Andromeda/Your Turn: Should I Be Telling You This?

Literary experiments (and the tale of a psychology-inspired novel-in-progress)

Yesterday, David Marusek gave us a final post on e-books that touched on future publishing models, distinguishing between the scarcity model of yesteryear and the abundance model (to put things in an optimistic light) of e-publishing to come.

Today, I’m inviting you to think with me about literary experiments, social media, and how the increasing connectedness in author-reader relations will affect what we choose to write and how we choose to write it.

I, for one, am preparing to embark on an experiment about which I’m more than a little nervous.

Two months ago, I jumped into researching and writing the opening pages of a new novel. Today, I completed one stage of a grant-seeking/fundraising process — engaging with the US Artists online fundraising platform (which Anchorage theater artist/puppet-maker Buzz Schwall just successfully used) —  that required me to write up an early novel description.

The write-in-the-dark part of me says one shouldn’t share a project idea that is so new and raw (what if it doesn’t work out? what if someone steals the idea? what if my own ardor cools?). But then again, I got grants for both of my first two novels, which required me to make promises that I later kept, including finishing manuscripts and finding publishers for both novels. (The difference was, perhaps, that I was telling a small committee what I planned to do, rather than putting it out on the web where anyone could find it, immediately and forever.)

Here’s (in part) how I described my new work in a grant form today.

“The Expert,” a novel based on the life of Rosalie Rayner (1899-1935).

He was the founder of behaviorism and the most influential American psychologist of his day—a famous parenting “expert” who counseled mothers never to kiss or cuddle their children, and who went on to apply behaviorist principles to Madison Avenue advertising. She was the 20-year-old graduate student who assisted his research—and within a year, found her own career derailed when their steamy affair made front-page news in the East Coast newspapers.

John Watson is well known in psychology circles, but his second wife, Rosalie Rayner, the narrator of this based-on-real-events novel, is known mostly as a textbook footnote—a woman involved in scandal who retreated from her own career ambitions to support her larger-than-life, controversial husband before dying at the tragically young age of 35. Rayner’s own little-known story aims to shed light on the life of a 1920s Vassar-educated woman and mother–part of a post-suffragette, interwar, Jazz Age generation that looked to science, technology, and corporate slogans for expert answers on how to live.

There’s more to it, but that should give you a taste, and perhaps explain why I’m willing to talk about a novel that’s not yet written: because it involves ideas and issues and historical events that people can talk about even without knowing how I’ll write the whole book — what the voice will be, how the story will be shaped, and so on. There is a nonfiction hook, in other words, and that makes it a little easier to invite public participation in the process. Already, on Facebook, I’ve gotten some great reading recommendations and found out that a colleague grew up in Baltimore (I’d had no idea), where my novel is set. One quick status update and my resources have multiplied. If I dare to keep talking about the book as it unfolds, other people might point me to other resources and ideas. Potentially, some people — I hope, and US Artists hopes — will pitch in a little seed money to help defray the cost of research. A novel is not written by committee, but if I can get early readers excited and get some help along the way, why not try? The old big-publisher-advance model seems to be on its way out. We may have to invent new ways to get projects off the ground.

But I’m not trying to convince you. I’d really rather hear what you have to say.

We’re told, more and more, that readers expect that kind of connection to the author — not an inside scoop before a novel is written (as I am aiming to provide, if I don’t get cold feet) but at least an inside track on the author’s newest work, life, and thoughts. Is that too invasive? Are we dissolving boundaries that should stay strong? Or are we, as writers, forging connections that will help us weather a major technological shift?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this: talking openly about books (some kinds, anyway) before they’re written, fundraising for works in progress, using social media for research and building reader relationships, and whatever else comes to mind.

It’s our future, friends — are you optimistic, or wary, or like me, both?

4 thoughts on “Andromeda/Your Turn: Should I Be Telling You This?”

  1. A great project – I love the era and (probably because I grew up on the grounds of a mental hospital among a bunch of psychiatrist families) also anything that looks at the people attached to those who study psychology. And I love the forward-thinking here, although in the same breath I'll say it doesn't matter how we think about it. The old model may not crumble completely, but it's fading. We may not like it, but the new role of writers (and not all of it's new) is both to create the best, most truthful art that we can and to make sure it finds the best route to readers. The best route for most of us will have a gatekeeper or two, whether it's a good (possibly hired) team of professionals getting the book ready for market and/or a funding source. In the past, good writing has been participatory at some level, at least through meaningful exchanges between writers and editors. Widening the dialogue through social media won't fit every writer or project, but it's good forward thinking.

  2. Stephanie Thornton

    I posted my latest historical novel idea online and someone immediately responded she thought it was a great idea. That then sent me into the exact same flurry of questions–"What if she steals it?" "What if someone else takes the same idea?"

    But then I remembered there are a gazillion books about, for example, the wives of Henry VIII. If there's two books about my topic, those probably aren't such bad odds.

    I'm glad you're finding some helpful advice in the ether!

  3. I wish I had something really cool to share. But, I don't – I have not taken the time to write because I've been so busy producing theater and video productions. Maybe this summer I'll write more on my adventure story – what still scares me to death is the not knowing if it will ever be of interest to an agent or an e-book publisher.

  4. I submitted a grant request to the Rasmuson Foundation and am hoping to hear back soon on whether It was accepted. Tom Petty as right when he said "the waiting is the hardest part." In the meantime, I am curious to see how your experiment works out. It does make sense to look for different sources for funding as the advance system (and the whole publishing routine) evolves.

    It will be years before the dust settles and we see what the next system of publishing turns out to be. But we can participate in that process, not just sit around waiting for things to happen.

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