A New Quality in the Book Market

Recent conversations and experiences brought my attention back to the deterioration of quality in published books. Most people think that the eBook market is to blame for the lack of care for quality or authorship. However, I do not think that this means that the quality will keep going down or that this trend will continue.

Originally being a facilitator for writers by offering services, publishers became the dominant force, telling writers what to write, because the market demanded it – thus sticking with the tried and true, which had proven to make money. As a result, the moment it became technologically possible, writers tried to escape from those shackles, and get back to writing what they considered valuable – in that view the publishing industry killed their own viability.

But in combination with the idea that natural talents don’t exist and that everybody can learn to write a book, this easy access technology enticed countless other to try as well. most in the hope for fame or money, which is the situation we find ourselves in today: the market is overflowing with rehashed ideas, many written by teens, often without proper editing, and catering to an audience that seeks to escape reality. Or rather, to provide a hopeless generation with something to hold onto: the mountain of apocalypse stories gives readers unconsciously the feeling that if such disasters can be overcome by their heroic (teen) characters, then surely the real world can also become right again. In other words, this kind of reading material is serving a psychological need.

But this isn’t a downward spiral that will continue, but rather a transition period. We are already seeing new organizations popping up, ready to help those writers who are serious about quality. We see websites that frown on self promotion, and websites that compile lists of quality books that are then presented to libraries. More help in marketing is becoming available for those writers who cannot deal with this or with the electronic world. And many publishers are scrambling back, trying to do better by writers. There is also more demand for new topics, and not just to get away from the real world, but countless anthologies are popping up looking for writers to help shape a new future. In other words, they are appealing to that what writers tend to be good at: to speculate and imagine.

This sort of new quality control will start weeding out those who write simply because it is the fashion to do so. This will reduce the number of hopefuls in university classes who believe that writing is simply a technique, and slowly bring in a new infrastructure, in which the old-fashioned publishers are replaced, but story telling itself will not go away. We writers need to simply ride out this transition and support each other as best we can, but not give up.

Of course, we need to also watch that this new infrastructure will not start dictating topics and content again, but let us hope some people can learn from the past.

Advertisements

DEEP AND COMPLEX EMOTIONS

I have lately written a number of blog posts about emotions, stressing that different personality types deal differently with emotions, attach a different importance to them, even consider different events or experiences as emotions.

We know that different genres of literature are preferred by different types for reasons of topic, focus and length. Poets, song writers and short story writers – are able to express big messages in few words, and, of course, some topics need more words than others. Others need many words to paint their world, and some readers prefer to immerse in a fictional world.

Action stories tend to be page turners, full of physical excitement, in which characters respond to their environment, with the events following in close succession, with little or no time for personal relationships or emotions. Motivations – the stuff that entices people to act – tend to be external and driven by a survival need.

Even more so than action stories, hard science fiction either avoids emotions altogether or it describes them as objects of knowledge. The characters might have romantic relations, but these tend to be stated rather than felt. Hard science fiction after all, is based in the hard or exact sciences and their objective is to describe the science or technology possible for the future. – As opposed to social science fiction, which is based in the social sciences or humanities.

The simple detective story, for example the books by Agatha Christie, feature characters that commit crimes motivated by either money or a romantic relationship (external objects). They tend to come to their drastic action without any of the emotional stages of doubt, guilt, remorse or conscience. Those on the side of the law – considering the setting is Britain in a time when the death penalty was common – show equally little concern for these emotions. They go by right or wrong, as if those are strictly objective, while true emotions are stereotyped or absent.

In contrast, Arthur Conan Doyle deals very well with emotions, especially those of Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, which are true emotions. But although more logically complex, the plots are not socially or emotionally complex.

Lindsey Davies, in her historical detective series set in Ancient Rome, manages to include the complexities of Roman society, but also the personal relations of the main character with his different family members and his partner. The size of each of Davies’ individual books reflects that extra depth.

Romance stories, though usually focused on the external object, sometimes deal with very deep emotions, but those tend to be limited to a few characters and they are seldom complex, because the objective is a “happily ever after”.

There are plenty of stories that combine action, mystery or romance with relationships, in which motivations are more than just reactive, and that deal with emotions, but not all of those emotions are deep or complex.

Many family dramas are about relationships, especially the conflicts between partners, parents and kids, like teen rebellion or kids witnessing their parents, arguing, divorce or die. These involve true, very deep, but straightforward emotions. Usually, there is one motive or antagonist (whether in the form of another person or a disease or accident). Losing a parent (whether to divorce or death) is devastating and painful, but it is not necessarily complex; pain, loss, and possibly a sense of guilt, are direct emotions, relating to one person or event. And usually there is one solution that helps set things right, like talking to someone, being honest, grieving, and often a third party or new relationship. Such stories can be really powerful, because most readers can relate to the experiences, and because the feelings are easy to understand and sympathize with.

Other stories deal with complex or conflicted emotions, which are therefore generally deep as well. Complex emotions are not as easy for the reader to sympathize with, and neither are the characters, because the feelings are not straightforward, and they cannot be neatly placed in right or wrong boxes. Complex emotions tend to occur within a character, as well as between characters who may all experience inner conflict simultaneously, and there is often no solution. Complex emotions happen when a person’s conscience gets caught up between the rights and wrongs of others, their own unconscious or darker inner self and the consequences of their actions and emotions.

Those are the emotions I portray, because they reflect best what goes on in real people, even in those who suppress them. My stories don’t have “a bad guy”. I don’t need one, because ‘bad things’ happen when good people get hurt. Emotional hurt is capable of turning the sweetest and most giving person into one who contemplates murder or revenge, and the only thing that stops most of us from acting on such feelings, is our inner conscience, which is itself a complex of personal experiences and inborn personality. And exactly because those personalities are all different, can we not understand each other’s motivations and emotions, which causes us to respond judgmental to the other person, which brings about the next problem.

To me there is nothing more fascinating than the interactions of all those different complexes within all the different people and how they respond to each other. In other words, I try to be true to life with all its messiness.

 Of a Note in a Cosmic Song, being my biggest novel, involves at least eight point of view characters and a large cast of others, all interacting at different levels, and each regarding the others through their own sense of right and wrong. This evolves over a period of eight years, while on a journey to colonize another planet and start a better society.

The Happiness Inquisition is a novella, so the build-up is shorter, but the five involved characters and their relationships all are driven by inner as well as outer conflict.

In the Real World has two sixteen-year-old characters dealing with the emotions of war, even if the story is set in modern-day Australia, which is not a country at war at all. But because all conflicts are based on similar motivations, the situation at school (and home)  is a recreation of what war is like. The same emotions are involved, even if the actions are on a smaller scale.

Soup and Bread has an eleven-year old point of view character, who gets torn between choosing to help a victim of bullying or acting on her fear and look the other way. Through her eyes, the complex emotions of parents, teachers and other kids, is shown in response to the much more serious consequences of such behaviour, as well as physical and mental illness.  It is, therefore, not just a book for young adults.

Lohland is my only book that probably does not qualify. This story, being my first, involves a much more straightforward problem for the main character; a teenager, who, in addition, is of a personality type that tends to suppress their emotions, so even if I, as the writer, am aware of his inner conflicts, he tends to rationalize them, and the story mostly focuses on environmental changes.

In short, my books are not page turners full of physical excitement, but a portrayal of complex social situations from the perspectives of different types of people to allow the reader experience their intentions, conflicts, misunderstandings and motivations. This takes time, which is why I naturally end up writing novels. The action of my stories is in the emotions, in the relationships, and in the conflicts and their (sometimes disastrous) consequences.

Since readers and writers must connect somehow, readers a who prefer to deal with interpersonal relations and emotions in a straightforward manner or not at all, are not usually interested in my stories. My perfect reader is a people-person. Someone who wants to witness what makes people angry, sad, self-conscious, fearful, and often all of those at the same time: complex emotions.

 

 

How Pinterest can help writers

As an INFP writer, I naturally jump into people’s emotions and psychology and am less inclined to be aware of the environment. That goes for real life as well as for my stories; I have to make a conscious effort to become aware of smells, scenes, decor, people’s clothing and how they look.

This reflects in my writing, because I forget to describe the way people look or the scenery for those readers who need that kinds of descriptions. I write first person past or present tense and am therefore looking at the world from inside the characters’ mind and not looking at them, with as a result that I know how they feel, what they think and everything else, but not what they look like.

For example, when I finished In the Real World I paid attention to what message the cover would send to readers and chose to portray a group of high school kids in their school uniforms (with the two point of view characters at the centre. One of them especially needed to come across as a bit of a rebel with a strong personality, so the illustrator and I agreed that red hair seemed the most telling of her spirit. It was only after somebody who read the book pointed out to me that it is her friend who has the red hair and not the main character, that I thought about it.

9780473214067

I have since done countless observation exercises to help me set the scenes, but I still have much more trouble with descriptions than with emotions. Only now I have modern technology to help me – and if you are anything like me, it might help you too.

Sites like Pinterest (and others like it) are mostly focused on images and not on words. They are therefore great for visual artists, but less for writers. I do have a Pinterest board for each of my books with inspirational images, collected to give a feel of what is important for each story, and, of course, I display my book covers on them, but I always thought that was as far as my connection with visual art would go.

But for my latest stories, when I come to a part that needs a description, I simply type in the general idea into Pinterest and voila: countless ideas that I can mix and match to create a good visual image for the reader. I do the same with Google maps. If I need a location, I can travel virtually everywhere in the world and describe the streets and the houses.

Thank you, internet for having a way with images that can help me shape my words.

 

Utopia or Dogma?

The fiction and non-fiction of exploring human happiness.

Chapters four and five of my philosophy book deal with the ethics and politics of psychotype theory – the theory that we are all born with a set of information filters for communicating with our environment and which, consequently, influence what we find important, how we learn, how we relate to authority and community, how we interpret abstract words, the emotions we feel, our beliefs, our sense of justice and everything else that is related to our inner person and how it survives the world of ‘others’.

The chapters have been given the names Typotopia and Typocracy, mostly because I wanted to explain what they are about in one word and because everything in the book is related to “type”.

Typotopia looks at the needs of individuals and what accepting that people are born with a different psychology means for the development of their healthy self-identity and their freedom, obligation and expression in the social group. In other words, it looks at the requirements for an ideal place; ideal in the sense that every type of person (that is all 16 psychological types) must feel respected and deserving and to have their needs met, so they can grow up feeling happy.

It is therefore no personal ideal, like those described by writers of utopias, who paint the best possible scenario from their point of view, and simply assume that everybody else must also consider such a life ideal. The criticism that usually befalls such books can be taken as evidence that this is not the case. Don’t get me wrong, I love those books.

Typocracy then takes that picture and explores how a typocratic (as opposed to democratic) society would be able to function. In other words, it takes a look at the social institutions (education, judicial, government, economy) and paints a scenario in which each of those is run with our inborn psychological differences in mind.

Thus, what I try to do, being aware of the different perspectives and needs of the different personality types, is see if it would be possible to create a “type friendly world”, a world that respects all typed of people, even if they are all different.

Like I said above, “justice” for example, is something people feel inside. It is not something objective, but we all feel a different sense of justice. So how would we be able to live together and still respect all those different senses? How, for example, would you deal with crime? Would there be crime? What would we consider crime?

But no matter how enjoyable speculating such ideals is, philosophical theory is still non-fiction.

But at times, philosophers take a more fictional approach; they invent scenarios that allow us to imagine what we would do in a certain situation, which they call a thought experiment. Usually, these ‘experiments’ are short exercises that require the thinker to deliberate over possible outcomes, in which the most logical answer is put forward as a resolution to the philosophical argument. But sometimes we need more than just logical outcomes. Sometimes we need to create a whole new world or large-scale scenario. That is where science fiction comes in with wonderful TV programs like “The Future is Wild” and “Evacuate Earth”.

But there are also scenarios that require that we consider more than just nature. In situations where we are dealing with people’s motivations and how they live together, we need to include their perceptions and their emotions and that is what my science fiction series does.

In essence, it takes the same perspective as my Typotopia and Typocracy chapters, but now we have characters with a history and experiences and prejudices and ideals that are not all the same and with different personalities. Not only do they all live on the same planet, but a large number of them decides to go on a space journey and start a new colony, so that they have to survive the journey (without killing each other) and create a new society that is better than the one they left behind. And they all know exactly how to do that. They are all like the utopia writers I mentioned above; each with their own ideal and equally determined to see it through. The only problem, of course, is that all their ideals are different.

And that is what human conflict is all about. We don’t need bad people to create problems; all you need is clashing personalities and each with the best of intentions.

But there is another aspect to the story. The planet they leave behind, which will appear a little bit dystopian in the eyes of today’s reader, is dogmatic and rigid. The problem is that their rigid social structure is based on type differences. In the course of their history, somebody actually managed to introduce psychological differences and they were adopted in several places. But over time, those running the place lost sight of the importance of being different and diverse, and started using it to pre-select children for certain jobs and social positions. Those who belonged to ‘controversial’ personality types, naturally ended up at the bottom of the social ladder.

They, more than anything, are determined to make sure that will never happen again. And since half the colonists are convicts, that makes their peaceful society a whole lot more difficult.

My question at the start of the book – because all my fiction starts with questions, which the characters then answer over the course of my writing – was whether they would be able to make it better or is every ideal doomed to dogma? Is my philosophy, my goal of creating a type friendly world, possible? Will we be able to create a world in which we prevent the natural tendency of groups to return to dogma?

 

 

 

Walking Along

Lately there are videos going around the social media that show people of different ethnic or gender backgrounds learning to get along through doing something together or just looking at each other. Those are great exercises, and akin to what writers have been doing for millennia: allowing people to see things from a different angle and so create tolerance and prevent dogma.

Of course, some people prefer to stick with what they know; they feel safer in their own environment. Writing stories of good and evil, of romance and of adventure allow a writer to plunge right into the story, because there are plenty of readers ready to swim along; they don’t know the exact story, but they know what they can expect. Many readers prefer that; they do not want to be confronted with different; they read to escape complex social issues and just want to be entertained.

But when a writer wants to introduce a new point of view or get readers to acknowledge that there is more than one way to look at things, they cannot simply jump in and hope the reader follows. Coming back to the example of homosexuals before, who, as little as fifty years ago, were not seen as human; many people were afraid of them, afraid it was a mental illness or contagious, and the topic was not mentioned. By allowing readers to step into the mind of gay characters in books, writers allowed them to begin to understand that homosexuals were people just like them.

In short, fiction books allow readers to see the world through different eyes; to step into the mind of somebody with a different outlook on life and in this manner overcome a fear of differences and help create tolerance.

Thus, when writing a fiction book, I am taking the writer on a journey to a different point of view. I could fly them to the destination, but they won’t appreciate the road. They would be startled or scared off if my conclusion, my idea, is too radical; they will dismiss it.

Instead, I invite the reader to walk with me through the minds of multiple point of view characters, so that different readers may find somebody they understand and somebody they do not, just like in real life. I invite the reader to consider the thoughts and beliefs of many different people by looking through the eyes of these characters; to consider as many as possible sides of the situation. Some of those characters might slowly change their mind about the same things I ask the reader to reconsider. If a character in a book has trouble with a new idea or another person, it might help the reader feel they are not alone and maybe, at the end, they’ll appreciate the outcome.

But walking, step by step, to a different point of view takes time, which is why some of my stories are quite long. My young adult novels, each allow the reader a peek into the perspective of the odd one out; the child who does not fit in and who tends to be berated for that in our society, or, in the case of In the Real World, two perspectives.  My adult novels allow for many different viewpoints.

The most dramatic example is Of a Note in a Cosmic Song. Not only does it have eight point of view characters of diverse cultural, social and religious backgrounds, different ages and genders and different experiences, but through them the reader gets confronted with many more different personalities and opinions. Each of them has a realistic point of view when seen through their eyes, but that is not always realistic in the eyes of others, which is why they get into conflict, so that every reader will be able to find a character with a personality like their own, who they will be able to relate to, but also some characters they cannot understand. In addition, these characters are on a journey together, having left behind their home to start a colony on a new planet; they are looking to restart justice and democracy and a better society… and each believes that their own viewpoint of ‘better’ is the best for everybody.

I ask for tolerance of the reader to, at the end of the story, accept a ‘different’ that may be more shocking than the murder, rape, evil minds, mass shootings, gangs, drugs, deceptions, greed and other horrors to which, sadly, most westerners have become desensitized.

Dear reader, I do hope you’ll be willing to walk with me, and find that, no matter how alien an idea, it may just bring us to a more positive future.

Thank you for reading.

 

Writing for Minorities

A little while back I decided to critically reread all my own fiction books – most of which were written 5 to 15 years ago – to be able to blog about the topics with a fresh perspective. Despite Soup and Bread being only just over two years old, I decided to include it, not so much to re-evaluate the contents, but the way to approach potential readers, because it deals with a very complex topic.

The ability to grasp that complexity is not age or diploma related, but depends on the personality and personal experience of the reader, and for this book that is important, because the protagonist is only eleven.

9780994107732

Imagine that your child is being bullied at school – and assume you know about it, which is not often the case – and you decide to help them by buying them a children’s book that tells of a child who was bullied, but after an event in which they must stand up for themselves or join in with the action, they suddenly have lots of friends. Almost all books about bullying have that kind of plot.

But what message does such a story give your child, who has no doubt tried to be accepted already. They’ve tried to fit in and join the actions; they’ve probably tried to change their wardrobe or the way they talked or their hobbies. Maybe they’ve even changed schools already and each time they no doubt tried to stand up for themselves. What message does that story tell your child other than that they are not trying hard enough? The same scenario happens in many books (not all) that deal with eating disorders and other mental health problems.

So why buy that book? Why not buy a book that takes the side of the victim; a book that tells them that they have the right to live and be themselves, just like everybody else?

The answer is that the only stories available are those that tell of simple solutions or focus on superficial and observable traits without addressing the real causes, and so for advice books for parents.

My problem, both when writing Soup and Bread and now when trying to market it, is this: The topic is very, very complex, and the message I need to get across to exactly those young people who are struggling with these issues deals with invisible, deeply personal and abstract traits (of which actions and observable things are only the result and not the cause) that are experienced by them but cannot be observed by others. Thus, if the school librarian, the teacher, the parent or the bookshop owner do not experience the same issue, they will not make the book available to these readers; they will stick with superficial stories, based on sales figures, yet the people who can grasp it are in the minority.

So what am I to do? Do I simply change my writing to also pick one superficial trait that subliminally blames the victim, so I can make money?

Should I stop writing for minorities, because most people don’t get it?

Should black writers have stopped writing for black children? Or should other ethnic minorities not be mentioned in fiction? Should women writers have stopped writing for gender equality? Should gay writers have never portrayed homosexuals?

Most readers today will answer “no” to those questions, but will dismiss personality differences as unimportant, for the exact same reason as all other minorities were at one or another time dismissed.

So how do I get through to them?

My solution in the story is to relay these personality differences through the experiences of young people, who are not expected to understand such issues, and which makes it easier to explain them, while emphasizing that understanding them and dealing with them is not something that can be learned, but something that needs to be experienced.

Told in the first person present, which gives the story momentum, the protagonist, Vonnie, is a healthy girl, who is not herself bullied, but only a bystander. With her, the reader meets other children, all with serious problems that are in one way or another related to food or to bullying. Together the children learn to deal with their problems and to stop blaming superficial causes, while relating the abstract emotional complexities through comparisons with more concrete issues. For example, the children play with bubble blowers to explain what interpretation of abstract words or concepts is like and they compare personality traits to the hormones in injections, which cannot be seen from the outside, because the liquid looks like just water. They learn to understand personality needs by comparing them to wearing glasses; a child that does not need glasses cannot see better through the glasses made for someone else.

They also get to do a presentation at school and they use fun fair mirrors to show that the outside (looks) of a person can easily change, but not who they are inside; that the bullies may have pretty faces, but they are ugly inside, and that is what their personality is like.

In short, the book helps make the abstract and very difficult to understand, but nonetheless real and vital aspects of human nature, more palatable and in doing so, hopes to initiate a change of attitude towards those people who are different.

Would I have changed something, if I had written the book today? Only, possibly, the pacing in the first chapter, which was to set the scene and might be going a bit fast for some readers, but the story soon settles in a steady rhythm that mixes the feelings and observations of the protagonist with the actions and words of those she meets.

Although written for 11-15 year olds, the book will touch adults just the same and the characters in the story each represent different personalities, regardless of age and social position.

Available as eBook from meBooks and in paperback from The Copy Press and from my website.

Thank you for reading.

War OR Peace

Readers and writers each have their preferred genre and their own way of experiencing the world and two people with opposing personalities seldom take the same viewpoint. Consequently, readers and writers must be somewhat compatible to get a message across and to appreciate a book. Of course, the beauty of fiction is that by using different characters, the writer can represent more than one point of view.

Like in real life, so subliminal interactions between characters and interpersonal relationships tend to be very complex and multi-layered in my books, and I do not use stereotypes or ‘a bad guy’, but rather a multitude of well-intended people getting into conflict.

Like all my books, In the Real World is likely to anger or frustrate some people, especially those who tend to take their moral values from their environment, and who might not see the relationships presented or the behaviour of certain characters as appropriate. Others might accept the story, even if they do not agree with all the characters.

 

cover-RealWorld

Originally written in 2005 and first published in 2008 – second edit 2012 – the book is not meant for young readers only, despite the protagonists being 16 years old. It is written for any person above that age; any person who can think about ethical values, about parenting and about war, and it is not in any way simplistic.

Nor is it a ‘nice’ book with heroes and big win; it is not a fantasy story where the only danger comes from some evil overlord. This story is set in “the real world” and the conflicts are between people’s beliefs and the accepted norms that keep them apart. Through the eyes of the two protagonists, the reader is shown many other characters – grandparents, parents, teachers and students – of whom some agree and others disagree with these norms.

War is the main topic, but the story is not set in a time of war; it is set today, in an Australian high school. It begins during a family reunion on Anzac Day – the Australian memorial day – when a group of cousins are having a boy-girl prank ‘war’ that gets totally out of hand. It is the emotions that are evoked during that exchange that are responsible for all the actions that follow and it is those actions and emotions that reflect conflict on an international scale in the real world, and in the history lessons and family stories that relate what happens with the kids to the events of the two world wars.

Apart from that, there are complex and very real interpersonal relationships evolving between characters, some of which touch the line of what is considered decent in our western society. For example, the question of how friendly teachers and students are allowed to be with each other and whether parents should stand behind their kids or behind the school when conflict arises.

The book does not glance over those moral boundaries, but addresses them, with the characters being very aware, and, like the readers, some are more accepting of those than others. But the reader does not have to worry about In the Real World, for all interactions are between personalities and there is no implicit or explicit sex between students or between students and teachers, and no scenes that are not suitable for young adult readers. In short, showing the emotions of war in a time of peace, the issue is human nature and our ability to solve conflicts.

The book is currently on sale. The eBook is available from meBooks (both Epub and Kindle) and printed copies can be bought via The Copy Press or my website.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

Previous Older Entries