Generational Divide

21 April 2014

From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

When I was taking classes in the craft of fiction, everyone—from established professional writers to English professors—recommended that a writer never ever say that a character looked like a famous actor. No “he resembled a young Orson Welles” or “she dressed like Claudette Colbert.”

Not only was it lazy writing—the Gurus said—but, more importantly, there was no way for your reader to know exactly what you meant.

You see, kids, back in the days when you walked uphill both ways in the snow to get to your typewriter, when manuscripts were laced with white-out, and copies were made with carbon paper, old movies were hard to find.

. . . .

 But the teachers all had a point. Not only did referencing old movies make it difficult for modern readers to “see” your characters, it also dated the work. Because so much of popular culture back then was available for such a short period of time, and then it was impossible to find without an archive nearby, a good old movie house (with a lot of money), or a lot of late-night television viewing. I often memorized TV Guide, and stayed up until the wee hours to see a censored version of a movie I’d only heard about.

. . . .

 By the early 1990s, I realized I could compare my characters to movie stars, if I wanted to, and people would understand. It’s still lazy if that’s all I say—but if I’m in the point of view of say a major movie buff, it might be a great way to characterize my narrator. The option is open to me.

. . . .

 But we haven’t given much thought to the world we’re moving into. The world that so many people who were born from about 1995 to now will inhabit.

. . . .

Brian Robbins, who runs Awesomeness TV, a provider of YouTube channels (and programming) and which attract (as far as I can tell) at least thirty-one million teens and tweens. About their attitude toward programming, he says,

The next generation, our audience and even younger, they don’t even know what live TV is. They live in an on-demand world.

An on-demand world.

Think about that for a moment. Those of us raised in that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it world had a sense of urgency about everything we loved. If we didn’t schedule ourselves around a TV show, we’d miss it. If we missed the opening weekend to a film, we might not see it. If we weren’t listening to the radio during a baseball game, we might never understand the nuances—we’d have to stick with the reported coverage the next day.

That’s changed. I don’t feel any urgency at all about finding what I love. I just deleted a show to make room on my DVR, secure in the knowledge that I can pick up that series on demand when I’m ready to.

. . . .

We writers take advantage of it when we write in series. Our readers want the next book the moment they finish the previous one. E-books allow the reader to get that book at 4 a.m. on a holiday weekend in a town where there won’t be an open bookstore for another 48 hours (and even then, it’s a crapshoot as to whether or not the bookstore has the title).

But on demand has its other side.

Personally, I love it, although it does make me pickier than I used to be. Faced with the choice of programming or reading material, I can judge what I watch by mood. I need something funny tonight, or maybe I’m in the mood for a detective show, but not urban fantasy with a detective (like Grimm). Back in the day, I had to watch whatever was available on Thursday on Thursday, mood be damned.

. . . .

I think the first metric is how many people want a book within a week of its release. That doesn’t make a book an instant bestseller. It simply shows us—the writer—how many fans we’ve managed to capture.

The next metric is how many copies of the book sell over time. That time should probably be measured in year-long increments. How many copies sell in the first year? How many in the second? How many in the fifth?

Because if the book’s sales increase per year, then something is happening for that book. That something is word of mouth.

We never had a way to measure word of mouth before, because books became unavailable within weeks of their release, and went out of print within months. Now, we can see the growth as more and more people tell their friends about a title.

. . . .

The publishing industry isn’t even talking about new metrics. That idea hasn’t occurred to traditional publishing, and indie (or self) published writers are constantly seeking validation from the old system—trying to figure out ways to game the bestseller lists or to get a fantastic review from somewhere that has old-world prestige.

. . . .

The traditional publishing industry is notorious for not studying anything. What works to promote a book? Who knows. Why should they study that?

But at some point, traditional publishers are going to have to develop new ways to figure out which products sell well and which ones don’t. All of their systems—from sales figures (which measure books shipped not books sold) to bestseller lists to critical acclaim—are based on the old models.

It might take another ten years or more before traditional publishing figures out how to measure success for its various titles. What happens in ten years or more? Members of the on-demand generation will start to step into positions of power at traditional publishing companies (and everywhere else). Those future adults will want metrics that mean something to them, not things that belong to a hot autumn night accompanied by the smell of burning leaves and ancient voices on the radio.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

PG had a couple of thoughts while reading Kris’ latest business post.

First, he wonders if traditional publishing will stay around long enough to develop new ways to figure out which products to sell. There will probably be organizations named Penguin Random House, etc., but PG suspects that, like big record labels, they’ll be vastly shrunken and have less money to throw around than they do today. Certainly, they’ll have less influence over authors in general.

Second, he agrees with the suggestion not to say one of your characters looks like a famous actor.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use a famous actor as a source of character description.

PG did some acting in college. He was competent, but that’s about it. He did, however, perform with very good actors, including some who went on to have successful professional careers in movies, TV and on stage.

One of the things the very good actors did was always look interesting. Little things were going on with their posture, their faces, their hands most of the time they were on stage. When you were in the audience, your eye was drawn to them even when they weren’t speaking. They weren’t doing big hammy things, just subtle little things that sometimes communicated with the audience on almost a subconscious level.

In movies, really good actors usually do the same kinds of things. (What they have to do on a stage that is 30 yards from some of the audience members  is different than what they do when a camera is shooting a head-and-shoulders shot, but they’re still doing interesting things that you and I wouldn’t do if the camera was pointed at us.)

So, PG’s suggestion is to watch what an actor does when playing a character that is somewhat like a character in your book and take ideas for character descriptions from them. How do they move and what does that tell you about them? What are their mouths and eyes doing? Their hands? Perhaps it might work better with the sound off, but you might also want to analyze what’s going on with the voice as well.

Just a passing thought.

Big Publishing, Characters, Disruptive Innovation, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

17 Comments to “Generational Divide”

  1. That’s a good point about acting (translation: because it confirms what I’ve been noticing).

    Lately, I’ve been watching “Sherlock” and “Castle,” and in both, you can understand what the characters are thinking based solely on their facial expressions.

    There’s plenty of other business going on. Changes in posture, fiddling with objects that call back to emotional turns (in one Sherlock, the villain comments to a woman about her perfume, which later she reapplies).

    Translating it to fiction will be a challenge, but I suspect if the author pays attention to treating a scene like that, he/she can break the habit of relying on saying the same old thing.

    • I don’t watch “Sherlock,” but you’re right about Nathan Fillion on “Castle.” He’s always doing something, even in scenes where someone else is featured. His repertoire of facial expressions keeps it interesting at all times.

      How to translate that to a novel? No idea. 😀

  2. PG comment appreciated.
    Spot on.

  3. Somewhat contrary to the advice in this posting, I’ve likened the appearance of my series character, Jim McGill, to a formerly well-known actor, Rory Calhoun. He passed on some time ago. Unless a reader is old enough to remember him, and some are, I’ve created a reference that might arouse a reader’s curiosity. If the reader wants to know what I think McGill looks like, he or she will Google Rory Calhoun, creating another level of interest. That’s the theory anyway.

  4. I experienced the generational divide recently when I mentioned Elizabeth Taylor to a 20-year-old and she said, “Who’s that?”

  5. I get where the advice comes from. Most people just don’t have the point of reference to understand “She looked like __” descriptions.

    However, while I read this I was instantly reminded of the first time Humbert Humbert meets Charlotte Haze in Lolita:

    I think I had better describe her right away, to get it over with. The poor lady was in her middle thirties, she had a shiny forehead, plucked eyebrows and quite simple but not unattractive features of a type that may be defined as a weak solution of Marlene Deitrich.

    Later he says of Charlotte, The wings of the driver’s Marlenesque nose shone, having shed or burned up their ration of powder…

    It still works. Mostly because Nabokov was a genius and knew his business very well.

    I once beta read a book in progress, in which the author used references to songs or musicians to provide some kind of reference for every single emotion the narrator (a not-even-thinly veiled self-insertion character) was feeling. Every single reaction to anything was couched in terms like “She felt like Thom Yorke singing (whatever song.)” I had to explain to her that she had a lot of work to do, to replace or supplement virtually every single emotional passage in the book, because her readers couldn’t be expected to have listened to all the same music she had, or if they had listened to it, they couldn’t be expected to have the same emotional response to it that she had.

    In short, “X was like Y,” where X equals a description or an emotion, and Y equals some real-world pop culture reference, is among the laziest writing out there. People gotta stop that ish, unless they can do it really smoothly, the way Nabokov could do it.

  6. I liked Rusch’s post, but have to argue with this:

    But at some point, traditional publishers are going to have to develop new ways to figure out which products sell well and which ones don’t. All of their systems—from sales figures (which measure books shipped not books sold) to bestseller lists to critical acclaim—are based on the old models.

    And so I did: Publishers know profit, but haven’t tapped best seller lists

  7. In _Catch-22_, which I mostly loved, Heller repeatedly describes the character Major Major as looking like Henry Fonda. When first I read this book in the 1970s I knew what Henry Fonda looked like, but I found this device irritating, mainly because my mental image of this character had been formed before the resemblance to Henry Fonda was mentioned.

    PG is spot on about certain actors being compulsively watchable, a quality that often has nothing to do with physical attractiveness. Anthony Lane explores this phenomenon beautifully in his New Yorker essay about Philip Seymour Hoffman.

  8. And then there’s this.

    After that lawsuit hit the press, I decided to take a reference to a still-living baseball player out of my novel. It just seemed easier and safer.

    • You beat me to it. This article reminded me of the same lawsuit.

      • The funny thing is that it did me a creative favor in the end. After taking his name out, I liked the replacement better, just as removing song lyrics after not hearing from the owner of the rights made me realize I didn’t need them.

        Thanks, law!

  9. A reminiscence about how things used to be followed by analysis of how to use it instead of wishing it would go back to that way or describing how change had ruined everything? I’m astounded. Really, I am. I never hear this kind of thinking in this way.

    It is a little strange how it switches topics in a way, but overall a great discussion.

  10. Mentioning that a character resembles a movie actor or other celebrity might work if it’s socially/historically appropriate to the story. For example, a character in a novel set in the 40s observing that another character bears a resemblance to Humphrey Bogart.

    Otherwise, to me it seems to take the reader out of the story – chronologically, from a narrative-flow or point-of-view standpoint, or just by confusing the reader and making them have to go away from the story to figure out what you’re talking about.

    And of course, in other-world fantasy (what I write), saying that a character looks like Meryl Streep or Clark Gable or whoever is right out.

    • Bingo. I don’t generally make such comparisons, but the novel I’m finishing off is about making a low-budget movie in the present day, so it’s only natural that the characters would compare themselves to present and recent movie stars. And that’s before they start discussing classic Soviet-era Nazi movies as an allegory for Soviet totalitarianism.

      That may well date it, but being set in 2014 is going to date it anyway. ‘Mum, what’s a cell phone?’ ‘It’s a little gadget we used to have to carry around to communicate before everyone got skulltop computers’.

  11. Do I use existing characters and/or actors I like as a basis for characters I use? Yes, absolutely, to the point where my scrivener file has pictures I’ve pulled from the net as references. Would I ever say that I’m doing so or reference an actor in my books? Absolutely not. I use existing appearances and personalities as a reference point for my own work, and if I’m not skilled enough to paint that picture without hand-waving and saying, “Look over there, that’s what my hero looks like!” I’ve failed in my craft.

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