Training Wheels

This last weekend was the start of the fall book market season; I spent three days in Giddings, Texas, as one of the local authors invited to participate in the yearly Word Wrangler Book Festival – which is sponsored by the local library, and supported by practically every civic institution in Giddings, including the local elementary and high schools. Last Thursday, the first day of Word Wrangler, certain of us authors volunteered to go and visit schools for readings, or to just talk about writing. This year, I visited three middle-school classes, to talk to sixth graders about writing, the stories that they liked, and what they could write about. I like doing this with fifth and sixth grade students, by the way – they are old enough to read pretty well, but not so old as to be jaded by the whole ‘visiting writer/storyteller’ thing.

The kids were lively and responsive; it helps that they were being taught about plotting, about the narrative voice, and how to create a story. In each class of about twenty or thirty kids, I would guess that two or three are terrifically keen on creative writing, another eight or ten are interested, and the remainder are not completely indifferent. I went around and asked each student what they liked to read the most; adventure stories seemed to be most popular, followed by mysteries. Two boys in separate classes were enthralled by World War II stories. Horror and fantasy seemed to be about equally popular; and there was one girl with quite gruesome taste in exotic forms of murder. Well, it takes all kinds, and I am not her analyst; she’ll most likely grow out of it, once puberty really takes hold …

Then I went around again, asking each one what they would write about; what story would they want to sit down and write. For those who couldn’t think of one, I gave them a character and a situation, and encouraged them to go to town. And one more thing I told them – it is perfectly OK for a writer starting out to venture into scribbling fanfiction. You like a certain movie, book, TV series, videogame, are interested in that world and those characters? Take the characters you really like or identify with and write them a new set of adventures in that fictional world. Saves the time and trouble of building a whole new world from scratch … and isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery? Go and do it; practically every writer I know did the same. I certainly did; and the reams of juvenalia is something to eventually be consigned to the shredder by my literary executor. Just be careful when unleashing revised fanfiction into the world – chose the venue carefully and file off all the identifying serial numbers. Otherwise, it’s excellent practice, I told the kids; the literary equivalent of training wheels when learning to ride a bicycle.

I’ve been publishing independently since 2007; the first big wave of independent writers, although there were a small number of specialists in the decades before that. There were always writers publishing their works in a small way, mostly through arranging a print run with a local printer and bookbinder, but that method usually cost more money than was available to those of us in that big wave in the mid ‘Oughts’. The development of publish on demand, the ability of printers to do small print runs at a reasonable cost, the rise of Amazon, the popularity of eReaders, and the disinclination of the establishment publishing houses to continue backing midlist authors while pursuing only huge blockbusters … that all left the field wide open to indy writers like the ones I spent last weekend with. It astounded me all over again how very good, and professional the books at Word Wrangler looked. The covers of most books – and they covered the range of kids’ books through adult fiction; adventure, mystery, western, historical – all looked as good as anything produced by mainstream publishers. There is such a wealth of good reading available, through independent and small publishers, and readers in places like Giddings know it very, very well,

9 thoughts on “Training Wheels”

  1. The explosion of self-publishing and small publishers in the last 10-15 years makes me skeptical about stats presented about hard-copy purchases versus digital purchases. We are told that hard copy sales are increasing while digital purchases are decreasing. Well, that wouldn’t be surprising for the big publishers when digital copies are made more expensive than hard copies. But not, I suspect, when one includes self-publishing and independents.

    I associate Giddings with the oil bust in the 1980s. There was a lot of drilling activity in the Austin chalk around Giddings, which declined with the decline in the price of oil. As a result, Giddings had quite a few empty motels that had been built to accommodate the drilling boom in 1980-81.

  2. Four hotels in Giddings, as I have observed – it’s on a mega-busy route between Houston and Austin. Two of us authors got a good pre-paid rate at the cheapest of them all. So – a clean but low-rent room for two nights…
    I have most of my sales through e-books. The print-copy sales come at about the end of the year, through customers purchasing for gifts. The kid-books sales, according to my fellow-authors who do kid books – are largely for the print versions.
    For most of us otherwise – sales are for e-books.

  3. “Then I went around again, asking each one what they would write about; what story would they want to sit down and write. For those who couldn’t think of one, I gave them a character and a situation, and encouraged them to go to town.”

    Long ago, when I was in high school, a typical English exam essay question would ask for a story or character sketch centered around a short quote — A Flawed Hero; A Brave Woman; A Foolish Child; A Spineless Creature.

    The class clown, who was brighter than the rest of us put together, wrote a tale about a flying saucer landing in our school yard. Access ramp came down, and out slithered the alien — A Spineless Creature!

    He got no marks for that essay. Much as we rightly complain about today’s educational system, the educational system of yesterday had its flaws too.

  4. As a fan of Negro Leagues Baseball, I made a pilgrimage to Giddings when visiting my son from Spring. Birthplace of the under-appreciated Hilton Smith. Satchel Paige got credit for starting a lot of barnstorming games and was the great showman, but he would sit after the third inning and Smith would effectively but undramatically pitch the remaining six.

  5. The exploding success of the indie fiction community has the traditional publishers worried. They alternate between trying to minimize us and straining to defame us. In fact, I suspect they employ “shills” to write “book reviews” and comments such as this one:

    — BUYER BEWARE! Please realize that anyone can publish a book these days. The only way to protect yourself from wasting your time and money is to buy books from traditional publishers. Books published by the author are seldom a good bargain.

    Thanks for writing such an articulate review. Join me in urging Amazon not to dump self-published books in with real books. Thanks. —

    (You can find it here:

    Just open the comments to that 1-star review. The commenter leaves that same comment against a lot of indie-pub books.)

    A huge number of readers who just want some entertainment at a modest price have flocked to the indie side. More arrive every day. We’re winning: in part because we tell stories people want to read about characters they can admire, and in part because we don’t ask an arm and a leg for a 200-page tale. One way or another, we’re winning.

  6. I find my (Kindle) book review ratings at Amazon are generally inflated to the point of uselessness. I’d like to see Amazon segregate the reviews for the reader. A reader might be allowed the option to see only the reviewers that the reader has previously selected. It would be simple enough to visit reviews of books one has enjoyed in the past and add reviewers (to the list) whose tastes and interpretations the reader finds simpatico or useful.

  7. I find Amazon reader reviews to be generally more useful & interesting than the ‘professional’ reviews, which tend to be written in a very stilted and stereotyped manner.

  8. Tyouth, I agree and have long thought that a similar reader-controlled filter for blog comments would be a boon. These kinds of filters might work even better if you could set them, alternatively, to exclude specific reviewers or commenters.

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