Sunday, October 31, 2010

Harvard's "Why Books?" Conference, Pt I

We have some new followers at our Twitter account thanks to Christopher's expert - by which I mean "snarky" - live-tweeting from Harvard's "Why Books?" conference itself on Friday. I sat next to him for most of it and we shared nods and notes (not all of which are blog-appropriate) and eye-rolls. It was an interesting day, as was the one afternoon panel I attended the day before. Let me start with the Thursday afternoon panel.

I attended a panel on Thursday titled, "Challenges and Opportunities in the Emerging E-book Age." Alexander Parker did a fantastic job setting up this panel as the kind of host and first speaker, introducing a lot of basic terms that were then referenced later by the other speakers. He explained how we are seeing the "doubters versus the touters" in this world of e-books, struggling with "the shock of the new." He explained that perhaps we are in an "e-Incublar period," starting in 2006 with more sophisticated e-readers, which are now hitting the market too fast and furious for even him to follow. He offered some hope for people like me, perhaps like Christopher, by saying this technology adapts to what we want and need, once that shock of the new wears off. Here he referred to radio, which were once a central entertainment object in a home but which have now settled as kind of background noise, still used commonly but not as prominently. At the same time, Parker did bring up issues still being explored that have not settled down - rights management, for example (agents being careful in giving options to film studios, only allowing dramatic but not digital, which suggests new things may fall under "digital" as technology develops), the "out of sight, out of mind" danger as book collections become virtual rather than physical, the endangered parts of books, including indices, works cited, and appendices, and what that might mean for the Table of Contents, which may in fact become more descriptive as they become more important for navigating a book.

Liza Daly of Threepress Consulting brought up a somewhat troubling issue: text changes when put into a venue in which text flows, and is "reflowable," rather than being page-based. The reader now has control of the text, and can re-format to allow for bigger text, different orientation, etc... This has been a major concern, for obvious reasons, for poets. I was rather surprised to hear Daly dismiss these concerns from authors and publishers in general by suggesting that readers aren't bothered by these challenges, by poetry lines being broken up when 4 lines are used as an epigraph. As publishers, I don't want our goal to be producing books - e or p - that the readers can tolerate, can still read despite inconsistency or sloppiness. Daly later mentioned the potential for projects on handheld devices to create narratives that take into account where the reader is and what the reader is doing - a mystery is now set in West Somerville, in her example, and the narrative unfolds as the device moves. This to me sounds like the ultimate in narcissistic reading. It's one thing to want to see something you recognize in a narrative, but to demand your own experience turned into fiction as you have that experience? Someone pointed out to me later that this is similar to the recent Arcade Fire video that went viral, for "The Wilderness Downtown," in which you put in the address of your childhood home and it uses Google images of that home in the video itself. (I admit it, it kind of blew me away, but put into this context, I found it in retrospect icky.)

Similarly, she brought up a chart that showed how ebooks were most commonly purchased at around 9pm at night. She explained this data by having us imagine that we're in bed and we finish our book, but we're not quite ready to go to sleep. We then order up a new book for our Kindle or what have you, and it instantly is on the device and ready to go. She touted this convenience, which is so superior to having to wait and get to a bookstore later. Maybe I'm sounding like some kind of New England puritan here, but this convenience is kind of... well, as Christopher might say, dumb. I mean, most of us have plenty of books lying around waiting to be read, so I can't imagine finishing a book at 9pm and having to order a new one for immediate deliver. But hey, she made a point of saying how most books read on these devices are very trade fiction - romance, thrillers, etc... This is exciting reading, page-turners. We've all been caught up in those kinds of books now and again, and sometimes you need that sequel. But this is one of those times when I feel like those in favor of these emerging technologies are telling me I want something that I'm not convinced I want - the ability to buy a book instantly at 9pm. She was saying "this is about you," and that sends some red flags up. Anytime people push such convenience, I feel like a targeted market.

Emily Arkin of Harvard University Press talked about, amongst many other things, the potential for additional curatorial roles out there, as more books become available digitally and even created with the digital more purposely in mind. There is only going to be more of a "glut of information" coming at us, so who is going to help readers decide what to read? Arkin feels the imprimatur on a book will become more important - something those of us in publishing hope is true.

This hope was somewhat dashed when an audience member asked about self-publishing, but as the panelists started to answer, she said, "Look at the time - you can just tell me what website to go to to self-publish." This goes back to my larger concern that the industry is being shaped by folks desperately trying to capitalize on what readers want, with the most base taking the lead at times. Should we make decisions based on who can make the most money by catering to reader narcissism, or should we find smart folks curating a smart list and taking risks going forward with a collective mentality, in terms of employees and in terms of writers? My preference is the latter, obviously.

I don't have time to go over the full day on Friday just now, but I'll return to it soon. Until then, you have Christopher's tweets to give you a sense of the day.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An anecdote about a book.

Howdy. Usually when I take to these airwaves (whatevs) I do so to scold, make fun, or generally make an ass of myself by being outraged about this or that stupid happening in book publishing (I'm looking at you Justin Beaver). Not this time. Everyone knows I am anti-Kindle. I think the device is just plain, old, dumb but my previous posts on the matter have often been more of the "I love the smell of books and a Kindle doesn't smell like a book" variety instead of addressing the actual reasons why I think the Kindle (or any of its brothers or sisters) is dopey. Seriously, not this time.

Yesterday evening while walking around Harvard Square I happened to pass the front windows of the Harvard Book Store. I wasn't going to go in because every time I do I end up spending money I really shouldn't on yet another book (for instance, I own 4 different editions of 1984, ugh). While scanning the "New in Hardcover" display I spotted this book:

An Atlas of Remote Islands: Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot on and Never Will by Judith Schalansky, winner of the "Most Beautiful Book in Germany" Prize (who knew?). The title alone had me interested but it was more than that. 1) I love atlases. (Don't ask.) 2) I love islands (duh, who doesn't?) 3) I truly treasure reference books (I got nothin' on that one, I'm just a nerd). I stood outside in the rain thinking about whether or not I was going to go in a take a closer look knowing full well that my inherent weakness for book purchases could and would come into play. However, I felt I was safe because I happen to hate hardcovers (as we have documented here). I walked over to the New Hardcovers table and opened up what has to be coolest book released this year. The book is what it says it is on the cover. It is an atlas of remote islands accompanied by a small one-page piece of writing on the history/culture/mythology of the island in question. I was totally consumed right in the middle of the store. Judith Schalansky writes:

“The absurdity of reality is lost on the large land masses, but here on the islands, it is writ large. An island offers a stage: everything that happens on it is practically forced to turn into a story, into a chamber piece in the middle of nowhere, into the stuff of literature. What is unique about these tales is that fact and fiction can no longer be separated: fact is fictionalized and fiction is turned into fact....For me Atlases are the most poetic books of all, the body of the earth shown on a map.”
Ok, that is a little squishy but the point is that this book-which I explicitly told myself I wasn't going to buy-was in a bag and out the door with me a mere 10 minutes after first finding out about its existence. This post really isn't supposed to be about how great the book is but it is important that you see at least one of the maps in the book to get a sense of how beguiling the Atlas is. So, here is the page for the island of Diego Garcia, located in the Indian Ocean approximately 500 miles east of the Maldives.

See?!? Plus the text on the verso side of the page, there really aren't words for it. Sometimes Ms. Schalansky writes of history, other times it is mythology, a few times she transcribes entries from a long lost journal belonging to a lighthouse keeper, soldier, or occupant of the island. You never know what you are going to get island to island. Totally amazing. But that isn't what I came here to tell you about. I have been typing this piece for 15 minutes; I can write about the book for 15 more. I'm not proud, or tired. But, I really did come here to write about the Kindle and why it should just go away.

I can't really counter all the claims made about the Kindle by the true believers. It really is handy. It can hold ten million books and fifty million magazines (I think). It is portable and very easy to use. So convenient. Yes, yes, yes, yes, everything they say about the Kindle is true and great. I think there is even a religious movement dedicated to the Kindle. However, what the Kindle cannot do, and why I will never own one even if it allows me to hold all the books of the Library of Congress in my pocket for the cost of a penny is that it doesn't allow for discovery...for an epiphany. For the first time in a very long time I was absolutely seduced by a book I hadn't heard anything about until I happened to be walking by the store on a rainy evening. Being able to go into the Harvard Book Store and touch the book, browse its pages,as well as become engrossed in its words will never happen with a Kindle. A Kindle is a storage device. Usually when I go into bookstore I am just looking around. I don't really care if I find something or not but I am always of a mind to get something if I can. Last night, a book caught me off guard and believe me when I tell you that I wasn't in the "spending $28 on a 100 page hardcover" mood. Once I got the book in my hand, however, I just had to. Everyone I have shown the book to in the last 12-15 hours has also been completely in its thrall. So there, after all my public denunciations of the Kindle, my final rejection of it comes from an anecdote not a point by point dismantling. The Kindle will never give me an spot in time, that fleeting moment when everything else is shut out around just isn't capable of that in the way that an unknown book by an unknown author about a subject I , myself, didn't know I was so interested in, on the shelf of the local bookstore I love did. Perhaps that isn't the Kindle's mission but if not, that's sad since that is ultimately the whole point of a discovering a book you didn't know you'd love - lighting the fire of an idea in your mind while wandering the streets in search of a beer.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Boston Book Festival report

It's a beautiful fall weekend here in New England, and yesterday saw the exciting, much-publicized Boston Book Festival, now in its second year. I went to one event and then wandered around with some friends to the booths, and it was all in all an impressive showcase of talent and publisher marketing and even bookselling.

I was pleased to see some cool independent publishers present - Small Beer Press, for example, and David Godine Inc, and the relatively new and quite commercial Union Park Press, which does Boston books for Boston folks. I also really enjoyed the book stalls from Symposium Books and the Brattle Bookshop. Lastly, I was interested in this Better World Books, which seems to be a for-profit but socially responsible alternative to Amazon. (Any alternative to Amazon seems pretty damn good by my watch.) They seem to do a lot of work for literacy and they sell these t-shirts, which they had on display and which were charming in their simplicity:

The festival was bustling, unfortunately with many people who were pushy and demanding and ill-equipped to be around other humans, but such is part of the deal in a popular urban festival, especially in Boston. (Sorry, but folks are just a bit more polite in other parts of the country and world - those of us who live here know that!) The exhibitors, however, were friendly, at both these independents and at booths for corporate publishers, such as Harper Perennial. Everyone had a good spirit about them, and the crowd was eating it up. I should call out the young woman at the New York Review Books' stall in particular, who knew her list so well and was just plain charming.

But I have to get around to my frustration. Sorry.

I am working on a book of local interest right now, which just came out. Local independent the Brookline Booksmith had a booth last year at the Festival - which I remember because the weather was horrible, and as I approached the tent, the woman working there warned me not to come in, because the rain and wind were threatening to bring the whole tent down. So this year, I knew that the store had ordered 12 copies of this book in question. I called them up to ask if they'd be bringing the book to the Festival. I was put through to the woman organizing the books for the Festival, who told me that no, they were not bringing any general titles. In fact, they were only allowed to sell books to support one of the multiple venues for the Festival. They said maybe someone else will be selling general titles.

This was Thursday. That night, my partner and I wandered into the mammoth Barnes & Noble in the Prudential - a store where I once worked, which is one of the top-selling stores in the country. In the last couple of weeks, this very large superstore has been transformed per the new B&N model, which I discussed here. It's now happening, for reals. At the front, just to the left, of this huge store, the books have been removed. Completely removed, in a space that once had about 5 or 6 short rows with travel books and cookbooks, I believe. The shelves gone, the store has now put stands to push the Nook, making the store resemble, as I said before, a Best Buy. Charming. We walked to the back of the store, to the decent sized fiction section so my partner could look for Karen Tei Yamashita's I Hotel, a novel that was just named a finalist for the National Book Award (as we told you). As he we stood in the last row, with the Y's, I looked across the aisle, and the psychology/self-help section, as well as the Education and exam guide section, has been wholly removed, and in its place? Vaguely educational toys, probably taking up a space where at least 4 maybe 5 rows of books had been. This is the Toys 'r' Us section.

We had seen the novel there just a couple of days before, multiple copies even, so we went to the information desk. The woman struggled a bit, and took us to two different locations. (We noticed there was not even an endcap of National Book Award finalists - !!! Isn't this a bookstore!??!) Unsuccessful, the worker pointed out that "they" had taken a bunch of books out of the store to sell at the Festival, and maybe they took all five copies the computer was saying the store had in stock.

Sure enough, B&N had a huge booth at the Festival, in a central location. They were clearly the official general, new book booksellers instead of local independent the Brookline Booksmith. Very bad news. We found I Hotel there and I asked the worker, whom I recognized as someone I once worked alongside at that B&N, if there were discounts for the books on sale. She said no, then she revised her statement to say that there was no discount for the customer, but a portion of the proceeds would go toward some literacy campaign. Convenient - I hope someone holds B&N accountable for that.

I know that was a long tangent, but I'm frustrated that the Festival organizers went corporate on the bookselling. It was particularly bad timing given that B&N is in the process of backing off from selling books, more than ever. They have turned to gadgets. They were more interested in getting the Nook displays set up than getting news about a major award put out front, with books that were named finalists on display so smart readers could say, "oh, we should read this now, some great novelists said these were the best of the year." B&N didn't care. They probably didn't even let their workers know about this, in case anyone asked.

I'm angry as a reader. I'm sick of not having a bookstore that cares. (Brookline Booksmith is great, but not in my neighborhood, and the same goes for the incredible Harvard Bookstore.) And I'm annoyed that the Book Festival, which was fantastic in many, many ways and will surely enjoy years of continued success, didn't "think local" and celebrate a couple of that top-notch independents still left in the general metro area. I understand the need for corporate sponsors and I applaud the Festival organizers' ability to keep all of these events free. That is huge. Perhaps my frustration stems to how closely they almost made it perfect, and also my current particular frustration, as noted, with the cruel corporate carelessness of B&N.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Story of a Success

I went to a reading this afternoon by Paul Harding, famed novelist of the (surprise) Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Tinkers, published by the tiny, independent, non-profit Bellevue Literary Press. I will say first that Harding was great as a reader. He read a terrific passage that was entertaining, with impressive writing, wit, and enough hints at the larger story that it made all of us interested in reading more. He was also excellent in the Q&A, which both he and the moderator made clear was an important component of his talk, something he enjoyed very much. One could see why - he was candid and funny.

The first question asked of the author was how he came to get this thing published, and where he is going next. He explained that he finished an MFA at the famed Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, working with British novelist Barry Unsworth. A few years later, Barry called him out, saying he should have something ready to share at this point. Harding took out his "pile of prose" that he had been assembling for years. He printed out everything, then got a pair of scissors and a stapler, and started cutting and spreading things out and stapling things together. It was amazing to hear him describe even briefly this very physical process. He then re-assembled the salvageable parts and realized that he had a little literary novel.

He talked about how he sent this novel out, presumably in a more cleaned-up fashion, to "about a dozen plus" agents and editors, and got rejections, "with varying levels of class," from all of them. He then put things away and kept plugging away at his day job, teaching freshman comp and some continuing education courses, and raising 2 boys. A couple of years later, he was talking about it to a poet, who put him in touch with someone who worked at "a small literary press in NYC," but that person rejected the manuscript, too.

That person, however, put him in touch with Erika Goldman, publisher and editorial director of Bellevue. Goldman obviously fell for the novel, and they had a 2 - 3 hour phone call about it. But Harding said the first half hour involved Goldman telling him what the novel was. She then explained that she wanted to make sure that she read what he wrote. He jokingly acted out his reaction to this, saying "I love you, where do I sign?!" It seemed to me a useful, smart part of the editorial procedure - I scribbled a note to remember to do that.

Harding said the book came out as a paperback original with a 3,500 copy print run, and "virtually no marketing or publicity." (Earlier, he had joked about first hearing about Bellevue, describing it as the literary arm of the NYU medical school, with an office in Bellevue itself that was akin to a custodian's closet pretty much.) Some outstanding booksellers got behind this li'l book, though, first on the west coast and then back here on the east coast, and it started to move. He said it showed him that there are still readers out there looking for books, and there are still great booksellers who can help those readers find the right books. This echoes what Motoko Rich reported in the NYTimes last April:

But he is quick to praise those who helped “Tinkers” become a darling of the independent bookstore circuit, including Erika Goldman, the editorial director of Bellevue, whom Mr. Harding described as a “deeply empathetic reader”; Lise Solomon, a sales representative in Northern California for Consortium, the book’s distributor, who passionately advocated for the novel with booksellers; and the booksellers and critics who embraced the book early on.
(In fact, much of this info can be found there, truth be told, but I swear I heard it live just today!)

Harding then said that he now has a 2 book deal with Random House, and laughed about how he's gone from one extreme to the other. You may recall that our own Christopher complained about this move in a comment on this post from last spring. I'm not sure what to think. I mean, I give the guy credit for calling out the folks that helped him get to the Pulitzer, and I'm not sure that he should stay with Bellevue. I'm not sure Bellevue is ready for him to stay there, and they have done very well with this book, which remains on bestseller lists. They are and will always benefit, especially given the paperback original (no paperback rights to sell elsewhere!).

I guess I appreciate it when big writers contribute books to small presses, something Howard Zinn often did for a number of smaller, often non-profit, ever-independent publishers. But a guy like Harding? He's not living that large. Maybe we're asking too much when we want him to sacrifice a living wage and the freedom to work just on writing for the benefit of independent publishing. Bellevue is not going to come up with a $100,000 advance, most likely, for his next book, but his next book may be 2 - 3 years in the making, and the advance would have to cover that whole time in order for him not to work. $100k over that time - and mind you, that's not a salary so it does not come with any benefits, including healthcare - is not a huge amount. I know there's other income possibilities - subrights, royalties from the first book - but anyone in the business knows it takes a lot to add up to anything substantial.

I differ from Christopher, clearly. I feel there should be an out clause for writers at this point in their careers. They have to be opportunistic, and I guess I see a lot of enemies of good books and good publishing out there - Amazon Shorts, capitalizing on shrinking attention spans thanks in part to their ridiculous gadget, for example. Writers at this stage in their careers are not the worst offenders. Let them make enough to get ahead, and then make sure they remember.

When Harding's next book comes out from Random House, I hope he still talks about those booksellers and independent bookstores like he did today, and I hope he still mentions the fact that Bellevue Literary Press believed in him and made his dream come true. Until then, I'm not ready to throw tomatoes at him.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Um, how does one get something so wrong?

From one of the great voices of the internet (and a personal hero of mine), Richard Metzger comes this stinging rebuke to Lee Seigel's piece in the New York TImes Book Review comparing the Beat Generation with the current Tea Party.

From Richard:

“I think I’m going to puke.”
Blowhard asshole Lee Siegel continues to thrash around in the low end of the journalistic cesspool with this utterly idiotic essay in the New York Times comparing the Beat Generation to the Tea Party movement.
The counterculture of the late 1950s and early 1960s appears to be everywhere these days. A major exhibition of Allen Ginsberg’s photography just closed at the National Gallery in Washington. A superb book, by the historian Sean Wilentz, about Ginsberg’s dear friend and sometime influence Bob Dylan recently made the best-seller list. “Howl,”  a film about Ginsberg and the Beats, opened last month. And everywhere around us, the streets and airwaves hum with attacks on government authority, celebrations of radical individualism, inflammatory rhetoric, political theatrics.
In other words, the spirit of Beat dissent is alive (though some might say not well) in the character of Tea Party protest. Like the Beats, the Tea Partiers are driven by that maddeningly contradictory principle, subject to countless interpretations, at the heart of all American protest movements: individual freedom. The shared DNA of American dissent might be one answer to the question of why the Tea Partiers, so extreme and even anachronistic in their opposition to any type of government, exert such an astounding appeal.
Comparing the sexy, druggy, life embracing, progressive culture of the beats to the fascistic, xenophobic, racist, fearful and life-negating Tea Party is absolutely absurd. It’s like comparing fucking to a case of serious blue balls.
The following comment by Siegel not only posits an idiotic argument, it’s morally disgusting:
the Tea Partiers’ unnerving habit of bringing guns to town-hall meetings would have repelled the Beats. But William S. Burroughs fetishized guns, accidentally killing his wife while trying to shoot a glass off her head. Violence, implicit or explicit, comes with the “beaten” state of mind. So does theatricality, since playing roles — and manipulating symbols — is often the first resort of people who do not feel acknowledged for being who they really are.
What the fuck does Burroughs’ wife’s death have to with “manipulating symbols” or some kind of identity crisis?
Read the entire steaming pile of bullshit here.

The 2010 National Book Award Finalists Announced

(plus the names of the judges to blame if they don't pick your favorite book from each list)  - CV


Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (Alfred A. Knopf)

Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co.)

Nicole Krauss, Great House (W.W. Norton & Co.)

Lionel Shriver, So Much for That (Harper)

Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel (Coffee House Press)


Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
(Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group)

John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq
(W.W. Norton & Co.)

Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)

Justin Spring, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Megan K. Stack, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War (Doubleday)


Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City (Princeton University Press)

Terrance Hayes, Lighthead  (Viking Penguin)

James Richardson, By the Numbers (Copper Canyon Press)

C.D. Wright, One with Others (Copper Canyon Press)

Monica YounIgnatz (Four Way Books)

Young People's Literature

Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker (Little, Brown & Co.)

Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird (Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group)

Laura McNeal, Dark Water (Alfred A. Knopf)

Walter Dean Myers, Lockdown (Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)

Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer (Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)

The Judges for the 2010 National Book Awards:

Joanna Scott (Chair), Andrei Codrescu, Samuel R. Delany, Sabina Murray, Carolyn See

Marjorie Garber (Chair), Blake Bailey, Jennifer Michael Hecht, Seth Lerer, Sallie Tisdale

Cornelius Eady (Chair), Rae Armantrout, Linda Gregerson, Jeffrey McDaniel, Brenda Shaughnessy

Young People's Literature
Tor Seidler (Chair), Laban Carrick Hill, Kelly Link, Hope Anita Smith, Sara Zarr

November is National Novel Writing Month

I am not really sure why anyone would want to create artificial barriers to writing a novel-Ok, I do. I am looking at you Oulipo Group-but if you are interested in making your writing life even harder then November 1st marks the first day of National Novel Writing Month. The simple goal of the event is to write a 50,000 word novel by the end of the month. You can find all the details at their website (I know, I know). However, if you are too lazy to click on over to their site, below are the 10 salient things you need to know about writing your novel. (I should add at this point that if you are too lazy to click through to their website I am not 100% how you will have the discipline to write everyday for a month and finish with a 50K monster but that's just me being an a-hole.)
1) Sign up for the event by clicking the "Sign Up Now" link at the top of the site. It's right there above "National."
2) Check your email and read the ginormous email our noveling robots send you. It will have "Love" in the subject line, and may be hiding in your Junk folder.
3) Log into your account and use the links on the My NaNoWriMo page to set your timezone, affiliate with a region, and tell us a little bit about yourself.
4) Begin procrastinating by reading through all the great advice and funny stories in the forums. Post some stories and questions of your own. Get excited. Get nervous. Try to rope someone else into doing this with you. Eat lots of chocolate and stockpile noveling rewards.
5) On November 1, begin writing your novel. Your goal is to write a 50,000-word novel by midnight, local time, on November 30th. You write on your own computer, using whatever software you prefer.
6) This is not as scary as it sounds.
7) Starting November 1, you can update your word count in that box at the top of the site, and post excerpts of your work for others to read. Watch your word-count accumulate and story take shape. Feel a little giddy.
8) Write with other NaNoWriMo participants in your area. Write by yourself. Write. Write. Write.
9) If you write 50,000 words of fiction by midnight, local time, November 30th, you can upload your novel for official verification, and be added to our hallowed Winner’s Page and receive a handsome winner’s certificate and web badge. We'll post step-by-step instructions on how to scramble and upload your novel starting in mid-November.
10) Win or lose, you rock for even trying.
That's all there is to it! Occasionally, participants write in to ask about the rules of the event. We don't have many! But because we've found that creativity is often heightened by constraints (and communities bolstered by shared goals) we have evolved a handful of rules over the years. The rules state that, to be an official NaNoWriMo winner, you must…
  • Write a 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.
  • Start from scratch. None of your own previously written prose can be included in your NaNoWriMo draft (though outlines, character sketches, and research are all fine, as are citations from other people's works).
  • Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction. If you consider the book you're writing a novel, we consider it a novel too!
  • Be the sole author of your novel. Apart from those citations mentioned two bullet-points up.
  • Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.
  • Upload your novel for word-count validation to our site between November 25 and November 30.
So that's all there is to it.

Well, what are you waiting for? Get on over to the National Novel Writing Month website and get going.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

I have seen it, and I'm unimpressed

This weekend, I spent some time at my sister's house, having her six year old son show me how he uses their iPad, as my parents looked on, only slightly more confused than me. We all figured out the basics and within no time, were scanning up and down and flipping through applications, but at the end of it, I had no problem leaving this new toy behind. Two points come to the surface after this experience.

First, I should quote my father here: "You can see why books are in trouble," he pointed out as my nephew "made cupcakes" with an app. "Reading doesn't have the immediate gratification that these apps do, and they're not as involved with it." He makes a good point. How do you go from picking up an iPad and engaging with it - you pick the ingredients, you "pet" the cat and make him purr - to picking up a printed book and sitting quietly, reading it? But my mother countered that everyone said the same thing about televisions, or with calculators that were going to make us unable to do math (um... oops!). And the fact is that my nephew is reading, and is interested in reading, even with the iPad. I should also note, however, that he knew how to ask to download an app and knew when we weren't allowed because it wasn't free - dexterous in the marketplace already.

Second, my sister had downloaded some Dr. Seuss books that her son has read, though she has also caught him getting the iPad to read to him, which she doesn't allow. Of course, he figured out how to do it before she even knew it was a possibility. My sister is a big reader, though, reading the kinds of books one doesn't feel the need to keep - your Nora Roberts et al. But clearly she is not at the stage that she wants to sit around with a screen and read. This isn't anything to do with her love of physical books, as she was ready to go "e" by the the start of the summer. She would go into Borders and buy 3 for 2, and then suddenly have tons of books that she had read sitting around in her house, not cool enough to put on display but not cheap enough to recycle or sell. But now here we are, three months after she was given this thing, and she has not yet purchased a single e-book for herself. I was surprised to hear that. I kind of thought of her as the main demographic right now.

I have become accustomed to reading the occasional article on my blackberry, and obviously I consume quite a bit of media online, on my laptop. But I still want to commit to things longer, and in fact, I have spent a few evenings now at the kitchen table longer than intended, reading more of the Boston Globe, or the local papers like the Boston Courant, Bay Windows, or the South End News, my micro-local, and I have read some really important news in these papers (albeit with typos, incorrect jumps, etc). It's similar to getting sucked into a book, fiction or non-fiction. It's more than just that flash that passes by and ends up being forgettable - like much of the news we all pass to each other, or worse, the Youtube clips. It's important to me because I have something in common with the other readers. We have a common interest, and the editors know that, and edit with us all in mind. That's a community feeling that I appreciate, and I don't need to see those other readers - online, in comments sections - to feel it.

I want to end by saying, like so many, that I was saddened to see the news of Carla Cohen's passing. Cohen seemed to be quite a tough broad who co-founded Politics & Prose, a vitally important independent bookstore in Washington, DC, in 1984. We here at SotB join many others in the publishing world in recognizing this loss.

(how great is this photo of the co-founders, Cohen (left) and Barbara Meade?! Taken by Darrel Ellis, The Washington Post, in 1989.)

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

The Way to Spend an Evening

I don't want to get all Wendall Berry on you. I like plenty of modern things. I also am not necessarily always cranky. But I do like to spend an evening now and again with some old school cranks. I like the physicality, the challenge, the reactions. I'm getting ahead of myself - let me explain.

My partner bought an album through Amazon and earned some credit toward their streaming movie feature. Clearly Amazon is trying to push everyone to all things digital, so you download a whole album and hey, why don't you watch a streaming film?! You'll be hooked. Since this would not cost any money, we said fine. We go to watch a film, however, and the sync is slightly off, with mouths moving just a bit of whack to the sound. Clearly there is quality sacrificed for convenience. Why should people watch movies this way?

We couldn't take it and stopped the movie halfway through, moving over to the Netflix "watch instant" feature... which was down, as a whole network. At this point, we just pulled out books to read.

But my point is the frustration. I couldn't call anyone - who does one call at Amazon or Netflix? I have no idea. I'm sitting in the privacy of my own home, with useless technology failing me, mocking my request for such luxurious convenience. I was isolated and all I could do was throw up my hands and turn off the damn tv entirely - doesn't that sound familiar? Such technical errors leave me with a profound frustration, a feeling of lonely desperation and powerlessness.

Compare that story with a radically different experience of error, which occurred at Bingo night at a Catholic high school in a town just outside of Boston on a Thursday evening.

There are many amazing things about Bingo, something I had not experienced as an adult until this magical evening. If you, too, have not experienced this, it's a bit of a culture shock. I was warned, and I was still taken aback, but some deep part of me fell in love. I can sum up the experience with a few quick anecdotes:

1) A middle-aged man on the steps of the school saw us approaching and said, "You gents here for bingo?" When we answered in the affirmative, he said, "You bettah hope you don't win - those old ladies will kill you! You take ya life into your own hands, gentlemen."

2) When the announcer said he wouldn't call the door prize until the next smoke break - when, of course, many of the gals would be out smoking - a 60 year old (or so) gal next to my friend actually screamed out to him, despite him being across an auditorium, "you retahded asshole!"

3) The older lady across from me, who with her friend helped me with all the many surprisingly complicated games - you have no idea - won $150, at which point she rubbed the cash on my friend's arm for luck. She was otherwise unmoved. She said she once won $1100 here, over the course of the month, and I asked her outright, "Did you ever get excited, at any of those wins?" "No," she answered, and I nodded, entirely believing her. She later rooted for me as I was 2 numbers away from winning $750. Sadly, it didn't help.

Now that you have the tone, let me explain the error. At the start of the night, the announcer stood up on a chair to announce that bingo would begin momentarily. Then he fell of the chair. This was the error. There were gasps; those who could, jumped up; others, including the gals across from me, shook their head and muttered how he was going to kill himself one of these days. Some folks looked confused and others explained what happened. People smiled at each other and shook their heads as he got to his feet, unharmed. The game was up and running in no time.

I know this is simplistic, but it was nice to have this error happening in a shared space, and that that space was replicating a cultural practice that hasn't changed too much in a long time. They still use daubers and printed out boards of all kinds (leading me to wonder, who manufactures these things!) and put the numbers called on a big screen with basic light bulbs. I should admit, though, that things have progressed since I was a kid: when someone called BINGO!, the person checking had only to read the card ID number from the middle of the winning board, which was then checked in a computer (maybe) and verified immediately. They did not have to go through each square to make sure the right number was called.

In this context, we all shared in the error, and we all got over the error. Maybe we grumbled, maybe we saw it as evidence of a larger problem, maybe we hardly noticed, maybe we had so little sympathy for the guy that later we'd call him a "retahded asshole" when he threatened not to read the door prize number at the appointed time. But we were in a room together, and we didn't need much to have a pretty damn fun evening. I don't think I could replicate that in a chatroom. We didn't need to each have a computer terminal or laptop or handheld device. We just needed a stack of boards and daubers, and for some of us, the occasional pudgy hand coming over to tag a square I missed (for this, I repeatedly thanked - but also chastised - my neighbor).

Books are isolating in a sense, but then not. When I'm editing, I tell the author that she or he is the guide for the reader. You two are in this together, with you leading the way, so be nice, be clear, know where you're going. (I'm reading Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn now and feel like I know this narrator incredibly well. I hardly feel alone as I read the book.) But then if that reader is using a Kindle and the batteries die - not a shocking thing to have happen with any electronic device - she can't read that book, take that journey. I guess I feel like right now, with reading, that's too much reliance on technology, and not because I dislike technology so much, but just because, as we have said so many times here at SotB, it just feels unnecessary.

It's like that quote featured on Shelf Awareness recently, where a woman noted that as her plane landed, she didn't have to "turn off" her book. At bingo, I didn't have to find a plug because my board was starting to fade. My only technical challenge was keeping the lid off the dauber - my neighbor explained that I was wasting time replacing that lid between each number call. Another good tip.

Similarly, I was chatting with a colleague who is unabashedly pro-book, in all it's expensive, wasteful paperness. He goes out and buys fat, esoteric hardcovers with no discount. He's crazy! And someone told him how e-books can have things embedded in them - videos, music, etc... He said he calmly explained back that if he's reading a book on the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the author references Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech, his brain will recall images he has seen of this event. His brain will make those connections. He doesn't need a video implanted in the e-book to show him the speech. In fact, he said he can read very quickly, but he doesn't, because he likes having his brain make those connections, scanning through his wide breadth of book knowledge to connect this image in a book on Churchill to that other book he read on Krakow, etc etc... It made me think of how everyone pulls out an iphone now as soon as anything even slightly obscure comes up. Our brains are atrophying.

In my role as editor, I want to be creative in thinking what makes a good book in 2010, but I also want to preserve what a book can and should do, and not try too hard to make it do everything for everyone. Things fail when you try to be all things to all people, but I fear that's where the purveyors of new book technology are going. So we sacrifice quality - the screen isn't great in the sun, not every book you want is there, oh I rarely read the whole book on this thing but I'll read a few chapters - for the supposed convenience, because we're told its convenient.

But what is that convenience? You can order a book that you read about online right then and have it right then. You didn't have to talk to a human at a bookstore, walk down the street to that bookstore. You didn't have to leave your home or office. You just pushed some buttons and there it is. The narrator, your guide, holds her hand out and you two are ready to go.

So what happens when something goes wrong, when that narrator falls off the chair, metaphorically, but doesn't get back up? Batteries are dead, system is down, Amazon has taken back the files and you have no one to complain to.

If you want to complain to me, too bad: I'll be a bingo with my new friends.