seeing her strike through those words with her pen — that awful little word cliche that made me feel like I was lazy, average, common — that feeling stayed with me.

Now I’m on high alert for it. I wince when I find it in my own work. Other people have told me I’m too harsh in pointing it out everywhere. But that’s how we get better —

Because it’s an easy test. If I or you or anyone has ever heard or read or seen it before, it’s a cliche. And it doesn’t have to be painful — getting better is liberating. It might tweak your ego a little in the moment, but that’s good. Notching your ego and making your art better makes you bigger, not smaller.

Vulnerability Delivery Machine

novels, pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

You don’t want to know what I think. You want to know that I never stop worrying about my career, my future. I never feel safe.

You want to know that relationships leave me feeling unsettled, like I never know when the other shoe will drop. And that I keep editing this piece about relationships. That’s how uncertain I feel about my place in the world.

You want to know that I’m afraid I spend too much time alone. But that I feel like I can’t afford to spend any less time writing, if I have any hope of getting my career off the ground.

You want to hear about how I’ve been so focused, so determined, so intense this year, that I’m afraid a hardness is setting in. And how that doesn’t feel like who I am — how I’m soft and vulnerable by nature, or I used to be. Before my entire life became devoted to finding safety, securing my future. Finding writing jobs.

Maybe you want to know that I both love sex and fear it. I don’t want to feel that way. Maybe you don’t want to know.

Maybe you want to know that I feel adrift in the world. Distant and disconnected. I feel increasingly distant from my parents — both concerned about them and unable to help them. I’ve felt distant from my sister for many years.

Maybe you don’t want to know that this blog scares me — though it’s good for my inner life, my writing life, because here I force myself to get big and bold and confrontational and honest — it makes me feel naked in public, like I’m doing emotional porn — and it makes me feel connected to people in a way I don’t trust. When I share these carefully edited, raw glimpses inside me, it’s easy for people to think they like me. But I don’t show all the stuff you wouldn’t like. That’s the next step.

Story functions to deliver vulnerability: when it operates efficiently, we feel what you feel. Problems rise when you’re afraid to let us feel what you feel. Because of pride, shame, fear of exposure, ego, or because you don’t really know what you feel. You throw wrenches in the cogs or you drain the oil or you cover the whole machinery with a tarp because you don’t really want to get vulnerable. You resist the function of story, the very reason you set the machine to running.

Would you run up to a person and say “I have something really important to tell you — listen to this –” and then turn your back, cross your arms and scowl? Maybe you would, that tells a certain kind of story. But it doesn’t tell much. And that’s what you do when you tell a story that doesn’t deliver vulnerability. You shut off the audience, deny them access to you. You may still speak, but they can’t hear you.

Most protagonists are common folks, down on their luck, in the middle of crisis — we encounter them when they’ve lost a child, lost a job, hate their job, hate their spouse, can’t find love, hate their parents, don’t have parents, don’t have a country — and then something really bad happens to them, the action of the story. They’re low to start because they’re vulnerable, so we can access them. In stories, characters’ external circumstances reflect their internal circumstances. This is true of life as well. If you want to show that a character feels distant and disconnected, have her write a blog post like this one. Well, maybe not — the act of writing is difficult to dramatize. Perhaps have her attempt to teach these things to a mentoring student who has contempt and doesn’t listen and then have her emerge to find her car has been stolen. And she doesn’t know who to call.

If you did one thing today that felt like a risk, where you felt exposed, where you left yourself open to criticism in public, you left a placeholder in your heart that keeps that spot open when you sit down to tell stories. You drive wedges in there day after day to keep your heart open. Let your story machine function as it should: remove the wrenches and tarps, replace the oil. The story that pops out will run fast, function on max capacity.

Your Story Boils Down To One Joke

comedy writing, drama, jokes, novels, pilots, screenwriting, T.V. writing

Your story is one joke. Even if it lasts 10 seasons. It’s one joke. At least — it should be if your Prius is running on all fuel cells. Whether you’re writing comedy or drama, your entire premise boils down to “. . . but the joke’s on them.” Where “them” = your main characters.

The joke isn’t necessarily funny. But it has that thing that all jokes share: surprise. We start in one world, and we wind up in another, with the old world blown up in our face. That’s what a joke is. When it’s short and tight and sharp, it’s funny. When it depends on context and character, it’s dramatic irony.

Dramatic irony is what happens when we know more than the characters do — because we know them better than they know themselves. Because we perceive something in the situation they don’t. Because we’ve picked up clues they’ve missed. So the joke is on them: they strive, struggle, blithely unaware of what’s about to happen. And we enjoy it. Because when we know more than they do, tension builds as we watch them struggle to find out what we know — because the joke’s on them. And we win. We’re in the superior position.

Dramatic irony happens when a character doesn’t know he’s in a joke, and he’s surprised by the punchline.

Dramatic irony is the joke your character finds least funny right now. Because we want them to suffer. Because that’s what we find funny — or alarming — or affecting — or profound.

Your character may run into variations of the same joke over and over, or she may live out the consequences of the joke slowly over the course of the story. The joke must be clear, and your entire story must boil down to this one joke. To test this, see if you can answer “how is the joke on them?” about your story. Here are some examples:

People survive a plane crash only to fight for their lives against mysterious Others who force them to confront their past lives. (LOST) (joke’s on them.)

A boss loves his office like family but taints everything in it with his incompetence. (THE OFFICE) (joke’s on him — and the other people in his office.)

Humans create a race of machines who now want to destroy them. (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) (joke’s on them.)

These are TV examples, but it works for all stories.

Distill your story to its essential joke — ask how is this situation a joke on them? — and then repeat that same joke on a larger and larger scale, with greater consequences, until you reach your conclusion or 100th episode. Here’s my post on how to tell a joke.

Telling jokes keeps you tight and light on your feet. And it’s fun. Try it.

You Have Been Radicalized (Why Write Like A Pussy?)

advice, novels, pilots, screenwriting, T.V. writing

How do I know you’ve been radicalized? Because you’ve got something to say. Speech radicalizes you.

Don’t neuter your words. If you’ve got something to say, say it. Say it bold. Don’t fear conflict: cause it. Tension and anxiety rise as you near the heart of your subject. Trouble creates story. You are dangerous now. You find dangerous places, and you stay there, despite discomfort. You do it because your audience turns to you to do it for them.

Remove weakening language. We weaken our words because we feel uncertain. If it’s worth saying, it’s worth writing, and if it’s worth writing, it’s worth writing with conviction — brave, confident, stripped to its most radical core.

Weakening language weakens you. Write the weakening language because it allows you to write at all. Padding comforts you enough to venture out onto the field or into the arena or down the dark alley. Once there, remove it. Leaving it implies you don’t deserve to be radical, that you must pad your self against the world seeing you. But you do not need to speak if you’re not going to be heard. You diminish your authority — in your own mind and in the mind of the world — and make it harder to be radical next time.

Everything you say and write prints on a boldface sign the world sees. The world takes you seriously, and we consider every act of speech you make to be a billboard on which you speak to the world. So make it bold, make it clear, and make it count.

Following are weakening words. To experiment, take a current writing project and save it as a new file. Run a search for these words and remove all of them. Yes, you’ll have to go back and replace some of them. But say goodbye to most of them for good — they were the incompetent employees whose absence you celebrate. The draft emerges tighter, cleaner, leaner, less burdened. It stands as a sign blasting your good ideas rather than a manifesto burying them.

WEAKENING WORDS:

well, sure, you know, seems, much, in, bit, I, you, [first names], here, and, then, once, [-ing], when, suddenly, now, appears, to, that, right, okay, [repeated words/phrases/ideas], is, little, might, maybe, first, probably, well, so, among, all, the, but, hi, how, are, try, start, begin, which, about, why, continue, slowly, for, what, it, it’s, actually, totally, very, [adjectives], [adverbs], almost, [cliches], pretty, [anything ending in -ly], however, [anything ending or sounding like -ish], oh, own, ?, [comma clauses], just, really,

Anyone have anything to add?

How To Be Profound: Top Ten Tips

advice, drama, novels, pilots, screenwriting, storytelling, T.V. writing

So your neighbor is all “why won’t you stop calling cheese stores and telling them you’re throwing a benefit for the homeless they have to donate to” and you’re all “I jack fancy cheese stores out of cheese because it’s profound.” Because everything I do is profound. Because I’m doing it, it’s profound, and the fact I’m doing it means something. Tricking fancy cheese stores into donating me cheese is a mirror standing before my life, showing me what I am.

My superhero power is a curse: I see meaning in everything around me.

A life is a novel in practice: meaning and symbols and structure and symmetry lie everywhere you look, waiting to be exposed. Being profound means that even when your life centers around tricking fancy cheese stores into donating you free cheese, you see meaning.

So here they are, MY TOP TEN TIPS for how to be profound:

  1. Go Beneath The Surface. First, show us what’s on the surface. What’s on the surface is a symptom of what’s beneath the surface. Profundity is like acne: it erupts all over your face as an expression of your body’s secrets. So once you’ve established what’s on the surface, you’ve got a basis to ….
  2. Drill Down. Reject face values. Whatever you see on the surface of your world — your parking ticket, the pollution in the bay that bars you from surfing, the garbage juice you just poured all over your apartment — exist as indicators to show us what’s really going on. Parking tickets are society’s notices that we shouldn’t linger here, this isn’t our place. We can’t surf because we live in our own filth, waiting for the rain to wash it all away into the toilet that is our bay. Garbage juice … eh, see Reason #2. Why the fuck doesn’t it rain inside?
  3. Get Open. If you are closed, it’s going to be a hell of a lot more difficult to see how things relate to one another. Because you’re too busy guarding the fortress, making sure none of them relate to you. But once you make efforts to open up, you can …
  4. Connect. See the connections between one thing and another. How does one thing resemble another? What’s bothering you? What makes you angry? What does it remind you of? Anger is a flag that something is important. What makes us angry often reflects in our own life.
  5. Get Free. Some people fear connections — between ideas, between things, between themselves and others — because they’re afraid of being tied down, afraid of tying this Buzz Ballads II 2-CD disc compilation to the time you drove around all night in Atlanta listening to that song about rubbing lotion on someone, wondering if some boy was home and if not what he was doing and why he wasn’t home and with whom wasn’t he home, to the times you used to sit out on the curb as a child waiting for your father to get you and wondering the same thing. They’re afraid of tying these things together because of the fear there’s no end, no bottom, and because of the fear that once locked into one series of connections, that’s it. You’re done. You’re never done. Once you choose freedom, you’re always free, and all the things and people in your life can say and do whatever they want, and you’re still free. You’re never tied down to one story.
  6. Understand. How do you interpret what you see around you? It doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong. It’s true and it matters because you say so. Your understanding is a precious gift you share with the rest of us. And you share it by how you show one character looking at another, how you focus on a specific object on a table. That look and that object help us see your understanding through your connections, and they help us form our own.
  7. Get Bigger. Some people live a small life and tell small stories. Others choose to be profound. A life isn’t small because of a person’s profession or status or friends or attractiveness: a life is small because a person chooses not to grow. Every time we’re faced with an obstacle we make a choice: we shrink or we get bigger. Profundity gets bigger, and circles in other people under its wing, and takes the long view, and the deep view, and the transparent view.
  8. Get Inclusive. The most shallow people and ideas are the most exclusive. Anything that excludes — people, ideas, interpretations, experiences — clings to the surface, fights any effort to discover the meaning therein. Because that meaning is dark. Being profound means going deep, going broad, getting significant, including everything and everyone. I’m looking at you Hollywood.
  9. Get Pervasive. Profundity understands the way you do anything is the way you do everything, and the way the world does anything is the way the world does everything. Everything is the same all the time, and nothing really changes though things appear to change all the time. What looks to us like change are things happening on different scales or in different forms, and it’s our job as storytellers to reveal how these things have not changed but are in fact the same. Profundity is intense, thorough and complete.
  10. Find Origins. The roots of our current world originate in the past. To change the future, we change the present. Profundity honors the link between today’s garbage juice and the garbage juice of every waitress job you’ve ever held, and the garbage juice of the world, today’s parking ticket and tomorrow’s medical lab results and the mountain of social paperwork that documents and drives us through our roles in life, as determined as we are to resist.

Okay! Now it’s time to get out there and be profound.

Start With the Ship In A Bottle

advice, novels, pilots, T.V. writing

Battlestar/Buffy writer Jane Espenson’s blog about writing specs is still incredibly useful, even though she’s not updating it anymore. I perused it over a break today and saw this entry in which she discussed her friend Jeff Greenstein’s advice that pilots’ opening images should contain the series in microcosm. Following is the very persuasive list he composed. (I agree with this idea and would argue it’s a pretty good idea for novels as well.)

In the Cheers pilot, the teaser is Sam with an underage kid who’s trying to get a drink using a fake military ID. Kid says he was in the war. Sam asks what it was like. “It was gross,” the kid replies with a shudder. “Yeah, that’s what they say — war is gross,” Sam replies. The teaser gives you a sense of the place and the guy.

The Battlestar pilot has that great opening scene with Number Six and the emissary from Earth. The scene says, “Remember those metal robots? They look like humans now. And they’re going to fucking kill you.”

The Lost pilot starts with a close-up of an eye opening, and the aftermath of the plane crash. This show is about consciousness and strandedness and tragedy.

Will & Grace starts with Grace in bed with her sleeping fiancé, yet on the phone dishing with Will about George Clooney’s hotness. It’s the perfect encapsulation of their odd relationship.

The Desperate Housewives teaser: In the midst of tranquil suburban splendor, Mary Alice blows her head off.

The West Wing pilot: In a bar, talking off-the-record with a reporter, Sam Seaborn is distracted by a hot girl who’s giving him the eye. This show is about politics and sex (well, it started out that way), and the “backstage” lives of people in government.

via Jane Espenson.

Writing and Rambling – What Keeps Readers–and Agents–Reading

advice, novels

Literary Agent Nephele Tempest of The Knight Agency gives a great basic checklist for what will keep agents, editors–and God forbid, readers– reading your novel:

“1. A strong opening that not only captures my attention but introduces me to the world and to the characters. Who are the people, where are they, what are they doing, and why should I care? All too often I get manuscripts with openings that jump directly into the action and I have no idea whose side I’m on, or why the confrontation/argument/battle etc. is happening. In medias res is all very well and good, and appears to be all the rage these days, but I still want to know who the protagonist is pretty quickly, and what about him/her makes them the center of this story.

2. A good idea. I know this is vague, but the truth is you need some sort of driving concept behind your story. What makes this book different, and why are you the one to write it? This is just as true of fiction as of nonfiction. The idea needs to be intriguing, whatever the genre you’re writing, and it needs to be developed so that it progresses with every chapter, starting at the very beginning.

3. Pacing needs to build, with some quiet moments thrown in, but in general working toward the climax in an upward movement, like climbing stairs.

4. Strong conflict. Is this real? If I get a hint that everything hangs on a misunderstanding that could be solved with a phone call or a simple conversation, I’m done. So make sure there’s some real meat here.

5. Real characters. I mentioned this above. Watch out for protagonists who are too perfect, as well as villains who are all evil. These are stereotypes, and they’re BORING. Flawed characters are much more real and interesting, and they also get themselves into much more entertaining situations, often without you trying very hard.

6. Voice. Agents talk about this all the time, and it covers a lot of territory for me. Mostly it’s about what your narrator sounds like in my head. Vocabulary, chattiness, thoughtfulness, etc. Are they intellectual, sarcastic, uneducated but smart, somewhat slow, ethnic–and this is more about word choice than anything, so please don’t try to get elaborate about writing accents phonetically–young, old, etc.? Whatever it is, it should be distinctive to the story and the character. It should fit, there should be a reason for it, and it should be consistent.”

via Writing and Rambling – What Keeps Readers–and Agents–Reading.