Some Thoughts on Donald Maass

Desert View Visitor Center Bookstore_0024Over at “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing,” J.A. Konrath and Barry Eisler are dissecting a recent publication by literary agent Donald Maass. Konrath and Eisler do an excellent job disassembling Maass’ arguments point-by-point, and if you have the time you should stop by and read it.

For my part, there were two things that stuck out and that I couldn’t let go by uncommented.

Here’s the first point:

First, e-books have not hurt the print publishers but rather have helped them. Especially in the recent recession, low-cost/high-margin e-books have been a bright spot. They’ve kept publishers profitable even as brick-and-mortar book retailing has shrunk and consumers have grown cautious. With the mass-market paperback pricing itself nearly out of existence, low-priced e-books have arrived (with help from the Department of Justice) to keep value-conscious readers reading. Of course, the difficult and expensive business of selling print books must still be faced but at least there’s some gravy to make the task tasty.

This is the beginning of a trend that continues through all Maass’ argument, and it’s troubling. Maass is a literary agent. His client is supposed to be the author, the one actually creating the words. Instead, he seems to spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on how well the publishing companies are doing and never really addresses how any of this innovation is helping the authors. By the end of his argument, it seems pretty clear that Maass sees his authors not as his customers, but rather as his product that is to be fed to his real customers, the publishers.

Which leads directly into the second thing that got me kind of riled up.

Second, the self-publishing movement has been a boon to the print industry. Far from being threatened, print publishers instead are now gratefully relieved of the money-losing burden of the mid-list. Like giant banks that have discovered that banking is boring and the real money is in gambling, big publishers are now free to focus on the high-risk/high-reward game of finding the next Twilight, Hunger Games, Game of Thrones or Fifty Shades of Grey.

This is amazing. This is truly gob-smacking.

It’s difficult to know where to begin.

The mid-list consists of the authors who routinely turn out work that the publishers like and will put out, but who never rise to the sales levels of a James Patterson or a Stephen King. If you’ve ever read a book from an author you didn’t recognize, only to realize they have five or ten other books out and you still haven’t seen them on the bestseller lists or seen any of their work turned into movies or television shows, chances are you’ve encountered a mid-lister.

The vast majority of Maass’ clients? Most likely mid-listers.

Most of the authors who make their livings off of their writings?

Mid-listers.

It’s safe to say that if you have a full-time author who isn’t able to afford a solid gold swimming pool, they’re probably a mid-lister.

And they are not, by definition, a “money-losing burden.” The accepted definition of a mid-list book is one that is not a bestseller, but sells enough to economically justify its publication. The fiction that the mid-list loses money on a regular basis is a necessary fiction, given that most mid-list authors will never see enough royalties to pay back their advance.

And not only does Maass not give them any of the respect they deserve as the workhorses upon which these major publishers are built, but he actually has the nerve to suggest that the publishing industry is better off without a mid-list. 

The mind boggles.

"The Day of the Doctor" — Tiny Moments, Big Implications

image"The Day of the Doctor" was a fun, freaky episode of "Doctor Who," wasn’t it?

Oh, wait.

First things first — this episode of Doctor Who originally aired on November 23, 2013 and holds the Guinness world record for the largest international simulcast.

It is now January 14, 2014. That should be enough elapsed time for me to discuss episode spoilers without destroying the viewing experience for anybody out there. By now, you’ve either seen it, had it spoilt already, or you don’t really give a damn about spoilers.

But, nevertheless—

There are spoilers beyond the break.

This is your final warning.

Read More

The 2014 Public Domain Could Have Been Awesome.

IMG_0357The list of what would have fallen into the public domain this year (if the law still looked the way it did before 1978) is pretty impressive and more than a little bit heartbreaking. Thanks to the copyright extensions that began in 1978, here are some ideas for your year that are completely useless.

  • Write and perform your own translation of Samuel Beckett’s Fin de partie (better known to English-speaking audiences as Endgame).
  • Adapt and perform (or just re-publish) Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
  • Make your own damn adaptation of Atlas Shrugged.
  • Print your own copy of The Cat in the Hat and illustrate it yourself.
  • Write a musical based on Elliot Ness and Oscar Fraley’s The Untouchables.
  • Do a mind-bending audio drama of A.E. Van Vogt’s Empire of the Atom.
  • Remix 12 Angry Men.
  • Set “What’s Opera, Doc?” to a dubstep beat.
  • Upload Elvis’ final Ed Sullivan appearance to your own YouTube channel and provide commentary on how ridiculous the decision to censor his hips was.
  • Stage West Side Story for free.
  • Score your indie action film with “That’ll Be the Day,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “All Shook Up.”

Editing (For Content) On The Fly

Salt Lake City LDS (Mormon) Temple As someone with many varied interests, every now and then I come across a story that causes strong conflicts in my own emotions — like this KSL story about PureMedia, a startup founded by members of the LDS church, whose new product is an app that will edit objectionable content from ebooks.

It’s not the first time that entrepreneurs (who happen to be LDS) have developed a technology-based business based around making popular media more LDS-friendly. You might remember Cleanflix, which offered rentals of edited Hollywood films. There’s a fantastic documentary on the business and its competitors where you can see clips from the Cleanflix-approved edit of The Big Lebowski.

So here’s the conflict.

  • As an artist, I get a bit riled up whenever people decide they need to change an artist’s work to make it “better.”
  • As a techno-utopian, I get excited by technological opportunities for audiences to interact with their media and do more with it.
  • As a fan who grew up with George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy, I’m very defensive of an audience’s right to enjoy the media the way they want to enjoy it.

But I think what ultimately wins out in me is the evangelist for democratized media. And that’s the part of me that just does not understand.

Fifty Shades of Grey produits dérivésFirst of all, it does not understand the fascination that the customers of these services have with consuming media that they know features content  they don’t wish to consume. It seems to me that — all questions of the quality of the writing aside — someone who is disgusted by graphic depictions of sex and/or bondage should probably not be reading the Fifty Shades trilogy, even if they’re reading an expurgated version. 

And, second, that part of me does not understand why someone wouldn’t just create their own alternative. In fact, there’s an entire cottage industry dedicated to it with its own professional organizations and everything. And even if there weren’t, we live in a world where services like CreateSpace, Kindle Direct Publishing, and so forth make getting to the worldwide market insanely easy, whether you’re a Christian who wants to write mysteries, a Wiccan writing young adult fiction, or someone who routinely mixes up Smithsonian Magazine with Hustler. Given all of that, why do you need a system to alter work that already exists? Why not let the work stand as it is, aware that it may not be something you want to consume?

Kindle Worlds Gets Even More Interesting: Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut

Well, that was unexpected.

I popped by Kindle Worlds to check out the rules for writing a story about The Dead Man (a series I was already interested in trying to write for) when I noticed a very familiar charicature mixed in with the logos for Pretty Little Liars and The Vampire Diaries.

They have a Kurt Vonnegut World.

A quick glance at their “canon” carousel shows that they’re accepting submissions based on, among others, Slaughterhouse FiveBreakfast of Champions, and - among my personal favorites - Bluebeard: The Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1916-1988). 

This is where the Kindle Worlds model just got, well, worlds more interesting.

It’s one thing to license out franchises like The Vampire Diaries. It’s yet another thing to help artists kickstart their long-form works into new franchises (like Silo or the Foreworld Saga).

But licensing works that frequently wind up on required reading lists? That’s… unexpected. Potentially disastrous. But, at the very least, it’s going to be interesting.

Sketching Your Ideas

When I was a theatre student at Virginia Tech (longer ago than I care to admit), I started every directing task by making sketches inspired by the text.

Often, the sketches had nothing to do with the physical reality of the final work. These were not costume or set renderings — they were just my ideas given shape, usually in the pages of a fancy sketch journal. And at some point the cast would see the journal, and hopefully get an idea of how I was seeing the show in my mind’s eye.

It’s years later, and I find myself preparing to direct The Winter’s Tale for Open Air Shakespeare NRV. This time, however, the sketch journal is digital, living on my iPad in Paper by Fifty-Three. Which means my sketches get to be a little more elaborate — a little more color, a little more playing with the texture of different tools.

But still, the core concept remains. The images are there in my head. It’s not about getting them onto the stage (or screen, as the case may be) verbatim, so much as it’s about getting them drawn so that I can see my thought processes.

And then I can start to build on those thoughts — creating something that’s completely different, but still heading in the same direction.

Take Him for All in All

“He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.”

    — William Shakespeare, Hamlet


I’ve been editing The Winter’s Tale for a production I’m going to be directing. Editing Shakespeare is always an interesting task. When you start out slashing lines and cutting scenes, you get a real sense for the poetry and rhythm, and how much your edits are hurting it. You see lines that are eloquently written — and that you truly love — disappearing under your pen, and it doesn’t take long to start to feel like the hackiest hack in all of hackdom.

Then, somewhere around the final moments of your first pass through the text, you start to realize something. Shakespeare was, first and foremost, a writer. An amazing writer — a writer that is unsurpassed in the English language — but still a writer. And as a writer, he dealt with the issues that all writers dealt with.

Shakespeare had deadlines to meet. He had actor egos to consider. He had wealthy and demanding patrons to satisfy. None of these things make him any less of a writer, but they all become more and more obvious the more time you spend parsing his work.

Shakespeare

You Mess with the Colbert, You Get the Rockettes

Stephen Colbert ran into a scheduling problem on last night’s show, and it inspired this bit of lunacy that’s trending heavy on Hulu right now.

And like a lot of great comedy, this has a deeper meaning behind it.

Specifically, whatever you do, don’t mess with Stephen Colbert’s scheduling.

Let’s recap the situation leading up to this.

  • Stephen Colbert scheduled Daft Punk to be on his show so he could declare their single, “Get Lucky,” the song of the summer.
  • MTV — which is owned by the same parent corporation as Comedy Central — claimed to have exclusivity on Daft Punk’s television appearances leading up to the MTV Video Music Awards.
  • Daft Punk’s handlers claimed they gave MTV no such exclusivity.
  • MTV used their still-considerable muscle to force Daft Punk to choose — and Daft Punk chose MTV.

And then, Stephen retaliates.

  • First, he gets a star who is desperately trying to create a name as a serious actor (Ashton Kutcher) to reprise his most-mocked role as host of a celebrity “Candid Camera” ripoff.
  • Then, with the very vocal support of his studio audience, he dances to the single with two internationally-acclaimed stars.
  • He goes on to literally dance his way onto the stage of some of the highest-rated shows currently on the air. He gets the star of “Breaking Bad” to roller-disco with him and dances through the Rockettes as they rehearse their most famous dance numbers. He reminds people that he has Matt Damon in a box on his stage, and gets all up in Henry Kissinger’s face — all to the sound of the song that Daft Punk would have been playing live if they had come on his show.

If you decide to mess with Colbert, you may have cultural clout and the financial support of Sumner Redstone behind you.

But Colbert has everybody else.

When is a Movie Formula not a Formula?

image If there’s one book that has been recommended to me time and again as an author, it’s Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat. Despite these many recommendations, I have to admit that I have yet to read it (although the second most recommended book has been William Rabkin’s Writing the Pilot, and I have read that).

If you head over to Slate.com, however, you’ll find a fascinating article tearing apart Save the Cat as the formula that is potentially destroying Hollywood. At the heart of the argument is the idea that, where other screenwriting texts have offered a basic outline structure, Save the Cat offers an actual step-by-step formula of essential moments.

Here’s the kicker: It seems to work.

Field and McKee were obsessed with the theoretical underpinnings of storytelling. But Snyder’s book is far more straightforward. And that’s why it’s conquered the big screen so thoroughly. Indeed, if you’re on the lookout, you can find Snyder’s beats, in the order he prescribes, executed more or less as Snyder instructs, in virtually every major release in theaters today. Even the master storytellers at Pixar stick quite close to Snyder’s playbook….

My first thought in reading through Peter Suderman’s analysis is that I wondered how many people told him directly that they were following Snyder’s book — and how many he just lists because he recognizes the steps. That’s the problem with a successful formula: Often, it’s based on principles of good storytelling. Even people who have never consciously followed a formula in their lives will appear formulaic when compared to a cheat sheet.

Formulae are not created in a vacuum. Formulae come to be because people have tried many different ways to engage an audience and, when they discovered a way that worked, they shared it. Over time, the collection of shared audience engagement tips gets set down in writing and a formula is born. Syd Field (whose Screenplay gets a pass from Suderman as the “equivalent of cooking tips from your grandmother”) is often read as a direct formula with workshops offered in the Field “Technique.” Samuel Z. Arkoff — the b movie producer who brought you The Abominable Dr. Phibes, among (many) others — had a formula, as well. He referred to it as ARKOFF.

  • Action (exciting, entertaining drama)
  • Revolution (novel or controversial themes and ideas)
  • Killing (a modicum of violence)
  • Oratory (notable dialogue and speeches)
  • Fantasy (acted-out fantasies common to the audience)
  • Fornication (sex appeal, for young adults)

You could, of course, argue that Field and Arkoff and all of the others didn’t provide “formulae,” only tips. But Snyder, himself, didn’t see his breakdown of beats as a formula. He saw them as a series of observations of what successful films had in common — the same as Arkoff and Field.

And there’s the rub. Suderman admits that Snyder never intended Save the Cat to be a formula. Nevertheless, he’s willing to place the blame for the formula squarely at Snyder’s feet because Snyder, in discussing structure, actually had the audacity to give writers page numbers as a rough guide for when certain beats occur.

Again, I have not read Save the Cat (although Suderman’s article has strongly encouraged me to drop the $10 on it), but this is what I’ve seen in every art form I’ve studied: Tips from the successful quickly get turned into formulae by those wishing to emulate them. Those formulae become widely used, many times slavishly so — although there will still be a large number of artists who follow the tips without becoming obsessed with a step-by-step recipe. 

This will continue until somebody comes along and ignores the formula completely — but still becomes successful (See: Easy Rider).

And the whole process starts all over again with the enshrinement of the “new formula.”

Miraculously, art survives.

When Worlds Collide (That Are Also the Same Worlds)

I thought I’d check back in on a subject I wrote about just a short while back. Amazon announced their “Kindle Worlds” program that legitimizes fanfiction by authorizing fan authors to sell their works for actual money. At the time of the announcement, their agreement included a handful of ALLOY properties — The Vampire Diaries, Gossip Girl, and Pretty Little Liars.

Since that time, they’ve increased their offerings to include the Valiant Comics line (Archer & Armstrong, Harbinger, Shadowman, X-O Manowar, and Bloodshot), as well as Neal Stephenson’s The Foreworld Saga. And they already have titles available for sale! That’s some fast moving, considering the program officially launched in June.

But what I wanted to look at this time around was how someone who isn’t already a fan goes about preparing to write for Kindle Worlds. If you’re going to write in someone else’s world, that’s a pretty tall order. You need to know how that world works — the characters, the rules, and the basic background. A Vampire Diaries vampire is a very different creature from a Twilight vampire, which is very different from an Interview With the Vampire vampire, even if they are all essentially fang-baring pretty boys at heart.

Kindle Worlds helpfully (and profitably) provides links to the canon for each of their worlds so aspiring authors can get caught up on all they need to know. If you need to catch up on, say, Pretty Little Liars before you fire up Scrivener and start laying out your index cards, then you can follow the handy links to buy the Pretty Little Liars books, or buy the seasons on DVD, if you’re a more visual person. That way, you can get caught up and—

Wait.

Uh-oh.

There’s a problem here.

ALLOY is a company that engages in “book packaging,” which means they come up with ideas for series and/or books, then hire a writer to create those books. While those books are being created, they sell the TV series and movie rights and work to get into any other medium where they can sell their wares.

Remember, that’s while the book is being written.

The result of this business model is that the book series and its television adaptation wind up being divergent. Authors add their own flairs to the books they’ve been hired to write. Meanwhile, television developers are receiving bare-bones outlines from the packager. All they know is 1) There are characters with these names, 2) They have romantic and rivalrous relationships, 3) The story involves a particular hook to keep people involved.

"That Was Not In The Book," a website cataloging differences between books and their adaptations, lists ten differences between the book and series for Pretty Little Liars, ranging from character hair color to significant character and plot changes.

Maybe your poison of choice is The Vampire Diaries? The same site’s list is, at the time of this writing, up to 39 changes between page and screen.

The Kindle Worlds canon is starting to look less and less… canonical.

None of which means it’s automatically a bad idea. But it’s important to note that this is still a new idea. And new ideas are going to have a few splinters at first.

This is just a particularly big splinter.

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