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The Unbearable Dullness of Settling

It’s been one of those weeks, and it’s only Wednesday. Looming deadlines, decisions to make, a migraine, laundry, wrestling with a book draft, abandoning 80% of my to-do list every day and having a new to-do list the next, guilt over not doing ALL THE THINGS, RIGHT AWAY, because some of that to-do list affects other people. I need to take a deep breath, eat some chocolate, get a massage, and get back to work.

So why am I blogging? Because this article – found in my agent’s Twitter feed – touched a nerve and now I’m feeling ranty. If my blog stats are anything to go by, you guys like it when I rant, so here you are. I’m a giver that way.

The author, who has a freshly-published book on the subject of the article, talks about the pointlessness of finding your passion in life before you make a career out of it. Get a career, he says, and then let the passion come.

I need a minute to figure out where to start with this. Saying “this is such BS” is tempting, but it doesn’t really cover everything I think, nor is it fair to this guy I so completely disagree with, and I do try to be fair. I’m completely willing to accept that this philosophy worked for him – more on that in a minute – but it doesn’t work for everyone. To offer this kind of sweeping “advice” is naive bordering on harmful.

Right this second, I’m sitting in my living room surrounded by the detritus of a writing life: empty coffee mugs, my iPod, a half-eaten snack, three notebooks and seven pens. Scrivener is open on my desktop, the manuscript I have been writing and re-drafting since March. By an almost immeasurable margin, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever worked on. I’ve doubted myself often. I’ve considered trashing it more times than I care to count. It’s made me cry until I laughed because there wasn’t any other choice but to laugh.

If I’d been waiting for the passion to find me, I’d still be in the dark. During every hard time, every self-questioning moment, what’s kept me going is the enthusiasm I have for writing, for words, for bringing stories alive. The passion I already had. That same passion got me through rough times with CODA, through the query process, through every challenge, obstacle, and pitfall that’s happened on its way to becoming a Real Book I Can Hold. It’s gotten me through this week, which is why the article annoyed me so much.

It could be argued that Mr. Newport was talking about people with desk jobs, office jobs, eight-hours-in-a-cubicle jobs. That argument works until it’s countered by the one that says every single publishing professional I know, and that’s a decent number spread across many career paths, says that the only way to make it in this world is to treat writing like a job. To be professionals about it. And, while I’m sure they’ll correct me if I’m wrong, I feel comfortable saying that absolutely none of them want to work with a writer who says, “Here, I wrote this book, and honestly I hated the experience, but I’m hoping I’ll learn to love it.” Even if he was only talking about desk jobs…so what? Passion is one thing that gets you through the rough times. I don’t think it’s born from them.

He also says that this advice doesn’t apply to people who have a lifelong dream of a specific thing, but I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer. I always knew I liked to write, but that’s not the same. Even if I had known at 22 that I wanted to be a writer, I wouldn’t have been the same one I am today. That’s just the way life works. We change, grow, and learn, and then we apply those lessons to the life we have now.

Could the skills I use as a writer be equally applied to a different job? Yes. Would I enjoy it as much? No idea. I’ve found what I want to do. For the moment, at least, I don’t have a lot of interest in looking for something else to do. Nor do I have the time. But if I did, I’d use the things I’m good at, my own unique skill set, to do something else. I can’t help but feel he’s missing his own point here. Yes, he had different career options, but all of them built on skills he has and clearly enjoys. Whether he enjoys them because he has them isn’t really the issue, and is an argument for the philosophers among us.

Not everyone loves everything about their job all the time. I’d argue most people don’t. Work is hard, and it probably should be. I don’t for a second advocate giving up a job when things get rough. But the idea that struggling through misery is what makes us worthwhile humans frankly disgusts me. There are a lot of reasons to just keep swimming, even when the tide is against us, but most of them involve things like food and rent and bills, or eventual career progression, or because there are no other options.

Also, it’s pretty difficult to take seriously advice not to explore opportunities or hope for that “dream job” from a guy who makes part of his living from writing books that have nothing to do with his other career. Or from a guy who details in the linked article the three very attractive job paths open to him when he left college.

I wonder whether he thinks the barista who makes his coffee (for minimum wage) is just waiting for the passion to come.

 
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Posted by on October 3, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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The price of intangible things, and why we should pay it

Between the meteoric rise of e-book popularity, DOJ lawsuits, and unapologetic pirate sites, the debate over the cost of e-books doesn’t look like it will end anytime soon. I got into a discussion about this with someone the other day, so it’s been on my mind more than usual ever since.

It’s interesting (and telling) to me that the dictionary defines “immaterial” as both “something intangible” and “something worthless or irrelevant.” And it’s partly this, I think, that’s led to me having to explain to people why e-books shouldn’t be free. Because it didn’t cost anything to make, right? It’s just sitting in a database somewhere, ready to be downloaded forever and ever and ever. It’s not the same as a “real” book, which has to be printed and manufactured and physically distributed to a brick-and-mortar bookstore or the warehouse of an online distributor.

Well, that’s kind of true. The second copy of the e-book cost almost nothing to make. The first copy, though, cost more than anyone should pay to own a single book, ever, at least if that e-book was edited properly by professionals, designed by layout designers, given a cover by a graphic artist and maybe a photographer, coded by someone who knows what they’re doing, and marketed by specialists. It takes a large number of people to create a quality book, physical or digital, and all those people have to be paid for their services.

Oh, and so does the author.

I agree that an e-book probably shouldn’t cost as much as a hardcover, which is a physical thing, in the same way that mp3’s shouldn’t cost as much as getting that same album on vinyl. They’re different formats and should be priced accordingly, but the digital versions should cost money. It’s worth noting here that in the course of the conversation that led to this post, I said I would be in favor of the publishing industry adopting the model offered by so many record labels–that of a “free” digital copy with the purchase of the most expensive physical format. Buying vinyl and getting a much more portable copy for download isn’t anything new to music lovers. But I digress, sort of, and anyway that’s about as far as the two industries can function in the same way. Musicians don’t make money from album sales anymore, it comes from touring, and my Twitter feed the last time an author tried to charge outright for a bookstore appearance was an ugly, ugly thing.

Regardless of the delivery system, the purchase of a book isn’t about simply owning the book. I can hear the protests now, but it’s true. If all we wanted to do was fill our bookshelves, the books on those shelves wouldn’t matter. We’d go into the store and haphazardly grab whatever was in reach, pay for it, go home, and leave their spines uncracked forever. The price we pay is for the experience of having already read the book, been lost in the story, in the same way that concert tickets provide a fleeting few hours of escapism but the memories stick around far longer. The same goes for movies, roller coasters, skydiving. It’s human nature to pursue experiences and reality that we should have to pay for them.

It’s also, though, human nature to become attached to objects, and so we become attached to books we can hold, whose pages we can flip through and sniff and measure affection for by the wearing at the edges. And when we can’t do that because those words are on our e-readers, the connection is harder to grasp and hold. . . for the reader. But I’m going to tell you a little secret:

The connection is the same for the author. Someone slaved over that book, loved and hated it in turns. It’s someone’s brainchild, maybe their proudest moment. Whether or not that should matter to the reader is up for debate, since to an extent authors let go of their books when they’re released out into the world, but it’s relevant when talking about value and cost and therefore someone’s (at least partial) livelihood. As an author, watching books sell for 99 cents all the time, in a you-get-what-you-pay-for world, is difficult. People with much louder voices than mine have discussed at length the idea that cheapness = bad quality, and that buyers will question whether a book being sold for a buck is worth reading to begin with. Sure, it’s great when things go on sale and become affordable to people who might not be able to pay full price, but it’s also one more thing, when done en masse, that devalues the written word.

It’s not the only thing.

The internet itself is the biggest culprit here. Anyone can–and should–write whatever they want online. News is available constantly, just hit the refresh button. Even if I limited my blog reading strictly to the things I’m interested in, I’d need 48 hours in every day and the ability to survive on no food or sleep just to read them all. The problem, (other than that 48-hour days seem in short supply) is that a wealth of anything drives down the market value for everything in that category, including information. And at this point, we’re used to reading for free–on our computers, our phones, at home and at work.

This creates a strange situation in which the internet, which is almost totally responsible for e-books and certainly responsible for their explosion, is also the biggest threat to reading for pleasure at all. What’s the point, and is there even time?

Please, for the love of everything sacred, make the time. And pay the price.

I’m not only saying that as an author, though it’s true that I really want people to buy my book when it comes out. I’m saying it because although the reading (and writing and publishing) landscape has changed, books are our future and our history. The price, whatever it is, isn’t for the copy of Harry Potter on the shelf–it’s for the memory of reading it for the first time. In the case of almost every other author in the world, it’s for the possibility that the author will write another book you’ll hopefully love.

My final point is one that occurred to me in a jet lagged haze but might be the most important of all: Maybe we like the intangibility. Not because it’s portable or uncomplicated, but because fewer and fewer people are going into bookstores and plunking $20s down on the counter. To accept that e-books are “real” and as worthy of protection from piracy and wacky pricing as physical books is also to accept that in pressing that easy one-click button to hit up our already-stored credit card, we paid real money for them.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Female writers and YA fiction: a rant

Two blog posts in a week. Wow.

This one is actually at the suggestion of my agent, who, among several others in my Twitter feed, tweeted a link to an article in The Atlantic that went up a few days ago. I read it and promptly messaged him to say exactly why I have a problem with it.

 
The article, titled “Why Do Female Authors Dominate Young Adult Fiction?” tries to answer that question, and it makes some valid, well-written points. In fact, I don’t so much argue with the largely-supportive-of-women content of the article (I do a little, but more on that in a minute) as I object to it as the latest in a long line of opinions on YA authors, whether adults should read their work, and whether “good” should be a relative term when applied to books written for anyone not old enough to vote.

 
It’s undeniably true that there are more female authors writing for young adults than there are male ones, no arguments there. My issue is that the very existence of articles like this, especially the ones with slightly combative titles, seems to blame women for being women and wanting to write at the same time. Any given author who has a book (or many) in a bookstore, is on the road to publication, or is in the bizarre heaven-hell mix of the first draft stage decided only one thing: that they had a story to tell. That’s it. I didn’t decide to be a female writer, I’m a chick who wrote a YA book. It’s not my fault – or that of any of my peers – that almost everyone else who made the same choice is a woman, too.

We didn’t all get together in a big convention room and decide to stage a mass takeover, is what I’m saying. I guarantee the first steps of our respective journeys were, in the majority of cases, decidedly lonelier. A late night, a glowing computer screen, a character who wouldn’t shut up. Maybe a few perplexed but supportive friends.

Gender equality, or lack thereof, and its many ramifications is an important discussion in any field, and as a rule I support that dialogue, but are mentions of “dominance” really fitting here? Is referencing another article, in which the writer theorizes that YA is popular because the plots are simplistic – a point so insulting to both authors and readers I hardly know where to start – the best way to (ostensibly) support female writers? Is continuing to somehow try to justify the explosion of the YA market actually helping anyone? Or does it just serve to make YA the Lady Gaga of literature: Undeniably talented, wildly successful, but divisive and excused as merely a fascinating freak show by detractors? Pick any genre you want, there are terrible adult books that slot neatly into it, and yet those markets are being picked apart for scraps far less. Is this where I make the point that those are mostly written by men? Because I don’t really want to. To me, a good book is a good book, a bad one is a bad one.

Even if the above does illustrate the best way to have the gender debate, I still think the article’s author missed, in opting for nostalgia over science (a split which itself feels very feminine/masculine), what is perhaps a crucial point: that women remember more than men. Faces, emotions, everyday events…we remember more, both differently and more specifically. And so, 10, 15, 20 years later, we are more likely to recall our teen years in a vivid way than men, rendering clearer on the page what is clearer in our heads. It’s worth noting that neither The Atlantic nor any of the other many articles on the subject give statistics on attempts at writing YA fiction, only stats on the ones who did it well enough to be picked up by a traditional publisher. Maybe we’re not doing it more, we’re just doing it better. I really don’t know.

Articles like the one in The Atlantic also almost universally discount that YA authors are, at least in my experience of knowing a bunch of them, just trying to do what any other writer is: trying to write the best book they can. Age is one of many factors to consider. Harry Potter (the first few of which I dispute are YA at all) wouldn’t have worked as books with an adult protagonist. Twilight probably couldn’t have made quite as many people believe that an upper-college-age Bella was still a virgin, though obviously some in that age group still are. The Hunger Games works precisely because of the figurative and literal death of childhood, right on the cusp of adulthood. Don’t write to trends, they say, and I don’t think we are. Since the first day I jumped into the YA author pool, I haven’t met a single published-or-nearly author who is just trying to cash in on publishing’s biggest market. I’m sure there are some, but they are the minority.

Finally, I’ll say what I said to Brooks: That it’s hard to reconcile the pervasive idea that we should be inspired to write books by reading them with being endlessly discussed and scrutinized because we got the damn hint already. The women who came before us did it well and captured our imaginations and were successful, paving the way – or almost single-handedly creating – the market we have now apparently cornered. I, for one, would just like to say thanks.

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Go. Buy music. Now. (A huge victim of the London riots.)

Among the many casualties of the riots that took place in London and elsewhere this week, one hit especially close to my heart.  I don’t for a second want to trivialize the horrors of injuries and in some cases loss of life that occurred, and my heart goes out to those people and their families.  I spent several nights worrying about the people I know and love who live there, though thankfully they’re all fine.

However, there was one tragedy which, while not causing any direct human damage, will seriously affect an entire group of people for whom I have respect, admiration, and even love.  A Sony/PIAS distribution center was burned down during one night of rioting, a distribution center for a very large number of small, independent record labels.  Labels for bands like The National, Arcade Fire, Bon Iver, Atlas Sound, Bauhaus, The Pixies, Animal Collective, Elliot Smith, Okkervil River, Iron & Wine, The Shins, and hundreds of others you and I may or may not have heard of have, in some cases, lost their entire stock of hard-copy albums.  These are artists I love, artists I support, artists I listened to on endless repeat while they helped me write my book.  Artists who instilled such a love of music in me that I felt compelled to write the book I did.  None of them make enough money and many of their record labels are in real danger of going out of business for good, unable to cover what insurance isn’t going to.

I’m doing my best to keep this soapbox as low to the ground as possible, and I actually debated about posting this at all, but I have to.  A huge source of inspiration for me just – literally – went up in flames.  Artists can survive without their record labels, just as self-published authors can be successful without agents or publishing houses, but it’s possible I’d never have heard of some of them, or it would’ve taken me a lot longer to discover music I love.  It’s even more likely that the Next Big Thing was in that warehouse, the next musician to grab hold of my ears and my heart, and now that CD or vinyl will never see the light of day because the label that was about to release now can’t afford to.

And so I ask this.  If there are record labels populated by musicians you love, particularly any on this list (at the bottom of the article), please support them and in turn those musicians.  Buy digital copies through iTunes or Amazon or however you do such things and help out, even if it’s just the cost of one CD, or one song.

If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go cry for the loss of all that vinyl.  I’m a purist, what can I say.

xoxo

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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