Sunday, November 16, 2014

Reinventing the Novel: Thoughts on Publishing in the 21st Century

(Updated September 2023)

When the 'Novel' isn't novel any more ...

... where do we turn for the bright ideas that can reinvigorate this fading art form?  The surprising answer: to the very technology that's destroying it.  And no, I'm not talking about AI - just the opposite - the exploitation of real human intelligence--that of the author.

Nor am I talking about eBooks here.  I'm talking a complete revolution in the way we think about publishing.  It's a revolution that has already begun, though the battle lines and alliances are shifting so rapidly that it seems almost impossible to imagine the final outcome.  But that's what I'm here to attempt to do.

Books are quaint old things--nothing but bulky lumps of stained wood fiber that lost their revolutionary status half a millennium ago once the world embraced Guttenberg's movable type.  Yet they live on.  Honestly, sometimes it amazes me that the simple paper book has outlived the vinyl record and the floppy disc as staples in the average person's household.  The latter two are information devices with roughly similar storage density as books but with far better interconnectivity, yet they are museum pieces today.  What's the deal?  Books don't connect with anything but the reader's mind.  To call any book 'novel' in this digital age is, to say the least, a stretch.

The term has become an oxymoron.  The word 'novel' comes from the Latin 'novellus', diminutive of 'novus', meaning 'new'.  A novel is literally 'a little something new'.  My obsolete ten-pound door-stop known as Webster's Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, 1986, defines the noun 'novel' as "an invented prose narrative ..."

Invented ... an invented work of prose narrative.  An author has a 'light bulb moment' and proceeds to turn it into an epic tale, as George R.R. Martin did when the idea of a set of siblings adopting wild dire-wolf pups became his mega-successful 'Game of Thrones' franchise.

Thomas Edison, I think, gets the credit for connecting invention and light bulbs in our cultural vernacular.  And ironically it was another Edison invention--the phonograph--that began the novel's slow decline as an art form.

Before there were books, the "invented prose narrative" was the exclusive purview of the storyteller.  What Johannes Gutenberg did for the written word, Edison did for the spoken.  Suddenly the oral storyteller was back in business.  Cold, impersonal black-and-white print now had an equally distributable competitor with value added: voice inflection, sound effects, even musical accompaniment.

If "video killed the radio star," then radio surely killed the novel, no?  If audio was the first nail in the novel's coffin, then today's cheap, ubiquitous, digital multi-media must certainly have cremated the novel and scattered its ashes to the four winds.

Not exactly.  Here's the case for the defense--exhibit A:  Long before Gutenberg, books had already proven their potential for supplemental content.  Cloistered monks devoted their lives to creating heavily illuminated volumes--visual works of art of highest caliber, complete with multi-color illustrations.

"But," the dour prosecutor raises a pointed finger and remonstrates, "illustrations cannot properly be considered 'narrative', and certainly not 'prose'."

"Sir," the defense calmly responds, "Have you heard of the 'graphic novel'?"

We'll leave the little courtroom dramatization hanging there, with that last parry as a rhetorical question -- 'question as answer'.  Even before the digital revolution, professional critics such as our prosecutor were already forging coffin nails and holding wakes: "The Death of the Novel !!!" they proclaimed. These pundits played at parsing definitions (such as the definition of "narrative"), setting up straw-man criteria for judging what is and is not a novel so they could create a sensational 'headline' and sell an article to a broadsheet.  Even today that practice continues - see this recent high-brow essay by Will Self.

I'll tell you what I think of people who parse definitions for a living.  For one thing, they're not novelists.  They do the opposite of inventing prose, they eviscerate it.  In addition to the light bulb and the phonograph, the 19th century saw the invention of the term 'scientist' (in 1834), whereupon the art of parsing all aspects of reality went rampant and even acquired its own name: reductionism.

This was the dawn of the 'age of the expert' - an apparently short lived era in which a 'credential' in a narrow field of specialty was required to express a worthy opinion, and during which the generalist/naturalist (the Renaissance man) lost favor.  I argue that we have, thankfully for the field of the "invented prose narrative", entered the 'post-expert era': a term I first heard used by Amy Luers just this year (June 2014).

Screen shot from, showing the relative frequency of use of the word 'Expert' over time.

Cheap, ubiquitous, real-time digital multi-media has democratized public discourse.  The emergence of sophisticated AI tools such as ChatGPT have made textual information nearly worthless as a stand-alone product.  The expert's perspective is drowned and marginalized beneath the din.  And the same chaos threatens the extinction of the novel by engulfing it in creative alternatives.

That is, unless the Novel can become novel once again.  Unless the "invented prose narrative" can be re-invented.

The medieval monks cloistered in their cells with pen and parchment pointed the way to comic books and graphic novels.  Journeyman actors and actresses take night work recording audio-books.  High-profile screen-writers/directors turn novels into blockbuster movies and television series.  Cross-pollination is good.

So here is my idealized seven-part 21st-century publishing plan for my epic fantasy/sci-fi novel 'Eden's Womb':

1. Small installments.  Instead of starting by doing any sort of static 'publishing' of a 'book', the author releases the novel a chapter at a time and adds value from there.

2. Free.  The reader can partake of valuable content completely free.  Readers will not even be distracted by advertisements on the page.  Purely free, no strings.  This is part of a 'loss-leader' or 'market seeding' strategy applied in an unprecedented direction.  See item 5 below.

3. Multi-media.  The blog posts will include not only text but illustrations, videos, links to external content, to an index and to appendix and glossary pages.  Among the videos could be the author reading from the manuscript and/or offering commentary.

4. Interactive.  Each installment will be dynamic--changing to add new content.  Fans can contribute artwork, videos and written commentary, including questions, critiques, and suggestions for improvement.  There will be contests and giveaways and other promotions.  Courses could be created and taught, covering topics from world building to individual characters to plot analysis.  The author goes on speaking tours, appearing live at book signings, gets on podcasts, approaches media providers of all kinds about interviews.  Here is where the human element will always out-compete the growing competition from AI.

5. Subscription based:  As demand develops, further installments or advance views may be made available first through subscription on a 'members only' section of the web site.  Note that major software publishing has converted from packaged CDs to monthly subscription.  

6. Branded.  'Eden's Womb' will not just be the title of a novel.  It will be a brand.  The paperback book will be one of a suite of products, and not the first one.  As/when demand develops, other merchandise will be produced--t-shirts, decals, action figures, etc. etc.  Sale of the rights to a movie producer is, of course, a significant part of this.

7. Entrepreneurial.  A successful novel becomes an ongoing enterprise.  But if less successful, the modest start-up (a domain name and web site, social media presence, etc.) need not cost the author a penny.

Now, here's the reality check.  The above seven steps comprise an occupation, a business, a 'brand name'.  It involves a lot of hard work and a lot of common sense that goes far beyond skills at writing prose.  Typically, start-up businesses like this fail 80% of the time.  There are plenty of entrepreneurs out there eager to 'help' you market and promote your work for a fee, or to help you to learn to do so yourself through courses and coaching.  The opportunities to throw money at the problem are boundless and any you use need to be carefully evaluated beforehand.

So ... why has the print book remained a (barely, and admittedly fading) commercially viable commodity while the vinyl disc has dwindled?  Why do we remain so enamored with the old-fashioned printed word--so nostalgically loyal to a half-millennium-old technology?  My short answer is that there's something very fundamental about symbolic expression that defines us as civilized humans.  Symbols have 'magic' - a real-world sort of magic that is emergent, entirely different from the impact of spoken words, and shrouded in the mystery of human consciousness.

Will the magic last?  Will the print book survive to see the 22nd century?  With the seven-part strategy that I've outlined above, an author can hedge bets while still embracing the newest developments.  Novel becomes hyper-novel.  Seems like a fun idea to play with.  It's an experiment--an epic adventure in its own right.  And I welcome you to come along for the ride.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Cracking the code of the 'Game of Thrones'

In what key is the 'Song of Ice and Fire' composed?  No minor key, that's for certain.

I've just finished a six week 'total immersion' experience, reading all five available books in George R.R. Martin's famous fantasy novel series, 'A Song of Ice and Fire'.

This was an epic adventure, and I'm not just talking about the plot.  It was quite a feat of reading.  We're talking about plowing through five volumes--roughly 1000 pages each--in 42 days.  I estimate that I read 40,000 words a day.

And now that I've 'finished' - meaning only that I've caught up to the present (the series has two more books yet to be released) - I'm here to report some of my reactions to what I read as well as some insights into the man behind this truly epic project.

What I write here is not exactly a book review, but it's not exactly not a book review either.  Specifically, it's a list of seven subjective, sometimes off-beat observations.  Let's call it "Seven Keys to the Seven Kingdoms": a look into the dungeons and secret passages in the hidden, unexpected underbelly beneath the castle--the untold 'story behind the story'.

There's a lot of buzz about author George R.R. Martin right now, coming in conjunction with the October 28th 2014 release of his Christmas-gift-worthy coffee-table-book, The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones.  Martin has given several new interviews, both in print and on TV.  Here's a link to a fine fifteen-minute interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos broadcast late last week.

The headline of the ABC interview provides the first of the unexpected keys:

1.  George R.R. Martin had his first 'fifteen minutes of fame' long before he started writing 'Game of Thrones'.  He made his first TV appearance in 1987, four years before he even conceived of the 'Song of Ice and Fire' novels.  It happened as a result of his position as one of four screen-writers of the short-lived TV series 'Beauty and the Beast'.  He made a cameo appearance sitting in a restaurant chomping a cheeseburger while reading one of his own books.

In the Stephanopoulos interview, Martin says that it took eight takes to get the scene right--that meant eight big chomps on a soggy, luke-warm, microwaved cheeseburger.

The larger take-away point from this:  George R.R. Martin did not just burst on the scene out of nowhere.  He had been writing and publishing novels since the early 1970's and when his career in fiction stalled, he became a reasonably successful Hollywood screen writer.  Then in 1991 he had the germ of inspiration for the 'Ice and Fire' novels ... and that leads to the next interesting observation ...

2.  'The Song of Ice and Fire' sold before even two percent of it was written.  This proved to be a bad idea, in my opinion.  Though he never intended to do so, Martin played 'bait and switch' with his eager publisher.  Here's more detail:  After writing just the first 100 pages of the first novel and a two page general summary of the rest of the plot, Martin sent his agent out to seek a publisher.  The result: four different major publishing houses bid on it.  He had a contract and a commitment, but hardly any actual written manuscript.  He naively told his chosen publisher that he might take a year to get out the first book.  Three years later (1995) he finally delivered the first volume, 'Game of Thrones'.  And twenty-five years later we're still waiting on the sixth and seventh volumes ('The Winds of Winter' and 'A Dream of Spring').  This leads to another unexpected point ...

3.  After 1.85 million words, nothing is resolved.  For God's sake, the Christian Bible only took 783,137 words (KJV) to tell a pretty epic story in its entirety.  Yet after more than twice that length, Martin still leaves a dozen or more plot lines hanging at the end of the fifth book.  This is the result of his decision to follow the points of view of so many different primary characters.  The result ...

4.  You can't tell the players without a scorecard.  The scope and ambition of this saga is unprecedented, as far as I know, in the entire history of alternate-world fiction.  By Martin's rough count, he has written roughly 1000 characters into the story, all of which have back-story and entanglements with the main characters and with each other.  Each of the five volumes published thus far has an extended appendix--an organized list of the characters and their relationships.  These are EIGHTY PAGE rosters, consisting of nothing but lists of names.

I chose to read the books without referring to those lists.  If I didn't remember who somebody was (which happened often), I just assumed they weren't important enough to matter.  That made some of the multi-page stretches of political scheming rather tedious if not downright boring but ... surprise ... it didn't cause me to lose the important threads of the plot.

My take-away reaction: Martin could have written a 'normal' sized novel with far fewer characters on the page and, in my opinion, it would have been tighter, cleaner, crisper, with better pace.  Would I use the word 'bloated' to describe the product as written?  Would I do that?  Nahhhhh.  The readers adore Martin's attention to detail and the depth of the story as it is.  The avid fans love being immersed in all the political nuances and intricacies.  That these books continue to increase in popularity with every new release tells all that needs to be told.  There will be an honored place in the history of literature for this work.

One wonders whether some future author will try to outdo this feat.  Just imagine ... !  Imagine an appendix the size of the New York City phone book.

For Martin, the characters and their entanglements matter more than anything.  He once said that his ultimate aim in writing was to explore the internal conflicts that define the human condition, and he described that as the only reason to read any literature, regardless of genre.  So ...

5.  The fantasy elements were (practically) afterthoughts.  Yes, Martin's prime inspiration came from his dual-middle-initial counterpart J.R.R. Tolkien, but this little tidbit intrigued me:  At one point during the writing, Martin was not going to include dragons.  It took the prompting of a writer friend, Phyllis Eisenstein (to whom he dedicated the third book) to change his mind:  "George, it's a fantasy - you've got to put in the dragons."

Martin himself has said that early in the process he was considering it as just a pseudo-historical-fiction story modeled after the War of the Roses - what I'd call a medieval soap opera.  And in my opinion 90% of the final product remains that--not Fantasy but historical-style fiction.  The themes of family and power far outweigh the impact of magic and supernatural elements.  Even Tolkien's influence on Martin largely comes from the quirky post-climax ending of the Lord of the Rings trilogy - the tale of the 'Scouring of the Shire' where gritty, uncomfortable reality trumped the simple good-wins-out-over-evil paradigm of the primary plot.  Martin likes to keep his readers uncomfortable (in suspense) regarding the fate of their 'favorite' characters.  And this preference goes back to some of his earliest writing experiences ...

6.  The key word is not Ice, not Fire, but Blood.  Martin relates that as part of a high school essay assignment he rewrote the last scene of Edgar Allen Poe's 'The Pit and the Pendulum' to create a hideous bloody ending where the victim is slashed by the pendulum and dies in a pool of blood.  Subsequently the rats come and eat out his eyes as the body festers.  Sound familiar?  His teacher praised his originality, and that positive reinforcement, coming as it did during those vulnerable formative years, has stuck with him to this day.

In my review of the first volume, which appears elsewhere on this blog, I noted that Martin manages to include a bloody element in virtually every scene.  One of the things that I did as I read, beginning with the second book, was to circle every occurrence of the word 'blood'.  On average it shows up at least once per page.  It seems almost an obsession with him.

Martin has stated that he wants his novels to have the 'gritty feel of historical fiction', and he succeeds at that. Uncomfortable cruelty is a common theme throughout the books, with characters who seem critical to the story being brutalized, maimed, and/or just plain killed off.  Furthermore, almost every significant character has some fatal flaw that, if it doesn't actually kill them, leads to bad decisions with major negative consequences.  And underlying all that real 'grit' is the ubiquitous greasy slime of blood.

The unexpected, often brutally sudden twists in plot come so often that - well - you begin to expect them.  But let us hope that one particular unexpected twist does not happen ...

7.  The mortality issue.  There are three epic fantasy authors who have projects of seven books length or more who were born within 1 1/2 months of one another in the fall of 1948:  George R.R. Martin, Robert Jordan (whose endorsement helped 'Game of Thrones' become a success), and me (audacious, aren't I?).  We're no longer young.  We're on Medicare--we are officially senior citizens.  I'm doing okay--I exercise regularly, have a Body Fat percentage around fifteen, and seem to have good genes.  Both my father and mother remain alive and in decent health in their 92nd years of life.  Martin, on the other hand, is 100 pounds overweight.   And Robert Jordan did not survive long enough to go on Medicare.  He passed away in 2007, leaving his epic 'Wheel of Time' series unfinished.  On his blog, back in 2009, George R.R. Martin wrote:
"After all, as some of you like to point out in your emails, I am sixty years old and fat, and you don't want me to 'pull a Robert Jordan' on you and deny you your book. Okay, I've got the message. You don't want me doing anything except A Song of Ice and Fire. Ever. (Well, maybe it's okay if I take a leak once in a while?)"
Just so long as you're not leaking blood, George.  Live long and prosper.