Some motivational speech for us all this morning.
An interesting article (from July) about what we might be losing in a digital-based world…the art of slow reading.
It is a mantra in writing advice that you should never give away your writing for free. Writing as a specialised skillset has become so devalued by the interaction between cheapskate publishers and writers desperate to be published that it’s a race to the bottom to see if they can get us to pay them to publish us (oh, wait…). To try to mitigate this continual erosion of value in the writing field, experienced writers advise newbie writers to never give away their writing for free. This can be as strict as telling them to not keep a blog, write for friends, or write for charity newsletters and the like. It can also include not writing for less than a certain number of cents per word.
This is undoubtably good advice, especially for non-fiction, but also for fiction which is, if anything, even more devalued. But I recently came across something that puts it in a different light. Read the rest of this entry »
Sir Terry Pratchett recently gave the annual Richard Dimbleby lecture, the first novelist to do so. You can read an edited extract here, but I recommend committing the highly illegal act of watching it on uTube.
The speech was actually delivered by Tony Robinson. And this is because the rare form of Alzheimer’s disease that Sir Terry suffers from means that he has trouble reading. Can you imagine it? A writer, and he can’t read. And he’s still writing. Take some inspiration from that, writers. And some hope, for readers, that losing the ability to read the written word no longer means losing the joy of ‘reading’.
Amazon (for which Virago is a perfectly acceptable synonym, both having at least one sense referring to a large, agressive woman) has patented a ‘System and Method for Marking Content’. This “programmatically” substitutes synonyms into (electronic) text like books, reviews, news articles etc so that they can trace back the source of any illegally distributed material. I assume electronic text, anyway, unless they’re cracking down on the dastardly lending-printed-book-to-friend black market.
This is similar to the random pattern of dots overlayed on cinema reels to identify which specific reel was the one set loose as an illegal DVD copy or which cinema management was slack on spotting recording devices, except that instead of changing the movie-goer’s experience by irritating them with dots, they change the movie-goer’s experience by splicing in minute scene alterations – without even subjecting the process to a human eye to see just how annoying and wrong the change is.
Would a reasonable human say virago is an acceptable substitute for amazon? No, no way – the words may have the same meaning by a dictionary match, if you go down the list of meanings for each far enough, but they have substantially different senses in most people’s minds. Such a substitution would change the way the character so described is perceived.
Screw it, I shouldn’t even have to give an example of why this is so bad. I’m not making the claim that I choose every single word in my books with conscious care, but I certainly pay attention to nuances of meanings and to the rhythm of the sentences, and Virago (and not the perfectly well-behaved publishing imprint either) is tromping all over that with this system.
The patent also includes using “alternative misspellings for selected words”. Yes. That typo? That typo is not my fault. That was Virago the Giant Online Retailer.
If they’re that worried about pirates, why not adopt the system proposed by…that guy whose name I don’t remember…who said to flood the pirate market with error-riddled copies of whatever product, some only 10% different, some 90% different, so that people helping themselves to illegal material never know how true and reliable their copy is and it becomes easier to buy the appropriately priced legal material. That’s a system amenable to programmatic implementation.
That was the first time I’ve ever spelled rhythm correctly on the first go.
Regular readers will notice I have skipped my regular blog posts this week. This is because I have been busy. Though not in the good Las Vegas way.
Which leads me to mention that The Australia Institute has declared November 25 to be national Go Home On Time Day. It is, and I quote, “in recognition of the more than 2 billion hours of unpaid overtime that Australians work each year” and “is intended to be a guilt-free way of raising awareness of the nature and extent of unpaid overtime in Australia and the important economic, health and social consequences it often has”. Check out the Go Home On Time Day website.
This has only the most tenuous link to writing, except that I will point out that:
Go Home on Time: try it sometime.
I had little idea what the point of it was, but it was a trick that I could do.”
So John Sulston writes in his book, co-written by Georgina Ferry, The Common Thread, about the international scientific effort to map the human genome (and how private interests sought to sabotage the government-funded collaboration for their own gain; if anyone thinks the private company Celera in any way lived up to their hype that they would do it cheaper and faster, and wouldn’t try to patent genes or hold back information for profit, they need to read this book for the insider view).
Sulston is talking about the Baconian approach to science: gathering data without a hypothesis. He came up with a technique based on a new technology or method, and applied it just for the sake of it, with no preconceived notions in mind. In his case, it led fairly directly to sequencing the genome, quite the payoff.
Payoffs come in writing, too, when we are prepared to follow leads without worrying about other people’s expectations, what we thought we were writing when we started out, how commercial or mainstream the work is, and so on: when we write for the sake of writing, not to meet our preconceived ideas.
Read the rest of this entry »
Tabourot’s Law is a concept you might have only come across should you be learning to play the theremin. In fact, until this post, the phrase “Tabourot’s Law” was almost a googlewhack – except I’m cheating because true googlewhacks only happen with two words but no quote marks.
You’re saying, “shut up about the googlewhacking, what the hell is a theremin?”, aren’t you?
A theremin is a musical instrument (picture courtesy of Theremin World). It was invented by a Russian man named Lev Terman, or Leon Theremin in the West, about 90 years ago. You play it by moving your hands around the two antennae, one of which controls pitch, the other volume, attached to oscillators.
You have heard one: its sound (though not the instrument itself) is used in the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations – listen for the “quavery wobble”. It’s also one of Hannibal Lector’s two favourite instruments.
The theremin, and Tabourot’s Law, came to my attention through the auspices of The Reverend Guppy’s Aquarium: Encounters with heroes of the English language, from the Earl of Sandwich to Joseph P. Frisbee by Philip Dodd. It is, of course, a (fascinating) book about eponyms – words derived from people’s names, and obviously enough, Theremin is one of them (described in the chapter about Adolphe Sax).
Dodd mentions a teach-yourself theremin book. Thanks to a reference on the theremin site, at the bottom of this page of discussion, I now know it was probably Dr. R.B.Sexton’s Method for the Theremin. Ah yes, the famous Saxon Method: wave your hands around the antennae.
Saxon provides a piece of advice he in turn got from Tabourot, who was a castenet tutor who wrote Castanuelas, Olè. I can’t quite tell if this was written relatively recently or 500 years ago by a monk (and republished relatively recently) whose real name wasn’t even Tabourot anyway.
I’ll quote Dodd: “Its central method was that if you are having problems trying to achieve something difficult and are convinced you will never make any progress, then at the very point you are about to give up in frustration, that is precisely when you are going to make a breakthrough”.
Or, to quote Saxon himself, in more vivid terms:
Tabourot’s Law states that success always comes after you start screaming in frustration but before you actually give up.
Dodd says, “It’s an excellent law, which I recommend applying to most human endeavours” – including the endeavour of writing fiction. And not just human endeavours, either – when we were teaching our dog the ‘down’ command – old dog, new trick – he barked in frantic and high-pitched frustration just before he finally worked out what we wanted from him, the exact expression of Tabourot’s Law.
I’m sure the mental anguish and stress that tends to accompany a breakthrough – the outward expression of the mental force being expended – has a name in psychological research and has been studied extensively, but I find “Tabourot’s Law” to be picturesque.
Next time you’re working on a story or a scene and you’ve been going around in circles and it seems like it’s just never going to work and you should just pack the whole thing in and go do something actually rewarding like learning to play an obscure musical instrument, mutter to yourself, “Tabourot’s Law” and keep trying just that little bit longer.
For the last few weeks, I have been discussing how the art of writing intersects with commercial success. First I said that it’s already hard to write, but even harder when you choose your genre solely based on what you think will sell, rather than what you love. Then I pointed out that most writers don’t make a lot of money from writing anyway. And then I used actor Marcus Graham to prove that you’ll be happier if you moderate your ambitions to something realistic.
In all of this, how do you measure your success as a writer? Using how much money you make, as I’ve tried to make plain, is a poor measure. Using the number of sales is only slightly better, because it’s still directly correlated to how much money you’re making. There’s plenty of writers who have released a decent body of work, with large mainstream publishers, have had sales, and who still cannot give up the day job.
For example, there’s Tony Shilltoe, an Australian fantasy author who has “enjoyed moderate publishing success” with more than a dozen books, and who still cannot give up the day job (though maybe he doesn’t want to). The key point for him is that he has not broken out of Australia into overseas (the giant US and UK markets).
I cannot speak for this writer and how he feels about it; I’m just using him as an example – a writer who has, at least since 2002, produced one to two publishable books a year – and that’s pretty impressive for someone with a fulltime job.
So how would you measure your success? Measuring it by money will only make you unhappy. Choose other measures, and make them correspond to where you are in your writing life.
If you’re just starting out, your measure of success could be twofold: Do you sit down and write every day? And are you able to complete an entire book-length story? Plenty of ‘writers’ undertake lots of stories and never have the willpower to work through the mid-book grind to finish a complete draft, so you can be proud if you have.
If you’re further along, you might make your measure of success whether you write a certain number of words every day, and whether you go back and edit that first draft until it becomes something better.
And again, you might be further along than that, and measure your success in publishing credits – with small publishers or large, with short stories or longer works, with fiction or non-fiction. Or it might by awards and good reviews (though that is relying on external factors and opinion and I would not recommend it – other peoples’ opinions matter in terms of deciding if your work should be published or not, but they should not be used to determine how you feel about it). Your goals depend on you.
My measure of success is simple, but less quantifiable: Am I happy? Do I look forward to my day? Do I go eagerly once more unto the writing breach, dear friends (even when I “close the wall up with our dead English” words; ie when it’s not going well)? Yes. Then I am successful.
I love Elvis…um, Marcus Graham.
MARCUS GRAHAM tells a funny story about the moment, many years ago now, when he gave up on Hollywood. It meant, as for any actor, letting go of a big dream and, like any adult, discovering that the dream wasn’t what you thought it would be. But in that pivotal moment in Graham’s life, he grasped the seeds of something else.
“I’ve learned that the less the ambition, the greater the happiness,” Graham says cheerfully.
And then later: “Letting go of the blind ambition of his 20s and 30s made him happier and calmer.”
Life today creates strange pressures: it’s not admirable anymore to just be quietly good at something that you’ve worked away at for years. You have to be the best! And do it really young! And really quickly! In writing, that’s first-time authors winning the Booker or 16-year-olds writing bestselling fantasy novels that get made into movies and spawn lots of sequels (though, hey, it is fantasy, so there’s got to be at least three books).
It leads to expectations that work against new writers. They expect too much of themselves, too quickly, and too much of the publishing industry, and others expect too much of them too. Something like Harry Potter or Twilight….those are bolts of lightning. Those authors themselves were under pressure to re-create the phenomena with every new book. How can a new author expect to create the next phenomenon when it is unpredictable, crowd-driven, faddish? How can a literary author aim to win the Booker when the judges’ tastes change every year and their decision-making is often obscure and apparently random?
Becoming an A-list movie star in Hollywood is the pinnacle for many actors. Wanting to be the next Rowling appears to be the goal for many fantasy writers. Winning the Booker is the dream for many (British Commonwealth and Irish) literary writers. Those are the sorts of big and glorious ambitions that might set you on your path, whatever it might be.
But to paraphrase the article, the dream is not always what you thought it was going to be. The amount of publicity, pressure, and sheer fan obsession must have given Rowling cold sweats. In this discussion, a Booker prize winner complains of having no time to write because of the touring expected of her since she won. And Marcus Graham woke up in Hollywood one day, and thought:
‘Bloody hell, here I am getting paid all this money to not work, while I wait for a job that I actually don’t want. What the f— am I doing here?’ So I took the $US10,000; they decided I actually was too mysterious [for a show called Mysterious Ways] and I left town.”
But: “despite letting go of ego, he still has the drive to act.” A writer can let go of unrealistic dreams of fame and fortune, and still want to write and be motivated to sit down and write (rather than daydream about having already written and receiving the accolades). It’s about deciding on workable goals, realistic goals.
For me, it’s regular publication for a small, niche audience. I don’t want lots of money, I sure as hell do not want fame, I don’t need critical recognition in the form of awards and prizes. I want to say, here, here’s a fun book, hope you enjoy it (and I want my small audience to say, thanks, I did, when’s the next one coming out? Write faster, lady).
We’ve all been trained to think of sensible, achievable goals as giving up. It’s not. It’s reaching for the happiness, the satisfaction, the contentment within your grasp, not those fabled distant stars that are so far away that their light takes millions of years to reach us. Reach for the Sun instead; its light only takes 8.3 minutes – a star less daunting to reach for.
There’s a greeting card in that, somewhere.