Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Flexing Your Flexibility

by Alton Gansky

"A doctor can bury his mistakes; an architect can only advise his clients to plant ivy."
—Frank Lloyd Wright

Back in my architecture days I learned one of those counter-intuitive truths. You know, the kind of fact that flies in the face of logic.

Every architect wants to create a building that is beautiful, useful, and will endure for generations. The last part can be tricky. Buildings must endure many challenges: snow loads, high winds, flooding, earthquakes, and other such nasties of nature. Some assaults on buildings are too much for them to bear—tornadoes and fire for example—but most can be planned for.

Every structure, whether small like a house or large like a high-rise, must have certain elements to resist collapse. That need is easy to understand, but one concept is a little more difficult to grasp: buildings need to be flexible. Buildings need to bend.

When I first started drawing plans (before such plans were drawn on computers) I learned this fact: Rigid things break; flexible things stand. I thought the best design was one that made a building as solid and unmoving as possible. Turns out that’s a really bad idea.

Buildings are designed to give a little when subjected to a force. Skyscrapers are designed to sway in high winds and earthquakes. Some even have dampers to keep them from swaying too much and making workers queasy.

A rigid tree branch breaks, but a flexible branch bends. The same might be said about writers. We need to be flexible. My first published pieces appeared in magazines thirty years ago, my first novel twenty years ago, and my effort at making it as a full time writer ten years past. I doubt any of you will be surprised when I say, “Things have changed. A lot.”

I remember writing on a typewriter. I remember sending physical copies to editors. I remember working on manuscripts without using Track Changes. I remember when self-publishing was called vanity press and required buying enough books to fill a small garage. I remember when publishers printed 10,000 books in the first run and kept copies in warehouses. Then came print-on-demand. I remember when bookstores sold mostly books.

Things have changed. Genres changed. The ratio of male to female writers changed. The way publishers promote is different. The relationship between writer and publisher is not the same. E-books have changed everything. Even the way literary agents work has morphed over the last couple of decades. Change. Change. Change.

Does more change await us? Without a doubt. That is why writers need to be flexible. It is not just writing and publishing that has changed—nothing is as it was.

The good news is that many of these changes have been good for publishing. Not everything, but many. Like it or not, things change and that means we must change as well. Flexibility in the writing profession is a skill, art, and is mandatory. Learning to bend without breaking is a must. What you’re doing today may not be what you’ll be working on next year.

The only thing that doesn’t change is the fact that everything changes. Writers with long careers adapt to the new landscape. We might be unhappy with the new ways, or we might welcome it. Either way, we will face it.

Kinda makes you wonder what things will look like this time next year. To stand against the winds of change, we must learn to be flexible. If not, we might just break.

What changes in publishing have you seen? What, in your writing,  are you doing now that you never imagined?

Alton Gansky is the author of over 40 books, fiction and nonfiction. He is also the host of the online interview program, Writer's Talk.


Nicole said...

Though no longer "new", the e-readers, indie, and small press expansions have benefitted writers exponentially. And while some contend it's opened up authorship to those who don't deserve it for one reason or many, it's here. Deal with it. And though I still prefer the print book to the e-reader, the convenience and economics of availability of cheap, reasonable, or free fiction that can be deleted if not enjoyed is huge. I think the three concepts mentioned in my first sentence have challenged the old guard publishers to innovate, regroup, and update their ways to the flexibility you so eloquently explained here.