Saturday, February 25, 2012
Quality or Quantity: Which is More Important
Scott D. Parker
I saw this image on Facebook yesterday and it gave me quite the chuckle. I am, like a millions others, an avid Downton Abbey fan and have been since the first episode. The quality of the writing and acting to say nothing of the sumptuous costumes and sets sweep me away to a time I never knew. And the characters! Mr. Bates. Lady Mary. Carson the butler. In the hours I watch these two seasons I am lost to the modern world. Nary a telephone call is received in my house when Downton Abbey airs. Be ye warned.
When I mention "seasons," we Americans typical think about 20 to 24 hour long episodes. In fact, when one of my favorite shows gets an order for an extra episode or two, I count myself lucky. From September to May, I can count on nearly nine months of new episodes that make an American season of television. Naturally, not every episode is great, but you get a steady dose of your favorite characters each and every week. And, when sweeps months break, you get the "special episodes" which are often very good.
Not so with the British or, at least, the British material I see on this side of the ocean. Be it Prime Suspect, Foyle's War, or Downton Abbey, the British version of a season is vastly different. Foyle's War typically was three to five 90-minute episodes, movies really. Same for Prime Suspect. I'm not sure how Downton Abbey was broadcast in England, but here in America, PBS showed the second season over six Sundays, with a couple of evenings showing two hours to the usual one. Where the typical season of CSI: Miami lasts from September to May, we Downton Abbey fans had to content ourselves with a few glorious weeks in the winter of 2012. But oh the quality of the shows!
I would love to profess my love of quality over quantity, but I have to admit that I like both. And it all depends on the show. For something like Castle, CSI: Miami, Grimm, or Body of Proof, I want my morsel each and every week. I like knowing that, for an hour on one of these nights, I can sit back and enjoy some good television. But every now and then, I'll easily take fewer episodes of a great show like Downton Abbey because everything else about the show makes up for it. (Truth be told, I'd love to see what it's like to have 24 episodes of Downton just to see if its specialness would be diminished.)
Which way is do you prefer? Do you like the American way of a season (24 episodes, delivered weekly, with sometimes varying quality) or the British method (fewer episodes, greater quality)?
Friday, February 24, 2012
Flashback: Who I am and How I Came To Be
Russel D McLean is away for the next week. A blog post tying into the Million for a Morgue/Shortbread competition will appear here next Friday. In the meantime, here's a piece that originally appeared at Elizabeth A White's blog on the origins of Russel's need to write:
What made me a writer?
Because, seriously folks, you have to have your brain examined if you want to try doing this for a living. It’s a tough life. Your work has no intrinsic value. This thing that you for a living rises and falls on people’s opinions and moods. Technical skill counts for little if you don’t engage readers on some emotional level.
On top of all of this you have to combat the idea that what you do is easy. Anyone, they say, can string words together in a logical order. But what you’re doing is much more than that. You are trying to give those words life. You are trying to evoke a reaction in the reader, a belief in the lies that you are telling them.
To do that takes a lot of work. Sometimes more than any other job would consider necessary. As much as I joke about how the writing life appealed because it was indoor work with no heavy lifting, it comes with its own worries, especially for the occasionally insecure.
But I wouldn’t swap it for the world.
I was one of those kids who lived in his head. At primary school, my teacher would ask us to write diaries every week about what we did over the weekend. I’d lie compulsively in these. Make up stories about animals that talked or high adventure in space ships like those I saw on the TV. When my school teacher came to see me at a recent event, she expressed surprise at what I wound up writing, but none whatsoever that I was making a living from my humble scribbles.
As I grew older, the stories became more complex. I have a jotter with a half finished attempt at a Doctor Who novel* and a lot of efforts at creating comic books** that chronicle my attempts to create more fleshed out and involved stories like those I was reading.
But it wasn’t until I was maybe ten or eleven that I started to realise that writing and creating stories was more than just fun and games, that the people who wrote the books I loved were getting paid for what they did.
You see my dad also wrote. Somewhere around that time he had his work was accepted by BBC Radio 4. On multiple occasions. That was when I realised that art could equal profession. You see, it was a revelation to me that he was paid for these stories. Actual money.
My ten year old brain started working. Even then, I didn’t like the idea of a job in the real world. I started to wonder if maybe he got paid a small amount for a few stories, maybe I could make a larger amount by selling a lot of them.
But where do you begin?
It was a couple years later when I started reading dad’s copies of WRITER’S DIGEST. The magazine changed a lot down the years but back then the advice in its pages was golden. J Michael Stracynski’s screenwriting column (he was chronicling the development of a show he’d created called “Babylon 5” – whatever happened to that show?) was invaluable to me, full of genuinely practical advice about structure and story that I think could apply equally to any storytelling format. In fact I still apply a variation of the five act TV outline to most things that I write. This often doesn’t happen until redrafts, but I find it helps to search for and identify the story’s natural breaks and rhythms to create a stronger second draft.
Nancy Kress’s fiction column taught me a lot about novel writing and prose techniques that I still use to this day.
Reading the magazine – occasionally before my dad (I’d often be home from school before he came in from work and could grab the post) – I started to work on honing my craft. I entered the WD competition yearly – never getting anywhere – and watched the careers of the columnists grow. When Babylon 5 made it to air, I felt a kind of privilege to know what had gone into the writing and creation of a show I came to love.
My first professional submission, as I have already mentioned, was to Virgin Publishing’s range of Doctor Who Tie-In novels. I chose the wrong moment to submit as the minute my manuscript crossed the transom they lost the rights to publish any more Who books. But they sent me back a beautiful rejection that I still have. One that encouraged me while making sure my head didn’t swell, assuring me that I still had a lot of work to do but maybe there was something there.
That, I suppose, was when I became hooked. That was the point of no turning back.
It would take another ten or eleven years, a lot of rejections and a lot of painful mistakes before I’d finally see print. It would take a long time to make that fateful switch in genres that would help me finally discover my voice and uncover the kind of stories that really got my blood flowing. But that letter from the kind folks at Virgin marked the point where I resolved to become what I am today.
And one who loves what he gets to do for a living.
Tuesday, February 21, 2012
The Five Rules of the Internet
So, I try to go by 5 rules on social media.
1. Pick Your Battles: My battle is education. I'm a teacher along with the whole wanting to be a writer thing. Unless you've been sleeping under a rock, you know that education is at a strange tipping point. The right want to pare down public education and make it mostly private. I disagree. This is my fight. This is what I try to keep my protesting to online. Everything in the world is not horrible, so stop acting like it is.
2. Talk about things you love: Rutgers basketball, movies, Doctor Who, books. I try to keep my topics positive. I want to enjoy my time on the internet, not run to it when it's time to whine. The use of the word awesome brightens my day. (And not in the form of "Well, this is an awesomely bad idea.")
3. Observe the Two Week Rule: Ah, the 2 week rule. Just remember that anytime there's an internet controversy, it'll be forgotten about in 2 weeks. People will find other things to whine about. So, unless it's major (sayyyyy the Governor of NJ comes up with a loophole to turn all schools private in 8 seconds), it's very rarely worth spending a day and a half complaining about.
4. Odds Are, You Aren't Going to Fix It: You can spout off all you want. It ain't going to change because of the internet. You may be able to use the internet to save your favorite TV show. And people have used social media to organize. But complaining on the internet is like complaining to the mirror. Nothing's changing.
5. Be More Funny: Even when things bug me, I try to add a sense of humor to the situation. I'm sarcastic, but I try not to be mean (the couple of times I've been mean, I've gotten in trouble). Tell jokes, mock, be snarky... but don't just flat out complain.
I'm sure I've broken a few of these rules at times. Everyone does. But for the most part, keeping this in my mind helps keep me sane amongst the noise.
Monday, February 20, 2012
My take on Trestle and a few thoughts about Snubnose
In some of the post-mortems and in some of the posts written while the story was unfolding I think that some, perhaps, unfair charges were level against them in an attempt to gain distance quickly and to show examples of why they thought Trestle was hinky from the start. Some of them were: they were a one man operation, they approached authors, they didn't edit, they have a crappy website. I don't think that there is a need to create other charges to level against Trestle because the core ones are bad enough. These charges were potentially unfair because they may be applicable to other operations.
In sending out the State of the Union letter primarily I wanted to have a certain level of transparency with my authors but I also wanted to address head on some of the concerns that arose as a result of Trestle being exposed.
So this week, I decided to use my post time here at DSD to take a portion of the State of the Union letter public while adding some new thoughts as well.
One Man - One of the charges leveled at Trestle is that they were/are a one man operation. I think that this is unfortunate. As those of us that come from the crime short fiction scene know one man operations can fail or be successes, it just depends on the man. Snubnose is essentially a one man operation. While Jack and Sandra are co-owners I do the bulk of the work.
Until recently I worked for 6 years in the Accounts Receivable department for the book division of Diamond Comics Distributor. I worked multimillion dollar book store accounts going in one direction and with publishers going in the other direction. I was never under any false impressions of all of the things that went into running a press. It's a lot of work from editing and promoting to "office" things like monthly statements and making payments. It's hard work, but I knew it would be. I tell you this not as a way to show my bonafides but to show that I take all of this seriously.
Art - Snubnose has an art team that consists of Eric Beetner, Ben Springer, and Boden Steiner. Our covers are either original art/designs that were created by one of these guys or was used with art obtained from the web in a manner consistent with applicable rules and regulations. In other words we have credited where necessary; obtained permissions when necessary; and have had to pass on art because necessary permissions couldn't be secured in an equitable way.
Editing and Formatting - Another charge leveled against Trestle. Some manuscripts are going to require more editing then others. With short story collections if any of the stories have already been published I assume that they have been edited already so unless there is a factual mistake I don't do too much with them. I will always edit a manuscript to the best of my ability and as much as it needs. As far as formatting goes. If there ever is a concern with how Snubnose books are formatted please let me know. Related, I have a good eye for typos but still things slip through. If anyone ever sees a typo in a Snubnose book let me know. They are easily fixable with ebooks.
Soliciting authors - I regularly contact authors in an attempt to make sure that Snubnose Press is on their radar screens. I would be a fool too assume that everyone has heard of Snubnose so I work hard to touch base with people who probably haven't. If I read an ebook that was self published and I liked it I'll send the author a quick note saying so and to invite them to submit future works to Snubnose. I send authors emails when they make it publicly known that they have a manuscript and invite them to submit to Snubnose. These particular types of emails have resulted in Old Ghosts, City of Heretics, Andrew Nette's upcoming release and others. Perhaps the distinction is that I don't make promises and that I simply invite but an editor approaching an author isn't a bad thing.
Website - I'll be the first to admit that Snubnose doesn't have the best website. Since its inception Spinetingler's expenses have been paid for out of our pockets. We are trying to get to a point where book and magazine sales will fund Snubnose Press and Spinetingler so that we don't have to pay directly out of pocket any longer. One of the upgrades we can consider at that point is the website.
I'm always up front that Snubnose is a small operation. Other epublishers like Blasted Heath and Bare Knuckles have bigger operating budgets then we do. I'm not begrudging them that status and I love those guys. I think our stable of writers stands pound for pound with theirs and any others.
The bottom line is this. My door is always open. If there are ever any questions, comments or concerns don't ever hesitate to bring them to me. I said recently that you can tell a lot about a publisher by their response and I mean it.
Couple of Snubnose news items: Subs should be opening up again in a couple of months. We released our first novel, Hill Country by R Thomas Brown, last week. This week Old School by Dan O'Shea will drop. Every two weeks after that Nothing Matters by Steve Finbow, Cold Rifts by Sandra Seamans and The Duplicate by Helen Fitzgerald will all be released.
Currently listening - Alabama Shakes. Their ep can be streamed here and the full length album will be dropping soon and will be huge.
Currently reading - The Gamblers by Martin Stanley; Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg
Sunday, February 19, 2012
No one is alone...
Most jobs involve a to-do list—responsibilities that have to be taken care of on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Things that one specific person is in charge of. And yet—while one person is technically in charge, that doesn’t mean that one person has to do it all. Part of being a successful leader is knowing how and when to delegate. Recognizing the strength of others is a huge part of succeeding in the business world.
Too bad that isn’t true in writing. Oh—the book publishing business requires the ability to play nice with others. There are editors, copy editors, publicists, marketing folks, a sales team, book sellers, librarians, agents, etc… with whom a writer has to work closely with. But while they are an integral part of turning a manuscript into a book and getting those books into the hands of readers, they aren’t like the typical day job work team. You can’t delegate writing chapter 12 or ask them to finish writing the scene that is giving you fits. While you need others to get a book published, the writing part is up to you and you alone.
The job of an author can be a lonely one. You get up. Fire up the computer. Grab a cup of coffee. Shuttle through e-mails. Open up your word document (or whatever program you type in) and start to write. Some days the words come easy. Some days typing new words feels like pulling teeth. Sure there is Twitter and Facebook to occupy your time when you haven’t a freaking clue where the story is going, but while conversing with other writers and with readers is fun, it doesn’t help put words on the page. The people you chat with on social media can be great cheerleaders, but they can’t write the story. Only you can do that.
So you make yourself type no matter how tired you are. No matter how sad the events of your life or how much you’d rather be doing something else. You write because you have contractual obligations or you hope to have them one day. You write because writing is your job.
I admit that there are days that despite my fascination with the characters bopping around on the page, the job of writing feels very lonely. That the end of a manuscript seems very far away and that I feel that I am inadequate and will never get there. No matter how motivated I am to fill the pages—the words come slowly and I wish I could find someone to help meet my obligations.
Only no one can.
Only I can do that.
At one o’clock in the morning, that realization can make me feel very, very alone.
And yet – there is something pretty amazing about knowing only I can do what I do. There are lots of writers out there. Writers whose work I greatly admire. And while they do what they do brilliantly, they cannot write my story. Sure, I could give them the basic premise and they could write A story…but not my story. Only, I can do that.
So, at the moments where I am feeling the most isolation, I log onto Twitter and Facebook or pull one of my favorite keeper books off the shelf and remind myself that while my work requires a kind of isolation I am not alone. There are hundreds and thousands of writers feeling the same fears and the same inadequacies…possibly the same authors whose books I have read over and over again. That we all have to face the fear of sitting down at a blank page with the obligation of filling it. And that in the end we all find a way to do just that.