Monday, June 23, 2008

quotes, an occasional series, #3: manufacture of stories

Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is a market demand -- a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods -- or it should be an art, which is always a search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do with standardized values. -- Willa Cather

Lots of people think authors should not only create the content but run their own publicity and marketing machines. We should blog. We should keep our websites updated. We should pop into every bookshop in town on a regular basis just to say Hi and sign things. We should do interviews on radio, tv, the web; we should write op-eds and do speaking engagements. We should keep email lists and send out regular newsletters. We should make YouTube videos and book trailers and in our spare time record readings on our laptops. Oh, and we should have constantly updated photos in b&w, colour, formal, candid, full-length and headshots. We should not be wearing the same clothes in each shot; the clothes we wear must be lovely; our haircuts have to be sharp. And heaven forbid we should forget to get that manicure or eyebrow wax. (This is me giggling...)

All this presupposes that we're young, fit and energetic; that we are very well paid by our publishers so that we don't have to have a J.O.B. (or we have trust funds); that we write the kind of books that don't require immersion and total focus.

I'm forty-seven. A midlist author. I have MS. I'm still expected to do the impossible, that is, do my publisher's job, while still creating all the content, finding the readers, and getting only 10% of the list price.

Well, finally, I got tired of it, and I quit. Oh, I haven't stopped writing--far from it--but I think I'm done with the prevailing publishing model. I'm done with being expected to produce art and then being treated like a commodity. Here's a quote from a post I wrote last month:

Sometimes I can have a good writing day yet not write much. This is happening more than usual at the moment, and it's related to writing historical fiction. Writing mainstream fiction is easy--everyone knows what a bed is like, what people eat and wear, how things work. For the seventh century--unlike, say, Regency England (the rake, the dandy, the ball, dance cards), or WWII (the Blitz, rationing, grey skies filled with barrage balloons, weak tea)--there are no handy plug-ins. I have to invent everything, every single thing, from scratch. If Hild walks into the dairy, what does it look like? (Would there be a dairy? Cows were most likely milked in the field, sheep in a pen.) How do you make cheese when there is no stainless steel? What do you store the milk in with no glass, no refrigeration? (You don't; you turn it into cheese and butter and whey.) How many women/girls does it take to milk how many cows and sheep? What are the buckets made of? (Sycamore, because it doesn't leave a nasty aftertaste in the milk.) And that's just process and artifacts. Social relationships were different, too. I've never written anything full of slavery before, never dealt with a heroic society without literacy. (That changes later, of course.) So a good writing day can be a good inventing/visualising day but a not-many-words-on-the-page day.

Writing this novel reminds me of writing Ammonite. There's so much world-building that in order to really visualise it, I need, on some level to spend my days there. This means I can't work for two hours then do something else, like go out for lunch and see a movie. This kind of imaginitive work requires immersion. I can't make phone calls, do interviews, do a reading & signing, go to the neurologist and discuss my treatment at length, because that pops me out of the world, and it takes a while to get back. More and more I wish I could divide my life into chunks: two months on an island without a phone and no ferry, two weeks downtown going to all the fab new restaurants, seeing the films; two months on the island. I hesitate to tell people this, mostly, because it sounds so...self-indulgent and artsy. But it really is becoming more and more necessary for me to become a complete hermit for days at a time.

I can't do publicity for a project while I'm living in the seventh century. I don't want to. And, besides, the kind of on-my-own publicity I can do for a book without the full support of a publisher, is, frankly, close to meaningless.

By 'full support' I mean actual support: put galleys in the white box, send posters to bookstores, pay for co-op and display, have reps actually fucking talk about the book to their clients (make sure the reps know the fucking book exists), give me a publicist who has been out of school for more than a year and who has contacts, ideas, and authority.

Oh, I could go on. But mainly I want to open a conversation. How are we going to make this work? How can writers write good stuff--the kind of fiction that is art, not a once-a-year commodity-- get that stuff into readers' hands, and have a life? It's a puzzle. Ideas on a postcard to...

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