Category Archives: digital media
At TWC, we’re forever expanding the definition of the concept of “writing”. Composing words into works goes beyond prose and poetry, especially in the digital world where we can all tell our stories in so many different ways. But the keyword is always “story” – how to tell it in the best way that it can possibly be told, as one of our newest TWC instructors, Cynthia Granville, shares in her guest blog, “Story, Study, Practice, Craft”. – Judith
In the current issue of Filmmaker Magazine, when the Chair of Columbia University’s film department, Ira Deutchman, discusses what sets his program apart, he cites its concentration on storytelling. “You’re a storyteller when you’re a director, writer or producer. No matter what we teach, it’s always about concentrating on telling a story.”
This focus on storytelling is something I have made a priority in my own work as a filmmaker, and even in my approach to roles as an actress.
Much has been written about the democratization of filmmaking due to the availability of professional quality equipment at a much cheaper price point than ever before. What can set our work apart in the growing number of films being made as a result? Attention to telling a good story. It’s a strong story that touches a nerve or a heart.
Later in this same article, Cressandra Thibodeaux, a Columbia graduate, is also quoted. While having some positive things to say about her educational experience, she advises aspiring filmmakers who are going into film production NOT to attend film school. “…you should just be doing it…. With production, you just kind of need to do [the thing itself].”
For me, this points out the challenge that faces those of us whose disciplines, like writing and filmmaking, are also called “crafts”. (Merriam Webster: an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill). As craftspeople, we must practice. We need to write; we need to make films. We can’t improve unless we do. And if we continue, we will create better work and be better at our craft.
A writer needs a pen and paper, perhaps a laptop, a word processing program. Years ago, a filmmaker had to hope to get into a film school where equipment was made available, or apprentice at a studio. Today we can start with that very same piece of paper and pen to create the story we want to tell; then we can use that very same laptop and its included camera to start practicing how to tell that story on film or video. Or we can work with a cell phone, or the point and shoot camera we got as a birthday present. When we are one day able to access better equipment, we’ll know exactly what we want to do with it to tell our story. How exciting that we don’t need deep pockets these days to make a film that can last forever!
As a young actor, I was inspired by Dustin Hoffman’s Oscar acceptance speech, when he talked about all the out-of-work, broke actors who “practice accents while you’re driving a taxi cab.” He called them “that artistic family that strives for excellence.” As we continue to strive, we seek those stories that we simply have to tell; and we study, so that we have the knowledge we need to tell them. Then we practice, so that we can tell them the best way we know how.
Cynthia Granville is an actress, director and filmmaker who works in theatre, film, and television. She teaches VIDEO OVERLOAD: Making Stories for the Small Screen to middle and high school students at The Writers Circle.
Kathy Lynn Harris and I go way back – all the way to the first writing conference I ever attended, in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, some 15 odd years ago. The conference, in addition to solidifying my ambitions to become a published author, also gave me a great gift ― our enduring long-distance friendship. I’ve shared Kathy’s frustrations when her worthy novels were passed over for publication ― many times getting very close. Now I am thrilled to share the story of her eBook success as today’s guest blogger at The Writers Circle. — Michelle Cameron, TWC Associate Director.
I began my fiction-writing journey by just putting pen to paper, joining a critique group, reading everything I could get my hands on, and attending writer’s workshops and conferences as much as my day-job would allow. Through the years, I finished one novel, and then another. My manuscripts placed in a couple of regional novel-writing contests. I landed a New York literary agent, then an even better one on the West Coast. My novels were pitched to all the Big Publishing Houses. The result was a “maybe” here and a “maybe” there, all of which eventually turned into a solid “no”. The feedback? Interesting stories, good character development, but plots that were “too quiet” to make it past the All-Powerful Marketing Departments.
I licked my wounds for several more years but kept writing, having some moderate success publishing children’s books, poetry and essays. But one of my fiction manuscripts ― Blue Straggler ― persisted in keeping me up nights. I loved my characters — Bailey, Idamarie and Rudy, a quirky threesome of unlikely friends. I loved my settings — rural South Texas, the city of San Antonio and a small mountain town in Colorado. I liked what the story had to say about friendship and family secrets and discovering who we really are inside. I liked that no matter how many times I reread chapters, I smiled. I knew it was a polished and well-edited manuscript. Readers (and not just family members or friends, by the way!) seemed to enjoy it. It just seemed like such a waste to have it sitting in that proverbial desk drawer gathering dust.
Then, in 2011, I began to travel by plane a lot for my job. I noticed the gradual rise of the e-reader — probably two out of every three fellow travelers were now reading on Nooks and Kindles, and then iPads and other tablets. The ebook was reaching a tipping point.
I reconsidered why I wrote Blue Straggler in the first place. I quickly realized that what matters to me most is pretty simple. I want readers to enjoy the story and characters. To read a passage and laugh. To think about something just a little bit longer than they might have otherwise. To read the last page and consider that their time with my story had been time well spent.
And I recognized that I didn’t really need to be on a Random House bestseller list to feel good about my work.
I made the decision to get in on the ebook action. I spoke with a friend, Jeremy Kron, who helped me navigate the ebook formatting world. He was also — lucky for me — a wonderful interactive designer who designed my book cover. Together, we prepared Blue Straggler for publication as an ebook via Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing Program and Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! Program in August 2011.
Positive reviews began to come in from readers and bloggers. People began to talk about the book via social media. Sales were promising. And then an independent publisher, 30 Day Books, emailed me with interest in publishing Blue Straggler as a trade paperback in early 2012.
Within four months of releasing my novel as an ebook, I signed a contract. The paperback’s official release date is March 1, 2012 (even though it can be ordered right now via Amazon).
The moral of my story? Well, I could stick with the age-old adage, “persistence eventually pays off.” But really, what I’d rather other writers know is this: Technology and ebooks have opened up a whole new path to publishing, whether it be self-publishing or catching the attention of traditional and indie publishers. If the conventional gatekeepers have declined your work, but you still believe in it with all your heart, and you want and need to get it out into the universe, it can pay to take a chance. It did for me.
Stay tuned for Kathy’s second guest blog in a few weeks; she’ll be discussing her experiences working with a small indie publisher as her first novel debuts.
You can read more about Kathy Lynn Harris and Blue Straggler via her author website at http://www.kathylynnharris.com/. Check out Kathy’s blog, as well. And connect with her via Twitter (@KathyLynnHarris) and Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/BlueStragglerFiction).
Every time I begin with a new class of young students, I sit them in a circle on the floor and ask them to imagine that they’re sitting around a campfire long ago. “In the ancient days, the storyteller was the keeper of all the tales – the people’s myths and legends, stories of their ancestors, heroes and history. The storyteller’s words had power. They were almost magical. And the storyteller was one of the most important people in the community.”
All of us are privileged to be storytellers, even still. But the “magic” that we use are words – written words on paper…on the screen…on the internet…on our iPads. Perhaps it no longer really matters what media we use, so long as our stories are written, read and preserved.
I came across an article in The Atlantic about Moonbot Studios which has been developing some absolutely amazing storytelling apps for the iPad. One of Moonbot’s founders is children’s author William Joyce whose imagination entertained my children frequently in their earlier years.
Among Moonbot’s projects are the charmingly poignant “interactive narrative experiences” The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (on the web only as an animated short. You need an Ipad to get the real thing.) and The Numberlys. Both are, for me, the first proof that storytelling can indeed be enhanced by technology, at least in young children’s literature that already relies on a highly engaging visual element.
And yet I cannot agree more with the February 12 article in The New York Times, The Beauty of the Printed Book, which began: “Some things seem designed to do their jobs perfectly, and the old-fashioned book is one. What else could be quite as efficient at packaging so many thousands of words in a form, which is sufficiently sturdy to protect them, yet so small and light that it can be carried around to be read whenever its owner wishes? The pages, type, binding and jacket of a traditional printed book do all of the above, as well as giving its designer just enough scope to make the result look beautiful, witty or intriguing.”
My heart wrenches at the thought that the precious object called “the book” – in fact the only objects of any real value in my personal possession – will be no more.
One medium does not supersede another – at least not entirely. Most people no longer go to theater, opera or ballet often. Though all have become more rarefied, more specialized, people do indeed go. If picking up a book – one made of paper – becomes a rare privilege, has culture really lost? Or is it simply getting its stories in another way?
Creations like The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore and The Numberlys are more like movies or video games. But they do tell stories, create characters, and share rich thoughts and experiences. They may not be “books”, but does it really matter?
These digital forays won’t replace the tomes that fill my bookshelves double-deep or the experience of actually reading “Pride and Prejudice” or “War and Peace”. Those experiences are unique, composed in their original form because that was the form of their times and creators. And I have clearly expressed and demonstrated to my sons that reading the book is almost always better than watching the movie.
But this strange new amalgam of story, game and video is SOMETHING – something powerful, something memorable, something intriguing. They’re the beginning of a new kind of storytelling – the kind that knocked the storytellers off their pedestals while creating entire new realms of learning and creativity.
They are also the only things so far that have made me regret buying an Android tablet (and saving $300) instead of springing for an Ipad.
The Times They Are a-Changin’. I see it again and again. I’m no longer worried so much as bemused (or amused) at the wriggling that the entire book industry is doing right now, trying to find a comfortable fit in so many new and unfamiliar positions. I am wriggling, too, growing The Writers Circle even as I finish the fifth (YES, FIFTH!) draft of my latest novel. Clearly I’m not the type of author who can churn out a book every year. Teaching and supporting writers has become a vital, beloved, and invaluable part of my journey.
In the meantime, here are just a few of the curious and inevitable adjustments being made in every corner of the bookish world.
First, if you don’t already know it, self-publishing is no longer the taboo “vanity” publishing it used to be. It’s first mega-star, Amanda Hocking, is making every struggling writer start to think, “Hey, I can do it myself, too!” Whether or not that’s true, be sure to read Storyseller, for a look inside the industry-changing success of this author who got there the wrong-way-round.
Next, there’s the squirming of independent booksellers. Whether they’re trying to make a profit or just trying to stay alive, they’re starting to charge admission for readings. This extremely controversial act of desperation is explored in Come Meet the Author, but Open Your Wallet from today’s New York Times.
On the pre-publication front, digital is now the way to go for galleys. A galley, for those who don’t know, is an uncorrected proof – a copy of a book that’s just about, but not quite, final. These used to go out to booksellers, reviewers and librarians in unexciting single color covers that you’d sometimes find on the used book rack or down in the basement at The Strand. When I published my book, they’d already gotten pretty fancy. My galley looks like a paperback copy of my hardcover, cover art and all. Well, now you can get galleys on your iPad or Kindle. It makes sense. Why pay for printing and shipping when the book’s “not quite ready for primetime” but you’re hoping to drum up interest? Check out NetGalley where “professional readers” can request titles before they are published for review purposes. (And if you think, “Hey, aren’t we all ‘professional readers’?” check out their publisher requirements to see if you qualify.)
All of that said, I’m forever a traditionalist. And my focus more and more is on the how and why of writing, and less and less on the how and why of publishing. First, it all makes me anxious. Life’s anxiety producing enough. (I have two young sons… Need I say more?) Second, most of this is completely and utterly outside my control. But I can gain much wisdom and solace from good reading, good writing and good writing advice. So I turn to an old master – believe it or not Stephen King, whose books I cannot read (remember, life’s anxiety producing enough, per above?), but whose writing on writing is as direct and accurate as one can get.
I was as tickled perhaps as he to find his short story, “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive” in May’s issue of The Atlantic. And I know that he was pleased because he said so at the end of the accompanying Atlantic interview, Stephen King on the Creative Process, the State of Fiction, and More.
For him, as for any of us, seeing our work in a high-end lit-mag like The Atlantic or The New Yorker is a bit of a dream come true. Even he got rejected: “I can remember sending stories to The Atlantic when I was a teenager, and then in my 20s and getting the rejection slips.” Of course, he wasn’t “Stephen King” back then…
In any case, read the story first, because the interview gives a few minor spoilers. In both cases, I appreciated in his work, his candor, his characterization of writers, especially those who are past their prime and yet still working to express what cannot be expressed, and most especially his characters’ recognition that sometimes even the power of words is not enough.
What does it mean to be a writer today? For most of us, we are piecing it together, taking the hours when they come, squeezing our words into lunch breaks, between classes or meetings. We fantasize of having endless hours to dally with our muse. In truth, even writers who have found their way to praise and publication can rarely afford to hole up in a quiet cabin and type away.
What’s a writer to do when there are characters in our heads demanding to speak? When there are endless stories churning in our minds like stars in a nebula bursting to be born?
First, we take what time we can.
As I’ve often said in class, if you can’t get three hours, why not try a half hour, fifteen minutes, or the time you can steal when you’re in the bathroom with the door closed? No, this isn’t the best way to complete your epic novel. But it’s enough to get words on paper, to spit out one or two baby stars.
Second, we take (or make) jobs that support our work.
The typical day-job for a working writer is university professor, ideally in an impressive institution that permits long sabbaticals, tenure and only minimal class loads. It sounds idyllic to those who wile away on the corporate wheel. But I’ve known corporate workers who manage to arrange a morning or day off each week to write; I’ve known full-time employees who stay late or come in early for the quiet time it gives, or who write back and forth on the bus or train. (Do NOT sit next to me and chit-chat, please!)
I myself wrote my first novel (the unpublished/unpublishable one) in between typing memos at the boring law firm job I held for many years for that very reason. And I recently expanded The Writers Circle because the idea of being my own boss and teaching children the joys and struggles of writing was so much more appealing than going back to the old commute. Its small start has brought me joy and comfort that what I think is important and valuable and rich maybe really is; and I’m doing my best to share its wealth (metaphorical, so far) with others.
Third, we write what we can.
These days, being a writer can mean many things. Writers are journalists, food critics, marketers. Many writers I know in our suburban New Jersey towns have become roving hyper-local reporters and editors, covering town hall meetings and t-ball games to hone their skills, build their credits and keep their feet in the game. I’ve known writers to accept gigs ghost-writing, working on financial reports, textbooks, advertising or technical manuals. No, perhaps it’s not heart-felt work, but it’s writing. Any chance to craft thoughts and ideas into sound, logical forms is a chance to rightfully call oneself a writer.
Fourth, we write what we must.
I, on the other hand, have never been very good a writing for writing’s sake. Even when I worked in information technology, I avoided the lure of technical writing for fear that it would drain me of any creative word-smithing energy I had left. I was happier doing something completely different, to “save myself” for my true love, awaiting my attentions when I finally made it home and, before I collapsed completely, spent a few hours in anxious, exhausted communing with my characters and worlds.
Neither way is perfect, and neither is a sure route to success. We need to feed our souls and minds as well as our bodies. Finding the right balance is a matter of personality, endurance, opportunity and ultimately choice. As with most things, we all do the best we can.
Fifth (and this is a new one), we publish where we may.
Is working on this blog – or any digital project – any less valuable than writing fiction for print? I guess it depends on your point of view. In a landscape of changing readers’ habits, shortening attention spans, media inundation and a shrinking traditional publishing pool, just about any writing venue is worth exploring.
Self-publishing has lost much of its taboo. And though I personally wouldn’t make it my first choice for developing a broad readership, it’s certainly becoming a viable option for many. It works well for anyone with very direct access to a small but specific market. Profession-specific non-fiction comes to mind readily. But then, who can escape the stunning success of self-publishing fiction superstar Amanda Hocking? Even if your spinal column quivers at the very thought of self-publishing, isn’t it too soon to say? There were naysayers and obstructionists (namely the Church and the elite) when Gutenberg first introduced his machine.
Writers and creative artists are also discovering ways to use digital forms to convey stories in unique and innovative ways. Starting years ago with primitive hyperlink novels, these digital formats are slowing helping us reshape the whole concept of storytelling. Like a brand new set of paints to an artist, new digital venues, including blogging, texting, super-short “Twitter” fiction, video-logs (vlogs, I’m told), and a combination of some or all, invite us into explore and reshape our thinking about story.
Isn’t all of this writing? And honestly, isn’t it fascinating?
We may dream of big readerships, big advances and a seat on a couch beside a talk-show host. But if that’s all we’re working for, we will almost certainly fall short of our goal. And if that’s all we see, maybe we’re turning west to watch the sunrise.
If we want to call ourselves “writers”, the task is before us. Simply write and write and write. Then find a way to put our words into the world. These days, for better or worse, doing that is much easier than it used to be.
Finding readers…? Well, that’s another story.
I was listening to NPR on the drive home the other night, hearing how we should be preparing for the rise out of this economic downturn. They were advising everyone to keep retraining, keep improving our skills, and to stay attuned to our industry, so that we’ll be “ready for the next wave.”
Well, in publishing, the next wave has already crashed. Many of us are swimming around, trying to find something to grab onto. Just yesterday, the news was rife with stories about the new Google eBookstore. It’s an encouraging sign that Amazon finally has competition in this exponentially growing segment of the book market. At the same time, those who adore the book as a physical object must resign themselves: digital books are here to stay.
There are some pretty cool things about this new digital horizon. First, your “book” can turn into a wild, multimedia experience. Check out Interactive Alice and enhanced Narnia. These are truly fantastic examples of what the digital platform offers.
But what does it mean for creative writers like ourselves? Are we expected to become multimedia wizards, able not only to write wonderful stories, but to create “books” that are more akin to interactive, animated movies? Will this part of the publishing process become the purview of our publishers, taking the author’s ageless craft and enhancing it, pairing us with digital illustrators as we have only been paired in the world of children’s picture books before?
It’s a fascinating prospect, one with tremendous creative and marketing potential. But, as you can see from the tried and true titles digitally enhanced above, there has been a pretty solid market for a book before publishers are likely to make that kind of investment. For now, digitally enhanced ebooks are likely to remain a fantasy for all but the most well-known or tech-savvy authors.
Meanwhile, we writers must still ply our craft, refining our skills and our stories as we hang on for this uncertain, if exciting, future. Some of us are already experimenting with new forms, like friend and local novelist Pamela Redmond Satran and her blog novel, Ho Springs. The blog format, with its generally short entries (well, maybe not mine!) is a fascinating venue for developing new forms of fiction. There are other, even shorter formats out there, as I detailed in my post last year, The Evolutionary Invention.
I find all this fascinating, a real cultural revolution. As Haruki Murakami mentions in his recent New York Times essay, Reality A and Reality B, “The novels and stories we write will surely become increasingly different in character and feel from those that have come before, just as 20th-century fiction is sharply and clearly differentiated from 19th-century fiction.”
Eventually, great art may come from this short-attention-span, digitally enhanced new medium. The questions we must all ask for now are:
- What form will our stories take?
- How will they be read?
- How will they be appreciated?
- What will really move our readers?
These are the same questions we’ve wrestled with all along.
In the end, does it really matter what form our product takes? We are, all of us, just storytellers, aren’t we? Stories were told orally long before writing existed. As I tell my youngest students, “Imagine yourself sitting around a campfire listening to a storyteller’s words. Now imagine that you are the storyteller. Now imagine that you want your story shared in a village hundreds of miles away.” Writing, and particularly the printing press, made it easier for those stories to survive and be passed along. The new digital media is just Story’s next wave.
It’s been a while since I wrote one of my “eBooks are transforming the world” rants. Maybe because I’m as confused as the next publishing professional. Maybe because the media world is changing so rapidly that none of us, no matter how diligent, can keep up. Maybe because I’ve given up trying to understand what’s going on.
It used to be that the concept of “reaching the singularity” was far-fetched science fiction. As futurist and author Ray Kurzweil puts it, “The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.” Honestly, his definition is more optimistic than I’d heard. I always understood the term to describe a moment when technology would evolve so quickly that it would literally leave the human race in the dust.
Does anyone feel the velocity of the tech revolution picking up speed? I do. Lately it seems many of us feel we’re hanging onto the roof of an out-of-control train by our fingernails.
And it’s not just writers. Look at anyone who has decided to buy an iPad or a new Smartphone. How do you want your media served? Personally, I pick “over easy”. A very intelligent friend recently spent a week in agony after purchasing the latest must-have device. Is it really worth wasting all that time figuring out how to make the damned thing call your mother while you read thirteen newspapers, buy a gift, answer twenty emails, and order food for dinner?
I use my cellphone only to make phone calls and it works perfectly.
And what about all that time lost for daydreaming?
OK. You all know that I’m a loud advocate for “living simply“. But a couple of recent articles in The New York Times (including the above link) seem to indicate a trend that I’m not the only one. Outdoors and Out of Reach observes a scientific study of the brain on and off “digital speed”. And an Op-Ed, Reclaiming the Imagination, presents a fascinating argument for the evolutionary value of human imagination.
Wait a minute… Imagination is a writer’s stock-in-trade. Is this really something we have to justify?
But these are the times we live in. It’s easy enough to dismiss, easy to hide our heads in the sand, but eventually we will get left behind. The singularity is coming and we’re all running to keep up, however reluctantly.
So, in the spirit of running together, check out The Brian Lehrer Show’s new weekly segment, Book Futures. Topics so far have included The Rise of EBooks and The Fate of Bookstores. (Or perhaps they should just be conflated to read: “The Rise and Fall of the Publishing Empire”.) More predictions will be forthcoming from Michael Cader, founder of Publishers Marketplace and the daily industry newsletter, Publishers Lunch. (You probably should subscribe to both, if you don’t already.)
Of course, predictions are just that. No one can see the future. I’m thinking back to my blog-post, The Evolutionary Invention, that linked to “The Message Is the Medium” by Wen Stephenson, published in 1995. Stephenson argued strongly and philosophically against the effects on onscreen reading. His predictions clung amusingly to the inherent and indelible value of experiencing words in physical print. Today we’re having the same argument, but the result is a fait accompli.
Yet literature is surviving. Or is it? Either way, it’s a startling reminder of just how rigidly embedded in our own experience each of us can be. Who are we to judge this strange monster we’ve made? Whatever it is, like it or not, there’s no putting it back where it came from.