Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Keep Your Kindle Warm


Road trips are great brainstorming time for Chris and I. While on our way down to California we came up with a promotional idea for her Christy Evans mystery series that launches in October. The idea was that she's make some of these up and we'd give them away in some sort of contest to tie into the book launch.

I just got an Amazon Kindle, and she being a very creative and crafty person, I suggested she might reach out to ebook readers by creating knitted bags for Kindles. We spent some time discussing what such a bag might look like, and next thing you know, we were off the freeway to pick up a few supplies, and her first prototype was in the works.

Here are a couple of prototype "Kindle Kozies" she's created. They are prototypes. We're still working on the best shapes, closures, fit, etc, but these are already a colorful, fun way to carry your Kindle around.


Will the final ones for the contest look the same? Not sure. We're still making prototypes. Which raises a question? What are we doing with these prototypes? Well, heck, let's just give some of them away here!

Are you a Kindle ownere? Do you know one? Want a Kozy? Okay, we'll work out the details when we get back from our trip next week. Meanwhile, help us get the word out and check back next Friday for details.

We'll be back in Oregon this weekend, and hopefully will figure out how we're going to do it by then.

See you guys back here on Friday!

- Steve

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Trading in Wooden Blocks: Readers and the Ownership of eBooks


Steve:
Writer Michael Stackpole has made the excellent metaphor that publishing isn't in the business of selling stories and information. Rather, they're in the business of manufacturing, warehousing, and distributing blocks of wood, which is essentially what a printed book is.

His point is, they've lost track of what their real business is, and it is leading them to blunders and huge misunderstandings as we move into the age of digital books, and I agree.

But in thinking about it, and in reading many of the poorly-informed and frequently-repeated posts by "advocate" ebook readers, I think they've fallen into the same trap. Many of the attitudes that readers have about the buying and ownership of books has nothing to do with stories or information (and incidentally, actual copyright law), and everything to do with blocks of wood.

Let's take a look at some of the common myths and misunderstandings about books as they relate to ebooks verses those printed things.

Myth #1: "I Bought it, I Own It."
This is the most fundamental misunderstanding, and the one on which most other misunderstandings are based.

Under the fundamentals of copyright law, you don't own an ebook. You license it. The "ownership" is the copyright, and with few exceptions, that remains with the person (or persons, or legal entities) who created the work. Under the old model, they then licensed a strictly limited portion of those rights to a publisher, who in turn sold those rights off in little bits to the individual reader, usually sharing a bit of the proceeds with the writer.

Under the new model, there may be fewer middle-men between the creator and the reader, but it's basically the same transaction. You're buying limited rights to use the work. Limited.

Let us be clear. This has not changed because of ebooks. You have NEVER owned the books you "bought." You owned the blocks of wood on which they were printed, the ink, the glue, but not the words themselves. Those were offered to your on a limited license.

But because of the nature of print books and the limitations of printing, scanning and copying technology, the physical form of the book and the content were essentially inseparable, so effectively they were the same, even though technically this was never true under law. You bought it, you owned, it, and you got to sell, loan, or transfer it pretty much any way you wanted to.

On the other hand, the existence of an individual copy ended with the life of the block of wood. A lost or burned book was gone. A frequently loaned book wore out. An old book fell apart. Your ability to abuse the copyright was limited enough that publishers and authors never saw the need to crack down on it.

In fact, they recognized (as many "information wants to be free" advocates are fond of reminding us) that such limited sharing had benefits for them and for authors. It helped find new readers, supported literacy, and the limited sharing of books acted as an informal promotional network. ("Author (X) is great! Here, read this copy of his latest and I'm sure you'll agree!)

With ebooks, this is no longer true. There is no physical form of the book, and at least in theory, any single copy can be redistributed, cloned, copied, and stored to infinity. The physical limitations of the book, don't control individual abuse of copyright and the license granted. The author/publisher have to seek other methods to control their copyright and thereby obtain some fair return on their work.

And while the publisher/author may benefit from the limited passing around of ebooks, there is essentially no inherent limitation. Being famous and popular is no damned good unless you can make money off of it.

Myth #2: "I Own It, I Can Sell It."
Sorry. There's nothing in the constitution that gives you this right. Nor in common sense either.

Okay, first refer back to #1. You DON'T own it. Never did.

Mind you, that doesn't mean you can't license the right to sell it. Publishers, for instance, do it all the time. After some initial difficulties, DVD sellers essentially license video stores and Netflix to rent individual copies.

But any grant of license to use a copyright is a form of contract, and the terms can be as liberal, or restrictive, as the granting parties agree to. Generally, the more rights you get, the more you can expect to pay for them.

Allowing, much less encouraging, such unlimited copying and distribution is a very dangerous proposition for the copyright owner.

Myth #3 - I Own it, I Can Copy It.
Refer back to #1 one again. I know that's getting old, but it's important.

You never had this right with paper books either, but for most of their life, that was rarely a major issue. Until recently the technology didn't exist for readers to make convenient, cost-effective copies of book. Sure, photo-copiers have been around for decades (but much more expensive), and more recently, computer scanners have come along (cumbersome, difficult, and time-consuming).

Pre-ebooks, the real game-changer was the Internet. If ONE person in the entire world with no life took the time to scan the latest Harry Potter and post it on the Internet, everyone on Earth could potentially have access to it. More significantly, if 300-400 people in the entire world were each willing to scan (or just type) a single page and share their work, the same result could be achieved with little individual effort and a tiny number of legitimate copies sold.

This, of course, points out the ultimate futility of attempting to place technological copy protection on books. DRM can't protect you from a few hundred trained monkeys with computers, library books, and a dial-up connection.

But just because complete copy protection isn't possible, doesn't make unlimited theft of copyright -- well -- RIGHT.

Technological protections serve as a reminder, just like those signs in the changing room that say "you can go to jail for shoplifting," as a reminder, and a subtle form of social pressure. Ultimately, the best safeguard against any kind of theft is the social pressure that it's wrong, and the feeling that if we're caught (and we might be) we'll suffer consequences, even if that's just the disapproval of our friends and family.

Yes, you can copy it, but having to break a few locks to do it, keeps you mindful that maybe you shouldn't.

To my mind, the perfect compromise is the imperfect one, where people can't just copy willy-nilly, and where copying can't absolutely be prevented, just limited. Not wooden blocks, but not rogue electrons either.

Myth #4 - "I own it, I can resell it."
Refer back to #1. YOU DON'T OWN IT!

This is one that people have a special difficulty wrapping their heads around, especially when it comes to text-books, where reselling books is a time-honored tradition.

Well, traditions change. I was in the Caltech campus bookstore in Los Angeles the other day while on a research trip, and was shocked to find that they were clearing out books. ALL the books.

Now, come to find out, this has more to do with the California state budget crisis than changing technology. They'll still continue to use paper books, though students will likely have to buy them on-line. But such a move wouldn't have been thinkable even a couple years ago, and the writing is on the wall. Paper textbooks are going away.

So is the tradition of reselling your old books.

Which I don't think is a bad thing for readers. People resell books because text-books are expensive, but one reason they're expensive is because of sales lost to reselling. The situation had been locked in a death-spiral for years. Finally here's a change for text-books to find a more natural price-point. Students (and their parents) STILL aren't going to like it, but hopefully it will be better than what we have now.

Beyond text-books, the book-resale culture is less dominant, though the old-fashioned paperback-exchange shop still thrives in certain circles, and resale books are a staple of thrift-stores.

Frainkly, I think the world can exist without these things. If books are more reasonably priced (no, I'm not in agreement with the publishing camp that thinks ebooks should be priced like hardcovers), readers benefit and get to keep their books too. What's not to like about that?

Yeah, there's no technological reason why ebooks couldn't be resalable, but there's no logical reason they should be. It's to everyone's advantage to market books in such a way it isn't necessary.

Conclusion
Giving up on the "blocks of wood" metaphor means that publishers and authors have to give up some of their old ways, something that book-buyers will benifit from. But the metaphor cuts both ways. Readers and book-buyers will also have to accept the idea that they aren't buying blocks of wood any more. They're buying a license to use somebody else's words, and that license is going to be, to one extent or another, limited in ways that those blocks of wood weren't.

If we all play nice, everyone will be better off in the long run. Readers will pay less for books, publishers and authors will make (smaller) amounts of money over what were formerly "lost" transactions, books will stay "in print" forever, and authors will have a bigger incentive to continue beloved, long-running series and characters.


All we have to do is be willing to give up our block-headed ways.




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Saturday, July 18, 2009

Digital Rights (and Wrongs)


Steve:
We're headed out tomorrow to begin a "Workcation" to California. I'm going to be conferring with my son/collaborator on various potential projects, and Chris and I plan to make at least a Friday appearance at San Diego Comicon, depending on the insanity level, and our energy level.

But before we leave, a couple things happened yesterday regarding consumer digital rights that I wanted to comment on.

Digital rights are something much on writer's minds these days (or they should be) as ebooks are definitely becoming an important part of our business (even if they don't largely push paper books aside, and for better or worse, I increasingly believe they will, and digital piracy of our works a real concern.

Digital rights management should be about content creators having enough control of their work to sell and make a reasonable return on it. The result of this should be a marketplace full of tons of fresh content at reasonable prices, happy creators, and happy consumers

But in practice, it often doesn't work that way, especially in these early, wild-west days. Things that traditionally have been sold printed on paper are being sold electronically. The rules are changing, and there's quicksand along the new trails we're blazing.

Example #1 - Amazon Gets Orwellian

Yesterday, hundreds, possibly thousands of consumers who own Amazon's Kindle ebook reader were shocked to discover a George Orwell book (certain editions of "1984" and "Animal Farm") had vanished from their readers. At least one student (quoted in a New York Times article) also lost all his highlighting and notes he'd made in preparation for a school reports.

Turns out Amazon had pulled these editions from their store, and when they did, they also used the "Whispernet" service to delete it from every Kindle out there. Consumers were refunded the (99 cents) purchase price, but still...

The irony is painfully obvious. The truth is a little more complex.

Effectively, the books were stolen property. Both books were, intentionally or not, pirated editions uploaded through Amazon's un-vetted self-publishing program (the same program through which we offer Kindle subscriptions to this blog, for example). The rights-holder complained. Amazon pulled the books.

Violation of copyright is a potentially serious offense, and Amazon has deep pockets, which pretty much requires them to respond to this quickly and strongly. I suspect the legal argument could be made that, because they had the ability to remove the pirated books from individual devices, they were required to do so.

That doesn't help the consumer, who bought the book in good faith. Amazon sells another (legal) edition of "1984" on Kindle and could have offered it as a replacement, but they have no such edition of "Animal Farm," and in any case, that doesn't help the kid doing his book report. His markups won't translate.

Amazon could, in order to cover their asses, stop or revise their self-publishing program. They could require complex legal documentation of copyright ownership before putting a book up for sale. But that would limit and slow down publication of ebooks. It would limit the availability of historic and public-domain works, prevent content creators from marketing directly to the public, and effectively return publishing to the exclusive hands of deep pockets and major publishers.

Amazon shouldn't have pulled the books from individual devices, that's for sure, but it's quite possible their lawyers advised them to do it anyway. In a perfect world, Amazon could have said to the copyright holder, "whoops, our legitimate mistake, let us pay you a licensing fee for the copies that slipped out, and we'll remove the books from our store. No harm, no foul, okay?" The Orwell estate could still have gone after the provider of the original edition for damages if they wanted to, or they could have given them a stern warning, pocketed their little money, and moved on. That way, consumers get to keep their books, the copyright holder is compensated, easy self-publishing goes on, Amazon faces no unreasonable consequences, and the copyright is acknowledged and protected.

But that's not how the law works now.

Maybe it should.

But I'm one of those content creator types, and so is Chris. I don't want people sticking pirated editions of my stuff up on Amazon any more than the Orwell estate does, or Scholastic wants to see the latest Harry Potter pirated (something that has also happened in similar circumstances to the Orwell books).

But in the long run, control of electronic rights can't basic common sense and consumer rights. Ask the record business (if they've figured out out yet). You can't piss off the consumer repeatedly for your own benefit without eventual consequences in the marketplace.

Example #2 - Lost on Garmin Navigator

Chris and I own a Garmin Streetpilot C550 GPS unit that we use in our car. Since we're preparing for a road-trip and our maps are more than a year old, I decided to upgrade my maps. I'd done this once before (one free upgrade came with the device). It's done on-line by hooking the GPS unit up to the computer. A web plug-in updates the device. It's slow (those map files are BIG), but shouldn't be that difficult.

First shock: the price. $69.95 for North American maps. I could replace the unit for about twice that. Maybe less. But I'm used to this one and I like it, so I gulp and pull out the credit card.

In a few minutes I've logged in and purchased my download. I hook up the GPS. I'm prompted for the serial number of the device. Okay. I enter it and...

I'm told that the device is registered to another account and the upgrade can't be installed.

It's immediately clear what happened. When I installed the free upgrade I must have created an account and registered the device. I thought this was a on-time thing and evidently didn't record it. A year later I create a new account.

There is an account/password recovery system where they email you the account details. Only problem is, when I try it, they give me the details on the new account I just created, not the old one I've forgotten. There is no tech support on weekends. I leave on Sunday afternoon for my road trip.

This is obviously an anti-piracy measure. If the download only works on one serial number, and that serial number has to be registered to one account, you can't share the map download with your friends. It's also a stupid fail in all sorts of ways.

Okay, just for starters, both accounts were created with the same name, address, and email. The very fact that the same email was used should have been enough to kick out a warning that I already had an account.

It should have warned me that I was buying a download upgrade on an account that had no devices registered to it, and I should do that first. Then I would have at least found the problem before I'd charged this to my card.

Even if it did let me create the duplicate account with the same email address, it should have provided both in the "lost account" email.

But the biggest fail is, if the damned upgrades were priced more reasonably, there would be little incentive to steal them, and all these draconian measures wouldn't be necessary.

But again, map companies have traditionally published maps on folded paper or on books, and charged a lot for them. (When you think about it, a navigation GPS is just a specialized ebook reader with the GPS functionality tacked on.) A Thomas Brothers Guide book for a major city will cost you $25 - 40. There's a lot of detail in one of those books, and my little GPS is the equivalent to a bookcase full of them. Should I be charged accordingly? I do have all that data, after all...

But like most individual GPS users, I rarely use that level of detail, and then not extensively. I've got a bookshelf, but in a given year I take down just a couple editions, and those I flip open only to a page or two.

In fact, I'm a worst case. I live on the narrow Oregon coast, where pretty much all local navigation consists of "drive X-miles north on Hwy 101" or "drive X-miles south on Hwy 101. It's rare to find ANYTHING that's more than two turns off that major highway. I make major use of those maps, a couple cities worth, a little bit, a couple times a year. $70 is pretty steep for something I could do almost as well (and did for years) with a couple folding maps or a $10 road atlas.

And mind you, this isn't a new purchase. It's just an UPDATE to a map I bought with the unit. Common sense says this is way over-priced. Which is a great incentive to steal it if at all possible.

But being a good, law-abiding sort, I tried to buy the over-priced map upgrade, and still ended up screwed. Their poorly designed rights-management and ordering system prevent me from putting the upgrade I've paid for onto the Garmin GPS unit which I've also paid for AND registered.

Somebody's interests are being served here. Certainly not the consumers. Certainly not mine. I'm having evil thoughts about stealing maps.

If you just pirate Orwell books directly, rather than going through Amazon as a middle-man, you don't have to worry somebody will take it away from you in the middle of the night.

In the near-term, that may serve the rights-holders interest. In the long term, it will inevitably bite them in the ass.

Reason in the Digital Age

For rights protection to survive, it has to meet certain requirements, and it must be coupled with reasonable pricing, reasonable terms of use, and ease of access to content, all of which reduce the incentive to steal.

It must be, if not of obvious service to the user (incentives to register, for examples, free replacement if you lose or break your device, or portability between multiple devices with the same owner), then at least relatively transparent. Buying a map update shouldn't be as complicated as getting security clearance from the CIA.

There should not be unreasonable restrictions on individual, personal use of the rights purchased. Restrictions should be aimed at preventing large-scale piracy, and nothing else.

Preventing me from installing a legitimate upgrade onto a legitimate and registered device is a great example of how this can fall apart. When I, as the consumer, try to pay (despite my reservations about the price) for legitimate content, and that isn't working for me, that's a huge incentive to say "screw you" and look for another way to get that content.

Maybe you find a free source, or go to a lower-priced competitor, or maybe you just look for a pirated version of the upgrade. (I know people who bought legitimate copies of copy-protected audio, video, and software, and STILL downloaded unprotected pirate versions to use. Why? Dealing with the copy protection was simply too inconvenient, even for individual use.) But all of these are losses for the rights-owner, as sure as piracy is.

The distinction between licensing and owning content is a difficult one for consumers to understand (there's a separate post to be done on this, which I'll try to do after vacation), but rights-owners should bend-over backwards to make those rights sensible and convenient for consumers as possible. Taking back a book that's already on your device is in no way sensible.

There's a story about the monkey and the jar of nuts. The monkey tries to take nuts out of the jar, but the neck of the jar is narrow and their hand barely fits. There's room for them to take out nuts one by one, but the monkey is greedy, and tries to hold onto a whole fistful. As a result, they can't extract their hand. They're trapped AND they don't get even a single nut.

That's often the case with rights-holders in the digital world. They hold-on too tightly to their content. Ultimately, they get nothing, and neither do consumers.

A compromise has to be found between the needs of consumers and the needs of rights-holders. These two examples show, we aren't nearly there yet.






Monday, July 13, 2009

From manuscript to book: The Christy Evans Story

Steve:

We're rapidly coming up on the release of the first in a series of mysteries written by Chris under the pen-name of "Christy Evans." The first installment is called "Sink Trap," and it will be out in early October.

Since these are under their own pen-name, Chris has set up a seperate blog for "Christy," and has started an interesting series of posts that show some of the steps between completing a manuscript and having a finished book: cover art, cover copy, dedications, and so on.

It's interesting stuff, and the sort of thing that readers (and aspiring writers) never give a thought to, yet its a vital part of packaging and selling a book. It's also a surprisingly personal thing.

The first three installments in the series are up, with more to come. Find them here:


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Living with the Introverted Child


Steve:
The subject of this post may seem a bit off-topic, but it really isn't for two reasons.

First of all, many creative people (possibly you, probably somebody you know) are introverts. Second of all, though (for reasons I will shortly explain) this post is aimed at parents, most of the advice will apply to anyone who lives with an introvert, child or adult, and may even be helpful if you yourself are in introvert.

The inspiration for this post came from a newspaper advice column that caught my eye a few days ago. Now, I don't normally read such columns, and I'm not sure what is was about this one that got my attention, but somewhere on the way to the comic pages I was stopped by a letter about a flower girl.

Yeah, at a wedding. Apparently the bride-to-be was concerned that the girl her husband's family had pushed into the job was going to screw up her wedding. By her accounts, the child was shy, fearful, and didn't want the job. My overall impression was that yes, just possibly the little girl was being pressured into something she didn't want to do, and that the letter-writer was a self-centered bridezilla who should get over herself.

The details of this really aren't important. What really drew me in was the writer's description of the little girl, and the writer's attitudes that could be read into it. If the description was accurate, it seemed likely to me that the girl was possibly more than shy. She was an introvert.

I was also shocked at the scorn and disapproval that was being directed at the girl by the writer. She seemed to see the little girl as some kind of freak or defective, when nothing could be further from the truth.

I will also admit that in my first pass I skimmed quickly through the letter and somehow got the impression that the flower girl was the bridezilla's step-daughter-to-be. As a fellow introvert, I immediately identified with the child, and reacted with horror thinking of the life she would have with her future step-mother. Fortunately, as I went back and reread, it became apparent that the girl was only the groom's niece. Her major interaction with bridezilla would likely be limited to the wedding.

But that horrific scenario was burned into my brain, and being a professional at making-stuff-up, I had to figure that this kind of parent-child relationship exists out there somewhere. Probably lots of somewheres.

Okay, if you're the "evil parent," at this point you might be getting your hackles up.

Relax. I didn't like bridezilla much, but she is she and you are you, and I fully understand how difficult it can be for a parent with an average, or even exceptional level of extroversion to understand and relate to an introverted child. Heck, it's hard enough for introverts to understand themselves.

Trust me, I'm here to help in ways that will make things better for you and your child.

Disclaimer here: I'm no child-care expert. I'm not an psychologist. I'm not an educator or a trained councilor. I am a hard-core creative introvert who has, though self-study and hard experience, learned to cope pretty well with my nature, as extreme as it is.

What is Introversion?
Okay, let's define our terms here. What is introversion? What isn't it?

Shyness and introversion are two different things. It's possible (especially for children) to be shy without being an introvert, and it's possible to be introverted without being shy. In many cases, shyness is something you can work past or grow out of. Introversion is a characteristic of personality and is likely set for life.

Introverts are people who, as a nature of their being, are directed inward. Introverts are contemplative, self-involved, and self-entertaining. They draw energy from within rather than from social interaction. They enjoy solitude, and can't thrive without a measure of it.

Extroverts are directed outwards. Extroverts are more likely to act rather than think. Extroverts are outgoing and constantly involved with others. They can become bored without external stimulation. They draw energy from their involvement and interaction with others. They enjoy socialization and will be lonely and unhappy without it.

Mind you, these characteristics are not absolutes. Most people sit somewhere along a line between these two extremes, often somewhere in the middle. But others (like me) sit closer to the ends of the scale. It's primarily those extremes that we're talking about today.

Also be aware that I use the term energy a lot, but you shouldn't take it too literally. In this context, it's an obsolete psychological term. But I do feel it works as an effective short-hand and metaphor for the the way introverts (and presumably extroverts) experience social interaction.

In introverts such interaction creates stress and anxiety that must be relieved, usually by solitary activities and reflection. It feels like you're expending energy, and it feels like you're getting it back when you're removed from the social stressors and left to your own devices.

That isn't literally what's happening and it's a gross over-simplification, but its an easy handle to put on the more complicated things that are going on in the introverts head.

Introversion is not a bad thing. It is not a defect. It's not something to be cured. It's simply a different personality type, a different way of interacting with the world that has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Introversion is also not a choice. It's wired into the brain, and asking an introvert to change is like asking a wheel not to be round. It's possible to modify some behaviors related to introversion, but the underlying characteristics are there and can't be trained or wished away. Nor should they be.

Many parents may be concerned that introversion may limit the choices and opportunities their child will have in life. That certainly doesn't have to be the case.

As I said, introverts don't have to be shy. Many introverts manage to be socially active and have many friends. Many succeed in professions we might associate with extroverted people, including performing arts, sales, politics, and management. What is important is for the child to learn to be comfortable with themselves and to best apply the abilities and virtues they've been gifted with.

The first and most important thing the parent of an introverted child should know is that introversion does not come with an owner's manual. Introverted children aren't going to consciously know they're introverts, nor are they going to automatically know how best to deal with their personality.

They may eventually figure it out for themselves, but like many things with children, they can use all the help they can get. I went through a large part of my life not really understanding why I was the way I was. I described myself as shy (even though I have, since I was a child, rather enjoyed performing, speaking, and being the center of attention, at least when it happened on my terms). I let my anxiety control me in many social, school, and work situations. I didn't learn to manage my social stresses until quite late in life, after I'd started to succeed as a writer. Your child doesn't need to go through that, and you can make all the difference for them.

We're a conformist culture in many ways, and almost everything your child deals with, from eduction, to media examples, is going to be structured around being "normal," which in the greater scheme of things, just means having an "average" personality. They may recognizes that they are different without understanding how or why. They may have a desire to change and be "more like other kids," and may be frustrated when they can't make that happen.

I suspect that children on the far extrovert end of the personality scale have many similar issues (which, not being an extrovert, I'm poorly qualified to talk about), but they do have one advantage. Where our culture does celebrate nonconformity, it tends to celebrate the extrovert: the head cheerleader, the charismatic leader, the beautiful actor, the bold executive, the action hero, are perceived as extroverts.

It doesn't matter that in real life, these roles are filled by those with a variety of personality types from one extreme to another. Even where introverts succeed, their success often causes them to be perceived as extroverts. Introverted children don't have many role models.

It's important for the parent to understand their child so they can help their child understand themselves. This can be difficult for some parents, especially those toward the far end of the extrovert scale, as they have to understand that introverts simply experience the world in a different way.

At the most fundamental level this can primarily be defined by how introverts react to social interaction, and to solitude.

For introverts, social interaction is, at best of times a source of stress and negative energy. As I've said, that doesn't mean that introverts can't, and don't, enjoy social contact. But they may prefer different kinds and degrees of socialization than extroverts, and they find it difficult to deal with in large or continuous doses.

This is true even if the social contact is desired by the child or positive in nature. Their enjoyment doesn't eliminate the stress and energy drain caused by social contact, and sometimes makes it harder to recognize, or for the parent to accept.

My best analogy to help understand this is to imagine the introvert as being a dolphin, and social contact as being the ocean. Dolphins can dive quite deep, but they are air breathers, and must return to the surface on a regular basis to oxygenate, recharge, and refresh. Go too deep, stay down too long, and trouble will follow. The smart dolphin manages this automatically, "pre-breathing" in anticipation of a long or deep dive, and allowing for recovery time afterward.

Likewise, the introverted child (and their parent) need to allow for solitary or quite time before and/or after intense social activities such as school, parties, family gatherings, or play dates.

Too much uninterrupted social contact can eventually build up stress resulting in unhappiness or misbehavior in the child, such as irritability, stubbornness, crying, hyperactivity, social-withdrawal, vocal outbursts, or even rage.

On the other hand, introverts draw energy from solitude and quiet. As an extroverted child may become lonely if deprived of companionship or stimulation, the introvert will suffer when deprived of time with their own thoughts. Introverts tend to be self-sufficient and self-entertaining. They live vivid inner-lives that extroverts may find hard to understand (and this is part of why introverts are often found in creative arts).

When introverted children choose to spend a great deal of their time alone, it isn't because they're lonely or deprived. They're spending time with their best-friend: themselves.

As I've said, it's possible and desirable for introverts to balance their need for solitude with more social activities and pursuits. But doing this requires effort on the part of parent and child to manage their need for solitude with the stress that can be caused by even positive social contacts.

Management starts with understanding what the sources of stress for introverts are. The primary ones are:

* Social contact or the possibility of unanticipated social contact.

* Strangers or known individuals the child isn't comfortable with.

* Unknown or unfamiliar situations.

* Crowds.

* Loud noise, especially voices.

* Confusion

* Confinement, either literal or figurative.


Let's deal with these one at a time.

* Social contact or the possibility of unanticipated social contact.
Introverts tend to do a lot of pre and post-processing of events. Before entering a social situation they're already anticipating and planning for what may happen, and this may cause them to become anxious, fearful, or to obsess about bad things that might happen.

If possible, the introverted child should be given some quiet, low-stress time before a social event where possible. Allow them to be alone if they wish, though they may also benefit from the ability to discuss their fears or concerns with an understanding adult or friend.

Introverts like to size up a situation before diving in. Being able to examine a social situation from a distance before entering it will greatly reduce stress and help put to rest any of the fears and concerns they've built up over the event. As such, an introvert may find it much easier to deal with a birthday party in an open park as opposed to one in a crowded basement. If the child has difficulty with gatherings, start with the ones which cause the least stress, then gradually work up to the more challenging ones.

In a related matter, introverts can suffer stress simply from the possibility of social contact. Introverts don't like surprises, and they don't like people sneaking up on them, especially when they're already in a stressed state and in need of solitude.

Of course, as a parent, letting the child spend time behind the comfort of a locked or even closed door may not be possible or desirable. But even being able to count on a few seconds of warning before someone appears in their space can be great comfort to an introvert. That warning can be something as simple as a squeaky step at the bottom of the stair, or perhaps knocking or calling ahead (in a normal, as opposed to shrill or angry tone) before appearing in the child's door. Just try to be sure the child has some slight warning before you appear. If they feel they can count on this, it will greatly reduce the stress it may cause.

This would be an appropriate time to mention siblings. Siblings, especially if they share a room with the introvert, and especially if they're extroverts, can be an issue. And extroverted sibling may not allow the introvert the space, alone time, or privacy they need.

This can be a matter of aggression, but more often, it's simply a matter of misunderstanding. If it's difficult for you, as an adult, to understand how the introverted child's mind works differently than your own, imagine how hard it is for the sibling, a child with very limited experience of world. The extroverted sibling doesn't have the same sense of personal-space or need for solitude, and they just don't perceive that they're doing anything wrong, unkind, or disruptive.

It may be desirable to give the introvert their own room, but that may not always be possible. An alternative is to set up ground-rules for privacy and personal-space, to stagger schedules so that the introvert is home at times when the extrovert is away, and to plan solitary activities (such as library study time) for the introvert that are away from home.


* Strangers or known individuals the child isn't comfortable with.
Introverts are more likely to form a small and close group of friends. Meeting and being in the company of new people can be stressful for them. Likewise, people with whom they are uncomfortable can cause stress simply by their presence. When entering situations with strangers, the introverted child may be more comfortable arriving in the company of a trusted friend, group of friends, or an adult, rather than alone.

Authority figures, such as teachers, school officials, babysitters or coaches can also be a source of discomfort and stress, even when the child deals with those individuals on a regular basis. The child should be encouraged to talk directly with the authority figure. It may help if they see a parent talking with the threatening individual, and then are gradually brought in as part of the conversation (rather than just as a subject of interrogation). This can "demythologize" the authority figure just enough to make the child more comfortable with them, without undermining their authority over the child.

* Unknown or unfamiliar situations.
For introverts, anxiety thrives in an information vacuum. If a new event or experience is causing distress for a child, take them to the location where the event will take place. Drive by the building or venue. Possibly even get out and walk around. If possible, introduce them to people they will encounter there, or take them to see other children participating in the same or similar activities.

Knowing the location and some of what to anticipate with make the child more comfortable and less prone to "pre-stressing" before the event.

* Crowds.
Crowds and close physical proximity to others can cause stress in introverts. Introverted children will respond better to events in larger, open spaces, where they have room to move, circulate, and retreat when necessary. Introverts like to be able to stand back and observe conversations and games before stepping in to participate themselves.

* Loud noise, especially voices.
Loud parties, loud music, laughter, yelling and raised voices can be triggers for stress. Be aware that children may find activities such as pep-rallies, loud-games, or sports to be stressful for this reason alone. Depending on the child and the situation, mechanical noises may or may not be an issue. Some children actually can lose themselves in certain kinds of loud noise, and the freedom from casual socialization it can provide.

*Confusion.
Introverts may not multitask as well as extroverts. They often have great powers of focus and concentration that make them great thinkers, planners, and problem-solvers, but they're easily overwhelmed by too much sensory input or too many things happening at once. The introvert will often be more comfortable in large groups when people take turns talking, rather than in a crowded situation where dozens of loud conversations or activities are going on at once.

* Confinement, either literal or figurative.
Just as the introvert can be stressed by the mere possibility of social contact, they can draw comfort from the mere possibility of withdrawal or escape. The simple knowledge that they can stand up and walk away from a situation can make it tolerable. Introverts don't like to feel trapped or restrained.

As such, when possible provide the introvert with a physical escape route from a tense situation. At a crowded or loud gathering, sit near the door, an open window, or a public area where the child can withdraw if overstimulated.

Introverts are also more comfortable knowing they have the freedom to leave. Highly structured events where they aren't allowed to leave or move when necessary will be much more stressful for them.


The Introvert Comfort Zone: Solitude
The parent has to understand that an introverted child who chooses to spend a great deal of their time alone isn't deprived or lonely. They're in their comfort zone, and probably have no need of "rescue" or intervention on your part.

It's important to realize that during these times the introvert is recharging their emotional batteries in a way that will allow them to more comfortably engage in social activities later on. Introverted children chronically deprived of such time find it difficult to ever socialize. Pushing them into social situations and interrupting their private time unnecessarily will not help the situation, and will almost certainly make it worse.

While solitary activities are important, you shouldn't let your child fall into counter-productive habits or activities, such as excessive TV viewing or electronic game play. Many introverts become readers, and this should be encouraged by providing them with ready access to a wide variety of books.

Homework, study and chores are also good uses of alone time, but not all of it. The introvert needs recreational alone time and unstructured time for their own chosen activities.

One other mention about homework and study. Introverts may be less likely to communicate when they have problems with school work. They should be encouraged to express any problems or difficulties they have with an assurance that you'll respond in a helpful and non-critical way.

They should also be encouraged to communicate with their teachers, something introverts may find especially stressful to do. Talk to teachers on their behalf, and try to foster effective communication between teacher and child. That may require all of you to sit down together at a parent-teacher conference and establish a dialog. Try to present teachers as professionals who are there to help the child learn, not frightening authority figures to be avoided.

Introverts may be especially drawn to computers and texting, and there are good aspects to this. They may find socializing by chatting, texting, and social-networking sites far less stressful than personal contact, and it may be a good way for them to make friends and socialize in a low-stress way.

But such activities shouldn't take up too much of their time or allow them to avoid face-to-face social contact completely. On-line activities also carry certain risks for children, and it's important to monitor their use and make sure they're using appropriate sites and services. As with many things, introverts, may be less likely to communicate if they encounter something that frightens or distresses them. It's important to maintain awareness and encourage open communication with the child.

It's good for introverts to have creative hobbies that they can enjoy working alone: arts, crafts, model-building, collecting, working with pets. Such hobbies should be encouraged and supported. They help build mental as well as real-world skills in areas that play well to the strengths of introversion. Hobbies can also provide common ground that may lead to more comfortable social interactions down the road. They can help develop social skills that don't come easily to the introverted child.

Introverted children can also fall into the trap of being sedate and not getting enough exercise. Be aware that introverts may not be comfortable in more common team sports, and may be more attracted to solo sports, small-group sports, or individual activities. The introvert may well prefer swimming, track, bicycling, tennis, martial arts, or skateboarding to football, basketball, or soccer. They may prefer less structured activities that allow them to practice and train on their own schedule, rather than being driving by rigid schedules and team practices.

The common tendency in our society to push children into traditional team sports can be especially destructive when dealing with the introverted child. Offer the child as many options as possible. Encourage them to find some physical activity or activities that they enjoy, are comfortable with, and are willing participate in regularly.

Strategies for the Introverted Child
When planning schedules and routines for the introverted child, keep the following steps in mind.

*Prepare and Plan - Set up mental prep-time before anticipated stressful events. Try to arrange things so that the child enters stressful activities as relaxed and stress-free as possible. For introverted children, the biggest and most universal stress is almost always school, so schedule accordingly. Don't insist the introvert participate in a "family breakfast" if they aren't so inclined, and allow some quiet time after school when possible, reading, study, or play.

More so than extroverts, who often exist in the moment, introverts are planners. They live in the future, and so often suffer stress from events and situations that haven't happened yet, and may not happen.

But the flip side of this is that they can also take comfort in things that haven't happened yet. A child stressed during the school day may take comfort anticipating a regular hour of reading or quiet play after school.

Introverts don't like externally imposed schedules, but they usually have an internal schedule or plan of their own, at least for their immediate future. As such, they may react poorly to unanticipated changes to that schedule.

Mentally, it's like driving a car. You think and plan far in advance of where you are at the moment. If someone steps off the curb in front of you, or a vehicle ahead slams on its brakes, its alarming and stressful even if nothing bad happens.

Try to give the child advance warning to changes in routine. Where this isn't possible, give them something positive to anticipate for later: a nature walk in the park, a trip to the library, an hour to play or work on a hobby; anything that is both enjoyable and will help them restore their mental balance.

*Maintain and Adjust - Help your child to be aware of and monitor their own fatigue, stress, and anxiety level, and to make their needs known to you.

Not every day at school or every regular activity is going to be as stressful as every other. Some days the child may come home from school energized and eager to socialize. But some may be worse than others, and the child may need more down-time to recover.

It's best not to discover the child is stressed to their breaking point only after they begin to act out or show behavior issues. Plan for the average day, but be prepared to see things adjusted according to the individual situation.

Your child will need to learn to take care of their own emotional and psychological needs over time, and fortunately introverts are especially good at reflection and self-examination. But they'll still need your cooperation and understanding as they learn to live in a world biased towards the extrovert.

*Challenge for Growth - As the child learns to better understand and cope with their own nature, encourage them to take on more challenging social activities. This can be as simple as attending larger and more crowded gatherings, or as advanced as public speaking, attending dances, performance arts, or intense team sports.

Don't force the child or shame them into activities, as this plays against the introverts need for an escape hatch. Simply encourage them to examine and try new things with the understanding they can stop or leave if they don't like it.

Our society rewards proactive, gregarious, and social individuals, and these are skills that will ultimately serve your child in life. But they don't come naturally to the introverted child. It's vital for them to see difficult social interactions and activities as challenges to be tested and conquered, not merely unpleasant things to be avoided.

Praise them when you see them pushing their own limits, even if these wouldn't seem exceptional for an "average" or extroverted child. Try to see things from their perspective, even when it doesn't come naturally.

Conclusion -
The worst trap that a parent can fall into is expecting the child to think and respond to things exactly as they do. Human beings exist across a broad range of personality types, each of which comprehend and respond to the world in their own way. We're all wired just a little bit differently.

Difficult though it may be, try to pause occasionally and see things from your child's point of view. Especially try to do this before you criticize or speak in anger. What may to you seem strange and irrational may to your child seem the most logical and rational thing in the world.

You can also help them to understand that not everyone thinks like them. In talking out your own differences of understanding and perception, you'll help your child understand the world and the people around them, and help equip them for greater self-sufficiency in the future.

Understand that an introverted child isn't "abnormal," they're exceptional, with special powers of thought, self-reliance and concentration. Help the child to understand those gifts, even as they learn to interact with, and even enjoy, a mainstream society that often exists just outside their comfort zone.



Copyright 2009, J. Steven York. No reuse or reprinting without permission of the author.

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Friday, July 10, 2009

Yorkwriters.com on Kindle and the Self-publishing Paradox


As an experiment I've just made Yorkwriters.com available for subscription on the Kindle store.

Price is $1.99 a month. Don't complain to me about the price, as curiously enough Amazon sets whatever they think it's worth for you. The provider has no choice in the matter. If it seems high, keep in mind that it includes wireless download with no fees, which I think it one of the coolest things about the Kindle.

If you haven't noticed, the price on the Kindle 2 has dropped too, down to $299. If you're interested in buying a Kindle, you can also support our efforts here by buying it through the Kindle link in the sidebar to your left.

I don't seriously expect a lot of movement on the subscription thing, but it's an experiement in what will likely be an ongoing series of experiments in Kindle (and other types of) self-publishing.

Now, some of you will be saying (possibly screaming) to your computers, "Steve, you and Chris have written extensively and repeatedly about the wrongness of vanity presses and self publishing. What kind of B.S. hypocracy is this?" (If you haven't read what we've said about the subject, check the index of past writing articles on our blogs. It's in the sidebar to your left again, down a ways.)

Okay, point taken. However, I stand by almost all of what we've said on the subject. Though the publishing world has changed and continues to change rapidly, certain basic things are still true:

It's Foolish Not to Exhaust Conventional Markets Before Going to ePub - Yes, things are changing, but conventional publishing is still the major thrust of the publishing industry. These are the people with the exposure, the money, and the market penetration. They're still the people who will actually pay you a significant advance against royalties on things they publish.

Publishing as a conventional book is still (for the moment, anyway) the better deal. That's why ePublishing mega-successes still almost always end up getting printed as dead-tree books eventually.

Submit to the Big-Guys first. ePub new stuff only when you don't have other obvious options.

Money Should Flow Towards the Writer - There are now many electronic and print on demand options that require no up-front expenditure on the part of the writer except for their time and trouble in setting up.

It took me about thirty minutes to establish an account on Kindle Publishing for Blogs and to publish this blog. Cost zero.

There's just no reason for you to be paying money to publish your own stuff. Companies that charge big up-front fees just don't make sense any more, if they ever did.


Most of the Newbies Eager to Jump into Self-Publishing are Wasting Their Time and Cluttering the Internet - Sorry newbies. The great majority of stuff in circulation that doesn't see to a commercial market doesn't sell because it just isn't good enough. Such stuff shouldn't be sold. It may sour the market for your stuff as your writing improves, and you may develop the skills to fix it later. Tricking people into buying stuff that isn't good enough to sell isn't a win, even if it makes you money in the short term.

The Other Side of the Equation
On the other hand, ePublishing offers a possible revenue stream for writing that doesn't have an obvious commercial market (like the essays on this blog), work that didn't sell to commercial markets (but which hopefully is still of publishable quality), and work that has previously seen print, for which the author retains rights, and which is currently not making them any income.

That's what we're looking at. We're still working with commercial publishers, and plan to continue to do so. The ePublishing is a side-project that may generate a little income where there was none before, and that may eventually turn into something more.

Mostly, it's bread upon the waters. We'll see what comes of it.

(Since posting this, I've just read a post by Michael Stackpole on the breakdown of conventional publishing that's a lot more extreme that what I said above. To be honest, I can't find a lot to argue with in it, and it's certainly worth readng.

He does ignore one intangible of conventional publishing that still applies. While, as he says correctly, publishing "brands" don't have much value, collectively, having a recognized publishing imprint on a book, having it appear on shelves in print, and having it show up in bookstores still offers a stamp of legitimacy that a straight eboook doesn't have.

But beyond that, publishers termendiously over-estimate their worth, and it gets worse every day. It's only going to take a few run-away ebooks (and that now seems inevitable) to completely erase the ebook stigma and cut that value to nothing.

Anyway, go read what Stackpole has to say and reach your own conclusions.)

Monday, July 6, 2009

Donation Snafu

Thanks to those who have donated via our new Paypal links. Every time we see one of these, it's an encouragement to do more of these educational writer posts. You guys are great!

But it's been brought to my attention that the link I've been putting at the bottom of posts isn't working correctly. Apparently it takes you to Paypal with no specific link to our Paypal account, so you can't donate The link in the sidebar to your left IS apparently working, so until I figure this out and go back to reedit the older posts, us that.

Meanwhile, this is an experimental post to see if the sidebar code works pasted into a message. Of course, you can feel feel free to help us by seeing if it works.


Your donation, large or small, will encourage us to do more like them. Every little bit helps!



Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Series of Unfortunate Events -- Is Not a Story


Steve:
No, this is not a rant about about Lemony Snicket. It's suggested by a number of posts I've seen from professional writers on various private lists lately. They're talking about something that happens to every writer at one point or another.

It's a close cousin of "I've got this idea! You write it and we'll split the profits!" But unlike that chronic annoyance, it's a lot more difficult to turn away with a clear conscience.

I'm talking about the person with the Great Personal Life Story, the combat veteran, the cancer survivor, that lady who lived through a plane-crash, the man who invented the digital pet-dish, the famous actor's lover, the retired blimp pilot. Their life would make a great book! Write it and they'll cut you in! Or maybe they'll even offer you money up front to take on the job so they can keep all the profits for themselves.

Sadly for them, this isn't the way it works. That isn't to say the people can't, and don't, manage to cash in on their personal tragedy (or adventures) through books. It does happen, and there is sometimes value to be had in the first-person tale or the "authorized story."

But what's had for people to understand is that they even don't HAVE a story until someone (they, or somebody else) tells it. The story is almost never the events themselves. It's the arrangement and editing of those events, and the frame that somebody puts around them. And with rare exceptions, the value is all in the story, not the events themselves.

This gets back to what I think story is, at the most fundamental level. Story is a way of applying meaning and form to the apparent randomness of life.

Completely without evidence (hey, I'm telling a story here), I imagine our primitive ancestors huddled in a cave somewhere against a driving rainstorm. Among them is Oog, who has the curse of thinking-about-these-things-a-lot.

It's been a bad day, just like most every other bad day. This little band of barely-upright fur-people is always cold, always wet, always hungry, always in fear of their lives. Every snap of a twig or new smell in the wind is cause for a moment of panic. Life could be snuffed out at any instant.

For example: there's a sudden stirring at the back of the cave. Naturally, any place this comfortable and dry is already occupied. In this case, it's by a large, cranky, half-awake cave bear. The little band runs, screaming and chattering, for their lives, back into the cold and the rain. All except for poor Mek, who was just a little too slow today and is now bear-food.

The band again shivers in the cold and the dark, huddled together for warmth. In the distance, thunder cracks, and they all jump in unison, their hearts pounding as one.

Oog thinks about poor Mek. So random. It could have been anyone, even Ogg himself. Or could it?

What if Mek weren't Mek? What if Mek were, say, Meek? Meek who he just made up. Meek who is lazy, and does not do his share in gathering food, and does not stand watch, and complains when the others run and he falls behind. Meek is slow, and lazy, and would deserve to die! All would be right with the universe.

Oog smiles and feels better, and will be certain to share this with others just as soon as they develop this language thing.

Now, imagine a variation on this scenario. Mek is the lazy one, and Oog doesn't like Mek much. He still tells the same story. But there is no name changing, and Oog feels better yet. (Or consider that Mek is the hard-working one. The one who does things for others. The one who runs just for the fun of it. Mek is still dead, and Oog has invented "irony.")

Should Mek profit from his "story?"

No, because he is dead.

But also because there was no story until Oog came up with it. Until Oog did that, Mek was just another dead ape-man in a long line of ape-men. And really it doesn't matter if Mek is the hard working, good ape-man, or the lazy, bad ape-man, or just your average ape-man. The story still all rests with Oog coming along and giving the common and simple events of Mek's death some kind of meaning.

In fact, I am pretty sure that non-fiction story came first. Mek was Mek, no matter what. His veiled counterpart Meek came later. Later still came his completely-fictional cousin Mook, who was killed in a great hollow tree, not a cave, and not by a bear, but by a stone that turned into a horned-turtle with the claws of a lion, and who sprung back to life out of turtle-poop because he was too-darned-mean to die.

See where we're going here? Mostly, the story is in the telling, not the living, even when you're telling your own story.

The tale of poor Mek also points out one other sad fact. Getting killed by a bear in a cave is pretty dramatic. Certainly poor Mek thought so (if he was thinking anything at the end beyond: "Aaaaa! Bear!"). In fact, if Mek were around to consider it, he'd likely put it high on the list of the biggest things that ever happened to him.

But the plain truth is, Mek's story wasn't that unusual for his people. There are lots of bears (and lions, and wolves, and...), all of them are hungry, and the fur-people are weak, slow, and tasty. Though his end was very special and important for him, and though it would be special and important for anyone else it happened to, in the greater scheme of things there just isn't much to make it stand out.

Back to real time. Try telling that to the person who lost their leg in Iraq, or their eye to cancer, or their wife in the 9-11 attacks, or their child to a terminal disease. "Yeah, it's awful, but it's just not that unusual, and on the face of it, there just isn't much reason for people to be interested."

Lots of people got hurt in Iraq. Some were killed and never came home. Lots more were shooting and getting shot at and nearly getting blown up, and on some days, that could be exciting too.

People get cancer every day. Children die every day. Maybe your wife died in 9-11, but so did thousands of others. People get murdered. Get in car crashes. Plane crashes. Fall into farm machinery. Human existance -- all of human history -- is full of tragedy, horror, wonder, and miracles. What the hell makes you so special anyway?

Cold.

Cruel.

True.

Perhaps I've made it seem like these people are often selfishly seeking fame or fortune or both

Some are, sure, but many are not. Many of these people, I think, approach writers because they are themselves struggling to find some meaning in the events of their lives. Either they hope the writer will pencil that meaning into the blankness of their existance (in which case they perhaps don't need a writer, but a therapist), or actually believe that if they can inspire a book, that will itself be the meaning they seek. "It was all terrible, but at least I got a book out of it." "Perhaps my terrible story can inspire or comfort others and that will make it worthwhile."

In either case the book isn't what the subject of the book needs. It's an imperfect means to an imperfect end; one likely to disappoint everyone.

There is one more reason why the subject of such a book may not be satisfied with the result. An important aspect of story is that it wraps that package of random events up in a neat package. It trims off the fat, plumps it up in the middle, and gives it a beginning and and end.

People, too, have beginnings and ends, but they are rarely the end-points of good story. Former U.S. President Richard Nixon's memoirs famously (thanks to "Saturday Night Live") begin with the words "I was born in the house my father built." Does anyone really care? Nixon did. The rest of us, not so much.

The movie "Patton," starring George C. Scott is a riveting biography of a WWII General George S. Patton, a man whose character was so mythic, his style so colorful, his role in history so great, his failings so ironic, that it practically did write itself. It swept the Oscars and was a landmark of its day. But few people remember that Scott played Patton again in a 1986 TV movie called "The Last Days of Patton." It's based on the same book as "Patton," and has the same Oscar-winning star in the role, but it isn't much celebrated.

There could be many reasons for this, but the most obvious is this: It tells of a fallen Patton, his best days behind him, suffering a terrible auto accident that severs his spine. Scott spends most of the movie on his back in a hospital bed, fish hooks in his face to immobilize his head. Love the man or hate him, this is not how you want to see him. "Patton" found the place to end Patton's story, and it was not on his deathbed.

Likewise, Mek's story perhaps does not end with snapping teeth and ripping claws. Perhaps it ends when he makes the fateful decision to tug the members of his little band towards that cave. Perhaps it ends when, Reh, who feels Mek has wronged him, does nothing to stop the band from going in. Perhaps it ends with Reh sitting alone in the rain, waiting for the screams to start, crying at his betrayal of Mek, who he both loves and hates.

Who is Reh? Why have we not mentioned him before?

Like I said, finding the story in facts is about knowing what to pull in, and what to throw out. Perhaps Mek would have wanted to include his brother Nek, who will doubtless greatly mourn his passing. But from the story-tellers standpoint, Nek may not figure in at all. It is Reh, who Mek barely knew existed, who makes for the better story.

Perhaps this isn't Mek's story at all. Maybe it's poor, tragic, Reh's, and Mek is only a distant figure, the object of his self-destructive obsession.

"Hey," says Mek, "what about me?" (Translated from the cave-man.)

That's the other thing about the person with the tragic past or the fascinating life. They may be part of a really fascinating story, but they may not be the center of the story. And they may not like that. They may not like it at all.

Really, there are stories everywhere, and in some aspect of these people's lives, there likely are fascinating and compelling stories to be told. But in stories of this type, my experience is that the best ones are usually written from the inside, by the people who experience them and have found some meaning in the story of their lives, who have reached some kind of peace or understanding with events therein. Sometimes these people will have a writer as collaborator to turn the story into prose. But story and manuscript are two different things, and I get the sense that the story itself comes from within.

Or they're written by independent observers who approach the facts from a distance. No matter how close they ultimately come to the subject matter, they circle in like bloodhounds to sniff out the story within the larger events and to pick out what is most important and central to that story.

An example of the former: Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. This fascinating book works on multiple levels, both as a study of animal behavior, as the story of author Grandin's life coping with autism, and finally as the story of how her condition allowed her the insights to create that study.

I'm sure Johnson had a great deal to do with the form of the final text, but I suspect the story itself could only have come from Grandin, it being a fascinating, inspiring, and occasionally shocking trip inside the mind of someone whose brain is wired completely different than yours or mine. It's the story of someone who understands themselves as well as they understand animals, and ironically, in the same way, for the same reasons.

An example of the latter: The Perfect Storm - This book, by Sebastian Junger, tells one of those tragic, dramatic, and yet timelessly mundane stories: Men go to sea in ships. Men don't come back. It could have been any men, any ship, any time, any place.

Yet this is a gripping and powerful book, and he makes this story stand above hundreds of others like it that could have been (or have been) told. He makes these men, this ship, this storm, this loss seem special and unique, and yet in a way that honors all the more "common" stories that go untold.

Especially interesting is the fact that a good deal of the book dramatizes details of the men's last hours that are unknown and unknowable. Though based on general facts, it's almost made up out of whole cloth. In this case, it doesn't matter. It's a mythic tale of men who stand up against the gods themselves, and though they go down, they do so with honor, courage and recognizable humanity. The story is that of the men who died, yet it is completely Junger's.

It's hard not to feel for the person who comes to you with the most personal and tragic events of their life, hoping for you to put them into words, and ultimately, into print. It's hard not to sympathize, to empathize, and to start looking for the inevitable threads of story you, as a writer, see in their experience.

But my advice is to listen patiently, nod knowingly, and back slowly away. If they cannot tell their story themselves, then you may already to be too close to tell it for them. If they pay you, then they will expect the story they want to hear, not the one that should be told. If they do not pay you, then you are on an uncertain road with many detours to ruin, and few to happiness and success.

Tell them they should perhaps write their own story, and direct them to a class, a workshop, or a favorite writing book. Tell them it's a very interesting story, but you really don't do this sort of thing, and you wish them luck in finding a collaborator.

Tell them anything. Be kind. Then get clear.

These are dangerous waters, and you'd be wise to steer away without good cause to do otherwise. You are a writer, and this probably isn't a story you have to tell. You're a writer, and you know stories are everywhere.

You're a writer, and you know this isn't where your story must begin, or where theirs will end.




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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Bad News - Sydney T. Cat, Bad Agent, not accepting new clients

Response to our post "Announcing the Really Bad Literary Agency," has been overwhelming -- mostly from writers wanting to sign with agent Sydney T. Cat.

Sadly, Sydney reports that she is not taking on any new clients at this time. (Bad agent! No catnip!) Her dish is full so to speak. (Actually, she has an auto-feeder on her kibble dish, which is why she's as fat a cat as she is today. Strangely, as an agent, this makes her all the more desirable.)

Still, she has an intense desire to exploit -- uh -- help every struggling writer out here. To that end, Sydney is accepting questions about the writing business to which she will respond publicly with her famously bad advice. So if you have a question about how publishing works, submissions, manuscript format, editors, agents, royalties, contracts, or anything else, just drop it in a comment at the end of this message, or email it care of me ( j-steven-york @ sff.net ) and she will try to get to it in a future post.
Until then, Sydney suggests the best thing that you can do for your writing career is to keep yourself warm in a Sydney tee-shirt from her shop, pick up your favorite catnip toy in your mouth, and tunnel under a blanket to wait for help.

Because, doing nothing is always better than possibly doing the wrong thing. (See, the bad advice has already started!)

Hopefully, Syd will talk to you soon.

Purrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.