Leftover words

It used to be the case that when a writer passed away you could sometimes find unpublished works tucked into drawers or safes, hidden under beds, stuffed behind sofas. The debris of ideas that could have been. These were often accompanied by notebooks filled with writing notes, some detailed enough that they were, at times, thought to warrant publication in their own right. Thinkers seem to fill this category with both Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger having their notebooks published basically as the notebooks they were (Blue and Brown for the former, Black for the latter), and alternatively with Friedrich Nietzsche’s being worked into the posthumous book The Will to Power. Then too in the world of fiction we have unpublished stories, ideas, chapters, plans, being worked into books and series by the sons of well-known authors. Christopher Tolkien’s editorial work on his famous father’s manuscripts has won the thanks of many a Middle-earth fan, while the same could perhaps not be said about Brian Herbert’s work (with Kevin J. Anderson) on the elder Herbert’s Dune series (I for one couldn’t even make it through the Prelude trilogy and I inhaled Frank Herbert’s Dune books like a drowning person who has just managed to surface gasps for air).

Nowadays things are different of course but I’d wager that a look through any writer’s cloud files or USB memory sticks will reveal many a typed word that is destined for nowhere. I have a full finished novel, a third of a novel, scattered chapters for two other works, and a complete storyline for a book-length comic that are bound to be wearily deleted by my daughter after I’m dead and that’s just what comes to mind without looking. I’m sure my fellow soda jerks would concur with this and maybe also mention the related topic of the work they’ve lost into the ether or had eaten by the back seats of taxis while cruising around Seoul. What are we to do with all these leftovers?

It’s a good question. Heidegger never intended for his notebook to be published, Nietzsche clearly had plans to publish his but in a reworked way, and given Wittgenstein’s attitude towards publishing I’m not sure if we can say one way or the other how he might have felt. On the other hand, Frank Herbert had wanted to do four more books in his original Dune line but they were set to take place after the end of his sixth – which turned out to be his last – while the posthumous work based on Dune that we have takes place before, during, and after the original saga. As with Wittgenstein I’m not sure how J.R.R. Tolkien would have felt about The Silmarillion but that work does, I believe, stand on its own (and credit where it’s due for the editing work). What is interesting is that, unlike what Plato did with the tragedies he wrote in his pre-philosophy days, none of these people actually destroyed the work they chose not to do anything further with. It is possible that each saw value in the writing but that they considered such value to either not be of a high enough level such that they wished to release it or that the value contained was of a more personal and emotional sort. In my case I suppose I haven’t deleted my old files for the latter reason, although there is probably the idea lurking somewhere in me that some part or parts of those abandoned projects might possibly be salvageable in some yet to be determined way at some (far off?) future date. All of that writing and thinking was of course good practice, and any writer worth their salt will have at least some dead piles of pages (or bytes) pushing up daisies, and more perhaps need not be said. Well, just this: a lot of those early works of mine are better left locked away; I will admit to that.

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On melancholy

Happiness is not a writer’s friend. When looked at in a way that extends beyond the blinkers of one’s narrow and necessarily personalized day-to-day the world can seem a horrible place. What’s more, underneath all of the tragedies that greet us our human condition is one of servitude, in one way or another. And this inescapably so, be it to ideology, community, economics, social obligations, domestic concerns, even simple biology. In the midst of this our fundamental mode of being has become the pursuit of distraction; “I can deal with some psychic pain/If it’ll slow down my higher brain” as Elliott Smith once sang. We have learned, or been trained – however you wish to see it – to get out of our heads, to equip ourselves with full sets of answers prepackaged and ready for consumption, to journey through our time in as unthinking and as artificially high a way as possible. Put succinctly, we escape. Each and every day of our lives. Except for the writer.

The writer is not allowed this luxury for the writer is called upon to observe. The writer must stare down the reality that faces him or her in the place and position of her birth, from within the society out of which he pulled himself to turn back and stare at it. The writer must look into that awful gaping maw and withstand the stench of what rots within, internalize all of the pain and longing, and then somehow, in some unspoken manner, process it and reflect it back. The writer must remain raw. Towards this end I think that melancholy is the writer’s best friend.

What is remarkable about melancholy is that it is more of a mood than an emotion, it is the background colors to the painting whose detailed foreground demands our attention. Joy, grief, anger; they consume us, they leave us blinded to all else, they demand – and get – our full awareness for their entire duration. Melancholy does not do this. Melancholy rests beneath the surface and prods all of the more well-known, well-felt, emotions into being. Melancholy keeps the façade of our emotional lives alive with the ripples of the experienced; it is a constant reminder of the depths that lurk beneath, an open sore, an old injury that no amount of tending will ever really make go away. Melancholy keeps us emotionally sensitive to all the vicissitudes of life.

Why would we want this? Why would we wish to know all the pain that marks existence? Why would we seek to carry the hurt that, once born, exists in some way forever? And are we not the very purveyors of at least some of the entertainment that allows others their escape from “real life”? I have no answers to these questions that range beyond what I can say for myself. Each writer will have to struggle with them and, if writing is truly something they cannot but do, find some method of acceptance of the responses that come from within. These questions do, however, provide a challenge to us in our approach to this burden that we find on our shoulders: If writing, if the writing life, is an ineluctable part of who we are, then how shall we approach it? As the blind leading the blind, filling the world with pointless drivel? Or as fashioners of the mirror which frighteningly does not distort what it reflects? That is another question we can only answer for ourselves, but I know how the writers that have stayed with me would reply. It takes courage and nerve to really look at the world and say what needs to be said; melancholy is the cold comfort that results, and it is also the ally that allows us to continue.

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On intention

A few months back Nick wrote a very interesting post on hidden meanings within Stanley Kubrick’s films, especially 2001: A Space Odyssey. As Nick points out, there are layers of clues and subtle communications within Kubrick’s works, some of which may not have been intended for the average viewer at all but rather aimed at a subset of viewers. Artistically this is a very intriguing concept.

As anyone who has walked into a bookstore within the past decade (or even more) will know, mysteries sell very well, particularly when done in a suspenseful, “page-turning” way. The really successful of these will spell everything out for the reader in a satisfying and gratifying way such that when the book ends all questions have been answered and even if you didn’t figure it out beforehand now you know and can, in a sense, congratulate yourself on knowing. Some examples of books like this have surely already sprung to mind as you make your way through this post (and if you’re a regular reader of DSB you probably know the title I have in mind, it’s a favorite target of mine). Such works are of course quite different from what Kubrick was doing and the varying methodologies point to an interesting question: How should we think about the reader’s interpretation of our writing?

It is inevitable that some interpretation will occur. Language is at best an imperfect medium for the transmission of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences that compose and mark our internal lives. Add to that the mental filters that get placed on top when we translate or read a translation and the challenges that a writer faces increase. I assume that most readers of our blog are either native speakers of English or have studied English extensively; does that mean that I take it for granted that what I’m trying to say in each post I write is fully understood exactly as I wish it to be understood? Should I? To do so would be to invite folly (read the last paragraph of this post and the comments that follow). On the site’s front page here I try to be as explicit as possible due to the nature of the writing involved but I realize that there will, at times, be a disconnect or that I will fail to adequately phrase what I mean. I may even be doing so right now. My approach to fiction is however quite different. There I sometimes purposefully choose to engage in subterfuge or to place a hint on one page that refers to something much later or that is expanded on via another clue much later. I invite misinterpretation. As Nick pointed out, Kubrick did the same. (To be clear in the midst of the enveloping fog this is becoming: I do not by any stretch of the imagination wish to put myself in the same category as Kubrick. If I could have met the man I think I would have fallen on the floor.) What would be the point of doing so?

Here is where things get really interesting. If a writer intends to mislead, misdirect, or hoodwink a reader that is one thing; if a writer intends to be subtly vague such that misinterpretation might occur for some while correct interpretation occurs for others that is something else. That is burying a mental “choose your own adventure” within the foundation of your book/piece without ever asking the reader to turn to a certain page to “find out”. That is writing for an audience while at the same time writing for a subaudience; that is considering the reader’s interpretation of your work to be a part of the work itself. If art is something that cannot ever really be defined (and a look at the history of what is considered to be art and the seemingly endless philosophical discussions on defining art appear to indicate that such is the case) then arguably leaving things open is in a way demanded by the process of creating art itself. As you write then, ask yourself this: Am I intentionally creating a work of art or am I intending to do something much different? How you answer that will help you plan and structure your work, and it will help you answer that most nagging question of all.

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9 Tips to Help Ensure E-Book Success

This week is our second installment from James A. Rose on self-publishing and marketing tips. Be sure to check out his post last week too in case you missed it. Thanks James! We’ll be back to our usual stuff next week with a look at author intentions.

Indie e-book publishing has exploded in recent years and for good reason. It is the best method for new authors on a limited budget to introduce their book to as many potential readers as possible. Right from your home office you can upload your book to multiple retail marketplaces with potential consumer exposure in the millions. E-book publishing is also a great way to test the waters before you invest in a short print run. Don’t get too excited just yet. Most e-books go nowhere but there are some steps you can take that will ensure your new e-book has the best possible chance for success.


The first and most obvious consideration is overall book quality. Just because the self-publishing business model allows anybody the opportunity to publish a book does not mean that everybody should. You will need to pretend you are the person in charge of acquisitions at a traditional publishing house when you evaluate your own book. Better yet, get some review copies printed and send them to people not so close to you for honest reviews. The bottom line is that if your book is no good, it won’t take long for people to figure it out so make sure it is good.


Edit your book like NASA edits a new launch. Pretend that a typo will gets somebody killed. You edit, get a friend to edit and then have it professionally edited. You may not think a few misspelled words or missing commas are important but historical sales figures have proven that these are indeed major determinants of success.


There is a plethora of information about what constitutes a good book cover and for good reason. The importance of a quality cover cannot be overstated. I have seen the same book increase in sales over 100 fold just from changing the cover. Five hundred dollars for a cover may seem like a lot of money but it is really not when you consider how imperative it is.


Almost as important as the cover is the description or the “blurb” as it is so annoyingly referred to in the publishing industry. The description is your chance in two paragraphs to entice the potential reader. It should provide a clear idea of what the book is about and why the reader should care. You can compare it to a movie preview. In 90 seconds a movie preview will filter out all those not interested while sparking the interest of those that are. Target your book description to your specific genre and provide some substance.


Expose your book to as many consumers as possible. Avoid exclusivity contracts. If you must sign one, make sure the exclusive resell rights expire after no longer than ninety days. You have to be on Kindle Direct; that’s a given. Optimally you will also be on B&N Nook Press, Apple iBookstore, Kobo and Google Play.


Practice perfect pricing. Price too high and no one will want to spend that much to take a chance on an unknown. Price too low and your book will come across as junk and will be tossed into the e-garbage along with all the e-books written by get rich quick internet marketers. Fortunately, there is strong precedence for how you should price your e-book. Don’t break the mold. Stick with what works. This range will be $2.99 to $5.99. If you are an unknown then go low. If you are already relatively well known in your field then you can move to the higher end of the range. Those prices may seem low but with e-books, volume is way more important than per unit profit.


Wherever possible let readers preview the first chapter. This will give them the opportunity to see that you write at a quality level and to also hopefully get drawn in to the story.

Free copies are a great way to improve sales. It sounds counterintuitive but it is true. I’ll explain why in the next section. If you have written several books then consider giving away the first one for free on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. If this is your first book then consider running a free giveaway promotional period. I know KDP has this feature built in. This is because it works.

Word of Mouth

Word of mouth will be your best form of advertising. Your marketing budget is likely limited so word of mouth will also be a necessity. The key to successful word of mouth marketing is writing a good book and targeting a specific genre. Science fiction fans are passionate about science fiction and romance fans obviously passionate about romance. Don’t try to reach a diverse audience. Achieving the viral effect is the main reason for the previously mentioned free giveaway promotion. Don’t forget that these original recipients of free copies will be your best primary source of reviews which can also immensely help sales.


The final piece of advice is to think globally. International shipping of physical products can be somewhat prohibitive but not e-books. Have your book translated into as many languages as possible and post to international marketplaces. There is just no reason not to.


A good e-book should be evergreen, meaning it will be perpetually relevant. If sales are slow at first, don’t fret. You have plenty time to build an audience. Don’t let an incessant obsession with marketing distract you from writing your next book and don’t forget that many writers don’t find success until their third or fourth book. So the best piece of advice for ensuring e-book success is just to not give up.

James A. Rose is a writer for InstantPublisher.com, a self-publishing company that has been helping authors bring their visions to life for the past 15 years. He has worked in the book publishing industry since 2010 and during that time he has seen pretty much every problem that authors encounter during the self-publishing process. It is James’ goal to utilize his experience at Instant Publisher to help budding authors avoid common mistakes and self-publish the best book possible.



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8 Tips to Boost your Self-Published Book

This week and next week James A. Rose has very kindly offered to do some guest posts for us about writing and the self-publishing process, specifically as regards marketing. Thanks again James for some wonderful nuts and bolts stuff!

As if the undertaking of the monumental task of writing a book was not enough; marketing the book on a limited budget has the potential to be an even bigger challenge if you let it. There are quite a few marketing tactics you can use to promote your book but you don’t have to use all of them. Some may be more suited to your skills or budget than others. They key is to be proactive. When starting out, just focus on one or two methods.

  1. Build a website. This is vital and priority number one. You need a showcase for your work. The many content management platforms out there make this a very achievable task but if time is an issue, it can be outsourced for a reasonable cost. Your site will not only be a place to exhibit your book/s but will also be a forum where you can build your personal brand, express ideas and engage your audience.


  1. Establish your target market. Your marketing efforts will be wasted on the wrong demographic. You’ll need to tailor your message to this specific market segment. Think about what images and colors would be appropriate in ads. Where do these people hang out online? Your budget is likely limited so this step is important to make sure as little effort is wasted as possible.


  1. Give away some free eBook copies and ask for an honest review on Amazon in exchange. Do this prior to launch so the reviews already exist on launch day. Be sure to get email addresses as some of these initial readers may need a polite reminder about leaving a review. Giving away free copies is also a great way to generate word of mouth. Some of these initial recipients may have a blog or a strong presence on social media. They say word of mouth is the best advertising.


  1. Buy ads on relevant sites. Preferably image ads on independent sites that focus on various aspects of writing or reading. You can also seek placement on corporate sites such as Bookbub.com. The more traffic a site gets, the more expensive the ads will be but a minimum two week run the week before release and the week after should suffice.


  1. Utilize social media. If you are already a social media whiz then you likely have a lot of friends and followers. This existing base is great way to elicit more word of mouth advertising. Actively engage with people on a regular basis. Social media is also a venue for cheap paid advertising. You’re in luck because of the nature of what you will be promoting. People go onto social media sites to be entertained. This is why traditionally some businesses like Bob’s Auto Glass Repair have struggled to see any tangible results from paid social media advertising but your new book is the perfect subject for a social media campaign as it falls directly in line with people’s desire to be entertained.


  1. Write for related blogs. You’re undoubtedly a proficient writer so capitalize on those skills and offer to write articles for blogs targeted at writing and reading enthusiasts. Blog owners are usually overworked and will happily accept guest post submissions, especially from an accomplished author. Include a few links to your book and you’ll have some quality free traffic while building your reputation as a professional.


  1. Seek interview opportunities either on podcasts or in written form on blogs. You’d be surprised at how many people listen to some of these small podcasts you’ve likely never heard of. Most podcast hosts and blog owners will welcome an interview opportunity with a published author.


  1. Set realistic goals and proper scheduling. If your marketing experience and budget are low then don’t take on more than you can handle. Also be sure to keep a calendar to keep track of all your interview dates, ad schedules, posting times, etc. Know what will run in the weeks before the book launch and what will run after.

Hopefully this guide will help set you in the right direction for promoting your next book. It is by no means an exhaustive list but does cover some of the most effective methods. As a self-publisher you will need to learn to think like an agent for a trade publisher. If writing for writing’s sake is your primary motivator then that is fine but if you want to make a living as an author then you’ll have to learn to put feelings aside and look at the numbers. Your book is a product and you’re a business owner. There’s no shame in shameless self-promotion so don’t give up.

James A. Rose is a writer for InstantPublisher.com, a self-publishing company that has been helping authors bring their visions to life for the past 15 years. He has worked in the book publishing industry since 2010 and during that time he has seen pretty much every problem that authors encounter during the self-publishing process. It is James’ goal to utilize his experience at Instant Publisher to help budding authors avoid common mistakes and self-publish the best book possible.



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Roots: The rise of the magazine

In my last post I wrote about the centuries long tradition of self-pubbing that we stand in and the spirit that underlies it. In writing that piece I started to think about the advent of the so-called gatekeepers, those agents and owners and editors who decide what is likely to make them money and by so doing become the default judges of what written works the public has access to, what people are able to buy and therefore able to read. Until the last two decades or so this process also resulted in a form of default censorship, and even to some extent self-censorship as authors trying to make a living by their craft turned to “safe bets” and “sure sells”. How did all of this come about? It seems to have grown quite organically and in the process developed a robust potency that has long since kept the system in place. A disclaimer at this point: I don’t have the time to do in-depth research on the topic and so the following should be considered informed speculation. Still, I think that from what I’ve been able to piece together the real driving force behind these trends was the magazine.

The first example of what we’d call a magazine seems to have appeared in Germany in 1663, although the form didn’t really get underway until the mid nineteenth century. Initial runs were of course small and used moveable wooden blocks in the printing procedures (as was done with all printing) but as the mechanized side developed bigger and cheaper to produce runs became increasingly possible. This led to a need for content, and not just any old content but content that would sell; the more the better, of course. Popular writers were therefore called in to provide material and could claim very nice wages for their work. Mark Twain was an early and well-known example of such. While newspapers claimed to objectively relate the events of the day magazines allowed for much broader topics to be discussed and had no need to pretend to be objective. Indeed, by appealing to a certain segment of the population sales were more likely to be secured, and hence all of the specialization that continues to this day started to take root.

Writers coming of age in a time when magazines had already entrenched themselves began to see the format as a good way to get started. After all, writing a book takes years of hard work and if you are an unknown there can be no guarantees that all of that toil will even remotely pay off (this of course remains the case). Kurt Vonnegut is another well-known example of this later type of writer. Magazines started receiving queries about submitting their writing from authors wanting to get paid, or even the writing proper with no questions asked prior to submission. When any particular magazine received enough of these submissions such that supply outpaced demand a sorting process had to be introduced. The most popular magazines naturally received more submissions than those less in the public eye and could therefore afford to be more selective. Competition became fiercer.

As the available profit to be had in writing increased more and more people decided to try their hand at it, not just obsessive types like H.P. Lovecraft who would have – and did – insist on writing despite never getting anywhere remotely near being able to live off their work (and like many of us, I’d think), but also those who simply had a slight interest and thought the potential benefits such that it was worth giving the game a go. All of these developments started to be paralleled in the book publishing world in the twentieth century as the paperback shot to stardom from the 1930s and the rest, as they say, is history.

Where does that leave us? In a funny place really. The internet has now allowed the dissemination of work at a scale and breadth that could hardly be imagined twenty years ago such that writers wanting to get started in a relatively risk-free way need merely create a blog and see how things go. Or, even more painlessly (in some ways), just post their writing on the blogs and websites others have built up and try to generate name recognition and a fan base that way before offering longer works for actual sale. The gatekeepers are now feeling the pinch in such a way that they’ve begun eating their own arms. Only those books with the very highest likelihood of mass sales can afford to be taken on; otherwise the money earned simply will not justify the labor and staff involved. Dangers must be minimized and proven formulas the only way to do that. In our self-pubbing world we undoubtedly have many more authors trying their hand at it than we should, and I say that because the preponderance of poorly edited and hurriedly written works requires me to leave a note of caution, but we also have new and unique voices speaking with a much fuller freedom than we’ve seen for nearly two hundred years, and quite possibly ever. Like so much else, the trends that the rise of magazines set in motion have been turned on their heads. Where will these new trends take us?

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Roots: The spirit of self-pubbing

This spring I got a new position and accordingly my family moved to the south of the country but Tokyo still is, and will likely remain, very dear to my heart. The city really is something. And so this past weekend I was quite pleased to be there again for a conference. On my way from the airport to the hotel I spent some time at a very good record shop I know where I discovered this beauty tucked in amongst some studio albums (and apologies for the poor quality of the photo; it was taken by my crappy nine year-old flip phone as I refuse (for many good reasons) to get a smartphone):


The record is a fan recording of a show, and although there is neither date nor venue given from the set list and style I’d guess it’s from the late 70s. Taking it out of the sleeve you see that the record itself has nothing in the center section where the label goes and it appears to have somehow been re-etched onto an older record as scratched out type is just barely visible there. The Dead encouraged the “pirating” and sharing of their live shows and even had sections of the floor reserved for tapers so that as they stood there with mics high and magnetic tape running the best possible sound could be captured. It’s scratchy and there are all sorts of imperfections but listening to recordings like this is the next best thing to being there. Wabi-sabi comes to mind. On that, note the errant apostrophe in New Riders – and there’s a song title mistake in there too – but the whole thing is clearly a work of love. (Incidentally, it is considered to be against the tapers’ code of honor to sell such recordings (particularly to a retail place that will jack the price up) rather than to freely share them, but I was still happy to have found one in vinyl.) Now, at this point you might be asking yourself just what any of this has got to do with self-pubbing. On the other hand, if you suspect that I’m going somewhere with this, you might be thinking that I’m about to launch into a defense of pirating and sharing books. In either case rest assured, there is a connection to what we writers do and the control-C, control-V combo will not be lauded.

What I find underlying all of this is the ethos that says art is to be enjoyed, that it’s for the betterment of all of us and that – allowing for variance in taste – what knocks me off my feet and opens up my world might just work for you. No one celebrating this ethos talks about making money for big companies; they focus instead on the music, on the words, on the images, on the feelings, ideas, and experiences that are given and received. An artist ought to be able to live by their work, and given our current economic model this of course means making money, but within this context the many layers of middlemen are thankfully nowhere to be seen. Specifically in the case of the Dead, allowing the tapers and sharers their space and movement made the band immensely more popular than they would have been otherwise (free PR!) which fed back into attendance at their shows and album sales. Our era has downloadable sample chapters, file swapping, Kindle libraries, YouTube videos and the like but the same spirit animates all of that.

William Blake self-published all of his books in his own home, and that should hardly surprise us as prior to the 20th century the process of publishing is better described as printing. Authors, or in some cases their patrons, paid to have their works put on paper and either distributed on the street via any number of practices if the work was aimed at the general public (entertaining stories, theater tie-ins, sometimes political treatises), passed discreetly between known purveyors (secretive texts, intragroup sharings, pornography), or put up for sale at booksellers (academia, medicine, works aimed at the aristocracy). Self-pubbing was more or less the only kind of pubbing around, and even wildly unpopular books like Friedrich Nietzsche‘s still saw the light of day (and look at what’s become of him since).

There is a rich tradition to what we do, and we stand in a long and proud line of creative people who were concerned first and foremost with the production and dissemination of that which was inside them. I think this is the spirit that ought to live within our own writing, and if I someday come across a well-thumbed copy of one of my books in a box marked “FREE” that has had its original cover redone and gotten the title wrong I will grin and grin and grin. What matters most are the words, the music, images, ideas, and what they do for others; any Deadhead could tell you that.

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Write for your audience or for yourself?

Every writer wants to be read, and usually by as many people as possible. There are times when we write for ourselves: notes, thoughts, some bit of poetry, perhaps a whole book that is meant to be largely private or is mainly for practice. Yet at core that which we make the extra effort – beyond what is required for thought – to put down on screen or on paper comes from a place in us that has something to say and that moreover determines that something to be of value. We write out of ourselves and put tremendous amounts of labor and time into our projects, it is only natural that we would wish them to be considered, enjoyed, evaluated, maybe even lauded by others. Our words come from the foundation of our beings in exactly the same way that a musician’s song does or a painter’s images do. But like all too many songs and all too many paintings every sentence we sweat and struggle over has an excellent chance of being stillborn. Yet our voice cries out to be heard and therein lies the question. Should we write in such a way that our works are likely to have mainstream appeal and thereby (hopefully) gain mainstream acceptance and a wide readership, or should we instead write in the way that is truest to our inner voice and vision although it might prove very unpopular?

There is no easy answer to this question and I certainly don’t have one myself. Hegel focused on the historical point of view and thought that an artwork was valuable and/or successful when it could convey its culture’s values; to be quite honest I have zero interest in conveying the values of what passes for modern culture. On the other hand, there is a strong and growing spirit of antiestablishmentism and that is one value that I would like to get across. In fact, if there is any single theme that connects all of my books (both published and in the works) it is that. In my own writing life I have always leaned heavily, almost exclusively, to the side that says to write from who you are and toss all other concerns out the window. I’ll admit that I’d like to have more readers though.

Our readers, whether potential or actual, want and deserve to get something out of what they are reading. It takes effort on their part too, and as creators we should not be so arrogant as to think that we can do what we like with no thought whatsoever for our audience. We’ve all seen that so-called art house movie that does just that and what a stinker it was. It seems to me that some balance must be sought, some fine line trod between concern for our readers’ desires and expectations on the one side and our inner muse and the need to release her and allow her to soar on the other. Every writer must and should struggle with this question, and the experience of that struggle will no doubt inform our words and make them all the better for it.

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Can a book be beautiful?

When we think about beauty these days a large number of potential objects come to mind; anything from a well-executed goal to a particularly difficult math problem may elicit the term. This has not, of course, always been the case. To the ancient world beauty was associated with the good, the true, and the divine. Form, measure, and proportion were considered crucial elements of the beautiful, and the thinking involved famously led to the creation of works of art like this (Venus de Milo from the Louvre):


Symmetry has also long been associated with the beautiful, connected in with order and harmony. Denzel Washington is considered one of the world’s most beautiful people and it has often been said that his features are remarkably symmetrical.


As noted, however, common usage has extended beauty much further from the purely visual; to which it was never bound anyway. It has been argued that beauty is a quality that is possessed and can be recognized, a secondary quality (that is, sensation – rather than fact – conveying, such as a color) that is observable and dependent on response. It has also been argued that beauty is not a quality but an idea, and that something that causes that idea to form in us is beautiful. This raises the question of experience, and on that we may wish to consider Monroe Beardsley’s five criteria to judge whether an experience is aesthetic or not: 1) object directedness; this is a must, and of the following four three must also be present, 2) a sense of freedom, 3) a sense of detachment, 4) discovery, and 5) wholeness. We can perhaps imagine taking this list to an art museum but possibly not to the library. There our approach to a book may be of more importance, and therefore the notion of disinterest comes to the fore. This is an idea developed by Immanuel Kant that connects pleasure with an object perceived entirely for its own sake, regardless of issues of possession or use. Arthur Schopenhauer added that removing oneself from practical concerns when engaged in such perception provides an out from the suffering that seems to ground our human nature. Our interests and desires are suspended and we engage with the beautiful purely for the sake of the beautiful. This is clearly a far more profound way of thinking about the beautiful than that behind the exclamation of “Beauty!” shouted by someone watching a hockey game. Or is it? The same root elements seem to be in play if we look hard enough.

Still, this seems far from our experience of reading. Is the manner in which we engage with a book at all like the way in which we interact with a painting, sculpture, piece of music, or photography (to name but a few)? Consider the two well-known books below; would either of them qualify as beautiful? Perhaps both? Neither?


I would be prepared to argue that Pasternak’s does but Vonnegut’s does not. This is by no means a criticism of Vonnegut’s work nor his oeuvre generally – I am a big fan of the man’s writing -, however as a reader I find that Vonnegut’s novels and short stories are often about the characters and events contained within them rather than being expressions of the characters and events contained within them. I chose Pasternak’s work as a counterbalance here because whatever lyricism it contains such would no doubt be very largely lost in translation; there must therefore be something else to it. What I think sets Pasternak’s work and others like it apart is the way in which we the reader are led to deeply associate ourselves and our own ways of being with the protagonist(s). Even if we think the good titular doctor a romantic fool we find ourselves empathizing with his plight and the struggles he engages in to continue to express himself as a human being, as one human being, in the midst of all the externals raging around him. Even in our most prosaic moments we can feel as he does, and it is that connection that touches us the way a great painting can. Contra Schopenhauer then, or perhaps better put as Schopenhauer with a caveat, when it comes to literature as art I think that the way in to suffering (suffering with, not as) that such can provide is what qualifies the writing as beautiful, and from there, possibly, to art.

I offer the above merely as some initial thoughts on a very nuanced topic. As with all things academic there is a vast literature on the question of literature as art and I am only just beginning to scratch the surface of many of the issues involved. I would be very happy to hear counterarguments and/or other perspectives. Surely the well here is deep.

I referenced the very accessible Key Terms in Philosophy of Art by Tiger C. Roholt (Bloomsbury, 2013) when writing this post.

Posted in Thoughts on Writing, Reading & Books | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Hardware and software

One of the many beauties of self-pubbing is the full control over nearly every aspect of the project that you retain. Want to put a picture of your pet dog on the cover? Go ahead! Think that a nice chapter-long section of stream-of-consciousness rambling from your protagonist is called for? Put it in! Decide that after all you want your battle-weary hero to give in and join the enemy she’s spent the entire book fighting against? Why not! The sky’s the limit as far as content goes, and structurally you have plenty of freedom as well.

It is on that point that I wish to spend a few moments this week. When we, as writers and as readers, think about books we tend to focus on issues related to the relaying of the information that we or the writer wish(es) to get across (whether fictional or nonfiction), and beyond that we only really give a thought to cover design; and even that often enough just as an afterthought. There is more that goes into the making of a book, however, and here I naturally mean the making of real books. To borrow a metaphor from the computing world, books are the hardware and their words are the software; although it is right and good to fret and obsess over the software, why not also consider the hardware? If we are truly interested in giving readers an experience that they can’t get elsewhere it is with this aspect that we may wish to start experimenting.

Areas open to innovation beyond the crappifying effects of just dumping the text into a digital format start with the cover but don’t end there. The book’s size, paper type, image use and method of such use, type font and design, headers, footers, endnotes, appendices, all lie within your range of choice. There are limitations of course (printers will only offer a small number of paper type choices or book dimension sizes), but there is also plenty of wiggle room within those limitations. Images can be made to bleed off the page or to stop within boundaries, the font and/or layout can be shifted however you’d like to any number of times within the text’s body, and the only thing you must include on the full cover (front, spine, back) is the book’s ISBN. Why on earth stick solely with the tried and true? Imagine reading a book where suddenly, completely out of nowhere, the text flipped and then flipped back. Or one character’s thoughts are presented at the top of the page while the character they are conversing with has their thoughts at the bottom of the page and in the middle of the sandwich is the actual dialogue they are engaged in. Or a book sized to fit into your pocket that is a series of images fantastically inappropriate for public display. Such disconnects heighten the experience of reading and are limited only by the creativity and boldness of their creator(s).

It helps with all this not to be (overly) motivated by money for what is new – really new – is often met with resistance. We here at DSB write for the love of it (which is one of the reasons our site is so wonderfully free of ads) but we realize that our day jobs afford us a degree of luxury in that regard that others might not have. Ours is an imperfect world, and the modern artist is only very rarely rewarded and more often used; practical concerns will always weigh in at some point. C’est la vie. Or, if you prefer, a finger in the air and the determination to express yourself come what may. Self-pubbing has made that possible, the rest is now up to us.

Posted in Writing Craft & Self-Publishing | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Response
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