Category Archives: Weblogs

Confronting Harper Lee’s Monster

It came across our Facebook feeds yesterday:

Harper Lee is releasing a new book!

Harper-Lee

It had already been announced and discussed and when I told my wife, she said what we all thought, “Isn’t she dead?”

Almost immediately there were suspicions about it all over the feeds. News and opinions went back and forth without much substance to go on. Was she being coerced or manipulated? Who had actually talked to her about it?

But behind the speculation, some of us sensed a monster lurking, a question we can’t quite answer: are we doing what’s right here?

This wasn’t just about what a beloved author really wanted. It was about what the Internet and media (social and otherwise) is doing to our world. Knowingly or not, Nelle Harper Lee has started a conversation again over the central issue her debut speaks to most presciently: the hopelessness in today’s world of doing what’s right.

Whether it’s the conversation about our country’s Internet and media addiction that none of us want to have, or the one about reparations and systemic injustice, there are winners and losers in this country. And we all have to face how deeply unfair so much of what we call “fair” is just not.

The story of a famously private author finally deciding to release another book is some of the best news fodder we Chatty Cathys could hope for. Think of the traffic being generated! But whatever else it’s about, the story is also a warning, a reckoning, that we could be killing a mockingbird here. If someone is lying or manipulating this living national treasure, they’ll most certainly be published, er, punished.  Ahem.

For all our hopes of another novel, shouldn’t we be asking, Should we just leave her alone?movie

Then there’s the fact that this couldn’t be more fitting to the point of her novel: no question Bob Ewell and his kind of prejudice are evil and wrong, and so is the jury for believing him. But we all know there’s another monster on the loose that we’re not talking about, a deep evil, possibly the greatest of all–a bully with an insatiable hunger for more.

More news. More information. More of the juicy story. More amazing books. And even if you weren’t as excited as I was to hear about this new book, we’re all in danger of becoming sick-drunk with this thirst for more.

Maybe she realizes there are still many innocents who need protecting and maybe her novel can help. Or maybe she still sees herself as Boo Radley as she has said.

Are we taking advantage of her? Remember, even Atticus was ready to force Boo and his own son to face public “justice” for the murder of Bob Ewell, spinning it as positively as he could.

It took the hardened lawman, Heck Tate, to talk sense into him and show him his misplaced faith in people to do what’s right.

This news story and To Kill a Mockingbird have everything to do with how we view right and wrong and our responsibility to seek true justice. Make no mistake, the point here is just like in the novel–doing the right thing may be hopeless, but it’s still worth doing all you can. We must consider the consequences of our snap judgments, and remember that in our modern rush to consume information, we can so easily become ravenous “More Monsters.”

I believe deep down, we all know we’re a mix of great good and deep evil. And because of that evil, Boo Radley wouldn’t really be left alone. Not in the real world.

Wouldn’t we all kill a mockingbird if we had a chance to own her song? As good as he wanted to be, not even Atticus, for all his good intentions, could see that without help.

2Q==To be sure, Go Set a Watchman is a very promising title. Should it happen to be about coming to terms with our tendency to go after those who need our protection, it could inspire discussion again about the importance of limiting ourselves to preserve something good and pure in the world. Maybe it will be about respect and facing our prejudices and dealing with the misguided bullies in our hearts.

We can only hope. And maybe if Nelle’s new-old vision from a grown-up Scout Finch does ignite that vital conversation again, she’ll forgive us for needing the reminder?

Gay Talese on the Questions that Guide Us

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Every time I go to a journalism class, invited by some guy at NYU or Columbia, after the class is over, and I’m about to leave to go to dinner somewhere, somebody comes up to me. “Mr. Talese, can I have your address? I’d like to write to you.” I say, “Listen, I’m here now to talk to you, but I’m going back home and maybe I’m going to leave town because I have something I want to write.” Because you know what’s going to happen? They’re going to send me a novel, a short story, an article. And they’re going to want me to place it for them. “How do I publish this? Do you know how I can get an agent?” And what’s going to happen then is I’m going to possibly disappoint them enormously. Or two things might happen: I’m going to read what they wrote and it’s going to be terrible. Or maybe it’s going to be good. Then I have to find an agent or try to place it with an editor. And they turn it down. Then I have to go back to this NYU student who thought I was Ernest Hemingway and say, “Look, I can’t do that anymore because I can’t guarantee I’ll get it published.” C–, I can’t get my own stuff published some of the time! “Ali in Havana” got turned down by 11 or 12 editors. The last thing Sinatra wants to do is to be the godfather to this girl at USC.  – Gay Talese on how he captured Sinatra’s heartbreaking response to an old friend

I don’t share these links often, but there’s so much to glean here. This is an annotated interview with one of the greatest living journalists Gay Talese on a piece he wrote about Frank Sinatra, currently trending on Twitter.

Do you see the golden opportunity here? To learn the all-important questions that guide a master in his craft: why and how and what to pay attention to…

Writers who take the time to listen will learn a lot….

Progressive Publishing Program, Part 1: Finish Your Book (for Free) with a Writing Coach

Some offers are just hard to believe, aren't they? 

The day I came up with the idea for a "progressive publishing program," I didn't believe it either.   Images-3

But here's a confession: I’ve always been something of a skeptic. As a small(er) babbler, I remember seeing the commercial for the Tootsie Roll pop and I determined to prove them wrong. I stuck with that thing until I licked the stick clean. I probably have some undiagnosed OCD, and coupled with a near-religious devotion to Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers during my newly-verbal years, my ability to persevere through difficult tasks that I enjoyed was virtually assured.

Of course, my mom would tell you, I was one headstrong little snot. I stomped my defiant foot into the deep shag carpet more than once. And as corporal punishment was something of a Christian duty in the 70s, I learned to withstand much pain. 

At school, I followed my own beat stubbornly, even learning to use my spankings to make my punishers cry. But something stuck. I learned self-discipline. And today I use it every day, to edit, write, and not coincidentally, to help authors edit and write.

Research shows that for those who want to write a book, finishing is the #1 barrier. Estimates put it that over 80% of American adults want to write a book, but it turns out life can get in the way. And I could use competition, the TV-addicted childhood, California slacker thing, or my Gen X label as excuses.

Or I could write myself a different story. Images-1

There are plenty of stories for all of us to choose from. But eventually we all need to recognize it's our choice to chose the one most worth fighting for.

Commitment isn’t all we need. But it's like, 9/10s. It may be true that obsessing gets you nothing but ulcers, but devotion is the main defense against the enemy of all great books, this enticing fruit of distraction. Greedy salesmen and barking self-publishers purport to want to help you, but do they care how good your book is? What's in it for them to help you not just publish, but sell well? The vision you initially had for your book when you imagined it finished, is that what you have? Or are you in danger of straying from your path? Opportunists have sprouted up everywhere, even in Christian corners, to prey on your flagging devotion. And they're very convincing.

"Congratulations! You finished writing! Now it's time to publish! Trust us, we're professionals."

Maybe you've noticed the decline in book quality. Or typos. Or simply what Stephen King calls "fast-food books" that bypass anything nourishing and go straight to the bowels. I think they're going straight to authors' heads, making their brains fat and slow, convincing them they can publish bestsellers as quickly and easily as, well, passing some fast food.

My theory, and it's just a theory, is that the major problem is undisciplined authors. They may not tell the lies, but they give them power by believing them. And they sell out their vision before a better book is given a chance to be born. Either too distracted, untrained, or afriad of never reaching the shelves, the majority miss their chance of connecting and selling well.

A glut of entitled sell-outs is dragging down the art and literature of publishing.

And why? Because they believe the hype. A brainless machine can publish your book. The real value is in the wisdom to know what's required to publish a best-seller. Are best-selling books always great books? No. And no one can predict success. But there are common characteristics in the authors who write well and sell well. The easiest way to make money in publishing is in selling false hope. And it costs far less to give people what they want than to commit to high quality work (what they really want, trust me).

If you've got a different kind of story, maybe it needs to be published as a great book. Maybe you are one who should choose a better way.

ImagesYou can do that and make a stand. But you'll also need others around you who believe in that goal really, really stubbornly.

Look at how best-selling authors do it. My newsflash for you after having worked with many successful authors over the past decade is that the good ones committed to the idea that valuable work costs much. They sacrificed for it. They sought out professionals to ensure the highest quality and before they published, they decided they really, really wanted to learn to write and edit well. They learned to tell a story. Armed with this, they managed to wait, to learn to edit, to research the market and others' books, and put themselves through the paces to pull together a refined vision, instead of selling it for scrap.

Choosing a different story than the self-publishers' hype is a new first step to becoming a great author. And only those with the determination to finish well will ever sell a great book.

Stay tuned…part 2 tomorrow.

(Oh, and in case you're wondering how many licks it really takes, I'll tell you over in the forum at the new site…)

Why the New Books Want to Be Free

Convergence.

Moving toward union or uniformity; especially coordinated movement of the two eyes so that the image of a single point is formed.

We might hold such truth to be self-evident, but convergence, the merging of distinct ideas, people, industries, and technologies into a unified whole balanced in equality, is the basis of our government, healthy relationships, of spiritual lives, and many things in between. It’s in the ying and yang of the ancients, predating our understanding of the perfect balance of love and justice found in God.

And this concept is just as operational in our world today. The synthesis of ideas, is happening at a faster rate today than it ever has before. So the ability to “hold to one without letting go of the other” is becoming increasingly difficult as well.

Maybe you feel this in your own life, this pull toward the “comfort” of extremes. Too often we’re attracted like magnets to the poles, wowed by the height the pendulum swings. These are the extremes. The world is full of them and they’re unbalancing factors and should be ignored. The unbalanced wants to be heard. But it also wants to be ignored as it argues for its own irrelevance (to pick on political talk show hosts: if they got what they “wanted” they’d go extinct).

This involves paradox and paradox is everywhere. If you’ve seen it and dealt with it honestly, you know that convergence is the answer.

Does God still speak today? And would he speak through prophets who are paid no heed? What if we’re missing his words because we don’t have ears to hear? Would God choose to have a prophet speak through publishing a book? My question to the traditional publishers, most now owned by conglomerates: Can you hear above the other master’s voice? And if you can, what special measures are you taking to ensure your readers reckon with it?

What needs to happen now? Chris Anderson reminds us in Free, “information wants to be free, it also wants to be expensive because it’s so valuable.” (Stewart Brand)

Paradox. Convergence.

I believe we’re entering a new age where the ideas of freedom that were relegated to the control of gatekeepers can no longer tolerate the restriction. Publishing is a game of “rights management,” a euphemism for ownership and control, but the information wants to be free. And despite their “purchase” price and devoted resources, the publishers do not own it. Not even the authors own the ideas, any more than they created their own brains and the life that sustains them. We can’t even control the influences that go into shaping the new ideas. And as for who “owns” wisdom and understanding, let alone the capacities for such things, we can all agree, it isn’t us.

Why shouldn’t everyone benefit from the current convergence of an idea surplus and the unlimited access to publishing it?

It’s time to hack in. To circumnavigate. To rethink and rebuild the new system.

Democratization of publishing is underway. I don’t believe my job is to help someone control the information. I’d rather make it easier to distribute. And that means convincing people to share their ideas for free. If enough innovative authors agree, publishers will be forced to change.

I think it’s relatively inevitable, but that doesn’t change the hard truth. Some will ask why this should happen. And it’s simple: the idea of controlling someone’s message, idea, or intellectual property, is profoundly connected to the control of those people themselves, and ultimately leads to a no-win for everyone involved. Author becomes indentured servant, publisher becomes greedier, and end consumer is charged increasingly more for a decreasing quality product.

It may not always bear out in every instance, but tending toward entropy is the natural cycle. New opportunities overthrow existing paradigms. Revolutions and tyrannies are cyclical. This is simply a current one. Or maybe, as Anderson says, it’s simply the most recent part of the continuing revolution that bits (computers) have made possible.

And something in me is encouraged to think it’s all outside my control.

 

The Death of Better Writing

Inspired by Steven Levy’s recent article for Wired on “The Burden of Twitter,” I’m encouraged to agree with him. I often feel guilty too. I have a blog I haven't contributed to regularly for several months. I feel more than guilty—approaching inadequate–that all my pals on Facebook have so much time to post cool pictures and updates, while I’m still struggling to update from my Christmas pictures. And not only haven't I ever Dugg anything since, well, ever, I don’t really even know what Digging does.

I really do find social networking pretty cool—in some ways, I mean. Facebook has been incredible in linking me up with old people from my more embarrassing days. And posting short updates on there feels much more immediate and relevant than this old blog, not to mention the old novel sitting on my hard drive for nigh on 6 years now. And I love feeling like we’re at the start of something that could be really great for our writing community.

But there’s still that nagging sense that because I have limited time and/or desire to divulge every bit of info about myself to the world, I'm only skimming the surface of the formerly deep (or at least deeper) waters of our withering social construct. And even at that, I'm not making any really significant contribution. I feel like I’m more connected, and yet less really connecting, all the time.

And I have a feeling that not only have I felt that before–I'll feel it again and again.

So, as a result, I fight back. I work harder to provide something more meaningful than the rest of the emailers, bloggers, Facebookians, and tweeters, which in itself is a perpetual burden. How do you provide something more meaningful in a 140-character update?

This very question reveals more about me than I'm sure I'm comfortable revealing.

Which delivers us to the ultimate insult: as I strive to make more substantial deposits into the stretching info abyss, the more difficult and unnecessary it seems to preserve something good for the more substantial repositories—books, for instance. That’s right. Remember those? I wonder if one day we’ll look up and realize what fools we were to think we could keep heading so quickly into the future and still hold onto our quaint notion of continuing to invest in the antiquated analog of print publication. We get immediate response this way. And the words don't get nearly as polished. There's much less frustration. Why would anyone work at words the old, harder way anymore?

But I suppose just as the Internet is rewriting all our futures, it's revising this particular piece of common wisdom as well: best not to ask questions you don't want Google to answer.

Until then, I’ll keep working to calm myself by unplugging periodically and reassuring myself that there’s far more value in time spent writing for a book over a blog post.

And yes, I will now go mention this new post on Twitter and Facebook.