No More Book Advances?

My fellow writers will be interested in a report in today’s Huffington Post that a new imprint at Harper-Collins plans to try an experiment in which authors would receive lower advances (or no advances at all) in exchange for a higher back-end share of book sales. Given the way Hollywood’s creative accounting usually reduces the back-end share to nil, I’d be afraid of the publisher adopting similar techniques. Also given the fact that most authors — and especially new authors — don’t get big advances in the first place, and the further fact that many authors rely on what advances they get to pay for niceties such as food while they write the books in the first place, this doesn’t sound like a winning situation for authors.

The article is “New HarperCollins Unit To Try To Cut Author Advances.” In this experiment,

At least two planned features break from traditional practices that have been aggravated by the increasing reliance on blockbuster hits for profits: The imprint will pay lower advances, or none at all, but divide profits equally (instead of 15 percent of the retail price or lower for the author); releases will be sent to stores on a nonreturnable basis.

At the moment it’s one imprint of one publishing house; it’ll be interesting to see whether this idea works — especially in terms of the rule that “money flows toward the author” — and if it spreads.

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Why I Write Stories

On my shelves are books by people at least tangentially related to me, but which I have never read. I’ve picked them up, thumbed through them, and put them back again more times than I can count.

The history of the Page family is interesting mostly for the plate in the front with the same coat of arms that’s engraved on my onyx tie tack (which may have been part of an official seal); the printed version is much more detailed than the signet, with the motto Spe Labor Levis (“With Hope, Labor Becomes Light”) proudly emblazoned on the scroll. I haven’t cared to read it because marriage and adoption make that family name about thrice-removed from me (that, and the fact that it’s 115 years old and not in great shape). In a similar way, the slender chemistry book is interesting primarily in establishing for me a link between nitric acid and the manufacture of explosives, but it’s not something I care to pore over. I feel certain my descendents and others further removed will feel the same way about my nonfiction, which I’ve tried to make timely but will never be timeless.

If I can write some decent stories, however — with lively, realistic characters facing difficult challenges — stories that speak clearly and perhaps powerfully, stories refined in the crucible of professional editing and publication — maybe they will be more than bookshelf curiosities. At this point in time that’s still an “if,” but I keep plugging along. And maybe as my body returns to the elements of the universe, someone can read my words and find some value in them.

That’s why I write stories.

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Gotta Love Those Speeches

As a speechwriter, I look at speeches by prominent people from time to time, as well as the reporting about speeches. I probably don’t do it as often as I should. Then again, I don’t do a lot of things as often as I should; and some things I shouldn’t do, I do more often than I should.*

Anyway, some comments on recent speechifying.

1. Why can’t people be bothered to look up Bible quotes?

Tuesday Senator Obama gave a speech in which he attempted to … well, we’re not sure what he was trying to do, but his prepared text seemed to talk a lot about race. Others will dissect the delivered speech in more detail than we will, but this quote in the prepared text stuck out: “Let us be our brother’s keeper, Scripture tells us.” Notwithstanding that it wasn’t presented as a direct quote, that’s not what Scripture says. (To be extra-inclusive, the text continues: “Let us be our sister’s keeper.” That’s not in Scripture either.) There are Scriptural references to bearing one another’s burdens that might point in that direction, but in the main that reference was just incorrect.

I remember hearing President Clinton give a speech in which he smashed two of the Beatitudes together; i.e., he joined the first half of one verse with the second half of another. It’s hard to tell if these kinds of thing are poetic license, laziness, ignorance, or a mild form of disrespect.

2. Historical ignorance, or ignoring history?

Senator Obama’s speech started with the opening of the Preamble: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.” The text continued,

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

Notwithstanding that many if not most of the delegates had been born in the colonies rather than having crossed the ocean to become colonists, this passage and the entire speech missed the key historical point that the Constitution did not “launch” our democratic experiment — it re-launched it. The “more perfect union” was specifically intended to be “more perfect” than the previous attempt; i.e., “more perfect” than the Articles of Confederation.

3. Words are important, as are the thoughts and actions behind them.

From an excellent commentary, “The Obama Bargain,” by Shelby Steele in The Wall Street Journal (emphasis in original),

… nothing could be more dangerous to Mr. Obama’s political aspirations than the revelation that he, the son of a white woman, sat Sunday after Sunday — for 20 years — in an Afrocentric, black nationalist church in which his own mother, not to mention other whites, could never feel comfortable. His pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is a challenger who goes far past Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson in his anti-American outrage (“God damn America”).

How does one “transcend” race in this church? The fact is that Barack Obama has fellow-traveled with a hate-filled, anti-American black nationalism all his adult life, failing to stand and challenge an ideology that would have no place for his own mother. And what portent of presidential judgment is it to have exposed his two daughters for their entire lives to what is, at the very least, a subtext of anti-white vitriol?

So, what Senator Obama said in his long — very long — speech may have been noteworthy, but it doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility of looking beyond the words.

4. Eyewitnesses to history are just like eyewitnesses to any event: they see things differently.

Yesterday, on the 5th anniversary of the coalition’s invasion of Iraq, President Bush gave a speech at the Pentagon. He said “removing Saddam Hussein from power was the right decision,” that the success of recent operations marks “a major strategic victory in the broader war on terror,” and that “The costs are necessary when we consider the cost of a strategic victory for our enemies in Iraq.”

The same day, Senator Obama, front-runner for the Democratic nomination, gave a speech in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He said, “Here is the stark reality: there is a security gap in this country — a gap between the rhetoric of those who claim to be tough on national security, and the reality of growing insecurity caused by their decisions.” From those words, and his previous statements on the war, it seems clear why Senator Obama gave his talk near, but not at, Fort Bragg.

Senator Clinton, also in the running for the Democratic nomination, gave remarks to supporters and said, “We cannot win their civil war. There is no military solution.” Her remarks also wouldn’t go over well at a military base — which is probably the point.

In contrast, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain gave a statement that “Americans should be proud that they led the way in removing a vicious, predatory dictator and opening the possibility of a free and stable Iraq.”

It shouldn’t surprise us that folks looking at events from different ends of the political spectrum will see them in different ways. Be that as it may, it’s easy to tell, between the leading contenders for the Presidency, who has victory in mind.

Which leads finally to this: Presidential candidates who have no military experience need to understand a few things about the military.

1. We’re very dedicated to the well-being of the country, so much so that we put it ahead of our own (and often our families’).
2. We believe we’ve been fighting on the side of truth and justice; you’re welcome to believe otherwise, but don’t try to convince us we’ve been wrong and then say you’re the best person to lead us.
3. We don’t like to lose.

In other words, Senator Obama saying “I will end this war” (as quoted in this story) will never be as compelling to a military audience as saying, “We will do whatever it takes to win this war.”

___
*For the uncertain, that’s a deliberate paraphrase of St. Paul. More an allusion than a quote, it works with or without attribution.

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Long Day on the Road

Drove to Asheville today, for a meeting of the Advisory Council of NC State’s Minerals Research Laboratory. The MRL has a long history of innovations in mining and helping companies evaluate and improve their mineral-related exploits, so it was good to see some of their operation and meet some of the key folks.

In addition, I got to chat for awhile this morning with another Industrial Extension Service writer, and then to chat this afternoon with one of my buddies from Orson Scott Card’s 2004 Literary Boot Camp. So it was a full and productive day all around.

What wasn’t so good, however, was turning around and driving back this afternoon. A little over 8 hours of driving for a little over 4 hours of meetings made for a very long day. But I’m home now, so all is well.

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At Least I Wrote Something Today …

… even if it wasn’t much. 😮

Originally I thought that tonight I’d finish the novel chapter I’m working on, but I didn’t make it. I got caught up in one scene, and think I may have overwritten it (by which I mean — at the moment — put in too many extraneous details). But I’ll save that evaluation for another day, because I’m tired and I have a long day of travel and meetings tomorrow.

Which, of course, means I won’t finish the chapter tomorrow, either. 😡

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Boredom Sets in and We Die

Which of my high school friends came up with that phrase, which we repeated at some point in almost every class? I think it was either Joe or Shawn, but it was so long ago I’ve forgotten the source. How long ago? In those days, many of us carried pocket knives — from Barlow, Boy Scout, and Swiss Army knives to more exotic blades like butterfly knives — to school without fear of reprisal; and not too many years before, an afternoon hunter could keep his shotgun in his locker during the school day.

But enough reminiscing.

What brought to mind that mantra of frustration? I thought of how sharply it contrasts with a Boston Globe article I read yesterday: “The joy of boredom,” by Carolyn Y. Johnson.

As [Richard Ralley, a lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University in England] studied boredom, it came to make a kind of sense: If people are slogging away at an activity with little reward, they get annoyed and find themselves feeling bored. If something more engaging comes along, they move on. If nothing does, they may be motivated enough to think of something new themselves. The most creative people, he said, are known to have the greatest toleration for long periods of uncertainty and boredom.

The usefulness of boredom, in spurring us to explore new possibilities, makes sense. It seems that a key factor is what we find rewarding. I slogged away for years at writing THE ELEMENTS OF WAR, “with little reward” except my own satisfaction; frankly, it’s brought more than its share of disappointment (q.v. my entry yesterday). But the same is true for most of my writing. The internal reward keeps me going, even if the pursuit becomes difficult (and yes, boring).

Sometimes that internal reward is barely enough; I hope for more. I keep writing and sending out stories, etc., in my arrogant belief that they have worth beyond the confines of my own mind. So far the world mostly disagrees, so I labor — I slog away through the boredom and doubt — to prove the world wrong.

Boredom sets in … and I write.

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If I Were to Write a Fake Memoir,

What would it be? I don’t know.

But I wonder at the audacity of the people who try to pull off these literary frauds these days. Although I doubt the latest perpetrator (Margaret Seltzer, writing as Margaret B. Jones) thought her sister was going to turn her in.

It probably wouldn’t be such big news if it weren’t for the endorsement the book got from O Magazine, as reported in “Oprah’s mag gushed over memoir of fake gangbanger,” by Larry McShane of the NY Daily News.

A second memoir hailed by Oprah Winfrey’s media empire was exposed as a fraud when author Margaret B. Jones – who claimed to be a biracial gang-banger – was revealed as Margaret Seltzer, a well-to-do San Fernando Valley girl.

Love and Consequences was published last week to generally rave reviews – and on her MySpace page, Jones/Seltzer trumpeted the plug from O, The Oprah Magazine.

Publisher Riverhead Books was forced to recall 19,000 copies of the book yesterday after Seltzer admitted her gripping tale of running drugs for a South Central Los Angeles gang was a work of fiction.

Maybe I should market the lunar colony novel I’m trying to write as a memoir … no, I guess that wouldn’t work, would it?

The article noted that Seltzer’s book “was the second memoir revealed as a hoax in the past week,” the first being Misha Defonseca’s 1997 Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years. Ms. Seltzer’s sister reportedly contacted The New York Times and told them of her sister’s fakery, which “included bogus photos, letters and even fake foster siblings, whom she produced to verify her story.”

But catch the way the story ends:

“One cannot protect oneself 100% from a dedicated hoaxster any more than one can protect oneself 100% from a dedicated terrorist,” said Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly.

Ms. Nelson’s statement may be arguably true, but her analogy is a poor choice. A literary “hoaxster” (hoaxist?) really doesn’t equate to a terrorist, in morality, intent, or effect.

Now, off to work on my fake memoir … er, novel.

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Why I Still Keep a Writing Journal …

… even though I don’t actually write in it all that much.

Recently some of my compadres in the Codex writing group discussed who among us still wrote in longhand, and the benefits and drawbacks thereof. I followed the thread with mild interest, but didn’t contribute much. Now, a week into this web log experiment, I had a small insight.

In addition to the tactile pleasure of scratching ink onto paper, of seeing squiggly black lines that somehow convey meaning (even if I am the only one who can read them), my writing journal allows me something the computer — and the blog especially — does not: the freedom to record ideas and musings only half-formed. In contrast, in this venue and in my “serious” writing I try to produce entries that are, if not fully formed, at least close to complete and coherent. Even producing a first draft takes me a long time, because I want it to be a good draft. The notebook, though, collects for me the briefest snippets of thought, the most inane ramblings, and a hodgepodge of notes on scratch paper that I fully intend to transcribe … someday.

And the journal is infinitely patient with me, even if I am not so patient with myself. Maybe an entry will help explain. A little over a year ago I wrote (on journal page 2097),

The best thing about this little notebook is that it’s always here, ready for me to write in it. It doesn’t matter (except to me) how long I go between entries — the pages are always here, and if I use them all there will always be more, waiting to be written upon. That’s comforting, but in a way it’s also daunting.

My other projects line up and demand my immediate attention; my little notebook waits without complaint. Articles, stories, speeches, and even blog entries require a certain amount of precision and care; the journal tolerates my worst spelling, my most egregious grammar, and my most outrageous ideas. And that’s why, even though I use it far less than I should, I still keep my writing journal.

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While we’re on the topic of writing, founding Codexian Luc Reid has a great entry in his blog on the myth of writer’s block: Writer’s Block: Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself.

If it really existed, writer’s block would be the inability to write. If we look at this idea for a moment, we begin to notice that it doesn’t make much sense. Is a person with writer’s block physically unable to put words on a page? If they are, it’s not called “writer’s block,” but rather “paralysis” or “death” or “extreme drunkenness.” So people with writer’s block can clearly write. Presumably what a person’s saying when she or he talks about having writer’s block, then, is the inability to write anything good….

Of course, there’s one more possible kind of writer’s block: having trouble writing because you don’t really like to write, and don’t feel compelled to. Some writers talk about not enjoying the process of writing, but they’re compelled to do it anyway. Either compulsion or enjoyment will work, but if you don’t like to sit down and write and you don’t feel driven to do it, then you can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing you don’t have writer’s block: that just means you’re not really a writer.

I relate to both situations: the fear that I’m not going to be able to write anything good, and that I’m not really a writer. But then I write something and prove that at least one of those notions is wrong.

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