Writing Advice #50: Recommended Gear

I recently wrote a series of BLogs on technology for writers and figured it would make sense to summarize the most important bits here in the Writing Advice section. You can go read the originals, or just skim here.

I live in the Apple ecosystem, so some of this may not apply to you. But it’s what works for me:

Desktop Hardware

My iMac and monitor set-upI use two monitors, the one built into my iMac and a Dell I bought for cheap online. If you can swing it/have the room, consider a two-monitor setup. You’ll find it lets you spread your work out and organize it more logically.

I use an ancient MacAlly iKey keyboard that is no longer manufactured. Even if they did make them, I wouldn’t necessarily suggest you buy one — keyboards are very personal. My advice to you: Find a keyboard that you love, that feels right under your fingertips. Go to stores and try them out. Don’t just type “This is a test of a keyboard.” Stand there for a while and pound out a few paragraphs. You’re going to spend a lot of time on this sucker — make it worth your while. (Even if you use a laptop, you can still get an external keyboard to use when at home. Depending on how much you like or loathe your laptop’s keyboard, this might be a worthwhile investment.)

Ditto for your mouse. I use Apple’s Magic Mouse, which is much maligned in the tech world, but I love it. YMMV.

Oh, and always use some kind of wrist support. You don’t want to blow your tendons out and have carpal tunnel syndrome.

Desktop Software

scrivener_iconMy composition environment of choice is Scrivener. Ten million features, but even if you only use six of them, they’ll be the six that change — and maybe save — your life. At $45, it’s a steal.

pages-iconI use Pages (free with purchase of an Apple computer) in lieu of monsters like Word. It has most of the functionality of Word (and can save to and open .doc files) without the bloat.

Mobile Hardware

I use an iPad Air 2. I know most people prefer a laptop, but I like the lightness and slender profile of the iPad. If you’re going to use an iPad for your out-of-house writing needs (or, hell, any tablet), invest in a separate keyboard. Typing on glass is fine for emails, but for anything long-form, you gotta have the real deal. I use an Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, but as with the suggestion on desktop keyboards, find one you love.

When you’re traveling, you need to stay juiced up. I use a Phonesuit battery to top off my gadgets when I’m not near an outlet, and I have an XtremeMac InCharge Home power adapter so that I can charge two devices with one outlet. Consider your needs before you head out to the coffee shop for a writing session and make sure you have some kind of power solution in your bag.

Mobile Software

Textilus (Microsoft Word Office Edition, PDF Notes and Scrivener)PagesWith Scrivener for the iPad still nowhere in sight, I rely on Textilus for editing and composing on-the-go. I also use Pages on the iPad when compatibility with Scrivener isn’t an issue. Textilus costs only $5.99, but there’s a free version to try out. And Pages is free with the purchase of an iDevice.

Backup

A good backup plan is crucial for writers. Yeah, I know, you’re thinking, “I’ve never lost anything!” Guess what? That means you will.

There are a lot of backup solutions out there — too many for me to advise you specifically — but here are some general rules to follow:

1) Backup locally to a hard drive in your house or place of work. Have this happen automatically at least every hour.

2) Also, backup to a remote location. This can be a cloud-based service such as Backblaze, Carbonite, Crashplan, or some other one. But do it. You need an off-site backup in case something wipes out your computer and your on-site backup.

3) A backup that requires you to do something each time — push a button, plug in a drive — is no backup at all. You will forget. And the time you forget is the time your hard drive will decide to die, losing that chapter you just wrote. Your systems need to work automatically, without intervention from you. The best backup is the one you never think about…until you need it.

Now’s the time of year for gifts, so maybe surprise yourself with a new toy and get to writing!

Thankful

What am I thankful for? My wife, my amazing new baby girl, and my readers.

Oh, and also cool-ass school projects like the one from a reader who decided to recreate one of Game‘s crime scenes. (I bet someone got called down to the principal’s office!)

Happy Thanksgiving!

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Visiting Chicago

A couple of weeks ago, I visited suburban Chicago (Burr Ridge, to be precise), to visit a couple of schools and also participate in the closing of the 9th Annual Write-On Literary Festival.

I began the morning at Hinsdale South High School, where the main topic of conversation was — surprise! — I Hunt Killers, along with my list of Disturbing Serial Killer Facts that I like to trot out at such events. (I always get a kick out of picturing dinnertime conversation that night at the kids’ houses.) It was a good time, especially when the school librarian introduced me to the kid who approached in a crowded hall and shouted, “Hey, do you have Boy Toy?” (Remind yourself that italics don’t come across in conversation and you’ll understand why the librarian hurriedly said — very loudly — “Why, yes, the library does have a copy of the novel titled Boy Toy.”)

Then I headed to Burr Ridge Middle School, which was a treat. I don’t go to a lot of middle schools because most of my books aren’t really aimed at that age range (something that will change soon, he said mysteriously…). The kids there did an absolutely wonderful job decorating the library for me. Check this out:

Isn’t that some gorgeous artwork? I had so much fun there, talking about Archvillain and The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy & Goth Girl. This also happened:

Some of the kids made their own superhero masks, too, and then let me stand amid them like a Kirby character, arms outstretched.

Me with my minions.

That night, I headed off to Indian Prairie Public Library to speak at the Cool Compositions ceremony for the Write-On event. After my little spiel, I was honored to get the chance to hand out nine awards (three awards in categories for short stories, poetry, and comic books), generously donated by the Gift of Carl (who also sponsored my trip in the first place).

All in all, it was a terrific trip, with lots of variety and some great, cool kids. Thanks to everyone at IPPL, Burr Ridge Middle, Hinsdale South High, and Gift of Carl for making it possible!

Something Else I Should Have Confessed To…

After yesterday’s post, I heard from some other authors. They said things like this:

Other folks chimed in, as well, with similar sentiments, making me realize that in my confessional zeal, I neglected to mention something good in all of this.

Namely, that, for all the chaos and upheaval in publishing, the fact remains that it is still a field in which any random day can possibly bring a staggering life- and career-changing moment. Your book can be plucked from obscurity to be mentioned on a TV program. A hot actor can be glimpsed with a copy tucked under his arm. A movie producer can happen upon your book and decide that this will be her next big project. Suzanne Collins wrote other books before The Hunger Games, y’know.

These things don’t always happen. They don’t happen to and for everyone. And they don’t happen often. But they do happen. And they can be game-changers.

I have a book coming out in the summer. And another coming out after that. And I am confident that I will sell more after that one. The apocalypse isn’t here quite yet, and while I can write, I will write.

So, I’m not going anywhere. Every book is a new opportunity, and I’m gonna take as many of them as I possibly can.

The End of My Career

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Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I have a general and ingrained distaste for what I think of as our “confessional culture.” Which is to say, people very publicly (and often quite loudly) spilling their guts about their fears, misgivings, mistakes, and daily dissatisfactions.1 It’s just not something I’m comfortable with.

Maybe it’s just the New England stoicism of my forebears. My grandmother, dying and in unimaginable pain, once received a friend who also possessed a constellation of health issues. Thinking they could bond over their mutual ailments, the friend proceeded to reel off a string of her own horrors, then waited for my grandmother to reciprocate.

My grandmother, with infinite calm, said, “Sometimes, dear, it’s good not to let people know how much it hurts.”

Then again, I descended from New Englanders, but not WASPs. So maybe it wasn’t hearty Puritan stoicism so much as old-school Catholicism. Confession is between you and your priest (and God, if He’s eavesdropping). If you’ve shaken off that old-time religion, then confession is between you and your therapist. Your spouse. Your best friend. Confession is not something for the Internet and any number of strangers.

But here I am anyway. Sorry, Gramma.

And when I push “Publish” on this piece, I will probably suffer an enormous wave of self-loathing and regret. But so be it.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. This is my confession: I’m a little scared.

No, wait, let’s backtrack. “Scared” is misleading and overly dramatic, but it probably did its job and got you to keep reading.

I’m not so much scared as…concerned. Wary. Because the times they are a-changin’ and the tide it is a-turnin’ and whether I drop the gs on my participles or not, there’s nothing I can do about it.

The last decade or so has seen massive structural changes and disruptions in pretty much every industry you can imagine, but the ones most devastatingly hit are the ones that traffic in the arts. With the exception of something like, say, sculpture (where the value of a work of art lies in its physical presence), most industries that sell art are in the business of selling copies of an original. With the advent of digital, it’s become cheap and easy to make and distribute such copies, to the point that piracy and downward pressure on prices have — perhaps oxymoronically — improved both signal and noise, resulting in changing demands, changing payment, and changing capacity.

In short: Publishing — like most industries — is undergoing tectonic shocks, and the post-tremor landscape doesn’t look promising to me.

I always figured my career would end on my timetable, at a time of my choosing, but I’m not so sure any more.

I recently read Ben Thompson’s piece about differentiation at his Stratechery blog. The nut of it is this: In order to succeed as an artist, you have to be massively differentiated. You have to have something no one else has and it has to be highly desirable. Thompson talks a bit about Taylor Swift’s recent decision to pull her music from Spotify, pointing out that it’s a viable strategy for her because “for her (many) fans, Swift is ‘the one.’ She is, to put it in economic terms, highly differentiated.”

In other words, there is incredibly high demand for what Swift produces (her particular kind of music) and she is the only source for it. Consequently, she can dictate terms. “It’s a tough standard, to be sure,” Thompson admits, “but as a consumer, it’s actually pretty great news. Only the best will succeed.”

Extrapolate out from Taylor Swift to art in general and you can see the trend: The big will get bigger and more popular, but the smaller folks will fade away; they’re simply not in demand enough to be able to dictate viable terms. Thompson says that “only the best will succeed,” but — with no insult intended to Ms. Swift — I think it’s not too difficult to envision a future in which not necessarily the best succeed, but rather the first. Or the loudest. Or the richest.

But hey, let’s stipulate that — despite historical evidence — only the best will succeed. What percentage is “best?” Is it the top 1% of artists? Or 10%? Or 0.1%? Who knows? An interesting abstract question, to be sure, but it’s damn personal because I’m pretty sure I don’t fit into whatever percentage you pick.

If you’re reading this BLog, then it’s because you know who I am. You may know me personally or you may be a reader. In either case, there aren’t very many of you. Not enough to sustain a Taylor Swift-level of differentiation. And that’s what worries me. I wonder what place I will have in the New World to Come. What will my career look like? Or will it just peter out?

Now, at this point, some people will say that I’m writing this not necessarily in a confessional vein, but more as a self-pitying cry for love and attention, that I anticipate the comment thread filling with people proclaiming their adoration for my books: “I love your work, Barry!” “I’ve bought everything you’ve ever written and plan to buy everything you ever write!” “You’re my favorite author!”

Yeah, no. I’ve turned off comments for this post. So there. This really is just me indulging in the very uncharacteristic act of public musing. I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know what comes next or where the off-ramp is.

No matter how big a fan of mine you are or no matter how fond of me you may be personally2, you have to admit: If there’s a Taylor Swift of publishing, it ain’t me.

The world is changing. The industry — my industry — is changing. And just because things used to work a certain way and work that way right now, as of this moment, there is no guarantee that they will continue to do so.

Philip Kaplan recently wrote:

Those who made a killing from the record business of yesteryear, should count their lucky stars that it ever happened in the first place.3

Now, once again, like Thompson, Kaplan is talking about the music industry. But the music industry, for purposes of our discussion today, is the canary in the coal mine. As goes music, so too go TV, movies, and books. Music just got there first, is all. But the problems and the opportunities4 of the digital age come to all of us, eventually.

Kaplan continues:

The record business as most people know it, was just a short hundred-year blip in the 40,000 year history of the music business. A stopgap to solve a temporary problem that existed between the invention of sound recording (1890’s), and the invention of the internet (1990’s).

Few other art forms lets artists get rich off copies of their art.

I don’t particularly care about being rich. “Rich,” to me, always seemed like a hell of a hassle. And I know some rich people and they don’t seem much happier than I am. A little less stressed, maybe. But no happier. And the stresses I see in myself that I don’t see in them are most likely masked or replaced by stresses the wealthy have that I can’t imagine.5

What I care about is this: I write a book. You read it. Somewhere in there, there is enough economic alchemy that I can keep a roof over my head and adorable footie pajamas on my daughter. That’s it.

Seems simple, right? And for almost ten years now, it’s worked pretty well for me. But given the herky-jerky of the economy (global, national, and local), as well as the constant disruptions and upheavals wrought by the incursion of the digital into the analog, I fear that this very simple model will not last for long. In fact, I’m convinced that within the next five to ten years, it will be impossible to make a living doing what I’m doing, with the sales I currently command.6

I’m not saying that publishing will end, mind you. I’m saying that the model that has allowed people at my level to make a living in this business will transform enough that we won’t be able to do so any longer. Your major figures will still do quite well. Like Taylor Swift, they are hugely differentiated; their popularity and history of sales will buoy them up through and beyond the transitional disruptions.

Who are these people? You know them, of course. There are signs, I believe, that indicate you will have a career as long as you’d like. You know these signs, even if you’ve never really internalized their meaning.

If your books routinely debut on the bestsellers lists…

If you win one or more of the big awards, the ones that people pay attention to…

If you regularly have your work adapted into movies and/or TV shows…

If any one of these or any combination of them apply to you, the odds are that you will be able to publish books for as long as you choose to do so. And should you choose not to do so, people with money will come to you and show you that money and ask you to please reconsider.

Absolutely none of those criteria apply to me. Hence my wariness, my concern. Because in five to ten years, what the hell am I going to do with myself? I mean, sure, I guess I could put on a tie and dust off my résumé and look for real work, but who’s gonna hire a middle-aged dude who’s been out of the workforce for a decade or two?

And besides — selfishly — I like what I do. I like being creative. I’m good at it. And it’s nice that I can make a living at it. But even though I feel like an old, old man (and Leia makes me feel older every day), the fact of the matter is that — barring sudden illness or a decline in my mental faculties — I probably have another four decades of productive writing time in me.

How much of that will I get to exploit?

So… Movies? TV? Videogames? Comic books? Well, sure. Maybe. But all of those are intensely collaborative efforts, and I’m not the most collaborative guy in the world. (Ask poor Peter Facinelli and Rob DeFranco what it was like to work with me on After the Red Rain. Or ask any of my editors, who no doubt have gnashed their teeth down to the gums after going ten rounds with me over the disposition of a semi-colon.) Plus, there are people already doing those jobs. I can’t just say, “I used to make a living writing novels. Now shove over and give me some of that sweet, sweet TV cash!”

“Self-publish,” people say, as if it solves anything. Well, I tried that. And I’m happy that Unsoul’d is out there in the world, but its sales aren’t anywhere near my sales on my books published by the dreaded “big New York publishers.” If I had to rely on self-publishing income, I’d be eating cat food. The dirty little secret that successful self-publishers won’t tell you is this: Success at self-publishing is just as much a crap-shoot as success in “real” publishing.

This isn’t an indictment of self-publishing. It’s just the facts as they pertain to me. My fan-base is not large enough to support me without the help of a big publisher. And in the New World to Come, I’m not sure that big publishers will continue to help authors of my…stature? Rank? Type? Level? I’m not sure of the right word, but you get my point. As publishers continue to strive for relevance and stability, they will inevitably hew to the Taylor Swifts of the publishing world. Small publishers will continue to thrive through dedicated fans and lower expenses…meaning smaller advances that authors can’t live off of.

Being an author not in the top tier of earners will mean that “writing” is something you do on the side, as an adjunct to your “real job.”

I’m not saying anyone owes me (or those like me) anything at all, up to and including book sales, a reliable income, or eyes on my books. I’m simply saying that I look at the current landscape, I look at the historical trends, and I look at the most obvious future permutations of the industry, and what I see worries me.

My grandmother was right, as she often was: Sometimes, it’s nice not to let people know how much it hurts. Then again, sometimes you take to your keyboard and spill your guts anyway. Because you feel compelled to say something and you figure no one reads your blog anyway and hey, we live in a confessional culture now, like it or lump it, so maybe it’s time to join the crowd.

That’s my confession, Father. Whatta you got?



  1. I am not, for the record, talking about people who are declaiming various social injustices. That’s not the same thing, so please hold off on the “Barry Lyga thinks victims should stay silent!” outrage.
  2. Hi, Mom!
  3. Bold in original.
  4. And make no mistake: The opportunities are legion!
  5. I know, poor rich people, right? But hey — money brings its own set of problems. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
  6. I could be overly optimistic. It might not even be five years. I’m a writer, not a prophet.