Showing some skin

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Every novel, play or screenplay begins with an idea. A character, a moment, an issue begging to be explored. It gets you thinking, pondering, mulling… and you’re off… Sometimes you fly. Others you stumble.

Well, when I started out I stumbled. A lot.

Many of those stumbles were but a cloudy memory until a few weeks ago when I received an email from an editor in a university theatre department. She asked me a question that got me pulling out my writing archives and reflecting on where I succeeded, where I fell down, and why.

To explain, I start with a Canadian Theatre History moment:

SOUND EFFECTS: Haunting call of a loon in the distance. Rocks. Trees. Water. CN Tower.

NARRATOR: Way back in 1981, a guy named Urjo Karedo was appointed Artistic Director of Tarragon Theatre in Toronto.  At a time when most Canadian theatres were folding, Tarragon thrived under his direction.

Every night Urjo took home one of the plays sent in by a hopeful playwright. The next morning he typed the playwright a letter about their play. In these letters he asked scorching questions, pointed out embarrassing gaps and disconnected details. Over the twenty years he read and replied to 1.5 plays per day or almost 5,000 plays.

The editor contacted me because she is compiling a selection of Urjo’s letters into a book. One of the four letters Urjo wrote to me might be included. The editor had never seen the play I wrote, so she wanted some context to understand the letter.

Off I went, digging out the boxes, dusting them off and re-reading. Here is a synopsis for that play Eye am Hear. 

Set in a dystopian future where people interact solely through computers, the play features Tamara, a teenager who ran away to join a street gang that rejects technology. At the start of the play two masked men drag Tamara into a dark warehouse and chain her to the ceiling. A computer screen lights up and a keyboard on a table rolls across the room to her. “Log on, Tamara” says the screen. She refuses. Over the course of 3 days, her captors attempt to convince her that she is the victim of a cult as she struggles to differentiate the facts she knows from the convincing fictions they weave. Their story is simple: technology is the essential power. Without it, she is in fact, not even alive.

Eye am Hear was written and produced in pre-internet 1992. It attempts to answer the question, What do our technologies do to us? 

The play was produced as part of a festival about technological literacy called Words in a Heard. This festival featured several short plays, an art installation and my play Eye am Hear as the centrepiece. After the festival and some re-writes, I sent the script to Urjo hoping for a second production, or at least a response and an invitation to his playwright development unit.

What’s interesting about reading his response so many years later is that he misses one really, super-duper important piece. It’s a point that you should be able to pluck out without reading the play.

So, here’s an idea: read the letter below. Pretend you are the writer receiving it. Write your ideas about what’s missing from it in the comments below. Next week I’ll post what I would write to the younger me.

Colleen Subasic letter B21 F10

A metamorphosis

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The publishing game, like the recording industry, is in evolution. Book publishers are struggling. Many authors with impressive publishing records are finding it hard to place their work. Bookstores are disappearing. According to some, the novel is a dying art form.

Dying or evolving?

I would argue, however, this kind of hyperbole is the easy way out and it does nothing to pinpoint where the real change resides.

Will Self wrote a compelling (and long) piece for the Guardian about the novel’s demise, pointing out that the long narrative form is in an evolutionary stage, not a death rattle. I think he’s got a point. The novel is just one type of long form narrative. Prior to the novel’s prevalence, Dickens was publishing his stories in magazine serials.

In the New Yorker, George Packer wrote a piece, Is Amazon Bad for Books? about how Jeff Bezos used the book industry to gather data and figure out how to sell stuff to intelligent people. In doing so, he removed the publishing gatekeepers from their castles and turned publishing into a two-tiered system. On the one hand, there are the Harry Potter Shades of Grey trends that go from page to movie screen to McDonald’s plastic lunch figurines. Below that there’s a swamp of cheap unknowns. Gradually, the masses are becoming the gatekeepers.

If his version of the trend is correct, we’ll we end up with picture books of cats and dogs.

Cats and dogs

As much as I like cats and dogs, I don’t think I could survive on a steady diet of them.

I bet there are many others who feel the same. More people than ever are curling up with their kindles or kobos or iphones. They’re reading on packed streetcars and planes. They’re drinking too much wine at reading clubs trying to remember explain metaphors. They’re hearing and participating in Canada Reads debates and lapping up Oprah’s recommendations (I’d link to her, but her site is weird and I don’t think she needs the promo 😉 ).

We crave those moments, sitting alone, allowing our imaginations to take wing. Where the stage of imagery is on the screen of our minds, rather than constructed for us. Where stories allow us to explore places and experiences outside the realm of normal day-to-day schedules.

The gatekeeper role is changing places, but it doesn’t mean that, in all cases, they’re lowering their standards.

Less talk, more action

A few initiatives are out there that are helping to figure this conundrum out.

In a new blog on self-publishing, The Guardian makes a very good point: The trouble with many self-published projects is quality. New authors, so proud of the plain act of stringing so many words together, get their work out without much reflection or input. Then they’re defeated when their work doesn’t catch on. Or, writers who do manage to find quality are not so good at promoting their work, and get lost in the deluge.

But how do you get a one-man band to realize they may be very good at playing the harmonica, but may need some help with the bass drum?

Indie Author Land has a competition to find the 50 best self-published books of the past year. They received 5,000 nominations in 2 weeks. (Yikes!).

Should book publishers be morphing into book development midwives? Change the emphasis from putting stories on printed pages and focus on developing the writers? A model similar to that has existed for playwrights in Canada (PDCC). These organizations read early drafts of a playwright’s work, provide feedback and when ready, hold a reading with professional actors. These organizations are government funded, but so are literary presses.

If anyone out there knows of another indie author community, please let me know in the comments. Or do you have something to say on this topic? Go for it.