The perfect character description

I’ve mentioned at times that I’m currently reading Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry and how it is impossible to get actors Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall out of my head whenever reading about Woodrow or Gus, the two primary characters in the story. That is, of course, because I have seen the TV movie of Lonesome Dove long before I read the book.

Well, I ran across this passage just now, a passage in the book that describes the character of Gus and I couldn’t help but think Duvall must have read this passage before taking on the role of Gus in the movie. The passage conveys the thoughts of a character named Jake and how he hates the sound of Gus’ voice:

“It was a loud voice – the sound of it made it hard to think, when it wasn’t easy to think anyway. But the most aggravating aspect to it was that Gus always sounded cheerful, as if there was no trouble in the world that could catch him. At times when life seemed all trouble, the sight of Gus, untouched by all that went around him, was difficult to bear.”

If you’ve ever seen Duvall playing Gus in Lonesome Dove, that passage describes him so perfectly, I just had to mention it on this fine evening. Have yourself a wonderful night.

Funny thing about bestseller lists

Consumers of entertainment love lists, like the Billboard Top 10, the top hits of the weekend box office, or the New York Times Bestseller List. The big difference between the first two lists and the third list is the honest, realistic sample size available.

If you see a list of the top 10 songs, it is reasonable to assume a music fan will have listened to all 10 songs and formed opinions about each. A moviegoer could easily watch three to five of the top 10 movies over a one-month stretch, but books require a significantly greater time commitment, meaning a reader might only read one book on a bestseller list before the list has completely changed.

The rest of the books on the list become irrelevant and vanish, like old blog posts. I remember back around Thanksgiving, everywhere I browsed for books I kept seeing the new book from Bruce Springsteen. His memoir Born to Run was all over the bestseller list for a couple of months. What list is it on now? Does anyone even remember that Springsteen wrote a book?

In a way, entertainment brokers’ lists resemble slow-moving social-media feeds. We glance over them the way we would glance over our Facebook page, reading only the posts that interest us and forgetting the others forever. Of course, there is only so much time in a day, so how many 70,000-word posts are really getting read?

Instant rejection

Yesterday, someone asked me if I had read any good books lately. It may be the first time that’s happened in a decade. The exchange that followed was revealing and educational for anyone thinking of selling a book.

I told her Comanche Moon was pretty good and her response: “That sounds like a western,” meaning she would never bother with a western. She didn’t have to see the cover or read a page or two. She heard the title and rejected the book immediately.

Even though I thought she might enjoy the book despite it being a western, I didn’t press the issue. Instead, I told her she might like Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. This suggestion seemed to satisfy her and she said she would look it up and try an e-book sample.

No word as to whether she started reading Beautiful Ruins, but that’s not important. The lesson here is that a casual reader will reject your book in a heartbeat if there is the slightest chance it doesn’t fit their idea of what they want to read. A title or a cover can turn away a reader before they ever give a chance to the writing or the story. Readers have preconceived notions about what they want to buy and if an author doesn’t deliver the goods from start to finish, there will be no sale.

Who are the greatest writers of our day?

As an English Literature major in college, I studied many great writers of the past. The old writers were celebrities of sorts, or so the stories seemed to suggest. Everyone knew of Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway or William Faulkner. What writers do we speak of today?

If someone asked me who the best writers of the 21st century are, I wouldn’t have an answer. Maybe that means writing is totally irrelevant in our world today. If asked, I think most people automatically mention the old writers as the best. Jane Austen is still a big name today, thanks to movies made of all her books. Do people actually still read her books or just know her name from the movies?

If I asked my niece or nephew, who are both in high school, whether Jane Austen was a good writer, they would both answer yes. If I asked whether they had read one of her books, they would both answer no. Around Christmas time I asked them if they were familiar with A Christmas Carol. They were, but only the movie. They had no interest in reading the book by Charles Dickens.

Colson Whitehead won the Pulitzer for fiction this year for writing The Underground Railroad. Is Colson Whitehead one of today’s great writers. Whitehead has a twitter page and six novels to his credit, according to a Google search. Do modern great writers have to have a twitter page? Must they write novels?

Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize for literature last year. He doesn’t write novels. He falls loosely in the poet category, if you consider modern-day song writers the equivalent of ancient poets. Do poets still exist outside of songwriters?

These are some of the questions floating through my head on this Wednesday night. Who do you think are some of the 21st century’s greatest writers?

The Kindle Scout program

Today I discovered the Kindle Scout program, a system which allows amateur readers to read amateur works and decide which e-books are potentially publishable. This is not exactly how the system is described, but that’s exactly what it is. For the official description of “reader-powered” publishing, click here.

I sampled a couple of the books available and they were not worth recommending, but the Kindle Scout program is worth noticing. It marks a corporate embrace of a self-publishing world in which all the dirty work is done by the self-publishers for free. Somewhere an agent and perhaps an editor are looking for a new line of work, if they think reader-powered publishing stands a chance at success. Could the days of sending manuscripts to agents be ending?

What is an agent, but just a person with an opinion about a writer’s submission? Does an agent really know which books will be a big hit? Maybe the really good agents do, but what about those worker-bee agents who are essentially glorified readers, combing the desert for the next Harry Potter?

Maybe I’m way off base. Having only met one agent in my life, perhaps the publishing world doesn’t work the way I think it does. Still, the Kindle people appear to be pushing the future of publishing to a new level. The idea may ultimately fail due to lack of readable content, but Amazon is powerful enough to take the chance.

As a reader, I am thirsty for some great writer to get my attention, but am I willing to wade through a bunch of random writing in hopes of finding something brilliant? Am I willing to become the worker-bee agent for free? No, I am not. So, who is?

What kind of person would be reading a submission of mine? Is it someone with a refined taste for modern literature, or a bored teenager seeking a few laughs?

Kindle Scout presents lots of questions, while forcing a modern reader and writer to ponder what the system is creating. Maybe I can submit a work to be read by “scouts” and at least know somebody gave it a chance. I can’t always know that about submissions to agents. Perhaps it is a good thing for submissions to be read by regular people instead of paid agents.

I guess the biggest conclusion I draw from exploring the Kindle Scout system is that Kindle is continuing to innovate in ways that other booksellers are not, making the survival of Kindle more likely than the survival of Nook or Kobo or iBooks. Kindle is turning into a bit of a writer’s community, much like WordPress, but for books that writers can theoretically sell for actual money.

 

 

 

What if word of mouth was all you had?

A writer can wake up each morning and ask the question: what should I write? Whatever the writer decides to write, the next question becomes: How will I get read?

In today’s modern world there are more options than ever for getting read. A writer can start a blog and perhaps generate a few readers. A writer can post their work to social media and beg their friends and acquaintances for a moment of their time. A writer can save the morning composition and collect it as part of a future book, in which might be their ticket to stardom and riches. 

What if there were no publishing houses with advertising and marketing at their disposal? What if you were left with one method of promotion and that was word of mouth? 

Advertising professionals are little more than carnival barkers pulling a fast one on the consumer, saying anything to make a fool part with his money. Yet, they are a necessary part of the entertainment world. Without them, consumers wouldn’t know what exists. 

Professional marketers and advertiswers are often good at their jobs and their methods are effective, but pretend for a minute that the world of advertising doesn’t exist. All that exists are writers and readers and the only way to get read is through word of mouth, perhaps the most honest form of advertising.

Would you choose to write something different today? 

Best laid plans

Most of us have at least heard of Lonesome Dove, a western novel turned TV movie years ago. I occasionally read from the book and just ran across a quote worth sharing. One of the main characters named Woodrow Call offers the following thought on making plans:

“Though he had always been a careful planner, life on the frontier had long ago convinced him of the fragility of plans. The truth was, most plans did fail, to one degree or another, for one reason or another. He had survived as a Ranger because he was quick to respond to what he had actually found, not because his planning was infallible.”

As much as I try not to plan things out too much, I fall into that trap a lot, so the quote served as a great reminder to me to take life one day at a time. It applies to all walks of life, but can easily apply to the life of a writer. There is a lot of advice floating around out there for aspiring writers, but in the end a writer just needs to write and see where the effort leads.