Saturday, March 30, 2013

Adventures in e-Publishing

Or “The Anti-Epic”

The other day, in my Creative Writing class, I gave a mini-lecture on the importance of conflict in a story. The following story is replete with conflict. The imperial army of tradition publishing is at war with the upstart rebels of e-Publishing who are, at once, a valiant force for democracy and a populist movement pushing mediocrity. Our protagonist is waging an inner struggle between a hero and an antihero: The hero is a dreamer bent on overcoming significant obstacles to achieve a nearly unattainable goal. The pathetic, unlikable antihero cowers when faced with risk and fails to achieve the necessary motivation to become what he claims to want to be. External complications provide additional conflict in the form of a wonderful wife, child, and job which simultaneously enrich the protagonist’s life and dissuade him from taking a plunge that could put them all in jeopardy. And then there’s the postmodern element wherein the reader actually comes into conflict with the text itself: The protagonist simply might not be good enough to succeed at his chosen task, but the reader needs to evaluate that and it’s nigh-impossible for a writer to write something better than he can write in order to juxtapose that against the protagonist’s meager skills. (Say that sentence aloud three times fast, and then tell me it’s not “meta.”)

That’s plenty of conflict.

The problem with this story is that it lacks plot. Our hero/antihero, desiring to become a full-fledged Writer with a capital W, cannot decide whether or not to publish a novel as an e-book. Fearful of making a catastrophic mistake which will jeopardize his chance to have the novel picked up by a literary agent and sold to a major publishing house (or a very small publishing house, which would still be cool), he waffles like Jean Valjean trying to make up his mind about turning himself in (which goes on for-fricking-ever in the novel and about two minutes in the musical). He attends a meeting of a local writer’s group where a woman who works for an e-publishing company, selling her services to aspiring writers seeking to circumvent the traditional structure, rails against the injustice of the publishing business and the superfluous-ness of literary agents. He discusses the idea with the professional editor he hired, and she reminds him that there is still a stigma against self-publishing, despite what someone with a vested interest in e-publishing might say. He reads about novels which begin as e-books and become wild commercial successes. He talks with a literary agent who laments the “sea of mediocrity” in the e-book world. He reads some e-books and, though some are decent, others can’t even demonstrate proper spelling. He is unsure of his course.

So our protagonist decides to set out on a journey. That’s how these epic tales really take off, right? Only he is hesitant. “I’ll only go as far as Rivendell,” he thinks. “Or maybe just to the edge of the Shire.”  He decides to make some of his short stories available on the Kindle. His editor confirms that this is unlikely to threaten his chances to publish his novel in a more traditional way. He thinks of it as an experiment, an effort to learn if e-publishing is enough to consider as an alternative to another round of query letters. 

Click here for the story.
He posts one. It turns out to be very easy. It is free. The process is like a gentle walk through the rolling hills with Hobbit homes built into them. The story is written in first person, and our protagonist worries people will mistake the character for his own voice. He knows he needs to give readers some basis of comparison.

Click here for the story.
He posts another. It's a better story, so he hopes more people will read it.

He makes an author page on Amazon. This is even easier.

The End.

Where is the resolution? The climax? Hell, there wasn’t even any rising action. He had a litany of problems. He dipped a toe into these icy waters, but not enough to truly address the issues presented at the beginning of the story. What happens next? Does he quit the job he loves in order to pursue his writing dream full time? Does his wife leave him because he’s clearly lost his mind? Does he try to e-publish and fail miserably, ending up a pathetic, broken man? Does someone knowledgeable sweep in and leave an insightful comment on his blog which propels him down the proper course, or perhaps down some dark and twisted way that leads only to tragedy? Or do spammers alight on this post to try to sell him over-priced sunglasses, women’s handbags, potentially toxic herbal penis enlargement pills, or the chance to bet on obscure foreign sports in online casinos? Or does his life continue as though none of this has occurred?

There’s a lesson here, too. Conflict, though vital, is not sufficient to create a satisfying story. There must be action. A character who cannot decide what to do cannot generate enough of a plot to fill a novel. At best, he only produces short stories.

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