Friday, September 28, 2012

Digital Age Meets Oral Tradition

As I was laying awake way too early a few mornings ago, I found myself contemplating the evolution of human storytelling.  "In the beginning was the word," or so it says in the Bible.  In the beginning of human storytelling was the oral tradition, where bards and actors learned and created tales in their heads to share and disseminate throughout the community and pass down from one generation to the next, each weaving their own special threads into the fabric of the story.

Then came literacy; a select few scribes could write the words down, preserving one author's intent for posterity, at least for those who could read.  Since reading and writing were elite skills, the oral tradition still played a vital role.

Then along came the printing press, throwing literacy skills open to the whole world.  And now we're in the digital age.

How is the digital age like the oral tradition?  I had a vision this morning as I sat down to back up my writing onto a thumb drive, a vision of all of us transferring our thoughts from our human brains to our digital brains, a place where they only exist while the machine is working.  The computer is our bard.  It learns the words for us.  It learns them exactly as we write them.  Social media serves the evolutionary role of oral tradition, passing the words around the community and sometimes changing them or their message in the process.

And it all disappears as far as posterity is concerned unless it is written down, because our digital memories are only good for posterity if the technology doesn't change.  Just as the library at Alexandria burned, our digital records can be wiped out.  What remains to posterity depends on the nature of the disaster.  Some stories will live on in human biological brains.  Some may be reconstructed from the dead technology by future digital archeologists through painstaking restoration processes.  Some will survive in print.

Guess I'm getting all big-picture and philosophical this week.  Why not?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Mammon and the Storyteller: I Just Want To Write, Dammit!

I'm in danger of becoming a blog-whiner, one of my least favorite species.  Truly.  When I read a blog, I don't want to read about somebody whining over their day or apologizing for neglecting the blogosphere.  Yet here I am preparing to whine, yet again, about the social media flood and its stagnation-inducing effect on my writing.  Blogs and book giveaways and raffles and memes and e-book releases and cover reveals.  I feel like such a dinosaur.  I don't have time for that stuff.  I just want to write, dammit.

And if I should ever manage to get an agent or a publisher interested in my stuff, God forbid they wander over to this whiney rant born of a sad little neglected blog.  "What do we want with her?" they may say.  "All she wants to do is write.  Writers are a dime a dozen.  We don't need more writers.  We need marketers."  That's the message I'm getting these days.

As for self-publishing in the brave new world of the digital age, how is it any better than the old version of self-publishing?  You have to fork over a bundle of money (it's a bundle by my standards) for editors and cover art and all those important extras that will make you competitive.  I don't see that as much of an improvement over the days of vanity presses.  Yes, you control it, but you're still paying for it.

We human beings are driven to tell stories, I guess.  Tell them and write them.  But selling them?  That's a different animal.  The days of the tribal storyteller as a combination entertainer and shaman are gone.  Money has changed the storyteller's role forever.  Look at Hollywood.  How can the spirit that is meant to reflect on the deeper elements of human existence survive in the competitive commercial world?  Perhaps that is why so many artists end up screwed up, addicted, depressed, lost.  We're turning shamans into slaves, trained monkeys and prostitutes.

Oh, how very dark I'm being tonight!

Maybe I should be rejoicing in the notion that the human race is embracing its literary drive.  Maybe it's a good thing, everyone pouring their thoughts into words, this massive output of creative energy.  Afterall, some terrific creative work continues to emerge from all of this.  Have we human beings in the digital age become our own version of the old fable about the monkeys typing Shakespeare?    

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Dark Side Continued

Gothic Forest by kuba - Dark gothic forest landscapeNot long ago, I shared a post about darkness in children's literature.  I've been thinking again about that question lately.  I've been revising a YA novel that is magical realism.  The plot is constantly out of control and elusive, but there's something about this piece that keeps pulling me back to it.  I've been bringing the existing pages to my YA critique group and mulling over their comments.  Somehow those comments recently led me to rewrite a pivotal scene into a much darker direction, opening up an almost sinister side to my protagonist, a side she's probably frightened of in herself, the destructive hatred of her parent.  Matricide comes to mind.  (Mom, if you read this, don't worry.  I love you.)

If I'm being honest, I think a lot of teens have these feelings.  So, introducing this element more explicitly into my story feels exciting, and terrifying.  Those of us who are not teens are understandably uncomfortable with a teen's capacity to do real harm to another human being.  But when I was a teen, my own dark sides terrified me and obsessed me.  So, venturing down this road with my protagonist interests me.  How do we manage to come through the other end of those huge feelings of rage and those destructive tendencies?  How do we explore them, harness them, process them?  What happens when we try to ignore them or avoid them?

In the end, I think this story will be infinitely stronger when I take it in this direction.  But I'm worried.  I'm pretty confident the teen readers will have no problem with this darker vision.  I wonder if the adult gatekeepers will be able to handle it.  I wonder, frankly, if I will be able to handle it.  Time, as Virginia Woolf would say, to strangle the angel in the house.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Downsizing My Writing Projects

The school year is about to begin, and that means my writing rhythm will once again undergo a seismic shift.  Great chunks of writing time are no longer mine.  The work must soon be squeezed into 15-30 minutes chunks at 5 AM or so on weekdays, with occasional added bursts on the weekends and after school.  I am in mourning over this change. And I face a dilemma.  I must choose between my many written "children."

Over the summer, I was able to devote time to all of it - picture books, short stories, 2 YA novels, 2 critique groups, 2 blogs, research, and a consistent stream of submitting and resubmitting.  Past experience tells me I won't be able to sustain this level of productivity during the school year.  I'll have to make some tough decisions.

I feel like a manager dealing with budget cuts and layoffs.  "I'm sorry," I will say to my short stories and picture books, "But I'm going to have to reduce your hours.  I'll let you know when I need you."  And to my wildly intriguing magical realism piece, whose plot has caused me no end of problems, I shall say, "We're going to need to put you on the back burner for a while."

I'll have to choose one project as my main focus, knowing there will be days and times when I need a break from it, when I need to go visit the other stuff to keep me fresh and engaged.  Maybe it will take me a little longer between resubmissions, though my goal is still 100 rejections by the end of the year.  And there's always winter break to reconnect with my old friends.

How do you prioritize projects when your writing time is cut back?

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