Listen to Pilot Light

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Travel in the modern age

Change comes to all things, and these days change comes at increasingly rapid rates. As a lifelong traveler, I have seen quite a shift in the entire travel experience over my lifetime. The most obvious shift, especially in terms of international travel, is that it has become far more efficient. Going from country A to country B, even changing continents, happens far more quickly. That is essentially an improvement. But it has a cost.

In making travel better for business travelers, saving them time and effort, we have lost the travel experience. When I first started globe trotting, the trip itself was a major part of the adventure. It wasn't always fun, but it always held surprises well beyond the miracle of your flight being on time. It could be wonderfully chaotic. You were thrown in with a mix of people, some of whom were interesting, for indeterminate periods of time. Now things are precise and calculated. The airlines tell you when to arrive and what you can bring and what you cannot. The sterile airports that they all travel to provide little social interaction (or even seldom anything more interesting than chain restaurant food). It is all predictable. And boring.

We've lost modes of travel as well. My early international travels were by steamship. I was fortunate enough to cross both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans by sea. Not in a cruise ship, with casinos and lounge acts, but in passenger ships that afforded nice food and a deck chair where you could sit and watch the sea or read a book. I loved the smells and sounds of being at sea. Even a typhoon in the Pacific and a winter storm in the Atlantic did nothing to dispel that joy.

It seems you can't do that anymore. You can book random trips, but regular passenger travel by sea isn't cost effective. Insurance companies don't like it. Government agencies apparently don't like passenger ships either. In preparing for our most recent move to Asia (Cambodia) I tried to book passage on a ship. I contacted every broker, every ship company that even sounded like they went in that direction. Two companies responded. The first offered me a week-long cruise around SE Asia. Of course you had to fly to Bangkok and catch the boat. When I mentioned that detail, they didn't understand why I would want to sail there. To get there, maybe?

 The second was more promising. It was a freighter company with a few cabins. Lovely. But they could get us from Seattle to Taiwan, but not further. Well, they could take us to Singapore, but we weren't going there. They suggested that we could find something in Taiwan. But to be allowed into Taiwan you have to have a return ticket or onward transportation booked. We were going one way. Besides, flying on from Taiwan defeated the point of taking a ship (one reason was to take more luggage than airlines allow, to be fair), especially since we could fly the entire route for almost as much as the Taiwan to Phnom Pehn flight.

Ultimately, I realized that I had to wave a sad goodbye to yet one more of my illusions of travel in the whirl of modernity, as it had gone the way of other dinosaurs, such as Cadillac convertibles with tail fins, TWA seaplanes and regional cooking along American highways.

I mourn them all, even though I never wanted a Cadillac.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Authors instead of writers

Call me slow, but I have come to understand why I've never gotten along too well with traditional publishing ventures. Oh, I have tried the route and published books through established publishers, but it has never been (ultimately) a happy experience on either side. Now, don't misunderstand me--the people were largely nice and mostly honest (with notable exceptions). Sometimes we shared failures, as in the time I got my book all ready through editing and galleys and approved the cover and the publisher went under because of disputes with distributors. Not the publishers fault, and nothing to do with me or my book, except for being in the wrong house at the wrong time.

Since that time (long ago) the world of publishing has changed. Yes, even a traveling writer pops his head up long enough to notice sometimes. What I have noticed, and digested and now determined is that publishers of the larger-than-life type don't want writers at all anymore. Nope. Not one. They have no use for writers at all.

They want authors. And I am a writer.

Okay, so what is the difference? Sometimes people use the terms to distinguish between published and unpublished writers, but that isn't it. The difference today is that writers write... books, articles, recipes, whatever. Authors promote, try their best to become celebrities and agonize over their sales figures. Both want to make money, and you might argue that being an author is the professional approach, geared to earning money and a place in the sun. That is certainly the view publishers take. But you'll have to admit that writing is a lot more fun. Writing and getting out and doing things, gaining experiences and insights worth writing about.

I can promote but don't do it very much. I started this blog to promote my writing and books but don't get around to blogging as often as I am told I should. I get inspired to promote and then get distracted by the ideas piling up in my undisciplined brain. Ah well. I have learned to live with it.

If you want a fun take on the problems this situation can create in the world of publishing (not for writers, but for the whole system), Jim Beckett and I wrote a novel about it (writers write, right?) called THE INVENTION OF CLAY MCKENZIE. It's available as an ebook at iTunes, and in ebook and paperback formats at Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Okay, that is my promotional effort for the week and hey, I feel more like an author already. Pass me a corduroy jacket with leather patches on the elbows and a pipe. I'm ready.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Fiction in a consumer world

Being contemporary ain't what it used to be. Especially for a writer.

Fiction, the kind of fiction that I enjoy, attempts to capture some facet of life, to discuss an issue or, as Milan Kundera says, deal with some existential question. (Not answer it, mind you... just explore it). That doesn't mean that the stories are necessarily realistic, but making that facet of life or existential question relevant to the reader does require a certain one-to-one correspondence with the world that readers know.For it to be true, it has to fit in with what else they know to be true, or at least appear to.

Given that premise, the job of writing fiction is growing increasingly difficult and the reason is consumerism. The continuous introduction of new products and technologies and the (eager) desire to interact with the world in new ways means that the world itself changes significantly in increasingly short spans of time. Much science fiction from the past twenty years seems childishly simple in today's world. Some futuristic predictions considered extreme when they were written are rather bland compared to the real changes that have taken place. Tweeting is one. Social media an important tool of big business? Who woulda thunk it?

The rapid rate of change is old news but the implications continue to manifest. Here is a simple example of how these changes confound a writer. I ran across a story idea I had filed away a few years back, intending to write the story when I had a better idea of what to do with it. I liked the idea, but it has a problem--it hinges on a character sitting at home waiting for a phone call and yet having an urgent need to leave the house. What young reader would understand that now? I can hear them mutter: "Take your phone with you, jerk!"

Even if I established that this took back in ancient times, say the 1980s, would today's readers really understand the situation? Would the tension it creates be felt? I don't think so. They might accept it, but that dilemma is not visceral enough to grip. Better to toss that one. The shelf life of ideas is shrinking. I will need to date stamp them--"Best written before..."

It is an era of rampant consumerism. You can love it or hate it, but a writer cannot ignore it. It even changes our vocabulary at a frantic pace, leaving the writer the concern that having one character text another might be a totally archaic action in a few years. People still use Skype, but with rising competition and new technologies emerging, is it safe to have characters do it?

What is a bit maddening about this is that these things seldom have much to do with the story. But they do involve the telling, and the telling affects the reader's enjoyment. Most writers want to entertain at least somewhat. Regardless of the "point of my novel" I want readers to enjoy the experience, even if it is darker.

Unfortunately (in terms of being aware of these changes) I am not an ardent consumer, nor an early adopter. Many years working in the vanguard of technology as a journalist made me rather bored by change for its own sake, yet that sort of thing is at the heart of the consumer world and drives this writing problem.  So I will have to work harder.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Overlooked and unloved

I have a number of books published and I am proud of them all. Their fates are important to me.

Now writers tend to have a favorite among their literary children and I am also well aware that readers often disagree with writers concerning which is their best book. But one book of mine that I have a fondness for doesn't suffer from readers not liking it. It suffers the angst of loneliness. Although my other books do sell this one hasn't. Never.

 Here is is, just to the left. Nameless Mountain. See the book with the nice cover, with a great photo by Guy Prentice.

I think that the book's invisibility is a shame, because I honestly think it is a fun book and that readers would enjoy it and want to read my other books.

What's a kid to do?

Part of the problem is that this story doesn't fit into any genre that I am aware of; it has no home in a niche. It is just a story. It is humorous (in my dark and weird manner) but not a book to be read for laughs. The universe the characters live in is a bit off kilter, but not in a science fiction sense. It is just that it is filtered through my own perverse way of seeing things.The relationships of the characters, the narrators happiness in finding a place with no name, are factors. No one dies in the book. It lacks any exciting car chases, however there is a humor attack and sex and gambling. And lots of traveling about.

The book evolved through several incarnations. It actually first came into my life, via my computer, back in the 80s. It was rewritten, scrapped, revised, salvaged, and finally redrafted entirely. I thought I had it nailed, finally. The story that needed telling was stripped of the story that I was trying to layer on it. My efforts to be creative had been getting in the way of my being creative. That happens. So I got out of the way (stood sort of to the side--an uncomfortable posture to hold for any length of time) and let the story tell itself. Even about the brainy Vegas hooker named Denise (she's a Scorpio) and the agony of a wine snob. There is high drama when Ted pukes on a Corvette. All the ingredients are there.

But online selling hinges on categorization. And what is it? To my mind it is a story about people sorting out who they are. Sort of Kerouac with a sense of humor and a pinch of belief in the overall right working of things. In short, a novel.

Failing anything else, I have it listed under Literature & Fiction > Humor and Literature & Fiction > Literary. That last one sounds a bit snooty to me, but the books like it are listed that way, so what to do? I think most readers of literary fiction have a plateful of established authors to choose from and the discovery process for a lesser known (okay, unknown) is about like waiting for a bus in the middle of the Gobi desert. Both can happen, but what are the odds?

So categories fail me and if I can't label it, readers cannot find it. Oh me, oh my!

Then, this morning, I thought of a label that might work, at least for a time. It is accurate, to the point, motivates a buyer to consider it, and captures the mood (that I want it to be read). That label is FREE. Until July 31, the novel is free in any ebook format at Smashwords.(It is also available in paperback, not free, if you are so inclined.)

My hope is that this way it will get read. And maybe you will download a copy, read it and let me know what category you'd expect to find it in. A honest review would be appreciated too.

Happy summertime.

Traveling Ed