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“Visionaries on the Decks”: Storytelling


iStock_000003642265_Medium Bondarchiuk [1]

“To Declare Your Story’s Intent”

There are things important to you. You hurt. You know stuff. I don’t. You see things that I cannot…You have everything you need, including the courage to declare your story’s intent.

— Donald Maass, Writing 21st Century Fiction [2]

Not for nothing am I looking forward to the November 3-7 Writer Unboxed “Un-Conference” in bewitching Salem, Massachusetts. The final day, a Friday, as you might know, is given over to our good WU colleague Don Maass, who’s going to stand his 21st Century Fiction concepts on their feet and explicate them in a daylong seminar.

Don Maass [3]
Don Maass

This material, which appears in Chapter 8, is some of the best of the entire book. For me, it’s the heart of what his subtitle describes as “High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling.”

Your novel definitely is about something, and that something is sharply defined, it’s just that you’re not letting yourself see and commit to it…Take a stand. Decide what’s important, what hurts, what you know that your readers don’t, what it is that people (including your characters) urgently need to see. That’s your missing focus, the refining fire that will turn the ore into steel.

It’s a careful line Maass walks here. Partly an answer to the question of what has become of literary fiction today, 21st Century Fiction insists on, maybe demands, an author’s awareness of what he or she is doing in a book. But it never urges preaching, lecturing, haranguing, or — forgive me — “man-splaining” the work or its mission to the reader.

And this is not only difficult for even the most skilled and exacting of novelists, it turns out. It’s also fiendishly tricky for many publishing-community wonks whose pleasure it is to guess and predict and define and decry where the industry! the industry! is going in its sometimes unseemly stagger through the digital determination of its future.

This, too, is storytelling.

Debates in this community of pundits tend to break out, rash and rash-like. What seemed a productive day spirals down into a sighing scrimmage of comments on a blog post. Here come the opinion-slingers again — God forbid they sit one out — rather sadly advancing a tiny turf warfare that can keep them from seeing new techno land-grabs much like the ones they missed years ago.

Provocations image by Liam Walsh [4]
Provocations image by Liam Walsh

But once in a great while, the debate turns on itself. The discussion is about the discussion. It can be in such moments that we learn the most.

When it happens, it’s a public edition of the private challenge Maass hands to the author who’s lost his way.

As we stumble into one of these moments in the community’s circular conversation, the digital diaspora of book publishing’s energies is clearer. It’s more worrisome, too, maybe. Clarity does that. In a world of arts gone to mobile devices and a tradition of letters gone to Reply All, obfuscation can be a comfort.

Nevertheless, yesterday, Thursday, just such a moment arrived. While many in the Writer Unboxed community dislike paying attention to the “high-impact storytelling” that goes on as their industry tries to redefine itself, I believe wearing those blinkers is a terrible mistake. I think you need to monitor and engage in the dialog of a field that now expects you to know what’s going on. If you want to be an author regarded as a business-savvy professional,  you can do no less. That’s my provocation for you this time.

Three steps

Clay Shirky [5]
Clay Shirky

(1) The NYU-based Internet technology specialist and writer Clay Shirky had published Amazon, Publishers, and Readers [6] on Medium. His fundamental point is:

[Jeff Bezos] wants to increase access to ebooks in order to make money, of course, just as the publishers want to restrict access in order to make money. Bezos doesn’t love books…but his motivations are producing better outcomes than those of the dominant cartel. If we have to pick between two corporate strategies for making money, the one offering more access is better.

Along the way, however, he had said something else that I think the creative community might catch more readily than will the business folks, emphasis mine:

The surface argument is about price, but the deep argument is about prestige. If Amazon gets its way, saying, “I published a book” will generate no more cultural capital than saying “I spoke into a microphone.”

Mike Shatzkin [7]
Mike Shatzkin

(2) The publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin had responded to Shirky in Big publisher bashing again with fictional facts [8], his main assertion being that “Shirky recounts some very questionable history and employs some selective interpretation” to make his arguments. 

Employing a frequent conceptual refrain, Shatzkin basically dismissed Shirky as shirking historical fact in order to hand Amazon the advantage over the publishing establishment:

It is true that Amazon, at least in the current competitive environment, has everything to gain by pushing prices down and everybody else in the publishing world does not. And it is also true that the lower the prices of books are, the more accessible they are to more people. And accessibility is definitely a “good”. Even so, I really resist the Manichaean view that it is “the Amazon way” or “the publishing cartel way”.

Brian O'Leary [9]
Brian O’Leary

(3) The publishing consultant Brian O’Leary then triggered yesterday’s turn on things with Repositories of Culture: Why publishers should listen to Clay Shirky [10], writing:

The roles that publishers once played as gatekeepers, as arbiters and as “repositories of culture” are diminishing by the week. That’s happening partly through Amazon, but it’s also happening outside it. For a reality check, talk to the people who write and read on Wattpad. Shirky’s arguments are uncomfortable, sometimes personally so, and they don’t sit well inside companies that sell millions of dollars of books every year. That’s a pretty good set of reasons to take them seriously.

And it was in the comments section on O’Leary’s piece, then, that we saw something catch, a communal moment that reminds me of what Maass talks about occurring in the writerly life of a committed novelist.

“Rightness” and whose is it?

It seems to me that Mike Shatzkin sort of embodies a variety of “rightness” that is defined by the traditional industry. From within that frame of reference, Shatzkin is on the money almost every time. His take-down of Shirky is so confident, so positive, so self-evidently correct, because he is talking from within that frame.

John Maxwell [11]
John Maxwell

That’s Simon Fraser University’s John Maxwell, in comments at O’Leary’s site [10] (which doesn’t allow me to link you directly to a given comment, unfortunately). I want  you to have a little more of this:

But increasingly, a world exists outside that frame, and out there, Shatzkin’s points don’t make nearly such self-evident sense—witness the comments thread that follows his recent post. Shirky is outside that frame, as are a lot of the very smart people who have been applauding Shirky in recent days.

How quickly Shirky responded to Maxwell, and how well we saw a demonstration of what Maass calls “deciding what you know that your readers don’t” in the deliberations of the novelist.

I’m condensing Shirky’s response — scroll down on O’Leary’s page to read both him and several others’ comments in full:

I want to adopt John Maxwell’s statement, because it captures the issue so perfectly: …To John’s point, when you drop the frame of “The publishers must remain in charge” and switch to “The readers control 100% of the revenues for trade books, and someone is trying to offer them a better deal,” arguments like Mike’s look considerably less convincing.

It’s actually less important what you think of “Amazon vs. Publishing” than what you think of one vision of what’s happening over another, one visionary’s grasp as opposed to someone else’s.

If you consider the Maxwell-Shirky summation that the Shatzkinian view is “inside thinking,” then, yes, you can question whether that view understands the digital dynamic’s transfer of power to the readership, the consumer base.

And what we saw yesterday — even amid the totally understandable complaints from several very fine community thinkers (I’m looking at your hat, Baldur Bjarnason) that “debating this is pointless” — was a newly framed understanding of two forceful ways of understanding what’s happening to books and their business in our culture.

And from “the outside,” an upbeat note

Philip Jones [12]
Philip Jones

Happily, I can leave you with a coda here.

Announced at The Bookseller yesterday the magazine has a new arrangement with Nook Press [13] — to produce a monthly “Independent Author Previews” section of self-published books’ recommendations.

Editor Philip Jones talked about the decision to “open up to indies” — in the phrase of the Alliance of Independent Authors — by adding self-published titles to its previews this way:

Our goal here is to discover the best new books published independently and made available to customers in the UK and we’re thrilled to have partnered with Nook Press. This is a new spin on what we have been doing for more than a 100 years, and recognises that some of the best new writing now comes through non-traditional channels. The Bookseller’s job remains the same, however, to shout about these books and bring them to the attention of our audience.

And the author Hugh Howey stepped forward to commend, very generously, the effort in The Bookseller and Nook Press [14]. He wrote:

This is a major development for readers and writers alike. Stigmas are falling; self-publishing is now seen not only as viable but in many ways superior to any other path to publication, especially for authors just getting their start.

Hugh Howey [15]
Hugh Howey

This followed closely his own The Tankers Are Turning [16] piece, in which he had taken the time to commend many big-publishing efforts to change, to move forward, to experiment, to transform themselves, great ships of the establishment earnestly working to come around.

“There are visionaries on the decks of those other ships, as well,” Howey wrote.

“A lot of smart people see where we need to go. Some of them have even turned over the wheel. It just takes longer for these behemoths to bend their wake.”

It’s for each of us to decide which visionary sees most clearly and which deck to stand on.

And it’s important to remember that “wrong” or “right” — that “rightness” thing — lies as much in your own perspective as it does in anything these keen observers of our industry’s changes say to us. Neither Shirky nor Shatzkin is anybody’s slouch. O’Leary’s and Maxwell’s analyses are thoughtful, not pejorative.

And when you look at the business’ discussions of this kind, and I hope you do, you’re seeing a kind of macro playout of what Maass has identified as the micro genius of the best writing.

Stop, look up, think for a minute — what was the intent here, what was it that you knew your readers urgently needed to see? And what was it that we were trying to understand about the industry? Might it have been the needs of those readers? Your readers? Those digitally empowered consumers that one retail model seems today to be serving better than another?

Can you find points in your own work when you’ve done just what Don Maass is talking about? — stopping and reassessing what makes your intent important, what makes your story urgent? And can you apply that test to what you hear and read around you in the daily debate of the business with itself? 

If you plan to join us at the Salem Un-Conference, I’ve been authorized by Writer Unboxed High Command to offer you my code PORTER to save $100 on registration. But hurry, it has a limited number of uses. Once they’re gone, we’ll have to report to the bridge and ask for more.

Main image – iStockphoto: PiotrSobczyk


About Porter Anderson [17]

@Porter_Anderson [18] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [19], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [20] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [21]