C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

Write and publish with love and fury.

Are readers changing and what does that mean to writers?

A friend of mine is an old-school, English major sort of guy. He was extolling the virtues of literature as we once knew it: contemplative novels; long treatises on the nature of the human condition; and “serious” novels chosen by a small cabal of unknown gatekeepers. His eyes gleamed for the nostalgia of MFA glories, tiny lit mag aspirations and the New York Times bestseller lists of old world, analog publishing.

This is the sort of conversation that takes me places I didn’t expect to go. Only in talking it out, and writing it out here, have I discovered and understood what I think about New versus Old writing, reading and publishing.

The “issue” is, have readers’ tastes changed?

All generalizations weaken questions and answers, but there’s validity waiting down there in the dark. Let’s delve.

Pre-WWII, many schools in the first world taught Latin and Greek. Long recitations of poetry were valued. My mom was an excellent example of that brand of scholarship. Two days before she died, riddled with cancer and taken low by the drugs meant to ease her pain, she recited, “The Village Blacksmith” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. My father listened, tears in his eyes, as her voice came, suddenly strong. “Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands…”

Latin’s gone and Greek’s forgotten, unless you’re Greek. Rote recitation has ebbed. Penmanship as a skill is dismissed as obsolete. With the economy what it is and university fees rising, majoring in English is quite a luxury. I’m sure there aren’t as many women’s studies or Medieval studies programs as there were when I was in university. There’s a greater emphasis on job prep now. If you’re some kind of doctor or engineer, you can still make university pay. It seems we have less time to think about big issues, though. Like what happens when the doctor fails and what awaits us in the Abyss?

I guess, for that, there’s idiotic YouTube distractions and warm, fuzzy Facebook memes.

The rest is up to us, the writers.

Some curricula we’ll miss and others we’re glad to let go.

I feel very lucky to have received the one course in university I relished most. The Foundation Year Program at the University of King’s College was the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history. Best course ever. They called it a “programme” because they were the sort of Canadians who aspired to reek of British universities’ plummy pretension. Those Brit professors they emulated would look on us as snow-shoed colonials, but where else in Canada could you ask “what is the soul” and watch duelling professors fight over the answer for half an hour?

It was a great opportunity. Job skills were approached somewhat tangentially for many of us. We don’t know how to weld or split the genes for Monsanto that will kill us. With the death of newspapers, our journalism degrees are largely quaint and useless, but damn, we’re great conversationalists.

But that’s more nostalgia. What about now?

Many high school students and their families are seriously challenging the value of a university degree given that no jobs are waiting. Add  in the costs of paying off that bill for most of the rest of their lives. Or never.

University fees have put on a lot of weight and are suddenly much less sexy. As the middle class shrinks down to the working poor, the dream marriage of career and long, happy retirement is doomed.

The generations who dressed up for air travel and studied Greek laid the groundwork and built the infrastructure for our modern civilization. They were sharp enough to use slide rules to deliver humans to the moon and back and dumb enough to invent the atomic bomb.

From what I’ve observed, “kids today” are probably up for the great and bad challenges, too. However, our politicians suck and so bridges and highways crumble and kids starve.

All civilizations that manage to rise, fall. We’re on the slide. As writers, we can help slow the inevitable, discourage idiots from hastening the collapse and/or entertain everybody on the way down.

What are the “classics” going to be for students now?

To Kill a Mockingbird? The Old Man and the Sea? Romeo and Juliet? Goethe?

I don’t think so. What students across North America and beyond will have in common as adults are these new classics: Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Glee. These are our culture’s touchstones at the moment. 

And get used to a much more transient definition of “classic”.

Lucy crying at Desi for a job at the club is classic comedy for today’s waiting-to-die-on-a-ventilator-in-a-few-minutes generation.

For us? I’m not sure they make funny sit-coms anymore. And I don’t think I’ll be in an old age home some day screaming deafly, “Anybody remember that Frasier episode where Niles had heart surgery?”

This year’s college freshmen aren’t talking about their common love of Tolstoy. Take any pair of well-educated, first year roommates and, if and when they talk culture, they’ll be talking about the good old days of The Sopranos and The Wire. They’ll speak of Hollywood all the way back one decade, when the movie machine didn’t suck like Dyson vacuum cleaners. That’s if they aren’t talking sports.

Pop culture, not Euclid, is our commonality now. When you’re looking to make new friends on a bus trip, don’t ask what your sexy seat-mate loved about Dante’s Inferno. (Trust me, I tried it. It’s not the touchstone I’d hoped for.)

The habit of reading is established (or not) in our early years or in jail. But it’s not all on parents and educators and the prison industry. The market has changed, too. Our attention is fractured by so many choices. Writers are competing with Grand Theft Auto and free Internet porn. Talk about quixotic aspirations!

What does this mean to writers? I’ll tell you what I told my friend about writing and publishing:

1. Authors are expected to produce more books faster to gain readerships and hold them.

2. Series and serials are in. Writing books like a TV season (as someone complained of This Plague of Days recently) is in. No, I mean to say it’s IN! As in, that’s what I meant to do!

3. Pop culture references are in. They light up the cozy familiarity cells of the brain. Trying to make books “eternal” with zero pop references? Out.

4. More genre mash-ups are in. I sure didn’t see zombie erotica coming, so slice that mash as thin as you want. Keywords are relevant. Bookshelf labels are much less relevant.

5. Pulp. We can push back the walls of what readers expect from pulp, too. The Cuban assassin in my crime novels is politically aware and has a lot to say about drug addiction. My latest work tackles global warming, US foreign policy and the nature of God, though the recipe’s nutrients are hidden in the neuro-fudge cake of zombies versus vampires.

6. Niches are in. Appealing to a deep niche is achievable. Trying to appeal to wide audiences is out, or at least it’s something that happens to you. It’s probably not something you can make happen.

7. Ebooks are here to stay. Seems obvious, but there’s still some resistance from publishers on the remote island of Manhattan who don’t know the war is over.

8. Shorter books are in. I once thought that meant short stories are coming back, but by my sales stats, either I was wrong then or I’m impatient now. The economics and timelines of more books, faster, demand shorter books.

9. Intermediators will return with honor. The more books you write, the more you wish you had help. This week I lost four hours of writing to formatting a print book. We, the relentless writers and publishers, need help. We’ll be looking for more minions and partners, though, not publishers. After months of sixteen hour days, I am exhausted. Viva la outsourcing!

10. Hybrid authorship is becoming more appealing, as long as we retain our e-rights and audio rights. Once the Big Five stop chiseling their contracts in stone, call me.

11. Book prices will still be all over the place, charging what the market will bear.

12. Jonathan Franzen will still complain about social media comprising the end of the world, but Huffington Post will give up publishing his rants. The Amish aren’t Huffpo‘s demographic. The irony of complaining about social media on the Internet will swallow itself whole and disappear in a flash of yin quantum, pixelated justice, balancing out Franzen’s Neo-Luddite yang. Gee, I hope media starts ignoring Anne Coulter sometime soon, too.

13. Blog posts like this one won’t survive. Too Long To Read and too snooty by half. Unless you’re deep in my niche, who’s got the time for these presumptuous pronouncements about my betters?

Relax.

Breaking Bad taught as much or more about the dangers of hubris than any Greek tragedy.

Everyone’s reflex to hate the future is just resistance to change away from the comfortable. Nostalgia is not thinking. It supplants thinking. It’s an old blanket that’s getting ratty.

We will adapt until the grid collapses and we start eating rats and insects to survive. Then we’ll have more time to devote to those deep conversations we’re not having. Those end of the world stories around campfires are going to be awesome.

~ Find out more about my books and podcasts at AllThatChazz.com and ThisPlagueOfDays.com. Defy expectations and love me for me, because I miss Heavy D.

Filed under: publishing, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Breaking Bad and making better storytelling choices

Season One has five episodes. Get each one for 99 cents or get all of Season One at a discount for $3.99.

When you’re in the trenches (and by that I mean when you’re at your keyboard) you must stay true to your vision. There are artistic choices to be made that will challenge some readers’ expectations. Choose more conflict and damn the torpedoes.

For instance, at the beginning of This Plague of Days, the protagonist’s sister, Anna Spencer, isn’t particularly likeable. She’s not over the top, but she is a hormonal teenager whose brother is on the autism spectrum. She calls him Ears because he has big ears. She loves her brother, but she can be mean. She’s jealous of the extra attention he gets because of his challenges. She treats him the same way many siblings treat each other in their formative years. If you’ve ever had a sister, or been one, you’ll recognize her turmoil as she matures. Now add the plague apocalypse (and later, scary, infected cannibals) and you’ve got tense family relationships facing a storm of trouble raining down evil doers and crazy cakes.

Readers who only read Episode One might not care for Anna much.

Impatient readers will never get to see how badass she gets. (I’m revising Season Two now and she’s nicer, but still working her way to badass.) If they quit reading at Episode One, they’ll never find out how circumstances and time transform her into an interesting, brave and responsible woman. Anna Spencer has an arc. All my characters have arcs and their own stories to tell. To have those stories, and the complexity I insist upon as a storyteller, the characters can’t begin as static, happy stereotypes.

This Plague of Days has nuance. Some characters you think are good now may surprise you with what they’re willing to do later. Characters you assume are bad may have altruistic motives that aren’t clear up front. Some writers say we shouldn’t even write “characters”. We should write people in all their complexity. The people you write about have to transform, and I don’t mean from likeable and nice to slightly more so.

Think how ineffective Breaking Bad would be if you didn’t watch Walter White’s transformation through the show’s seasons.

He starts off as a nebbish who reached for the brass ring and fell short. A cancer diagnosis turns him from an ordinary Chemistry teacher into a cold and calculating drug kingpin desperate for respect and safety. The cool thing about Breaking Bad is, today’s solution is always tomorrow’s problem. His character arc is entirely logical each step of the way. Throw in a fatal flaw and a few reversals and he ends up in an insane place that is believable over time. 

If Walter White had started out evil, you don’t get grim fun and complexity. You get another stupid, failed TV show (starring cast members who used to be on Baywatch) cancelled and forgotten after half a season.

Another example: Points of view must change.

In This Plague of Days, I made choices to introduce more family strain. This Plague of Days isn’t just about viruses, zombies, fires and firepower. It’s about people under pressure.

The mom is a Christian. The father is an atheist.

Faced with mortality, the mom becomes a Christian with doubts and the dad becomes an atheist with doubts. I believe in readers and I follow the story wherever it leads (i.e. toward more conflict.)

Issues of atheism versus faith are not presented all at once. This isn’t a college seminar. Near the beginning of Season One, the atheist has his say. That may repel some readers who won’t stick around for his confession, feelings of abandonment and transcendence. Too bad those same readers won’t hear the mom’s counterpoint, either. Impatient readers might seize on one aspect in the early going (for or against God, depending on when they stop reading.) I feel it’s an honest, necessary exploration woven into the fabric of a much larger story. (Not that it should matter, I’ve been a believer and an atheist but not at the same time.) I’m not pushing an agenda. I’m pushing for brain tickles. If you want to be pulled into warm marshmallow, read Chicken Soup for Something or Other. I write suspense. Not everything is for everybody.

Readers will draw their own conclusions about religion (or ignore that small aspect of the story completely.) Zombies turn some people to God. For others, zombies turns them away from faith. Put a wife and husband at the edge of the end of the world and I guarantee religion’s going to come up. It’s not my job to make up anyone’s mind. It’s my job to tickle brains and make the debate honest and interesting while the struggle for survival gets harder. Context is everything.

Don’t pander. Follow the Art and the Conflict

People will draw conclusions about you from what you write. Don’t be afraid of that or your story will suffer. You’re a writer, so we already know you’re brave and have an unreasonably high estimation and expectation of the human race. Live up to that commitment with every chapter.

Respecting the reader doesn’t mean that you try to make them like everything they read. However, most readers stay longer with stories that challenge them, make them think and make them laugh. Don’t let it come out as an info dump or a teaching moment. Let it come out naturally. Don’t make your story a seminar on your beliefs. Do let characters have strong, conflicting points of view. Have a spine, but don’t force conclusions. Let the reader do that work for themselves. Always leave room for doubt.

For the Readers

I guarantee, when you read This Plague of Days, you’ll read things you’ve never read before. You’ll learn things you probably didn’t know. (I did!) And you don’t have to agree to anything. It’s a book. It’s not a threat to the tenets of your existence.  

A fun book is a ride at the carnival, an exorcism of fears, a voyeuristic pleasure, an extended brain tickle and a happy distraction, first class on the Crazy Train. All aboard to the end of the line.

Filed under: publishing, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Breaking Bad & Surprise Twists

Last night Breaking Bad’s ending exemplified one of the best aspects of a well-crafted story: surprise.

William Goldman (author of The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Marathon Man, All the President’s Men among many others) is the master of the twisted plot. Just when you think you know what’s going to happen next, he suckerpunches you. In my favorite novel, The Color of Light, Goldman surprises the reader in the last few words, just when you thought you were safe from any more surprises. I love that.

And, for the same reasons, I love Breaking Bad, Sunday nights on AMC. Watch it.

BONUS: Read Ken Levine’s blog about the surprise ending of Newhart (and how they pulled it off.)

Filed under: Books, Writers, writing tips, , , , ,

Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

The first 81 lessons to get your Buffy on

More lessons to help you survive Armageddon

"You will laugh your ass off!" ~ Maxwell Cynn, author of Cybergrrl

Available now!

Fast-paced terror, new threats, more twists.

An autistic boy versus our world in free fall

Suspense to melt your face and play with your brain.

Action like a Guy Ritchie film. Funny like Woody Allen when he was funny.

Jesus: Sexier and even more addicted to love.

You can pick this ebook up for free today at this link: http://bit.ly/TheNightMan

For my author site and the Chazz network, click the blood spatter below.

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