Friday, July 18, 2014

Books are more than stories

Books are pyramids

Bear with me. I'm not saying that books are literally solid geometric forms with five sides. I'm not proposing a radical change in book publishing format.  It's a metaphor. A simile, really, with a silent like hiding behind the statement. If you're in the mood for a little thought experiment, come along with me for a tour around the idea of book creation as pyramid-building.


Story

Story is the solid base of the structure. Without a good foundation, your work fails, crumbling into the jungle soil and vanishing without a trace. You need a good story. The tricky part is defining the word "good."  Your heart and the audience should be the sole arbiters of merit, but historically, the economics of publishing did not allow everyone to put written stories in front of an audience. Thus was the  publsihing industry born. Neal Stephenson provides a fascinating analogy for the publisher's role in his answer to the second question in this slashdot interview.

Story is the element most often dismissed by gatekeeping editors and agents. Publishers know what sells now, and they want what they know. There's little room for originality. New ideas and marginal topics get filtered out. Changes in "what sells" occur in faddish surges. This is the element that has been washed clean by the flood of self-publishing. Fir the first time in decades, possibly centuries, a huge variety of stories are being made directly available to an audience eager to judge them.

Story is only one element, though.  A trite, cliched, clumsy story can be a bestseller. There are four more elements that must be built and polished before a story can--or should--be called a book. They are all important, they all rely on each other, and they all work together to create a singular result. As long as the story works, it will hold up the rest.

Craft

Inspiration, imagination and ideas are the bedrock of the work.  Now I'm talking about the mechanics of writing, and this craft, it's a complicated mining engine. A writer digs around in her imagination, pulls out ideas, and then crafts them  into a series of words that the mind of another person can use to rebuild the same idea. Think about the miracle that is communication, and be awestruck. We reduce concepts like eternity to four syllables, confident that our readers will divine the same meaning from the same construct. It's a miracle, really.

 Spelling, grammar, and structural guidelines are tools that make miracles happen. Know your tools. Treat them with care. Learn to use them properly before you get creative with them.  Then get creative. I drive screws using a power drill with an accessory rather than a screwdriver. That's my choice.  I mix metaphors with abandon when writing the POV of a character who dissociates her emotions into animal form. That's my choice too. I can also accurately use it's and its, there, they're and their, just as  I know how to use that power drill without putting out an eye or gashing myself bloody.

 If you haven't mastered noun-verb agreement, if you can't place a period where a full-stop should occur, if you are shaky on tenses, then you are not ready to publish. You are ready to write, to discover, to explore your ideas in text-- all this, yes, please do-- but be aware of this unhappy truth: when presented to others, your work will slump like concrete made without gravel and collapse beneath its own mass of errors.  (Am I milking the building metaphor for all it's worth? You betcha.)

Cover

Until we stop being a visual species, humans will make initial judgments by sight. Every book needs an image that says to each passing reader, "C'mon, look at me. Touch me." Some shout that message in bold words on fields of stark color, some flirt with bared bodices and naked torsos, some whisper it with a subtle swirl of pastels, but the message is the same.

If you can't buy or create professional designs, stick to a simple cover with minimal graphics. Less can be more. Less is definitely better than Bad. Your cover doesn't have to be dazzling. It simply has to avoid sucking. Your blurb comes under the aegis of "cover" even though it is text.  You're not trying to explain your book with the blurb. You're creating a brain image that tempts the reader to engage. Clickbait the heck out of it. Humans respond to specific phrases as if they were enticing images. I wrote an article about that once. More views than anything else I've ever written, and it's about nothing.

Components

Once a reader opens the book, the cover's work is done. The job of the book has barely begun. There's more to the text than the content. If you distract, disgust or confuse your readers, they won't stick around long.

Getting to know all the parts and pieces of a book beyond the body of the story takes a whole 'nother skillset. As with the cover, either hire a good workman, or collect your own tools and practice with them. Ignore the traditional forms at your own risk. You can make stairs without bannisters, but people fall off. Let me outline a few of the safety features readers expect to find in Your Book  2014 edition:

  • A font that sets the mood for your book and smooths the way for a reader's eyes to reach past letters to meaning. Typography is worth a post in its own right. I'll write it, I promise. 
  • Appropriate front matter -- include at minimum a title page and copyright statement, and if you want your book in libraries, you'd better know what cataloguing information to tack on.  Do you need a table of contents? Maybe, maybe not. Do your research. 
  • Back matter that encourages further reading & engagement. (About the author. About the world. Properly paginated appendices. All that jazz.)
  • Running page headers and page numbers.
  • Chapter & section decorations. 
 I love electronic publishing because so many safety features come standard with the vehicle. Page numbers? Pfft. They don't exist. Running headers, tables of contents and font choices? Generated automatically. Huzzah! I can concentrate on the essentials!  That said, I love flourishes and decorations and dropped capitals when done right. They make a book more than a sterile string of words.

If you're killing trees for your creation, treat their sacrifice with some visual honor. Using default screen fonts for print publishing is like wearing flip-flops to a friend's wedding. Sure, she'll understand. She knows you. She might even think it's funny. It's still a sign of disrespect, and she's not the only person at the event. Sloppy front and back matter content flags your book as an amateur production.  You insult your readers by refusing to polish your presentation. If you don't care enough to dress up, why should they care enough to come to the party?

Criticism

By this I mean the assessment and evaluation of your work by others, before publication. This last side makes the structure stable. It brings everything together. Some forms of art are more participatory than others. Storytelling is impoverished by isolation. Book publishing is crippled by it.  I won't say writing without an audience lacks purpose.  Diary keepers everywhere know the deep satisfaction of writing for an audience of one. In most cases, however, stories improve on being heard, and writing improves on being read. Books improve on being seen and their errors corrected.  No one is an island. No artist can view their work with the same clarity as an objective observer. Get advice and feedback on all aspects of your book: story, craft, cover and components. You can do it all yourself. You can go it alone. Your work will likely be the poorer for it.

And now we're done...

There they are. A base and four sides that diminish as they rise,  leaning against each other to form the sharp, clear point. I had to describe each piece individually, but it's normal to work on several sides simultaneously, building toward the top as you go along. As you create, you work first on one element, then on another, then the next, until you reach that final peak.

And yes, the view from the top is stupendous.

The analogy works for me. What do you think?

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