Is there a limit to how much you can read in a day? How do you strike a balance between consuming and creating?
For a while now, I’ve struggled with these questions. As someone who spends most of my day reading for both work and for pleasure, I wonder how much I can handle. When does too much reading lead to fatigue and information overload?
Here’s why I love Anne Lamott’s book Bird By Bird: it is full of practical and commonsense writing advice. Lamott can explain the essentials of writing better than anyone else I’ve read. And not just the practical skills of writing, but the reasons for writing every day.
Here’s a quote I found while re-reading Bird By Bird. I wanted to share it with you this morning because it captures the reasons why I write, and why I started this blog:
“Writing and reading decrease our sense of isolation. They deepen and widen and expand our sense of life: they feed the soul. When writers make us shake our heads with the exactness of their prose and their truths, and even make us laugh about ourselves or life, our buoyancy is restored. We are given a shot at dancing with, or at least clapping along with, the absurdity of life, instead of being squashed by it over and over again. It’s like singing on a boat during a terrible storm at sea. You can’t stop the raging storm, but singing can change the hearts and spirits of the people who are together on that ship.”
― Anne Lamott, fromBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
How do you manage your writing goals when dealing with life, business, or family?
It’s a common question for writers, and one we all face. I’ve discussed some of the ways I stay sane and productive when I’m at my busiest, and I use strategies like digital detox and writing in notebooks to focus. But now, I’m faced with even more time management problems now that I’ve moved and started a full-time freelance editing business. Some client work is coming in, and now I have to maintain a productive schedule.
With my recent move to Central Florida, my routine has changed. I’ve found it difficult to keep up with my writing schedule now that I’m here, and it has meant that I’ve had to refine my habits.
That’s why I found comfort in this article from Mathew Henderson titled “It’s Ok To Be An Awful Writer.” In the article, Henderson gives some excellent advice for all writers worried about their craft:
It’s okay to be an awful writer. In fact, I suspect most great writers are also terrible writers. It all depends what you show people.
I think this is the key to beating the empty screen. Because it’s the pressure that kills, right? The urge to write the next great novel, or make a boatload of money with scandalous, (un)literary smut, or prove what a deep, deep thinker you are with stark poems about the common man. The pressure is too consistent, too constant, to ever get anything done.
So, yield to mediocrity, accept that the next word you write is likely going to be the wrong word and keep going anyway. The real worst case scenario isn’t that you might write something bad–you have a recycling bin (real and virtual) that can and should overflow with bad writing. The worst case scenario is that you might write nothing at all.
He goes on to give advice on how he avoids the pitfalls of writer’s block:
1. Each and every time I go to write, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to fail. It doesn’t stick with you. The pressure doesn’t go away. I sit down, and I want each word to be the next word of the best thing I’ve ever written.
2. Some people write very slowly, word by word, editing as they go. They are rare and beautiful creatures. You’re probably not a rare and beautiful creature. You’re probably like me.
My personal approach to writing is similar to his: I believe in freewriting and scheduled writing times every day, usually in the morning. I come up with my best ideas this way. I do a lot of my early drafting and brainstorm on paper instead of the computer to avoid the blinking cursor. I also try to take notes throughout the day when I think of an idea; my smartphone and notebooks are full of random notes.
The key is to stop worrying about being awful and just write. It ends up better than you think.
While the old guard complains and wishes things were like “the good old days,” many of today’s most inventive authors are bursting from the seams of their books and breaking free from the screens of their e-books. The rise of 3D printing might lead to many more authors making objects instead of, or in addition to, text. Some of the doomsayers have worn sandwich boards predicting the end of the book or author and others have rallied for e-books, most of which constitute a reading experience that is more portable and less alive or vital than the printed book.
Amid this calamity, a cadre of authors has tinkered with the conventional forms of narrative, expository, and graphic novel-writing. These authors make inside and outside of the boundaries of traditional publishing. They cannot be dismissed as fringe. All have the request pedigree of print publications and have been well vetted. Examples of authors pushing past the edge of the page include the aforementioned Matt Kindt, Jenifer Egan, Geoff Schmidt, Ander Monson and many more.
Matt Kindt frequently sells small vials of mini Altoids mints labeled “cyanide” as well as other collectible tie-ins with his espionage-centered works. Kindt has also made what he described in an interview as “The world’s smallest comic.” He has not heard back from The Guinness Book of World Records yet.
What Kindt is doing could be dismissed as mere merchandising, but an author-as-maker can see how these physical objects, which have some text on them, are extensions of a rhetoric and a narrative beyond the confines of the book. George Lucas is commonly known to have made fortune on the mechanizing of Star Wars. That may be true, but beside the point. How did the collecting and playing with Star Wars action figures and paraphernalia extend, prolong, and provide infinite variations on the world Lucas created? How can other authors, using 3D printers, make their worlds of text manifest themselves into physical objects besides books?
The Pulitzer-Prize winning Jenifer Egan utilizes a Power Point presentation as the format for an entire chapter of her novel, A Visit From The Goon Squad. In the months leading up to the release of the book, it was released online to a great response. Though this is not a text manifesting itself as an object or creating some interactive experience, it does push the novel into another dimension, giving it vitality outside its print or e-book version. Any Power Point presentation, in fact, could not get more “real” than the one Egan created for her twelfth chapter.
Ander Monson is one of the best examples of author as maker. While he has published fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction – five books in total – his contributor biography in an anthology called The Late American Novel notes that he “is the author of a host of paraphernalia including a decoder wheel, several chapbooks and limited edition letterpress collaborations, a website” (161). All of these are things Monson has authored, and it is interesting that these objects were put before the books on this list. Monson also is the editor of Diagram magazine and according to their website they released “an anthology of celebrating ten years of this little kickass magazine [which] takes the form of a full deck of cards”.
Monson’s essay in The Late American Novel, “Finallyfast.com and Playing the Book,” does not echo the siren song of hags and hacks like Scott Turow. Monson is like Odysseus who tied himself to the mast and coated his sailors’ ears in wax – he has heard enough death and saw others wasted upon the rocks – he has stayed his course and mapped routes that others might follow. After some talk of the bad news and the coming challenges facing writers he turns a corner and calls writers, authors and makers to action:
The good news is that a lot of these formerly forbidden spaces are opening up to writers. We would be wise to remember that we writers are first makers. That we can make paper–any size we like, not just the 8.5” x 11” American default “letter size”–out of wood pulp. That we can hand-mix our inks. That we can physically letterpress those inks into that paper and feel the physical impression…That we can do whatever we want with design. (94)
Authorship is more than the sentences, Monson suggests, and if writers do not realize this he says “we risk obsolescence, or at the least, irrelevance” (95). Monson also suggest that authors consider the participatory shift in media as “young readers–want to find ways of interacting with stories” (92). In short, one future of the book Monson seems to suggest is experiencing a book as a game.
Monson, Ander. “Finallyfast.com and Playing the Book” The Late American Novel. Ed Martin, Jeff and C. Max Magee. Berkeley: Soft Skull Press, 2011. 90-96. Print.
Whether you call it self-publishing, vanity publishing (a term no longer used, it seems), or — as Guy Kawasaki spins it — “artisanal” publishing, it’s clear that as digital publishing tools improve, more writers are publishing content.
Some of this content is quite good and sells well. The successful self-publishers are able to make a living off their books and use social media and blogs to promote their work.
But these success stories are rare. Most self-published authors will struggle to find and keep readers. On one level, that’s not such a bad thing. As we figure out what works and what doesn’t work in digital publishing, we will find which approaches writers work with the most.
Two articles about the future of publishing stuck out to me this week. The first is from April’s issue of Wired, titled “Book Publishers Scramble to Rewrite Their Future” by Evan Hughes. Since this article is in Wired, it portrays digital publishing as a significant and important shift: “[E]very aspect of the existing framework is now open to debate.”
Hughes points out successful self-published writers like Hugh Howey and Amanda Hocking to make his case that writers who publish on digital platforms, like Kindle’s KDP program, can find success. He also cautions that most will not, saying that “most self-published authors have trouble selling a copy outside of their immediate family…they lack professional help or the imprimatur of quality that a publisher can bring.”
Another interesting fact from the article: most Kindle owners buy “five times as many books from Amazon, print and digital, in the ensuing year as they did in the prior one.” Clearly, there is a market of readers who are willing to take risks with new books, self-published or not.
On the other side of the argument, Salon.com’s Laura Miller argues for the traditional publishing route in her article “Books Aren’t Dead Yet.” Miller’s main argument is that the traditional publishing route gets authors into bookstores.
Indie bookstores are more popular than ever before, and that’s because readers still want to browse books and get recommendations from people they trust. Without access to the bookstore, and without the backing of a publisher who can push the book through the correct distribution channels, many authors watch their books fade away.
Miller also points out this important fact: authors who find success in e-publishing often get picked up by the traditional publishers:
New self-publishing enterprises are a godsend for traditional publishers because they can take much of the uncertainty out of signing a new author. By the time a self-published author has made a success of his or her book, all the hard stuff is done, not just writing the manuscript but editing and the all-important marketing. Instead of investing their money in unknown authors, then collaborating to make their books better and find them an audience, publishers can swoop in and pluck the juiciest fruits at the moment of maximum ripeness. As Hughes points out, that’s exactly what happened with erotica blockbuster E.L. James.
She thinks Hughes and other advocates for digital self-publishing miss a larger point: most writers will fail at this, and fail badly, without the support of a publisher. She is wary of traditional publishers disappearing any time soon.
To a certain extent, I agree with Miller. I do see traditional publishers scrambling to change their approach, but the book is here to stay for a while. E-books and e-readers are complementary to the print book market. While they represent 20% of the publishing market, according to Hughes and other experts, many readers still prefer print. Also, many readers who prefer digital (like me) still buy books and magazines in print and enjoy both modes of reading.
I take a wait-and-see approach to this: we’ll see what works and what doesn’t when the technology improves and the traditional publishers figure out what to make of digital publishing.
Since I know a lot of my readers self-publish their work: what’s your experience been like? Have you had success? How do you measure success, more specifically?