Friday, November 23, 2012

There are a Thousand Stories in the Naked City

...and apparently, they're all coming out as e-books.
If you've read anything at all about publishing lately, you know that there are now hundreds of thousands of e-books being produced each year, and the number is growing. You've also read that the vast majority of these books are pretty bad.

But it's struck me lately that even some of the books that are produced quite competently don't get it. That is: The author has started out from a reasonable premise, has worked on his/her marketing, has a decent or better cover, and has a grasp of basic grammar, story structure and so on – but is still clueless.

I'll show you what brings this to mind. I was working on my Twitter feed, where I found this exchange between a potential reader and a reasonably competent young author:

"Could you give me a brief like explanation of what the books are about pretty please?"

"Sure, they're about a boy with a missing father, a girl with lost memories, an epic video game and a whole lot of twists :)"

Let's first acknowledge that Twitter constrains the response. That said, we still do not know what the book is about. All the author has done is offer up a grocery list of items found in his book. Let's list them in recipe form:

• One boy with a missing father
• One girl with lost memories
• One epic video game
• Lots of twists (season to taste)

Place in greased baking pan, set oven to 350 for three hours, and out pops your novel.

This isn't an author, he's a writer stringing words together. Or worse – maybe he's just a prolific typist with good grammar skills. He's not answering the question, possibly because he can't. It may be that he does not know what his book is about, or it may be that the book is really about nothing at all. He may well have constructed it, as so many (most?) do, by aping the forms of the more successful stories he sees around them. Most of what we see in pop culture is formulaic at best. Like junk food, it lacks any or all nutritional value, and might more aptly be termed 'junk culture'. If you venture into various fan forums, you realize that the products of pop culture are rarely judged on how well they capture some aspect of our lives and help us understand the human condition. Instead, they are graded on the facility with which they manipulate trite (but marketplace-proven) formulas.

Think about what's being offered up here: A (somewhat) different cast characters being plugged into a formula cobbled together from bits of other formulas. True, Solomon said there was nothing new under the Sun, and that was a long, long time ago, so what can we expect? It's a fair question. The answer might be that we can expect – or at least hope for – an author who is actually after something (besides a spot on Amazon's top lists, necessary evil though that may be), and has an idea of how to go about his business.

When Truman Capote heard that Jack Kerouac had pounded out On the Road on a huge scroll, he famously remarked, "That's not writing, that's typing." As big a Kerouac fan as I am, I must admit that it took years of editing before that scroll could be turned into a salable novel. So, Truman had a point. In any event, he was speaking to a much larger issue that perhaps was never more true than it is today: We produce more content than ever, and most of it is typing.

Related: Pixar's 22 rules of storytelling (concludes with 'What is the essence of your story?') • Patriots of Mars story synopsis

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