14 July, 2010

So you think you can write? OK... who cares?

Today Nathan Bransford has a post asking, in just so many words, why it is that so many people feel they're entitled to break into the writing world as novelists. After all, Bransford muses, people playing pickup basketball don't think they should be drafted into the NBA. Why, therefore, does eveyone with a working computer think they can write a best-selling novel?

Well, for one thing, there are some best-selling novels out there that are crap. It's easy for an unpublished novelist to point to one of those and say, "I write better than that: ergo, since that crap is published, I should be published also."

There is some merit to that argument -- however, there is an important nuance that can't be ignored: the game is not "who can write the best book" : the game is, "who can sell the most books."

Publishing peope talk about 'branding' ad nauseum, but it's true: quality writing is only one of several factors that move books off of bookstore shelves and into beach tote bags. In fact, it may be one of the least important factors. Why? Simple:

A book buyer cannot tell if the writing is any good without reading the book. If she needs to read the book to find out whether it's any good... then what's the point?

The buyer can get around this problem if the author is established. She knows what she's getting when buying another Dan Brown, Sue Grafton, or Estate-Of-Clive-Cussler.

If the author is NOT established, the buying decision can come down to whether the book is on a subject the buyer wants to read about.

It's true! For a while I was reading anything set in the British navy of the Napoleonic era. Other people are nuts for Regency romances, or steampunk, or Viking stories, or cozies featuring sleuths who are also Franciscan monks, or whatever.

And this is why a genre book is easier to sell as a first novel -- it taps a ready market. The bar for writing quality is set lower. And so I postulate further:

A 'genre' book will sell in the established market for that genre, as long as it does not completely suck.

Which brings us around home again. A novelist wannabe could easily write a high-quality piece with no established market. There is little reason for a publisher to take a chance on a book like that. And it will be quite easy for that wannabe to find a book that got published into an established market which does not suck (or maybe it does), but is not as good as that wannabe's stuff.

And so the 'pickup basketball to NBA' analogy falls apart. It's not whether we can play better basketball than the status quo: it's whether anyone wants to pay to see us play. And unlike basketball, sheer performance on the court is not the thing that convinces the paying public to part with their cash.

10 July, 2010

Research Readings for July 2010

It's raining today (finally) and so the perfect day to stay in and do a little research on my latest novel project: a bit of horreur that begins, but does not end, in Egypt during the French occupation.

Nina Burleigh's excellent book Mirage--Napoleon's Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt is more or less indefinitely checked out to me thanks to my good sense at having married the librarian. Mirage follows the French occupation from the point of view of the cent-cinquante savants General Bonaparte brought with him on his attempt to wrest the East and India from England. It's a fascinating window into Napoleon's character: at 28 years of age, he was already padding his C.V. as a new-model emperor of the Enlightenment.

These French scientists made the first comprehensive descriptions of Egypt for European audiences, and touched off a fascination for all thing Phaoronic that continues to this day. (shout-out to fellow-blogger Libbie Hawker, who specializes in the 18th dynasty)

Next in the stack, arriving this week from Amazon (see, even the librarian's husband must often buy a book) is a translation of a 19th century Arab's chronicle of the invasion. The translation is by Shmuel Moreh, a noted scholar whose work I've used before in research for Saint Mark's Body. I haven't gotten very far in this, but my favorite bit so far is when Al-Jabarti dissects bad Arabic grammar in one of Napoleon's proclamations:

"His [Bonaparte's] statement bta al-Mamalik (belonging to the Mamluks) is despicable and a banal and trite word. The word mutma'in should be mutma'inan because it is hal (circumstantial expression) and converting it to the nominative (raf) incorrectly is an indication of their state, and their significance. May God hurry misfortune and punishment upon them, may He strike their tongues with dumbness, may He scatter their hosts, and disperse them, confound their intelligence, and cause their breath to cease."

Apparently, according to Al-Jabarti, Allah should not be so merciful or compassionate when it comes to the declension of nouns. It seems quite just to me for a speaker of perfect French (which I am not, as any Francophone will instantly tell you) to be taken to task like this.

And of course there is the Historical Novel Review, my first issue since joining HNS. I didn't know quite what to expect from this mag: I joined up simply because I knew so many good authors who are members, like C.W. Gortner and Susan Higginbotham. I can certainly say I'm not disappointed; Historical Novel Review gives me a much bettery understanding of the breadth of the historical novels market. It's vital intelligence for anyone looking to break in.

01 July, 2010

World Cup Goal Review: A Modest Proposal

Officiating at the FIFA World Cup has always been the subject of controversy. At right we see Diego Maradona's infamous 1986 goal against England which was, he claimed, scored "un poco con la cabeza de Maradona y otro poco con la mano de Dios". Well, it's not God's hand we see on the ball in Figure 1, nor Maradona's head either.

In this year's World Cup we had goals and non-goals called wrongly against several teams including the USA and England. And so, despite my earlier paean to the sanctity of officiating mistakes in baseball, I hereby come out in favor of video review of goals in championship soccer matches. Look, these guys fight like crazy for ninety minutes and maybe--just maybe--one of the two teams on the field manages to score a goal. The referees need to get a goal or no goal call exactly right, and they need a little technological help to do it.

Here, then, is my Modest Proposal for video review of goals in soccer:

1) Cameras managed by FIFA (not the TV networks) are fixed at each end, with a clear view of each goal line and the penalty area.

2) Any player on the field may make a challenge to the referee's decision to either award or disallow a goal. This is the only kind of play that can be challenged.

3) The player must give grounds for the challenge that can be absolutely confirmed or dismissed by viewing the replay-- e.g. that the ball did or did not cross the line, that a player was or was not offside, that a handball did or did not occur. A foul called or not called by the referee is not subject to review, and no fouls can be charged or forgiven based on video review.

4) The head referee views the video, and may elect to reverse his prior call. His final decision cannot be appealed, on or off the field.

5) If on review the referee does not reverse the call, the player who challenged is automatically booked with a yellow card. The referee has the option to show a red card and send the player off if he feels the challenge was frivolous.

6) Time spent on a goal review is added to stoppage time.

Simple, eh? FIFA is welcome to contact me any time via this website. Your comments are also welcome.