I’ve written a few sort of micro stories as a result of some writing workshops I’ve taken. I’m going to begin with one I wrote at Citywrights, a playwrighting conference held in Miami. We were lucky to have playwright Leslie Ayvazian leading the workshop, a warm, kind, and brilliant woman.
Leslie gave us the prompt: “I knew…”
That I was happy.
That the day would be hot. Right now the air was moist and warm and full of grass, flowers and bird song. I knew I was hungry and that I could climb into my red sunsuit. My diaper would not budge and made a strange sucking sound when I tried to pull it off, and a bad smell emitted from it. So I decided to let it be. My sunsuit was in the dirty clothes hamper, but I wanted to wear it; I knew I looked good in it. So I pulled it out and struggled into it. I knew I could fasten it, but it was hard.
Everyone was still asleep, I knew, so I must make my own breakfast—saltines with P&J. I knew first we eat breakfast, my mother always said. After breakfast, I climbed on the counter and stretched for the backdoor’s lock. The lock had 2 parts, a knob you had to push up while you at the same time had to turn another knob. This was tricky, especially precariously balancing leaning most of the way out from the high counter. Success achieved–I knew I could do this, I’d done it often enough–I climbed down from the counter, out the door, and down the stairs to pure freedom.
For the past two years I have been attending plays all around my Miami, studying the theater’s voices. Miami is unusual in that the minority of people are white with English as a first language. I’ve been studying the audiences, too. There are four distinct audiences that financially support their culture’s representation in theater: white American older women, Latins, Hindustanis, and Russians. The immigrant groups are not afraid of the new, since they have chosen and succeeded in coming to a new home. The white women are not afraid of the new, they lived enough of life to know to be intrigued by difference. What these groups do wish for is the familiar within the new.
The subjects of interest to these groups do not lie the areas men like to write about–war, heroes, rejection of the mother. Instead they are interested in themes of coping with unfamiliar customs, issues of freedom, mother-daughter relationships, mother-oriented interactions with society, and romances. For instance, the Women’s Theater Project did a play about 2 female elephants that lived in an American zoo and had to be moved to another zoo though the elephants were afraid to go. Here we had two characters who had been thrust into a foreign land and were now being asked to undergo yet another drastic change. One of the elephants was young and had been ripped from her mother during her capture. This play, well done, was sold out at every performance. Part of its success, I think, was that it touched on so many themes of interest to South Florida audiences. I think stories that look at the world from women’s perspectives are more often stories that are new in view while maintaining a familiar core. They are stories that understand the heroic effort of getting up each day to face a world that is always, day in and day out, going to be just slanted a bit on the side of condesion and hostility towards you because you are not male (or not English speaking or not white or are white).
I want to give the new with a familiar base, that gentle familiar base we all first learned from our mothers, and so we may find our common ground. I want to choose my season so that Miami can continue to teach me rather than me assuming I am the one to teach the audience.
Each week I bring three pages of Foreshadow: Book One of the Saga of the Romance of the Dragon-Born to the writer’s workshop I am attending. I read the three pages aloud while the other writers read it. No matter how long I have worked on this book (more than a year) the other writer’s always spot things for me to correct: typo’s, overly repeated words, words that have been capitalized and should not be and thus and such. I too, when I read, find things I want to fix, even to cut. My fellow writers also give me feedback on the story, elements they want more of, what confuses them for the moment, questions about the story that are revealed later (they are hooked!). I also take the story to the writer’s meet-up I attend, though in the writer’s meetup the other writers don’t read along; they just listen. Reading my work aloud to sympathetic yet critical listeners is, I find, one of the best ways to improve my writing. They are sympathetic in that they know how much effort goes into writing and how much courage it takes to risk letting others hear it in its developing stages. They are critical in that they let me know of the errors in the manuscript and if a section works for them or not. It’s an enjoyable and exciting process. I love seeing their reactions, knowing their reactions are a preview to how readers will react when the book is published. It’s exciting to me to see how my work improves so much thanks to their input. Thanks to these writers who are willing to listen to my work, Foreshadow: Book One of the Saga of the Romance of the Dragon-Born is unfolding!
As an extroverted introvert, I have a public face, public voice that rings with “pear shaped tones” per my training in the theater. My private face, my private voice, hmm, there’s a bunch of them. Playwrighting teachers say that’s perfectly normal for playwrights. Psychologists tend to think so long as it doesn’t interfere with getting on with your life, it’s fine. So this thing of finding your voice is more like choosing your voice or not letting the aggrieved-with-the-world voice slip in to mess up the fun voice I want to play with. I’m reminded of my lawyer, an amiable, tenor voiced person. He deepens and resonates his voice when he wants to put the fear of the law into you. He calls it his “big pants voice.”
I’m thinking we playwrights–I’m a member of the Dramatists Guild–are a rather severe type of extroverted-introverts. Think of it, we are tucked away writing, and we emerge not to speak, but to make other people speak out loud in front of a big audience, preferably lots of big audiences! Perhaps we are extro-egoverted-introverts. I’m musing this because I am in the process of opening a small black box theater. I’m hiring an independent contractor publicist and she, and I have been writing her contract. I just sent it to my lawyer. He says it “needs lots of polishing.” As a playwright, as a novelist, I know all about that annoying polishing. Indeed, in my fantasy, Foreshadow, Book One of the Saga of Dragon-Born I found two pages where practically every third word is capitalized. How did this glut of capitals happen? Do other extroverted-introvert authors have the bad habit of emulating Victorian novels by capitalizing all sorts non-worthy-of-capitals-words?
My writing workshop instructor was talking to us about “blog personas.” Now this was something that really grabbed my fancy because, well, I don’t think I have one. It seems to me that it would be a good thing to have, a Blog Persona. There are some of us whom psychologists call “extroverted introverts” which means shy people hiding behind a façade of extroversion. Many actors are extroverted introverts; they love to be in the limelight but really are quite introspective and retiring. I’m an extroverted introvert. My first reaction to being asked to write or speak is “What should I say?” “What should I say” and having to talk to strangers can be so worrying, so intimidating that at times, often in my inadequately spent days of green girl years that not knowing, the saying did not get said. The pizza did not get ordered—I’d have to talk to a stranger and what should I say? I’m only going to admit to not ordering pizza on the phone. I’ll leave the other things I couldn’t figure out how to say and the people whom I should have spoken to and did not to your merciful (please?) imagination. I suspect a lot of bloggers must be extroverted introverts. Think of it. You don’t really have to face any stranger and you can say what is in your head and assume no one is going to read it—and if anyone does, they aren’t really real are they? You can’t see all those internet people or hear their voices. So how do you know if any of them are lovers of fantasy sagas? I work on my fantasy Foreshadow: Book One of the Saga of the Dragon-Born anyway.
My writing workshop teacher was in one of her food moods (class is at dinner time) and thought bananas would be a good topic to relax us into humorous writing. So this is the bit I wrote about bananas:
Bananas—silent film farces with funny bits about slipping on bananas; the joke about the insulted mother on the bus–the driver promising to get a banana for her monkey; the shape of bananas food for much risqué humor. But bananas are delicious! Though whenever I admire someone’s banana tree my husband ominously intones how the smell of bananas draws snakes. I like my bananas a bit green. In MA, where I grew up, groceries always sell them a bit green, so slightly green bananas are what I got used to eating. My Latin husband laughs at that. So many lovely deserts have bananas. My father for his birthday always wanted banana layer cake, yellow cake iced with meringue and bananas set between the layers and on top, left to sit covered in the fridge overnight so the flavors could “swap” as my mother described it. Then there are banana boats and banana hot fudge Sundays, bananas dipped in chocolate and frozen, bananas with hot fudge and nuts, bananas with peanut butter…
Bananas are a good food to eat while writing. If you become engrossed in your work, the banana does not get too cold or too hot because it was room temperature to begin with. Yes, a banana sprawling out of its peel sits on my desk while I work on my fantasy, Foreshadow: Book One of The Saga of Draon-Born. Isn’t that sneaky how I slipped in my fantasy with bananas?
My writing teacher read us a blog piece where a Miami agent had heard from an editor, “If only the writer were younger.” The editor used the writer’s age as a reason to turn down a manuscript she liked. This made the Miami agent wonder if writing were “a young man’s game.” This another reason why traditional publishing is in trouble. When young men are chosen over other writers merely because of their age and sex, it is no wonder so many authors are skipping the traditional publishing route entirely. A recent survey of prestigious review journals and newspapers revealed that not only are men’s books reviewed more often than women’s, but journals and newspapers assign most reviews to male writers. This is insane. Women are the readers, buying far more books than men. Romance novels alone are about fifty percent of all fiction sales in the US. And who can tell whether the author is young or old unless the publisher makes a point of touting the author’s age? Most of the great literature is not written by the young; it is written by middle aged people. With most writers coming into their greatest power in their middle age.
Not only are women most of the readers, but today’s young men are not prejudiced against female authors. With women and young men willing to read women’s writing, whether it be reviews, articles, or novels, traditional publishers and book stores would behoove themselves to get with the new millennium and select writing by quality not by author age, not by author gender.
I’ve moved to a different part of Miami, and so I’ve been attending this writers’ workshop to get to know people here and, of course, for what the workshop offers. I also attended a wonderful playwrights’ conference in Miami in June, Citywrights, and this conference included writing workshops. What the local workshop and the convention workshop had in common was that we “wrighters” (variant spelling to show the sense of crafting and suffering like the word “playwright” does) were given little writing assignments to accomplish in ten minutes, the assignments then being read aloud. Now my blogging has been really sporadic, partly because I write these long blogs that take a long time to write (more than ten minutes). I know blogs need not, perhaps should not, be so long, and I’m thinking all these little workshop assignments make great blogging material. The assignments were carefully thought out by the instructors, so the assignments were fun to do. I’m going to post them, one each few days. Other bloggers might find the assignments worth trying which could be a lot of fun as a sort of “Trading Fours” (jazz term) of blogging. Also, I don’t know how other writers feel, but I often feel that blogging takes up time from my touching up Foreshadow, Book One of the Saga of the Dragon Born and working on the rough draft of The Contending, Book Two of the Saga of Dragon Born. Then when I don’t blog, I feel I am neglecting this amusing avenue of expression which blogging is. Now I have a way to keep up on blogs and write my fantasy saga too!
Considering how many fine writers, how many great story-tellers, there are in the US, I think we, as a nation, should work to create more star authors. The ratio between very famous authors to “midlist” authors is pretty vast, too vast. The ratio between star authors and struggling authors “paying their dues” (living in poverty and starving or doing a really boring day job) is staggering in its enormity.
I have been reading Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer, and Lehrer points out we know how to foster creativity and we know how to foster an environment that creates and pays highly many, many great athletes. When I was in high school, the student body attended an assembly every single week which was devoted to promoting the school football team. Of course this team was all male, used very expensive equipment (while our library had few books), and there were no sports teams for girls until some girls fought to have a girls’ basketball team–which was not celebrated every single week. There were cheerleaders for the football team, and the school band existed to laud the football team, band and cheerleaders performing every week at the football rally as well as at the football games. Pay attention to that, students learning music, learning to play musical instruments, were secondary in status to boys throwing a ball around and tackling each other. The boys who could throw a ball around and tackle each other knew that there were lucrative college scholarships and careers awaiting them, even if they couldn’t read, let alone read music. My hometown produced football champion Doug Flutie (who was a wiz at arithmetic), maintaining the town motto “Home of Champions.”
The school provided an enormous budget for the football team, required attendance to all weekly football rallies, and devoted the school band and the primary female athletic group—the cheerleaders—to performing for the football rallies and games. As a student, I protested that I was forced to miss my English class every week for the sake of the football team. The school listened and changed class schedules so they would rotate so we would not miss state required educational classes to attend a football rally. I also asked that there be a rally complete with band music for our award winning competitive speech team. That was flatly denied.
What if those compulsory weekly rallies had lauded the band members for their music, the cheerleaders for their routines, the competitive speech team for its wins, and the students receiving high grades in English? What if that enormous football budget were spent on the library (as a group of teachers and parents advocated) and on extracurricular writing programs led by a specially trained writing coach. Suppose high schools performed the students’ plays as frequently as high school football teams have games. Consider an America where the students of English would know that colleges would fight over them, luring them with lucrative scholarships for bringing prestige to the colleges for the stories and articles printed in the college newspaper and literary journals. As soon as the student writers graduated, publishers and newspapers would pounce on these rising stars of letters with lucrative contracts because of the huge dollars great books and great journalism bring. Instead of building stadiums for boys to throw balls and tackle each other, cities would build complexes of auditoriums and theaters so the crowds could hear their favorite authors speak, read their works, and have troupes perform their plays more often than once a year at the book fair. Cities and towns would take pride in their local journalists, authors, and playwrights and brag on them with town mottos like “Home of the Eloquent,” “Home of Authors,” “Home of Literary Luminaries.” Many more great writers would achieve stardom. Best of all, America would become literate!
The boys who throw balls and tackle each other would be expected to “pay their dues”(live in poverty and starve or hold a mind-taxing day job till they get their big break) if they insist on becoming pro-football players.
There is much speculation these days about whether the publishing industry will survive. Many seem to fear that since authors can self-publish, publishers will be done away with. Notables in the publishing world—editors, authors, publishers—maintain that the publishing industry will survive because they serve as the gate keepers, allowing talented and skilled writers into their company and keeping the untalented and unskilled out. They point out that bestselling Indie books are usually terrible and that the good Indie books (there must be some, right?) are too hard to find. These assertions are true, so what is the problem? Something must be going wrong since so many writers are turning to self-publishing and because books sales have been dropping for such a long time.
I think there is a blend of problems that has led to the shaky ground the book publishing industry is on. The publishing industry is doing nothing to nurture new writers. The publishing industry has allowed marketers to make the final decisions about book aquisitions. The publishing industry chooses to create “star” writers and pay them millions in advances and advertise the stars’ books heavily while “midlist” authors (all the other authors) are paid about $5k as an advance and scant marketing is given to their books. Further, marketin, follows a simple to-do list, without revising their marketing strategies or creating new marketing strategies. Marketing does not work to predict reading trends, they simply react after the fact. For instance, in the US, the No Child Left Behind Act, enraged many teachers who resented having to abide by the laws’ requirement of regular testing of students to determine children were learning and how many children were learning. The rage in these teachers produced a generation who refuse to read. These students did learn to read, but would only read Manga. If you have several years where children are taught to resent reading, then you are going to have a significant drop in book buying when these children grow up which is precisely what happened. Manga sales went up, other books sales went way down. It has been a few years since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed, and by now either teachers have become used to the new procedures or new teachers have been hired to replace the old ones. Indeed, at least one principal fired all of his teachers because they did not bring up student scores. Now, unsurprisingly, Young Adult books are taking more and more shelves in bookstores. Teens are reading. Marketing should predict a future increase in all books because these reading teens will surely become reading adults. Way to go teachers!
So let’s look at the next issue. Why are writers self-publishing their books? I think we can safely assume that by and large they self publish because no publishers have accepted their books for publication. This will mean two things: one, that editors are turning down many bad books; and two, marketing, which has the final say in which books are acquired for publication, are turning down good books and choosing bad ones. Some of the bad books have some very good elements and good sections. These are writers with potential left to flounder on their own with their craft. They know they have talent, so they self-publish. Then there are the very good books that marketing nixes while at the same time accepting bad books that they know how to market according to their checklist—pigeon hole the genre, send out x many copies for reviews to these few reviewers, and send out fliers to these bookstore chains. The good books rejected by the publishing industry are then self-published by their authors because these authors want their books published. However, individual authors usually do not have the means to advertise their books sufficiently to be noticed and bring the appropriate revenue for their talent, skill, and work.
This boils down to three basic problems. There is not enough help for beginning writers; publishers need to improve their percentages of good books they choose over the bad ones they choose; and authors of quality Indie books do not have the means to make their books known. Clearly the best means of solving these three problems is through big publishers. Marketing having the final say of whether a book will be chosen for publication or not is a practice which has, I think, been directly responsible for much of the problems publishers face. Marketers are not trained in literature. Editors are. Publishers must return to the practice of head editors making the final decisions on what books are to be published. Next, the publishing practice of creating star authors who are paid one, two, even three million dollars in advances while those slated for “midlist” are paid about $5K for an advance and receive very little marketing of their books must be stopped. Marketing needs to start tracking literacy trends so that they can predict what markets will be broadening (and which shrinking) and hire more sales personal to make presentations about titles and establish more venues for sales. It used to be all sorts of shops would sell books, not just one big chain of bookstores and a few independent bookstores. Drugstores, dollar stores (once called dime stores), specialty shops all sold books. Every business school will tell you that a person who talks to you and puts a book in your hands will drive up more sales than just sending out a flier. A sales force works to bring in revenue.
In addition to making editors in charge of acquisitions and marketing strategizing for future sales and sales personal to sell the books, publishers need to invest in new writers. Publishers can nurture new authors and make money doing so. Since marketing will be predicting reading trends, not just trying to keep abreast of them, marketing will know what types of books will sell well. Publishers should open work-for-hire divisions focused on the genres that sell the best. For these work-for-hire divisions, authors would be contracted to write novels for a set number of years where they must meet deadlines, produce a set number of books, receive a livable salary, and do not receive royalties. The contract can include that another author in the bevy of work-for-hire writers can be assigned to any book to ensure its timely completion. Editors would oversee the writing of the novels; they would edit. At the end of the contracted time, the writer can be let go; the writer can be offered another contract; or the author can opt to turn to royalty paying contracts from whatever publisher wants to take the author on. This would be a very good deal for new authors and publishers because when an author in this work-for-hire bevy writes what proves to be a best seller, the publisher can pay everyone’s salary in the division and the author knows that in a few years either she’ll definitely be re-contracted for the bevy or can go for the royalty contracts.
Only the big publishers have the ability to acquire many titles, market many titles, set a big sales force in motion, and hire large numbers of the best editors. This is why publishing with big publishers will always be the best option for authors–if publishers will return decisions of acquisitions to those trained to make those decisions–editors, and if publishers establish a system for nurturing more new writers until those writers become steady producers of good writing. By hiring more great editors, acquiring more good books, hiring writers with talent, and requiring marketing to strategize and sell effectively, publishing will continue to be a valued and needed industry.
I would like to add that since corporations in the US are allowed to donate money to public schools, it would behoove the publishing giants to do so when cities and towns fall short of the funds they need to keep their excellent grade school reading teachers and middle and high school English teachers. If there are too few good teachers then there will be few book sales for years.