Category: Charles Dickens

The Freedom of Independence

If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know that I’m given to talking about independent publishing. Because that’s what I’m doing; I’m writing a series of books and publishing them independently of a publishing house. I don’t want you to think I’m doing this because it’s fashionable or because publishing houses are obsolete. None of these are true, certainly not the latter. I’m independently publishing because it give me a freedom to experiment and develop a narrative in a way I wouldn’t traditionally have; a more organic method of writing. Let me use for example, as a starting point, Charles Dickens.

Most writers, when writing a book, will finish a first draft and then make multiple revisions of this until they’re happy it’s the best possible version of the story they can create without outside professional consultation, and that’s when their agent and/or editor is brought in. They work through the whole story until they’re as happy with it as they can be, then their publisher is officially involved and a final version is crafted to be put in front of the public.

For many of his most famous works, Charles Dickens had nowhere near that luxury.

Dickens, like many of his contemporaries, first published his work episodically in magazines. This means that, while he may have already determined the structure and content of works like Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, the actual process of having his audience reading the books was carried out whilst he was still putting pen to paper for the later chapters. As people eagerly picked up the first installment the final one may have not yet even been written. No doubt that, when the pieces were collected to be published in a single volume, there were minor editorial changes but the book as a whole remained the same.

Until now the closest parallel we have to this in modern publishing is comic books, where a similar thing happens in a different medium. However, the emergence of independent publishing allows writers to do something similar, though not directly comparable.

In other posts here I’ve talked about how writing a single book, Stripped, grew into a larger series called the California Gothic. Once I’d sketched out this series I realized Stripped was no longer a proper fit in the narrative; some of the terminology as well as the tone had changed. If Stripped had been published traditionally then I would most likely have had to either keep the tone of the series consistent with the first book or scrap the idea altogether. Publishing independently, however, gave me a third option. To rework Stripped so that it fitted the series and then republish it as the newly titled Personal Jesus.

The freedom to edit and modify work after publication gives independent authors a great deal of creative freedom; since a majority of the readership consume our work digitally then these changes can be pushed to them. Of course, these changes must be limited so you don’t irritate the hell out of your audience; they don’t want the book squirming beneath them as they read or find the ending they now have to be completely at odds with the beginning they started with.

You have to find the balance between putting your work before the public while it’s still in draft form and improving on it once it’s released. Walt Whitman did this throughout the many published versions of Leaves of Grass. He refined the poems it contained, changed their order, dropped some and including others. For Whitman the published work was a living organism that could grow and change in accordance with the author, the audience and the world which it both existed in and commented on.

It is this Whitman-esque spirit that I feel independent publishing can move us back towards. Painters often produce multiple versions of the same work as they develop the underlying ideas and techniques through which they’re expressed, and digital publishing offers writers the same flexibility.

And surely it can only be a matter of time before the flexibility of the medium is incorporated into the narrative. Perhaps a work in short story format (to more easily allow for re-reading) that is periodically republished by the author to include new passages or variations on existing ones that offer new meaning to the prose. A truly organic book where the narrative and messages grow as its characters respond to the changes they experience.


What the Victorians can teach us about Digital Publishing

In the nineteenth century the publication of popular novels (and by this I mean both good novels that were popular and mass-market pulp fiction) was a process probably more similar to the way comic books are published now.
Not initially released as whole novels (the story from beginning to end, bound in one book, as we’re used to seeing them), they were serialised monthly, several chapters bound together, and sold at news stands. They even contained advertisements to cover the cost of distribution and generate more revenue for the writer.
Some of these would run for ten, twelve or twenty months, however long was necessary for the story to be told. The authors would be writing their stories during this publication process, not writing the complete novel and then releasing it piece by piece. When the book runs had finished, they would be re-published as a whole novel.
Some of these stories, the soap operas of their day, were endless titles that ran and ran until public interest waned and they were no longer profitable to produce.
Because this was a cheaper means of publication, and therefore available to a wider audience, it suffered somewhat from the stigma of being a means of hack writers shifting poor quality work to an indiscriminate audience. Charles Dickens released much of his work in this format, and in his early career (before his reputation was established) he suffered the snobbery of those who assumed that the distribution method reflected on the quality of the writing.
With digital publishing having firmly established itself in the past 12 months and, given the sale of eReaders over the Christmas period, seeming set to take a growing portion of the market, I think we have an opportunity for this Victorian model of publishing to thrive.
Of course, releasing a novel whilst you’re still writing it isn’t for everyone; writers of Dickens’ talent are few and far between and the majority of us couldn’t get away with it without writing ourselves into a dead end or creating glaring inconsistencies between the beginning and end of the novel. But that doesn’t mean that serial publication can’t be an option once a novel has been finished and edited.