Thursday, January 2, 2020

Figure And Ground

     An engineer facing a communications related problem must resolve one distinction before all else: what is “signal” versus what is “noise.” In layman’s terms, “signal” is your attempt to say something to your interlocutor or vice versa. “Noise” is anything and everything that competes with the “signal” and therefore must be excluded from your attention. Of course, context matters. In a conversation in a crowded, noisy restaurant, “signal” is your voice or that of your interlocutor, whereas “noise” is any other sound, including other diners’ conversations, that the two of you are straining to ignore. If you can’t distinguish them, you can’t communicate.

     There’s a related phenomenon in visual depiction: what is “figure” versus what is “ground.” Consider the most famous painting of the Renaissance era: Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa:”

     The conventional interpretation of this portrait is that the “figure” is the woman depicted “front and center,” whereas the “ground” is the landscape depicted behind her. Much attention has been given to the woman’s subtle smile and the details Da Vinci captured in her expression. But were you aware that scholars of the fine arts devote as much attention, if not more, to the backdrop, and the delicacy with which Da Vinci captured its colors and shadings? To such critics the “ground” matters quite as much as the “figure” – and why shouldn’t it?

     That having been said, have a couple of deliberate attempts to confuse the viewer’s eye by making the “figure” and “ground” interchangeable at will:

     The first of these is by noted graphic artist Scott Kim. The second is from that inveterate composer of visual conundrums, Maurits C. Escher. Both eliminate any depicted “preference” for “figure” over “ground,” such that it becomes a matter of what the viewer chooses to see rather than any assertion by the artist.

     Mind you, these are not items you’re likely to have framed and hung on your living room wall. They’re essentially puzzles, or more accurately solutions to a puzzle: how to eliminate any conception of “ground” from a composition. They’re clever and thought-provoking, but very few persons would prize them as decor items.

     “What the hell is he driving at?” I hear you mutter. Well, it’s mainly about fiction: a phenomenon some of my indie colleagues have noticed as they pump out their stuff.

     Every now and then a reader of my fiction will ask why I haven’t tried to produce anything in some sub-genre he favors. In the usual case, my answer is that “it’s been done,” sometimes with a sotto voce “to death” at the end. I dislike to have my name associated with anything formulaic or commonplace; I prefer to be thought of as a writer who boldly goes where no writer has gone before.

     Yet there is this about those “it’s been done” subcategories: They sell like beer at a ballgame in August. Why else would Harlequin be carting bucks to the bank in wheelbarrows? A popular subcategory can make a writer very well to do -- if he can get himself recognized among his competitors. Of course as always, the most important word in that previous sentence is if, but if the premise be fulfilled, the consequence is undeniable.

     (Agents and publishers are well aware of this. I once had an agent who was forever after me to “Write a nice romance, Fran.” Her love of the genre was at least partly because a romance that “catches on” will sell in big numbers. She couldn’t fathom why I kept demurring.)

     With regard to indie versus traditional publication, Sarah Hoyt mentioned an important aspect of this phenomenon:

     I’ve met young, (thirty something) indie authors making a living after 1 year. I’ve looked at and read their (usually fairly short) books, and there is no magic sauce. They read like very young-in-writing authors, who will get better in time. Some of them are eminently readable but I have to turn off the part of my back brain that groans and goes “oh, hey, I used to do that.”

     …. So, what gives?....

     This morning I realized why your traditional career might give you a little boost (or a significant boost) in indie, but it won’t be at the same level starting out. And why even those who have dual careers need to start out again in indie, even while they’re still doing fine (and are sometimes megasellers) in traditional. And also why traditional publishers think the indie market doesn’t really matter and fail to understand the significance of ebooks.

     Are you ready for this? Once you see it, you can’t unsee it: it is because traditional and indie play to fundamentally different sets of readers.

     But what, pray tell, differentiates those sets of readers? Who are the readers gobbling up the emissions of those young-but-successful indie writers and what’s their secret? Sarah will tell you:

     They go by many names from super readers to compulsive readers. To call us — yes, I’m confessing — by our real name, we’re story addicts. The threshold to be one is RIDICULOUSLY low: 3 books a month. I have no clue what they call people who in slow times average three books a week, and when on vacation or otherwise not busy can do that a day, but I know we exist, and I know I’m not alone. (Right, I’m not alone? Right?) We’re the people who sneak a book into the pocket of our formal clothes and panic because you can’t figure out how to sneak a book into your wedding dress. We exist, and we won’t live in the shadows anymore. I mean… ahem… whatever.

     And why should the most financially successful indie writers have hit it big with those “super readers?”

     You see, Indie by its nature, the fact that books are cheap (and a lot of us lunatics are subscribed to Kindle lending library, too) and that they are varied, but mostly THAT THEY’RE IN SERIES and series that are published two to three months apart for new installments, caters to the 5% who buy 80% of the books.

     COMPLETELY different market from traditional. And one about which I can speak authoritatively because, again, I AM THAT market, or a typical member of it.

     If you write anything remotely readable and non offensive in one of our genres or subgenres, (we can now be picky) we will find you and we will read you.

     Now, this is not a uniform characteristic of the “super reader.” I should know; I’m one such. On average I read a novel a day. (Yes, all the way to the end.) The last time I spent an entire week on a single book, the book was Kristin Lavransdatter. But I’m averse to the interminable series, especially if it falls into one of the “it’s been done” subcategories, even though such a series would satisfy my reading addiction better than any standalone novel.

     The reason is the “figure versus ground” phenomenon.

     Within a single story, we may think of the “figure” as the cast of characters and their actions as the story progresses. The setting, and some of the events to which the characters must respond, constitute the “ground.” One approach to a genre / subgenre categorization is to think of it as those characteristics of the “ground” that may (or must) appear in stories in that category. For example, within the genre of fantasy we have the subgenres of medieval fantasy and “urban” fantasy. A story of the former sort is set in a largely nontechnological milieu and will involve magic and / or non-human creatures some of whom have special powers. In contrast, an “urban” fantasy will be set in a milieu that resembles present-day human society. It may involve magic, and it probably will involve paranatural creatures: e.g., vampires, werewolves, zombies. The stories common to those two subcategories differ considerably from one another in style and tone.

     Each subcategory has a large number of dedicated readers. Those readers will read anything in their preferred subcategory if:

  • It’s not too expensive;
  • It doesn’t offend their sensibilities;
  • It’s competently executed: i.e., not too many glaring errors.

     God bless and keep those readers! They’re getting what they want and helping a bunch of indie writers pay the bills. What could be objectionable about that? Nothing I can think of. But I’m not one of them. My immediate reaction to a new book in either of those categories is “it’s been done.”

     The “ground” against which those stories are told is simply too well-trodden for me.

     I don’t write in those too-well-trodden categories for a related reason: Stories in them tend to be less than memorable. The problems characters face in those categories tend to be as well-trodden as the categories themselves. Now and then an innovator will come up with something novel within the category – John Conroe’s “Demon Accords” series is an example – but that possibility attracts me less as a writer than a field with plenty of unplowed ground. I want to write stories the reader will remember for a long time – hopefully not in a “Why did I waste my time and money on Porretto’s crap?” fashion.

     All the same and beyond all dispute, the big revenues are going to the hyper-prolific writers whose works are aimed at a popular subcategory and its addicts. If revenue is his goal, the indie writer should do as those hyper-prolific writers do:

  • Choose a popular subcategory to write within;
  • Invent a few protagonists who can move from one novel to another;
  • Pump ‘em out as fast as possible: thousands of reading addicts are counting on you!

     There’s nothing ethically wrong with this. It’s just one more trade-off. You’ll make money – always assuming you can get noticed in the first place – but your stories won’t stand out or create long-term remembrance in your readers.

     It’s just not for me.

     This piece arose in large part because of the difficulty I’m having completing my novel under construction. I’m a perfectionist; I want every word to be exactly the right one, and every sentence to ring with a rhythm that compels the reader to press onward. That costs a lot of time and effort. Add to it an absolute commitment that this tale shall be one never before told, and you’ve got a formula for slow production.

     So I manage to write about one novel a year. And I don’t make much money. Those are the downsides. But the choice was and is a conscious one. It derives from my scale of priorities, which I have no power to alter. At the top of that scale stands this mandate:

The Ground shall be fresh and fallow;
The Figure shall be new and memorable.

     You pays your money and you takes your choice.


Jim Horn said...

Francis, thank you for your daily doses of cerebral nutrition! I would be surprised by such a posting including Scott Kim, Maurice Cornelis and da Vinci were it written by almost anyone else.

God bless you and your CSO always!

Redd Stater said...

I can't fathom writing a series. The pace would be frantic, and the quality would be awful. I spent two and a half years on my first book. I wrote it three times before the first major edit. It is over four hundred pages long. I know it doesn't fit any major genre/subgenres, but I knew that starting out. I wrote it with the idea that it would appeal to a particular audience and offer them something unique. I would like for it to be successful, of course, but I had other motives for writing it. Honestly, I am moved more by ideas than stories, so I had to incorporate some of my ideas - ideas that I would like others to consider - into the telling of the tale.

"Redd Stater"

Redd Stater said...

Incidentally, my degree is in mathematics, so Escher is an artist that I can appreciate. I would actually put stuff like that on the wall, but I'm a bit odd.

Bob T. said...

"On average I read a novel a day. (Yes, all the way to the end.)"

Are there any authors whose work you would savor as opposed to devour? The question doesn't require an answer identifying any of those authors, but upon reading your "super reader" confession, I'm clearly wondering why I should feel any guilt whatsoever about the pace at which I consume your literary output. My guilt, such as it is, comes from recognizing the work product of a craftsman as opposed to that of a hack: why deny oneself the opportunity to appreciate the more refined and/or subtle aspects of what the craftsman creates? To me, finishing one of your novels in a day is every bit as objectionable as "chugging" a fine sipping whisky/whiskey or vintage wine.

Happy New Year to the proprietor and fellow denizens of this blog!

Tracy Coyle said...

I am one of "Sarah's" types. Mostly.

And I read series. One has 60 books, they are not long (170-225pgs) and I can finish in a couple hours max. I usually finish the next one the same day it is available then have to wait a couple months for the next.

I appreciate the effort 'better' authors devote to their works, but I really hate having to wait a year or more for each effort. When I find a good author I like to keep with them.

With my daily reading of blogs (35 or so) to keep me from jonesing, I still need 2-3 books a week to fill my time. One or two books a year from an author isn't going to do that.