Wednesday, December 3, 2008

2009 ABNA: Horseman of the Writerly Apocalypse?

Okay, I'm delaying the next installment of the series from The IndieAuthor Guide one more time, but I don't feel too bad about it since my previous entry provided a means to get a free copy of the entire book. I'm afraid there's something I'm feeling pretty fired up about, and I've been encouraged to blog on it. Read on.

Bottom Line It For Me, Baby Version (200 Words or Less)
In this year's Amazon Breakthrough Awards contest, first round eliminations will be on the basis of a 300-word marketing pitch---not even a synopsis. No entrant's actual writing will get a look-see unless the entry passes the marketing-trial-by-fire elimination round. This is reflective of the sweeping, and to my mind, catastrophic changes currently revolutionizing the publishing industry to both readers' and writers' detriment. There was a time when the whole thing was about passion: a writer pouring months or even years of his life into a story or idea that wouldn't let go of him, then connecting with an agent who was so touched by the material that she was willing to risk her reputation on it by forwarding it on to editors, one or more of whom would be so inspired by the material to champion it up the chain of command. Now, passion has nothing to do with it. Books are sold to big publishers on the basis of a sales pitch, the same way screenplays are sold to studios. To all those who've doubted the viability of, or necessity for, an indie author movement to match those in music and film: can you hear me now?

Go On An' Run Yo Mouth, I Ain't Got Nuthin' But Time Version (Can't Promise It Won't Go On Forever):
The fact that the first round of eliminations in this year's Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest is based on a 300-word-maximum marketing pitch, not even a synopsis, and no one's actual writing will get a look-see unless it survives the pitch round, is downright depressing. The contest will accept up to 10,000 entries and whittle that pool down to 2,000 on the basis of a pitch, which is described in the contest FAQ as follows:

"The pitch is more than just a summary, it needs to be a well written explanation of what the book is about. Talk about your novel's strengths with respect to how it is being evaluated; Think about the elements chosen on which to judge your novel for the purpose of this contest; its overall strength, plot development, character development, originality of idea, and writing style or prose. Take the time to study your intended market and make sure your pitch demonstrates that you understand how your book fits within this market and how it will identify with your audience. Remember the book should resonate with who your readers are. The Pitch should be a concise explanation of your book and why the reader would want to read your novel."

Considering the fact that my 'Bottom Line It For Me' section above is 199 words, 300 words doesn't seem nearly adequate to squeeze in all the pith the contest organizers are demanding. What the ABNA contest seems to be asking for is an 'elevator pitch', which is the hated yoke of the screenwriter. The idea is, if you're in an elevator with a movie exec, how can you convince the exec to request your script in two minutes or less? All there's time for is a logline and a thumbnail market analysis, like this:

[Title] is a [genre] that's like [recent hit movie or all-time classic movie] meets [recent hit movie or all-time classic movie]. When [what happens?], a [who or what? - species, job title, gender, other concise descriptive] must [do what?] to [accomplish or avert what outcome?]. My research shows [statistic or researched factoid], and according to [reference magazine, well-known website or other authority], [genre or other important aspect of story] is very popular with [demographic]. [Industry person or other respected icon] read it and said [rave review remarks].

Just substitute the word "book" for the word "movie" in the above template, and you're good to go for your book pitch. I have some experience writing these things from my screenwriting days, but the fact that you have to write them at all, or be rehearsed in 'elevator pitching', was a big part of the reason I gave up on screenwriting. It's a soul-killing exercise in taking something you've poured your heart and soul into over months or even years, and boiling it down to an assurance of how much money can be made selling it. Once upon a time the screenwriter's job was to craft a touching or compelling script, and the producers were the ones who came in and bastardized it and dumbed it down for maximum marketing and profit. Now, they expect the script to come to them pre-dumbed-down and pre-bastardized, already packaged like a commodity they can immediately use to forecast sales. Sadly, the same thing is now happening with books.

As anyone reading this blog knows, a typical writer must feel a great deal of passion about a given story or character to invest the necessary time and effort in writing an entire book about it, then edit and polish that book in round after round of revisions. Yet when the time comes to try and land an agent or sell the manuscript to a publisher, the writer is supposed to just shut that passion off like a water tap, adopt the cold detachment of a marketing wonk and focus exclusively on his book's prospects for commercial success. The only ones who do it well are writers like Nicholas Sparks, who BEGINS with brainstorming about what will sell in today's market and works backward from there to come up with a story and characters. Writers like him are focused on the book's commercial prospects from the beginning; they don't write stories, they engineer them. That's why there are so many soulless, forgettable books these days, and why I've gone indie. In an October interview in Entertainment Weekly, Mr. Sparks describes his "process" thus:

''After every book I feel like the well is dry,'' he says. ''Well, that's it! Got nothing. Done. Washed up. Don't know what I'm going to do. Maybe I'll write a cookbook.'' But then he practices his standard method of formulating the skeleton of his next love story. ''Okay,'' he says, getting excited, ''I just wrote The Lucky One. So the next one won't be a military story. I know that right off the bat. These characters were in their 20s, okay, so the characters are not in their 20s. Okay, so if you're in your 40s, what are the dilemmas? Oh, wait, I've got Nights in Rodanthe coming out, and that's a love story with characters in their 40s, so if I come out with a book just like that, people will think I'm not original. Okay, what are the dilemmas that typically face 30-year-olds that I haven't done? Are we dealing with a woman who has put herself on hold for the sake of her career? Very common for women. See, you want something universal. So, hmmm, where does that go? Could be anything. Hmmm, let me do her biological clock. Hmmm, maybe she goes to her 20th high school reunion? Ah, yes, maybe she had a boyfriend? Was he ever married? Was he divorced, is he widowed? Does he have kids? What if this, what if that, what if this...''

Now, I don't know about you, but my own writing process does not begin with market analysis, theories about "dilemmas that typically face 30-year-olds", issues "very common for women," or "something universal". I tend to begin with characters or situations I feel passionate about, then work very hard to do them enough justice to inspire my eventual readers to feel as strongly about them as I did when I sat down to write. Apparently, I am part of an outmoded breed by today's publishing standards. My silly notion of beginning with something I find personally inspirational must appear downright quaint to a bestselling technician like Mr. Sparks.

Clearly, the book business is breaking down into the same two camps as the movie business, with the mainstream dominated by disposable projects and celebrity vehicles that got made on the basis of a marketing pitch, and the independent path being the only route left to people who got into the whole thing because they wanted to tell a story they felt passionate about. To me as a reader, it's depressing, because mainstream books of real quality and depth are few and far between anymore. But to me as an indie author, it's further reassurance that I'm on the right path and that an indie movement in authorship is both viable and inevitable.

If you're an engineer of stories, capable of successfully working backward from market demographics like Mr. Sparks, you no doubt have a fine future ahead of you in the 2009 ABNA and with mainstream publishers. Otherwise, ask not for whom the indie author movement calls: it calls for you.


Zoe Winters said...

Yeah, it's lame, but like you say, all this really does show that there is a place and an audience for indie work. And the beginning serious curve of this change is an exciting place to be.

When I finally made up my mind to go indie and got to the "no turning back now" point, I had this big thrill over the fact that I was NEVER going to have to write a synopsis or query again. FREE!

I will never have to utter the phrase: "It's like The Terminator meets The Secret Life of Bees." :D

This makes me happy!

Go indie!

April L. Hamilton said...

Z -
On reflection, I realize that most of my all-time favorite books, movies and even music are favorites precisely because they ARE complex---too complex to be boiled down into a one- or two-liner. How many classics of film and literature would've survived 'the pitch'? How dull and pointless do, say, The Grapes of Wrath, The Plague or 100 Years of Solitude sound when distilled into a one- or two-sentence logline?

And I'm feeling more and more you're right, that we indies are splashing around in the shallows of a huge tidal wave of change that's about to come crashing down on everyone. It's exciting, but a little nerve-wracking too because it remains to be seen whether we early-adopters will end up riding that wave or wiping out.