Fifty Shades of Grey is bad news for the bedroom — and cars, apparently

Fifty ShadesIf your nose is in a book these days, there’s a good chance it’s Fifty Shades of Grey, which has sold 32 million copies in the U.S. Either that, or you’re reading Twilight, which inspired E. L. James’ novel and its sequels.

We can talk bedroom dos and don’ts until the handcuffs come off, but what about cars?

Yeah, my reaction exactly: What in the name of sparkly vampires and bondage does Fifty Shades have to do with automobiles?

According to Haynes Publishing, which largely prints sought-after car manuals, just about everything. The firm is complaining that retailers are rejecting its books in favor of hotter titles.

“There is little doubt that…retail purchasing budgets were tight and that much of those available budgets went towards the phenomenally successful Fifty Shades series,” the company said in a statement, as reported on The Telegraph.

“Our books, in the most part, appeal to automobile and motorcycle enthusiasts. They are probably oriented to a male audience, and I am not sure that Fifty Shades is the kind of thing they would enjoy, but that phenomenon is impacting general publishing budget,” said Haynes’s chief executive officer, Eric Oakley.

“Many bookshops have spent so much money on these titles that their resources [for buying other books] has been stretched to the limit.”

I’m not sure I can sympathize — especially when Haynes is acting like it deserves special treatment. If the company is correct, than wouldn’t sales of fellow competing books be suffering, as well? Popular is popular — there’s not much anyone can do about that. Haynes’s statement sounds like old-fashioned whining to me.

Of course, it isn’t fair that one series of books can hog the spotlight, but the reality is, that fame won’t forever. The true battle is remaining relevant and interesting despite the constant surge of new and flashy competition. Just look at J. K. Rowling’s just-released The Casual Vacancy, which sold 375,000 copies in its first six days — an underwhelming number when you consider the predictions: more than 2.6 million on day one, which would exceed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. That didn’t exactly happen, but The Casual Vacancy still bumped Fifty Shades of Grey from the top spot on USA Today’s Best-Selling Books list, which it held for 21 weeks.

But then again, maybe Haynes has a right to complain. Its sales have fallen 9 percent recently, which could be a result of popular contenders…or maybe they’re just convenient scapegoats.

What do you think?

The 8 most important lessons about writing you’ll ever learn

Lisa Cron’s Story Genius is one of my favorite books on writing, and it packs so much invaluable, hard-hitting advice into the beginning that it’s worth reading for the first 40 pages alone.

Story is imperative to our biology

Story Genius BookWhen it comes to story, we’re getting more than entertainment. We want to be engrossed because we’re asking ourselves, according to Cron, “What am I going to learn here that will help me not only survive, but prosper?”

Cron explains that humans evolved to work together, and storytelling plays a big role in doing that. “Don’t pet the lions” is an important message to communicate for our survival, but we need more help navigating the social world. “Sure, we can see what people do,” Cron writes, “but knowing why they’re doing it — which is what matters most — is elusive … That’s what we’re dying to know, and what we’re wired to respond to in every story we hear, especially novels.”

We don’t read to escape reality, Cron argues. We read in order to learn how to navigate it.

Story is not plot

Plot is what happens. Story is something bigger.

“A story is about how the things that happen affect someone in pursuit of a difficult goal, and how that person changes internally as a result,” Cron writes.

But, Cron argues, we’re learning the wrong understanding of story when we’re kids and our teachers give us prompts along the lines of, “What if Freddy woke up and discovered that there’s a castle in his backyard? He hears a strong sound coming from inside … and then … Write a story about what would happen next.”

What happens next isn’t the story; it’s the plot. Context — the meaning those events have for the protagonist — is what makes a story.

Good writing does not equal a good story

Cron says most of us mistakenly believe that the trick to writing a good story is to learn how to write well. So we study grammar and strive to emulate beautifully crafted sentences.

But that’s backward. We should be first learning how to tell a good story and worry about getting the writing right later.

“The conventions of writing — voice, structure, drama, plot, all of it — are the handmaidens of story, not the other way around,” Cron writes. “It’s the story that gives those beautiful words, those interesting characters and all that drama, their power.”

If all we wanted was beautiful prose, Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t be so popular.

Beautifully crafted sentences are just shells without context and meaning — without the story. When we read a book that moves us, we mistakenly think, “I want to learn to write luscious sentences like that!” when we should be thinking, “I want to learn to write the kind of story that would give sentences like that their power!”

‘Writing is like driving a car at night’ (pantsing) is bullshit

There’s an E. L. Doctorow quote that says, “Writing is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

That’s bullshit, according to Cron.

Most people aren’t natural storytellers. The best example I can think of here is Stephen King, who vehemently argues against plotting your novel — of instead “pantsing” your way through it, which has always struck me as terrible advice.

King is a natural storyteller, someone whose “cognitive unconscious has the innate knack of offering up prose in story form.” King might be able to sit down and starting writing a great story without knowing where it’s headed, “but when the rest of us follow suit, our stories almost always end up taking a meandering, disjointed, episodic route that often ends abruptly when we inadvertently drive off a dimly lit cliff.”

If you can move things around, your novel is in trouble

Rough drafts are supposed to be shitty, Hemingway said. And Cron agrees. She just has a problem with taking that too far — to, as author Anne Lamott says, “let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.”

Cron says that “chances are, after months of pantsing what you’ll see is a collection of events that don’t add up to anything — just a sprawling, aimless frolic. And trying to shape it only makes it worse, because there’s nothing to shape. … The very fact that you can move things around is a telltale sign that the novel has no internal logic.”

Yeah, Cron is a hardass. I kind of love her.

Plotters sometimes do it wrong, too

Plotting your novel is mostly right. But a lot of writers, Cron says, focus on plotting the wrong thing first: the external events rather than the internal story.

“Thus plotters begin by laying out the surface events of the story — beginning on page one — with little regard to the protagonist’s specific past, which is the very thing that determines not only what will happen in the plot, but how she sees her world, what she does, and most importantly, why.”

Or to put it more simply, “Outlining the plot first is like saying, ‘I’m going to write about the most difficult, life-altering series of events in the life of someone whom I know absolutely nothing about.”

BOOM.

The Hero’s Journey structure is misleading

External story structure models only contribute to the problem. Cron says “it’s deceptively easy to believe that all you have to do is ape the shape” — something big happens here, something dangerous there, instant gold — “and you’ve got a story.”

But story is more than a paint-by-numbers plot. The problem is, these models like The Hero’s Journey analyze finished works, not works in progress.

Writers follow these story models beat by beat, Cron says, and then wonder why their novel isn’t “nearly as engaging as all those novels, movies, and myths that the ‘story structure model’ was based on.”

In other words, you can’t create a good story from the outside in.

Be careful with ‘in medias res’

It’s good to start your story in medias res, meaning “in the middle of the thing” — as long as you understand that you still have to know the why.

Too many writers take in medias res to mean “plunge us into current action and explain it later,” Cron says. “… By leaving the ‘why’ out of the picture, the action often reads as a bunch of things that happen” — which we know is plot, not story.

Lost in type: She-Hulk author Marta Acosta talks miscommunication, genre confusion, and sexism

she-hulk-halftone-trimmed

Marta Acosta is frustrated. In our emails, she half-jokingly said that she was considering writing “I don’t write romance novels” at the top of her blog. I don’t blame her.

It’s an understatement to say the media overreacted to publishers Marvel and Hyperion’s announcement of a new line of prose novels, starting with The She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch. They called it romance; it’s not. Others, like me, reacted to the overreaction and wondered whether this was the best way to portray these superheroines. The whole thing spun out of hand.

I wanted to share Marta’s story because she was caught in the middle. As a journalist, I want to stand up for those who have been treated unfairly or whose voice has been lost in a sea of others. As a blogger, I want to say that a lot of this was an honest misunderstanding — it’s hard to be a feminist (although it’s easy to be one in today’s world) and not overreact once in a while. But even mistakes like these can prompt discussion about bigger issues, like genre and the way we portray women in writing. Marta and I talked about the mishap from these angles and more.

Don’t forget to check out Marta’s guest blog post from yesterday.

Misprinted Pages: Marta, I’m mortified that the Internet has gotten She-Hulk so wrong. Fans fell for it; I fell for it. That’s why I feel so compelled to get the truth out there. Let’s start at the beginning, when Marvel and Hyperion had just made the announcement. What all happened that led to The She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch getting mislabeled as romance novels?

Marta Acosta 3Marta Acosta: Hi, Stephanie, and thanks for having me here to talk about my next book! My fantastic editor Elisabeth Dyssegaard made the announcement about the She-Hulk and Rogue novels. First off, it’s great to have an accomplished woman editor at the helm of these new Marvel projects. Some publications and some bloggers cherry-picked words either looking for a reaction or outrage. So “traditional women’s novels” was twisted as meaning novels in which a female character is weak and subjugated to men. All the positive points about the characters were ignored, and “romance” was presented as meaning a romance novel, which is a separate genre with its own genre conventions.

While I don’t write romance novels — defined as having a love interest as the central theme — I’m always a little stunned at the nasty disdain the genre receives. There are great and crappy novels in any genre you can name, including literary fiction, and I can’t help but think that romance is a target because it’s predominantly written by women for women and it celebrates their emotional life and sexuality.

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BookRx recommends books in 140 characters or less, plus e-readers going out of style

BookRx

This post comes to you in four parts!

Part 1:

Need some books to keep you busy during all that holiday downtime? Considering trying out Knight Labs’ new BookRx, which selects potential new reads based on your Twitter account. Just enter your handle, and voila! BookRx generates a list of recommendations from specific words, users, and hashtags that you’ve mentioned in your tweets.

Here’s a preview of one of mine:

BookRx preview

Of course, I’ve already ready a few of these. So it’s not a perfect tool, but it is fun. BookRx separates titles by genre, such as mystery, fiction, and romance. One of its picks for me is Fifty Shades of Grey — a book I would never read. But I’ve previously tweeted about at least one blog post that focused on the book, so it’s little wonder that BookRx noticed my “interest” in it.

What books does it recommend for you?

Part 2:

Do you like the new blog header? I wanted a change. :) But if you guys hate it, let me know and I’ll create some others.

Part 3:

If you’re looking for today’s book cover selection, it’s one post down!

Part 4:

e-reader girl

In a bit of news, the e-reader market is apparently shrinking. Data from the International Data Corporation shows that this year, worldwide shipments of e-readers will fall to 14.9 million units from 23.2 million units last year — a 36 percent decrease. Forrester Research recorded a similar trend specifically in the United States, and these numbers are expected to keep falling in 2013 and beyond.

The explanation? People are buying more multiversatile tablets, smartphones, and PCs — an increase of 27.1 percent from 2011, according to IDC. They’re more willing to spend more money on a high-tech device than a “primitive” e-reader in exchange for the extra features, and those often include Kindle and Nook apps.

“It’s looking like e-readers were a device for a particular moment in time that, more rapidly than we or anyone else thought, has been replaced by a new technology,” Sarah Rotman Epps, a Forrester analyst, told The New York Times. Here’s the full scoop.

Are you ready to trade in your e-reader, or are you surprised by these findings?

[Image credit: via CNET by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, public domain; CBSi]