April 8

What’s My Job?

Every once in a while I sit back and consider my writing career. It’s hasn’t been illustrious, but it’s been fun. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words, both fiction and non-fiction, and I have more ideas than I know what to do with. Nowadays, I focus solely on fiction. I love being able to imagine all sorts of weird and wonderful scenarios and put them on the page. But there’s one thing I keep asking myself: What is my job as a writer?

First and foremost, I think my job is to entertain. That’s true of all forms of art – movies, television, music, books, painting, sculpture, photography. The point is to entertain your audience, to distract them from reality for just a bit. I know many people who come home from work at the end of the day, fix something to eat, then plop down in front of the television for a few hours and get lost in a story. Some of them get lost in books, or looking at art galleries online, or put on headphones and get carried away by music.

This type of entertainment is akin to therapy. So, in effect, entertaining people is providing them with therapy. Maybe it’s stress relief or a distraction from the bad things in their lives. It’s like providing a mental health service. At least, I like to think so.

But that’s not my only job as a writer. I also think I’m charged with helping my readers to think differently, to see things from another angle. I’m not necessarily saying that it has to be ethical or moralistic, although I do try to slip that into my stories on occasion. In some cases it might be helping them to see the other side of an argument, or maybe seeing things from someone else’s perspective. I feel that most people, myself included, can get so wrapped up in their lives that they end up in a bubble, seeing only themselves and focusing only on their own wants and needs. Sometimes it’s healthy to pop the bubble and see through another person’s eyes.

I know that writing from another perspective has made me question my own opinions and suppositions. For example, I’ve written stories from a female perspective. It’s not intentional. I mean, I write based on what’s called for by the story. If the story needs a female protagonist, then that’s the voice I try to capture. But writing this way, seeing through a woman’s eyes, has made me see some of my own gender’s shortcomings. It helps that I have women in my life that I can use as resources. They read my drafts and let me know if I’m getting the essence right or if I’m way off base. I think it’s an educational experience and I hope my readers feel the same way.

Another example is my short story, “Sunwalker”. The protagonist is a Native American. Now I unfortunately don’t have any Native American people in my life at the moment, but I’ve known a few over the years and I’ve read a fair amount of their history here in the U.S., so I tried to convey what I felt would be the experience of the last Native American in the world. The thing is, it was a tough story to write because I had to imagine myself in this man’s situation. He’s the last Native American in the world, his people have all died off. Now he’s receiving special treatment from the government, something his people never got to experience, and he doesn’t like it. He’s dealing with guilt, depression, and a need for something more.

Even though I’m well aware of the terrible things Native Americans have gone through over the past few centuries, writing this story made it more personal for me and it ended up being a difficult story to write on an emotional level. The feedback I’ve received on the story has been mostly positive. My readers were entertained. But honestly, I hope the story was more than that, that it helped them to see the world from the eyes of my protagonist, what he and his people had to deal with, what they had to overcome.

When it comes down to it, my job description can have sub-entries of “entertainer” and “influencer”. I’d be happy with that.

RB

April 6

The Future of Publishing

What does the future hold for the publishing industry? It’s hard to say with any certainty. With the world so interconnected via the web and the new possibilities that holds, there’s no telling where it may lead.

Consider magazines for a moment. For short story and novella writers, magazines were the go-to way to get published for over a century. They were everywhere – newsstands, racks in the checkout line at the grocery store, on shelves in the pharmacy, and pilled up in stacks in most waiting rooms. It seemed like they’d always be here.

But with the advent of the internet back in the early to mid 1990s, magazines began to decline. Most have either quietly shuttered their doors or moved into the digital realm (much like newspapers). What used to be a viable market for writers to get their work published is now a shadow of its former self. I find it sad. When I was a kid I loved reading stories in the magazines I received each month in the mail. Asimov’s, Omni, Weird Tales…

The thing is, getting published on a website just isn’t the same as seeing my name in print. Maybe that’s an old-school way of looking at it, but I don’t think anyone can deny how cool it is to pull a magazine off a rack in a store, flip to the table of contents, and see your story title and name printed there. But, unfortunately, those days are mostly gone now.

The other big change over the past decade or so has been in traditional book publishing. The big publishing houses are pickier than they used to be. They are more concerned with the return on investment than they are with finding new voices. They want known quantities, books that are guaranteed to sell. With more writers in the field and less opportunity, the only viable option for most authors is to self-publish. Obviously, it’s not the same as traditional publishing, much like publishing short stories on websites rather than in print magazines. But still, it provides an option for writers who don’t want to wait months or years to find out if their book it going to ever make it to a bookshelf.

Self-publishing is now a huge industry. I was late getting on that bandwagon. I was one of those people who felt I needed to go the traditional route, to work with an agent and all that jazz. But over time I realized that I didn’t want to deal with the waiting and the uncertainty. It’s not that I don’t think my stories are good enough. I’m damn proud of the ones I’ve written. It’s just that the traditional market isn’t what it used to be and I needed to evolve.

But what’s next? While I see some of the big publishers beginning to consolidate, there are also a lot of small, indie publishers popping up on the literary landscape. While that does provide some new opportunities, there’s still the concern for a return on investment. I can understand that to a point. No one wants to lose money. But at least with the indie publishing houses you can get a quicker turnaround and still get to see your name in print.

For now, I think that self-publishing will continue to grow. As long as the companies behind it – Amazon, B&N, and the others – don’t overstep and try to take advantage of the authors using their platforms, it will prosper for all parties. Of course, who knows what may be down the road? Maybe new formats, new options, new platforms will be invented and utilized. What it all comes down to is getting the stories out there and making a little money. If those two needs are satisfied, writers will flock to it.

We just have to be patient.

RB

April 5

The Prometheus Project Podcast, Ep 27, is Available!

In this episode I discuss the magic and power of poetry, how we can learn from it, and how we can make it more relatable to younger readers. And I even read a few stanzas of Walt Whitman’s I Sing the Body Electric.

The podcast is available at iTunes, GooglePlay, Spotify, and PodBean. Or if you prefer, I also have a YouTube channel.

If you’re enjoying the show, please leave a comment on whatever platform your using, and be sure to tell your friends.

RB

April 3

Favorite Books

What’s your favorite book? Ugh, I hate being asked that question. Not that it’s too personal or anything like that. I hate it because I can’t name just one book. And even then, it depends on my mood, where I am in my life at any given moment, and if I can remember a specific title off the top of my head.

I’ve read hundreds if not thousands of books over the years. I’ve explored the classics, science fiction, fantasy, poetry, magic-realism, speculative, surreal, mystery, and political. And so on. I also enjoy non-fiction like history and science. I’m not necessarily discriminating when it comes to reading. If I have the faintest interest in something, I’ll read it.

Now I do know people who only read specific genres and nothing else. While I personally find that limiting, I don’t hold it against these readers. They’re still reading and that’s what matters. But I feel like reading in only one or two genres is like getting your news from only one or two sources. You’ll end up with a limited view.

In my opinion, reading a little bit of everything exposes me to so many more ideas and experiences. It’s an education. Fiction can teach us about emotions, relationships, the repercussions of our decisions. It can give us hope, longing, and inspire our dreams. Fiction isn’t just about telling a story. It’s about creating an experience and exploring it. Non-fiction provides us with facts and truths. It’s the rational side of our education. Together, they can help make us more rounded individuals.

With this in mind, I’m sure you can understand the issue I face. Even trying to narrow it down by asking what’s my favorite book in each genre doesn’t help much. There are still so many fantastic books to choose from. Additionally, what I may have considered a favorite book when I was thirty years old isn’t necessarily still going to be a favorite when I hit sixty.

Then there’s the fact that some books require more than one reading. For example, Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, is a book I reread every decade. Why? Because I get a different perspective of it as I grow older…and arguably wiser. Same with The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I’ve probably read them all at least a dozen times over the years and for the same reason I reread Hesse’s book on Buddhism, because age gives me a different perspective on the nuances of the story.

So when I get asked to name some of my favorite books, I freeze and mumble and have to explain all this. I also add the disclaimer that there are going to be books I forget to mention…and will inevitably remember an hour later. “Oh crap, I forgot to mention that one. Oh, and there’s this other one I should have brought up…” And so it goes.

Perhaps one of these days I’ll compile a list of my favorites. It’ll be a long one and constantly revised, an evolving work in progress. Until then, if you’re interested, I list all the books I read on the Reading List page here on my blog. And if you feel so inclined, feel free to share some of your favorite titles with me. I’m always looking for new authors to discover.

RB

April 1

How Many Drafts?

I was recently speaking with another writer and they asked me how many drafts I usually go through on an average short story. I had to think about that one for a few minutes. I mean, we kept talking…there wasn’t a five minute gap of awkward silence. I told him I’d have to get back to him on that one.

So I started running through the past handful of stories I’d written and thought about my process. Generally, the first draft goes quickly. I don’t begin writing until I at least have the first page or two in mind. Once I get to that point the gears are rolling and the rest of the first draft comes out in a rush of words. It might take me a couple of days, maybe a week, to get it all out, but that’s due to time constraints.

After that, I usually let the story sit for a week or two. I don’t like to re-read or begin editing the first draft until I’ve had some time away from it. By the time the first draft is finished I feel like I’m too close to the story and need that time away to get some perspective. It’s like being in a relationship. You love to be with this other person, but sometimes it’s good to spend a little time apart so you can miss them and think about how awesome they are.

When it comes to rewriting, every writer has their own method of madness. For me, I do a read through of a printed copy of the first draft with red pen in hand. I prefer paper because I find it easier to make notes in the margins and I’m less inclined to begin rewriting before I’m ready. Once I make my initial edits, I open the file on my MacBook and make the first pass. This is mostly going to be superficial edits, like cleaning up some ideas, fixing spelling and grammar errors, maybe giving my characters proper names (I use filler names on the first draft).

After I’m done with that, then I give it another read through and begin thinking about the plot, the overall arc, and the ending. One thing about my stories, it’s very rare for the original ending to make it all the way to the final draft. I find that by the second or third draft I’ve made some changes to the story that require the ending to change. I’m not sure if this is true for other writers, but it seems to be my modus operandi. I may have a specific ending in mind at the beginning, but I always let the story dictate where things end up. It may be neat and tidy or it may be messy and ugly, but I don’t decide that. It’s all up to the story.

The second draft is where the heavy changes come into play. This is the point where I make sure things tie together, that my characters are chasing their wants or needs, and that things tie up the way the story requires. Once I’ve made my second pass, I let it rest again. At least a week, but there are times when drafts have sat for years. Sometimes it’s due to other stories taking my attention, or maybe just life in general. But that time away from it always helps.

Third draft? Sometimes. I’m sure there are people who would argue that my stories could use a third or fourth or fifth draft, but I find that by the time I hit the second draft the story is there. I’m also one of those writers that believes there’s such a thing as too many rewrites. Overkill. My stories are never perfect and they never appear on the page quite like they do in my head. But I’m not going to fuss over it and spend an abundance of time trying to get it just right. Why? Because I’ll never be completely happy with it. I know this and I accept it. The best thing I can do is write a good story, make sure it’s close to how I imagined it, then cut it loose.

In the end, it comes down to the individual writer. We all have our own methods for writing and editing. Sure, we probably all start out following some specific method, but over time we find what works best for us. That’s really all that matters. Tell the story your way. Write the story your way.

RB