17 Jul

Publish early, publish often

…and give your blog posts misleadingly bold titles.

This article from Forbes, ‘Don’t Publish that Book’ is one example of a species of very sensible advice that’s been going around ever since self-publishing lost its stigma. The short version: don’t publish your horrible early writing, because it’s horrible and it won’t do you any good in the long term.

That’s almost certainly good advice, and in the article it’s rather more subtle than I’ve made it out to be. But I do wonder if the changes to what publishing means might be more exciting than this career-centric approach suggests.

Under the old model, publication indicated that somebody thought a work was, in some sense, good – even that sense was more financial than artistic. The very fact that a book was available suggested that it was more worth having than the mountains of unpublished manuscripts in the world. This is changing. We are decoupling availability from approval.

We’ve done this before, with Myspace and iTunes and YouTube and, well, the internet. It doesn’t seem to have been terribly troubling for other art forms. It’s cool to like an unsigned band, an obscure comedian or a play by a small company. It’s only authors who have to ‘sell out’ to be taken seriously.

It seems like we’re willing to forgive a bum note from a new band, or a young actor flubbing their lines, but a novel is expected to be polished and professional. I wonder if that might be ready to change. Maybe we’ll start stumbling on exciting novice writers who are brave enough to publish work they’ll look back on one day and cringe over, and following and encouraging them. Some people are doing this already; some people have being doing this for years.

It might not happen, and it might not be the best model if it does. But I think there’s something exciting about the thought of writers across the world publishing early and publishing often and letting readers work out what they like.

04 Jul

It’s not what you know, it’s what they don’t

I was walking down the street, not even minding my own business, let alone anybody else’s, when a man in a hi-vis tabbard started shouting inaudibly at me. It turned out, once I had pulled out my earphones, that I had walked straight past the barrier he had put up and was in imminent danger of taking a hammer to the skull from the workers on the roof above.

I looked back. The barrier covered about half the pavement and wasn’t much wider than it was deep. I had assumed it was covering a loose paving slab. I apologized, although really it was my head at risk.

“It’s not just you,” the man said. “It’s been about fifty people today.”

I couldn’t help thinking, but didn’t say: If forty-nine people have walked past already, wouldn’t you stop and wonder if there might be a problem with your barrier? But apparently he reached that conclusion anyway. The next day, a sign had appeared explaining that there was work overhead.

Setting aside the not insubstantial portion of the blame that lies with my lack of attention, I think the problem was that he knew what the barrier was for when he put it up. The barrier wasn’t meant to stop people physically. That was clear from how narrow it was, and from the fact that its partner at the other end was just a wheelibin. It was meant to be a signal that you shouldn’t keep walking along the pavement. But nobody tasked with putting it up could have judged properly whether that signal would be understood, because they already knew what it was trying to communicate.

At the time, I didn’t know that I had been involved in another misunderstanding of this kind earlier in the same shopping trip. Instead of toilet paper, I had bought kitchen roll. The packs were the same size, the labels were almost identical, they were on the same shelf in the shop and the shop had never sold kitchen roll before. I didn’t read the label. I didn’t even realize I hadn’t read it.

When I discovered my mistake, I thought: this is stupid. Why don’t they make the labels more different? They could make one of them blue instead of green and this would never happen. But why would they? They know that a package that shape with that style of label could be toilet paper or kitchen roll, so they look at the two next to each other and think, very reasonably, that the text makes it clear. My mistake required me to already know what their toilet paper looked like, but not to know that there was also kitchen roll that looked like that.

It’s very hard to imagine what you might think or do if you didn’t know what you know. That’s why software is impossible to use and first-draft short stories don’t make any sense. So next time I think something I’ve made is ready for primetime before anyone else has even seen it, I’m going to remember that thinking like that can lead to nasty head injuries and having nothing to wipe your arse with. Which isn’t a good combination.