Pictures in the Pages (Part 2)

Last time I blogged about standalone illustrations in children’s and adult literature. This time I’ll explore illustrations that interact directly with the text.

As I read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections earlier this year, I’ll take a quick look at a few of his visual tricks first. For those who haven’t read it, The Corrections focuses on an elderly Midwestern couple and their three grownup children who’ve all fled to the East Coast. It moves around in time from the 1950s to just before the turn of the millennium.

Before the reader arrives at the first real textual illustration, Franzen has already played around with typography. For example, embedded within the text there’s an excerpt from Chip’s (the youngest son) failed screenplay that’s formatted in movie script style, indented, double spaced and set off by the script’s page number (Picador version, p.27-28).

Chip is reviewing the screenplay (and why it failed) and the word breast is bolded throughout. It appears very frequently and allows the reader a wry smirk at male writers who drop women into a story merely as sex objects. It also shows us exactly how Chip writes drama (flatulently) and, more importantly, how he thinks (a lusty and unravelling ex-academic).

In a similar vein, Franzen uses a pair of pilcrows (¶) (p. 45) to bullet point Chip’s thoughts. As already stated, Chip is a likeable but rather pretentious ex-assistant professor and this device does a lot to characterise him without words. (After all, who thinks in pilcrows?) The lesson here is that you can play with typography (sparingly) to get a reader deeper into the story. Old Modernist tricks still work well.

The following illustration in The Corrections connects and intersects with four characters out of five. Chip is inspecting a prescription pill (street: “Mexican A”) on a short road trip (p. 55). He believes the drug is embossed with:


20150518_204801The pill may be real, but  the “Midland Pacific Lines” logo is purely a figment of his imagination. His father  spent his entire life working for that railroad company and this simple illustration implies so much about the fraught dynamic between father and (estranged) son. For the writer to take the necessary time and words to describe the pill (the logo is a sun, something like a bargain sticker in a dime store with Midland Pacific Lines set in the centre) would flip the reader out of the scene and therefore lose immediacy and impact. Furthermore, Chip’s already wasted so seeing it from his point of view without authorial comment is highly effective.

The drug (minus the Midland Pacific logo) reappears in the story when his mother visits a doctor on a cruise ship to combat her depression, and then once again when a pill ends up being placed inside an advent calendar on December 24th by his sister. Regarding the connection to his father, Midland Pacific Lines is never far from the old man’s thoughts as he is defined by his past work, hence his youngest son seeing his father’s now defunct employer embossed into a pill while stoned and immediately prior to copulating with one of his students. It’s enough to send anyone on a guilt trip.

Moving on, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and the Trystero (a muted post horn) is worth a mention as it jumped from being a reference between the pages to becoming the symbol of the book, not just with the designers of various editions but with fans themselves. The muted horn represents the Trystero/Tristero mail system, an organisation defeated by Thurn-und-Taxis Post (a real mail company, although German not American, this, after all, is Pynchon) before the organisation moved underground and began using waste bins as collection boxes (W.A.S.T.E. being an acronym for: We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire).

The protagonist sees the Trystero pop up everywhere on her travels, and this is rendered in illustration within the novel. Back in 2012, Penguin Press designed a hunt using stickers showing the novel’s Trystero and a URL that contained a coded clue. This would’ve been a lot more interesting if it’d been organised by fans rather than a corporate marketing campaign, but it does at least show how a simple illustration can take hold of the public imagination.

I’ve run out of time, but a very honourable mention must go to Kurt Vonnegut who not only used illustrations in many of his novels, Breakfast of Champions and Slaughterhouse Five spring immediately to mind, but who actually penned the illustrations himself. This being Vonnegut his doodles were always crammed full of wit, and although he was a good sketch artist he prioritised getting his illustrations in character over good penmanship. Take a look.

If that fails to impress you then this might: In 1999, a newly-discovered minor planet was named “25399 Vonnegut“. It might only be an asteroid between Jupiter and Mars, but, some rather major physical discomforts aside, I imagine it to be an excellent place to light up a Pall Mall. I’d like to see a Ralph Steadman sketch of that.

Until next time.

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Sales, charts, and egos

As any writer who is not already famous can tell you – and I mean anyone, trad-pub or self-pub makes little difference here – marketing your book is probably the toughest nut to crack. If you’re going trad-pub you have to pre-market it to agents and/or the in-house gatekeepers before standing on street corners and going door to door with a suitcase full of signed copies, but at least the traddies will help you with the suitcase. If you’re going self-pub you can skip that step but then you’re on your own for absolutely everything else, and if you’re as bad-looking as the three of us are then you won’t find the going easy. What to do?

There are some options. To fill the niche that opened up when self-pubbing became the preferred way to go for a huge number of new and established authors companies that offer marketing services have sprouted and grown. Check out Smith Publicity for an example. Getting reviewed, making use of keywords, and thinking about how you present your book are ways you can help yourself; check our archives for posts on those topics and this page too may be useful for some general advice. There’s also the line of thought that marketing is a waste of time as it achieves so little for all the effort put in, explained here with the rebuttal that reviews, at least, are worth going to the trouble to get. (If you only click on one link in this post make it that one; it’s well worth reading.)

Then for those who still have money left to burn after hiring a marketing company there’s the other option of buying up lots of copies of your own book to give yourself a sales boost, make it into the top charts, and let the residual magic of being noticed do the rest. Kurt Vonnegut’s wife famously bought boxes of his books to help him get started, Brian Epstein less famously apparently bought 10,000 copies of “Love Me Do” to help out the young Beatles, and Sarah Palin used her SuperPac (called “SarahPac”) to donate at least $63,000 to HarperCollins to buy copies of her memoir.* Now, I have never read anything by Sarah Palin and given the content of her speeches and her public political persona I probably never will, but I like both Vonnegut and the Beatles. 2/3 ain’t bad, right?

Personally I’ve found that making my ebooks available for free through Smashwords and my personal site has been most helpful, but I know that Mark Porter has had a lot of success with, shall we say, guerrilla marketing techniques done locally via local connections. So what’s the answer? I don’t think there is any one way to go about this in the times we find ourselves living in – and that’s quite fitting, isn’t it?

*The Palin tidbit is from Deborah Friedell’s “Dialling for Dollars”, London Review of Books 37:6 (2015), 31-33. The link is here but you have to be a subscriber to read the article. The book under review in the piece (Corruption in America by Zephyr Teachout) seems to make many of the points I did in Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies but without all the fancy extras that that book has. (And there’s some more marketing for you!)

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From My Reading List

In my last post I gave a brief summary of two main schools of thought in literature. The main focus of this discussion is novels and literary fiction. Not all works fit neatly into one of the two camps I mentioned, Beauty and Justice, and I grant that a great many books written with social or political objectives in mind can be filled with exquisite sentences and clever design. Likewise, a novel hailing from the School of Beauty can have a moral spine that makes the whole piece to hang together better than if it lacked one. One quick example for each: many readers admire the style and wizardry of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (written in Spanish and translated into many languages) but it wasn’t written in a political vacuum and arguably loses much if read in one. From the other school: Lolita loses everything if it’s read as the initial triumph and subsequent tragic loss suffered by an expatriate pedophile. Unbelievably, some people still read that novel as a kind of love story, missing the whole moral message.

To round out the discussion on these two schools I will pull from my May Reading List (not a “heavy reader”, I admittedly spend more time watching YouTube videos than I do reading these days). The first book is one that I read and left in storage when I moved to Seoul several years ago. It is the kind of book that one would gladly buy again and reread again through constant cycles of packing up, moving on, and settling in. The stories of Anton Chekhov are consistently cited as being the best in the business. In terms of influence, one encounters his name over and over again by the only group that truly matters, that is, other writers. Appreciative readers, while necessary, don’t really have a key role in keeping a tradition alive. Readers are like the rays of sunlight allowing the garden to grow: they are essential for growth but they don’t shape the things to come. The writer is the gardener. And one way to judge a garden’s quality is to look at its produce. Chekhov had some definite ideas on how to produce good literary fruit. Here is a quote from the Introduction to the Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky:

In a letter of May 10, 1886, to his older brother Alexander, who had taken up writing before him with only modest success, Chekhov, from his new position as a recognized author, set forth six principles that make for a good story: “1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality: flee the stereotype; 6. compassion.” (Introduction p. IX)

If you want to write literature which fights social wrongs, these principles are worthless. On the other hand, if you want to create a beautiful short story, this to-do list might be the only way to go.

Before bringing up the second book, the foil to Chekhov in this discussion, I should confess a prejudice I have harbored for many years. In terms of literary taste, my preference has always been for the apolitical and the sublime. I want Literature to blow my mind, not tug on my heart strings. And so in the past I poo-pooed any fictional work that claimed to direct a spotlight on the “plight of women”, the workers, or any another subjugated class. My liberal political convictions already nodded in agreement that our social institutions were corrupted and badly needed reform. And yet something in me fought against any attempt to enlist the magic of fiction for any such cause. This struggle is called the Private/Public split, or the case of Incommensurate Goods. And a novel which tries to be good at one loses the presence of the other.

So here is a scene from a few weeks ago. I am in a bookstore and I’m full of a rejuvenated urge to read. Enough with the distractions of multimedia! Time to give the fleeting pleasures of mere entertainment a rest. Armed with the stories of Chekhov, I pause one moment in the stacks before heading to the checkout counter and see Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. I think to myself: “I’m almost 44 years old. I have studied English literature and claim to like novels and American literary fiction. Yet here I am, and here I have been for years, ignorant of this famous novel and even in some ways resisting it! Why? Can there be any other explanation than prejudice?” I grab it off the shelf, buy it, and bring it home. Adamant that I’ll read it, I add it in a thick, heavy script to my May reading list. Then, at home, curious of its contents, I notice that the author himself has written the Introduction and decide to read it. This passage caught my eye:

So my task was one of revealing the human universals hidden with the plight of one who was both black and American, and not only as a means of conveying my personal vision of possibility, but as a way of dealing with the sheer rhetorical challenge involved in communicating across our barriers of race and religion, class, color and region–barriers which consist of the many strategies of division that were designed, and still function, to prevent what would otherwise have been a more or less natural recognition of the reality of black and white fraternity. And to defeat this national tendency to deny the common humanity shared by my character and those who might happen to read of his experience, I would have to provide him with something of a worldview, give him a consciousness in which serious philosophical questions could be raised, provide him with a range of diction that could play upon the richness of our readily shared vernacular speech and construct a plot that would bring him in contact with a variety of American types as they operated on various levels of society. Most of all, I would have to approach racial stereotypes as a given fact of the social process and proceed, while gambling with the reader’s capacity for fictional truth, to reveal the human complexity which stereotypes are intended to conceal. (Introduction, p. XXII)

As you can see, the direct opposite of Chekhov’s working principles. Could the Invisible Man still be a great, timeless, beautiful work? There is only one way to find out. After reading, thinking and weighing, even if I don’t think it approaches the heights of other great novels, I could still see Invisible Man as a good work in its stated task: “dealing with the barriers [which prevent] black and white fraternity.” Despite my hesitations I repeat the mantra: read and keep an open mind; read and keep an open mind; read and keep an open mind.

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Hamish’s Blog

Drugstore reader and collaborator Hamish Spiers has republished his books and reopened his blog. You can enter Hamish World by following this link. Don’t forget to buy a book or two once inside.

Next week, Nick Cody wanders back south of the DMZ after a peaceful, if rather empty, weekend break in Propaganda Village




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William Blake, Job, and the pictures that haunt us

My comrades here at the Drugstore have just done two posts that lined up well and got me thinking about art, experimentation, and Writing that is not “writing”. If I wore a hat I’d take it off to you Nick and Paul, but I don’t so let me just say that I’m looking forward to the second parts of your series.

I know I waffle on about this a lot, but consider just what an era we’re living in as regards the writing life and the opportunities it provides. We are now able to do whatever we’d like, absolutely anything at all, and see it published without fear of censorship from both bean counters and overlords. This has not been the case for centuries, and even when it was previously the case it was typically only so for those of a certain socioeconomic class. I want also to talk about images here so let’s take William Blake as an example of what I mean. He was a 19th century figure who printed his books in his own home and then shipped them out himself (a true self-pubber); his was a labor of love and left him financially certainly no better off and probably a lot worse for his efforts. At the time and prior to it (and for some time after) the only people who were really able to afford to pursue writing were those with a stable outside income that provided them plenty of free time (e.g. landed gentry), or those who had curried the favor of people with enough money to be able to support would-be artists. There were exceptions of course, Blake being one (his father was a hosier), Shakespeare another (and one of such brilliance that the English-speaking world has yet to produce anyone even remotely close), but on the whole only if you didn’t have to work for your daily bread could you sit down to write a book.

This is no longer the case but does raise the important question of money which we’ll return to in a moment. Sticking with Blake, he produced books that were both visually and textually oriented. His engravings and paintings have been loved and loathed in our time, but in his they were mostly ignored. Likewise his poetry. To produce his images he seems to have employed a method whereby a print was taken from an outline and then watercolors added to that, allowing him to slightly alter each subsequent image, whether purposely or by accident. He combined these with his text in various ways and sometimes not at all, but what I want to focus on is that he did this in the way he thought would best allow the two to interact, to dance on the page together or in solo, staring at each other across the book’s binding with arms outstretched and gazes locked. We are now stunningly able to do the same, and without the need to take prints and break out the watercolors; yet such should not be ruled out and to that method many more of visual creativity can and should be added. But if we are so inclined, why bother?

Consider what an image adds to a work. Here is a sample from Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (1826) that has haunted me for weeks now since I came across it by chance, “Job and His Daughters” (Plate 20; you can click on it to really get a feel for the detail):


This one picture has completely reinvigorated Job’s story for me and sent me back to the original text, one of the best examples of the ancient Hebrew culture’s theo-literary genius. I also can’t get it out of my head, as I mentioned. In a similar way the art historian T.J. Clark was so taken by two paintings that he visited them day after day (if I’m not mistaken museum admission is free in the UK) and wrote a book on his developing relationship with and reactions to the pair called The Sight of Death: An Experiment in Art Writing (2006). Clark is a well-known old guy in the academic world so places like Yale University Press put out his work, but what’s important for us is simply that he did it. And we can too.

Now to the money question. It is entirely reasonable to want to be financially compensated for the hundreds if not thousands of hours that you put into a book, and I do not mean to fault in any way those writers who choose to stick with mainstream formulas in the hopes of achieving a good sales record and steady (or anyway continuing) income from royalties. I just personally find that a bit boring. Now, thankfully and amazingly now, we are able to do so much more with our work and that is something that should be embraced. Put images in your text. Embed music into your ebooks. Make interactive graphics that alter the story that’s being told as the reader goes along. Or forgo all of that and just write, but write in a way that is daring and fresh and gives the reader something they’ve never encountered before. Don’t write, Write. And see the thing done.

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Pictures in the Pages (Part 1)

Illustrations in novels can, very broadly, be categorised into two distinct groups: standalone character/plot illustrations, and sketches and diagrams that interact directly with the text.

In this post, I’ll take a look at the first category, standalone sketches that serve to define characters in the readers’ mind’s eye, while simultaneously summarising key action in a chapter or scene. They usually appear on a separate page from the text, often at the start of a chapter (although sometimes, for reasons of spacing and typesetting, they may be arranged as ‘heading vignettes’ on chapter pages).

Millions of children (and the adults who read to them) have grown up with Quentin Blake’s illustrations of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books.

The scratchy, fragmentary feel of his illustrations leaves room for further interpretation in the readers’ imagination, which, I’d hazard a guess, was always the intention. Furthermore, the imperfect rendering of the characters gives the pictures a childlike feel – as if they could’ve been drawn by one of the book’s readers (albeit a very gifted one).

This may not seem particularly innovative now, as it’s become something of an industry standard, but I can recall illustrations in other children’s books I read around that time to be either perfectly-drawn cartoons, in the vein of Mickey Mouse, or in the case of The Famous Five, posh British teenagers looking like they’d stepped out of a cigarette ad in Playboy with the Lucky Strike packs airbrushed out.

Blake’s first collaboration with Dahl was on The Enormous Crocodile in the mid- to late seventies. This was Blake’s (already a published illustrator) first proper colour picture book. In this interview, he talks about how book design can be used to influence pace. One of the key points he makes is how a ‘picture problem’ or ‘picture choice’ should not be placed on the left hand page and resolved on the right, but placed on the right hand page and then resolved on the following page in order to propel the reader forwards.

While working on The BFG (a children’s novel, not a picture book) he began to work with Dahl more closely, rather than Jonathan Cape’s designers. In this interview, he talks about his previous misconception that Dahl had been badgered into having illustrations in his books by the publisher. (At first Blake had submitted samples along with other illustrators. Although initially concerned that Blake’s style may be too striking, once committed, Dahl actually wanted more illustrations in his book.) If any graphic novelists are reading this, it’s well worth your while watching those two clips.

The quintessential example of standalone illustrations in adult literature would be from the fountain pen of another British illustrator, Ralph Steadman, and his work with Hunter S. Thompson.

Those two gonzo anarchists, of course, need no further introduction. Foreshadowing the madness that was to come, on Steadman’s first assignment with Thompson, which would later be titled, The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, the illustrator was forced to improvise his work. Upon meeting Thompson for the first time that morning and having been Maced in the face by Thompson with “Chemical Billy” over lunch, it was touch and go whether the drawings would ever happen. However:

“…Steadman did make it to the Derby, albeit minus his pencils, pens and inks. He used lipstick and rouge borrowed from a generous lady in the betting tent to transform the great and the good of Southern society into grotesque slobbering monsters.” (1)

(You can read The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved here.)

Steadman’s jagged dip pen style became iconic and brought him many admirers. The combination of his twisted portraiture and being associated with Thompson also made him plenty of enemies as well. Thompson understood how much Steadman’s cartoons brought to his writing, especially Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Indeed, he felt threatened by the artwork’s power and worried that it could overshadow his prose – so much so that during various negotiations to film his work he stipulated, adamantly, and in customarily colourful language, that there would be no (insert a string of whacky expletives) cartoons.

There are no records of Dahl ever firing a chemical propellant in Blake’s face (although he did once send him a used Jesus creeper in the mail). There was, however, in both cases a complex creative partnership at play, with both illustrators eventually coming out from the shadows to gain recognition centre stage. And in the case of Ralph Steadman, that meant standing in the mosh pit while playing electric guitar with his teeth.

Next time I blog, I’ll take a look at a few examples of illustrations that interact directly with the text.

(For a great interview with Ralph Steadman on his time with Hunter, click here to take you to the article I cited below.)



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The Goods

If you were looking over a fiction writer’s shoulder as she worked and asked her, “Why are you writing that?” Her various answers might boil down to a rather simple statement, “Because I want to make something good.” Of course, the seeming simplicity of that response is not really so simple. It begs the question, What is good? As it relates to the literary arts, the best answer to that question that I’ve come across is from the American philosopher Richard Rorty. The points I make below are more or less my attempt to summarize his ideas in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (1989) and apply them to the genre of literary fiction. First, a couple of quick points. Andrew Oberg has already written well for Drugstore on the topic of writer motivation here. When reading that piece, I couldn’t help thinking of a figure I’d come across in a recent non-fiction book called Going Clear, about the history of Scientology. The founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, still holds the world record in titles written by one author, a number that exceeds 1000. Early in his career, he wrote for money: the going rate was a penny a word.

I have no idea if Battlestar Galactica is still being read, nor do I have an inkling of readers’ aesthetic judgments if they do read it. I do know that novels as different as The Color Purple and Anna Karenina have been lauded time and time again and that fact calls for some kind of explanation. So, in fiction writing, what is good? The are two main camps and it’s important to remember (regardless of one’s personal preferences) that both are right. First, we say a novel is good if it draws us out of ourselves and allows us to see some moral truth about the world that we’d previously been blinded to. Leo Tolstoy said, quite famously, that he considered Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be amongst the highest achievements of the human mind. In his view, that novel was good because it aimed at addressing an injustice, a social evil, and succeeded at getting people to see it. It’s usefulness as a tool for moving the human heart is paramount. Vladimir Nabokov, less famously but more playfully, said he wished that Tolstoy had been chained up in his later years and been forced to write literature as beautiful, as perfect, and as socially useless as Anna Karenina. Here, confused students might ask, “Doesn’t Nabokov care about justice and righting wrongs?” Readers who conclude from statements he gave in interviews that he was some kind of right-wing conservative, or some kind of libertarian in U.S. parlance, miss the point entirely. He wanted political hands off of aesthetic pies. When pressed about his political views he came out with old-fashioned liberal values: freedom to live and speak and write the way one chooses. He was anti-cruelty and said NO to executions and torture. Compared to most American presidents, he looks positively dovish.

If the two camps can be summed up as Justice and Beauty, it’s time to turn to Beauty. But before taking another step we should retire an overworked phrase, “art for art’s sake”, because novels are written, published, and read for readers. That means living, breathing human beings with their own aims and motivations. In this sense, great works of literature can still be useful, just not in the social sense. Rorty does an excellent job in his book at showing how great books can provide us with the sense of who we are and how we come to be as individuals. I fumble now to find the double-italics feature for that last phrase. Every birth brings into the world an utterly unique, and therefore precious, form of consciousness.  But that which comes into the world is coal; effort makes it a diamond. A life in literature is one time-honored path which allows a human consciousness to develop, grow, fine-tune itself, refine itself, and expand itself over its lifespan. In my next post, I will look at a couple more examples from each camp (which suddenly strikes me as an ugly word since I’ve just finished watching Shoah and am a few chapters into Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved). For now, I’ll leave you with a question: if you had to select a quintessential example from each of the two branches in literature, what two works would you choose?

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The next BPO: Regret

We’ve got a juicy one for you this time — Regret! Note the guidelines below, crack those knuckles, and charge the batteries in your wireless keyboards. When all the sweat and blood has been spent, send us your stuff here:

  • Theme: Regret
  • Length: 3,000-8,000 words
  • Format: MS Word or TextEdit file
  • Title: Centered, Times New Roman 16 point; with a byline below also centered and in 14 point
  • Text, font and size: Justified; Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Spacing: Single, with block quotes separated by an empty line on both sides; paragraphs indented but section breaks separated by an empty line and three centered asterisks
  • Footer: (on the left) © Your Name 2015 (on the right — stretched to fit the length of the footer)
  • Quotation conventions: Double quotes (“regret”) with embedded single quotes (‘regret’) for reported speech, single quotes for reported thoughts, double quotes to mark text off (e.g. so-called “~~”), song titles, etc.
  • Italics: Use for emphasis, book/magazine/TV show/film/album titles
  • Referencing: Any standard academic convention is fine as long as it’s used consistently; both footnotes and end notes are acceptable, though any applicable footnotes will not be included in the opening section posted on the site
  • Deadline: 07 July

Remember that all of our previous entries are available on the By Prescription Only: Themed Writing page. All submissions will be edited by us but the final decision regarding any suggested changes to the content will be left up to the author. The author will also retain full copyright privileges and ownership; we’re here to display your work and help it reach a broader audience, not to profit from it. We’re looking forward to reading what you come up with!

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Your book in the world

“A book may be written and remain unchanged; but with the world, and all potential readers, changing around it, can the book remain the same?”

The above is taken from the delightfully well-written and very interesting PhD dissertation called “The Ways Hypothesis: An alternative approach to Society” by Athanasios A. Kastritis (DPhil in Social and Political Thought, University of Sussex, 2009, p. 42). (Don’t ask me why I’m reading a stranger’s doctoral dissertation.) I’ve written here on the life of a book before, and although the quote touches on the issues discussed in that post as well, what I’d like to take a look at in light of current publishing trends is that first clause: “A book may be written and remain unchanged”. In the world of ebooks, how accurate is that? How accurate should it be?

Just six years on from when Dr Kastritis submitted his work a lot has changed in both the processes and time involved in publishing a book. The self-pub world has been accepted; first by readers (of course), and then by agents and editors within the trad-pub sphere. An author can now publish a book electronically with very little wait time and fewer and fewer concerns about handling complicated formatting issues themselves. Self-pubbing was a phenomenon in 2009, and we here at Drugstore Books were exploring it then and finally heralding it on these pages a year later (we certainly weren’t the first but we did get in early), but for the most part an ugly aura hung around the approach until the last couple of years. Now, thankfully, new books are commonly judged on their own internal merit and not just the publisher’s label on the spine (if you will), though some publishers, whether of the self or trad variety, do have a deserved reputation for quality that may tip the balance in a book’s favor if a reader is in doubt. But let’s stick with this issue of publishing time and ebooks.

Both Smashwords and Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing allow writers to post their work and see it go live for sale within days or even hours (you can more or less count on 24 hours or so depending on a number of different factors). You might think that an ebook should appear instantaneously but the files are vetted first; in the case of Smashwords this is done initially by a robot which alerts the author to any potential problems which can then be adjusted before proceeding, and in the case of KDP the file is either accepted or rejected wholesale prior to being confirmed by a person (KDP accepts Word files and requires less formatting than Smashwords, but Smashwords has a detailed guide that does make it easy to give them what they want). Once your book is in the shape it needs to be making changes is a simple matter of tweaking the originally submitted file and then republishing it with only that very short wait time as a disadvantage. You can do this as often as you like — it’s free and you are in full control.

And therein lies the rub. The desire to fix the tiny little errors that crept in is one thing — and that’s understandable and probably beneficial — , but the temptation to make more substantial changes is one that every writer will have to face and wrestle with. My own view is that once you’ve finished your book, and I mean really finished it, edit after edit after edit and draft after draft after draft, then you let it go and allow it to find its place in the ever-changing world it will inhabit. It may go nowhere, it may go straight to the top, it may plateau and dip and rise, but it will be a piece of your life and your own world at the time of writing and will genuinely reflect that. Some books do have second or third editions, and some books do have later additions (I added a long commentary and suggestions for further reading to Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies a year after publishing it); that is not what I mean. Rather, what I’m getting at are the nagging doubts that X could have been worded better, or Y should maybe have done Z instead of A in chapter five and then chapter six will need… Writing a book is an aesthetic act, and as such I think some very good advice that was passed on to me by a friend who heard it from his painting teacher is appropriate here: Sooner or later you just have to put the brush down.

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The real-y real

Due to their very bad shipping methods, I just received my December 18th issue of the London Review of Books a couple of days ago. (The issues are meant to arrive every two weeks, but guess what? They don’t.) In it is an interesting article by Tom McCarthy on realism in writing that got me thinking about the possibility of objectivity and how we should consider it when writing fiction.

Foucault, Nietzsche, and many others pointed out that what we consider “real” is always structured — or, to perhaps put it more accurately, filtered — by how we think, how we view the world. You can detect these thoughts in Wittgenstein too in his post-linguistic turn, and it is one of the major reasons that logical positivism died an ignoble death towards the middle of the previous century. Personally I think that there is something to be said about speaking and/or writing in purely empirical terms, i.e. a “factual vocabulary” (see my paper “Don’t put mouths in my words” on the bottom of this page on my personal site, as well as chapter five in Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies, available on this page of my personal site), but that is a topic for another day.

At any rate, now to the main: If the world we inhabit is one that is necessarily perspective-oriented, and if these perspectives are individually bound even while being (largely; almost entirely?) culturally constructed, then how do we write about what happens to our characters in a way that reflects this? There are of course a number of approaches that could be considered here but two ends of the spectrum stand out for me: that of the internalized head-tour (if you will), and that of the external narrator. The head-tour puts us in our character’s head and keeps us there; we see things as she does and we experience the world through her and how she reacts to it, even if we find ourselves with very different intuitive responses to the events while reading about them. Paul j Rogers does an excellent job of this in his forthcoming book (more on that in the months to come). The second option listed, that of the outside narrator, poses an interesting dilemma that itself allows a number of responses. Does not the narrator himself have his own perspective on the world, on the occurrences being described, and his own biased beliefs regarding the character’s reactions to them? There is a lot of room for play here, and the more approaches taken to this issue the more interesting available fiction will become.

When working on a project, it strikes me as important to consider these aspects of how you will write from the outset and then commit to following the guidelines you have set for yourself. Change can always be introduced, but we readers would need a reason of some kind to make that shift in perspective believable. There are a thousand plot doors to be opened here. What might be really intriguing, and potentially quite jarring, would be to introduce an alteration in the external narrator’s worldview midway through the story. I leave it to all of you writers out there to wow us with your own takes on the “real”.

Posted in Writing Craft & Self-Publishing | Tagged , , | 2 Responses
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