The Novel of the Future

I’ve tried to imagine what the novel of the future would be like. “Novel” means “new” and the form has been evolving since its invention. In fact, I am still trying to figure out who invented the novel; was it the Greeks, the Icelanders, the English, or the Japanese? Depending on which source you read, all of the above nations make that claim, due in part to the novel’s amorphous and ever-evolving form that fits any work having some kind of a narrative. But the future novel? A daunting task to conceive, yet one that every novelist tries to invent, if he is to gain immortality.

I looked at trend lines. Readers are consuming the following in plenty these days: feel-good stories, short works, long works, fantasy, crime (the puzzle), female themes, teen romances, and series (the latter, thanks to Netflix, I think). Weighty literary tomes, where the accent is on lyricism not brevity, character not plot, are attracting shrinking audiences, despite best efforts by arts organizations to elevate literary fiction with prizes, grants, and snob value. How do readers want novels to be presented; i.e. in prose, pictures, video, on paper, or electronically? Even though e-books were once touted as the emerging standard, their first iteration has not gained much ground, for three reasons: (a) their audience has come from a paper background and is required to change, (b) the devices and content are still pretty “old world”—our first generation of e-book is just another mousetrap, not necessarily better (c) publishers and e-tailers have gotten greedy and are pricing e-books closer to that of paper books to subsidize the paper that they are dumping at fire sales.

From the above I concluded that the novel of the future (and I’m talking 10-plus years from now, when the first kids to get an iPad on their fifth birthday become serious book buyers) would have to be story-driven, fast-paced, eventful, continuous, loaded with pictures and interactive video—and delivered electronically, of course.

And what would happen to the current crop of writers? Would they phase out like silent movie stars after sound entered the film industry? Or would they collaborate with illustrators, videographers, and techies to produce composite works, like the movies? Would the cost of a book therefore increase? After all, illustrations, video and sound must cost money. And these new collaborators will want a slice of the creator’s royalty pie as well, wouldn’t they ? Would we therefore have to be selective in the production and consumption of new literature due to its high cost of creation? Would advertizing become a standard appearance in novels to defray expenses? Would sponsorships be de-rigueur? And wouldn’t the older reader (i.e. my demographic) also gravitate to this new novel out of necessity as eyesight deteriorates, and a manipulatable book with the assistance of pictures, audio and video become more accessible? Too many questions…

There are more: Would I still play in this new environment? Me, who came of age reading words and conjuring up the rest (pictures, video and sound) in my imagination? Would I be happy being just a scriptwriter, for that’s what I would be reduced to (movie script-writers, please do not be offended, but novelists are the masters of their universe, editors notwithstanding)? Or would I continue writing my novels in the traditional manner and morph into an epicurean artist, like a calligrapher or a hypnotist?

Or could I depend on teachers and parents to continue reading to their children before these future readers are bestowed with iPads on their fifth birthday, thus ensuring that the tactile connection with books is still paper for generations to come? There are more questions than answers at this time when it comes to envisioning the novel of the future. And there is hope too, I think. In the meantime, we continue to write…

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Book Reviews

I review books, and have a few hundred posted in the public domain. Writers constantly request me to write reviews of their books. Of late, I have resorted to writing reviews only of the books I like and politely turn away many that I don’t, author notwithstanding. Why? Because reviews sell books, I’m told. But what I have experienced is that while good reviews do not necessarily sell books, a bad review by a respected reviewer can stop a book in its tracks.  And I do not want to hurt anyone’s career, unless they are established writers now resorting to writing junk and riding on their fame, and who are direly in need of a wake-up call. Therefore, I decided to explore the practice of review writing that I began as a way of reminding myself of the books I had read; a practice in which there was once only a few trusted adherents, but which today has become a flood with no barriers to entry or quality of content, it seems.

It is important to understand the reviewer’s background and agenda before submitting a book for review. We all have limited experiences, and our backgrounds colour our views on the world and how we respond to literature. Different reviewers from different backgrounds and with different levels and types of education may review the same book differently.

Why do we write reviews? Like me, to remember what we have read so we can refer back to our review in conversation? To enter the literary debate and provoke discussion? To make a name for ourselves, particularly in this social media universe where we have to publish frequently in order to stay relevant? To take a power trip and destroy writers that have made it through sheer luck and influence while our own literary ambitions have languished due to a different combination of luck and influence?  To have followers and admirers who pick their books based on our comments? For money, even though there isn’t much there anymore? To extend the maxim of “those who cannot do, teach” – thus, “those who cannot create, criticize”? Perhaps it’s due to a combination of all of the above.

Once a book is in the public domain it is impossible to control who says what about it, and many camps could be at play: clever publicists who gather a raft of supporters to write nothing but glowing reviews (the sameness shows after awhile and can be a turn-off); the popular writer who has a stable of sycophantic fans who cannot say anything bad and can quickly flood a Goodreads or Amazon posting with nothing but plaudits, making a critical review look out of place – another turn-off; the revengeful reviewer, planted by an enemy, who says nasty things with no means of backing it up but who serves to create confusion in the minds of neutral readers looking for a good read; that erudite power tripper I described earlier out to make a name for himself at the author’s expense. Some authors even create alter-ego reviewers to review their books and post the most spellbinding reviews of their own work – it has a neutralizing effect on all those bad reviewers, and may place a “cease and desist” order on those considering posting a “not bad, but not terribly good” review. This all leads one to the question: “Can I trust book reviews?”

I read somewhere that a book is an argument between a writer and a reader that the latter can never hope to win. And a review is the opposite; the writer cannot win, especially when faced with a negative review. I have often believed that it is better to have one’s book read widely than to have it reviewed widely, for the wider you cast the net, the easier it is to catch one of those reviewer types I have described above and face the issue of reader trust (or the lack of it) and suffer the opposite consequences to what was being sought in the first place. And yet, the current trend is to try and gather as many reviews as possible because the number of reviews seems to correlate with the number of reads. And while that wisdom may hold true in some cases, I wanted to provide these counter-points that authors may want to consider as they go on a tear trying to gather as many reviews as they can to promote their work.

Never correspond with your readers, unless invited

I have been asked whether I ever correspond with my readers. Well, naturally we writers do, especially when we are so embroiled in social media these days. Writers automatically seek an audience, that’s why we write, so when someone writes back to us and refers to our writing, our interest is aroused, our vanity is stoked, and our bubble of loneliness is punctured.

But what happens when a writer takes a reader unawares and initiates the conversation? I am guilty of this act of commission, and after three lessons, I decided to discontinue this practice. The first incident occurred when a reader gave one of my books a score 1 on a scale 1(poor) to 5(excellent). This particular book had been enjoying an average reader score of 4 on Goodreads, so I was curious as to why this reader had found the book so weak. As she hadn’t written comments to support her rating, I was itching to find out more. So I wrote to her asking why she had scored my book so poorly, and could she provide some constructive feedback. I never received a reply. The second time, I encountered an independent reviewer who said that another one of my books needed stronger editing. As I had self-published that particular book, I wrote to this reviewer to ask for pointers on where I could improve. I never heard back. On the third and final occasion, I stumbled upon a social media group that had been discussing my books in a positive way. I wrote to thank the lead member of the group, and asked for her view on a controversial point in one of my books; I thought an enthusiastic and engaged reader would be able to provide me a new perspective on this point. Silence was the reply.

To say that my self-confidence was shaken was an understatement. But after the air returned to my deflated ego, I tried to figure out why I had been treated so shabbily. Then a few things became clear to me. I am a fiction writer. I create worlds in which the writer is absent, only his characters exist. Fiction writers are not intrusive, and their voices emerge through the mouths of their creations; readers draw their own inferences from what is laid down on the page, sometimes, obviously, sometimes opaquely. Therefore, my sudden presence “in the flesh” must have been alarming – like a dead man come to life, and one who had been snooping on the conversations others had been having about him! I had betrayed the trust of the storyteller, where the story is more important than the teller.

In the age of social media, self-publishing, and shameless self-promotion, writers are pushed towards breaking the wall that exists between them and readers, and towards making contact with the “other side.” Some say it’s the “new way,” that readers buy the writer and not the story. That may be so for commercial survival, and even then, commercial writers work with their publicists to create a persona and all communication with readers is carefully scripted and routed via one’s literary agent or publisher – an even greater wall of separation.   Yet, readers seem to be more comfortable with this “fictitious” form of correspondence than with a message from the heart.

After my experiences, I have returned to my cocoon of silence and only speak through my stories. Yes, I still remain active on social media and other online channels to announce upcoming projects (the shameless self-promotion stuff), but a serious discussion of my work will not be on the cards, unless specifically invited. This has been a hard lesson to learn, and one I thought worthy of sharing with others on the same journey.

How to write the next literary novel

A fellow writer asked me what it would take to write the next literary novel. I searched through my notes, gathered after wondering for many years in literary wastelands, and came up with these Ten Commandments (caveat emptor: I take no responsibility for the success or failure of your novel):

1) Do away with plot. Plots are superfluous and distract from the language.

2) Create metaphors within metaphors within metaphors…

3) Deliberately obfuscate the flow of the narrative. Forget about beginnings, middles, and ends. Start at the end and go to the beginning. Or better yet, start in the middle and go both ways, testing your reader who wouldn’t know if you are coming or going.

4) Throw in all the literary styles you can think of: dialogue, poetry, screenplay, Q & A, parallel scenes, songs, flashback, flash forward, oh, and bit of straight narrative so that the reader still believes that she is reading a book. Write at least one chapter as one long stream•of•consciousness sentence. Write from about five first•person points of view (of preferably the same scene) and let the reader figure out who is who. Worried this book may be unclassifiable? Who gives a damn? The literary novel makes its own rules. Show them how clever you are.

5) Create characters that are not just larger than life but physically grotesque. Their character flaws and physical defects must yawn larger than the Grand Canyon.

6) Make sure that everyone is sexually repressed but don’t have them express their sexuality—the imagination is better.

7) Invent new words. Go for sound not meaning. And you don’t need a glossary at the end of your book to explain them—if the reader doesn’t get it, too bad! He will put it down to art.

8) Write at least 1000 pages. After the publisher’s cuts, it should not be less than 500 pages. A heavy tome is always authoritative. Also the reader will never finish it, so it will remain a mountain to be conquered, a masterpiece to be returned to time and again, in frustration.

9) Don’t publicize the book. Just make sure it has some scandal attached to it (charges of nihilism, sedition or sexual deviancy would work).

10) Print a limited run of 100 copies, give them away free to people who are looking for a hook or platform to further their own literary careers, then sit back or get on with your regular writing and watch your book become the stuff of legend. Better yet, say it’s out of print and have readers scramble to get their hands on a copy.

In the end, if the reader does not understand your novel, he will put it down to the superior intellect of the writer and your work will be hailed as a classic, only to be read in small doses by scholars.

All the best with your masterpiece!

No two ways about it – by Linda LaRoche

This week I am featuring guest blogger, Linda LaRoche, an author and editor who teaches Creative Writing and Blogging at College of Southern Nevada. Linda shares my zest for travel and for getting to the heart of why we write. I hope you enjoy her blog and welcome your comments
Happy reading!
Shane


No two ways about it
February 8, 2011
In my classes I was recently asked two questions, “When did you know you were a writer?” And, “Is that all you do, write?” They are identity questions, self•worth questions, fulfillment and personal freedom questions–a nascent creative soul’s penetrating questions. And loaded into the questions seem to be an underlining ground•zero that tethers the one asked to a primary sense of identity— something presumably more real, more acceptable, more common, much more stable. To be a loan officer, you apply for the job and show up every day for work; to be a writer, you have to know –via, perhaps, some mystical experience – that you’re a writer.

You are a writer when you are writing. I know it sounds simplistic, yet it is true. Do not roll your eyes, reader, as if I’ve heard that one before. As we evolve in our work lives, piecing together various kinds of employment to earn money, step•by•step nudging out the non•writing stuff and making the writing central (or at least that which is writing•related), I find it to be even more starkly true: I am not a writer when I am editing or critiquing someone else’s work, or composing social media articles. I am not a writer when I am nibbling on wine and cheese at a fashionable literary event. I am not a writer when I am teaching, i.e. talking about craft and helping others with theirs. I am not a writer when I am tweeting other writers or keeping up on my self•promotion, or reading literary blogs. I am not a writer when I am on a search for a new book to read or when I am drinking coffee in Starbucks leafing through the New York Times http://www.nytimes.com. I know I am a writer when I am writing. When I am working with words, when I am making ideas and characters come to life with written language. When I am laying out the pages on the desk and taking my blue sharpie to chunks of text that I know don’t work in the story, when I lose myself and forget basics like the hour, eating, brushing my hair, while typing a paragraph where something terrible, or euphoric, or quietly illuminating is happening. This may sound naïve but I feel strongly that I must be honest; I must be writing to be a writer. Otherwise, I feel like a fraud. Even if it’s just an hour because that’s all there’s time for, or even if I’ve been working on the same damn narrative arc problem in a short story for weeks, I know that I cannot stand in front of either my own mirror or even in front of you, dear inquirer, and exhort you to “show, don’t tell” or “up the emotional stakes” or instruct you to “live your passion” if I am not myself at the writing desk, messing with words, living in the trenches and heights of which I speak.

That is how it feels to be a writer; nothing more, nothing less. It’s a full•time job, anything else distracts from it. I’ve had my share of work that has taken me away from writing, and it may not be all I do, but it’s my priority in life, and the secret to being a writer is to not stop writing and to show up for work.

Freelance writer, Linda LaRoche teaches Creative Writing and Blogging at College of Southern Nevada and continuing education classes at UNLV. Her last two multi•cultural novels and collection of short stories portray a heartfelt tale of liberation, desperation, and the grip of love.
Find out more by visiting:
http://www.lindalaroche.com/blog
And join the discussion on her blog, the Quill